We all have them—whether as as professional reviewers or general film fans (which, hopefully, most professionals are). There are just certain types of movies that inherently do not appeal to us. It’s human nature. Not everyone likes everything. And that’s as it should be. It’s called diversity. Of course, the professional and the film fan differ in one specific—the film fan has more choice in the matter. With the professional reviewer, it’s luck of the draw, and the results can be fairly enlightening for the reviewer, who is apt to be pleasantly surprised by seeing a film he or she might otherwise have avoided.
I make no bones about having little affinity for westerns, war pictures, gangster movies and a good deal of what is loosely termed science fiction. That doesn’t translate into an ability to avoid those genres. And frankly, I think that’s a good thing. Apart from the brief spurt of cute-boys-with-big-guns movies at the beginning of the 21st century—American Outlaws (2001) and Texas Rangers (2001), anyone?—the western genre has been pretty interesting on the rare occasions it’s cropped up of late. Open Range (2003), 3:10 to Yuma (2007), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and Appaloosa (2008) all rated high enough with this non-admirer of the genre to get four-and-a-half star reviews.
Based on that, it might be reasonable to conclude that I really do like westerns despite my claims to the contrary. Yet it’s worth noting that the only westerns festooning my DVD shelves—apart from Laurel and Hardy in Way Out West (1937), the Marx Brothers in Go West (1940) and Bob Hope in The Paleface (1948) and Son of Paleface (1952), which probably don’t count—are Irving Cummings and Raoul Walsh’s In Old Arizona (1929), Cecil B. DeMille’s The Plainsman (1936), Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970) and Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976). The first is mostly for historical reasons, the second is pure aberration (and a fondness for Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur), and the last two are hardly typical.
No, it’s not from a lack of familiarity with the genre. I’ve seen all the standards from William S. Hart through Sergio Leone. I’ve been through the John Ford and Howard Hawks standards. And I had more than my fair share of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers singing cowboy B pictures when I was a kid. I admire many of the films. I recognize the greatness—and value—of such accepted classics as John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), The Searchers (1956), etc. For that matter, my earliest film memory is of The Searchers—which I saw with my parents when I was two. But admiration is not the same as particularly liking a thing. Something about the genre fails to actually resonate with me. Generally, I prefer Ford’s non-westerns.The same is true of Hawks.
The war film is trickier, since it includes both generic war pictures and anti-war pictures. While there are a number of anti-war pictures that I do like—from Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) to Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1971) to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) to David O. Russell’s slightly ambivalent Three Kings (1999)—I’m coming up blank on a plain war movie that I have much use for. Even among anti-war movies, Ernst Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby is probably my favorite—and only its first 10 minutes deals with the war itself. For that matter, I don’t tend to like “service comedies.” Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms (1918), Laurel and Hardy’s Pack Up Your Troubles (1932) and Bob Hope’s Caught in the Draft (1941) are among my least favorite films of those comedians.
When I was in high school we would occasionally watch films made during WWII—but only because the propaganda factor was often so ludicrous that they became funny in retrospect. Meaning no disrespect, but it’s simply impossible to take Errol Flynn (in reality a 4-F) winning the war single-handed all that seriously. In the utterly preposterous Desperate Journey (1942), Flynn spends an entire movie outwitting the Nazis at every turn, only to jump aboard a getaway plane and end the movie by saying, “Now, for Australia and a crack at those Japs!” In any case, it wasn’t a situation where I liked these movies. Something about them inherently does not appeal to me.
That’s not been put to the test in the 21st century for the simple fact that I have yet to see a really good war picture this century. And, yes, I include The Hurt Locker (2009) in that. It’s good, but I don’t think it’s great by any stretch—except perhaps for its remarkable ability to play to both sides of the political fence. There have certainly been a number of noble attempts, but no one has struck the gong. And audiences aren’t buying it, which raises the question of whether it’s even possible to make a popular film about an unpopular war? For that matter, can a film about a controversial war effectively be made during that war? There’s perhaps a reason why anti-Vietnam films like Richard Lester’s How I Won the War (1967) and Altman’s M*A*S*H don’t deal with the Vietnam war. (Yes, I realize that a crowd of people turned away and How I Won the War was a huge flop, but here I’m talking artistic viability.)
People seem to dearly love the gangster film. Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and/or The Godfather: Part II (1974) probably appear on as many “best” lists as Citizen Kane. I simply don’t get the appeal. This is also the reason that I have reservations about some Martin Scorsese pictures. I admire both filmmakers (Scorsese more than Coppola on balance), but the subject matter is occasionally somewhere between uninteresting and off-putting for me. So why then do I find Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) one of the finest films of the decade? In part, it’s the sheer complexity of a film that works on a number of levels at one time. The bizarre strain of black comedy that runs through the film—especially concerning Jack Nicholson’s character—is a plus, and it’s a plus that raises the film out of the realm of the simple (to me incomprehensible) fascination with gangsters.
Has it always been this way with me? Actually, it mostly has. I’m OK with the early gangster films like Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1930), William Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931), Rouben Mamoulian’s City Streets (1931) and Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932). And I like some of the earlier formative gangster pictures like Josef von Sternberg’s extant examples, Underworld (1926) and Thunderbolt (1929), Robert Florey’s peculiar mix of mysticism and the underworld The Hole in the Wall (1929), and even Archie Mayo’s Doorway to Hell (1930). Roland Brown’s Quick Millions (1931) and Blood Money (1933) are not without their interest. Unlike the modern gangster saga, these are fast-paced and relatively brief. But I can’t say they’re among my favorite movies.
I really prefer the gangster spoofs like Roy Del Ruth’s The Little Giant (1933), John Ford’s The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), Lloyd Bacon’s A Slight Case of Murder or even such oddities as Lewis Seiler’s It All Came True and Vincent Sherman’s All Through the Night (1941), the latter proving that (vaguely identified) gangsters were at least better than Nazi spies. I recognize that Michael Curtiz’ Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (1939) are good—maybe great—movies, but I don’t enjoy them. And while Walsh’s White Heat (1949) is a genre classic, containing perhaps the most iconic ending of any gangster picture, I find the film a wholly unpleasant experience.
There’s a tendency to lump horror and science fiction into a single category, and that’s at least partly understandable. Things like Frankenstein (1931) and its offshoots kind of stradle the two. So, for that matter, does any version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But the approach to the films is more horror than science fiction. There are also occasional hybrids such as Lambert Hillyer’s The Invisible Ray (1936)—a true oddity where you can see something like the modern science fiction film actually grow out of gothic horror tradition. But in the main, horror and science fiction are distinct entities that are mostly joined by the concept of the “cinema of the fantastic.” By and large, I love horror pictures, but tend to be rather cool toward science fiction—something that does not, however, prevent me from considering Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006) and Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007) among the best films of the 21st century. Of course, neither film is traditional science fiction, and both are as much mystical as anything else.
With such exceptions as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and The Woman in the Moon (1929), along with such curios as William Dieterle’s Six Hours to Live (1932) and David Butler’s Just Imagine (1930), there’s little that can be called serious science fiction in the earlier days of film. And even those are a mixed bag. Metropolis—for all its flaws—is endlessly fascinating, but The Woman in the Moon merely seems endless. Six Hours to Live is certainly science fiction, but its theme is strictly a pacifist tract. Just Imagine is just plain awful. If the idea of “the world’s first science fiction musical” sounds intriguing, the film itself will quell that notion. There is some nice model work, however, and a really striking laboratory (generally credited to the electrical wizardry of Kenneth Strickfaden of Frankenstein fame, though he’s not listed on the film).
The science fiction of that era is generally science fiction in service of horror, or it finds expression in serials derived from comic strips (the precursor of the comic book movie) like Flash Gordon (1936) and BuckRogers (1939). These have a quaint charm, but they aren’t what could be called good by anyone but the most charitable viewer. But they do set a template to which much science fiction still adheres—the space opera, a term derived from calling westerns horse operas. In other words, they’re basically cowboys-and-Indians affairs set in space. Star Wars (1977) and its progeny are essentially really elaborate space operas. My lack of fondness for westerns probably accounts for my tendency to be resistant to these films. I can admire their craft, but they’re not personal favorites.
On the other hand—and exempting the silly 1950s giant insect fear films—much later, truer science fiction tends to bore me. I blame myself for this, not the films. I don’t, for example, doubt the greatness of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but every attempt I’ve made to watch it for the past 42 years has had more than its fair share of tedium. Much like The Fountain and Sunshine, 2001 contains a good dose of the mystical, which I like, but, good Lord, is it ever floating in an ocean of pure boredom so far as I’m concerned. Something about the genre—be it the space opera variety or the more seriously intended—very rarely connects with me on some basic level.
Those are the genres that I am least likely to respond positively to—with notable exceptions. If we break things down into sub-genres, it becomes more difficult. For example, viewed in its broadest sense, I have no quarrel with dramas. Stick the words “uplifting sports” in front of drama and I run the other way as fast as possible. Qualifiers can make or break anything. A lot of people tend to make a sweeping generalization and claim that they don’t like musicals, but what does that mean? Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932), Mervyn LeRoy and Busby Berkeley’s Golddiggers of 1933 (1933), Fred Zinneman’s Oklahoma! (1955), Stanley Donen’s Funny Face (1957), Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Ken Russell’s Tommy (1975) and Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001) are all musicals (taking the basic notion that any film with four or more songs is a musical), but they have very little in common otherwise.
So what genres—or sub-genres—just don’t do it for you? I have yet to meet the person who, for one reason or another, just doesn’t care for this or that kind of movie.