Four days ago, in a piece titled “You Give Out Too Many Stars,” Roger Ebert offered the following to partially explain his general attitude as he sits down to watch a film: “I like movies too much. I walk into the theater not in an adversarial attitude, but with hope and optimism (except for some movies, of course). I know that to get a movie made is a small miracle, that the reputations, careers and finances of the participants are on the line, and that hardly anybody sets out to make a bad movie. I do not feel comfortable posing as impossible to please.”
Nobody who loves movies goes into a screening with an adversarial attitude. I certainly don’t. I always feel at least a twinge of hope when the lights go down, and often a good deal more than that. But there’s no such thing as a totally virginal viewing. Anyone with their ear to the ground goes into a film knowing what the shot is and what the players have done before — their talent, potential, past glories and (now and then) regrettable tendencies. Every movie is a big ball of wax. And seeing a film with all this forearmed stuff in your head is what makes it an adventure, and sometimes a very special pleasure.
And due respect to Roger, but it’s never as simple as “hardly anybody sets out to make a bad movie.” Quite a few people make movies with the aim or hope that their film will work on its own low-rent terms, or at least that the studio chiefs will be happy with it given the hurdles that everyone had to deal with, or that it’ll at least be popular with the backwater ticket-buyers (if not the big-city critics and bloggers). Most people in any profession just want to keep working and get along. Very few people have the nerve or the vision or the talent to defy convention and swing for the bleachers. Fewer still have the focus and confidence to just hit the ball out of the infield with a clean crack of the bat. And as we all know, sometimes the greatest hitters strike out.
True, sometimes a director looking to make a good-enough film will surprise everyone (including himself or herself) and come up with something exceptional or delightful or at least better than expected. But it’s always sublime when a talented, ready-to-rock filmmaker has the heat and the inspiration (or used to have these things and has somehow found a way to get them back again) and walks up to the plate knowing precisely what’s about to happen.