One of the most notable pieces of news to come out of 2014 Cannes involved the critical failure of Lost River, Ryan Gosling’s first foray into being a filmmaker. Likened to some unholy love child of David Lynch, Terrence Malick, and regular Gosling helmer Nicolas Winding Refn, the film was declared a disappointing debut for the dreamboat. Ironically, the negativity made me genuinely interested in see it.
Admittedly everything I know about Lost River comes from the aforementioned article featuring excerpts from the reviews. I don’t want to know any more because I want to experience this film with as little knowledge and expectations as possible. But the comparison to those other directors, even in a condescending way, has me anticipating it. Maybe it won’t be great, it will probably fall flat on its face, but it would be a change from the majority of fare out there. And something different is what I’m pretty much always looking for, but now especially.
Summers are especially bad times for film-goers who enjoy esoteric works. Even ignoring the mega blockbusters, many of the smaller films out there are still crowd-pleasing affairs (e.g. Chef) that lack the psychological and visceral punch of movies that use film as an art form. The types of emotional responses to many summer films – of all sizes – are relatively limited. It’s not so much that they are boring or bad, but more like they do nothing to overcome our desensitized nature of having seen it all before.
There is something particularly refreshing about walking out of a theater and not knowing precisely what I just saw or how I felt. Where my response is as abstract as the film attempts to be. Where even if I described every aspect of the movie, I couldn’t come close to capturing what it’s about. Much like dreams, the more I try to explain these films, the more they drift away. That’s one of cinema’s most remarkable powers, regardless of the individual movie’s critical or commercial acclaim.
Many of these “weirder” films don’t necessarily get good reviews. That’s understandable when you accept that niche doesn’t necessarily mean “critical darling.” There’s plenty of reasons why many of these art house movies hit with “the elite,” while many don’t. Nevertheless, just because they are purposely off-putting doesn’t make them any less interesting or exciting.
One of my favorite theatrical experiences of recent years was Leos Carax’s Holy Motors in 2012 – 91% on Rotten Tomatoes with an average rating of 8.2/10. Prior to buying my ticket, all I knew was that its title was appearing positively on a lot of movie sites; I didn’t even know the director. Standing alone, it is a strange and unpredictable journey, but having absolutely no idea what it’s about or where it’s going helped me become more absorbed into it. I didn’t have a scene I was expecting to see, a plot point I knew it was going to hit, a sense of the tone it was aiming for, or even a pre-existing faith in the director or star. All I had was a whim, and it paid off in a way that I can’t actively try to replicate.
Through the film, Carax and star Denis Lavant expertly merged the bizarre and the enjoyable. As dark and as strange as the movie got, it never abandoned the sense that it was about a genuine love of cinema and appreciated that the audience shared that admiration. Holy Motors quickly established a level of trust with the viewers and let them know that, although they might not understand everything, to just give in and enjoy the ride. Like the best of this “genre,” Holy Motors evinced a mutual respect between filmmaker and audience that heightened the viewing; it’s a relationship that only these movies can provide.
Alternatively, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives (starring Ryan Gosling) received a 40% on Rotten Tomatoes with an average rating of 5.1/10. (Part of its low ranking might be because it was the follow-up to Refn/Gosling’s hit Drive.) Despite the 50 percentage separation between it and Holy Motors, I still genuinely liked it. When it hit theaters last July, its timing was perfect. Appearing like an oasis in the summer desert (and yes, I realize that analogy stinks), it served as an important reminder of how unique films can be. The impact of a long tracking shot is even more startling after going through countless hours of quick cuts or static shots. When the lighting says as much as the dialogue, the movie is operating on a completely different level than expected, but in all the best ways. Maybe some of its symbolism was a bit obvious and hokey, but I just enjoyed having the ability to discuss symbolism. Even the main complaints in the Rotten Tomatoes summary “fails to add enough narrative smarts or relatable characters” are not a hindrance if neither of those things is important to the work the filmmaker wants to create or how he or she wants to connect.
Obviously, not every movie is going to be like those two. It takes a really special film or filmmaker to have enough of a rapport with the audience to bring them along on their surrealistic, nightmarish fantasies without appearing overly pretentious or trying too hard. But in film seasons populated by fun-but-ultimately-hollow affairs, it’s worth rolling the dice on a title that could be challenging. Even if it fails, it can provide a greater understanding and awareness of the myriad of tools available at the filmmaker’s disposal, which in turn promotes a greater appreciation of film of all types.
Presently, it’s impossible for me to know where Lost River will fall in my own personal rankings. I could very well hate it. Regardless, knowing that there’s something coming out soon that presumably contributes to this avant-garde tradition at the very least means there’s one night I’m probably leaving the theater with something to contemplate. And I find that refreshing.