Noble failures

02 Jan

I recently got into a discussion online where I made the case that reducing talking about movies to “good or bad” (or similar simplified judgments like a numerical rating) can be detrimental. It’s useful shorthand to convey your general feelings towards a film, but there is always nuances and various aspects that can get lost in this simplification process. An example I used was The Exorcist. I gave that film a 3/5 score, which is basically the passing grade on my review scale. It means that I found the film to be okay and worthy of my time. And while that’s all well and good, it doesn’t tell you any details or reasonings. It doesn’t say anything about how I found the special effects to not have held up very well, to the point where some scenes that were probably scary in 1973 felt more inadvertantly comedic to me when I first saw it in 2010. Nor does it say anything about how good I felt the performances of Linda Blair and Max von Sydow were, or anything else. But now you have some reasoning and detail to my opinions on the film. 3/5 doesn’t provide that. 3/5 is just a number, and a number isn’t much more than a number.

1/5 and 2/5 are also merely numbers. As scores on my scale, they fall below my passing grade. If I give a film these scores, it means I didn’t like them overall. But again, the whole truth isn’t revealed. There are films I’ve given these scores that I can still appreciate for different reasons. Maybe the premise of the story felt fresh and unique. Maybe it tried to do something different that hasn’t been done much before. Maybe it managed to do a lot with a limited budget. Maybe there was one or two aspects of the production I was really impressed with. Sure, these movies didn’t fully succeed with their intended goals and I did end up disliking them (or at least found them to be lackluster) overall, but good ambitions can be worthy of praise alone. There is something to admire about a film that tries and fails, in some ways moreso than a film that plays things safe and turns out merely okay. So as paradoxical as this may sound, there are some films I’ve given 2/5 that I’m happier were made than some films I’ve given 3/5. Even if I didn’t like them as much.

I use the term “noble failures” here to describe these films. Failure might seem too strong a word in some of these cases, but they did fail. They failed to make the passing grade on my scale. And as my scale is highly subjective, so is the use of the word failure here. A noble failure can still have made back its budget and more at the box office, or received critical acclaim, or been a good movie in other people’s books. I’m not talking absolute failures here.

So what are some films I would classify as noble failures?

Well, Dogtooth is one. I really didn’t like this film, chiefly because it didn’t say anything. I’ve heard it described as a political allegory, but that didn’t work for me. What’s the message here? That people who have always lived in alien oppresive conditions might turn violent and want to escape? This isn’t a revelation. The movie is peppered with shocking moments of violence and sex, and it’s all for naught. That said, if taken at face value, there are still some scenes that are vaguely funny. And it’s a polarizing film for sure, so others have obviously seen something in the film that I haven’t. I might have disliked it, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to people so they can form their own opinions on it. It is at least a unique film.

Richard Kelly‘s Southland Tales is nothing if not ambitious. Every time I happen upon discussions about this film, I’m reminded of individual scenes that were actually quite inspired and funny (the commercial with the cars copulating, for instance). And there is certainly plenty of things to laugh about in the trainwreck sense, such as The Rock‘s constantly nervous steepling fingers, Seann William Scott‘s nonsensical babbling about how pimps don’t commit suicide, and the random musical number. But the film overall is just a huge mess, with a plot that’s impossible to make any sense of and a bloated running time of 140-ish minutes. I enjoyed both of Kelly’s other films (Donnie Darko and The Box), but with Southland Tales his imagination could have used some reigning in. This is a case of where the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

What’s the best ever use of an animal in a movie? For my money, it might well be the dog in the 1975 postapocalypse film A Boy and His Dog. This dog is awesome, conversing with his owner in voiceover and expressing so much character through body language and such. It’s really remarkable. Sure, the film as a whole is weird and awkward, but man, that dog! Worth seeing for him alone? Quite possibly.

Many people love Rian Johnson‘s sly Brick, a film noir with high school kids. I found it rather boring in the way it plays out, but the concept is a novel one, there are some teriffic lines of dialogue scattered throghout and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead finds exactly the right tone, hovering just a tad above the material. I’m glad I’ve seen this film, even if I kept glancing at the clock throught my watching of it.

Another film beloved by plenty is Children of Men. I found this one needlessly cold, keeping the characters and story at arms-length that made it hard for me to care about what was going on. But it sure is beautifully shot in all its dystopian grayness, with wonderful cinematography and some amazing uninterrupted takes. People who appreciate these aspects more than me should definitely see the film if they haven’t already.

Low-budget horror film My Little Eye from 2002 is one that could just as easily have gone in my post on films I’d forgotten, as the only thing I remember about it is that I really wanted to like it but couldn’t. In a sea of cheap shoddy horror flicks, this one at least tried to provide some scares, tension and an intriguing mystery, featuring a plot with a bunch of teens taking part in a Big Brother-style reality show. The film didn’t work, but the effort was there. Also notable for featuring an early pre-fame appearance by Bradley Cooper.

What else? Darren Aronofsky‘s debut Pi, which has similar atmosphere to his later films but none of the emotional investment. Rubber, the psychokinetic tire movie that toys with meta elements to limited success. The Tracey Fragments, an Ellen Page movie which uses a unique, if tiresome, shot-in-shot collage style to convey the fragmented mind of a teenage girl. And many other films.

As already stated, I didn’t like any of these movies, and yet I think they deserve better than to simply be labelled “bad” and swept under the carpet. They all bring something to the table and try to be good. Compare this to a film like Captain America: The First Avenger, that is so absolutely stubbornly determined to be merely “okay” that it doesn’t dare aspire to anything. I liked Captain America and was reasonably entertained by it, but I really would have been just as happy having never seen it. These other films listed here, though? I’m glad I saw them all. Even if they’re not very good.

Do you have any films you’re glad that you watched, even if you didn’t like them?


Posted by on 2 January, 2012 in Misc.


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10 responses to “Noble failures

  1. Movies - Noir

    2 January, 2012 at 18:22

    Mmm, I know exactly what you’re talking about. There are several “bad” movies that I’d rather re-watch than “ok” movies. Like you mentioned there can be some good or even great scenes or ideas in a “bad” movie, but as a whole, the movies just doesn’t hold up. For example, at the 2011 SiFF I was very happy to get the opportunity to watch Beyond the Black Rainbow and would gladly watch it again as it had a great vision, tremendous music and cinematography, but the story didn’t hold up. Compare that to A Dangerous Method which was an “ok” movie, but not something I’d want to sit through again and not at all memorable (except for the Alien look-a-like by Keira).

    I also agree with you that the number doesn’t tell the whole story, far from it. Personally I give grades to five different categories (Actors, Story, Feeling, Music and Cinematography). But what you have to say about the movie is obviously the most important part of a review.

    • Emil

      2 January, 2012 at 19:22

      I could probably write an entire blog post of its own on “bad” films I’d like to revisit at some point. Some of the films mentioned here would definitely fall in that category as well (Children of Men and The Tracey Fragments, for instance).

      I’ve noticed you doing number ratings for various aspects of a movie. That’s something I know I could never do. I’d just get paranoid if for some reason they didn’t add up to my overall score, and then I’d feel like tinkering with them just to make it seem more “logical”, and so on. But I see the point in it: to provide a middleground between the quick overview of a number rating and the details of commenting on various parts of a film. And we agree that it should be the review text that matters.

  2. Pete

    2 January, 2012 at 18:27

    I agree about Pi and Brick. I wish I loved them more than I did. I looooove the trailer to Brick but found the film a little dull. Children of Men and Rubber, though! Loved them but at least with Rubber, I can see how it could divide people. Children of Men was brilliantly shot but there was also a lot more to it. Interesting post!

    • Emil

      2 January, 2012 at 19:26

      Thank you, Pete!

      Rubber to me felt schizophrenic, in a way. It tried to push the whole “no reason” thing, and yet the meta elements of the film came off as so calculated. Like the film as winking at me and going “Get it? Get it?” the whole time, which just didn’t gel with the random nature of the plot. Plus, the story itself with the tire got quite repetitive and dull.

      Children of Men is one of those films I feel like I owe a revisit at some point, as I know my taste in film has evolved since I saw it. It might well improve for me on a rewatch.

  3. Jessica

    3 January, 2012 at 09:04

    Naked comes to mind. I think I liked it but it’s not a movie I’d like to watch again.
    Tree of Life… it was basically some kind of poetry. I still haven’t “gotten” it, but I enjoyed the cosmic sequences a lot.

    As of Dogtooth I actually loved it, even if it made me deeply uncomfortable. It’s actually one of my best movies of 2011. I didn’t see the politics in it; for me it was a study in how we put up arbitrary boundaries to ourselves and others and imagine that we can’t get past them.

    • Emil

      3 January, 2012 at 10:36

      I haven’t seen The Tree of Life yet. I’m sure I’ll get around to it sooner or later, but I have to admit that it’s not a film that sounds like something I would enjoy based on what I’ve heard of it. It’s not high on my want-to-watch list.

      There were certainly scenes of discomfort in Dogtooth. When taken at face value, the film has its moments. I can see what you mean about the boundaries thing, though I don’t think the film handled it very well. There is no reason given for why the father in the movie enforces these rules of his. To me it comes off as more of a weird experiment than anything else. When we put up boundaries, there is often some reason for it, even if we’re not consciously aware of them. I would have liked at least some slight hint of an explanation, at least to provide some launch pad for discussion. I’m not opposed to ambiguity in films, but in Dogtooth it became detrimental to my appreciation of the film.

  4. Alex

    5 January, 2012 at 14:57

    Very cool post. Concerning your thoughts on DOGTOOTH: would you be more satisfied if there was a “meaning” behind the film? I’ve gotten into endless amounts of discussions with people who can’t enjoy a film because it has no meaning or purpose; it isn’t saying anything. I personally never look for the hidden agenda in films – the metaphorical aspect, things like that. I once heard someone say that Spider-Man 3 is an allegory for the Iraq War. Come on, be serious.

    Obviously certain films (like the ones of Malick and Kubrick) are all about allegory, but I don’t think the majority of movies are intended to be made as metaphors for something else.

    At any rate, I really enjoyed this post. I like when bloggers I respect bash films I enjoy. You back up your reasoning very well, and that’s what it’s all about. Good stuff!

    • Emil

      5 January, 2012 at 18:13

      I believe all good films have a “meaning”. It doesn’t have to be some deep socio-political allegory or anything, but there has to be a reason for why it was made and for why it was made the way it was. Even if it’s just something as simple as “to entertain”.

      The thing about Dogtooth is that it’s such a unique and different film. Hence, it stands to reason that there ought to be some reason for why it is the way it is. Why did the director make a movie about parents who keep their children isolated in their home and tell them words mean things they don’t? Did he just intend to present us with the scenario and want us to accept it at face value? But why? While I did say I found it somewhat amusing here and there, it didn’t come off to me as a film I was meant to be merely “entertained” by. Why sprinkle it with shocking moments like the tooth part at the end and such if they’re not meant to mean anything other than to be shocking? The whole premise of the film is so alien that there is little to gain from trying to get any message from it at face value. Hence why I looked for something allegorical about it, to little success.

      But I don’t know. This whole thing I just said feels far from waterproof, and I’m sure the arguement could be turned around and be applied to some films I really enjoy. But the bottom line is: Dogtooth largely failed to entertain me, and it failed to tell me anything.

      To answer your question: Yes, I would probably be more satisfied if I had found some meaning to the film.

      Thank you for the comment, Alex. Discussions like this are quite helpful ifor me to suss out how I really felt about a movie. :)

      • Alex

        6 January, 2012 at 15:31

        Hey man fair enough, I agree that discussions like this can be really useful in helping to figure out how a movie rubs you. I really liked Dogtooth but I can absolutely understand why people don’t.


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