By Michael Gushue & CL Bledsoe
Once upon a time, educated people referenced books in conversation. The fact that they’d read them proved that they must be wearing smarty pants(tm). Before that, people probably referenced songs or stories, and before that, maybe they referenced interesting clouds or rocks they’d seen. We don’t know. We’re not anthropologists. Or people who know stuff.
But people don’t read books or talk about books, or know books exist anymore, unless they’re in grad school or actually enjoy reading. Now, the way to feel superior is to talk about movies no one has seen because they’re terrible movies where nothing happens. Or they’re in French.
What’s the Appeal of Fine Cinema?
As we said, the thing about artsy movies is nothing happens in them, or if things do happen, it doesn’t matter. For example, let’s say the movie is about World War III. Although this could be an exciting movie full of action, explosions, and human drama, in an artsy movie all you are going to see is a man in dirty clothes sitting at a table staring at a glass of water. You might be thinking, “That sounds boring,” and you’d be right. That’s the whole point. Regular people will get bored and stop watching that movie. Only the true connoisseur will slog through the 7 hours of people standing slightly apart calling their dogs’ names in an emotionless monotone with no answer, or whatever the film is about (that one is about the inevitability of death). Getting through a movie like this gives these folks a sense of accomplishment and an appreciation they can’t get from regular films because they don’t like regular films. They’re too fun or well lit or something.
But there’s also another, although less important, reason that some people like fine cinema. It not just that nothing happens in the movies, it’s that it is impossible to know what happens in them. For example, the movie opens with two men and two women having a picnic in a sunny field. Everything’s going great, and then one of the women starts crying uncontrollably. Then one of the men appears to be raping a bush. Now they’re on a sailboat, all four of them wearing bikinis. The older man stabs the younger man with a lobster and throws him overboard. The two women laugh. Next scene, it’s a board room. The young man is back as if nothing happened. The old man is in a wheelchair, drooling. One of the women is dressed like a businessman, the other is naked, reading a book by the Marquis de Sade. And that’s just the first 15 minutes. An hour and half later, everyone stumbles out of the theater. Watching the movie was the excruciating part. The fun part is talking about it for the next two weeks. What happened? What did it mean? No one really knows, but everyone gets to enjoy the sound of her or his own voice opinionizing, having a pet theory, arguing, disagreeing, and going over and over the movie again and again. Arty movie lovers can get 20 hours of fun talking about a 2 hour movie that was in a language none of them knows. It’s kind of a bargain when you think about it.
Whatever the reason, fine cinema appreciators can lord it over the other folks that they got through this snoozefest with their sanity intact, and that makes them morally superior.
Types of Films
We’ll be discussing several different types of films, so strap in.
Artsy films often look cheap, which is because they are often cheap. Very few studios are willing to give a bunch of money to an auteur to make a movie that only a few people will watch, and which will most likely not lead to toy sales. Some artsy directors have been doing this long enough that they’ve learned how to make better looking films for less money, and some crappy looking films are just crappy no matter how much money was flushed down them, so this is certainly not always the sign of an artsy film.
The true mark of an artsy film is that it is more focused on character than story, which is a nice way of saying there aren’t going to be any pretty explosions to look at in between bouts of chip-dipping.
Rapey films look like artsy films until something really weird and violent happens, seemingly out of nowhere. Suddenly, you’ve gone from being bored to being uncomfortable. They’re usually justified as being commentary on how violent society is, which everyone already knew except, apparently, the filmmaker.
A common component of French films is that people speak French in them, but this isn’t always the case. For example, many of Terry Gilliam’s films are actually French, though the characters rarely speak French. Also, sometimes things happen in those, so maybe that’s a bad example.
The point of a French film is that it feels it is culturally superior to America in every discernible way, and also doesn’t offer free refills. Kind of a ripoff, tbh.
When you roll the dice for a French film, there are number of possibilities that can come up. You could get a smoochfest with a tragic ending, a weirdo film where everyone is telling everyone else their dreams, something about the Thirty Years’ War with extra mud, or a comedy, which — since you know how the French revere Jerry Lewis — we don’t have to tell you what you’re in for. Let’s just say Blazing Saddles will seem an exemplar of subtlety and restraint.
None of this true for Swedish flicks. A film from Sweden might be allegedly in any one of these categories: action, comedy, crime, drama, horror, romance, or anything else. It does not matter. Swedish films are nearly indistinguishable from one another, and none of them honestly fit into any movie genre other than “a film from Sweden.” More to the point, all Swedish films have the following immutable elements:
- Everyone in a Swedish film is depressed, except for the people who are suicidal. They happen to be suicidal *and* depressed. Why is this? Simple: everyone in Sweden is born depressed. You see, they live in country that only gets two and half hours of sunlight a year. Every drop of water is eternally frozen, so from birth all that Swedes drink is Everclear. Also, it’s cold af there. The most common food is dried fish (that’s “dried” not “fried”). Their meatballs are humiliatingly small. Worst of all, for their entire lives, every Swede must assemble from scratch every piece of furniture she or he will ever own, furniture with names like “snorgengolson” and “glockfursputem” instead of “chair” or “table.”
- Everything in a Swedish movie happens very, very slowly, even more slowly than in other arty films. This is because the screenwriter, the cameraman, and the editor are all Swedish and hence severely depressed. It’s just too much effort to get anything done, like write dialogue, or move the camera, or cut a scene. What’s the point? Might as well let it drag on and on, like life.
- Not only is everyone in a Swedish film depressed, but everything itself is just chock full of grade A depressingness. Comedy is depressing, sex is depressing, religion is depressing, eating is depressing. History? Depressing. How about the future? Depressing. Joy? Depressing. What about…? Depressing.
Experimental (aka avant-garde, aka underground, aka coffee grounds on celluloid) films are the exception to the above rule about artsy films being focused on character. Unless by character you mean dust, or mold, or torn up bits of insects, or any number of other things that normally don’t mean character.
Experimental films have no plot, no characters, no scenes, no continuity, and usually no sound. This is because experimental filmmakers have no money, like really no money. It’s not even clear that they have cameras, or film stock. What they do have, mostly, is a theory, and willingness to show anything to anyone anywhere, as long as anyone will let them.
Take a roll of film and wear it inside your underwear for a year, then run it through a projector and call it “Secrets of My Soul.”
Make a film of every second of your life for a whole month, cut out all the interesting bits, and call it “Secrets of My Soul 2.”
Glue pieces of gravel, canned tuna, and dirt from under your fingernails to the film strip, then cut it into pieces, then make a copy of that film and snip out parts and replace them with bits of jello, your high school yearbook, and dog hair and then cut out every other frame and replace it with soot, coffee grounds, and motor oil. Have a giraffe eat it and when you get it back project it against a wall of people dipped in white chocolate. Call it Etude #17.
One of the positives of experimental film is that they do not stick to a standard hour-and-a-half, or two hour (or — these days — three hour) running time. With a little judicious choice selection, you could view 30 or 40 of these in about 9 minutes. On the other hand, if you’re not careful, you could get stuck watching an 18-hour film called “Fascist Hair Follicle Daddy Issues” until you figure a way to unlock the theater door.
Nah, we’re just furking with ya.
But it is the case that every once in a while someone takes a perfectly good director or type of movie and and spritzes art musk all over it. One week you’re enjoying a shoot-’em-up, next week the theater is filled with people in turtlenecks and desert boots nodding and murmuring stuff instead of yelling at the screen like any decent American.
To be clear, in spite of the perhaps less than ideal entertainment value of fine cinema for some of us, it is always and everywhere true that any movie is better than no movie.
It’s an ancient truth first spoken back in dim mists of prehistory by Joni Mitchell that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Now that sitting in a theater and watching a movie is the equivalent of taking a steam bath with a friendly group of plague-ridden rats, we realize how much we’ve taken the simple joy of going out for an evening at the cinema for granted. Heck, we’d even settle for a Swedish movie about how god killed herself trying to put together an entertainment console called a snokenmerkin. Because, entertainment, minimal entertainment, or no entertainment, a night out at the movies is aways a distraction from the meh, feh, argh, or yikes of our everyday lives. Every movie theater is a Pandora’s box that holds within it one constant element that always brings us hope: the concessions stand. We’re talking about popcorn, popcorn with that golden butteroidal liquid that they pour over it, 128 ounce drinks, malted milk balls, Mike and Ike, Goobers, Raisinets, Sno-Caps, Junior Mints, popcorn, Good N Plenty, Sugar Babies, Milk Duds, Boston Baked Beans, popcorn, Jujy Fruits…popcorn…popcorn…popcorn…