A confession: I’m kind of a snob when it somes to movies. Which means I’m also kind of a slave to reviews. I have my favourite reviewers in whose good taste I trust. Mark Kermode is king. Pete Bradshaw is eccentric but mostly helpful. Metacritic allows me to scan what the reviews have said and get a quick consensus. This is mostly not a bad thing – it helps me avoid wasting time and money on movies that are just “chewing gum for the eyes.”
The thing is, I’m becoming aware that I’m losing my ability to really think for myself. To know what I like and why, without someone with cultural authority endorsing my decision. And that’s a bit sad. I think I may need to wean myself off the reviews for a while.
Here’s an example that has me kind of confused. I recently watched three movies in quick succession which are all made by a young Canadian film-director called Sarah Polley. And I’m confused. I’m not sure what I think about them. Maybe you can help me.
First I watched a documentary she made called Stories We Tell. I’m pretty sure I loved this one. All of the Guardian’s film-critics had named it in their movies of the year for 2013, so I decided to check it out. It’s a film about Sarah Polley’s own family, especially her mother, who died when Sarah was a child. There has always been a rumour in her family that the man she called “dad” was not really her father – and so she goes searching for the truth. She just points her camera right into the heart of her family and its memories and stories of love and betrayal and lies and forgiveness. “Unflinching” and “uncompromising.” Those were the kind of words that came to mind as I watched. I was mesmerised. I think you should go and watch it too.
So then I went looking for other movies by this same bold, young director. And I watched Take This Waltz. This is a drama about the breakdown of a marriage, starring the wonderful Michelle Williams and (improbably) Seth Rogen. But here’s the thing. Before I watched it, I read this review by Pete Bradshaw, which is as scathing a demolition of a movie as I’ve ever read. (Only Mark Kermode on Transformers comes close). I mean, he hated this film. It’s not hard to see why they didn’t quote him on the poster – “unendurably precious” is not going to sell tickets.
And it coloured my watching of the movie. Because he’s partly right. There’s something a bit forced and contrived and clunky about the dialogue.It’s all trying a bit too hard to be profound. I nearly turned it off about five or six times. But something else was intriguing me. So I kept watching. And this movie has got under my skin more than anything else I’ve watched this year. I think it’s trying to say something about marriage and faithfulness and domesticity and novelty (and sex) that is really kind of genuinely true and profound.
And it’s all a bit awkward and imperfect, maybe even a bit embarrassing. I’m not sure it’s a good movie in the ways that brings praise from the guardians of cool and good taste. But it’s provoked me to think and wonder. I want to get a bunch of thoughtful people together to watch it together and then argue about it. I’m not sure if it’s “good” like Breaking Bad is good. But I think it might be stumbling towards something true. (And I think Pete Bradshaw was having a bad day and badly misread the whole movie).
Finally I got around to watching Sarah Polley’s most acclaimed movie. Away From Her is a drama about a couple who have been married for 40 years, and are now dealing with the wife’s early symptoms of Alzheimers. It got rave reviews and a couple of Oscar nominations, and it deserved all the praise and more. As with Take This Waltz, there are moments that are a bit clunky, trying too hard, a bit “art-school” in their reaching for profundity. And there’s no doubt Polley’s movies are all on the depressing side. This is heartbreaking cinema. Unflinching, uncompromising, these are her hallmarks.
But as I argued in my last post, we need artists who will tell the truth. Even when the truth is painful and prickly, uncomfortable and embarrasing. I’m not sure if Sarah Polley’s movies are cool or tasteful or hipster-approved. But she is courageous and compelling and determined to try and tell the truth. And I think that’s something worth paying attention to.