Not long after I attended my first ever media screening, “The Man in the Iron Mask” back in 1998, I came to a conclusion that movies can really be judged on two criteria – filmmaking quality and engagement level.
The more objective in nature of the two, filmmaking quality deals with the level of cinematic skill and craftsmanship on display. The quality of acting, ambitiousness of scope, tightness of pacing, smoothness of editing, and so forth. All of the technical merit that separates an Oscar-winning movie from the worst kind of shoddy cable telemovie based on the same story.
On the flip side there’s the utterly subjective engagement level factor. How emotionally involved and/or intellectually engrossed one is in the story playing out. This is determined by far more nebulous factors – interest in the story, personal taste, beliefs, mood, atmosphere, and the environment in which the work is observed and considered.
The films that we each define as great are the ones that work thoroughly in regard to both criteria. The films we hate or can’t stand are mostly terrible in both capacities. A movie’s filmmaking quality is often the easier of the two to find a consensus on between groups of people, even if the engagement level differs wildly from individual to individual within said group.
And there’s the rub. Though often simpatico, both criteria are actually independent of each other and can wildly differ on occasion. Like comparing the all-time box-office grosses of films in the U.S. domestic market with those in the global market – there’s a lot of similarities, but there are also some key differences.
That is why a ‘Best Film’ and a ‘Favorite Film’ list can be two entirely different things, and this is always one of the most frustrating things about drawing up any kind of ‘top movies of the year’ list. You have to take into consideration both factors and balance them fairly because neither is more ‘right’ or ‘important’ than the other.
We have a commonly used term for a movie that one considers of weak filmmaking quality, but high engagement factor. That is ‘A Guilty Pleasure’. Movies that either dip a toe in, or dive right into the pool of trashy, kitschy or godawful. Yet, for reasons you can’t really explain, you love them anyway. Either the narrative is so engaging you can easily look past the flaws, or the flaws themselves are why you find it so endearing.
What we don’t really have in pop culture is an agreed upon term for films featuring that other kind of disparity. The films that we can see that are well-crafted and made with skill, but frankly don’t engage with us. We’re not swept along in the narrative, thus the few flaws stick out like sore thumbs. The overall feeling is one that can range from mild tedium to sleep-inducing boredom.
Some would call them ‘boring’, but that’s too rough a word and not entirely true. A common phrase I’ve heard amongst film writers is that “I found myself admiring rather than enjoying this movie,” which is as good a description as any. Today though, I intend to do that most human of things – I’m going to slap a label on something that’s really undefinable. My name for it? ‘A Remarkable Chore’.
We all know films that we could classify as a remarkable chore. If you’ve ever tried plowing through the IMDB’s Top 250, they’re the 10-20% that you didn’t particularly like even though you respect the legacy they have left behind. In every year it is that handful of acclaimed films that you just don’t click with, despite giving them a fair shot (and even admiring the work that has gone into them).
Amongst film critics this is an especially hard thing to acknowledge. When a critic’s reaction differs wildly from a general consensus, things can sometimes revert to high school level prick fencing. Readers ridicule and sometimes even threaten them, peers dismiss and occasionally outright bully them. Even now, major criticism of Pixar’s pre-“Cars 2” efforts, or the more celebrated works of the likes of Scorsese, Tarantino, Spielberg and Nolan can be met with some harsh digital reprisals.
Remarkable chores are a hard thing to admit to because people are afraid that others will think they are uncultured, unintelligent, and/or simply didn’t understand some aspect of the movie – and so they are looked down on. The truth is that they often do understand it, they simply don’t care.
The emotional hook is either not there, or not particularly strong for them. Something about it may have grated them the wrong way, or the story just isn’t very interesting. Differing backgrounds, personal tastes, beliefs, influences and emotional reactions all come into play when taking in art. So, it doesn’t come as a surprise that we differ in our various reactions to it.
Those more likely to admit the films they find to be both guilty pleasures and remarkable chores are also the kind of people who have a strong personal identity and sense of self. They simply aren’t heavily influenced by what others think of either them or their tastes. Trying to find out another person’s remarkable chores can sometimes be like trying to draw blood from a stone. Yet, when you do get someone to open up about them, it can lead to some fascinating discussions about movies.
So today, I’m going to ask what are your remarkable chore films of recent times? For me, the likes of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Artist,” “127 Hours,” “The Ides of March” and “The Fighter” all fall into that category. I enjoyed them to differing extents, and was deeply impressed by the craftsmanship on display. However, I never fully engaged with any of them and often struggled to keep my attention from wandering. I’m glad I saw them, but I have no impulse or desire to see them again. What films have you had that reaction to?