Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Giving the Overrated Its Due: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Me in a nutshell: when some given thing - a band, an album, a film, what-have-you - is vastly praised from every corner (and earns millions of dollars to boot), when in fact it is not much better than a billion other similar things - bands, songs, films - something in me, whether it's my ego or my sense of justice or my restless hunger for new experiences - inwardly objects to this, makes me want to resist the overrated thing and champion the underrated. It isn't just that I'm a snob, or that I've internalized the cultural rebellion of punk, or that I'm in revolt against the suburban conservatism that reigns in the town where I grew up (and now, alas, once again live) - a conservatism which treats artefacts like Dark Side of the Moon like holy relics and sneers at the new and unfamiliar... It's not any one of these things that draws me to the non-mainstream; if I might shift the blame a bit, it's that the mainstream is so narrow and shallow and carries along with it so much mediocrity that I can't be satisfied within its confines. There's something wrong with it, and with people content to drink only from it, and not something wrong with those who seek adventure in the uncharted and unfamiliar...
It's probably best if I don't turn this into a rant about music, but film-wise, perhaps the best examples of overrated, over-praised, over-emphasized films in the current "mainstream canon" are Blade Runner and Apocalypse Now. Neither is in fact mediocre - they both are quite remarkable films in their own way - but to a lot of people out there, they're regarded as pinnacles of cinema, often appearing on "top 10 lists" of the greatest films ever made, alongside Taxi Driver, The Godfather and certain high-profile films by Stanley Kubrick. All of which find their way into top 10 lists for very good reasons, but all the same, I was starting to get sick of hearing about them when I was still in my teens. There's a certain type of highly vocal film viewer from my generation or older - people who grew up in the days before the internet - who regards these films with a sort of reverence that speaks volumes about their level of knowledge about cinema; they seek consensus with others that these are the truly great films in cinema history in part to block out the possibility that there may be better films out there of which they've never heard, and they watch these fucking movies over and over and over again, like they're somehow bottomless, inexhaustible experiences.
Nothing wrong with having favourites, mind you, but given the vastness of cinema, these viewers really are missing out on a whole lot. Typically of this kind of movie lover - a kind I've encountered many times - they will have seen very little non-English-language cinema, whatever the country or culture. Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa are canonical figures for another type of conservative film viewer - and also very deserving ones - but even they won't be familiar to these Apocalypse Now-types. They'll have seen Ken Russell's Tommy and Altered States, but probably not The Devils or Women In Love. They'll have seen John Carpenter's remake of The Thing - likely having it on their top 10 list, as well - but they may well not have seen the original, or more than one or two other Carpenter movies. They will have seen and been impressed by Lawrence of Arabia; but may not have seen any other David Lean films. If their musical tastes are similar to their film consumption - which will likely be the case - they will have seen Alan Parker's film of Pink Floyd's The Wall upwards of 10 times; if their love for Floyd is such that they have also sought out La Vallee and More, they will nonetheless hold the Alan Parker to be the better film. Such viewers often are sincere in their love of cinema; they just have mistaken the deep end of the kiddies' pool for the adult diving area, and have no idea that that other pool exists, or what to make of it when they encounter evidence of it. By proclaiming booming devotion to their conservative canons (likely also including films by William Friedkin, Walter Hill, Ridley Scott, Michael Mann, David Lynch, Sam Peckinpah, Quentin Tarantino or David Fincher), they can fortify their identity, their social status, their being "in the know" without realizing that in so doing they are blocking out far more than they are gathering in, or that they have positioned themselves, in their insecurity, at the "high end" of the Lowest Common Denominator...
Which, I guess, is not the greatest sin in the world. These are all good movies and gifted filmmakers, after all; not everyone needs to dig deep; and in our present culture, even with the internet, you have to do a certain amount of work to get beyond the mainstream media's circumscription of culture, which not everyone has the time, energy or inclination to do. People who get their information primarily from TV, corporate newspapers and/or the radio (aka "the feeding tube," as I believe Richard Meltzer described it) may simply not get exposed to that much non-mainstream culture, and to some extent deserve to be cut some slack. As long as they don't want to go on and on at you about how great Apocalypse Now is, failing to appreciate it when you try to explain that you're "done" with that film; and as long as they're willing to have their minds blown when they encounter films they've never heard of before ("so who is this Tarkovsky guy, anyways?"), such film viewers have nothing THAT much wrong with them. I don't mean to be putting anyone down, here, really; I'm just acknowledging the presence of a certain TYPE of film viewer, a kind of intelligent North American conformist whom I sometimes have felt frustrated by - and whose tastes are seldom represented in the programming at venues like the Vancity Theatre or the Pacific Cinematheque.
I write this now because one of those "high end LCD" top 10 films is currently screening at the Cinematheque, and it deserves to be remarked upon. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly ends its run on Friday. I had pointed it out to a friend recently, and gotten the reaction, "At the Cinematheque? Really?"  He elaborated that he thought such movies were too mainstream for the Cinematheque... which, really, they normally would be, but The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a vastly entertaining, richly cinematic film, and really did need to be included on what I presume is the Cinematheque's first-ever programme of spaghetti westerns, since it's the most successful and influential film of the subgenre, so much so that when I tell people that I like spaghetti westerns, many presume that I'm talking about this film, primarily (I'm not). It's the number one film on Quentin Tarantino's Top 20 list of spaghettis; it's number three on Alex Cox's. I'm with Cox in thinking that it's actually not the best Leone - I think a certain overly ambitious bloatedness is starting to creep into Leone's filmmaking with this film, which dominates more with each subsequent movie he made; his masterpiece, as far as I'm concerned, is his previous Clint Eastwood/ Lee van Cleef vehicle, For a Few Dollars More, which has every bit as much craft and wit and charm to it, but packs it into a much leaner runtime (132 minutes, as opposed to TGTBATU's sprawling 179). There are fewer digressions, fewer indulgences, fewer places that test the patience of the viewer. Famed soundtrack (and towering reputation) aside, about the only thing that The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly has going for it, in fact, that For a Few Dollars More lacks is that it has Eli Wallach, whose character, Tuco, is one of the great delights in spaghetti history (Wallach is 97, and still alive, even occasionally turning up in films! Between his role in this film and his delightful cameo in a weirdo kung fu film called Circle of Iron, my admiration of Eli Wallach is pretty much permanent).
But here's the thing: any quibbles I might have about the praises heaped upon this film are entirely relative to its vastly overrated stature. It's still a pretty terrific film, one I have never grown sick of revisiting; it's just not so great that it deserves to be the only spaghetti western that 95% of the population are aware of. What's more, it is not the fault of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly that it has been seized on and overpraised in the way it has. It's an essential film, and the entertaining parts far outweigh the indulgent ones. I'd be happier to revisit it than Blade Runner or Apocalypse Now or almost any other film in the conservative canon alluded to above (though I can watch Taxi Driver again, it turns out; I avoided it for some fifteen years and was happy to discover on revisiting it that I could enjoy it anew)It's actually a long time since I've seen The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, so I can't really write about it at length, but howevermuch of a snob as I may be, I really cannot pass up the opportunity to see it onscreen, projected from 35mm. It's not like such opportunities come around every day, and certainly not at the Cinematheque. For any filmgoers who have not seen the film, don't pass up the chance, consider this a must-see, overrated or not. Just try to remember that there were hundreds of these films (Wikipedia estimates 600, made between 1960 and 1980), and if Leone was a pioneer and a master-craftsman and a hugely important figure - he certainly was not the only genius of the form!

2 comments:

Paul Walker said...

All of these words to pat yourself on the back. At least you seem to be slightly self aware, though not enough to prevent your judgement from being informed by your crass need for social capital. Such a need should be nourished by productive acts, real intellectual engagement, or social outreach. Though being a hipster you choose the easy route of a snob... Also Tarkovsky was a pseudo-intellectual and bullshitting mystic.

Allan MacInnis said...

Yeah, I sometimes wince myself when I read things I've written... Sometimes I hear myself in the voice of Sheldon Cooper... Sometimes in a sort of fey snobbish whine, which kind of fits this piece. But I'm earning precious little social capital on this blog, I assure you!