What makes a good movie? This is a broad question with no true answer. To each person the answer will vary; each audience member looks for something different. This is something that makes the discussion and criticism of film so interesting. I have had a passion for film for pretty much as long as I can remember however what is interesting is how my taste has changed over time. The more one watches causes the gap between the best and the worst to become larger. I can still enjoy many of the films from my youth but the way I approach and look at the medium now is very different. When I was younger interesting stories where a primary focus as I did not have the background in film history. The year a film was made had little concern to me as it was either good or bad. However this has changed as I have aged; the year a film was made fits it into a timeline. My approach is also much less black and white, looking more at how specific elements are used. What I would say is of most important to me now is craft. How all the elements of a film combine to create something larger than the sum of their parts. Today we are going to explore three films that I did not enjoy when I first watched them. However I now rate all three of these films very highly for different reasons.
Stalker (1979) Andrei Tarkovsky
This is the only film on the list that I was not able to finish; I was only about 16 at the time. I have always hated turning films off midway through, as it is hard to appreciate or criticise something without the whole picture. The film now ranks as one of my top ten of all time. I had no idea who Tarkovsky was at the time and only found the film from playing the game of the same name, both being based on the same book. It went total over my head and just felt slow and boring to me. Nothing happened; just slow talking and walking. Re-watching when older I found it to be a much more rewarding experience. I was already familiar with some of Tarkovsky’s other work at this point and had begun to real love his style of filmmaking. He has a poetic nuance that no other director can match. It makes his films very hard to write about or analysis as they simply must be experienced. There are elements of simplicity to his work while still feeling grandiose. This is why I feel many of the articles about Tarkovsky do not come close to justifying what he was trying to achieve and feel very shallow in comparison. Stalker ranks among one of his best films; it is a simple story at its core. A Stalker acts as a guide for a writer and a professor through an area known as The Zone. The Zone is a dangerous place with strange phenomena according to the Stalker. Somewhere inside The Zone, is The Room, which grants wishes and this is where the Stalker is guiding them to. Although a strange concept it is very simple one, yet the film is so much more than this. The conversations the three men have deal with some very interesting philosophy and psychology yet it never feels forced due to them having contextual relevance. The pace is slow and not for everyone but this can be said for most if not all of Tarkosky’s work. If you can deal with the pace it is a masterpiece in what it is trying to achieve. The slow images give them time to burn into your mind. Giving you time to really appreciate and think about what you are watching. Although it is slow each scene adds something to the overall experience, building an incredible atmosphere. The plot ultimately does turn out to be somewhat pointless. Emphasizing the importance of the journey and not the destination; this can be seen in a lot of Tarkovsky’s work.
The Big Lebowski (1998) Coen Brothers
This follows the idea that the journey is more important that the destination. When I first saw this I was about 18-19; familiar with Coen Brothers I had really enjoyed there work up to this point, I looked forward to what they had instore. The film has a huge cult following; I try keep expectations to a minimum before watching any film but this is easier said than done. Picking up very early on the film was emulating a film noir style with a modern twist; I looked to solve the mystery and end up missing a lot. The answers are not important here but the characters are, each one represents something much larger. Just look at three of our main characters for example: The Dude, Walter and Donny. The Dude represents a pacifist, let what happens, happen. What does happen almost always go over his head; he is very unaware of what the implications of his actions really are. He lives a simple and happy life by attempting to abide. Walter represents a sort of overblown masculinity that seems to be caused by feeling emasculation from his ex-wife. He seems to believe actions speak louder than words but throughout the film constantly see him act without thinking. Donny as a character can somewhat represent nihilism, he gets told to shut up through the whole film then dies. His two friends show at the end that they know nothing about him which is pretty ironic. Before they say “Fuck it, Dude. Let’s go bowling.” His life within the film is meaningless but still adds to the films use of character overall. The film is layered very well so that every time you watch it you pick up something new. The film is overly complex but this was done on purpose as a sort of critic of the noir style of filmmaking. Noir films where commonly complex stories whereby the smart protagonist ties up all the lose ends in the third and final act. The Big Lebowski goes against this idea by having a complex story with a protagonist who can barely comprehend what is happening around him. This is why trying to fill in all the lose ends after only seeing the film once (as we see the events of the film through The Dudes eyes, again a common trope of noir is that you will follow the protagonist through the story so that the story develops for them and audience at the same time) is very difficult, as like The Dude we are not meant to fully understand what has happened. We are meant to just abide and enjoy the journey.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Stanley Kubrick
On first viewing of 2001 I thought it was terrible. I had seen a lot of Kubrick’s other work and held him to very high regards. I felt the pace was very slows for no real reason and there was a lack of character. Woody Allen had a similar experience that you can see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_eF5yrftCPE. Images from the film did remain in my memory as well as the score. These elements are what drew me back to re-watching the film; which I found much more enjoyable with each viewing. There is a lot to take in and look at, causing it to be somewhat overwhelming on a first viewing. The pace is so important in what Kubrick was trying to achieve with this picture. It is one of Kubrick’s most poetic pictures, also probably his most visual. The characters still remain very dry but once again this is very important. Most science fictions films of this era and even today display characters with a sense of wonder for the word they live in. However what Kubrick is trying to show is that it is just another day at work for them. This is there life and it is nothing special to them; it is not some fantasy wonderland but another day at the office. This is why the way they act can be viewed as some what mundane. It is meant to leave the audience wondering and questioning what the meaning of the film was, sparking discuss within the audience. Some will love it some will hate it; yet is will get people talking. The film can be read in many different ways and Kubrick is the only one who knew the true answers. Yet what makes this so powerful is that ten different people could see it and come up with ten different interpretations.
It is interesting to look at they way perspective changes over time. What we dislike at one point in our lives may change as we get older. Also this highlights the importance of re-watching films, as with most serious cinema you will struggle to fully understand what they have to offer with only a single viewing. This does not go for all films; however better directors will layer their films in a way that they will grow with subsequent viewings. Anyone looking to use the medium of film to its fullest potential should be aiming to do this. This is not trying to discredit film as entertainment. Yet thinking this is all film has to offer is simply not doing the medium justice. Film is still in its early stages and it will be interesting to see how the medium develops for better or for worse.