On Obligation Films

Now that the bloated corpse that is the summer Hollywood season has good and well decayed we get into the beginning of the Fall movie season. Typically, right now we’re in the dumping grounds between the summer tentpoles and the real prestige award’s contenders, a dumping ground of movies that probably don’t have a chance.

Still, it’s been a surprisingly good year for small dramas already, and it seems like that’s not going to quit. Contagion just came out and was shockingly good. Warrior is also getting great reviews. In fact, at the time this gets posted on Wednesday, I will be dragging myself to go see Warrior. If ‘dragging’ seems like a negative term, that’s because it kind of is. You see, I have no actual compulsion to go see Warrior. I’m going because I feel I should.

I’ll admit I’m not the average movie-goer. I try, as much as someone who doesn’t actually work in movies or movie reporting can, to keep up on the general zeitgeist of movies at any given time. That means doing a lot of reading and hearing a lot about movies that I otherwise would have no interest in. Like Warrior.

I use Warrior as the example here, but it could just as easily be last year’s The Fighter. Or even something that isn’t sports drama, like recently-successful The Help, or The King’s Speech (the same could be said for this year’s eventual King’s Speech competitor, Ironclad). All of these are, to one degree or another, good to great films. I enjoyed watching all of them. But I wasn’t particularly motivated to see any of them. Yet I did.

These are what I call obligation films. And maybe it’s unique to someone who tries to be part of the dialog on almost every movie that comes out, but they run roughshod over me this time of year. Every few weeks, there’s another potentially important film that pops up that I have to ask myself if I want to be in the conversation on. Usually the answer becomes yes, and I see it. Sometimes I wait it out on Netflix. Every once in a while, I just put my foot down (I do this for Michael Bay movies, especially, which garner a lot of opinion pieces and are undoubtedly important but are completely uninteresting to me).

Obligation films are, in many ways, the end result of being too connected. Movies I would have just given a pass to as being obvious and trite (we’ll go back to The Warrior here, though Contagion works just as well) suddenly get people talking, mostly on twitter where I undoubtedly follow too many movie people. I hear all these great things and think back to the trailer or the marketing–all of which is often bad or misleading for obligation films–and wonder what I missed. I usually have a decent enough radar for movies to get excited for. Rarely do I get hype and then end up horribly disappointed. But what about the opposite? Movies I have no hype for and then go into?

Honestly, it usually works out pretty well. At a certain point I’m coming into these films with less expectation, having already decided on my own lack of anticipatory interest but recognizing that other people saw worth in them. I suppose there’s one frame of mind that says ‘this wasn’t immediately interesting to me so I’m going to resist it’ but I don’t think anything gets accomplished by being closed-minded to potentially surprising experiences.

Even if the best I come out of an obligation film with is a sense of what worked and what didn’t, at least I took something valuable from it. I can speak as someone who did take the time to give something an ample shot even if my opinion was negative. But usually it isn’t, and I find movies that I otherwise wouldn’t have thought were for me that are now things I have seen and enjoyed. And truly, there’s nothing quite like being truly surprised by a movie. It happens so rarely, it’s worth risking unsafe bets to find the rare one that does.

So I’ve gone to see Warrior, and I’ll probably see Moneyball, and undoubtedly Ironclad and The Descendants and dozens of other films when they come out. Not because I’m really excited for any of those movies, but because I feel obligated. But I’m willing to celebrate that as an opportunity to grow. Sometimes we eat our veggies, or do the tasks that seem more like chores than fun, in order to get something out of it on the other end.

Anybody else have any other opinions on obligation films? Certainly I didn’t cover everything: there’s a whole world of obligation films out there for older movies, something a lot of people approach with trepidation. And certainly my experience isn’t the same for everyone. There are plenty of people who only watch movies that they’re sure they’ll love. But for myself and anyone else who tries for a more comprehensive understanding, certainly this subset of movies is a minefield of risk and reward. You never know what’s going to surprise you until you see it for yourself.

A postscript: I’ve come back from seeing Warrior, which was as good as everyone said it was. Lots of cheer moments, though admittedly the sleepy old couple a few rows away that was my only company certainly weren’t the cheering sort. I’m glad I saw it, glad that I take the time to see these films despite my general apathy towards this small subset of cinema.

That doesn’t mean I won’t have the same struggle to get out and get motivated that I had this and every other time. But it’s worth doing.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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