Over the last few weeks, I’ve been watching TCM’s The Story of Film, a 15-hour documentary series about cinema history, as told by Irish film critic Marc Cousins. If you have the time to crank through it, I highly recommend it. The series is Film History 101 in a jar, and it’s currently hanging out on Netflix Streaming, just waiting to be binge-watched.
Anyway, I was watching one of the episodes this morning, and the subject of Fellini came up. I thought about watching La Dolce Vita for the first time, just a couple of years ago, and remembering that I hated it. It’s clearly a very well-made film, and even an important one, but I didn’t like it.
A previous episode touched upon Leni Riefenstahl, too. I’ve seen Triumph of the Will more than once, even though it is Nazi propaganda, because it’s a truly amazing piece of history and filmmaking. I don’t enjoy the film, but I feel it’s an important film to know well.
And a couple of weeks ago, Peter O’Toole passed away, and a lot of people talked about Lawrence of Arabia. I adore Lawrence of Arabia. (I’m talking Top 5 Favorite Films of All Time sort of adoration. Seriously. I LOVE IT.) However, I had to agree with a lot of the backlash noise on Twitter: Lawrence of Arabia, for all its fine qualities as a piece of filmmaking, still boils down to a story about a White Guy Savior who goes to a Brown Person Country to save the noble savages. And women are nowhere to be seen.
And I also have this deep love for some really terrible films, such as The Apple (a bizarro post-disco glam musical by Cannon Films, circa 1980) and Miami Connection (which is what happens when a Tae Kwon Do master decides to make a 1980s action movie, complete with motorcycle drug ninjas). I partly love them because of their earnest terribleness, because they have failed so spectacularly that they become a different sort of joy. (Both of those films are currently on Netflix Streaming, by the way.)
Because of the Megalist project, I watch a lot of movies I don’t particularly instinctively want to see. I wind up seeing a lot of films that are deemed good or important by other people, and I do my best to walk into each one with an open mind. Films like The Shootist with John Wayne or Tom Jones with Albert Finney would never have been selected as viewing material if I’d just randomly seen them on a shelf somewhere. I didn’t particularly fall in love with either of them, but they certainly weren’t bad, either. They just didn’t fall within my sweet spot of taste.
Where is all this going? Well, here it is: I think it’s important to experience “bad” entertainment. I’m picking on movies here, but this applies to all art and media. We live in an age where so much is available at our fingertips, and we forget that we can be incredibly selective about where we spend our time. These digital tools can winnow down our selection list to such a laser-honed, tailored machine that we can easily forget the vast ocean of ideas that fall outside of our taste zone. If we don’t wander outside of our taste zone, how to we learn about new things? How do we find the gems in the rough, the nuggets of wisdom buried under crap, the moments of unexpected joy?
You can learn a lot from media you don’t enjoy. La Dolce Vita is a good example, in my case. Like I said above, I hated the movie when I saw it, because I have a great distaste for people who find life boring… and it’s an entire movie about such people. That’s not the movie’s problem; that’s my own taste as applied to the movie. That said, La Dolce Vita has stuck with me. I keep thinking about scenes and learning from them. I’ve only seen the film once, but it keeps bringing me insight. I’ve probably thought more about that movie than 90% of the films I’ve watched since. I’d even recommend other people watch it.
You can learn a lot from media that fails. I think it was Quentin Tarantino that said you can learn more about filmmaking from a bad movie than from a good one. Watching good movies is a nearly effortless task: a movie that successfully engages with a viewer sweeps them along. A movie that fails in its efforts wears its flaws on its sleeve. Most viewers don’t notice editing until it doesn’t work. Same goes for soundtrack, foley, acting, writing, etc. Once you’ve seen how the machine breaks, it becomes more impressive to see a machine that works flawlessly.
All media is problematic in some way. There is no such thing as a perfect movie. Even a movie with an enormous budget and a great team will be limited in scope. There will never be a movie that fairly encompasses characters from all races, all walks of life, all genders, all ages, all sexual orientations, and all philosophical leanings, simply because there is only so much time, and only so many angles that can be approached without making a mess of the story. Stories, as a necessity, are exclusionary. You can improve the film industry as a whole by ensuring that a year’s output of filmmaking is more representative of diversity, but there is no way to do that in a single film. Beyond that, cultural norms change, and there certainly is a lot of filmmaking that happened before our somewhat-more-enlightened times. I’m sure future generations will likewise look back on much of our work with disgust.
You can learn a lot from problematic media. A film can be downright reprehensible and still have something to say, even if it’s just being a talking point about its particular breed of reprehensibility. Triumph of the Will makes my skin crawl, but it’s a shining example of just how seductive Nazi propaganda was. It’s important to understand that sort of thing if you’re interested in preventing such things from happening again.