When was the last time you watched "From Russia With Love?" How do you think it's holding up?
Press Play's Matt Zoller Seitz recently attended a repertory screening of the 1963 James Bond movie at New York's IFC Center. He liked it, but some of the other members of the audience didn't, and they spent most of the movie "tittering and guffawing all with the same message: 'Can you believe people once thought this film was daring? It’s so old-fashioned.'" Seitz's frustration with their behavior prompted him to write a powerful piece entitled "'From Russia With Love' is Not Unsophisticated. You Are." It's a must-read.
His argument is summed up pretty well by his title, which comes from a lecture he received as part of a film class in the 1980s, when one of his cinema studies professors showed a bunch of college students the classic musical "Singin' in the Rain'" and they reacted the same way the kids at Seitz's "From Russia With Love" screening did: with sarcastic, dismissive laughter. After the movie was over, the professor delivered the following speech to the class:
"I don’t know if I can ever explain this to you in a way that makes sense, but I just have to say that it disturbs me that you would think a movie like 'Singing in the Rain' is corny and unsophisticated. Music videos can be works of art in their own rights, but they’re not necessarily more sophisticated than 'Singing in the Rain.' In fact, I would argue that a movie that has people standing around having conversations with each other, and then suddenly has them singing and dancing to a score that appears out of nowhere, then goes back to having them talk, asks more imagination from its audience than a music video. You have to decide to be OK with whatever the film is doing at any moment. You have to decide to accept it as normal, and decide to care about what’s happening even though it just suddenly turned into a different kind of movie. It’s like when you’re at a play and you just decide to pretend that the characters are wherever the play tells you they are, rather than looking at the stage and seeing a couple of actors in chairs pretending to be people they aren’t. Any work that would ask something like that of an audience cannot be called unsophisticated. It’s sad to think that there was once a time when Hollywood released dozens of movies like this each year, and millions of people went to see them, and enjoyed themselves, and laughed, and sang along, and got wrapped up in the story, and that if the same kind of movies were released right now, people would laugh at them and call them unsophisticated. That so many of you could sit there and snicker at 'Singing in the Rain' for being unsophisticated depresses me beyond words. This movie is not unsophisticated. You are.”
"Singin' in the Rain" is a masterpiece -- and "From Russia With Love" ain't too shabby either (and if they ironically giggled at that Bond movie, I shudder to think of the crowd response at the Museum of Modern Art on October 12th when they show "Octopussy.") But, at least in my experience, the problem of snarky, know-it-all crowds is not limited to revival screenings.
Last week I saw "Resident Evil: Retribution" on opening night in downtown Brooklyn and though the audience was generally respectful, the group of teenagers in the row behind me skipped the part where they tried to sincerely engage with the movie and proceeded directly to the ironic detachment portion of "Retribution"'s reception. These were 18-year-old kids -- I'd bet my life none of them had ever even heard of "Mystery Science Theater 3000," much less seen an episode -- and here they were, riffing away. "Retribution" was less than a day old, and it was already an object to be derided rather than appreciated. Admittedly, this is the fifth "Resident Evil" we're talking about, a far cry from a classic James Bond film. But still: what happened to giving a movie a chance?
Not to play armchair psychologist but I imagine the kids at Seitz's screening had decided that they were going to find "From Russia With Love" hilarious well before they got to the IFC Center. They might consider anything that's 50 years old dated, or they might have gone looking for the camp of a Moore Bond and decided to view Terrence Young's wry spy game that way as well, even though the material doesn't justify that reading. But either way this had less to do with the movie than with the audience.
What we're talking about here is something bigger than just a haughty attitude: it's an intense and deep-seated close-mindedness, the feeling that you know whether a movie is good or bad before you've even watched a single frame of it. It's an affliction that's infected a huge portion of young moviegoers. What Seitz witnessed is not all that different, in my opinion, than commenters who slam critics for disliking "The Avengers" days before the movie opens. Every movie is pre-judged on the strength of its advertising and reputation. Enjoying the movie is secondary to anticipating it.
I'm not so hypocritical as to pretend I've never sat down to watch a movie with the express intent of laughing at it; I do, after all, own a copy of "The Room" (And "Plan 9 From Outer Space" -- and "Birdemic: Shock and Terror"). But very few movies deserve that sort of approach. And if we deliberately close ourselves off to enjoying the things we watch, we never will.
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