Sometimes having absolutely no idea what to expect from a film is a fantastic benefit to the viewing experience. Sadly, this phenomenon is all but extinct in an age where before a movie even has time to settle in the can, viral ads have generated a maelstrom of message board conversation, critics have poured over the film’s minutiae, and all of these responses have been aggregated into a neat collective rating and summary on metacritical websites such as RottenTomatoes.
Films that haven’t even begun shooting are already “unfaithful to the source material”, a fragment of a leaked daily proves that the new Wes Anderson film really is the greatest movie ever. Unless one firmly submerges their head under a rock and ignores the emails pouring into their Blackberry, it is a Herculean effort of stubborn ignorance not to have one’s opinions of a film vividly colored without ever having touched the sweet, stained plush of the theatre.
Fortunately for me, I had no idea that there was a movie adaptation of Bright Lights, Big City. “Michael J. Fox? Kiefer Sutherland?” I asked myself incredulously, “How could Marty McFly and Jack Bauer ever find themselves in a fraternal cocaine morass?”
While you might interject here with the observation that my opinion was already shaped by my keen awareness of the actors’ catalogues, I must remind you that I am neither asserting that a “pure” experience of a film is ever possible nor that it was in any elaborate imaginative powers of mine to even attempt a speculation at what would come out if you mixed Jay McInerney’s second-person novel with Back to the Future and 24. Therefore, with all the ingenuous nonplus of child who has discovered a new combination of his favorite treats—PopRocks and chocolate served me well—I cracked the case of Bright Lights, Big City open and began to watch.
Exactly one 108 minutes later, I still had no idea what to think about the film. In fact, I was reasonably sure that I had just weathered a coke binge and come shaking and miserable out of withdrawal. It’s not that Bright Lights, Big City assaults the viewers with “shocking visuals” or “break-neck” (read: sloppy) editing, trying to “sublimate the psychological states of the protagonists into film form.” God knows we have had enough of that as many directors who fancy themselves avant-garde apparently have made a pact to eschew the evocative properties of story-telling in favor of visceral reaction to flashing colors and the grotesque.
Rather, Bright Lights, Big City wows by the antique practice of combining benign (although touched by the beautifying hand of Gordon Willis) visuals and a pleasant soundtrack with legitimately engaging narrative and on-point performances. All of this, mind you, is in the service of a text about the cocaine fueled ‘80s and a struggling writer who is trying to sort his life out in the aftermath of his wife’s abandonment of him and his mother’s death. Yet there is no blown-out, soft focus, drug cinematography, only a single instance (although three or four times reoccurring) of aggressive editing, and no bestotted camera movement.
However, the problem I have come to is: Does this make Bright Lights, Big City a particularly good film? It is primarily notable because it does not succumb to the stylistic clichés of modern cinema. If nothing else it is certainly a solid, well-made film.
After much deliberation, I think that this question is an unfair one. All of our critical opinions on films made in the present are necessarily shaped by the broad mosaic of filmmaking at large and we can no more easily judge a film in the purity of isolation from other contemporary films than we can go into a film not knowing, to a degree, what to expect. Both “purities” are false idols and are in the employ of charlatan critics who try to woo audiences into accepting their views through recourse to purity. We must simply be aware of these influences and let this consciousness refine the judgments we have made necessarily with others.
To conclude, Bright Lights, Big City is a good film that does not make the viewer feel especially positively inclined toward it. As the nature of the second-person narration of the source text alone should indicate, Bright Lights, Big City is as concerned with each viewer as it is its own characters. Even those who have not woken up in a druggy stupor will feel co-opted into the cast’s mired and destructive party lifestyle. Whether this is appealing to any viewer, I cannot say. Truly, had I been informed that this was the experience I was going to have I may not have spent a weekend night getting choked up and disgusted with myself over the sins that Michael J. Fox was committing.
I am not entirely sure of the “specialness” of this edition. Apparently the former issue of this DVD was not widescreen. Cinephiles should rejoice and I suppose this is rather special edition, in the regard. Additionally, Willis is given a commentary track which is an absolutely divine move. One of the undisputed masters of cinematography, Willis’ views are not only exciting, but they let the public know just how integral this oft-overlooked position is to the construction of a film’s aesthetic.