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Challenging cinema experiences

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It is that time of the week, otherwise known as Thursday morning, where I rub my temples in a forlorn fashion as I attempt to coax some ideas onto the page. Remember the Oscars? Me neither. Let this be a lesson to us all: life goes on. In the past seven days I have had two challenging cinema experiences—one negative and one positive—that have me wrestling with the concept of personal taste again. How do we know we dislike something? Are we justified? Am I simply in a bad mood?

On the weekend I had the opportunity to see the recent Quebecois film, Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves, and it did not agree with me. At almost three hours long, it was ambitious in scope, I will give it that, but also terribly undisciplined. It tells the story of four radicals who, holed up in a dank Montreal apartment, carry on the 2012 student strike long after the protests have disbanded. No doubt, there was plenty of action: nudity, overwrought speeches, vigilantism. Reading about the film afterward, it was clear the filmmakers did not necessarily identify with these characters torn apart by their own sanctimoniousness, preferring to focus on the burn-out associated with the activist lifestyle, as well as the general problem that ideas do not age well. I wanted to like Those Who Make Revolution.., I really did, though the exorbitant running time and ponderously slow stretches had me anxiously shifting in my seat several dozen times. Having some drinks with a friend afterward, we discussed the notion that, given the unsettling/challenging nature of the material, perhaps we could not trust our immediate response, and we decided to get more beer. I was disappointed to realize that Young Jeff would be very disappointed in Current Jeff, although I was bolstered by the simultaneous notion that Future Jeff would pale in comparison to Current Jeff. Progress?

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In other news, last night I was able to watch the new James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro (it plays a few more times over the next week), which was both difficult and exhilarating to experience. It was challenging for much different reasons than Those Who Make Revolution.., as well as being much more revolutionary. While it is not entirely fair to compare a fictional work with a documentary about a powerful personality, at least in terms of their impact, though I am doing just that. This time I had occasion to shift in my seat because of the gaze that looked out from the screen and implicated me, not because I was bored, but because I was being called to think. Raoul Peck’s documentary about the lives of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, all dead before they were forty years old, is constructed from thirty pages of notes that Baldwin had dedicated to this unfinished project. Not only Baldwin’s words, but his incredible face, emanates from archival footage of the man speaking with passion and panache about the unjust society that reviles black Americans to this day. Unlike the festering self-involvement that typified the radicals in the other film–at numerous points, they punch themselves in the face repeatedly to punish their transgressions–I Am Not Your Negro follows real-life characters who took great risks in order to make their lives more liveable. Each film left me shaking my head, to be sure, but in vastly different directions.