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A Great Awful Film

Brian Doxtader | Wednesday, April 19, 2006

A couple of weeks ago I inadvertently gave “The Grapes of Wrath” half a star. Anyone who actually read the article knows that it was a mistake, that no, I don’t think that “The Ring 2” is two stars better than “The Grapes of Wrath.” Still, it got me to thinking – there’s always that film. That classic, beloved, critically acclaimed film. A gem of the cinema, a rare and beautiful motion picture that will live on for generations after its creation. There’s only one problem: you hate it.

Here’s a story: I was waiting outside the Browning Cinema waiting for a class screening of “Casablanca” to get out. As the students and the professor exited, one student remarked to another that it was the worst movie he’d ever seen. The professor turned to me and said, “Yeah, until they next week when they see ‘Citizen Kane” Then that’s the new worst movie they’ve ever seen.”

Art is fickle like that. There’s a huge difference between admiring something and actually liking it. And you know what? Nobody ever said you have to. As a film student, I’ve been obligated to see countless classic films – some are amazing, most are good, a few are … well, a few of them are pretty painful. I can admire the craftsmanship. I can be in awe of the production values. I can marvel at the cinematography and the technique and I can absolutely hate the film.

For me, it’s Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’Avventura,” a gorgeously crafted, groundbreaking treatise on post-war Italy … and truly one of the most boring films I have ever seen. Seriously, I don’t think “L’Avventura” could be any duller. Sure, it’s a social comment on the empty, sycophantic existence of the upper class, but the fact that Antonioni hit the nail on the head means two and half hours of what feels like nothing happening.

Yet I still admire “L’Avventura” very much. It’s a great picture; I’m not denying that at all. The thing is, we’re not obligated to like every single picture that critics or the like have deemed a masterpiece. And really, no film is sacred. There are many people of varying degrees of film knowledge (professors, critics, scholars, makers, students, etc.) who absolutely detest “Citizen Kane” though they feel obligated to claim they love the AFI’s Greatest Film of All Time. The same goes for “Casablanca,” which to many seems trite and un-engaging.

Art films get it the worst. The very nature of the “art” film implies a certain cachet that makes it somewhat impervious to criticism? Don’t like Godard? You probably just don’t “get” him. Think that Italian Neo-Realism is code for “cheap?” You obviously have no appreciation of its depiction of life. I have a friend who slept through Fellini’s “8 ?” and I have a professor who, without hesitation, named “The Seventh Seal” as a film he couldn’t stand.

A couple of others that were mentioned:

Taxi Driver

Not really a bad film, but its impact has dimmed considerably in the 30 years since its release. A truly great film is both timely and timeless. “Taxi Driver” is certainly timely and works as a snapshot of its era, but doesn’t work as well out of that context. Plus, it takes a long time for the plot to get going, which means it feels plodding in places.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Yeah yeah, Murnau’s masterpiece, the pinnacle of the silent picture, blah blah. Does nobody ever seem to notice that the protagonist (cleverly named “The Man”) is completely insane? He first tries to kill his wife (cleverly named “The Wife”) then decides to take her on a trip into town. Along the way, he feels the need to threaten people and generally act … well, crazy. For all its technical merits, the story is too problematic to work as well as it should.

So the next time someone asks you if you like “Citizen Kane,” don’t be afraid to tell the truth. If you don’t like a film, you don’t like it and that’s your right. Besides, if everyone agreed on everything all the time, what fun would the cinema be?

Contact Brian Doxtader at bdoxtade@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.