Changes of Heart: Reexamining Art You Used to Hate (or Love)
In an interview with The New Yorker that ran in October 2001, a month after she died, renowned film critic Pauline Kael said: “I still don’t look at movies twice. It’s funny, I just feel I got it the first time. With music it’s different. People respond so differently to the whole issue of seeing a movie many times. I’m astonished when I talk to really good critics, who know their stuff and will see a film eight or ten or twelve times. I don’t see how they can do it without hating the movie. I would.” That kind of brash commitment is typical of Kael, but though she was a fantastic critic, the sentiment’s a remarkably myopic one. Many times, it’s possible to see a film and know that you “got it the first time,” but any critic can only ever bring their current experience, knowledge, and understanding to the table when they review a film. I’m not just talking about familiarity with film form here; I’m talking about the life events that shape us, that hew our worldview out of rock and make us who we’ll eventually be. All of which is a pretty vague and pseudo-philosophical way of saying: sometimes we get it wrong. For one reason or another, we’ll praise a film (or TV series) only to realize later that it’s hopelessly puerile; other times, we’ll deride a film only to discover its hidden depths, locked away until we’d gotten older, wiser, smarter, or just able to see the truth.
I understand Kael’s reluctance to admit what she probably viewed as defeat; after all, for a critic to admit a mistake might, for the small-minded or narrowly focused, call into question their entire body of work. But it turns out that the opposite is true. When you revisit film and television over time, you can examine it anew, testing it to see if it’s truly as bad or good as you once felt it to be or if instead you were guilty of judging it too soon. It’s comforting to go back and see that some classics never change, and that some flops will always be thus; but it can be just as refreshing to gain new perspective on old art. — DC
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy: Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy came out in the summer of 2004. I was just a few weeks out of college, soldiering through a predictably unpleasant tour of duty waiting tables at a steakhouse in Texas just to get the scratch together to move to Los Angeles. I’d just spent two years doing movie reviews for the school newspaper and knew that I wanted to continue writing about movies as much as possible. Like every 21-year-old, my head was firmly wedged up my ass. I knew movies, man, and I knew what was good, and I didn’t need your little Will Ferrell comedy. Sure, it might have some cute moments, but I need my comedy with pathos. I need those laughs to come through tears, man! Give me a sad clown! Someone play some Nico!
So I resisted Anchorman, cutting myself off from it willfully, refusing to engage with it or think about it. I wrote it off as puerile and popped in an obscure DVD and felt miles smarter than everyone else. Of course, I eventually revisited the film and realized what a fool I’d been. (Again, I ask the jury to remember that I was 21, still unable to admit that true knowledge is recognizing how much you still have to learn.) The film is pure, unfiltered hilarity, and the best and strongest version of the 1970s-era machismo Ferrell started trotting out on “Saturday Night Live” in his Robert Goulet and Neil Diamond impressions. This is his ur-character, a hairy, insane guy who’s remarkably conservative but ultimately soft and lovable. The supporting cast is a murderer’s row of comic players, and every bit of the script (credited to Ferrell and director Adam McKay) is sillier and weirder than viewers had any right to expect. As McKay would later say in a talking-head quasi-doc about “Saturday Night Live,” Ferrell has a brilliant knack for tearing down “that barrier between funny-strange and funny-ha-ha.” Anchorman is just crazy enough to work, and though Ferrell and McKay have been trying to put lightning back in a bottle ever since, it’s uncertain they ever will. This one surprised us all, including them; any follow-up can do nothing but fall short. The film opened me up to the easy joy of wacky comedy, and the way it could be smart and stupid at the same time. It helped me realize I’d been far too limiting in my assessment of good and bad, and that rewatchability is often a sign that the film is doing something right. Anchorman is perfectly silly, effortlessly breezy, and always a pleasure to watch.
And that was the last mistake I ever made. Ever. In life. — Daniel Carlson
“Archer”: I’ve been fans of Adam Reed and Matt Thompson since before there even existed the medium for twentysomething stoners to haze off to slumber amidst the flickering profanities of the Adult Swim network. “Sealab 2021” took maybe six episodes to find its sealegs and then it just went absolutely batshit brilliant. “All That Jazz” is still one of the greatest things I’ve seen on television. Similarly, I’ve been an H. Jon Benjamin fan since the days of “Dr. Katz,” and I still firmly believe that Coach McGuirk is the best character, animated or otherwise, to appear on television. So I come from a place of sheer insanity.
When “Sealab 2021” lost Harry Goz, it still had some momentum, and while Tornado Shanks has his moments, “Sealab 2021” was dead in the water. The two fellas then started in on “Frisky Dingo,” an unfortunate show with an outstanding villain in Killface. But I never got into “Dingo” — I just thought it was a poor attempt to rehash the lunacy of the weaker, later episodes of “Sealab,” only with a shittier leading man. Some people like it, but those are usually the ones who like their coffee laced with letters: PCP, THB, LSD, or SH-T.
For some reason, FX pops up with “Archer,” a spy show featuring the voice of H. Jon Benjamin as a superspy. Most people have never seen the handsome devil that is Jon, but I have, and it was hard for to me to envision his gravelly voice and imp-like image as a Bond hero. This was the same voice that had been a drunken overweight soccer coach, an alien lifeform, a schlubby convenience store clerk, and a can of beans. I started to watch the pilot and made it about halfway through before I gave up. It felt like a cheesy version of “Frisky Dingo,” only with more dick jokes.
My mistake. When it came out on Netflix, I gave it another And I was wrong. I was so wrong. It was amazing. It had the whipcrack smarts of “Arrested Development” with the completely horrifyingly cruel wit of “Sealab.” It basically could go bad places that non-animated series couldn’t, and so it did. The voice acting is tremendous, the characters are just terrible fucking people doing bad things to each other, and it suddenly made sense how it found a home on FX. This was the network that gave us Paddy’s Pub and Denis Leary as a dickhead fireman. And I was hooked.
Since I lack cable, I’ve not been able to watch Season 2 and see if they kept up the momentum or lost it. But my biggest fear is that H. Jon Benjamin has totally overspread himself — he’s also doing “Bob’s Burgers,” and he’s also starting a new show that’s cast virtually every actor in L.A. (except me) called “Jon Benjamin Has A Van” which is live action. Typical. It’s usually the things I like that die a horrible death. — Brian Prisco
“Friends”: Back in the 1990s, this show was all the mainstream rage, but I resisted falling prey to the hysterical “Ross and Rachel” dynamic and (most importantly) to the ridiculous Rachel hairdo. These days, the show’s reruns stream on the WB website, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to catching an episode or two per week. While I’m still resisting most things that have to do with both whiny Rachel and dinosaur-obsessed Ross, I have grown quite fond of the remaining four ensemble characters. Hell, I even thrill to the sight of Chandler’s endlessly cycling weight and have found that Monica is merely an amplified version of my own neurotic self. Plus, both Phoebe and Joey are dim bulbs but know how to step up their charisma at just the right moments. Overall, the ten seasons of this show now warm my little black heart even if the series finale was a little too wrapped up with a Monica-styled bow. Admittedly however, most of my guilty pleasure that comes from watching this old popular culture standby has to do with the steady, often amusing supply of guest stars: Sean Penn, Bruce Willis, Reese Witherspoon, Christina Applegate, Paul Rudd, Brad Pitt, and so many more. Also, Morgan Fairchild and Kathleen Turner as Chandler’s parents? Hilarious. — Agent Bedhead
Mulholland Dr.: I can remember sitting in Milwaukee’s last picture palace, The Oriental, in the spring of 2001, gearing up to watch David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. My exposure to Lynch, at that point, had been fairly limited. I think I had only seen Lost Highway (1997) and, as DVD was still a relatively up and coming medium at the time, many Lynch titles had yet to be remastered or released as catalog titles, so they were difficult to find at my small Port Washington video store. So, I sat in front of the white movie screen, unsure of what I was going to encounter and praying to God it wasn’t going to be the horrifying Robert Blake wearing pancake mix on his face. The first time around, I was on board with Mulholland Dr. until the psychotic break following the Club Silencio sequence. I had my bearings; I knew enough about detective movies at the time to get some of the homages. Essentially, I felt as if I was in the know. Then, Lynch pulled the rug out from underneath me. Characters and their relationships to one another became redefined and I simply did not have the vocabulary or critical training to grapple with the frustration wrought upon me by surrealist filmmaking. As a senior in high school, I just didn’t have the training or the context. The film pissed me off, and, furiously, I tried to embellish my critical arsenal so that when Mulholland Dr. and I met on the white void of the screen again, I would not be made a fool of. I began working my way through his filmography, I started reading Sigmund Freud (cue Joe Esposito’s “You’re the Best Around” for my film critic training montage) and books about Lynch, and I even ordered a bootleg of the “Twin Peaks” pilot from China. When I finally dueled with the film again, once again at the Oriental, I finally understood it within the matrix of dream logic. I pieced it together with friends, forming an analysis that my college roommate at UW-Milwaukee would later challenge and help me refine. Mulholland Dr. is not a film to be taken literally; it is very much the embodiment of a subjective experience that pushes the viewer to make sense of their own reality. In my case, a stronger, more critical filmgoer. — Drew Morton
Dead Man: I think it took me six tries before I was actually able to sit through all of the 1995 Jim Jarmusch film Dead Man. I’d always been a fan of the director’s work, and after hearing from some source I respected that it was a great movie, I couldn’t have been keener. Alas, entry into the movie was impossible for me: I’d get ten minutes into it one time, fifteen minutes the next, and then thirteen minutes, and then listless and demoralized, like I was on a long, desolate drive to nowhere, I’d quit. Devoid of irony, there was a leaden brutality, a kind of deadness to the film that I found entirely oppressive, and I was certain that I had stumbled into a failed art house film, an intentionally difficult movie that would only appeal to the pretenses of those who liked, well, intentionally difficult film. But then something clicked, and suddenly I saw before me a mesmerizing and strange work of genius.
A trippy, existential Western infused with the amoral sentiments of a Cormac McCarthy novel, Dead Man traverses a vast and alien landscape that’s in the process of being cannibalized by those who would inhabit it. Shot entirely in black-and-white, it’s a beautiful film that sends out a mythic pulse that penetrates the audience on an almost subliminal level. The brilliant soundtrack by Neil Young, as lonely and desolate as a car burning by the side of the road, was a character unto itself, and Johnny Depp — just before his persona began to dominate his still excellent acting — was a simultaneously innocent and psychopathic presence, like a silent film star. The experience of the movie was like drifting toward a kind of outer space. Pushing west and reaching ever outward, boundaries fell away until there was nothing but sky above and water below, revealing an astonishment of beauty and mystery. — Michael Murray
Iron Man 2: Because of when I review films (typically an early showing on Fridays), the screenings I attend tend not to be crowded. For a critic, this is double-edged. It’s good because I’m unlikely to have my opinion tainted by obnoxious or loud movie-goers or ringing cell phones, but bad because I’m deprived of the huge movie crowd experience. A large boisterous crowd can occasionally be so infectious as to make a bad movie seem good. This is particularly true of comedies and horror films, where a good audience can work like laugh tracks, eliciting cheers in all the right places. (The converse is also true: Like laugh tracks, people laughing can be obnoxious and grating in a film like Meet the Fockers or Big Momma’s House). Films like Drag Me to Hell and The Blair Witch Project I saw with the right crowds, but I saw them both a second time in theaters with much smaller ones, and the experiences weren’t nearly as fun. This was also true of Iron Man 2, which I caught at a crowded midnight screening where the audience was pumped-up and rowdy, cheering at all the right moments. I left the theater and immediately wrote up my review, delirious from lack of sleep and riding high on the adrenaline fumes of the crowd. So giddy with that excitement, I barely stopped long enough to consider Iron Man 2 critically. I gave it a glowing review and posted it immediately.
Within 24 hours, and after a few winks of sleep, I was already beginning to regret that review. Iron Man 2, of course, was mediocre at best. It was charmless, overlong, and thanks to the Avengers digressions, disjointed, less a sequel to the magnificent Iron Man and more a shameless commercial for an eventual Avengers movie. It had lost its energy, but the crowd I was with filled in those gaps. I still give that moviegoing experience a glowing notice, but before the opening weekend was even over, I was embarrassed by the effusive review for such a rotten, lifeless sequel. — Dustin Rowles
Signs: When I first saw Signs, it managed both to terrify me and make me think. I used to defend it at length, because its flaws as a science fiction film were made up for by its strengths as a horror film meditating upon the nature of faith. I still maintain that it is an incredibly effective horror film, an exercise in allowing you to suddenly see something in the corner of the screen at the same moment as the point of view character. But as a film about faith, my opinion has gradually deteriorated. It hinges on a very simple nuance: a crisis of faith cannot be mended by evidence, and yet that is the precise nature of the film’s twist ending. Graham (Mel Gibson) loses faith in God and the universe when his wife senselessly dies, victim of an accident with no one to blame, and her last words seem to reflect the pointlessness of the universe; “neurons randomly firing,” he describes it later. When Graham comes to believe that her words did have meaning, that the event indirectly helps save their children, he again finds his faith. But that’s a siren call, a child’s view of the universe. It’s answering the question of why bad things happen by just denying that bad things actually happen, that terrible things happen only in order to make good things happen later. Graham only has faith because his wife’s death has direct and tangible meaning, which is the antithesis of faith. It is abject cynicism. — Steven Lloyd Wilson
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