Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Why I Like "Weird" Movies

In my last article about NewsRadio and TV series in general, I pointed out that I liked that show so much because it was a relaxing watch. I could watch episodes out of sequence or even not pay attention to them at all and still enjoy it. I wouldn’t call the show junk food, but it’s not something I feel the need to focus 100% on. There are plenty of films I feel the same way about (and will certainly write about plenty of them on this site in the future), but for the most part, my favorite films are the ones that require focused viewing. Often, a film that needs you to pay attention to it is called “weird.” The movies I’m going to discuss aren’t exactly weird in the traditional sense (but weird is subjective, so technically, everything can be weird), but have been labeled as such because they aren’t easily digestible.

It feels a little hypocritical to write about NewsRadio and praise it because I don’t have to pay attention to it, and then turn around and write about how my favorite movies are the ones you have to focus on. It all comes down to the location of your viewing, though. TV is...TV. You usually watch it in a distracting setting: your home. When I watch TV, it’s rarely the only thing going on. I’m hanging out with my wife, watching my daughter, doing dishes, cooking, doing laundry, checking e-mail, etc. In other words, all kinds of things are going on that keep me from focusing on the show I’m watching. Hence, my favorite show is one that allows for distractions. With movies, the intended viewing location is a dark theater that prohibits (or at least attempts to) talking and cell phones. In other words, films are made to be seen on a giant screen with no distractions.

Of course, I watch movies much more often at home than in the theater, so I love plenty of junk food movies. But my favorites are the ones I saw in the theater that rewarded my attention. The best compliment I can pay a film is that it held my complete attention even though I watched it at home.

I believe this love of complex films that require focused watching leads people to think film critics/buffs are snobs who don’t like “normal” movies. But when you watch movies every day, either for fun or work or both, you tend to appreciate the more nuanced offerings. To continue the food analogy of junk food, think about eating in general. If you eat the same thing every day, you’ll be fine with it, but never impressed. But if you get a new meal, even if it’s worse than what you usually get, you’ll appreciate it just for being different. That doesn’t mean a movie is automatically good because it’s odd; it just means it’s more interesting. And when you watch movies every day, interesting is pretty damn important.

Maybe movies aren’t your thing (just like some people don’t care that much about food), and watching any movie is entertaining because it’s a rare activity. That’s fine, but just realize that critics and dorks like me are going to roll our eyes if you think the latest Transformers was awesome and you don’t even know who Paul Thomas Anderson is. Now that I look at that sentence, I realize that it is a bit snobby, but so be it. The “weird” films are simply better because they move the medium beyond entertainment into the art realm.

Before I get into a few examples, I want to focus a bit more on what weird means to me. Weird is anything that is not predictable. It’s anything that aims to be different. The movies I love that I call weird are not really all that weird. These movies are all popular among most movie buffs and critics. They are also films that are fairly easily explained if you pay close attention. I am aware that there are truly weird films out there that are meant to be more poetry than film. I don’t like movies like that. I need my weird to be entertaining, and, more importantly, I need my weird to be able to be deciphered in a slightly definitive way. That said, here are the “weird” movies and filmmakers that immediately come to mind.

Darren Aronofsky is the first filmmaker to come to mind for a couple of reasons. First, in a recent interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Aronofsky flat out said he makes “weird” movies. Second, mother! is a recent film that many have deemed too weird because it received an infamous F Cinemascore from audiences. I loved it, of course, because it’s the perfect type of weird for me. On its surface, it is weird. It’s a film that was marketed as romantic thriller (I guess?) but ended up being a completely allegorical film about the environment, artists, humanity in general, etc. Anything that is completely allegorical is going to be a bit weird, since allegory typically requires exaggeration to fit whatever actual point the filmmaker is trying to make. What makes mother! stand out to me along with a few other films (such as Drive, Bug, The Cabin in the Woods, or Spring Breakers) is that people wouldn’t be disappointed with these films if they hadn’t been lied to by the trailers. Of course mother! is weird if you go in thinking it’s just another Jennifer Lawrence movie when, in fact, you’re about to see a Darren Aronofsky film.

I watched mother! completely expecting it to get increasingly insane because I knew Aronofsky wrote and directed it. It’s not that he doesn’t make “normal” movies (The Wrestler is a very straightforward film); it’s that his films are so varied that you know he’s not going to repeat himself. In other words, he’s going to make something interesting. I sat in that theater expecting a puzzle, so I focused on every detail possible. This might seem like homework to some, but this is how I wish I could watch every movie. This is why the theater is such an important part of the process. I’ve watched mother! at home and still enjoyed it, but nothing compares to that viewing in the theater. Before I move on, I just wanted to point out that my favorite Aronofsky film (and his weirdest, in my opinion) is The Fountain.

Next up is Yorgos Lanthimos, writer and director of two of my favorite films in recent years: The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (I also loved Dogtooth). Lanthimos makes different movies, but his style makes them weird. His characters deliver some of the most absurd and childishly direct dialogue in such a deadpan manner I can’t help but laugh. And I think that is his intended effect. I consider his films to be comedies despite their disturbing nature. Comedy and oddness go hand in hand since they are both so subjective.

Comedy brings me to another favorite filmmaker of mine: Paul Thomas Anderson. An argument can be made that most, if not all, of Anderson’s films are comedies, despite the super serious appearance of most of them. It’s no stretch to consider Boogie Nights or Punch Drunk Love comedies, but you wouldn’t initially think There Will Be Blood, Phantom Thread, or The Master are comedies. But I think they are. They are weird comedies, sure, but they are comedies. Watch the jail scene in The Master and tell me that’s not meant to be funny. Every scene that takes place in Eli Sunday’s church in There Will Be Blood is absolutely meant to be funny. And I consider Phantom Thread to a warped romantic comedy, which is to say it’s my all-time favorite romantic comedy.

Before I move on to my last filmmaker, I have to bring up David Lynch. While I love Blue Velvet and like Lost Highway, for the most part I am not a big fan of Lynch. But you can’t bring up weird filmmakers without discussing him. I suppose I’m not as big of a fan because some of his work is so impenetrable, or at least, I just don’t get it (Inland Empire was just a waste of my time). But he has his fans. I’m just not one of them.

The all-time weird filmmaker for me is Stanley Kubrick. As I’ve been writing the entire article, his films aren’t really that weird. Kubrick just has a style and a way of telling a story that usually requires close attention. Also, his films are largely open to interpretation. Eyes Wide Shut is among my favorites for this very reason. I have different thoughts about that movie every time I watch it (and I watch it at least once a who’s the real weirdo, right?). Maybe that’s because I’m a slightly different person each time, but I like to think that it’s more about what a talented and interesting filmmaker Kubrick was that he was able to create a film that could seemingly evolve with each viewing.

I’ll finish with what has become a bit of a trademark for these articles: a rambling paragraph followed by a short summation. This rambling paragraph will cover other filmmakers or films that I love and are considered weird, but for whatever reason, didn’t come to mind at first when I planned this article. All of these could have easily been included in the article in much more detail. Nicolas Winding Refn. Martin Scorsese, especially his recent Silence. Werner Herzog, especially his work with Kinski (which I eventually plan on devoting an entire article to), but also my favorites: Bad Lieutenant and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. Denis Villeneuve, even though his films have become increasingly popular, I think he’s retained his weirdness. Walker with Ed Harris. Terrence Malick, though I do not care for his post-Tree of Life work. Titus. Southland Tales. The Box. A Scanner Darkly. Synecdoche, New York. A Serious Man. The Coens in general. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Ravenous. I’ll stop now, but just know that there are countless examples, and I’ll never be able to think of them all, and I most certainly left off something or someone so obvious that I will be tempted to return to this article and add it (I’ll let you know if I did that here - I added Fear and Loathing and Ravenous after scanning my collection one last time).

As I stated above, none of these films or filmmakers are actually all that weird. They just demand attention, and they reward that attention. Unfortunately, that means they are “weird.” But I’ve always liked weird. And with so many ways to get a film made today, the weirdness will never stop, and I’ll never stop seeking this weird shit out.

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