Sunday Morning! “Wanda” and “The Last Jedi”
I had planned to post something about Haruki Murakami’s most recent novel here today… but, it’s pretty long and there’s no fun in rushing through a novel that you’re enjoying. So, instead, I’ll say something brief about the two movies I watched this week: Wanda and The Last Jedi.
I hadn’t seen either film before and it’s pretty hard to imagine two movies being more different from one another- to the point that they seem like specimens from two disparate art forms. There’s been a debate for as long as there have been movies about cinema as Art versus Commerce, and these two are about as close as you could come to textbook examples of each side.
Wanda (1970) is a film that plays like the personal vision of one person, Barbara Loden, inspired by the people she saw in her own life and self-consciously avoiding every movie convention. Loden once said “I really hate slick pictures” and what I was struck by was how often, while watching this film, I expected the Big Speech or the Startling Revelation that explains the character, or any of the other conventions that the director/writer/star completely eschews. Those scenes never come. The character Wanda is an aimless and passive soul who has completely internalized society’s hatred for her, as a woman and as “poor white trash”, and she just sort of floats around being acted upon- which is really hard to watch for two hours. But every scene rings true. There’s not damn thing in it that seems contrived or inauthentic. It’s a maddening and an amazing film. And the final shot is perfect.
[Criterion’s “Reflections on Wanda“]
The Last Jedi (2017), by contrast, seems like it was the end result of endless corporate board meetings. Nearly everything in it is a cliche, a call back, or a rehash of something from another movie in the series; it’s appropriative. There were no surprises and very few scenes that really resonated for me. The jokes fell flat, the dramatic moments made little sense, and the action sequences sputtered out very quickly. I started feeling like I was on a blind date with a partner to whom I felt no spark and was slightly embarrassed for both of us- the movie wants so badly to be liked.
The key to distinguishing between art and kitsch, to my mind, is that kitsch tries very hard to evoke sentiments in a baldly manipulative way and fails. Kitsch wants to evoke a response that it hasn’t earned. The Last Jedi wasn’t uniformly bad- the costumes and production design were top notch, for instance. But a few days later, I can remember only one scene- and that one just because it made use of puppetry instead of CGI.
While I can say that one movie worked for me and the other did not, I couldn’t think of a single criteria by which to compare the two. They seem to have come from different worlds entirely, It would be as unfair to judge The Last Jedi by the artistic criteria by which Wanda succeeds as it would be to criticize Wanda for making a fraction of the box office of The Last Jedi– that’s not what each film was meant to do. One was built to depict a moment in the life of a marginalized and invisible character as truthfully as possible; one was built to make money by fulfilling audience expectations as efficiently as possible. Each film was a success!
Both films, interestingly enough, were well-received by critics, albeit by the criteria of different eras. I think the expectations have shifted for movies and film criticism. Film critics write about big budget “franchise” movies using lines like “it delivers exactly what it promises”, which is a nice way of saying there are no surprises and nothing too too creative going on. The most recent film in the Halloween “franchise” received similarly glowing reviews for no explicable reason. And that one was a more resolutely dreadful film- boring, disjointed, and semi-coherent. We could easily think of twenty other recent films whose rave reviews seem more like the result of social compulsion than the merits of the films themselves.
Or, perhaps, my expectations as a viewer have changed. Like most people my age, I adored the first two Star Wars movies when I was a child and have been disappointed by everything that has come since. But, of course, I’m no longer a child and maybe I’ve outgrown the films. Having said that, though, those first two films were crackerjack entertainment made for a fraction of the advertising budget of the Disney iterations and their sheer ingenuity still inspires wonder.
Weirdly enough, a recent article in Art in America about a Hirshhorn Museum exhibit of 1980s art had this line about art from the early 80s:
“It still seemed possible to talk about art and commodity; not just art as commodity.”
With Return of the Jedi, what were previously aesthetic decisions became marketing decisions. Famously, the ewoks came into existence to create a line of toys. After that, the films felt more like a blue chip stock than an epic story.
Now, don’t get me wrong- films can be designed as entertainment and still catch our sense of wonder off-guard- after all, Paddington 2 was one of the great delights in last year’s crop of movies.
But I wonder if we haven’t become so cynical that we only ask of the film as commodity that it not be an especially faulty product.
And I wonder if we haven’t collectively given up on the notion that film is an art form except in very rare cases.
I also wonder: When did we reach the point that film critics became less critical than moviegoers? And why did that happen?
Hmmm… I guess I had more thoughts on this topic than I imagined…
Oh and, by the way, what are YOU reading, watching, playing, or thinking about this weekend?