Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The questionable purity of my love for Enemy

No spoilers ahead.

Young movie fans -- at least, the young movie fans in the Facebook movie discussion group in which I participate -- worship at the altar of certain Hollywood personalities. You know, your David Finchers, your Christopher Nolans, your Jake Gyllenhaals and your Ryan Goslings.

So when one of them comes along and says that you have to see Enemy, and that Jake Gyllenhaal is even better in it than he was in Prisoners, I tend to take it with a grain of salt. Especially when the very adult hosts of the Filmspotting podcast have already barely failed to contain their guffaws over the movie, ultimately determining that they didn't know how to make heads nor tails of it.

But on Tuesday night I was determined to watch something from 2014, and had been frustrated in my attempt to get to the video store on $2 new release rental night. I was surprised to see that Enemy, a new release, was renting for only twice that in standard definition on iTunes -- and only 90 minutes total in length. I was downloading it before you could correctly pronounce the name "Denis Villeneuve." (Not so hard, actually -- I think it's De-knee Vill-a-noov. But Filmspotting host Josh Larsen was calling him "Vill-a-ne-view," so I've had that subconsciously in my head ever since.)

I knew going in that this same Facebook 15-year-old who was recommending Enemy was also recommending a video on Youtube in which this otherwise confounding movie was convincingly explained. I had it in the back of my mind that I'd probably watch that video after I finished the movie.

Not five minutes in I knew I liked the movie, but I was never sure precisely how much I liked it, even as the credits rolled. There was some beguiling imagery, some intellectually stimulating concepts and some good performances, but I wasn't sure if it had totally hit its mark. I was toying with giving it 3.5 stars and then not thinking a lot more about it.

But then I watched the video.

And it was no brief commitment, either. We're talking 25 minutes of a fully conceptualized and realized perspective on the film that came from a lot of thinking, but also represented absolutely zero grasping at straws. A complete and cogent deconstruction of the movie that left little doubt of the correctness, or at least viability, of this particular take on the film. Everything put forward in this video was there for the unpacking, it just took somebody to unpack it.

My 3.5 stars quickly jumped to 4.5 stars.

Because it's worth knowing as little as possible about Enemy going in, I'm not going to tell you anything about this Youtuber's Enemy theories. I'm just going to say that they knocked my socks off and made me love a movie I thought I only liked. Oh, and I'll also invite you to watch it yourself if you've already seen the movie, though only if you've already seen the movie:

What I actually want to talk about today is what this whole experience of liking, and then loving, and then not being able to stop thinking about Enemy has also made me think about: the fact that it could have just as easily become just another anonymous entry in my ongoing continuum of movie watching.

Put another way: Would I have ever discovered that Enemy was great without watching this video? And what does that mean?

Put another way: If you are going to truly love a movie, should that movie's clever tricks and hidden meanings and profound contemplations present themselves to you in and of themselves, without you having to do any additional work?

It's an interesting question, if I do say so myself. On the one hand, the important thing in loving a movie is the fact of truly loving it, and it doesn't really matter how you get there. If you can be convinced that a certain movie is trying to do a certain thing and succeeding wildly at what it's trying to do, it doesn't and shouldn't matter if that light bulb went off when you were watching it, or shortly afterward, or when someone explained their theory of it to you three years later. You got there, and that's all that matters.

But I can't escape the nagging feeling that there's been something inorganic about how I came to love Enemy. And that could be because I didn't give my brain the chance to do any of the processing that normally follows from a movie that engrossed me. Usually, or at least traditionally, you would let the movie roll around inside your head for a few hours or days, and maybe then start to read reviews or critical essays to expand on what you've already been thinking.

Nowadays, however, that timetable is severely collapsed. With the internet, we have access to anything and everything that has been written, or spoken, or recorded about a movie within moments of finishing it. Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes have culled together three dozen prominent discussions of the film, and just typing the film's name into Youtube gives you access to at least that many crackpot ideas of what it might or might not be about.

Even that would have been okay, except that I already knew this one particular Youtube video had been created and validated by several people I trusted as a really excellent interpretation of the movie. Whether I thought the movie needed additional interpretation was not something I gave myself the chance to decide. Whether any additional readings of the movie would occur to me on their own was not something I allotted the time to happen. Instead, less than five minutes after the movie, I was allowing a guy on Youtube to make those decisions for me.

I may be setting up a bit of a straw man here, though, because ultimately I'm really glad that I did see this video. I was all prepared to label this movie an intriguing curiosity and move on from it. Instead, I have a new contender for my favorite movie of the year so far, one that I am now eager to recommend to all my friends.

However, should I also recommend the video? Or should I let them decide on their own how great they consider Enemy?

And I am truly bothered by the question of whether Enemy really is a 3.5 star movie, because that's all the movie itself gave me. As a true 4.5 star movie, shouldn't I have been the one filming that Youtube video, based on my own conclusions about it?

Who knows, maybe I would have gotten there after all, if I'd given myself the time.

What I really wonder, though, is how many other movies I liked pretty well might become movies I loved if I just had the right discussion about them with the right person. Because ultimately, isn't that all that really happened with Enemy? That I had the right discussion? It was a pretty one-sided discussion, between a guy named Chris Stuckmann and his video camera, on which I happened to eavesdrop. But it was a discussion nonetheless, in the sense that a discussion can often involve a companion illuminating and elucidating ideas you may not have previously been able to access on your own.

In a way, my "conversation" with Chris Stuckmann was, or could have been, the same type of thing I'd have had with a particularly astute viewing companion, if we'd both just seen the movie and were processing it on the car ride home. Now, he/she would have indeed needed to be pretty sharp to put together this whole unified theory of Enemy in such a short time. But maybe I should just consider myself to have watched the movie with such a sharp person. They do exist.

Or maybe I watched the movie with Denis Villeneuve himself, since his own words are quoted in that video and played a role in steering Stuckmann toward his interpretation.

So is my love pure?

Sure is -- it's that purity one feels when they've been reminded once again of the exciting possibilities of cinema.


Travis McClain said...

Naturally, I concur wholeheartedly with your argument that an engaging dissection of a film is exciting and a key dynamic in our relationship with film, both collectively and on a one-on-one basis. I find myself hearing/reading that my insights have given someone else a new perspective on a film than I find myself saying/writing that to another, but either outcome has always been exciting for me whenever it happens.

And, really, it's more exciting when that happens than when I interpret a film on my own. That may lead me to a closer relationship with the film, but it's an entirely internal process. The film doesn't know or care what I've made of it. Interaction with others - even if it's strictly one party sharing and the other reading or listening, as was your experience with Enemy - involves a second party. Ergo, there's some kind of vetting/validating dynamic that isn't there when it's just you and the movie.

Not surprisingly, I reject outright the notion that this experience of yours is "inorganic". As you know, I don't believe in a probationary period for reviewing movies.
Besides, many of my first time viewings have been on DVD or Blu-ray Disc, and I have often immediately delved into bonus content. It's not uncommon for me to watch a movie and then watch it a second time with a commentary track all in one night/morning. Oh, and if it's something from The Criterion Collection, you can take for granted that I immediately read essays and watch whatever supplements are available.

In these instances, I confess I almost always explore such content prior to writing my review. If I learn something of interest, I note in my remarks what it is and where I got it. This might be because I'm conditioned to do some homework before writing, but I suppose it's more likely because, just as I'm too impatient to hold up writing a review, I'm just as impatient about exploring insights into what I've just seen. Besides, who wants to write something and have it smacked down with, "Dude, did you even bother to look at the essay in the booklet?" I certainly don't!

There's another aspect to this worth mentioning: Just like the people I meet, I'm usually content if my relationship with any given movie never changes much from whatever it is at the outset. My hope whenever I post a review (these days, almost exclusively in my Letterboxd diary) is that it will be the impetus for dialog with readers, and that something may be revealed - either to me, to them, or all of us - in the course of our discussion. That can't take place until and unless I initiate matters by putting out there my starting point for analysis, so I see no reason to suspend that process pending some arbitrary period of isolated contemplation.

So, short version: I, too, romanticize the dissection process but not your time-delayed approach to it.

Vancetastic said...


Well said. There's ultimately not any reason I have to develop my own insights about a movie rather than have someone else's shared with me, except that it makes me feel smarter to come up with them myself. :-) I suppose if I had really desired no further investigation of Enemy, I wouldn't have watched that video at all, especially at that length. So I was already hungering for more Enemy even if I downplay the extent to which I was hungering for it.

Your point is excellent that the reason we read about movies is because we are, in fact, desiring to learn more and have our experience of the movie expanded. Either that, or we just want someone to prove our perspective correct. I am ashamed at how often I read reviews just to hear someone echo what I feel -- rather than actually give me something new to chew on, which is a much better reason.

Travis McClain said...

I don't really find myself actively looking for corroboration of my own interpretations. If I come across something that agrees with me, I may file it away in case someone disputes my take on things, but even that rarely happens. I attribute that to my mutant power, over-thinking.