Movies: What do we want?

So, Oscar weekend has come and gone and to no one’s surprise, the venerable academy crowned The King’s Speech . I know people who just loved that movie, and I can’t figure out why. It was fine — lovely performances, a dash of wit from Helena Bonham Carter, who I adore, but who was, frankly, phoning it in in another posh role. I mean, she must be able to do those in her sleep by now. The problem with this movie was that there wasn’t a single surprise in it. The Duke of York/King was straight from the Poor Little Rich Boy store, while his brother was right out of the Central Casting Cad box. Adversity was triumphed over, the clothes were lovely, the wall treatments more so, and disaster was averted at the coronation and by extension, England Was Saved. It was like watching a movie tick off the boxes. Every expectation was met. Every preconceived notion was confirmed.

There is a certain pleasure in this, but for me, that pleasure is deeply cut by frustration. I chafed at this movie the whole way through. It was very well made. It was very well acted. It was not unwatchable. But nothing happened that I didn’t expect to happen.

Which was in real contrast to an older movie that washed up on the shores of my Netflix list this weekend: Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give. This movie did actually overturn my expectations for it — I was expecting a movie that pandered to the expectations of the arty upper classes, and I got a surprisingly human movie in which characters changed and grew in some interesting and tiny little ways. No one Triumphed over Adversity in this movie, but characters did move in some rather fundamental ways — Catherine Keener’s character learned to stop wallowing in self-indulgent guilt and actually kind of enjoy selling things (especially when fleecing unpleasant people), the daughter survived a glimpse of some really alarming adult behavior, the father behaved badly for a little bit and got over it without destroying his family in the process. Like I said, this is a movie of incremental changes, which is what I liked about it. The tropes didn’t play out in the way that we expect them to, and yet, it was, for me, a much more satisfying movie than The King’s Speech. Even the bourgeois trappings didn’t annoy me as much as they usually do in these sorts of movies, and I’m not sure why. Because we see the characters going to work? At actual jobs we can understand? I still haven’t figured that one out, except that the lifestyles of the characters seemed grounded in a reality that is usually lacking in the movies (think of Diane Keaton’s shelter-porn house in Something’s Got to Give for an example of the sort of unconscious expression in movies that “this is just the way nice people live”).

At any rate, it made an interesting contrast and made me think about what it is that people want from movies. I suppose what we learned this year was that academy voters, as usual, preferred the staid comforts of a movie like The King’s Speech even to the still pretty conventional tale of hustling (if sometimes unpleasant) internet entrepreneurs in The Social Network. While The Social Network was hardly ground-breaking filmmaking, at least it was not a movie we have seen a million times before. It was really quite a good movie about something you wouldn’t immediately think would make a good movie, and Jesse Eisenberg turned in the kind of performance that makes one think of him in a whole new light. There were actually a few surprises in that movie.

Is it just that times are frightening? Is this why people want the movie equivalent of warm mashed potatoes? Or is that just what people have always wanted out of movies? Then why, this year, does it feel so much more egregious than usual?

3 thoughts on “Movies: What do we want?

  1. Lovely essay, as always.

    Charlotte, I think what you need to remember is that the “Academy” is 6000 people, 5000 of whom live in LA, many of whom live in the more conservative Valley outside LA, many of whom are in the trades. It is a MUCH more conservative group than the group you see on the red carpet. For every liberal documentarian there are a half-dozen Archie Bunker electricians, and they vote like my electrician uncle votes: mainstream, conservative, slick, and often traditional.

    I liked King’s Speech just fine for the Masterpiece Theater On Steroids that it was. But there was just no comparison with “The Fighter” (for my money the best picture) and “127 Hours” which is so way not about the arm. But all told, a great year for movies, the best one in a LOT of years!

    Thanks for writing,

    Redd

  2. Thank you my first commenters!
    Redd (any relation to True, or Louise?) — I know that the Academy is well, the Academy, but what puzzled me was all the really smart people I know, writers all of them, who just *loved* the Kings English. That, I find puzzling. (127 Hours I fear would just piss me off the way the McCandless movie did, and I’m waiting for the Fighter on Netflix — esp. since my beloved is a Masshole).
    And Jennifer — interesting article — as is watching Stegner go in and out of style. I’d probably argue that Angle of Repose, in which he fictionalized entirely, is his artistic response to his own feelings about Joe Hill. I thought Social Network was as reactionary in some ways as Kings English, and played into a bunch of tired stereotypes about Silicon Valley, but for my money, it was a more interesting *movie* and actually surprised me a couple of times. Which more and more, is what I’m coming to want from a movie.

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