277 – Difficult Cinema

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I’m a bit of a movie guy. I’ve seen about 360 features so far this, and October just started. Sure there are some clunkers in there, like I, Frankenstein or That Awkward Moment, but for the most part I seek out movies that I ought to enjoy. With a few exceptions, I’m not trying to waste my money and – more importantly – my time on something I’m not going to like. But what about good movies that are impossible to like?

I’m talking about the difficult movies. Movies that you have to wrestle with. Movies that challenge you. A more mainstream example from the last 12 months would be the most recent Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave. It is a brutal depiction of the American travesty that was slavery, and I still stand by it as one of the best movies from last year.

But 12 Years a Slave is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to challenging film. Sure it has some graphic scenes and some heartbreaking moments, but at least it has a happy ending (for the most part). For a juxtaposition you need only look to another member of the same Academy Award’s class, last year’s The Act of Killing. Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary about the perpetrators of the Indonesian genocide in the 70’s is told from the perspectives of the very men who carried out all of the horrible deeds. It is a disturbing and affecting film. Here’s how good it is at being difficult: after I recommended it to a girl I had been dating (a film lover), she broke things off. This movie destroys love before it even forms! That is true power.

As much as I can enjoy feel-good stuff like Pride and The Trip to Italy, I make a point of putting myself in uncomfortable positions every once in a while. Without that impulse I would never see things like Starred Up or Tusk. “Difficult cinema” can present in different ways. Starred Up is difficult for its subject matter; Tusk is difficult for its visuals. And then you have movies that are tough on you as a human being. Movies like Irreversible.

For those familiar with the picture, just the mention of Gaspar Noe’s 2002 film is enough to evoke a visceral reaction. I watched the movie for the first time today, well aware of its reputation and a good amount of its subject matter. I won’t go into detail about the plot because it is a bit of a puzzle, and also I don’t want to drive away any of my readers. Just take my word for it that Irreversible should really only be watched by those looking to challenge themselves. There is a scene that is so graphic and upsetting that I had to stop eating my lunch. Me! I love lunch!

Despite all of that, I can still acknowledge that Irreversible is an interesting, well-made film. Heck, I’ll even call it good. I’ll never say “I liked it,” but it was worth my time. Difficult cinema demands your attention, and in such as situation, you probably owe it to the film to give in to those demands.

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