As Cool As A Fruitstand

…and maybe as strange. A movie blog.

In defense of vegetables

Posted by Hedwig on June 12, 2011

It’s been a while since I dared immerse myself in a blogosphere dispute, but here goes. The whole thing started with a NYTimes piece by Dan Kois, talking about how he has less and less stamina for the “cultural vegetables” he feels he has to consume. A.O.Scott and Manohla Dargis responded, as did many others. I don’t pretend to be able to add new insight to the discussion, but it’s made me think, and I thought I’d put some of these thought on (virtual) paper.

The thing is, I understand where Dan Kois is coming from, to a certain extent. More precisely, I recognize the feeling that with some movies, the desire to have watched them is stronger than the desire to actually watch them. Films that stay on my watchlist for a long time, because in the moment, watching a short, entertaining noir or a fluffy classic Hollywood musical seems more appealing that doing the effort to immerse yourself in something more demanding.

That, however, is as far as I’m willing to go along with Kois, and not just because I disagree with his metaphor (just look at those veggies above. Don’t they look delectable? I don’t need any feeling of obligation to eat those). Digging in and watching these movies is, to me, almost always in some way a rewarding experience. Take one of his examples, SOLARIS. It took me a while to get up the energy to watch it, partly because my only previous Tarkovsky experience was in my first year of college with STALKER, and most of what I remembered was an insistent and annoying drip-drip-dripping sound, and a weird kind of drowsiness. But one night, after re-watching THE PASSENGER* for the nth time (with Nicholson’s awesome commentary), I felt in the correct mood to give SOLARIS a try.

SOLARIS is, admittedly, a long movie. It’s slow, and it doesn’t bother with exposition much, and for a space movie it definitely takes its time to get into space. Did my thoughts wander while I was watching it? Sure. But was I bored? No – there’s enough to prompt thought, enough to see, and while the pacing is deliberate, it is, well, deliberate: planned, precise, etc. It’s a slow rhythm, but it’s a rhythm. Soderbergh’s remake gains something by being more lean and streamlined, and I think it’s an interesting film as well, but it loses the richness of the older version, and that’s partly because Tarkovsky is in no rush to get to the point – if there even is one.

Of course, I don’t like all ‘essential’ movies that I watch. Looking just at the ones I’ve watched fairly recently, I found PERSONA to be a very unpleasant experience, and thought LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD was as puzzling as HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR – and not in a good way.

The thing is: I don’t regret watching those movies, either. Furthermore – and that’s where I really depart from Kois – the fact that I didn’t like those movies very much doesn’t make me think the people who do must be faking it, or part of some big conspiracy to make others feel like philistines. Instead, it makes me wonder what I missed, it makes me want to read more to find out what those people see that I don’t. Doing this usually doesn’t make me change my mind – I still think PERSONA is needlessly grating – but I can still appreciate some aspects, and I understand the opinion of the admirers. I might not have enjoyed the experience of watching the movie very much, but I do enjoy that I now know what people mean when they mention the movie, and that I have enriched my frame of reference as a movie watcher.

Maybe that’s “aspirational viewing”. Maybe I, too, will grow disillusioned with it as I grow older. But I’ve never pretended to “get” a movie I didn’t**, and I hope I never stop believing that people can *gasp* have different tastes than I do. And I hope nobody will think I’m a poseur when I say I’d rather watch another Bergman movie than THE HANGOVER II.

* Antonioni is, of course, another auteur often called boring, but his movies are consistently fascinating to me, and THE PASSENGER especially doesn’t drag at any point. It might be a good entry point for people trying to get used to a less propulsive kind of cinema.

** Sidenote: this urge to “get” movies is one of the big problems, in my opinion. The idea that there’s this simple answer that accounts for all the mysterious elements, and that you can show off by saying you’ve understood it all. Great art is always open for many explanations and interpretations, and sometimes all you need to “get” is a mood, an impression, a feeling.

ETA: this is another great take on the topic, with bonus David Foster Wallace quotes. I like the analogy with different types of exercise a lot more than the food one.

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