I suspect everyone has a list — figuratively at least — of movies he or she considers overrated. You know, movies you’ve been told are great for years that you either actively dislike, are bored by, or simply “don’t get.” I don’t mean movies that were the big thing for a few weeks last year. Rattling off enormously popular films from 2007 that I thought were rubbish is child’s play and ultimately futile out of the context of that year. Without thinking too hard about that, I’d toss in 300 and Transformers, but what’s the point? Does anyone beyond the most hardcore fan really think these movies will be even a blip on the radar 20 years from now?
What I’m looking for here are those movies that have been around a reasonably long time — say, 20 years as an arbitrary figure — that are almost invariably thought of as “great.” I recognize a few pitfalls here. For example, a lot depends on the circles you travel in. It’s common in classic horror circles, for example, to find the Tod Browning/Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931) considered overrated. (I don’t agree, but that’s a side issue.) Outside of those circles, it’s debatable that the film is even much watched these days, let alone discussed. (That hasn’t stopped Universal from putting out three different editions of it on DVD in the last few years.)
There’s also the possibility, assuming you’re at least moderately open-minded, that your own tastes may have changed or (gasp!) matured over the years, and that movies you originally disliked might seem different to you down the road. A prime example for me would be Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967). I originally hated the movie. A few tries over the years didn’t change that. Then a couple summers back I watched it again for a special showing and I suddenly got it, and its place in film history. Part of that came from finally seeing it in a beautiful copy that was properly letterboxed, but part of it came from changes within myself between 1972 when I first saw it and 2006.
So bearing in mind the limitations of my own frame of reference and the fact that I might suddenly have an artistic epiphany somewhere down the road, I offer for your amusement — or argument — a small selection of “great” movies I just don’t like and haven’t liked for years.
The Birth of a Nation. Although I’ve started to “get” D.W. Griffith a little bit over the past few years, I don’t think I’ll ever understand the supposed greatness of his 1915 Civil War epic. Even granting that it’s from 1915 and therefore qualifies as groundbreaking, it simply strikes me as a not very good movie. I’m not so much talking about the movie’s unblinking racism, though that’s certainly a valid sticking point.
I mean, after all, we’re talking about a movie that deems it preferable for a woman to leap to her death than be raped by a black man, glorifies the Ku-Klux-Klan, relegates any black role requiring acting to white guys in blackface, etc. (It’s interesting that Griffith tapped into the works of Richard Wagner as concerns the layout of the music to accompany the film.) But all that to one side, the movie strikes me as a riot of hammy acting (much less subtle than that found in Griffith’s earlier films), technical shortcomings and appallingly bad editing. The technical shortcomings I can overlook because of its antiquity, but the editing — the much praised editing — is another matter. Much has been written over the years about the precision with which Griffith edited his movies. I can’t buy it, especially not in this case, where almost any given edit could have occurred several seconds to either side of the cut and made almost no difference. Add to this the fact that the movie clocks in at 187 minutes and you have a fine recipe for a deadly evening at the movies.
Gone With the Wind. Saying a I don’t like Gone With the Wind (1939) is probably an overstatement since I don’t exactly dislike it, I just don’t get all the fuss. OK, so it’s in Technicolor (a novelty for 1939, but hardly a first) and it’s really long (a mixed blessing and even less of a first). Let’s see, Clark Gable gets to say “damn” on the screen.
Big deal. Al Jolson (Mammy (1930)) and George Arliss (The Green Goddess (1930)) got there first, as did a few others. What else? It was an “event” film (again, not new). But it is an epic for what that’s worth. (I’m always amazed when people use “epic” to denote quality when all it means is it’s really big. So is a beached whale.) It has several amazing set-pieces like the crane shot over the wounded men up past the tattered Confederate flag and the burning of Atlanta. And I don’t see how anyone could fail to get a kind of chill as the words “GONE WITH THE WIND” move across the screen to Max Steiner’s music at the beginning of the film. Also, the William Cameron Menzies production design is breathtakingly beautiful in its very artificialness. The acting is close to flawless. Well, that’s with the exception of Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes, who is quite honestly awful — an even bigger problem since we’re supposed to buy that Scarlett is mooning over this simpering weakling for most of the film. But step back from the whole movie for a moment and look at it. Look at it without even considering some of its more dubious socilogical implications. What do we really have here? Is this the great drama about the Civil War? No, not really. It’s four solid hours of pop soap opera about two folks with really bad timing. When Rhett wants Scarlett, Scarlett doesn’t want Rhett. This shifts back and forth throughout the movie with only slightly less regularity than possession of the Ark of the Covenant between Indiana Jones and the Nazis. By the end of it all, frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
Fantasia. OK, so I freely admit I’m just not a Disney fan. Maybe it comes from being terrified by Sleeping Beauty (1959) when I was 4. Maybe it comes from that extra 10 cents the theaters used to charge for Disney releases in my childhood (regular movies were a quarter, Uncle Walt was 35 cents). All the same, I spent my formative years hearing about what a terrific movie Fantasia (1940) was.
I was told that seeing it would change my entire attitude about Disney. I suspected that was an exaggeration, since I’d already decided that the seven minutes of the Fleischer Brothers Betty Boop cartoon of Snow White (1932) was much more entertaining and interesting than Disney’s 1937 feature. But I was willing to give Fantasia a solid chance. The very idea of a film that matched classical music and images appealed to me no end. Then I saw the film. Yes, parts of it were, and are, brilliant, especially the more abstract concepts, the Bachanal set to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony and, best of all, the penultimate sequence using Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. These, however, are a fairly small percentage of a film that is full of the usual Disney catalogue of cuteness like hippopotami in tutus and an extended Mickey Mouse cartoon (Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice). This last also offers the spectacle of Mickey thanking conductor Leopold Stokowski for playing the piece and Stoki shaking hands with the cartoon character, saying, “Thank you, too, Mickey,” which makes me cringe. I don’t really think that setting Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring to dinosaurs was such a hot idea either, but considering the nipple-challenged centaurs in the Beethoven sequence, it might have been better than trying to depict the ballet’s pagan rituals. And Disney’s insistence on having Deems Taylor explain how an optical soundtrack works is just deadly dull. I was later informed that my disappointment was the result of not having dropped acid prior to watching the movie. Yes, well, what is one to say that?
Rebel Without a Cause. The James Dean cult completely mystifies me. If ever a performer achieved the status of “greatness” due to an untimely death, James Dean strikes me as that performer.
The man left us with only three features of which this 1954 Nicholas Ray (whose reputation also mystifies me) opus was the first. The movie is not without its interesting points, but it finally seems little more to me than a depressing teen angst drama with a few good set-pieces that seem better than they really are thanks to some interesting location choices. The film itself is overheated on every level from its bombastic Leonard Rosenman score to its silly portrait of hopeless adults to its hysteria-pitched acting. At the center of that last is Dean himself — looking every day of his 23 years as a high school kid — who is on a rampage of overacting at its finest. I know it’s supposed to be some kind of definitive iconic moment, but Dean screaming, “You’re tearing me apart!” is one of the funniest moments in film. All that to one side, I do enjoy nervous fanboys still arguing that there’s no gay subtext in this movie 53 years after the fact.
Vertigo. It’s supposed to be Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, but Vertigo (1958) has always struck me as an overrated bore. I’ll grant you that I prefer Hitchcock’s British films to nearly all of his supposedly weightier Hollywood work, so I have to admit to a certain bias. However, that’s a bias that came about through a comparison of those two eras — and I saw all of his Hollywood films long before his once hard-to-see British films. Vertigo strikes me as a special case. It starts out fine, but it’s ultimately something of a cheat, since it’s a mystery-thriller that gives up its mystery long before the ending.
I mean, we find out that Kim Novak’s character is part of an elaborate, and unbelievably convoluted, plot to murder someone else fairly early on in the proceedings. That’d be OK in itself if it weren’t for the fact the film’s status as a psyhological study in obsession just ain’t all that deep. There’s some terrific technical stuff in the movie, not the least of which was the development of the now overused dolly zoom shot where the combination of moving camera and a zoom lens creates a weird perspective. But as drama, the movie’s always left me cold. The first thing I think of when I think of Vertigo is Jimmy Stewart endlessly driving around San Francisco. Interestingly, when the film was restored and re-issued in the late 1990s along with Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), audiences had a much stronger positive reaction to the earlier film, which had previously been largely written off as a stunt picture (the film is made in long ten minute takes) and a failure.
2001: A Space Odyssey. As a technical achievement, Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 science fiction film is a stunner. As an expression of an artist being given more artistic control over a mainstream release than seemed imaginable, it’s certainly noteworthy. There are moments of unbelievable brilliance and beauty in the film. The “earthrise” set to the excerpt from Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra is as amazing now as it was in 1968.
The general use of music is fascinating throughout. The “star-ride” that leads to the film’s climax has lost little of its power in the intervening years. As drama, however, 2001 has always struck me as a combination of the deadly dull and the maddeningly opaque. I first saw the film in 1968 — complete with someone who had read the book and insisted on explaining what was going on to me. I was 13 and almost certainly too young to comprehend some of the Big Ideas in which the film traffics. These many years later, I can comprehend those ideas, but I’ve yet to be convinced that they can be grasped without recourse to the book—and that strikes me as a weakness in what ought to be a self-contained work. But worse than that is the simple fact that I don’t care what’s going on very much because I don’t care what happens to the film’s boring, undefined characters. However, so many people whose opinions I respect greatly love this film and think it’s the bee’s knees of science fiction cause me to keep trying with 2001. As a result, I dutifully trot it out every few years — unless I bump into it on Turner Classic Movies — and have another look at it to see if I finally understand their admiration. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m about due to have another go. Who knows?
So there you have a half dozen movies that I’m supposed to like and just can’t quite manage. I could throw in another six titles, but I think that’ll suffice for the moment. Instead, let’s leave the door open for discussion on the matter. Surely, there are folks out there who’ll take issue with these choices, and probably even more who have their own titles to add.