Sunday, October 14, 2018

Where Witney Loses You: Five Films I Like Far Less Than Most Critics

[The following article was sponsored and assigned by our Patreon subscriber Richard Franzwa. To learn how to sponsor and assign articles to William Bibbiani and Witney Seibold for publication at Critically Acclaimed, visit our Patreon page.]

And it is here that I lose you.

No critic agrees with popular opinion 100% of the time. Even with universally beloved films, there are always at least a small handful of dissenters who are earnestly unmoved. When in conversation with their professional peers, some critics will even tactfully obfuscate their dislike of an adored classic in the fear of staring an argument they don't wish to have at that moment. Although if the subject comes up, it will be the critic's duty to explain why they fall on “the wrong side,” as it were, and they will be in the position of getting to talk out why, say, “The Shawshank Redemption” is overrated, or why “The Godfather” might have a fundamental flaw that few recognize (these are mere examples; I personally like the former and love the latter of those films). 

This is the curse of the critic: They must always be honest, even if – especially if – their opinion us unpopular.

To talk about myself for a moment: Personally, my own views run contrary to popular opinion often, as the most popular types of movies – specifically big-budget, effects-driven action blockbusters – hold my attention only occasionally. Yes, I love a good science fiction film, and there are action spectaculars I adore, but very generally speaking, my personal tastes run toward soulful indie dramas, character pieces, weird conceptual films, intellectual and aesthetic experiments, and cerebral mysteries that I am unable to readily unlock. Give me “Eraserhead” over “Star Wars” any day. I only mention all this to elucidate that I have definitely had to defend my skewed opinions on occasion.

My defense, however, rarely enamors me to listeners or readers, and I typically end up either alienating people or simply looking like the philistine with no notable sense of taste or class. But, as a critic, honesty remains the only policy, and I now present to you, at the risk of my professional credibility (such as it is) a brief list of films that most critics love but that I do not.

8 ½
Embassy Pictures
Federico Fellini's “8 ½” was voted as the 10th best film of all time according to the decennial Sight & Sound poll, last conducted in 2012. Roger Ebert wrote one of his impassioned and stimulating Great Movies essays on it. It won two Academy Awards, for Best Foreign Film and for Best Costumes. It won the Grand Prize at the Moscow Film Festival, lauded by the likes of Jean Marais, Stanley Kramer, and Satyajit Ray.

And while I understand why so many critics and audiences have enthusiastically responded to “8 ½'s” startling nightmare carnival aesthetic, poetic surreality, and disarming self-reflection, I also find it to be self-indulgent to a detrimental degree. Marcelo Mastroianni, Fellini's muse, plays an avatar for Fellini himself as a creatively ailing filmmaker who gets caught up in memories of affairs and fleeting childhood obsessions. And while looking deep into the self-deprecating mind of an artist can be illuminating for both artist and audience – especially an artist who is struggling – Fellini proves himself to be less sophisticated than he might think. 

Let me explain.

There is a subgenre of art in the world which I will refer to Impotence Hysteria. I have seen several films, plays, and read several books that follow the merry adventures of would-be intellectual sexagenarian millionaires, infected by writer's block, who find their sexual prowess on the wane. In many of these stories, the men find new life in the arms and in the boudoir of an incredibly sexy woman in her early 20s who worships him and obeys him. The old man's impotence is staved off for another season, and his wisdom is passed on to his worshiping sexual protégé.

This genre is a toxic masculine cocktail mixed with one part ego and three parts self-pity. I have trouble sympathizing with sorry, horny old men whose trouble getting laid on the regular is the direct cause of all their inner artistic angst. Did you receive a new influx of youth, old man, or did you just bang a hot chick a third your age under the auspices of your art?

When Fellini shares his sex stories in films like “8 ½,” it comes across less like a man being frank about his proclivities, and more like an aging horndog whining that his sexual glory days are behind him and why can't he sleep around anymore? With Fellini, his self-examinations are just a little too self-indulgent, his surrealism a little too affected, his sex stories a little too onanistic. In time, I may rediscover “8 ½,” but it will require a deep reconsideration.

Blade Runner
Warner Bros.
When Ridley Scott's great-looking-but-turgid-and-lugubrious sci-fi epic hit theaters back in the early 1980s, the reaction was mixed. Many critics were impressed by the film's visuals, but not by its story or its characters. In the ensuing decade, however, “Blade Runner” began to amass a cult following of monumental proportions, growing into a legitimate midnight movie hit. “Blade Runner” had many fans who were outraged by the film's lack of success, often declaring that critics simply didn't understand. The cult was also galvanized by the fact that “Blade Runner” had been massively re-cut and re-dubbed by Warner Bros, leading to cries of foul. If audiences and critics had been treated to the “proper” version of “Blade Runner,” then surely audiences and critics would have seen how groundbreaking it was upon its initial release, right?

As such, a Director's Cut was released a decade after “Blade Runner's” initial release. Other versions made their way to home video. In 2005, a “Final Cut” was released. All told, there are seven “official” versions of “Blade Runner,” and that's not even counting the sequel.

I saw the 1992 Director's Cut in high school, and, frankly, I was bored to tears. Some of the visuals were vaguely interesting, and I liked the premise (there are rogue fleshbots living among us, and someone has to track them down), but the execution left me distracted. Scott is a master stylist, and he can capably convey a particular brand of smoky atmosphere, but he's typically not good with character pieces. As such, he excels with visuals but stumbles with films like “The Counselor,” “Matchstick Men,” etc., etc., etc. “Blade Runner” is atmospheric to be sure, but that's all it is. It's difficult to care who may or may not be a fleshbot in the future of “Blade Runner” when all the characters behave like androids after a hit of powerful cold medicine.

I revisited “Blade Runner” in my early 30s, hoping my tastes had evolved enough since my naïve teen years for me to appreciate it. Sadly, it was not the case. I found the film to be less sophisticated than ever, understanding the questions about the nature of humanity, but not finding them particularly deep or meaningful. What's more, I was even more acutely aware of the film's pacing issues: Every shot feels like an establishing shot. To this day, I am still a “Blade Runner” naysayer, much to the chagrin of its passionate followers.

When it comes to wet, chaotic dystopias, give me “Brazil” any day.

Animal House
Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, and it's certainly no way to make a movie.

I don't just dislike John Landis' “Animal House,” I actively loathe it. Ostensibly a comedy, “Animal House” invented the “snobs vs. slobs” subgenre that would carry through many films of the mid-1980s. In said subgenre, a group of outsiders and slovenly, crass jerks would be inserted into an otherwise staid, “adult” environment wherein they would rattle the status quo, and fight back against the oppressive system of cleanliness and perfection imposed by the rich assholes in charge. It's easy to perceive the potential for catharsis in such a subgenre, and I distantly understand why some audiences might find enjoyment the chaos created by “Animal House's” Deltas.

I don't enjoy that chaos. I don't enjoy their antics. I find the Deltas to be horrendous people, devoted to alcohol and destruction and nothing else. They are moral black holes with no integrity. Their need to destroy is based not on impish youthful exuberance or a need to buck a system that oppresses them, but on dark nihilism. They are not playful rebels, these characters, but anti-intellectual criminals. I refuse to celebrate them the way the filmmakers want me to. I do not want to relate to them. Do I hate the snobs they aim to destroy? Yes, I hate them too. I watch “Animal House” and I feel like I'm watching “Alien vs. Predator.” Whoever wins, we lose.

Perhaps my outright loathing for “Animal House” comes from a lack of understanding: My personal school experiences were unlike anything depicted in movies, and I have trouble relating to many of the high school and college settings and clichés that are so often revisited in teen comedies. I didn't go to the house parties (I wasn't cool enough to be invited), I didn't drink (I was a teetotaler throughout my youth), and I typically preferred watching movies or TV shows at home with friends or even by myself. Seeing the alien world of “Animal House” celebrated only fills me with despair. That some people not only experienced college as it was depicted, but that some people actually enjoyed it.

In the Mood for Love
Wong Kar-wai is one of cinema's great living masters, having exploded onto the cinema scene in 1988 with the excellent “As Tears Go By,” a stirring and excellent Chinese crime movie about ultra-cool young gangsters looking after each other. His films were simultaneously taut and natural, featuring haunting emotional moments of knowing honesty, often nestled within a rich atmosphere built on the character's abstract personal longing. I love “As Tears Go By,” and I am very fond of his 1997 film “Happy Together” a romance about two male gangsters trying to save their ailing relationship.

In 2000, Wong released “In the Mood for Love,” one of his most stirringly gorgeous films to date and, according to many critics, the true maturation of his aesthetic thrust. “In the Mood for Love” tells the story of a married woman (Maggie Cheung) and a married man (Tony Leung) who find that their respective spouses have been having an affair with one another, and how, in commiserating, they find that they too may be falling in love. The longing hangs over every scene of “In the Mood for Love,” and it is exquisite to behold: The photography by modern master Christopher Doyle may be some of the best of the decade, and Cheung and Leung both look utterly amazing in costumes that would make fashion magazines weep with envy. “In the Mood for Love” us unanimously praised by critics for its photography and for its preternatural yearning. It was listed as the second best film of the 21st century according to the BBC (behind David Lynch's “Mulholland Drive”).

I have read the essays, and I have heard fellow critics gush about the gorgeousness of “In the Mood for Love,” but when watching it myself, I simply don't feel it. I don't feel the longing. I see it on the faces of the characters, and I hear it on the soundtrack (“Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” plays at least four times in its entirety), but none of it reaches my mind or my heart. Perhaps I was too young in 2000 (when I first saw it) to appreciate the adult drama on display. It's entirely likely that I wasn't yet a sophisticated enough person to appreciate “In the Mood for Love,” and that I am well overdue to revisit it. But for many years, I was unclear as to why this particular film was being held up as Wong's greatest work when he had already made other superior films. Like “Blade Runner,” I felt that the style was powerful, but the humanity was absent.

Now that I've lost everyone in the world, here's one more...

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
With its decade-long deep dive into the universe of Marvel comics, Disney and the Hollywood machine are essentially arranging movies and film discourse to exactly what I wanted it to be when I was 14 years old. As a teen, I collected Marvel Comics with a fervor, memorizing backstories and familiarizing myself with the tales of colorful superheroes that had, even back then, already stretched on for decades. My first comic book purchase was “The Infinity Gauntlet” #1, which was, as of this writing, just adapted into a mega-budget supra-adventure.

You'd think I'd be happy, but, because of my advancing years (I am a grizzled and ancient 40), I long since lost interest in this universe and the characters therein. What's more, I was never especially attached to characters like Captain America or Thor, finding them to be stubborn holdovers from an older era of comics, no longer relevant, but clinging onto their own titles through nothing more than tradition.

When Captain America started appearing in major feature films, I tried to find him interesting. I really tried. I tried to see him as a noble innocent in a world of corruption, as he was presented. I tried to see him as a cipher for a purer form of American politics, free from partisan bickering, perhaps even as an important symbol of American unity. But none of it landed. At the end of the day, he was a bland hero through-and-through, using patriotic rhetoric, but not actually standing up for any notions other than a vaguely defined sense of righteousness.

As such, when the character was placed in the middle of a Tom Clancy-like thriller – replete with cynicism about the government and suspicions of those in charge – the film immediately lacked a decent moral center. Captain America was too much of a vague “good guy” and not enough of a complex human being to explore a narrative based on moral ambivalence. What's more, the “twist” in the plot drives me bananas. Captain America spends the first half of “The Winter Soldier” investigating the background of key players in the government, trying to uncover why they would want to employ a fleet of preemptive war planes. It's revealed that the players backing this project are not merely corrupt, nor are they motivated by money or greed or lust for power – the way actual government ills work – but that the government has been, sigh, infiltrated by a secret cabal of evil Nazis who just want to do evil.

In making the conflict so morally absolute – it's a fresh-faced always-correct hero vs. cartoonishly evil Nazi villains – “The Winter Soldier” misses its greatest opportunity to explore a character that desperately needed it. It looked like Captain America would need to fight his own government, showing that the (perhaps misplaced?) idealism of the 1940s is truly gone, and modern politics has changed into something we wouldn't have recognized 60 years ago. Instead, like too many superhero films, “The Winter Soldier” becomes a bland actioner wherein two people fight while a room blows up. Despite its oft-cited status as the best film in the Avengers series (at least until “Black Panther” was released), “The Winter Soldier” left me in the cold.  

Top Image: Embassy Pictures


  1. Hi Witney!

    I love reading lists like these, and I'm amazed to find that we actually agree on 4 out of the 5 of these (I still love Blade Runner, but what are you gonna do), especially on The Winter Soldier. In addition to not having an interesting political story, I feel absolutely NOTHING when it comes to the actual Winter Soldier (has the phrase 'subtitular character' already been coined?), and I really don't see what makes this one so fantastic. I much prefer the third one because, although the structure is somewhat shaky, it has so much more on its mind, and the big action scenes add to the story rather than interrupt it. Anyways, I'm glad we're on four of the same pages, and I look forward to whatever else you and Bibbs write in the future :)

  2. This was really well done, and written :D
    I still have yet to see 8 1/2 but am counting down the days!
    The only one that I agree with you right now would be The Winter Soldier. I am still baffled as to how the majority of people see this as peak MCU. For me it had an interesting beginning with Cap learning about how the government treats soldiers, and I was expecting his arc to be about not letting go of the past and giving these troubled, aged, soldiers what they deserved...but then I remembered this is an MCU film. More action! More flips! Oh, how about them quips?! Until Cap is a depressing character to follow all the way up to the final CGI third act. Sigh.

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