Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Ambivalent Experiences

I saw AMERICAN HUSTLE in a novelty theater that serves dinner and has a full bar. The experience was pleasurable: I ate too much, got a little drunk, and laughed with loved ones when the movie told me it was time to laugh. I walked out thinking 'that was alright.' But a week later when someone asked me what I thought about AMERICAN HUSTLE I blurted out that it was mediocre, forgettable, a poor-man's GOODFELLAS.

Is there a term for a film that you enjoyed during the act of viewing, but the more you think about it the more ambivalent you become towards it? I would suggest "red herring" movies: they are captivating when initially revealed, but yield diminishing returns on contemplation and become useless as other things are revealed. The category of 'other things,' which is tenuous at best, can be other films, written experiences, or dialogues with friends. For the sake of this post, I will call them red herring movies/experiences. But I'm not wholly satisfied with the term. I want something more...mysterious.

I had the good misfortune of several red herring experiences in the last few weeks, and while I have unearthed no conclusions about this phenomenon I felt the desire to put fingers to keyboard and parse this experience out. David Fincher's THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and Denis Villeneuve's PRISONERS qualify for me as the type of cinema I am attempting to describe. Both films are enjoyable, in the pedestrian sense: technically proficient, well paced, expertly acted genre exercises. There is a garish, entrancing visual quality to both films that matches the deliberately unfolding plots of these thrillers. These are films I recommend seeing.

But the next day and the day after I felt less than empty about the experiences of seeing them. How do I qualify this as a critical argument? Feeling empty or apathetic about a visual experience is a legitimate reaction, and shouldn't be discounted as an intentionally produced one. The problem for me is that I retained a handful of compositions from each film and dumped the rest in the recycling bin of my mind's eye. I say compositions, because I barely register them as images, in the grandiose cinephilic sense of the word. I remember them as technical achievements, not as something that penetrated me.

This affective response could be the result of watching too many movies. As a close friend once said to me: "I don't know how you can watch five movies in one sitting. How do you process what you've seen?" A fair point, and one that shouldn't go unconsidered. It's certainly worth considering the role of consumption overload in the formation of red herring experiences. One should also consider mood, but if we open that door we cannot discount phenomenological experiences and personal taste (always taste!). To counter anecdotal evidence with anecdotal evidence, I recall powerful experiences of films that I watched in marathon sessions (Bruce Baillie and Gunvor Nelson for example) and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO was my sole viewing experience of the day.

I don't know what to do with these experiences. How do I translate them into the rating culture that overwhelms me? Are they worse than films I actively detested? The fact is, I care more about awful films than forgettable decent ones, but this isn't a revelation. The fact is, I've spilled more ink and wasted more breath on garbage like DALLAS BUYERS CLUB and GRAVITY than GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO or AMERICAN HUSTLE. Perhaps the meaning or purpose of these films lies in their social existence: GRAVITY is more important to me because I can and want to talk about it. I have almost nothing to say about PRISONERS other than it has some cool compositions, ones that remind me of better films.

image: LANDSCAPE SUICIDE PRISONERS (Villeneuve / 2013)

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