Sunday, June 18, 2006

Nostalgia Car Trip

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I don't know how many critics would admit to reading other critics. But, as an amateur critic (or, at least, as a self-professed one), I know I do. I can't resist comparing my relatively uninformed responses to that of professionals who---I hope, anyway---have reflected on and sweated movies for years, or certainly longer than I have.

The problem is: I am, I'll admit, a pretty impressionable person, and so sometimes I've allowed what may have been an initial ecstatic response be colored by reading a professional critic who has articulated reservations that a) I didn't think of, and b) I can understand and maybe even agree with.

Case in point: I saw Cars (**½ out of ****) this afternoon, and overall I found myself entertained and occasionally awed by it. Then I came and looked back at some of the reviews---some people suggested that Cars is probably the weakest Pixar film so far---and I started to think that maybe it wasn't as good a movie as I thought as I was watching it. I wonder if that's something a professional critic really should be doing, if he/she wants to have separate, original responses to movies. Maybe I still retain a hint of caring about what other people think---a trait that I suppose is a less than desirable one for a critic.

Upon reflection (and the insights of other film writers), I could probably create a whole long list of problems with the film. Yes, it's fairly predictable early on where the story is going to once we see that the main character, a race car named Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), is selfish and too much in love with stardom---obviously, this being a Disney film, he's going to have to change his ways. In fact, the movie as a whole is pretty predictable, period. Yes, the movie, at 116 minutes, is probably a bit too long and meandering. Yes, perhaps the computer animation in this one isn't as consistently dazzling as, say, the extraordinarily detailed underwater visuals of Finding Nemo (although Cars still has amazing sights to spare). Yes, some of the attempts at whimsical jokes fall down with a thud. And certainly one could say that, compared to the thematic depth and maturity of The Incredibles, Cars, with its nostalgia for an allegedly richer, less technologically advanced time, is impossibly retro.

It's no masterpiece or anything, but, given all those problems...I must say, I enjoyed the film. I enjoyed its beautifully rendered outdoor scenery. I enjoyed its loving and nostalgic spirit. But I especially enjoyed the fact that I started the movie pretty much having a good idea where this film was headed, and found myself a little surprise that there was more to it than merely a parable about a selfish man learning to become less so.

On the edges of Cars is a reflective, even slightly elegiac film that suggests that we lost something---human intimacy, an appreciation for beauty, etc.---when cities were allowed to develop and encroach upon small towns like the film's Radiator Springs, where everybody knows each other and nobody is in a rush as most city folk are. "Don't you feel like slowing down once in a while?" one car says to another in this film. As someone who often feels like I have very little time to simply sit down and just relax and be alone with my thoughts, that kind of sentiment certainly speaks to me in a profound way. I mean, for all the mundane beauty of hustling, bustling New York City, there isn't always much of a chance for real human connection in a big city like that---everyone always seems to be on the go, headed somewhere. Cars---going beyond its predictably Disney-ish "think about others and don't be too selfish" moral---depicts an appealingly idyllic fantasy town that stands in stark contrast to the impersonality of technologically advanced cities.

Now, of course, that might strike many others as an old-hat theme, one that has been explored with more insight and honesty in other (live-action) films. Perhaps. (For me, nothing in Cars comes close to matching that long, eloquent, wordless sequence in Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 Solaris in which a camera follows behind a car traveling through city highways and byways for about five minutes---first starting out in black and white; cutting to one of the characters sitting in the backseat of the car; then cutting back to the camera following behind the car, now in color, as it enters a city; and then cutting to an overhead bird's-eye view of the city's twisting highways---in evoking the exuberance and impersonality of big cities.) I'll just say that I nevertheless found myself touched by the film in parts, and occasionally dazzled by the scenery John Lasseter & co. create to visually expand upon this theme; the desert scenery is so majestic that it's hard not to understand why one of the cars, Sally (Bonnie Hunt), says she never wanted to leave it.

I'll also say this: sometimes, for film critics and for wannabe "serious" filmgoers, it's perhaps too easy to cynically dismiss a goodhearted movie such as this just because it follows a predictable character trajectory, or because it trumpets values many other children's films---such as Pixar's own Toy Story---has trumpeted before. Intellectually, I know this film is probably second-rate Pixar at best, and perhaps its view of the past is overly rosy-colored and dishonest. But emotionally I was moved by its depth of feeling and by its warmth and faint sadness. And, if it was overlong, I didn't really mind: its relaxed pace seems all of a piece with its nostalgia and sense of loss.

And if one could conceivably cry "bullshit" at its view of the past---well, maybe it's just personal wish fulfillment on my part that allows me to enjoy it nevertheless.

Ironic, though, isn't it, that a story that believes in a more innocent, albeit less technologically advanced, time is populated by talking cars---cars being one of the great technological advances of the past century? (Granted, there is not even a mention of hybrid cars in this film, but still...)


Anonymous said...

I see nothing wrong with your critique of a film coming from your heart i.e your emotional reaction to the film. It is refreshing to read a review that does not mirror every other review. If you honestly liked a film, say so. Nothing wrong with that and if you justify your reasoning well, as you do, it's fine and there will be a place in the world of film critics for you. There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to opinion of a film or other work of art--- opinion is opinion and if you stand out from the crowd---well, that's originality, and that's a positive not a negative.

Kenji Fujishima said...

I think the thrust that I was trying to express in this particular post was that, while I sometimes feel one way about a film as I watch it, sometimes I have a tendency to be swayed a bit too easily by opinions that differ from mine---especially if many opinions seem to differ from mine. Cars was an example of this, in a way: I found the movie pleasurable, but my reservations only really articulated itself in my mind when I read the mixed reviews of the film, some of which made some good points arguing against the film. One is supposed to be able to count on critics to cultivate a separate response, uncolored by popular opinion. Sometimes I allow my personal opinion to be too easily colored; this is especially problematic for me when I "cheat" and look at other reviews in order to help me write mine. That was the basic point of this post.

Anonymous said...

Try just writing your review immediately after seeing the film, without reading any other reviews. Don't read any reviews BEFORE you see the film either! In other words, don't "cheat". You don't really need their help to write yours. Then it will be YOUR review and will not be colored by the other writers. If after writing your review, you see that it differs from the others, so what? This is how you can develop your skills and your individuality. (and gain confidence in YOUR own ability to write)