Tom Jolliffe looks at when films receive almost universal praise from critics and audiences, and an expectation that you should also love them. It’s not always the case…
The year is 2001. At this point I’ve already seen a few David Lynch films. I’d never (still haven’t) got round to Twin Peaks. I sort of liked Dune (I’ve a soft spot for messy 80’s sci-fi or fantasy). Eraserhead at that point was too weird for me. Blue Velvet is great. Even since, when picking up more first hand experience of his CV, I’m in the camp that finds Lynch a mixed bag. He’s never anything less than mesmerising but as far as the odd David’s, I’ve always lent more toward Cronenberg. It was this year that saw the release of Mulholland Drive.
A then unknown Naomi Watt’s headlining a mind-bending Hollywood pastiche, soft-lit neo-noir tale, full of Lynch’s mad flourishes. Critics loved it. Movie goers, particularly film buffs, took to it. In the intervening years since, it regularly appears in Essentials lists and Top 100’s. It’s marked down as one of, probably just a handful, of important cinematic moments of this century. I studied film. I’m not adverse to oddness or challenge and I still find this film watchable but I expect to love it. Why don’t I love it? It’s like managing Wycombe Wanderers. Against all probability they sign Lionel Messi. He should be your favourite player. The one you turn out every other week to see, but he’s not. You prefer that fella in the centre of defence who pumps his fist and yells a lot and gives a solid 7 out of 10 performance every week. Messi’s there scoring 100 goals in League 2…in his first 10 games, but you sort of think he’s a twat.
I don’t think Mulholland is a twat I should clarify. The film has grown on me. It’s certainly not as confusing to me now as it was in 2001. It looks great. Watt’s is fantastic. It’s a bit steamy too. Another factor that gave it a lot of attention upon release, with the infamous lesbian sex scenes. Lynch has never been shy of being blasé with film nudity and prodding the ratings boards (without going full Von Trier with it). On the flip side, Lost Highway was a Lynch film which didn’t really do well critically, or particularly among audiences (initially, though it has been reappraised by many), but I really liked that film. More so than Mulholland Drive.
Okay this all boils down to taste. I know. Occasionally you get that deep yearning desire to want to see in something what everyone else does. I fully appreciate too, that I’m not alone on my feelings on the film. Although perhaps I’m in a rare middle ground. Lynch tends to polarise. People either love of hate his films. There’s rarely someone in the middle. He’s marmite.
There have been plenty of films over the years full of acclaim that I’ve never really got. Going a little less high brow now but the most recent example was probably Rogue One. It came out to excellent reviews. Some of the most early reviews marked it up as a rival to Empire Strikes Back. Such bold claims often put up a defensive wall rather than increase a rabid anticipation. I ended up watching the film and being utterly bored. Now I wasn’t alone here. As much as the film has a lot of fans, it’s also attracted a vociferous hatred in a significantly sized minority. I thought the film was pretty poor. Uninspired visually, atrociously messy as far as narrative goes and completely dull characters. A film that couldn’t decide whether it wanted to do something different or just appease fans with lazy servitude. In the end that half-assed fan service delivered Darth Vader fucking shit up in a corridor and that was enough to raise my pulse for 30 seconds. It was the most cynically baited element thrown in (even in comparison to CGI Cushing and Fisher). Did it offer anything to the film or was it just there to please fans? You do need to keep your fan base happy I appreciate that, but throwing stuff in willy nilly throughout, when studio problems have largely left a complete mess, isn’t the way. Don’t bow to fan pressure at the expense of pacing, structure and quality.
Occasionally too it can be a matter of time. You can’t always get a film on first viewing. Or even second. I’ve seen Mulholland three times now. It is certainly growing. I had a similar experience with Withnail & I. I entered film studenthood being constantly told I needed to see the film. It’s the atypical student favourite. It’s a ‘drinking’ film and it’s full of quotable lines. Granted as a blotchy faced git of a student you may not appreciate the more subtle, beautiful aspects of the film but those appreciations come with time, particularly if you love the film and treat it to regular revisits. I thought it was ‘okay’ on first viewing. The expectation going in was that I should love it. It didn’t happen. I didn’t feel it. In time that love has come though. It’s one of the most gloriously rewatchable films ever. With every viewing you pick up more. More lines, more moments where you suddenly ‘feel’ the drama or see the wonderful complexity in characters. It’s now an all time favourite. So it’s not out of the realms of possibility that one day I’ll appreciate Mulholland Drive as the masterpiece many claim it to be.
Of course you’ll also have the other side of it. Films that get savaged by critics and/or audiences but you end up loving. That’s pretty much my childhood growing up on 80’s fantasy films like Masters Of The Universe, Legend and Krull. That’s the beauty of individually I suppose. There was a time with an ex-girlfriends sister we’d exchange film recommendations. I was told adamantly that The Notebook was a master-work. It wasn’t. It’s crap. Rote, irksome, shmaltzy and repetitive. I then recommended Swingers. Which is ace. She hated it. But then for a time, I would get reminded constantly that I ‘recommended Swingers’ and it was shit. Thankfully I redeemed myself by recommending Leon. I should add too that she was so not the Notebook type, so it surprised me she liked it as much. Definitely more a Leon girl. But if you get a recommendation from a friend, you go in wanting to like it. Unless you recommend too many films like Swingers of course, in which case, subsequent recommendations become tarnished.
A version of this article was originally posted in February 2018.
Let us know your thoughts in the comments. Which universally praised films do you just not get?