Should a Good Movie Make You Feel Bad?

Leaving_las_vegasI would hate to have to define exactly what the criteria are for a “great” movie, but one thing I assume would be on the list would be that it compels and rewards repeated viewings.

The staff of The A.V. Club, the entertainment supplement of the satirical paper The Onion, thinks differently. They have compiled a list of 24 great films that are too painful to watch twice.

Most of the films on the list don’t quite fall under the label of “classic.” It leans more toward newer, foreign and independent films. And some of the list simply reads like a map of the modern zeitgeist in a time when movies can go to once unthinkable places, like the interminable rape scene in 2002’s notorious Irreversible (a film I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch even once.)

The interesting films on the list are the ones that deal in emotional pain, which ask us to share the uncomfortable experience of a character we can identify or at least empathize with: Leaving Las Vegas, Boys Don’t Cry, Million Dollar Baby. But I wouldn’t mind viewing any of these films again, nor would I dissuade anyone else from watching them.

I like a movie that involves me emotionally. But there’s a limit to just how much I want to be put through the wringer.

Requiem for a Dream, which tops the list, is a study of various kinds of addiction that I wish I hadn’t seen even once: Darren Aronofsky’s excessive direction is so brutal that I came away feeling abused by the filmmaker. Compare it to Days of Wine and Roses, a gripping study of alcoholism that always compels me for its performances by Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, It’s painful, but not unbearable. (And it’s not on the list.)

Of course, in a whole other category are those classic films that we watch because sometimes it’s cathartic to have a good cry: you may consider the funeral that climaxes Imitation of Life, the ultimate Douglas Sirk melodrama, to be overwrought kitsch, but you won’t be able to keep a dry eye. More respectable is the wrenching death that concludes Jean de Florette/Manon of the Springs. Whoever made the final credits of The Joy Luck Club so short embarrassed an awful lot of people who saw it in the theater and didn’t have time to compose themselves before the lights came up. And as Bill Murray said in Stripes, “Who didn’t cry when Old Yeller died?” How about The Perfect Storm? Titanic?

I want to dismiss the Onion list by saying that you can’t call a movie “great” if it hits your emotions unbearably hard. Yet there are some films on the list I agree are “great” but probably wouldn’t want to see again, like United 93. The bottom line is that there’s a difference between manipulating the emotions of viewers and abusing them. What do you think?

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