The Curse of the Worthy Movies

When Netflix first started their DVD service, we did what everyone else did. We loaded up our queue with classic movies from the old days and started watching stuff we’d always wanted to see but never gotten around to. Then Netflix recommended “more like this” and the movies we watched got worthier and Worthier and WORTHIER. Before we knew it our queue was full to the brim with Iranian Tragedies and French Kitchen Sink Dramas. It got to be too much and we quit Netflix.

You have to pace yourself.

It’s great to watch the occasional worthy movie—those films are on everyone’s Top Ten list for a reason—but you have to mix in some fun stuff too or it starts to feel too much like hard work.

In my ideal movie club we’d think about movies according to two attributes.

  1. Are they fun?
  2. Are they good quality?

We can plot our movies on a chart with four quadrants. As always, it’s best to be high on the right.

Click chart to embiggen.

Movies that are high on the left are the ones you find on famous people’s top ten lists. It’s Citizen Kane & Battleship Potemkin. It’s Metropolis and The Bicycle Thief. Anything by Shakespeare or Kurosawa.

You can tell you’ve watched a Worthy Movie if, when you get to the end you say “I’m glad I watched that, but I hope I never have to watch it again.”

Watching your worthy movies is something you should do occasionally, like having a colonoscopy, and you should feel good about yourself afterwards. But it’s no fun spending all your time with a tube stuffed up your arse.

The bottom right has your fun movies that you watch when you don’t want to think too much. They are just good, escapist mind fluff. Think Clint Eastwood and an Orang Utan or gym teachers who howl when you take them to the dirty laundry room. Sex with Pies.

Mindless Enjoyment is a fine thing once in a while but too much of it and you’ll rot your brain.

There’s only one reason to watch a movie in the bottom left quadrant. Remember when you watched a whole bunch of movies that you thought were hilarious when you were twelve. You should watch them one more time as an adult, just to remind yourself how far you’ve come. Farting cowboys are not as funny as they used to be.

There are so many classic movies up in that top right quadrant that you might wonder why anyone would watch anything else—especially in a movie club whose charter requires them to watch classic movies of yesteryear.

There are two reasons why that doesn’t happen.

First reason: If everyone follows the same algorithm (a worthy movie now again is a good thing), then we’ll all have a worthy movie in mind. We’ll all have to watch everyone’s worthy movie before we get to the good stuff and, in a movie club with 100 members, if we each nominate one worthy movie we should start watching classic movies in about two years.

The other good reason to watch a worthy movie—and we’ve all made this mistake—is to ask someone else for advice. You know, that brother-in-law who loves movies, or the co-worker who went to film school. Or maybe there’s some famous film critic online. Ask any of these people what their favourite movie is and they’re gonna pick a worthy movie. Their reputation depends on it.

They won’t tell you that the movie is no fun of course. After you complain that you just sat through 3 hours of Egyptian Brass Bands wandering around the Israeli desert or Japanese business men held captive in some sand dunes, they’ll say “Oh yeah. It was a bit heavy going in places…” or “Right. It’s a long time since I’ve watched that one.” It was probably an honest mistake but you are not getting those three hours back. Trouble is, we all have a brother-in-law like that and they all want to recommend a worthy movie.

Anyway, so I’ve started a movie club and we got off to a great start. One mindless fun movie to get us started then a couple of classics that are among the top-rightiest movies that have ever been made.

We’re currently lost in The Worthy Zone but I have high hopes that we’ll get back to the top right soon, though we may have to make a slight detour into oh-my-god-no-land before we get there.

This week’s choices fill the quadrants completely. I hope we choose well.

Come join us, why don’t you?

It’s all good

lesmisI saw Les Misérables on stage with my wife-to-be on one of our first dates and read the book soon after. I watched it again last night with my daughter after a twenty-something-year gap and I think I spotted something new about the story that I have not heard mentioned before. I even went to check the SparkNotes to see if this was some obvious theme that only I was missing but… nope. No one else noticed it but me.

When anyone mentions Les Mis, there are a few themes that immediately pop into your mind: it’s very long and tedious; it’s sentimental kitsch; the songs are awful; the story is an entirely predictable tale of redemption for Jean Valjean; the scene on the barricades is totally unnecessary and out of place.

All those things are true but I think there is something quite profound about how the characters interact with each other. All of the characters (*with one possible exception below!) are very moral according to their own particular version of morality. Of course, since it’s a liberal play/book/movie, all the ‘good guys’ subscribe to liberal conceptions of morality: everyone deserves a chance; kindness will be repaid; poor people commit crimes out of necessity.

But if that was all there was to the story, it would be a very shallow fable about a very liberal morality — we all get to cry for Fontine and boo at Javert — but I suspect that there might be more to it. We have all been missing something quite shocking.

Everyone in Les Mis behaves quite morally—according to their own understanding of right and wrong. Even the baddies.

Jean Valjean gets off to a bad start but learns the power of love and earns his redemption many times over.

The priest believes that everyone deserves a chance and gives Valjean his at great cost to himself.

Fantine gives up every sliver of self-respect to keep her daughter alive.

Javert believes in the Rule of Law above all and it matters not at all to paladin-types like Javert that Valjean has done good in his life. Valjean has broken the law and must be punished. Javert is willing to devote his whole life to bringing Valjean to justice.

The anarchists on the barricades believe the government is corrupt and should be overthrown. The soldiers who gun them down have the opposite view.

The slut-shaming women that get Fantine fired from her job believe that sexual impropriety and non-traditional families are Very Very Bad and should be punished. The Slut-shamers’ beliefs are probably shared by a majority of People Who Consider Themselves to be Morally Upstanding.

The photo that got Ashley Payne fired from her teaching job.
The photo that got Ashley Payne fired from her teaching job.

The foreman who actually sets Fantine on the road to self-destruction is following an ethical code that has held sway for most of human history and has only recently begun to retreat from the mainstream. In the glorious 50s that conservatives love to reminisce over,  most young women would have been suffered the same fate as Fantine. Even today, young teachers can be fired for inappropriate Facebook photos.

The only exception to the ‘everyone is moral’ rule is, of course, The Master of the House but I bet, if you asked him, even he would say that all those other conceptions of morality were invalid and that the only proper behaviour is to look out for your own interests.

[* OK. That last one is a stretch. The Thénardiers are quite evil]

It’s quite something that all these conceptions of morality still have their champions 150 years after Hugo wrote it all down for us. Will we ever figure out which one is correct?




Once-ler Goes to Hollywood

Why is that these two statement evoke such different reactions?

I hear they are making a movie of  The Lord of the Rings.

I hear they are making a movie of The Lorax.

Those of us who are fans of JRR Tolkien were positively thrilled when we heard the fantastic news all those years ago.

They are making a movie of the ring trilogy and it’s gonna be bloody marvellous!


No doubt Harry Potter fans had a similar reaction so why is that, when I hear that they are making a movie of my favourite Dr Seuss story, my reaction is:

They are making a movie of The Lorax and it’s gonna be shit!


I have a special connection to The Lorax. When the biggest small clown was much smaller, we had a huge pile of Dr Seuss books and we read them over and over. Our favourite was The Lorax and we read it so often that I ended up knowing it by heart (and can still recite big chunks of it).

One time, we went on a family trip somewhere far away like Yosemite or Lake Tahoe and the little clown was bored with the journey home. He couldn’t have been more than two years old and to soothe his restless spirit, I started reciting the Lorax while I drove.

Big Clown: At the far end of town where the grickle-grass…
Little Clown: GROWS!

Little clown joined in and completed each line for me.

Big Clown: And the wind smells slow and sour when it…
Little Clown: BLOWS!
Big Clown: And and no birds sing excepting old…
Little Clown: CROWS!
Big Clown: Is the Street of the Lifted…
Little Clown: Lorlax!


Naturally, I thought my child was a genius when we made it through the whole book without missing a line. We especially enjoyed the little drama of saying goodbye to the brown barbaloots and the poor swamee-sans when they left and we had to say our tearful goodbyes.

Dr Seuss wrote a number of books that are just astounding for the simple clarity of their message.

If we are not good stewards of the natural world, we will destroy it.

Star. No star. No difference.

Try it. You might like it.

Life’s gonna be excellent. But sometimes it won’t be. You’ll need to keep on striving anyway to reach the good bits.

Little clown is almost big enough now to hear that last message one last time before he, like the barbaloots, says his goodbyes. I hope he pays as much attention to Oh, the Places You’ll Go! as he paid to The Lorax.

The movie version of The Lorax came out this week. I am determined not to see it because it will certainly, like every other adaptation of a Dr Seuss book, be shit. The littlest clown wants to see it though, so I read today’s review in the New York Times (possible paywall?) to see if it has any redeeming features. Nope.

“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.” Those words are a permanent part of the literary heritage, and no movie can change that. And when the Lorax is around, warily befriending the ambitious Once-ler, you can almost believe you are in the Seussian universe. The parable of an ambitious entrepreneur who lets his ingenuity curdle into unchecked greed is more or less intact, and his corruption is conveyed in a few memorable, semi-inspired visual flights. But these only emphasize the hectic, willful mediocrity that characterizes the rest of the movie, and far too many of its kind.

In the film as in the book, the Once-ler ravages the landscape and destroys the Truffula trees to manufacture thneeds, knitted garments that have multiple uses but no real utility. Demand for them is insatiable for a while, and then, once the trees are gone, the thneeds are forgotten, partly because nobody really needed them in the first place.

The reviewer conveys exactly why Hollywood is unable to tell simple stories and – bonus! – even answers the riddle of how we knew in advance that the movie will be shit.

There is an obvious metaphor here, but the movie is blind to it, and to everything else that is interesting or true in the story it tries to tell.

I hear they are making a movie of The Hobbit! It’s gonna be bloody marvellous!

The War on Avatar

Daniel Larison is rapidly becoming my favourite conservative and today he takes on a former favourite, Davids Brooks.

Brooks’ column today is about The White Messiah

This is the oft-repeated story about a manly young adventurer who goes into the wilderness in search of thrills and profit. But, once there, he meets the native people and finds that they are noble and spiritual and pure. And so he emerges as their Messiah, leading them on a righteous crusade against his own rotten civilization.

Larison, as always, goes ever so gently for the throat:

Brooks is right when he says the story teaches that, “Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.” What he fails to do is connect this to the urges of our own liberal imperialists and humanitarian interventionists, who are constantly warning against leaving other nations to their own devices and who are frequently complaining about our boundless benevolence that is repaid with contempt or indifference. He might consult his colleague Thomas Friedman on this point, since Friedman seems to think that most Muslims worldwide are “holding our coats” while we do all the heavy lifting on their behalf and that Afghanistan can be likened to a “special needs baby” that we as a country have just adopted. Muslims do tend to be reduced to supporting actors in Friedman’s own journey of self-importance.

One of the commenters at Eunomia used the delightful phrase

the neocons’ inexplicable War Against Avatar


Sorry. Your Tree is on our Mineral Mine.

Way to miss the point! (Don’t play with that or you’ll go blind)

But Avatar claims that there is something wrong with technology, and that the Na’vi of Pandora somehow represent opposition to it.

The right-of-center blogosphere that I loiter around has chosen to focus on the anti-corporate message in Avatar and, indeed, your attitude to corporatism is probably a good predictor of whether you enjoyed the movie (exception: Julio).

But it wasn’t the human’s technology that the Na’vi objected to.

Spoiler (highlight to read it):
It was the gunships the humans used to destroy their home.


The much-discussed irony of James Cameron’s “Avatar” (which has already grossed upwards of a billion dollars worldwide) is that it’s a celebration of primitivism, pantheism, and pre-modernity created with the most cutting-edge technological tools a modern capitalist society can muster.

If there is irony in the air, it is that the freedom-loving conservatives are terrified of the government telling them how to live their lives but are perfectly happy to let corporations do the same.

FWIW I thought the movie was alright.

The Battle of Algiers

Was going to write a review of The Battle of Algiers but it is so much easier to copy/paste from Roger Ebert.

At the height of the street fighting in Algiers, the French stage a press conference for a captured FLN leader. “Tell me, general,” a Parisian journalist asks the revolutionary, “do you not consider it cowardly to send your women carrying bombs in their handbags, to blow up civilians?” The rebel replies in a flat tone of voice: “And do you not think it cowardly to bomb our people with napalm?” A pause. “Give us your airplanes and we will give you our women and their handbags.”

Pontecorvo has taken his stance somewhere between the FLN and the French, although his sympathies are on the side of the Nationalists. He is aware that innocent civilians die and are tortured on both sides, that bombs cannot choose their victims, that both armies have heroes and that everyone fighting a war can supply rational arguments to prove he is on the side of morality.

His protagonists are a French colonel (Jean Martin), who respects his opponents but believes (correctly, no doubt) that ruthless methods are necessary, and Ali (Brahim Haggiag), a petty criminal who becomes an FLN leader. But there are other characters: an old man beaten by soldiers; a small Arab boy attacked by French civilians who have narrowly escaped bombing; a cool young Arab girl who plants a bomb in a cafe and then looks compassionately at her victims, and many more.

The strength of the film, I think, comes because it is both passionate and neutral, concerned with both sides. The French colonel (himself a veteran of the anti-Nazi resistance), learns that Sartre supports the FLN. “Why are the liberals always on the other side?” he asks. “Why don’t they believe France belongs in Algeria?” But there was a time when he did not need to ask himself why the Nazis did not belong in France.

The First One is still the best

I can’t get the hang of the blogging business. Is it better to leave comments on their blog or write a counter-blog of your own? Maybe you should blog then comment on theirs with a link back to yours? But what if they have trackback turned on? It’s all so confusing. In the end, I decided to comment on Aaron’s blog and reproduce it here.

Kevin said…

I watched the Star Wars movies in order. I thought Episode I was pretty good but went downhill after that.By Episode IV it was like he ran out of ideas or his budget for cool graphics was all gone or something.

Aaron didn’t enjoy it as much as I did…

Last night I watched Star Wars Episode 1. The movie really isn’t half bad except for three things.

… but at least we agreed that the first one was best.

Magic Roundabout?

If they ever plan to make a movie from a book/cartoon/comic/video game that you love you need to think carefully before going to see it. If that, let’s say, cartoon was made 40 years ago and you have ever so fond memories from your childhood about it, you need to think very, very carefully. If the original was made in stop-frame animation by french people then dubbed into English with all-new, surrealist plots and dry, witty dialogue and the remake was going to use the latest computer-generated, 3D animation with a hollywood screenplay and american voice actors … well, you shouldn’t even risk finding out that the cynical, world-weary, middle aged, main character was to be played by one of those cheery, hopeful, annoying child actors that only grow in California. But Dylan wanted to see it so we got it on pay-per-view.

It wasn’t bad. Once I got used to the fact that Dougal had shed his nihilistic pessimism and become Doogal the ever-smiling puppy, I was able to enjoy the show even though Zebedee never once said “Boing!” and Jon Stewart made a very sorry villian.

It was a shame that Florence had only a cameo role – I spent the first 7 years of school being called Florence and Florence was Best Supporting Actress in the original, the perfect optimistic foil to Dougal’s misery – and disappointing that Dylan was a pale imitation of a hippy – being called “a bit of Dylan” was the worst insult that you could hurl at a fellow seven-year-old and was the reason that no boy children in England were named Dylan between 1970 and 1995. Was Nigel Planer not available?

Still, I enjoyed it heartily. The children laughed and laughed (I did too) and we appreciated the Monty Python references having just watched The Holy Grail. Chevy Chase as the train was great and Ian McLellan was the perfect Zebedee. But…

…by what logic did they think it OK to end a remake of The Magic Roundabout and not have Zebedee say “Time for bed” ??? It’s criminal too that they could find a way to squeeze in the original theme music.


I told Dylan it was called ‘The Magic Roundabout’ in England and he asked why they kept calling it a ‘carousel’. I told him it was because ‘carousel’ is what americans call it. “No, it’s not”, he corrected me. “We call it a merry-go-round”. You learn something every day.


I just noticed from Wikipedia that the movie was made in England and then dubbed into American for over-here. Now I am very sad 🙁