Friday, August 15, 2008

Let's Just Be Friends: Directors I Don't Love

I hate hating films and I’d rather not do it, but I don’t intend to lower my standards and I don’t think Hollywood has any immediate plans to raise theirs. Fortunately I’ve trained myself to smell crap from a long way off, so having my bile rise due to a film I outright loathe is pretty rare. Far more often is a reaction of mild dislike or unimpressed ambivalence.

Having these negative reactions to collectively reviled films is neither unexpected nor particularly bothersome to me, but I am often troubled by failing to connect with a famous or highly-praised work. This happens to everyone, though never with the same set of films, and by now we should have all learned to just accept these differences of opinion and move on. Of course, we don’t. We get angry, frustrated and defensive. We start flame wars, disseminate diatribes and log into our favorite review aggregators to correct people about how “boring and stupid” their favorite films are.

Every once in a while you see someone trying to work through their dislike for a film without resorting to the usual rant rhetoric. Rarer still is the reviewer who can break things down into the specific subjective and objective elements that turn them off and analyze them with honesty, humility and insightfulness. Nick Davis over at NicksFlickPicks is one such reviewer. I've found myself reading his great review of “The Travelling Players” several times over the years and relating to his description of the special pain and embarrassment that come with being a film critics and admitting that you don’t like a highly-praised or long-canonized film:

“Even fessing up to an underwhelmed reaction is only a first step, frequently compromised by the self-abasing rhetoric of bad break-ups: the problem isn't you, Orson, it's me (even though it's totally you, you know I think it's you!) For all I know, Edward Yang's Yi Yi (A One and a Two...) and Hou Hsaio-hsien's The Puppetmaster really are sublime experiences, but I found them dull dull dull. Still, there's that cautious inner voice, bred by the desire to learn and to be challenged, nourished by the Time Out Film Guide and the National Society of Film Critics, that urges appreciation even when it isn't fully felt. Maybe it's true that that which bores us but does not kill us really does make us stronger? Is it true that some cinema is just good for you, despite the medicinal taste?”

In addition to inspiring this series, I’m also borrowing Nick’s metaphor of bad break-ups. Hence the title “Let’s Just Be Friends.”

However, instead of looking at specific well-regarded films that disappointed me, I'm going to look at well-regarded directors. Usually I can find one or two films with the sparkle of brilliance that leaves others rapt, but some auteurs just don’t earn their reputations in my eyes. These cases are usually rare enough for me that I can find close facsimiles I prefer, and it recently struck me that this could be useful tool for figuring out why some directors just don’t click with me.

So as part of a new series I’m going to stand pairs of directors next to each other. One will be a famous director I don’t connect with and the other will be a similar director I prefer. One of my goals is to make this an interesting confessional and analytic experiment rather than just a whiny rant.

As I’ve mentioned before, I tend to prefer spotlighting great unsung films/filmmakers rather than wasting words tearing apart what I don’t like. Combine that with open-mindedness, a willingness to extend the benefit of the doubt and a natural desire to focus in on the best aspects of every film, and you can see how I get disproportionately positive about cinema. In that spirit, I want to emphasize that the directors I single out are not necessarily artists that I “hate,” just ones that I don’t love. We can still be friends.

One last point. I have not seen every film by any of the directors in this series and I am far from being an expert on their careers. To ensure that I’ve given each director at least a fair chance, I’m restricting my choices to those auteurs for whom I’ve seen at least five films.

I acknowledge that in many cases I just “don’t get it,” but I’m not content to leave things there. I’m endeavoring to run these comparisons honestly and intelligently. I’ll try to be explicit about whether my critiques are a matter of my taste versus their talent. If you are an adamant fan of these directors, your insights and rebuttals may help enlighten me, especially if presented in good faith. Nevertheless, I welcome any comments regardless of their temperament.


Mad Dog said...

For me, it must be Peter Greenaway, first and foremost. I mean, he doesn't make poor films. But every time I've tried to see one of them they just sort of leave me indifferent. I can't pinpoint why. The closest I can come up with is that his focus on structure and numbers just feels too cold?

FilmWalrus said...

Grr, the Greenaway = Cold (or alternatively Kubrick = Cold) thing really kills me. Its like any director who tries to do anything with patterns or precision is automatically labeled heartless and dismissed. Granted, I like my deeply human realist junk too, but give me clinical detachment and technical prowess any day! Still, while I disagree I do understand that 99% needs a human interest element and that's fine so long as BBC Channel 4 is still willing to give Greenaway his financing.

Mad Dog said...

But, like, with Greenaway, it feels even MORESO than Kubrick. (I love Kubrick, BTW.) Another one I don't see the point in is Makoto Shinkai. Voices from a Distant Star and 5cm Per Second did nothing to endear him to me. He just seemed ploddingly slow and over-reliant on manipulating his audience emotionally. He's very pretty (in 5cm at least, I thought Voices was pretty fugly) and has a knack for atmosphere... that's about it.

FilmWalrus said...

Hmmm, I'm thinking maybe I will do a post about temperature measuring directors. I seem to always be championing the hot and cold ones, and less into the warm and cool ones. Marshall McLuhan would appreciate the metaphor.

As far as Makoto Shinkai goes, I can understand, although I do think it is useful to hold off on final judgement until you've seen more than two films. The number of directors who I initially thought I didn't like (after a few movies), but later reversed upon is almost embarassing: William Wyler, George Cukor, Jean Renoir, Bertrand Taverniers, Roberto Rossellini, Otto Preminger, Joseph Losey, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, etc, etc.

I'm going to try and not say anything in this series that I might regret in five years if my taste changes. That said, it's pretty safe for me to say I don't much care for Woody Allen or John Ford, having seen 18 and 13 of their films respectively. Then again, I felt the way I do now about Ford after the first film I saw so sometimes first impressions are lasting.

Unknown said...

John, Which five Greenaway movies have you seen?

FilmWalrus said...

Easy there, Katie. I'm not saying everyone needs to have seen five films before they can have an opinion. It is kind of an arbitrary level that I set for myself, because I've previously jumped the gun on bashing directors I later learned to like. The list I gave in my last comment is far from complete on naming the places where I've changed my mind (almost exclusively for the better).

Anonymous said...



No, actually, I mean, I see where you're coming from, John. I remember being confused and not enraptured in a Zed and Two Noughts (I may not have even watched the whole thing) the first time. Upon a second viewing, and third, and reading brian's papers, and re-seeing, I have a great appreciation and fondness for it.

However, "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover" and "The Falls" I like and appreciate (if not on such a technical level as FW does).

Anonymous said...

I'm really enjoying this series! Oddly enough I tend to side with you on all your choices so far.

FilmWalrus said...


I'm glad, and a little surprised, that we agree on the first three! Then again, our simular tastes probably explain why I love reading Cinebeats so much. So many of my favorite directors come from the 60s/70s. I also share your opinion that life is too short to write frequently on movies you hate, so this is something of an exception for me.

I fear, however, that things will move quickly into danger territory. I'm tackling directors in order of how hard it is for me to come to terms with not loving them and the last two really should be favorites: Woody Allen and Fellini. Both are understandably popular with many of my friends and favorite bloggers. I won't be so harsh on them, though, because I think each has half a dozen or more great films.