Over the weekend at my house, we started to watch two films nominated for Best Picture Academy Awards in the past year.
After 10 minutes or so each, we quit watching them. I have no desire to resume. Neither film gave me the slightest promise that there would be anything worth seeing if I would only waste more time on them.
First, we tried “American Hustle.”
It opens with a bloated Christian Bale going through a personal grooming ritual that is so odd that it takes a moment to realize what he is doing. And what he is doing is laboriously pasting a hunk of black hair to the top of his pate as filler, and then elaborately pasting a combover on top of that, at gravity-defying angles.
Then there is a scene with Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner. Bradley Cooper has a ridiculous permanent, and is dressed in clothes meant to give the spectacularly ugly duds on Bale a run for their money. In case you may be trying to ignore the clothes and the hair, Amy Adams points out how much Cooper is dressed like Bale. Or someone does. I’m not going to watch again to check.
Then enters Renner with a pompadour that would have embarrassed Elvis in the depths of his Vegas decadence. My wife points out, “Who wore a pompadour in 1978?” No one, I replied.
Then ensues a confusing argument in which every other word starts with F. Then, the film turns to flashback, showing us how Bale and Ms. Adams got together. You didn’t want to know, and as they tell you, you want to know less. There is nothing appealing about these people. Even Ms. Adam’s celebrated, exaggerated décolletage is off-putting after a couple of moments.
The film depicts these people as so ugly, so sad, so tawdry, so flawed, so tacky, so off-putting that every moment of watching them is painful. Oh, and I was an adult during this era. Yeah, the fashions were tacky. But this film wallows in ugliness to a point far, far beyond invoking an era. Our clothes were sometimes ridiculous, but beneath them we were still real people, people as fully, appealingly human as anyone today, or at any other time in human history. We were not the sum of off-putting fashions. As it seems everyone in this film is.
My wife was first to say she had seen enough. So I popped it out and tried “Nebraska.”
The very first gritty, windy, black-and-white image of a pathetic old man walking down a highway was decidedly unappealing, but I said, look — I expected this to be kind of a downer. But I’m hoping it’s leavened with some stuff that makes it rewarding to watch.
It wasn’t. Everyone in it, every single situation depicted, was completely depressing. No one had a reason to embrace or even, seemingly, to endure life. Even the usually delightful Bob Odenkirk was a complete bummer.
As with “Hustle,” the film seemed to be daring me to keep watching — slapping me in the face and saying, “Can you take it? Huh? Can you? Here’s some more! Slap!”
And I have no reason to take that.
I feel the alienation, but I will keep watching — and be rewarded for it.
For some reason, irrelevantly, I started thinking about “The Graduate.” Remember the beginning? A depressed, almost catatonic Benjamin sitting on the plane, then riding the moving sidewalk in the terminal on his way to pick up his baggage, with “Sounds of Silence” playing? It was hip. It was arty. It was ironic. It was all about alienation. You were meant to sense Benjamin’s disconnection from his dispiriting surroundings.
But… you wanted to keep watching! There you were, stuck in the theater — you’d bought your ticket. Mike Nichols could have assumed that he had you for the whole 105 minutes. But he didn’t abuse that. He made you want to keep watching, and see what happened to Benjamin. Maybe it was just the Simon and Garfunkel — but you wanted to keep watching. And you were richly rewarded for doing so.
But the directors of these two films I gave up on over the weekend aren’t going to stoop to seek my approval, or even my submissive cooperation. Even though I’m sitting there in my TV room with four remotes at hand, with cable and Netflix streaming and iTunes and Amazon and all sorts of alternatives at my complete command, not to mention my not inconsiderable DVD collection — they just keep slapping me, poking me in the eye, trying to make me go away.
Well, they succeeded.