This week’s question is from reader Justin Southern:
Is there a supposed defining “masterpiece” in a genre or by an artist you love that you actually hate? Like, if you are a huge sci-fi nerd, but you can’t stand Star Wars? Or if you’re a huge fan of Joss Whedon but hate Firefly?
I know I should, but I just don’t like Radiohead. Specifically, I don’t like Kid A, which, for many people I meet, is a holy grail, desert island record. I’ve tried time and again to get into it, but there’s little on Kid A that actually makes me feel anything. It’s the type of album that’s fascinating on an intellectual level, but that has yet to translate into something I actually want to listen to in my free time. As a music fan I’m “supposed to” love Kid A, but it’s never elicited an emotional response from me and I doubt it ever will. I’m not going to shit all over the thing, because if people enjoy it, that’s great, but I just don’t happen to be one of them. Even though, every couple of years, I put it on and try to be.
People on the internet—myself included—love to argue about comic book movies. But most people agree on one bedrock assumption about the superhero glut of the last 15 years: The Dark Knight is the best of the bunch. “Most people,” in this case, not including me, because I consider Christopher Nolan’s second Batman film to be the most overrated movie of my adult life. Is Heath Ledger’s Joker amazing? Of course he is. But one amazing performance cannot carry an entire movie, especially one that’s 152 minutes long, with a Lord Of The Rings-esque penchant for the unending climax. Poor Aaron Eckhart gets the worst of it, as he’s forced to cram two movies’ worth of Harvey Dent’s origin story, character development, and ultimate fall into a single over-stuffed film. But Michael Caine is the movie’s biggest offender. While the Oscar winner’s Alfred Pennyworth isn’t quite the blubbering mess he became in Nolan’s even-worse follow-up, The Dark Knight Rises, he’s still pretty bad, relying on years of audience affection and a bored British accent to sell clunkers like the inexplicably celebrated speech about how “some men just want to watch the world burn.”
These days, comic book writer Frank Miller’s personal politics have become—to put it nicely—controversial. Still, he has written a lot of great stuff over the years, and I’d say that his Batman: Year One is easily one of my favorite superhero stories of all time. However, I absolutely cannot stand Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, despite the fact that its story of an aging Batman who has pretty much retired from fighting crime has proven to be one of the most widely beloved and deeply influential Batman comics ever written. Maybe it’s because I grew up long after the campy Batman show of the ’60s—which DKR is an explicit rejection of—went off the air, but I just can’t connect with its vision of a Batman who seems to care more about what his crusade means to him than what it means to his city, let alone a Batman who recruits a gang to be his army after beating their leader into submission and is happy to kill himself just to knock Superman down a peg. As silly as it was, even the ’60s Batman felt like a more believable version of the character.
Call me a traitor, but I cannot enjoy The Lion King. I grew up on Disney movies and maintain a lot of residual affection for the company to this day. The very first movie I can ever remember seeing was a re-release of Sleeping Beauty, and the most recent film I saw in an actual movie theater was Zootopia. But the appeal of The Lion King utterly eludes me, even though it’s the most successful hand-drawn animated film of all time. When I read about the film’s massive box office haul or see fawning BuzzFeed posts about it, I react the way Michael Bluth reacted to his son’s underwhelming girlfriend, Ann, on Arrested Development. For me, The Lion King is Ann: The Movie. I don’t get what people see in it. The only engaging character in this whole film is the villain, Scar. Simba is a whiny nonentity who could have ended the movie much, much sooner if he hadn’t been so self-pitying. And the music is the most insipid, pandering musical tourism I’ve ever heard. It’s like Elton John and Tim Rice based their entire score around one of those generic Music Of Africa sampler CDs from a discount bin. As a member of a community concert band, I’ve had the opportunity to play selections from The Lion King during summer concerts, and I can attest that these tunes are fundamentally crummy, a collection of maudlin ballads, irritating jingles, and sub-Broadway sludge. “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” is particularly evil. God, I hate that song. But isn’t The Lion King a triumph of traditional animation? Yeah, I guess so, but give me Alice In Wonderland, Fantasia, or Pinocchio any day over this.
Let me say at the outset: I understand that Michael Mann’s Miami Vice is not considered a masterpiece by the public at large. But in the alternate world of the Mann faithful—as far as I can tell, populated by pretty much everyone who didn’t write him off after he switched to digital—the movie is beloved. I visit that world semi-regularly, but while I’ll argue hardcore in favor of Public Enemies and even enjoyed Blackhat, I don’t get the Miami Vice thing at all. It offers all the stuff late-period Michael Mann is supposed to offer—smeary digital imagery, taciturn men in passionate but dialogue-light relationships, procedural plotting that leaves out a lot of actual procedural detail—but it’s dreadfully boring, only coming to life for a few minutes of action at a time. For the rest, the normally charismatic Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx appear to be sleepwalking in some kind of Mannly haze. I wouldn’t say I strongly dislike Miami Vice in the sense that I probably tolerate it better than a lot of the moviegoing public, but when I heard the ridiculous but kind of awesome Blackhat dismissed as Mann’s worst-ever last year, I was shocked: It’s not worse than Miami Vice, is it? No. No, it is not.
As you might have guessed from my continued attempts to insert more musical-related content onto this site, I’m a huge fan of musical theater. And my tastes range from more contemporary stuff right back to the classics. In fact Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II are two of my all-time favorite composers, which is why I feel a little weird about actively disliking what is generally considered their best show and one of the best musicals of all time: Carousel. It’s not even the show’s gender politics that bother me (although its exploration of domestic abuse hasn’t aged very well); I just find the whole thing drippy and tedious. The songs alternate between shrill and lackluster, the characters are either dull or unlikable, and I have to listen to the world’s most vanilla ensemble sing the praises of a “real nice clambake.” Ugh. Plus I’ve always found it strange that what starts as a grounded New England drama in Act One suddenly devolves into a trippy fantasy in Act Two in which one of the main characters goes to heaven, talks to an angel, and revisits earth as a ghost. Literally, what the fuck? In my book, Carousel can keep on walking alone. I’ll stick with Oklahoma!, South Pacific, The Sound Of Music, Cinderella, and The King & I, thank you very much.
I love, love, Love David Lynch. I would go so far as to say it’s one of my defining traits. I wake up in the middle of the night about once a week with anxiety about whether or not the new Twin Peaks will be good. But I cannot stand Mulholland Drive. I actually don’t have much love for a lot of my favorite director’s movies. Elephant Man, Dune, Wild At Heart, Lost Highway—all pretty weak as far as I’m concerned. But the ones I love, I love more than anything else, and I find it personally offensive that there are people out there wasting time when they could be watching Fire Walk With Me. Again. And again. Don’t get me wrong, Mulholland Drive has a lot of really great scenes. Incredible scenes. The diner alley is maybe one of the most effective, perfect, simple pieces of filmmaking ever put on screen. But those scenes simply don’t resonate with each other. Lynch’s best works weave a dense, elegant tapestry of emotional symbols, but Mulholland Drive feels like it’s missing too many of the threads. Unlike Inland Empire, which I think is a delightful (and ultimately, completely cohesive) tangle of all sorts of fascinating material, Mulholland Drive feels loosely woven, and full of holes. The film was originally shot as an overstuffed pilot, then expanded into a feature after ABC rejected it, which explains to me why so much feels like it’s missing. But Lynch swears by the film, and many people consider it Lynch’s best film. You know who I’m talking about: people who prefer style over substance; people who think every single piece of dialogue from Twin Peaks is a punch line; people with short attention spans who like their music videos to be 150 minutes long and end with the words “A Paul Thomas Anderson film.” Hey, everyone’s entitled to their wrong opinions, right? All that being said, I’m glad Mulholland Drive happened, because it re-introduced David Lynch to a new generation of “sophisticated” audiences in the early 2000s. Without it, the Twin Peaks revival might never have happened—and I’d probably be waking up in the middle of the night worried about Donald Trump or something. Gross.
Cinephile friends of mine who won’t shut up about Stanley Kubrick love to debate which of his films are outright masterpieces, and which of them are merely “flawed but extremely good.” It’s a fair point: The director has one of the greatest resumés in the history of cinema, one that only seems to become further burnished by acclaim as time goes on. So it’s not out of any score-settling or contrarian stubbornness that I consider Barry Lyndon to be a bad movie. (Then again, according to Gus, I’m hopelessly shallow, because I think Mulholland Drive is one of David Lynch’s finest achievements.) It’s not for reasons of pacing—“slow and boring” is unironically one of my favorites genres of film—but simply because I don’t think a bunch of very pretty still photos adds up to a compelling movie. The whole thing strikes me as tedious, a subpar aristocratic potboiler in which no pots boil, and nothing of substance transpires in an engaging way. Kubrick devotees will accuse me of missing the point, but I’ve read the essays, and I just can’t get on board. No disrespect to those who love it—I can admire the film’s ambitions plenty. I just wish I enjoyed it in the slightest.
Arcade Fire’s Funeral should be completely in my wheelhouse: It’s an orchestral-rock record heavily influenced by Echo & The Bunnymen (a favorite band of mine) and Talking Heads. And while I like the uplifting vibe of “Rebellion (Lies)” and the stormier “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out),” I have never once managed to have any emotional connection with the record. Even knowing Funeral was inspired by serious subject matter (the death of relatives) didn’t make it resonate with me. If anything, it felt like the record’s arrangements robbed the songs of their urgency; Win Butler’s vocal yelps and crooning, and the band’s wan folk flourishes, both left me completely cold. Weirdly, I’ve always enjoyed the songs live when I’ve caught the band in concert. This merely lends credence to my theory that Funeral’s lack of aggression ultimately sunk it for me.
I came to John Irving early, maybe too early, thus cementing both the ideal of being a writer and of being a writer who writes about being a writer in my impressionable mind. Still, though, Irving’s novels like The Hotel New Hampshire, A Widow For One Year, The Water-Method Man, and especially The World According To Garp are some of my most re-read books, their sprawling, Dickensian narratives and tortured, sex-happy characters always inspiring and enthralling. So it’s always infuriating when any conversation about Irving invariably turns to his 1989 novel A Prayer For Owen Meany. Often cited as not only someone’s favorite John Irving book but their favorite book, period, I’m always left clenching my jaw to prevent the eye-roll and involuntary “Oh, here we go…” from betraying just how dreary and contrived I find it. Irving loves grotesques, characters whose singular obsessions define and deform them, but the titular Meany—a congenitally tiny and high-pitched little pipsqueak to whom Irving ascribes every possible virtue—isn’t even that complicated. He’s a walking, screeching (his dialogue is written in ALL CAPS, which is as headache-inducing as if he were screaming in your ear), speechifying little symbol, and the novel is the one deformed by him, the events all leading to a tidy tragedy that fulfills Meany’s destiny—and deforms my face at the same time into a contemptuous sneer.
I haven’t had the budget to make weekly pilgrimages to the comic shop for a little over a decade—my daughter turns 11 in July, if that helps explain the reason why—but there was a time when I worshipped at the altar of DC Comics and genuflected toward all the greats. As much as I enjoyed and respected the work of Jack Kirby, though, I could never get into his New Gods saga. I respect it, sure, and I realize that without it we wouldn’t have Darkseid, so I’m certainly glad it exists, but I’ve tried it repeatedly and failed. In fairness, I always struggled a bit with anything that felt vaguely Shakespearean when I was younger, so maybe I still hold a subconscious grudge against the Bard or something. Whatever the case, though, that epic saga has always been a yawn for me.