03 March 2012


Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday wrote a gently chiding assessment on February 3, called Essay:  Of Manners, Movies, and the Sorry State of Spectatorship.  It includes a few of my favorite pet peeves, like the orgy of eating junk food ~ loudly ~ that has become such a movie ritual that many oinkers are going back for seconds before the feature film even starts, or more recently the intrusive annoyance of electronic device addicts texting during the performance.  Why do these people even bother paying to enter the theater?  They could as easily rattle candy wrappers, slurp on drinks, root around in popcorn, or do their texting at home.  Or out in the car.  Preferably while driving into oncoming traffic during rush hour.

Hornaday's piece delves deeper, though.  The feedback she receives on her film reviews, and the behavior she observes in theaters, give cause to question the assumptions (if not the intelligence) of theater audiences.  They appear to not only expect but desire the lowest common denominator in a film experience ~ something akin to the pablum that passes for entertainment on television.  Character portrayal, nuance, intellectual challenge, a window onto another world apparently strain the brains of many ~ they'd rather have the comfort of a predictable plot featuring cardboard-cutout characters with simplistic motives and lots of either (a) saccharine sweetness, or (b) explosions and car chases.  

In Hornaday's words ~ "Expanding their horizons?  What a quaint idea.  More and more, it seems .... filmgoers instead prefer cinematic experiences that simply confirm their own assumptions of what a cinematic experience should be .... the cinema today is in crisis .... a distressing portion of it is coming from an audience in apparent need of tutoring, not only in how to behave in a movie theater, but in managing its own aesthetic expectations.

" .... A small but vocal segment of the filmgoing public ~ even in cine-sophisticated Washington ~ won't be happy unless a movie conforms flawlessly to their unique, preconceived notions of what that movie is supposed to be ~ either in their own heads or based on reviews they've confused with beat-by-beat synopses .... Filmgoers are utterly justified in demanding the best when it comes to excellent production values, stories that don't insult their intelligence, crisp projection and clean, smoothly run theaters.  Anyone conscientious enough to consult a review ~ or better, a range of them ~ in order to make the most informed decision possible deserves to be rewarded with the aesthetic experience they've prepared themselves for.

"But even armed with the most careful, comprehensive reviews, viewers still decide to see a movie based on imperfect information.  Whether it's a one-star pan or a four-star rave, a piece of criticism is always incomplete and never unconditional.

"Manners have declined in recent years.  Simultaneously, unrealistic expectations have risen, creating a dynamic more akin to demanding consumers rather than adventurous connoisseurs .... The bar has been lowered on the quality of the work that audiences have gotten used to, and they're now expecting a familiar package that's similar to something else they might have seen.  And if it doesn't match up, they're dissatisfied.

"A movie ticket entitles the bearer to watch a movie, not to like it.  You win some, you lose some.  And never forget that the definition of 'win' and 'lose' is ultimately, universally, maddeningly subjective."

Case in point ~ the 2010 psychodrama Black Swan.  If you entered the theater expecting an uplifting peek into the artistic world of ballet, or expecting a hometown-girl success story from ingenue to prima ballerina, or expecting something resembling any dance film you've seen before (The Turning Point, White Nights, The Company, All That Jazz), you were in for a disturbing shock.  The film is a gradually-darkening psychological journey as Natalie Portman's character urgently, even tormentedly pushes herself toward the perfect performance in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, while simultaneously uncovering a pathologically dark side to her own being.  Portman's performance is incandescent, the film is masterful, yet many viewers were so disturbed by the disconnect between their expectations and the film's reality that they could not reconcile the two.  

I've advocated Hornaday's advice all my adult life ~ I read the remarks of a trusted film critic (Roger Ebert comes to mind), preferably a review that describes the tone and issues within a film, but that does not spell out the plot.  Then if the movie sounds appealing, I watch it with an open mind, fully prepared to enjoy what I might have predicted, but also prepared to absorb any surprises.  In all elements ~ acting, directing, production, the story itself ~ quality comes first.  Even if all those elements are satisfied, and the film is greeted by popular and critical acclaim, my personal experience may ultimately still be a disappointment ~ Gandhi, A Passage to India, and A Fish Called Wanda come to mind.  That's fine.  

Further, some films I loved when I first saw them years ago, now seem shallow to me, while others I disliked back in the day, now seem brilliant.  We all (hopefully) grow over time, and our tastes evolve with experience and exposure.  Alexander Pope said that a little learning is a dangerous thing.  Go ahead, learn a little.  Live dangerously.

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