There’s a great scene in the Kurosawa movie Kagemusha (1980) where two of the three unifiers of Japan, Oda Nobunaga and Ieyasu Tokugawa, meet to discuss business. Nobunaga, who has been Westernised all the way down to his armour, offers Tokugawa a glass of European wine. His comrade takes it and has a sip … then makes a face. Nobunaga laughs, then gulps it with relish.
I like this scene a lot, as it says much more to me than the humour it superficially suggests. Something normal and appealing to one person may be exotic and distasteful to another, even if it’s something as seemingly innocuous as grape wine. That’s how I feel about a variety of well-regarded movies, ranging from Preminger’s Laura (1944) to Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) to Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac (1974). I find them outside my taste spectrum, never to fall upon it. I’ve never liked them and I never will.
Am I wrong for caring so little for these pictures? They are critically appreciated. And I know they’re seminal in a way. Yet I can’t bring myself to enjoy them.
Granted, Blow-Up is tricky. David Hemmings’ photographer protagonist is not easy to like, and the flashiness of the production can be a little grating. I wonder, however, if this wears on me more than it should. I’d much rather revisit a less profound Swingin’ Sixties film such as Georgy Girl (1966) than Blow-Up. It’s just more accessible and closer to my sensibilities, despite the similarities in style. It’s the warm sake to Blow-Up’s Bordeaux.
I’ve often been in the minority when it comes to critical appreciation. I hate Nixon (1995) with a passion, as I find it tedious and showy. I’m no fan of Titanic (1997). And I really, really despise Gone With the Wind (1939), which is perhaps one of the most alien of all pictures in its outdated, offensive social perspective, as well as a soapy tangle that I never have the patience to unravel. So I do tend to go against the grain in my cinema tastes, despite a predilection toward Kurosawan jidai-geki and Eisenstein-esque montage.
What does this mean? Can taste actually be subjective? If it is, how does one determine whether a movie is actually good? Can one prefer sake over wine and still be right?
For example: Gone With the Wind is a seminal film. I understand that. It’s had an incredible impact on American culture. And there’s one brilliant shot in it: the scene of the Confederate dead and wounded, an expanse similar to the shot of the battlefield’s aftermath in Eisenstein’s earlier Alexander Nevsky (1938). Despite all of this, however, GWtW remains junk, in my opinion – unpalatable and abrasive. Popular, but junky. I’ll never see it otherwise.
I’m going to draw the line at Nixon, which doesn’t, I think, make any significant impact on the American fabric, though Titanic is a different animal – one of the most popular pictures of all time. Laura I respect for its Hitchcockian sensibilities, and it’s a unique film in its slick look and the quality of its suspense. Then there’s Blow-Up, which gave us new ways to look at nothing (as well as onscreen nudity).
Perhaps this conundrum is best expressed in Woody Allen’s Love and Death (1975): “Subjectivity is objective.”
I think there’s a tendency these days to throw around words such as “genius” when describing artists or performers. But I do believe that the recognition of the appeal of something can be apparent, though the appeal itself may be fugitive. There is definitely subjectivity in taste, as there is objectivity in quality, just as there are people who like sake over wine and vice versa. You can’t be wrong for having one preference over another. There should be boundaries, however, and defining those is the hard part.
Were those boundaries apparent in that scene in Kagemusha? Maybe not … though the important thing was that they came together to have a drink.