Rant: Too Much Is Not Enough

It’s not Drive 2.

By Ian Tingen

Last week, I went to this cool little theater called the Art Theatre of Long Beach. Built in 1924, its whitewashed art-deco architecture is an interesting contrast to the piles of pretentious hipsters you can find at the wine bar next door. I gladly paid 11 dollars (support local businesses!) for a ticket to see Nicolas Refn’s latest film, Only God Forgives. (If you saw Drive, you’re familiar with Refn’s work. If you haven’t seen Drive, go to Netflix and rectify what is likely the biggest travesty in your life.) Though I loved OGF I am apparently in the minority, at least according to Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. Here’s a trailer for it:

If you’re wondering why I’m talking about movie ranking sites on my blog, go read the negative reviews.

We exist in a world saturated with highly-customizable on-demand input; I am not immune to the allure of this low-hanging fruit. In fact, as someone with ADHD, I really appreciate the rapid-fire customizability of my media feeds. Despite this, perhaps as a side effect of trying to find non-pharmaceutical interventions for my hyperactive brain, I’ve come to find beauty in simplicity. Forcing myself to try to focus for therapeutic reasons opened my mind to the wonder in the mundane.

I’m a huge fan of Harvey Pekar , author of comic-cum-graphic-novel American Splendor. Splendor’s stories were never about anything more than living life: buying records, talking with ex-wives, dealing with cancer. The stories were pure magic, though: Pekar had a flair for describing the day-to-day quite engagingly. Despite the rather mundane nature of his work, the stories often had layers of meaning buried within the panels – a great illustration that ordinary life can be pretty complex stuff. Refn plies the same angle in Only God Forgives, albeit with a bit of cinematic flair.

I think that’s what bugged me the most about one of the main critiques of the movie: “there’s no development of the characters”. That is absolutely not the case. Even if you missed all the allegorical storytelling and growth, the fact of the matter is that real people develop in much the same way that Refn’s characters do: driven by immediate circumstance and carrying baggage from previous interactions.

When we start expecting and over-relying on (clear-cut) tropes about human behavior and growth, we rob ourselves of the patience necessary to understand the human condition in all of its’ marvelous complexity. Sure, good-versus-evil can make for great entertainment (hello, Avengers!) but if that’s all we consume in our mental diet, we are gorging ourselves on the interactional equivalent of junk food. Real people can’t always be so cut-and-dried, real relationships rarely conform to the fairy tale versions of love and revenge we’ve come to expect – life is not always bold, but often muted.

Give me a stories of bad vs. evil (Only God Forgives). Give me stories with selfish protagonists (The Last of Us). I’ve been waiting too long for stories in entertainment to evolve beyond idealistic tropes that sell easily. Take a chance, and show me how gorgeous the mundane can really be.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a book to re-read.

4 thoughts on “Rant: Too Much Is Not Enough”

  1. I was ambivalent about the film at first–even though I LOVED ‘Drive’–but your piece has now convinced me to see it. Sadly the film hasn’t (and I guess probably won’t) open where I live so I’ll have to watch it some other way. In the meantime, I’ll be content with re-watching ‘Drive’.

    1. Lawrence –

      I think the movie is available on GooglePlay and other premium on-demand style services right now. So if you really want to, you can see it!

      Either way, definitely see it when you can.

      Also, damn you: now I have to watch Drive again. 🙂

      1. I was hoping to see it on a large screen as Refn always has some great visuals, but I guess that will have to do. Thanks for the recommendations!

  2. I think at some point the escalation of media and media availability turned films into content and art into a bad word. As such, whenever anybody tries to create art via cinema they are punished for not following the rules of content and, indeed, made fun of for being “arty”. It’s a weird situation that people will both complain about lack of originality while at the same time attack anything different.

    Worse, if you read the reviews they engage in the worst habit of anybody criticizing any piece of art – reviewing what wasn’t there instead of what was. Most of the complaints about Only God Forgives can be summed up in “This should have been in the movie.”

    Also, I can’t believe the number of people who didn’t understand the film. Guys. Seriously. WTF. Visual metaphor and emotional narrative. Give it a shot some time. Turns out you can tell stories via tools other than OVERT EXPOSITION. It amazes me how many people have written about not being able to figure the film out, and being confused, but totally missing super obvious visual metaphors.

    Lastly, the acting. Anybody who says the acting was bad, or that there was a lack of acting doesn’t know what acting is and should stop pretending that they do.

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