In a perfect world, I’d never listen to, or read, film reviews. One of the best cinema-going experiences I ever had came as a result of an impulse decision to go and see a film I knew nothing about. It was, I think, 1991, I had a Wednesday afternoon off, and I just happened to overhear one person saying to another “…this film called Jacob’s Ladder…” Right, I thought, I’ll go and see this film called Jacob’s Ladder. Somehow, I even managed to walk into the cinema without seeing the poster, so I really had no idea what sort of film it was going to be.
I sat down (in a mostly empty theatre — a circumstance which added a certain efficacy to some of the film’s early scenes) and at first thought, “Oh dear, it’s about Vietnam.” I’m not a great one for war films, generally. But then it changed from being about Vietnam to Tim Robbins waking up on a subway train thinking he’s missed his stop, getting up and going into the next carriage to ask a starey-eyed woman if he’s missed it (and she just stares at him), and then noticing a drunk lying on a seat by the door. As he gets off the train at the next stop, Tim Robbins notices that the drunk seems to have a tail. I thought, “What the hell’s going on?” But, in a good way. And, partly because Tim Robbins’ character was also obviously thinking, “What the hell’s going on?” (though, for him, in more of a bad way), it soon became obvious that this film, Jacob’s Ladder, was the perfect film for me to go and see without knowing anything about it, because it was a film all about finding out what the film itself was about. And, as it was full of weird, unsettling, spooky, or even horrific moments (faceless men leering from a car that’s almost run you over, a heaving party at which Tim Robbins’ girlfriend seems to be dancing — or more than dancing — with a demon, a nightmare gurney-journey into the nether bowels of a rather unhealthy hospital, Macauley Culkin), it was, as luck would have it, just the sort of thing I liked anyway. Jacob’s Ladder has since become a favourite film, one that works just as well now I know what it’s about, but I always remember, whenever I watch it, how much I enjoyed that initial viewing for never having seen a trailer, or heard a review.
Ever since, although I do listen to and read film reviews (Mark Kermode & Simon Mayo’s podcast is a Saturday afternoon after-work fixture), I initially only pay attention as far as finding out the bare basics of what a new film is about, then, if I decide it’s the sort of thing I’d like to see, I add it to my LoveFilm list and don’t concentrate much on the details, unless it sounds like a real stinker. (And Mark Kermode tends to let you know if it’s a real stinker. Vociferously.)
A case in point is Pan’s Labyrinth. I remember seeing the mere mention of the title of this film in Empire magazine about a year before it came out, and instantly knew I was going to have to see it. After that, I avoided, as much as possible, any mention of what it was going to be about, and was deeply rewarded. Pan’s Labyrinth was, amazingly, so much more than I could have ever hoped it would be.
But with Jacob’s Ladder and Pan’s Labyrinth I was lucky. Because I also thought, from a brief summary, that Sucker Punch might be a film I’d like. After all, it seemed to mix the escape-into-fantasy-worlds and psychodrama strands of Jacob’s Ladder and Pan’s Labyrinth, so how could it fail? Well, by being a loose anthology of sub-adolescent pop video fight-outs with no plot, sensibility, emotion or meaning, is how. I should have listened to Dr Kermode. He hated it from the start. I didn’t watch this film, I endured it.
In a perfect world, some benevolent, perhaps web-based, vendor of books, films and music would somehow, perhaps through analysing my copious purchase history, get to know exactly what books, films and music I like, and issue increasingly spot-on recommendations, so I could repeat that Jacob’s Ladder/Pan’s Labyrinth experience on a daily basis. But though I’ve been dutifully rating my purchases from Amazon, and plugging my reading habits into Goodreads for some time now, still, whenever I look at the sort of thing they recommend I find myself thinking, “On what planet is this what I might like..?” I mean, they haven’t even worked out the basics, yet. (For instance, that though I buy Doctor Who DVDs, I don’t buy the new series. Guh! And my buying a Woody Allen box-set may mean I’m interested in the man’s films, but that doesn’t mean I like them so much I’d want to buy them again individually. And why, oh why, can’t LoveFilm let me forget last year’s foray into Carry On films? It’s practically all they’ve been recommending since!)
Perhaps it’s that, if even I can’t define the thing I’m looking for in films, books, and music, in each of my many moods & wants — the best way I can think of describing it is “humanity, and magic” — how can I expect a computer (devoid of humanity and magic as it is) to understand?
Or perhaps it’s that adjective, benevolent, I got wrong?