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Noblesse oblige

Everybody who writes about movies dreads making these lists, yet all of us want to readeach other’s lists. Partly we’re looking for affirmation, partly we’re looking for ideas, and partly we’re looking for guidance on how to approach this strange exercise in subjectivity and perspective. I kept my movie-watching in 2013 to an almost human scale at roughly 175 films, about half the number I typically watched in the days of Salon’s “Beyond the Multiplex” column. (I know plenty of people in and around the film business who watch 450 to 500, or even more.) Even so, you wind up faced with ridiculous conundrums: How do I decide whether a contentious French drama about a love affair between two young women is better or worse than an absorbing and informative documentary set in Tahrir Square? Can’t we say they’re both terrific, and leave it at that?
Sure we could, but that would be cheating. I decided sit down one day in mid-December and make the list quickly, without much deliberation. I don’t fiddle with it for weeks and I don’t try to make guesses about historical importance or whatever; that won’t make me happier, and the odds that I’ll look at it six months or a year from now and think I screwed it up are pretty high in any case. Suffice it to say that what everybody says about 2013 is true: It’s been an explosive year for movies in general and especially for American cinema. We may be in the “post-theatrical” age but movies continue to play surprisingly widely on the big screen, even as more and more people watch them at home, on mobile devices or via brain implants. (OK, that technology’s not quite ready, but just you wait.)
The 10 movies on this list all moved me, challenged me, thrilled me and delighted me; I recommend them all without hesitation. [. . .] 1. “Stories We Tell” 2. “12 Years a Slave” 3. “Inside Llewyn Davis” 4. “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”  5. “Blue Is the Warmest Color”  6. “The Great Beauty” 7. “The Square” 8. “The Invisible Woman” 9. “Her” 10. “The Wolf of Wall Street” (The10 best movies of 2013, Andrew O'hehir, Salon.com)
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Douglas Moran

I'm trying to decide if the fact that I've not only not seen any of these films but have no interest in seeing any of them means: A) I'm a typical shallow, middle-class American with middle-brow tastes; B) I don't get out often enough; C) Andrew's taste is too highfalutin' for the likes of me; D) None of the above.

One thing for sure:  I'm never going to watch the hugely-praised "12 Years a Slave", which while I'm sure is an excellent film, I know will depress the living crap out of me.  Life is depressing enough; I don't need to pay money to see a film and be artificially depressed.  I know this makes me a plebe, but jeez.  (It reminds me very much of when the Glenn Close/John Malkovich "Dangerous Liaisons" was released--I saw it based on the reviews, was depressed as crap by it, and have never, ever wanted to see it again.)

           

Andrew O'Hehir

@Douglas Moran All of the above, Doug. I mean, the ordinary moviegoer wants something different than a critic wants, and there's kind of no way around that. I'm not going to pretend to be a populist, Gene Shalit style, if it doesn't fit. I heard Vincent Canby talk about this years ago: When you see 200+ movies a year, you become a specialist, and you're looking for something you've never seen before. Whereas ordinary moviegoers, by and large, want to see essentially what they've seen before, done well or with a new twist, and with a familiar outcome. The audience for "12 Years a Slave" is inherently much smaller than the audience for "Gravity" or "The Hobbit," and even the audience for "Wolf of Wall Street" (with stars and glamour but a somewhat "unsatisfying" conclusion) is somewhat smaller.


Douglas Moran

@Andrew O'Hehir @Douglas Moran  In all honesty, I have no idea how you can watch that many movies in a single year.  I have to imagine that it changes your perception, and have often thought that "uniqueness" becomes far more of a sought-after quality for a critic than "entertainment".  So something that the great mass of people will find entertaining, a huge percentage of critics will either roll their eyes at or actively detest--"Sleepless in Seattle" or "Love, Actually" being a couple of perfect examples of that.  Isn't there some quote about the familiar becoming detestable, or something like that?  When you see 40 romantic comedies in one year (most bad), you've got to get burned out on them.  Or so I've thought.

Of course, when one goes to so few films in a particular year, one is pre-disposed to want to like them.  And then if you don't, it's even more disappointing.  Such was my reaction to "Elysium", which was one of the few films I made an effort to see this year, and which was basically, "Meh".  Which pissed me off mightily; "I spend all this time, effort, and money, and all I get is 'Meh'?  I'm going to blog about this until my fingers fall off!"  Etc.  

And ironically, when one skips a film because of reviews and then sees it on DVD or whatever and it turns out to be okay, you may end up liking it better.  Such was the case for me with "Oblivion", which got (at best) "Meh" reviews, but which wasn't too bad.  So long as I didn't spent the effort and time of going to a theater to see it.

With critics, the best one can do is find a critic who either provides enough information, entertainment value, or shares your opinions closely enough so as to be useful to you.  So although we seen it demonstrated many times that your tastes are wildly different from mine, you write informative and entertaining reviews that provide enough data that allow me to make an informed decision.  (I felt the same with Charles Taylor, FWIW.)  And given my knowledge of your tastes, I know that I wouldn't enjoy "12 Years a Slave", no matter how goddamn awesome it is in some absolute, Platonic Ideal of a Film way.  It would just depress me, anger me, make me cry or outraged or whatever, and my blood pressure doesn't need that.  So I skipped it.

But I won't stop reading your reviews.  Even when you call me a typical shallow, middle-class American with middle-brow tastes.  So there!  :)


Emporium

@Douglas Moran @Andrew O'Hehir This was like something out of a Jane Austen novel. 

The lord discusses aesthetic preferences with one of the respected men in his nearby town—a pastor, an affluent farmer, a doctor. The lord will be the master in this conversation, but he takes care to give room for the town leader to imagine himself less afflicted than the lord is, that his comparative ignorance and suspicion of change is a sign of his being contented in settled, rich, bourgeois propriety.

So the town leader for a moment gets to pretend he's master in this conversation, by tending to the lord's affliction in a way that highlights his own contentment. Chest out, pleased in feeling a proprietor — who, being a small master of the universe, is of course mostly just going to indulge in daily contentment rather than jostling foreign novelty— he then quickly lends the rest of his thought to acknowledging the real superiority of the lord and the stultifying aspect of his perpetual fixedness. 

The lord has the refined intelligence and awareness; the lord rightly has the authority to instruct. And he, even if he harrumphs his way through the reviews, nevertheless still listens. This doesn't make him a joke; he's still a battler. But deep down he acknowledges his betters. In his middling home set up so middlingly, on the table — even if mostly unread — is apt to be the Times. 

The town leader doesn't want the authority of the lord. He feels comfortable in some place middling — the lords keep the psychic terror "Krakens" at bay. But he likes that the lord's preference for him owing to his being the ideal John Bull-type the royalty can rely on, means he ranges his own grounds with that much more righteous pomposity. 

Here it means being an agent in the comment sections, who may not be an O'hehir or a Taylor, but owing to their concern to single him out in a friendly, acknowledging fashion, he's a warden to everyone else. 

For this empowerment, this flattering divine touch, of course he's still reading his reviews, however much he's thereafter openly begrudged. Mr Collins to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, nothing ever will sink the truth benighted in this grand moment of grace! 


Douglas Moran

@Emporium @Douglas Moran @Andrew O'Hehir So if I parse this correctly (which is hard, honestly, given the length of your analogy), I only read O'Hehir's reviews because he occasionally answers me with courtesy and good humor in the comments section?  Not because, as I said, I find them informative enough to help me decide which movies to see, but because he has shown me Noblesse Oblige?  Is that what you're saying?

Emporium

@Douglas Moran @Emporium @Andrew O'Hehir @Douglas Moran @Emporium @Andrew O'Hehir  In true gentry style, his courteous, good-humored reply had a lot of teaching in it — which some might find plainly arrogant: critics pursue and are entertained by novelty, something new and smart; ordinary people, by a repeat of the same 'ol sack of shit. Under cover of the ostensible key difference — number of movies watched — is being pushed a class difference, a difference in quality of person. 

To which you replied you're still not going to see "12 years," even if God had placed all the wisdom of the universe in it, if there's any risk of it spoiling your dinner. But you're obliged to have had him visit, and ensure him you'll keep reading his reviews to make sure you make an informed decision as to which film out there won't depress, anger, outrage, or unsettle your blood pressure in any way. 

With such self-mockery here, I gathered you conceded that the films he likes are probably those anyone who has a larger stake in the world probably ought to watch. The bumpkin was visited by a lord, and afterwards felt contented and even thrilled. 

So, yeah, I'm thinking noblesse oblige. 


Douglas Moran

@Emporium @Douglas Moran @Andrew O'Hehir  Ah, I see; thanks for clarifying.  I've got it now:  You're a pompous, pretentious bore who believes that, by reading a couple of posts by people you don't know in any way whatsoever and of whose past interactions you have zero knowledge, you nonetheless feel informed and wise enough to pass judgement thereon.  Got it.

That will save me considerable time in the future should I happen upon another of your comments; I'll simply skip over it and save myself the trouble of trying to untwist your tortured syntax.  Thanks; appreciate it.

And by the way, Pro Tip:  If you're going to use such over-boiled phrasing and grammar, you might want to re-read your comments before pressing the "Post" button.  For example, I "assured" Andrew; I didn't "ensure" him.  Also, a single return after a paragraph suffices.  I'm sure on re-reading other edits will occur to you, given your vast and superior knowledge of the written form.


Andrew O'Hehir

@Douglas Moran I have to admit, this whole thing was hugely entertaining. And one of my main reactions (to myself) was: Dude, no freakin' way is some guy in the comments going to out-marxist-analysis me!
           

Douglas Moran

@Andrew O'Hehir @Douglas Moran [laughter]

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Emporium

@Andrew O'Hehir @Douglas Moran  
When you see 200+ movies a year, you become a specialist, and you're looking for something you've never seen before. Whereas ordinary moviegoers, by and large, want to see essentially what they've seen before, done well or with a new twist, and with a familiar outcome. 

This description of ordinary moviegoers would seem to have nothing to do with how many movies they watch. Anyone who wants to see what they've seen before with a familiar outcome, isn't going to seem to naturally evolve into someone who prefers the new and different if they upped their viewing habits. Rather than finally yearn to barf it up, then change it up, they'll eat their predictable bland plate of steak and potatoes with the same insistent pleasure Homer Simpson would his one-billionth donut. 

That is, it's more honest to say that even if the critic can only for some reason make it to ten rather than the two hundred films they prefer or at least usually have to watch, they just naturally are people who take most pleasure, not in the repetition of thrills, but in the piquant, the fresh, the new. They're beyond repetition-compulsion; are more evolved than middlebrow — and it's not owing to practice. 

There certainly are critics that are that. True leaders; better than the average dope, I mean. Still, there's a good number I reckon unconsciously pick choices they can imagine leaving the mob in a fit of frustration. Became the critic, to indulge the delight in stymying. Critic film geeks.  

Emporium/Patrick McEvoy-Halston



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