AVQ&A: Movie arguments
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.
This week's question: What movie have you spent the most time arguing about?
I don't know how often I actually argue about it, but I often try to convince people—sometimes in the comments section, even—that Con Air is an incredibly entertaining movie on pretty much every level. The person whom this argument most works into a lather is A.V. Club film editor Scott Tobias, who doesn't see what I see in the movie's glorious stupidity. I see a director (Simon West) and producer (Jerry Bruckheimer, of course) who took all the conventions of bad action movies and added a great cast (Nicolas Cage in the role he was born to play, Steve Buscemi, John Cusack, John Malkovich, Ving Rhames, Danny Trejo, Dave Chappelle) and a sense of hilarity to the whole thing. Con Air is an action movie that winks if you want it to and plays it straight if that's what you're after. To me, it's hilarious on purpose, and also just plain fun, in that blow-'em-up way. If you can defend Face/Off (as some do), you should certainly give Con Air another shake. Or three.
For me it seems to be The Big Lebowski, which is odd, since it's a movie I really don't feel that strongly about; I think it's only fitfully funny and kind of unsatisfying in its lack of ending, but I don't hate it, I just don't love it passionately and unconditionally. Which to some of my friends and many people on the comment boards here, just isn't acceptable, which puts me in the awkward position of having to strongly defend a lukewarm position. Thing is, I love and respect the Coen brothers, I just think they've made far better films on both ends of the comedy/drama spectrum. (Raising Arizona remains one of my favorite comedies of all time.) And while it seems like most of the people I wind up arguing with about Lebowski agree with that statement, they still can't understand how it is that I don't love it the way they do: unreservedly, and with lots and lots of quoting.
Like Tasha, I've argued most about a movie I don't particularly care about one way or the other: Brokeback Mountain. As an ardent supporter of gay rights, I'm all for sympathetic portrayals of gays and lesbians in mainstream pop culture, and obviously Brokeback Mountain was a landmark in that regard. But I'd still argue that, as a film, it's a minor work that will be remembered more fondly by historians than movie fans. It's an "important" film, but not a great one, and while there's plenty of smart people who would argue otherwise, I was incredibly annoyed by the implication made by many of the film's most passionate supporters that if you didn't love Brokeback Mountain, that meant you didn't like gay people. Actually, I just don't care for Ang Lee (though my indifference to Hulk does reflect my dislike of angry green meatheads). That doesn't mean I wanted Crash to win Best Picture in 2005, though I was also peeved by the argument that Brokeback Mountain's simplistic depiction of homophobia was somehow more nuanced than Crash's "racism is everywhere!" heavy-handedness. No, I was pulling for Steven Spielberg's Munich, a troubling, thrilling, morally ambiguous masterpiece made with more pure moviemaking gusto than those two rather drab movies put together.
The most heated arguments I can recall involved a movie the person on the other end of the argument had never seen: Basic Instinct. There was a lot of hysteria around this movie when it came out, and like the Last Temptation Of Christ protesters, she bought into it without watching a frame. And that bugged me. Think what you like about a movie you've actually seen, but don't just let hearsay and the opinions of others make you take up arms against it. My own feelings about the movie have changed over the years as I've gone from titillated enjoyment to "Jeez, maybe it's kind of gross to have all the gay characters seem so monstrous" to "Well, everyone's a monster in this movie, so what does it matter?" to a kind of detached appreciation of how the movie fits into its era. I now think of it as a moment-capturing trash masterpiece. I don't know if I'm right, but at least I'm working from an informed opinion.
There are few modern movies as polarizing as Michael Haneke's Funny Games, a clinical, relentless home-invasion story packaged as a high-toned treatise on film violence. Some committed masochists like myself were wowed by Haneke's provocative ideas and his complete command over viewers' emotions. Others, shockingly, were none-too-pleased to indulge a movie that scolded them for their supposed bloodlust by serving up the torture and mayhem that they blithely accept from Hollywood escapism. Back in 1997, I had many heated arguments with friends, several of whom were hatching revenge plots against Haneke for his diabolical manipulations. But then someone had the perverse idea to commission Haneke to make the exact same movie 10 years later—true to his stellar form, the experience is no different in the English language—and those old arguments were reprised again, 372 comments deep on the A.V. Club message boards. And most of those commentors had never even seen Funny Games: Apparently, just the concept was revolting enough.
Sometimes I think I'll never stop arguing in favor of A.I., a movie disliked by many because of a looming distrust of director Steven Spielberg (especially in contrast to the late Stanley Kubrick, who originated the project), and because of an ending that many see as a cop-out. But I find A.I. to be Spielberg's most challenging film: an exploration of the human selfishness revealed in our drive to create monuments to ourselves, and in our tendency to assert our will with little regard for the long-term consequences. This has actually been a recurring idea in Spielberg's films, but in A.I., he and Kubrick extend the theme of misguided self-absorption to the way we raise children, programming them via kiddie stories to be cute love machines, ultimately unable to cope with the real world. Spielberg even implicates himself, referencing images from Close Encounters and E.T. in unsettling new contexts. As for the ending—which seems to reward Spielberg's little robot boy by allowing him to spend eternity with the mother who never wanted him—it strikes me as profoundly disturbing, not hopeful. Whether Spielberg intended it that way, I couldn't say. But when the long-neglected Teddy crawls onto the bed with two artificial constructs who only love each other because they've been told to, it creeped me the hell out, and struck me as the crowning touch on a masterpiece.
One movie I often myself arguing for is Gummo, which was huge for me when it came out, and which holds up totally still. The rap against that film (and director Harmony Korine in general) is that it plays like a nihilistic romp in thrall to transgression, no matter the kind or consequence. But I see a lot of tenderness in it, in the genuinely loving and/or curious way that Korine photographed so many of his characters (disabled, creepy, poor) and let them burn onscreen, unmediated. Complaints about those scenes often make for interesting binds in which the detractors reveal more about themselves than the scenes they take to task. If that sounds like good wriggling bait for argument, well, it is.
I've long been harassed (even by my own coworkers) for my love/hate relationship with Oliver Stone, a director who has both inspired and frustrated me to no end, ever since I first started taking a real interest in film and toying with the dream of making them myself. I'm especially quick to defend Stone's overzealous use of "dramatic license" (even when it makes for dangerous inaccuracies, as with JFK) and his overstylized, glorious messes like Natural Born Killers on a purely cinematic level, because to me, an ambitious disaster is always more interesting. But defending The Doors hews a bit more personal: A lot of people (again, including my coworkers) fucking hate The Doors, the band, but even more of them hate The Doors, the movie. "It's pretentious and stilted and overblown and it makes Jim Morrison out to be this Dionysian demigod when he was really just a drunken idiot who wrote junior-high-level poetry and fucked around a lot," they whine, as if Morrison were the only rock star in history whose myth had outpaced his actual persona or worthwhile artistic output. But like Oliver Stone, I'm a subscriber to the "print the legend" theory of history: I don't care that Jim Morrison didn't actually spout poetic bon mots every time he opened his mouth, or that his "shaman" faux-mysticism was just a distraction from the fact that the dude had a serious drug and alcohol problem and that his lyrics didn't actually mean anything. I like that the film paints him in those big, bold strokes: Nearly every music biopic does that, you know, but few capture the essence of the "agreed-upon lie" like The Doors—and with apologies to Jamie Foxx, none of those feature actors who immerse themselves so completely in their subject the way Val Kilmer did, to the point where Movie Jim Morrison has become more real than the actual Jim Morrison. (Much like what Kevin Costner did for Jim Garrison, come to think of it.) Maybe in 20 years, when somebody finally makes Bono! and has the U2 singer personally feeding starving Africans out of his cowboy hat, everybody will cut The Doors some slack, but in the meantime, I'm here to defend it to all you plastic soldiers in a miniature dirt war.
Oddly enough, I don't generally get into many arguments with people over movies, except for Josh, and that's only because his opinions are always wrong. When relatives tell me how awesome Crash or Patch Adams were, I'm more inclined to smile and nod politely than launch into a 10-minute monologue about why they're wrong and those movies suck. Life's too short, to each his own, etc. I'm generally a fairly conflict-averse person, though on my poorly rated, mildly disreputable basic-cable movie-review program, Movie Club With John Ridley, I found myself getting into shouting matches with one of my fellow panelists on a regular basis over whether, say, Shakespeare was boring and irrelevant and Steve McQueen was plain-looking and devoid of charisma. You can probably guess where I came down in those arguments. If I had to pick one incredibly divisive film I've argued about extensively, it would be Eyes Wide Shut, which I liked tremendously and my father, who found it boring, pretentious, and insufficiently accessible, likes to bring up as evidence that pointy-headed film-criticky types like myself are out of touch with common folk like himself. Of course, my dad found the Rob Schneider vehicle The Animal hilarious, so you should probably take his opinion with the proverbial grain of salt. And mine as well.
Editor's note: This question was inspired by comment-boarder "Leppo," who wrote in with this AVQ&A; question suggestion: "A while back I listened to the NPR piece on The Onion, during which they discussed a huge fight which ensued over a piece called 'Ghost Drops In Just to Say Boo.' There were two factions, one for the using the piece and one against, and evidently there was much philosophical rancor arising out of the decision. So my question is: 'Is there a film or CD or TV show or other pop-culture phenomenon that has created a similar note of discord that shook the mighty walls of the AVC? If so, what was it?'"
We e-mailed Leppo back with this: "Nothing really stands out, honestly, since we argue all the time. In fact, so do the Onion guys—that was just one example they pulled out of the hat to show the kinds of things they argue about. It's really pretty common for us to disagree on things, and to talk it out—so common that there's certainly nothing we still hold against each other or bring up all the time. But this week's question will be a modified version of yours, because I think some really colorful discussion could come out of it."
Sure enough, even answering this version of the question prompted that colorful discussion, both via e-mail and in person. Here's what some of the above entries prompted in e-mail:
Scott responds to Steven: "Ugh, you are so wrong about Brokeback Mountain. What is keeping you alive? Surely not that red, thumpy thing the rest of us have."
Josh: "And you're both wrong about Munich, the most overblown piece of hoo-ha I've ever seen. Cutting between scenes of fucking and stuff blowing up? Yawn."
Scott: "No. You're just talking about the very end of the movie. What about the greatness of the 155 minutes preceding it?"
Steven: "'Cutting between scenes of fucking and stuff blowing up is the definition of great cinema.' —Jean Luc Godard"
Josh: "It was like that delicious casserole I once ate. Amazing the whole way through, and then in the last couple of bites, I discovered bits of cockroach and what was clearly human excrement. I threw the whole thing up, and vowed never to eat casserole again. I don't have fond memories of any of that meal. (Which happened only metaphorically anyway.)"
Scott: "Here's the problem with that fake metaphor: What you've discovered with the casserole is that you've been eating cockroach and excrement the whole time, not just at the end of the meal. I don't know if you can watch Munich and say that everything before the unfortunate fucking/blowing-stuff-up montage was, in retrospect, all cockroach-y and excrement-y. A bum ending does not a terrible movie make."
Steven: "Here's an AVQA question: Would Josh Modell have liked Con Air if Steven Spielberg had directed it?"
Josh: "Answer: Con Air would have been a shitty movie if Steven Spielberg had directed it."
Steven: "And E.T. would have been ever better if Simon West had made it."
All this amid Josh arguing with Noel about A.I. (largely over the "goopy" ending) and me arguing with Scott about Funny Games (not doubting Michael Haneke's filmmaking chops, so much as not respecting his duplicitous, judgmental intentions), and Scott and Josh and Nathan and I all arguing in person in the Chicago office about Spielberg and Munich and A.I., even before Noel's e-mail in favor of it came along. We blame you for getting us started, Leppo. Can't we all just get along?