Hard to Be a God, Easy to Love Filth & Despair

It’s a great way to start the New Year by getting a movie recommendation from a friend that really pops your eyeballs and charges your movie-loving batteries. And that’s what happened for me as I was passing around George’s Top 10 Movies of 2015 to the folks in my circle who are always kind enough to survey my rambling on the year’s output. One very savvy film-world friend replied in kind by telling me about a Russian sci-fi movie from 2013 he really enjoyed called Hard to Be a God, that I (a) hadn’t heard about at all, and (b) positively could not wait to see after checking out the trailer and reading about the film in an article he forwarded along.

You will probably know in fairly short order whether or not you are the kind of moviegoer who would ever watch Hard to Be a God just by watching this preview:

Like that line goes from Starship Troopers: Would You Like to Know More?

If so, I’ll refer you to the Film Comment article I was given and advised to definitely read before watching the movie; it’s not the advice one usually gets (or gives, for that matter), but since I trust this friend’s judgment I checked out the writeup…and I can only say that it whetted my appetite for Hard to Be a God even more.

I have a Hot Buttered Cinema movie-watching manifesto somewhere in the back of my mind to share at some point (one that will come out of explaining how I came up with the name of this site), but for those of you who are maybe scratching your heads right now after having looked at this trailer and maybe even having read the Film Comment article, and are still wondering why you’d ever bother watching a difficult-to-comprehend movie that’s also said to be teeming with filth and despair, I will touch on that briefly here now with a quick anecdote:

Another friend, appraising my Top 10 picks from this year, asked me why I’d want to spend any time watching sad movies. My first response to her was to make a joke and quote the really funny moment from the Woody Allen movie Play It Again, Sam, in which Woody—trying, quite lamely, to impress a date by acting like Humphrey Bogart in order to channel a dark and mysterious side he thinks she’ll find appealing—says, I love the rain. It washes memories off the sidewalks of life.

Play It Again, Sam

Maybe I could have left it at that, especially since I’m no stranger to having occasionally been as woefully inept as that character in similar circumstances, but my second answer was the real one—which was to say that sad movies remind me that I am not alone.

(I mean that in both the narrowest and the broadest sense, which means I would share the “no man is an island” philosophy…but let’s not get too diverted into the thick of those weeds right here and now.)

If you (have the amazing, wonderful, spectacular good fortune to) know me, you know that a terrible and terribly untimely sadness indeed came to pass as a chapter in my life. All the more reason, some people might think, to avoid movies that make the brow furrow, the stomach churn, or the eyes water. Not so, at least for me.

At the beginning of Life Itself, the documentary about the late, great movie critic Roger Ebert, we hear him say this: The movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us. When a movie that I see dramatizes something that’s sad, even or especially if it brings a tear to my eye, the experience of it—or, later, my memory of it—becomes something for me to call upon any time I might fall prey to the “nobody understands” dilemma.

Thanks to movies that evoke these feelings, I can take comfort in the realization that obviously, somebody else understands, because there they are—sad, awful, feelings being beamed right back at me from someone else’s real or imagined experience. The better a movie is at conjuring up this strongly emotional connection for me, the more powerful and long-lasting the reward. I know how they feel, and they know how I feel.

Crucial to the appeal of the movies (or any “storytelling” art form, of course) is our ability to recognize some part of ourselves—whether we can adequately describe it or not—during our interaction with them. To better understand ourselves and others, what better way could there be than to expose yourself, from this relatively “safe” distance, to the full roster of the human experience?—not just to its nobility, humor, and happiness, but also to the complete range of misadventure, fear, and tragedy that any or all of us have already known or are likely to encounter in our all-too-brief tenure here together?

There are many “movie geeks” who would simply turn up their noses at the idea others would want to avoid certain types of films. I will never be one of those people—or, I might more honestly say, I am no longer one of those people—but I will admit that it’s equally alien to me that anyone could find it anything other than cathartic and comforting, and indeed quite magical or sacred, to have your whole self transformed, however temporarily or permanently, in every way that good movies can accomplish.

You will note I said good movies. There are movies that make me sad, but they’re not sad movies. The movies that make me sad are bad movies. And those, yes, I like to avoid whenever possible.

In the old Lon Chaney movie The Unholy Three, there’s the line: That’s all there is to life, my friends: a little laughter, a little tear.

There’s also a little joy, a little vindictiveness, a little trust, a little violence, a little action, a little friendship, a little fear, a little filth, a little hope, a little despair, and a little love.

A little everything, in case that point wasn’t more than obvious. And that’s exactly what I want from my movies, too.