Worst Moviegoing Experiences: Misadventures of a Rightwing Film Geek
This is a reprint of an article at the Nerve.com film blog The Screengrab, which is now defunct but was edited at the time by Bilge Ebiri. As a regular feature, he would ask critics and cinephiles to name their worst filmgoing experiences. As I said at the time, “if you want to read all about Victor being accused of committing the solitary vice in public, or how and where he concluded that God is dead — here is your chance.” The Screengrab is now inaccessible except through Web archiving, which is why I feel comfortable reproducing this Nerve post here, in 2013. I was able to recover Bilge’s art and his captions, which were quite fun. The italics are Bilge’s words, including an insertion that I thought required a response. It was initially a separate blog post of my own, but it works fine now as a footnote here.
Victor Morton, aka The Rightwing Film Geek, is one of the best film writers out there. Notice that I don’t say “online” anywhere in that sentence — that’s because Victor could easily give most pro print critics a run for their money as well. And while Victor’s politics don’t exactly match mine — or most Nerve readers’, I suspect — even some of his political rantings are worth reading, as they’re often (though not always) very cogently argued. Anyway, I digress. Here, Victor relates one rather unfortunate, and unfortunately hilarious, incident that occurred to him a few years ago, and then muses on some of the difficulties of being a film-buff with beliefs diametrically opposed to his fellow cineastes.
The worst filmgoing experience I have ever had was actually a moment of profound personal embarrassment. An opening weekend midnight screening of HIGH FIDELITY was packed to the rafters and the only seat I could easily find was the very back row, right against the wall. A woman was sitting next to me and her boyfriend was on her other side. It was kind of cold in the theater and so, since I had on only a polo shirt and shorts, I stuck both my arms inside my shirt to keep warmer. In addition, my shorts were just a little bit tight around the waist and so (under my shirt) I stuck my fingers in between the shorts’ waistband and my waist, just about nail-deep, to relieve the pressure some. Now my description makes it clear I was doing nothing untoward. But to someone with imperfect knowledge, like, say…someone sitting immediately next to you in a dark theater…it could easily look like…something else.
In the middle of the movie, the scene where Rob goes to the bar with the intent of picking up Marie De Salle, the boyfriend turns to me and says (not yelling, but not in a movie-theater whisper either), “Would you STOP that?” Confused, I said, “What? I’m just cold.” It then dawned on me what he might have been thinking. I issued a euphemistic denial and repeated that I was only feeling cold. Nothing was said after that, but my face was the approximate hue of the richest marinara sauce you ever ate and the approximate temperature of Washington in August. I was so embarrassed and self-conscious that the rest of the movie could have been the missing reels from the end of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and my mind would still have been somewhere else. I made a point of sitting through the credits to cut down the chances of seeing the pair outside.
Most of my bad film-going experiences have involved bad reactions from other audience members. When I saw RUSSIAN ARK in commercial release in Washington, someone made his political opinions known after the credits started to run. He yelled at the screen (or it felt like a yell in the little shoebox art-house with a capacity of maybe 80 people) “Hooray for empire. Fuck Bush. What a disgusting movie.” Yes, there is a human being walking the face of the Earth, wasting perfectly good oxygen (and I doubt he’s the only one) who can see a movie about the aristocratic splendor of traditional monarchy and think of … Dubya.
But I expect nothing on that front from DC art-house audiences. Or from the Toronto Film Festival audience who applauded in the middle of THE FOG OF WAR at Robert McNamara’s retarded “please love me, leftists” line “if we can’t persuade nations of similar values of the rightness of our cause, we’d better re-examine our reasoning.” Of course, Errol Morris thoughtfully provided a few seconds of dead space at that point. [Editor’s confession: We applauded too. It’s a great line.]*
That sort of “lone Red Sox supporter in Yankee Stadium” moment is just par for the course for a conservative film geek. Which is why my most-depressing filmgoing experience ever came from a very different audience. When I was in grad school, I was psyched for the chance to see DAY OF WRATH in a theater, at a campus screening. Now, I’m a complete Dreyer fanboy, and while he did make a couple of lighter films early in his pre-PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC career, he wasn’t one for inserting comic relief into a serious film. And DAY OF WRATH, masterpiece though it is, is a completely humorless, gray, dour movie. There is a scene near the midway point of the movie of Anne and Martin — the new wife and stepson — together at the rectory that was intercut with Absalon (the religious patriarch) visiting the deathbed of the witch-torturer. Anne says to Martin something like “I wish him dead,” referring to Absalon. Then Dreyer cut back to Absalon crossing the moors on the way home, letting out a shiver and saying something like, “I felt the cold hand of death brush my shoulder.” At that line, the audience let out a big laugh.
I was on the point of tears when I reflected on it. Here was a movie where clearly witches, the devil, God and the supernatural are taken deadly seriously and yet the audience was too post-modern, too hip, too knowing to take the possibilities seriously enough, even if only for 100 minutes of a VERY somber movie. Apparently God can’t even gain a place as a fictional character about whom you suspend disbelief as though he were a crime-fighting space alien who flies and gains super strength because of our planet’s yellow sun. But what makes this moment the ne plus ultra of depressing filmgoing experiences was where this occurred — Notre Dame. The national icon of Catholic higher education. Where every dorm has its own Sunday Mass. Where academic department have their own priests. The home of Touchdown Jesus, ferchrissakes. I had tears in my eyes for most of the rest of the movie. God is dead. Hip irony has won. The Coen Brothers are masters of the universe.
But that very art-house faux-sophistication redeemed a different bad film experience, this one involving print quality. During the flurry of Peter Greenaway releases in 1990-91 after the notoriety of THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE, AND HER LOVER, I saw A ZED AND TWO NAUGHTS (a movie so mannered it makes COOK look like a cinema-verite doc) at an Austin, Texas arthouse. At a certain point, the film jumped so that each image consisted of the bottom half of, say, frame 1000, at the top of the screen with the top half of frame 1001 at the bottom half of the screen. There was a black bar in the middle maybe 10 percent of the screen depth. (I hope that makes it clear what we were seeing.) I decided relatively quickly that it wasn’t intentional. I entertained the thought that maybe it wasn’t a mistake, but this film, even more than COOK, THE DRAUGHTSMAN’S CONTRACT or DROWNING BY NUMBERS consisted of frame after frame of stunningly composed still lifes. It just didn’t strike me that Greenaway, unlike say an Andy Kauffman, would split the image in half bass-ackwards that way. But since I was hating the movie anyway, I decided to have some fun and see if anyone else noticed the emperor’s clothes. It took at least 5 minutes before anyone piped up.
* Point of Personal Privilege: Why the there-referred-to McNamara line in THE FOG OF WAR is retarded. “Nations with similar values” doesn’t mean anything. Looking at how nations lined up vis the U.S. on the Iraq War — setting aside Britain and France (they’re special culture-driven cases). By what standard is Canada (opposed) a “nation with similar values” but Australia (supportive) not? By what standard is Germany and Belgium (opposed) “nations with similar values” but Spain or Italy (supportive) not? Russia, but not Poland and Bulgaria? Turkey but not Kuwait? And if the UN’s gonna get into the act, nothing would be done on anything at all without the approval of Communist China, about whose “similar values,” the less said, the better. Looking at the European and Commonwealth nations named above, with the Anglo-frog exceptions — support entirely turned on whether the government in power at the time was left-led (in which case it opposed the war) or right-led (in which case it supported it). Support for the was pretty much a partisan affair (and this was so in the US too). “Nations with similar values”? My tookus.
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