The Shawshank Redemption is a problematic movie for me, and I imagine for many others as well.
It's gone through a rather strange evolution, from underdog at the time of its release (a clearly second-fiddle best picture nominee after Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction) to modern classic that regularly appears at or near the top of IMDB's top 250 (it's currently #1, actually). This evolution is credited to its regular appearance in the rotation of cable networks like TNT, where it has gotten the opportunity to ingratiate itself to viewers who are wiling away a lazy Sunday afternoon.
So why should a person be ashamed of saying they love a movie that ranks #1 on some kind of theoretically reputable movie list?
Because more than any other movie, it seems like the movie that identifies you as a "new-school cinephile."
See, the same people who made The Shawshank Redemption #1 on IMDB are the people who have elevated such films as The Dark Knight and The Avengers through the rankings. Their latest project appears to be Interstellar, which is all the way up at #22 on IMDB. That's a pretty high ranking for a movie that was actively disliked by a significant percentage of the people who saw it.
So if new-school cinephiles like sci-fi and comic book movies so much, shouldn't Guardians of the Galaxy be #1 on IMDB? Or one of the aforementioned titles?
No, because even those guys know that although they may love those movies, those movies are not strictly speaking "reputable" movies. Those movies are not "serious" movies about "real" issues.
When looking for such a movie, they go Shawshank.
"Real" cinephiles don't really talk about Shawshank much, because on some level they probably recognize that it is a really, really good movie. However, because of its popularity, they distrust it in a similar way to how they (more rightly) distrust the aforementioned Forrest Gump. They think the mere fact of its popularity means there is something objectionable about it. Any movie chosen to be #1 in a democratic system must be inferior, because Joe Blow does not know how to properly assess the quality of a movie.
I sort of agree with this thinking. In general, I would hope that my favorite movie of the year was not also the movie that made the most money at the box office. I pride myself on not being a snob, but you have to be at least somewhat snobbish or else you aren't going to display that kind of selectivity that inspires you to seek out hidden gems. You want a movie to speak to you in a way that is not just the most surface-level interpretation that can be attained by just anybody. If everybody loves a movie, there must be something too obvious about it by half.
So that finally brings us to my Saturday afternoon viewing of The Shawshank Redemption, my first viewing of it since I started keeping track of repeat viewings back in 2006. I'd say I'd seen it three or four times all the way through before that, and countless bits here and there on TV.
I haven't seen it yet in the era in which it has become such an unqualified beloved hit, in which it is actively troublesome for people who imagine themselves to be discriminating consumers of cinema.
It was with this sense of wariness that I threw it in the DVD player. I was kind of scared of both possible outcomes. I was scared of loving it, because it would align me with all those less-discriminating viewers who have elevated it to the top of the IMDB chart. But I was also scared of not loving it, because that would mean I have continued to champion something that really isn't as good as it's cracked up to be. It's still #25 on my Flickchart, though that's down from a high of around #18 or #19.
Well, I still loved it. In fact, I was surprised to find myself overwhelmed by emotion at a finale that I knew all too well.
The experience of watching it was like getting back in touch with an old friend. I knew its rhythms, and I fell right back into them. I didn't need to watch every moment of it with undivided attentiveness, which I sensed, allowing me to select it as the movie to watch while disassembling my computer. (I'd gotten a disc stuck in there the night before.) I think this is why it became such a hit on TNT -- a lot of people watched it in the background of their lives as it played in their living rooms while they were doing other things.
And is there something wrong with that? No, no there isn't. I love a movie that reveals a little bit more about itself on every new viewing, where visual easter eggs are hidden that can only be detected through multiple viewings. I love discovering unexpected themes running through films, and how the creative camera or editing choices highlight those themes. I love films that challenge and frustrate. But I also love a straightforward movie that just does what it does exceptionally well. The Shawshank Redemption is such a movie.
If that makes me uncool to "real" cinephiles, then I'm uncool.
Hey, Lester Bangs said it was okay.