Saturday, November 15, 2008

Wrestling with feelings after a movie

Last night, I attended a Starz Denver Film Festival screening of "The Wrestler," a new film starring Mickey Rourke and directed by Darren Aronofsky. If you follow film, you know that "The Wrestler" received an enthusiastic reception at September's Toronto International Festival and that many are hailing it as a significant comeback effort for both Rourke and Aronofsky, whose last movie, "The Fountain," tanked with critics and with audiences.

I'm going to hold off on commenting on the movie, but want to address something else, post-movie discussion. The moment the film ended, the person seated next to me said, "That was a great movie. What did you think?" I don't know if she wanted me to confirm the movie's greatness for her or whether she was genuinely interested in what a trained movie observer might think, but I was stopped in my tracks by the word "great," which is not a description I use casually. I mumbled something about needing to think about it and moved on.

The truth is I can't recall seeing many movies that I would deem great, least of all at the precise moment I finished watching them. Even critics deserve what I call a digestion period, a few moments to allow the movie to arrive in one's psyche, to live with the feelings that a film engenders.

The moviegoing process -- at least for me -- is twofold: It consists of the immediate experience of the movie and, just as important, the way the movie plays upon reflection. Does it continue to reward me? Does it nag at me? Does something about it fail to compute? Does it have anything to say or was it just another flickering diversion?

For me, both parts of this process are vital before I start talking seriously about a movie, unless it's so obviously bad that spending another moment thinking about it would constitute a form of intellectual dumpster diving.

On the morning after, I'm pretty sure that "The Wrestler" is not a great movie, which doesn't mean it's not worth seeing. It just means that I don't see it as something that will become an indelible part of my movie consciousness or of movie history.

But back to the moments after the final credits roll. Yesterday, I also showed "Five Easy Pieces" to a class I'm teaching. Late in the class, we arrived at the movie's quietly powerful ending -- the moment where Bobby Dupea, the character played by Jack Nicholson, abandons his pregnant girlfriend at a gas station in Washington. I let the credits play, offered a brief suggestion about something they might consider for the next session and then dismissed the class. I'd leave the discussion for next time. I wanted the movie to work on them. At minimum, I hoped the mood of that last shot would linger with them before they clicked on their cell phones, checked for text messages or scurried toward the weekend. A few students lingered. "That ending always tears me up," I said to them

Am I being too picky? Maybe. I know people use the word "great" to mean that they've just seen something they've enjoyed or that has had a real impact on them. Maybe they just feel something needs to be said as a way of getting outside the solitary absorption of viewing a movie. But just after a movie ends, the reaction I most appreciate is one that tells me precisely how someone felt about they've just seen. Had the woman next to me said "The Wrestler" really got to her, I'd have been more interested in continuing the conversation -- after, of course, I'd had a chance to let my own emotional dust settle.


Jeff said...

I was at that screening of The Wrestler too. I agree with you that deciding whether or not a movie is "great"immediately after a screening is a pretty silly exercise. In calling it "great," the viewer is essentially canonizing the film. It is putting in the pantheon -- or at least among the best films of the year. Those decisions are best made after living with a film for a few days at least.

I can, however, make some judgments immediately after (or even while watching) a film. For example, I could come to the conclusion that it was the writing of E.R. Wood's character, not her performance, that made her scenes so irritating. I could think about how much I am growing to admire the second act of Marisa Tomei's career. I can appreciate (and be surprised by) Mr. Aronofsky's restraint with the camera. I can thank him and his editors for cutting the final shot where they did. I can admire the gentle career parallels of the Tomei and Rourke characters, while wishing he had toned down the Jesus imagery.

While none of these mid-screening observations allow me to determine a movie's "greatness" on the spot, they do allow me to make a certain kind of snap judgement. A movie might illicit an under-the-breath "wow" or "yuck" to a friend as soon as the house lights come up.

Some movies take longer, but I would be pretty comfortable tilting my thumb up (with Mr. Ebert's permission) within five minutes after seeing The Wrestler.

Robert Denerstein said...

As I said, I'm not going to comment on "The Wrestler" until it's available to audiences. I, too, have seen plenty of things that can be instantly admired after a movie. I'm just saying that I prefer to leave a theater without having to discuss a movie at least until I get to the parking lot.
Two days after seeing "The Wrestler," I'm at a screening in the same theater. The movie, "Waltz With Bashir" has just concluded. I'm waiting in the hallway for a friend who needs a ride to another venue. A woman comes up to me and says, "Scale of one to 10, what would you rate it?"
See "Waltz With Bashir" when you have the opportunity. Whatever you think of the movie, I doubt whether the first thing you'll want to do when the movie concludes is rate it on any scale.
"Waltz With Bashir" employs animation as director Ari Folman tries to remember long-repressed experiences with the Israeli Army in Lebanon.