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February 25, 2014

How to watch 'difficult' movies

Last week I finally saw "Schindler's List." Yes, that "Schindler's List" - the Oscar-winning Spielberg movie that earned wide acclaim for its vivid and sensitive portrayal of the Holocaust. It came out 21 years ago, and I've been meaning to see it ever since.

Why did it take me so long? The reasons will be familiar to anyone who's ever let a worthy but difficult film languish in its red Netflix envelope. You keep meaning to watch the movie, but when it comes time to nestle into your couch on Sunday afternoon, confronting the depravity of human nature somehow isn't what you're in the mood for. Why not put on "The Grey" instead and confront the depravity of computer-generated wolves?

The question of how to motivate yourself to watch "difficult" films has been in the air this Oscar season, as the wrenching, brutal "12 Years a Slave" vies for Best Picture with two exhilarating thrill rides, "Gravity" and "American Hustle." If seeing movies weren't part of my job, I might not have picked "12 Years" for date night. The film's marketing even seems to acknowledge that viewers may be reluctant to subject themselves to its unflinching treatment of slavery.

So how should you get yourself to watch "12 Years a Slave"? The best way, of course, is to go see the film while it's still in theaters, the better to fully appreciate the lush, discordant and unsettling beauty that contributes to its power. But if you miss your chance, let me tell you about how I finally saw "Schindler's List." I planned a party - complete with wine, hummus and Korean tacos - and sat down with seven friends to sit through three hours and 14 minutes of unrelenting horror.

An atrocity-movie viewing party is, without a doubt, a strange and somber social occasion. But not an unpopular one! I had the idea of convening a Schindler screening when it came out that a host of people at Slate had never sat through Spielberg's classic. When I emailed our culture team to see who wanted to attend, the available spots were snatched up in 21 minutes. Six of us had never seen the film. Two more were curious to see if it held up two decades later.

As we settled into the living room, there was a sense of grim determination and some wan jokes about what appetizers best complement an evening of atrocity. (Atrocity chips?) It was hard to square the festiveness usually associated with beginning-of-party rituals - put the coats on the bed; would you like a beer; ooh, let's open this white! - with our reason for being there. So we just started the film.

It was fascinating to finally see the movie after all these years. It's a lot more … not more fun, but more Hollywood than I'd expected. There are sexy dames in silk peignoirs and sultry Nazi nightclub numbers. There's odd-couple humor in the dealings between Liam Neeson's unlikely hero (he's Schindler, the ruthless capitalist who ends up saving a number of the Jews who work for him) and his Jewish right-hand man (Ben Kingsley). Ralph Fiennes as the evil super Nazi is terrifying and sinister, but also a drunken buffoon. When the Krakow ghetto is "liquidated," the Jews' futile efforts to hide or escape are devastating, but the scene offers a master class in cinematic suspense. Throughout, Spielberg uses viewer-pleasing tactics - glamour, comedy, thrills - that feel almost too entertaining to convey the enormity of the Holocaust. The movie seems designed - much more so than "12 Years a Slave" - with the reluctant viewer in mind.

And yet - Spielberg is not using these directorial maneuvers lightly; he pulls viewers in and opens them up emotionally in order to then dramatize the awful, arbitrary horror of the time. For all of the complaints about the film (primarily: that it highlights a group of Jews who got saved and the moral evolution of the man who saved them, rather than the millions who died), I found "Schindler's List" to be worth watching. Not because it is in any way essential - certainly it's not the best avenue for learning or thinking about the Holocaust - but because it's interesting to consider how Hollywood approaches movies like this. For all the inherent difficulties in creating popular entertainment out of history's darkest periods, and for all of this movie's particular flaws and kitsch, such films can help connect viewers, emotionally, to the wrongs and injustices of the past. Which seems like a worthwhile and important project.

When I polled my friends the next day, people were universally glad to have seen the film and glad to have had the occasion to do it. "There is zero chance I would have seen it otherwise," one said. That said, viewing partygoers seemed to value the prompt of a group event more than the actual experience of watching together. While some appreciated the "shared intensity" in the room, others found it "a little uncomfortable" to watch in a big group: "I was afraid that someone would see me dozing off and make fun of me or think ill of me ... social anxiety was the engine that drove me to watch the film."

The event's closest analog was an ambitious book club, the kind that convenes every month to muddle through Lucretius or Joyce. The challenge there is intellectual, not emotional. Still, sometimes the best way to get something done is to get your peers to hold you accountable. It's harder to give up and stream "27 Dresses" (again) if you have guests at the door. And it's hard to turn off a long film in the middle if you've got someone at the other end of the couch. So I heartily recommend the Important Movie Viewing Party. Next week: "Hotel Rwanda?"

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