I watch movies to educate myself. I try to seek out well respected works from known auteurs so I can challenge myself and broaden my horizons. In the past week alone I've seen a fifty year old film about the Algerian revolution, a Chilean surrealist's newest film, and a period piece whose title is a Shakespeare homage.
I also watch them to entertain myself and I also watch a shitload of junk.
So I thought it might be fun to play a little game to see how well balanced my media intake is between those two poles. I'm going to list some films that I've seen recently and then I'm going to try to guess "Educational Or Merely Entertaining?" At the end of the game we should have more of a sense of whether I'm an erudite man of learning or an over-stimulated rube.
You can tell that the first film on deck is a superhero movie because the child-cradling man is clearly Jeremy Renner, and the only Jeremy Renner movies that people watch on purpose are the Marvel movies, where he got shoe-horned in as the token human superhero.
Anyway, whatever merits Age of Ultron may or may not have had this obviously has to be filed under "entertainment", not "education" because comic book movies are automatically entertainment - no matter who makes them, no matter how high-minded they want to be, no matter how much time they devote to crafting resonant themes. Sorry, Joss Whedon...
And even more importantly: sorry Ang Lee.
Now, my first instinct is to say that Fist Fight is merely entertaining. After all, it is an over the top comedy that pits Charlie Day against Ice Cube in hand to hand combat - an obviously absurd set up, given that Charlie Day is as goofy as they come and Ice Cube's whole shtick is that he's angry and intimidating.
But here's the thing: this movie did teach me something: it taught me that smoking is cool. Look at how tough and mysterious Charlie Day looks with that reefer stick in his hands! I want to be tough and mysterious like that! Someone get me a doobie stat!
This is from the Weight of Water, and including it in this game is a trick because Sean Penn is never educational nor is he ever entertaining. (Well, minus his performance as Spicoli in Fast Times which is undeniably entertaining, but that movie was made so long ago and is so far away from his current brand that it basically doesn't count.)
Anyway, the post-Spicoli version of Sean Penn can blow it out of his ass, and I refuse to rate this movie.
The original Trainspotting was entertaining as hell - energetic, charismatic, and pleasantly controversial. (IE, it riled people up but it didn't launch a billion exhausting thinkpieces because it came out before the internet was insufferable.)
T2 (its 2017 sequel) has many of the same charms - it is just as frenetic, its cast is still charming, and it was pleasantly controversial. (IE, it was problematic in many ways, but it wasn't popular enough to merit a thousand high-minded takedowns.)
So now the question is: is T2 merely entertaining like its predecessor or is it educational?
Just take a look at the above still: this is a film that is all about how life is disappointing, frustrating and ultimately crushing. With themes like that it has to be educational!
Candy is one of the most absurd, upsetting and out-of-date movies I've ever seen: its plot can best be summed up as "Forrest Gump but with sexual assaults instead of presidential encounters", and it features Marlon Brando as a fake Indian guru and Ringo Starr as a horny Mexican gardener. I guess "comedy" was very different back in 1968...
The film has a lot of gratuitous sex in it and it is clearly aiming for a broadly comic tone, so it was obviously meant to entertain. However, I have to call it educational instead, because a) it really taught me just how awful mankind can be and b) watching it was far too traumatic for me to consider it "entertaining".
Body Double was written and directed by Brian De Palma, a filmmaker who was very much a part of the new Hollywood movement; you can't understand his career without comparing him to his contemporaries like Scorsese and Spielberg.
However, there's a difference between Scorsese / Spielberg and De Palma: they are auteurs and he is a hack and a pervert.
Don't get me wrong: De Palma has made some great movies... But those movies are almost always works for hire. Carrie is a straight genre picture based on a Stephen King book; Mission Impossible is a Tom Cruise movie he happened to direct.
In contrast, the movies that he writes and directs tend to be overwrought, incoherent and obsessively suffused with the male gaze. Body Double, for example, is laughably bad. The acting is terrible and over the top; the plot twists are nonsensical and eyeroll inducing; and the whole movie is built around a set piece where a "Native American" (really a white dude in a bad mask) murders a negligee-clad sex worker with a five foot long drill bit. It is, in a word, tacky.
But I will give it this: the movie did make me laugh. It was a mocking laughter to be sure, but I did laugh.
Trust me when I say that Sunset Song is a non-stop misery parade of a movie. I mean, Christ: the woman's holding her first born baby moments after giving birth and the narration is wondering about the existence of far-away slaughter. You gotta be a real goddamned miser to see a brand new child and think "I wonder what terrors it'll know when it grows up and gets thrown in a foxhole."
Anyway, this is the flipside of the superhero movie rule: a misery parade movie is automatically educational even if it doesn't teach you anything that you didn't already know, just because only a smarty-pants type of person would intentionally watch something that was actively unpleasant. Miserablising yourself is the smartest thing you can do!
Oh lord. Gunga Din.
Hoo boy. I don't even know where to begin with this one, because it was clearly meant to be an entertaining action spectacle, but it's a 75 year old movie that is definitely in favor of white colonialists remaining in charge of India, and as such, it feels a lot more like a time capsule of a bygone time than a thrill-ride. It's one part epic adventure, one part snapshot of racism in action, and one part obvious inspiration for Indiana Jones.
You know what? I'm going to take a Mulligan on this one because it is kind of too close to call.
Audition was a bit of a let down: I had been led to believe that it was a super gnarly horror film, and I can see why; it definitely features some limbs getting sawed off.
However, I'd been building it up for so long in my mind that when I actually watched it I was surprised to find that it was less gruesome than I had expected it to be. If you take the first half of this movie (which is a somber relationship drama about a widower who slowly comes out of his shell with the help of a young would-be actress), and divide it by the second half of the movie (where the actress slowly reveals that she is completely insane), then you're left with a movie that's about a quarter of a gore-fest.
So now for the million dollar question: is a Japanese made horror film more of a foreign film (educational!) or a tawdry exercise in genre filmmaking (entertaining!)?
In the case of Audition I'm going to have to lean towards "foreign film", because it didn't cross over in the same way that say, Ringu did - which means that if you brought it up at a party you would be instantly seen as a true cinephile, one who knows the truly obscure art-house shit.
(Or you would be seen as an insufferable know-it-all, depending on the party.)
The Brand New Testament is a Belgian film that wants to ask big questions about the nature of divinity and fate and morality, so it has all the hallmarks of a classic cultural-vegetable film.
However, it blows all of that by featuring a scene where the inimitable Catherine Deneuve cuckolds her husband with a gorilla, so I have a hard time considering it an "educational" film.
The Duelists is a Ridley Scott film from 1977 about two soldiers in Napoleon's army who are engaged in a three decade long pissing contest. It has a sly sense of humor, several well staged sword fights, and a few legitimately sexy scenes - Keith Carradine and Cristina Raines have great chemistry together.
(Also - not to sound like a perv or anything - but French peasant dresses are VERY flattering to Raines' body type. I'm not above a bit of the male gaze from time to time, though I do want to make it clear that I generally like to separate my sexy-scenes from my woman-getting-power-tooled-to-death-scenes.)
But let's be honest: all of those entertaining elements don't mean anything in the face of the Duelists' overwhelming mustache game. Any film that utilizes this much absurd facial hair is CLEARLY a period piece and period pieces are always educational, even if they are about two stubborn a-holes who are dead-set on stabbing each other for arbitrary / barely understood reasons.
The Dressmaker is a completely batshit crazy movie. It is a tale of revenge and small town eccentrics and dire rural poverty and cross dressing and it features Kate Winslet boning one of the Hemsworth brothers. (IMDB says it was Liam but I am unable to verify that fact at this time.)
And my natural instinct is to say that a film that is this trashy, that is this sensationalistic, that is this jaw-droppingly incoherent, is mere entertainment. This is not a film which offers well considered epiphanies or astute live observations. No, it a trainwreck that you keep watching because you want to know what bonkers thing it will offer up next.
But it also had a hellacious budget for high fashion clothes. (As well as it should; it is, after all, called the Dressmaker.) And while high fashion is often ugly and impractical and laughable... It is nonetheless automatically classy. If you don't get it - well, its not because there's nothing to get, it is because you are a mere plebe who doesn't understand nice things. So by osmosis this film, which features wall to wall high end couture, must also be classy. And if it's classy it's educational, damnit!
So... How'd I do?
Well, judging from these ten (...well, twelve...) movies - which are definitely accurate of my media in-take and which were not selectively curated for any sort of suspect purpose - suggest that I am a smart person by a factor of two to one! I am 70% cultured! If this was a middle school pop quiz I'd have gotten a passing grade by one whole point! Go me!
Now if you'll excuse me I'm about to go watch Joe Dirt Two, which I got from the library on a whim after I saw that former Sugar Ray singer Mark McGrath got higher billing on the DVD cover than Academy Award winner Christopher Walken.
(For the record: I wish I was kidding about this:)