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Reversals in Reception: 180-Degree Film Opinions April 9, 2010

Posted by Michael Rennett in Film.
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One of the truest clichés in film criticism is that a viewer can never watch the same movie twice.  Due to either your foreknowledge of what will occur in the film or personal changes within the viewer, there will always be different parts of a text that will stand out to a member of the audience.  I was reminded of this concept the other day when I screened Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975) for my history of cinema class, as I recall not liking the movie when I first saw it five or six years ago, but really gathered a critical appreciation for Weir’s ability to create a mysterious atmosphere and include subtle subtextual themes of love.  I had missed all of these nuances the first time I watched it since I was more concerned with finding out what was happening instead of how the story was being told.

I find that by analyzing ourselves as viewers in relation to the films which cause these subjective reverses in opinions, we can look deeper into ourselves to see the changes that we have gone through and how these changes are reflected through the culture we consume.  Of course, it would be impossible to create a purely objective list, although certain movies like Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) and Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960) are known to have failed commercial releases before being critically re-appraised years after their original release.  As such, I can only look at myself as a viewer and analyze some of my own varying opinions on movies to see why I went from such a strong opinion one way to an equally strong opposing opinion later.

One of the first movies I thought of in regard to this topic was Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987).  I first saw the movie for my Advanced Film Theory class and really disliked the languid pacing, the inability to follow a lead character since they are constantly hearing the thoughts of others, and the occasional jumps between color and black-and-white.  I spent the next few years remembering my disappointment, but soon opened myself up to reevaluating the work after enjoying Wenders’ other truly extraordinary road movie Paris, Texas (1984).  After re-watching the movie, I found myself enjoying the things that I originally hated.  First and foremost, the storytelling pace truly matches the life which the angels lead, as they are spending their existential eternity watching and observing humanity.  Similarly, the jumps into others’ thoughts remind me of the micro-actions which Zavattini argued for in his neorealist manifestos.  Each thought is meant to summarize their existence and, yet, be something that the average person would be thinking about at that moment.  The brilliant (and oft-talked about) library scene is perhaps the pinnacle of this great movie when the angels are seemingly overburdened by hearing the overlapping thoughts of humans while the spiritual soundtrack plays behind the whispering noise.  It is perhaps the most breathtaking and poetic scene I have seen shot on film:

My changes in viewing Wings of Desire seem to reflect my personal acceptance toward art cinema.  My original concern with plot and pacing are in-line with the traditional American way of viewing a blockbuster film.  However, Wings of Desire needs to be unfolded slowly and thought about more often than a blockbuster film, and that is a skill I garnered with age.

I certainly remember the first time that I saw Jules and Jim, once again in a class for school.  Once again, the film’s breaks from conventional Hollywood cinema seemed to be the things which dissuaded me from enjoying it, specifically the unforeseen ending.  I only began to appreciate the film by exploring more about the French New Wave and specifically Truffaut’s auteurist signature on his works.  The use of stills, documentary footage, and other non-traditional narrative techniques now spoke to me as ways of changing the Hollywood structure and creating something other than classic genre films.  The ending also doesn’t bother me now as it is necessary for this arrangement to be unstable.

Since I have done a couple of “hate-to-love” films, it’s imperative for me to include one which goes the other way.  While I can’t say that I hate Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, it is certainly a movie which disappointed me on a second viewing.  Perhaps I got older and the idealistic romance portrayed in the film strikes me as naïve, but it doesn’t appeal to me anymore.  L’Atalante is a movie which I will need to watch again to better evaluate my own thoughts on the movie, but for now it seems to be a disappointment in my mind.

Moulin Rouge was a movie that I had disliked so much in theaters that I very nearly walked out of it.  Amazingly, the things I didn’t like about the movie are the things which appeal to me about Tarantino films:  the never-ending blend of postmodern references and the surreal barrage of images and editing.  After seeing the film multiple times, those elements stood out to me as being intriguing instead of annoying.  Additionally, learning about the film’s connection to Bollywood musicials provided me with another way to critically analyze the film.  Once again, my gaining some extratextual knowledge about the film allowed for my own re-evaluation of the movie.

I don’t think this list could be complete if I didn’t put in a movie like Armageddon, whose blockbuster sensibilities appealed to me as a high schooler (which is how old I was when the film was originally released), but truly put me off of the movie and others like this now.  I can now see how manipulative the techniques of directors like Bay are in order to garner sympathy for the characters in completely incomprehensible situations.  I fell victim to these techniques as a younger man, but now understand how/why they work on audiences and simultaneously put me off of enjoying these works.  Plus, Ben Affleck’s teeth are far too white to accurately represent any hardworking individual.

I would love to see the comments section grow on this topic as anybody can critically discuss this change within themselves.