Sunday, June 24, 2012

Screening Log: Ignorance is Bliss Edition

            It’s a short screening log this week, but I’m excited to see Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act tonight at BAMcinemaFest (as long as my train back to NYC is on time). I briefly met Sallitt a month ago and I’ve considered him one of the most intelligent critics whenever I read it work. Here’s a piece he wrote on Julia Leigh’s The Sleeping Beauty, which is much more eloquent than mine. And here’s a nice Wall Street Journal profile on Sallitt, which also quotes my Personal Recommendation MachineTM Bilge Ebiri.

-Blowup, 1966. Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. DVD.
-Duck, You Sucker!, 1971. Directed by Sergio Leone. 35mm projection at Film Forum.
-The Ruthless Four, 1968. Directed by Giorgio Capitani. 35mm projection at Film Forum.
-Horrible Bosses, 2010. Directed by Seth Gordon. HBO.  

            A question that runs up against criticism again and again seems to be the idea of expectations. What do we expect out of a movie when we have knowledge before seeing it? Is there a contract between the knowledge the spectator has and the movie to deliver on that expectation? Film viewing is a subjective experience, of course, but is there a perfect way to prepare one for viewing something?

One of my favorite articles from the last week (besides the complete outpouring of amazing stuff about Andrew Sarris) was a piece on Matt Singer’s Criticwire blog entitled “Why Do We Hate Spoilers AND Surprises?” The piece was in response to HuffPo critic Mike Ryan’s piece on Brave, which some have noted has an essential plot point the marketing never even hinted at. Singer writes,

“Though I don't necessary agree with Ryan, I understand what he's saying. He's arguing that the marketing for "Brave" sold him (and anyone who goes to see it) a bill of goods. He expected a brave young woman on an adventure and he got... well, he got something that was not quite that.”

            But what if Ryan knew nothing about Brave (which I liked) before seeing it, except maybe that it was made by Pixar? When I see most of the films I see in repertory houses, I usually have something similar to that experience. I usually know a few necessary details (director, actor, maybe a logline), but nothing else. When I saw Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker! this week, all I knew was that it was directed by Leone. I didn’t even know Rod Steiger starred in the film, much less he was playing a Mexican bandit (it took me at least 30 minutes to recognize him).

            The film starts out as a series of reveals. We don’t immediately know Steiger’s character, Juan, is going to be the protagonist. Or that he’s actually someone of power planning a robbery. The film eventually settles into a cat and mouse game between Juan and John, an Irish explosives expert who was a former IRA fighter. At about the 45 minute mark, I settled in for what I was sure was going to be a jolly good heist film.

            And then the film cleverly shifts to a different subject, as John mixes Juan into what turns out to be the Mexican Revolution. In one of the film’s most devilishly clever sequences, Juan thinks he is about to steal millions in gold from a bank, but instead accidentally becomes a hero of the revolution. It’s such a nihilistically tricky sequence, one ripe with satire about the way revolutions are organized by people who trick others into fighting for them.

            Like I said, I had no idea that Duck You Sucker! was going to be about the Mexican Revolution, much less a very hard hitting political satire (Leone has claimed in interviews that he never set out to make a commentary at all). As a spectator, I felt like Juan must have when he realized he had gotten involved in a revolution he had no part in. The film’s reveal of this twist delighted me, and I’m not sure I would have enjoyed the film as much had I been expecting the film to head in this direction.

            This brings me back to Ryan and Singer, as well as a great piece by Noel Murray on why he enjoys watching trailers (something I have debated him via the Twittersphere). It’s tough to not know anything about new films these days. But when I watch films for these screenings logs, chances are I know very little about them till I see them. While many of my favorite films are films I only fell in love with on a second or third watch, the idea of letting a narrative reveal itself is a pleasure that can only be experienced once. I’m in the firm option that those reveals can be delightful if experienced virginally, and seeing the twists and turns of Duck, You Sucker! without any idea of where it was going cemented my opinion on this.

            This might seem in contradiction to my argument against spoilerphobia—knowing the twists of Psycho or The Sixth Sense have never ruined the movie. A great movie is a great movie, and nothing should ruin it. But I think the issue is less with the film and what we know about it, than the expectations we create. Knowing that Leone directed Duck, You Sucker!, I could say I had certain expectations; I expected epic landscapes and intense close-ups,  along with a catchy and memorable score, and a morally ambiguous center. The film delivered on all those points, but it also had so many elements I didn’t expect, and those gave me pleasure.

            The issue is not the fault of movie studios—we always seem to complain that either they show us too much, or now they don’t properly “prepare” us for a movie. It’s us. For some people like Ryan, it’s somewhat by necessity that he has to report on the going-ons in the movie world, so when Disney puts out trailers for Brave, he has to watch him. But I don’t, and a lot of readers here probably watch them because they have to.

I’m not sure there’s a “right” way to watch a movie. I’ve done both ways, and I’m curious how Beasts of the Southern Wild, which receives raves at Sundance when the film was completely unknown, will play now that everyone expects it to be a great movie. But I would hope some of you might try and watch a movie knowing nothing about it. Don’t read the plot. Don’t look at who directed it. Stay away from any trailer. Let’s just try the pleasure of narrative reveal. 

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