Why My Favorite Movies are the Ones Everyone Else Walks Out Of

Matthew Wilder explains why his favorite cinematic genre — difficult movies — are both so gratifying and so hugely misunderstood.
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My mentor as a young whippersnapper was the great theatre and opera director Peter Sellars. The size of a mosquito’s knees, with great porcupinic hair and waggling childlike hands, Sellars is known for delivering public speeches on art with a messianic fervor that makes young people (I was one, once) rush to plant the flag on Iwo Jima. (Here are a few sample dazzling moments.) Sellars is particularly inspiring on the moral character of art; he finds the most profound human insights in all the works he approaches. He also has a winning way with an introductory, mic-grabbing sentence. While presenting the Mozart/Da Ponte operas in Vienna, he said, “Here we are, in the most charming city on earth, with the most resolutely un-charming productions you’ve ever seen.” And presenting an evening of Igor Stravinsky’s Old Testament-based fragments to an august European opera house, Peter opened the evening by saying, “Tonight … you’re going to see the kind of work … that only a mother could love!”

Most movie lovers have a favorite genre. There are musical queens. There are horror geeks. There are those whose DVD shelf is filled with comedies (though, lamentably, these tend to be aspiring stand-ups themselves). There are mossy people in fedoras who worship film noir and even a few cowpokes who have memorized every Western. (You can find a handful of this rare breed here in Los Angeles at the Autry Museum of the American West, where classic Westerns are shown in impeccable shape.) I must confess that my favorite genre — and believe me, it is a real genre — is Work Only a Mother Could Love.

A classic Sellars quip — about his own movie, The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez, an early-nineties silent classic that paddles The Artist’s arse — is, “Please be quiet when you walk out, folks … you won’t want to wake up the people who are sleeping.” This, to me, sums up the cinema I love. Now I know your average audience, the Johnny Sixpacks out there in multiplex-land, want a neck rub and a blow job from every movie. Not only do they want not to be challenged, they want their ganglia twizzled. For me, the strongest work in cinema resembles what another theatre giant, Richard Foreman, claimed for his own work: “The best stuff is like going to the gym. It hurts, it requires effort, it has difficulty, but getting over all that creates the greatest exhilaration.

Why is it that we understand in food and in music that some difficulty is required, that you may encounter an odd taste or an odd sound that you aren’t familiar with, but some work will – as well as upwardly recalibrating of your sensibility – lift you to more exalted pleasures? Going to a foodie restaurant that doesn’t have the instant gratification of Mickey D’s makes sense to most people. Oddball forms of “indie” music — or even academic classical music — that lack the easy punch of Taylor Swift? Obviously valid to one and all. But cinema, somehow, is meant to be Populist. Accessible. Relatable. User-friendly. God, I hate that phrase. Isn’t it obvious that the sexiest work is massively user-unfriendly?

To me, a pinnacle of Work Only a Mother Could Love is the late Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. A three-and-three-quarter-hour portrait of a Belgian housewife’s daily routine, with frontally framed real-time representations of Jeanne’s potato-peeling and bedsheet-folding, Jeanne Dielman has a hell of a jackpot at the end but along the way audiences often go mad … If I have to watch her peel that potato one more time! Somehow this movie seems to have caught up with this time or the time with it; maybe the mundanity of all the surveillance and screens in our life, all the Snapchat, all the people photographing themselves doing, essentially, nothing, makes the inanition of Jeanne Dielman more palatable to a 2017 audience. But you’d best believe that for a long time, in the theatre, this broke the spectator like a horse. I once saw Jeanne Dielman at a theatre at UCLA where, approximately three hours in, the film broke … The potential deprivation of a punchline after all that nearly drove the audience to riot.

Some people may find the long, slow films of Béla Tarr and Tarkovsky to be Work Only a Mother Could Love, but I say no … they are too druggy and silky, too much like sucking on an expensive opium pipe. On the contrary, I would choose as the grandmasters of WOaMCL, the husband-and-wife filmmaking team of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, whose work constitutes a kind of gold standard for rigor and refusal to placate the audience. Straub-Huillet makes Godard look like Mel Brooks. In an absolutely stunning recent film, L’aquarium et la nation, Straub (who outlived his recently deceased wife and partner), offers us two shots: one, a person reading, dully and droningly, from a political text; the other, fish swimming in an aquarium. There’s a relationship — a witty one — but I shan’t spell it out for you and Straub won’t either. He wants you to expend the shoe leather.

There is a vast number of candidates for the WOaMCL canon, from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s stupefyingly austere Gertrud to Marguerite Duras’ Stonehenge-like, inscrutable Destroy, She Said. Why, this very past year featured two WOaMCL classics by directors who poignantly just left the building: Andrzej Żuławski’s Cosmos, a student’s coming-of-age drama, adapted from a Witold Gombrowicz novel, that is about as surefire an audience-clearer as I’ve ever seen; and Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie, a largely iPhone-shot homage to her late mother that is filled with shots of passing scenery filmed from a car window with roaring wind noise I can only describe as blinding.

Now you may be asking, “What is your problem, Wilder? Are you some kind of aesthetic masochist?” I have to say, I don’t think so. Because I don’t find these movies to be actually painful. They are challenges. You have to unpack and unpuzzle them — sometimes at the level of story, sometimes “What is the metaphor here?”, sometimes thematically. They dare you to digest them. They suggest that the process, the work of figuring it out is possibly more worthwhile than the results. Does that sound like the proverbial “eating your spinach”? OK, but can’t we all get together on the fact that spinach tastes really, really fucking good?

Matthew Wilder wrote Paul Schrader’s Dog Eat Dog, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and just played at the Toronto International Film Festival. It opens in November. Looking Glass, a script co-written by Wilder, goes into production next month and stars Nicolas Cage, also the star of Dog Eat Dog. This fall Wilder will direct his second self-written feature, Morning Has Broken, starring Peter Bogdanovich and Lydia Hearst.