The Movie Club

The Movie Club: Can You Admire a Movie Without Enjoying It?
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 3 2012 3:18 PM

The Movie Club

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Can you admire a movie without enjoying it?

Dana! Stephanie! Michael!

“Is there a difference between loving a movie and loving the experience of watching?” Stephanie asks in her excellent dispatch, and that’s a question that’s been much on my mind this year. In my experience, there is. That’s why on my ballots in the Indiewire and Village Voice polls I named Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff) my best director. The austere, challenging (for me, anyway) Meek’s, a sort of handmade Western starring Michelle Williams as a pioneer wife whose little party is lost in the Oregon badlands, was a fine example of a film that, in the end, I liked quite a bit, even though I had trouble enjoying the experience of watching it. I liked it because it has specific artistic ambitions and because it fulfills those artistic ambitions, in part, by frustrating the audience’s viewing experience. It’s a unified piece of work; Reichardt’s accomplished something real that stuck in my head for a long time—that even forced me to wrestle, publicly and embarrassingly, with my own shortcomings as a viewer.

Dan Kois Dan Kois

Dan Kois is Slate's culture editor and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.

So Meek’s, like Melancholia, was for me a film that didn’t offer enjoyment in the moment but did inspire affection as time went on. Are there films that work in the reverse? Films that offer enjoyable viewing experiences, but then afterward provoke disdain? Of course! How about apparent Oscar front-runner The Artist, a charming piece of work that never tires, never bores, never in its 100 minutes stops tap-dancing for your smiles? As soon as it was over I was angry at myself for each chuckle I’d given the movie, and now, weeks later, it only provokes a shrug. This is what everyone is so crazy about? I don’t even mind that it’s a trifle—I like trifles! —but did it always have to go for the easiest joke, the simplest twist, the most obvious turn?

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The more I think about it, the more I can chart my moviegoing year on (forgive me, my old bosses at New York) a matrix. Let’s say the x axis represents Enjoyment: How smoothly does the movie go down? How much fun is it? How challenging is it to my personal aesthetic preferences? The y axis represents Admiration: How do I feel about the movie afterward? How much do I respect what it’s trying to do, and how successful is it?

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The Platonic ideal of a film, for me, is one sitting neatly in that upper-right quadrant—one that both delights while watching it and inspires great admiration afterward. One that’s both enjoyable and great, in other words. Obviously that’s tough to achieve (and subjective, at any rate), but several movies, large and small, did it for me this year: Attack the Block (which Dana mentioned already) and the British two-dudes romance Weekend on the small side, and on the large side Bridesmaids and the current smash Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, which I think is fantastic even though it threatens to revive Tom Cruise’s career.

Both of those big movies offered electrifying moments of the type Dana and every film lover treasures. In Bridesmaids, it was the scene in which the prim, perfect villain Helen (Rose Byrne) bursts into tears in Kristen Wiig’s car, revealing that she doesn’t actually have any women friends and that she’s seized hold of Maya Rudolph’s wedding in search of some human connection in her life. In M:I-GP, it was of course the Burj Khalifa scene, with Tom Cruise dangling 100-plus stories over the desert while Brad Bird fills the screen with an impossible amount of space, of data—the best argument yet for the value of IMAX technology—but also offers those little grace notes (the lost glove blowing away, beeping forlornly) that give the viewer little shivers of movie-watching joy.

Not on my matrix at all is Margaret, which I’ll finally get to see this week, after a solid month of #teammargaret rabble-rousing. You’ve all had the chance to see it, but none of you put it on your Top 10 lists—are you not onboard with its status as 2011’s Brazil, the little movie that film critics might yet save?

I’m out of space, so I’ll go after my least favorite film of the year, Shame—look at it there, in the bottom left-hand corner, down below Bucky Larson and Transformers!—in my next dispatch. Suffice it to say that my face, as I watched Steve McQueen’s exposé of tragic sex addiction in the fancy-superhot-rich-Manhattanite demographic, was a mirror of Michael Fassbender’s tortured visage during cinema’s worst-ever threesome.

Take it off. Slowly,

Dan

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