Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at email@example.com.
Mike D’Angelo brought up an interesting point in his Cannes coverage about how grades don’t tell the whole story. He gave Melancholia a C, but said he would recommend it over The Kid With A Bike, which received a B, on account of the former being more singular. I feel the same way about Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, which I didn’t like but would recommend to anyone. What unlikeable pop culture would you recommend over that which is enjoyable but bland? —Tom Speaker
It’s no coincidence that the film that inspired Mike to make this observation was from Lars von Trier; he’s all about difficult, painful films that are hard to respond to with any kind of positive emotion, but that are nonetheless powerful and singular. I’d hesitate to recommend Dogville or Breaking The Waves, because I’m not sure I’d want to be responsible for anyone else experiencing the emotional pain those films cause—but I think they’re both rich, accomplished, incredible films. (Dancer In The Dark is even more painful, but isn’t unlikeable, thanks to the music and Björk’s terrific central performance.) I could say the same for Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible, which is the epitome of an unlikeable film: The visuals, sound, and editing are all deliberately jarring and distancing, the contents are sickening, and the central message is enervating. But it’s still so ambitious and such an accomplishment of craft, I’ve hesitantly recommended it to people. I suspect a lot of the films on one of our most popular Inventories, Great Films Too Painful To Watch Twice, will show up again in this AVQA.
The example that immediately leaps to mind is Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, one of the reviews most cited by commenters looking to bash me over the head. And it’s really a case where the grade (“C+”) doesn’t adequately account for my ambivalence: Though I think the film fundamentally doesn’t work—the caffeinated energy of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novels (and Edgar Wright’s inventive director) becomes enervating over 112 minutes, and Michael Cera is too detached as the heartsick Pilgrim—it’s the kind of failure I’d happily watch over the vast majority of less audacious successes. Scene for scene, Scott Pilgrim is as inventive and alive as any movie made in 2010, particularly in the elasticity of the CGI, which turns the humble city of Toronto into a living comic book where anything is possible. Yet I can’t deny how I felt over the long haul: Wrung-out and ready for it to end.
Oddly enough, the first thing that popped in my head was Mel Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ. If you haven't seen it, everything you've heard about it is basically true—it's unbelievably brutal, it's a little racist, and it's surprisingly boring for a movie covered with so much blood. By the end of it, I was curled up in a fetal position on the couch, horrified and sort of sleepy. In short, I didn't like it. But it's such a batshit, one-of-a-kind cultural touchstone for so many Americans that it still seems like necessary viewing for understanding where our country is at right now. When we're all watching President Rick Perry and Vice President Michele Bachmann get sworn into office in January 2013, The Passion Of The Christ will help explain why.
Considering I'm very slowly reading a hefty biography of the band, and was at one point working on a book about a scene heavily influenced by it, I'm not a fan of Throbbing Gristle. My book was an oral history of the industrial scene, and my sources' enthusiasm for that group always baffled me. Making it through Twenty Jazz Funk Greats seemingly took hours, but that's kind of the point with Throbbing Gristle. The group always intended to be confrontational and grating, and I admire its members' artistic contrarianism even as I would 9.9 times out of 10 skip Throbbing Gristle for Thursday, who comes after TG on my iPod. (Before: Three 6 Mafia, which was news to me.) I think everyone should check Throbbing Gristle out at some point, just to experience the thoroughly bizarre and unsettling "music" the band created. It's just not something I ever really want hear.
I end up feeling this way a lot, honestly. I can personally dislike a piece of art while still feeling it’s worth experiencing. I think, for instance, Natural Born Killers, is terrible but it’s also a completely uncompromising film that tries to merge a dark-side-of-MTV aesthetic to old-fashioned psychedelia. It’s assaultive and obnoxious and it ends up glamorizing violence when it thinks it’s criticizing it, but it goes all the way with its obnoxiousness. Even now it puzzles me that this got made and released by a major studio in the summer movie season. It’s worth seeing as an example of what happens when you combine genuine talent, fuzzy thinking, misplaced self-confidence, and a lot of money.
I have quite a few DVDs and Blu-Rays on my shelf. Some get higher rotation than others, but most of those collecting dust aren’t doing so because I’m actively avoiding them. The exception to the rule? Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, a film I think is a stunning (though bloated) achievement, but can’t fathom ever watching again. While Boogie Nights balances its inherent melancholy with blistering comedy and an ultimately redemptive view of makeshift families, there’s little aside from a shower of frogs to provide true catharsis in his follow-up work. Everything I can say positively about the film (and there’s a lot I can say that’s positive) comes from an intellectual, not emotional, perspective. It’s hard enough to watch a film when a single patriarch is dying of cancer. But two, equally corrosive father figures, alongside the litter of damaged children they’ve left in their wake? Hardly something you pull off the shelf and hand off to a friend. Should you study it? Certainly. Will you enjoy it? Unlikely.
I can still remember making it through I Spit On Your Grave and struggling to intellectually justify the experience, let alone shake its sexual degradation and brutality. And I still can’t, although I do know it’s one of two films I’ve seen to provoke those reflective questions, which may or may not have toughened me up critically. The other was the kindred cult revenge flick Thriller: A Cruel Picture, Bo Arne Vibenius’ horrifically graphic story of an abused Swedish woman out for retribution. Thriller has become slightly less taboo since Quentin Tarantino outed it as inspiration for Kill Bill, and it at least seem to borrow from artful shockers like George Franju’s Eyes Without A Face. But those reassuring nuggets don’t make its torture porn and eye-for-eye ethos less difficult to endure and ingest than that of I Spit On Your Grave, which was released to well-publicized disgust from Roger Ebert. And if Ebert and Tarantino have either endorsed or condemned a movie, film geeks will seek it out. In that aspect, both I Spit On Your Grave and Thriller reside in some twisted must-see canon alongside Faces Of Death, Cannibal Holocaust, et. al. Unfortunately, there’s also no way to un-see them.
As an unabashed fan of Stanley Kubrick, I closely followed the news about the epic shoot of what turned out to be his last film, Eyes Wide Shut. It was classic Kubrick; many takes, years of shooting, and a real-life celebrity couple (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman) translating their frustration with the process into their performances. Given Kubrick’s meticulous nature, it was going to be a fascinating movie to watch. But by the time the movie finally came out, shortly after Kubrick’s death in 1999, the Cruise/Kidman marriage was in trouble, and all anyone could talk about was how the two of them had no onscreen sexual chemistry. Considering that their characters weren’t supposed to have much sexual chemistry, it seemed like people were missing the point, influenced by tabloid headlines. What bugged me when the movie came out was that, by the time we see Cruise walking through a private club where masked adults fucked each other without concern or worry, the plot had gone in so many weird and silly directions that it was hard for me to care about what Cruise’s character was doing at that point. This wasn’t like Full Metal Jacket, which had a fantastic first third and a boring last two-thirds; this was a mess. But I still would recommend people see the movie, not just out of Kubrick completism, but because it’s also a study in how even the most acclaimed directors can be undone by a combination of A-list tabloid frenzy and their own overblown sense of their genius.
A few years ago, virtually all of my friends got really into Fiery Furnaces at once. I, hoping to be one of the cool kids, jumped on board, but I could never figure out what the hell they all saw in the group. I’m all for tuneless noodling if there’s some sort of aural appeal there, but this just seemed to be noodling for noodling’s sake, complete with pointless lyrics and irritating vocals. A few years later—roughly around when the group released that album of songs recorded with the two members’ grandmother—it seemed like the rest of my friends joined me in finding the group kind of stupid, though I hear its recent music isn’t bad. (I’m not getting sucked into that trap again.) Still, whatever the band is doing, it’s certainly like nothing else out there, and I’d definitely recommend everybody listen to at least a few tracks to see if what the Furnaces are putting out is what you’d like to be buying.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve disliked—or ravenously hated—a certain album the first few times I heard it, only to come around later and realize what a work of utter goddamn genius it was. That, however, was definitely not the case with Joanna Newsom’s Ys. The funny thing is, I adore Newsom’s music overall, and I have since 2004, when her debut full-length, The Milk-Eyed Mender, came out. I was hesitantly excited when I heard she’d be working with the legendary Van Dyke Parks on Mender’s 2006 follow-up. Unfortunately, Ys confirmed and then magnified every apprehension I had about the odd collaboration. On paper, Newsom’s fragile, elfin folk seemed too idiosyncratic to mesh with Parks’ meticulous (yet equally idiosyncratic) orchestration. On disc, it was even worse. The excesses of each were indulged and inflated, and the result was one of the most jarring, floridly bloated albums I heard that year. I tried and tried to like it, all to no avail. That said, Ys became almost universally acclaimed, to the point where I wondered whether my copy was defective. Newsom chased Ys with 2010’s Have One On Me, a hands-down brilliant album that, in some ways, is even more bloated than its predecessor. I have a massive soft spot for sprawling, progressive folk when it’s executed with that golden ratio of quirk, vision, insight, earnestness, iconoclasm, and tradition. To me, Ys strained and strained and somehow got that balance wrong—but I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to shove the disc into someone else’s hands so they could make up their own mind. In fact, my copy’s available.
For My Year Of Flops, I wrote about a fair number of films I couldn’t say I liked, necessarily, but that I would recommend all the same. That’s certainly how I feel about William Friedkin’s 1980 shocker Cruising. The film was extraordinarily controversial at the time of its release for what gay activists understandably perceived as its unrelentingly negative depiction of the gay leather underground scene of the late 1970s as a shadowy cesspool of degradation and exploitation. Today, the film doubles as a strange time capsule of a gay New York lost to the ages. The film is ugly, brutal, and dicey in its sexual politics, but compelling, important, and eminently recommendable all the same.
I’m strongly irritated by the films of Lucrecia Martel, who obstinately persists in being one of the major forces in Argentinian cinema from the last decade. Her first two features—La Cienaga and The Holy Girl—mostly make me feel as humid and irritable as everyone onscreen, with twitchy camera-work and bad weather (La Cienaga means “the swamp”) conspiring to fuel any number of unpleasant/awkward things happening onscreen. As for her third movie, The Headless Woman (Mike D’Angelo wrote about one of its scenes as part of Scenic Routes), its numerous purposeful ambiguities conspire to annoy me. (Why so alternately coy and didactic about class/race inequalities?) But I’d still absolutely say anyone interested in keeping up with developments in world art cinema should check her out: I couldn’t wait for The Headless Woman to end, but I haven’t seen anything like it in recent memory, either. The fact that I hated every minute means it really got to me in a way I can’t articulate well, which must mean Martel’s doing something right.