At the Movies with Amy Wilson: Impassioned Defenses of Universally Panned Films

I recently submitted to the McSweeney's Internet Tendency Column Contest, which I did not win (evidently) but which required me to write one full example column for the submission.

Writing it was one of the more excruciating experiences of my recent life. It required nearly a whole pint of soy ice cream, more repeats of "Private Dancer" than I care to count up, reading through fifty pages of GoodReads quotes on writing, and a nascent groove in the carpeting of my new place.

(Even as I was pacing, I was thinking, "well geez, this is kind of a writerly cliche isn't it, never thought I'd actually be PACING," but there I was. Pacing.)

The concept of the column was somewhat similar to what I've already been doing here, except with movies and TV instead of music. The "Universally Panned" part would probably be occasionally tossed out the window, because you know I roll with that kind of stuff. "Self-imposed rules" and whatever. And in the in-between time of submitting the column and waiting for the results to be announced, I had the following thoughts:

- oh SHIT I hope I do not get this column, I have no good ideas of anything to write about ever.

- oh SHIT I hope I do not get this column, then they'll publish that example column I wrote which ended up being sort of confessional, whoops, uh oh. 

- well actually I really do hope I get this column! (it's healthy to squash that kind of thought down when you're a writer submitting to things, though)

So in total, I never have any good ideas of anything to write about ever -- until I do (but that seems normal, at least according to fifty pages of GoodReads quotes about writing). And yes, the example column turned out confessional to the point that it made me nervous to contemplate it being published, so in a way I was relieved to learn I was not selected.

But NO. That is NO WAY TO LIVE. You gotta fight for it! Maya Angelou and Stephen King and Douglas Adams and Joan Didion have my back on that one, I know.

So here's the first installment of At The Movies With Amy Wilson: Impassioned Defenses of Universally Panned Films, published by me. Plz enjoy.

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"No Strings Attached"

If there's one thing I love it's a theory.

There's this theory that people come in three varieties of love: anxious, avoidant, and secure.

The anxious lack a certain sense of object permanence, they are convinced the world outside really does disappear when they close their eyes.

The avoidant are described by Simon & Garfunkel, as rocks, as islands.

And the secure? Who knows. They are supposedly all around us. Doing their thing. Being happy. Perhaps they are the people depicted in the ads for Beaches, the ultimate all-inclusive family vacation resort.


So I guess there are people out there who were born knowing, as Lil Wayne says, How to Love. I'm not one of them.  

How to love, I should clarify, in a way that does not feel like scooping something from a jar, throwing it as hard as possible against a brick wall, then replacing the quivering mass in the jar and waiting until it has stopped quivering enough to be scooped again.

Not to be melodramatic, ha ha ha!

But how to love in a way that is lasting, a way that is clear and true, a way that appears to the outside observer like two mustangs yoked together -- that's the way I'd like to know how to love, the way I was not born knowing.

In an ongoing effort to learn, I've turned to Film although I never was a Film Person and so there is so much I barely feel I have the language to talk about. Joan Didion once said, and I really hesitate to quote Joan Didion here but I sort of have to, Joan Didion once said, "Grammar is a piano I play by ear. The only thing I know of grammar is its power."

I know power when I see it, and I define power the same way I would define art: It's what's beautiful and meaningful and universal and yet also very specific.


It's found in unexpected places, like the 2011 film No Strings Attached starring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher.

Here's what I'd like to put forth in defense of this film:

1. You've got to be willing to accept, and I feel the average thinking person is willing to accept this but it can't hurt to reiterate, that Hollywood moves in strange ways and if it can possibly figure out a way to make something crappier, it will do so. This includes doing things like making the trailer and the marketing of a film depict almost an entirely different film than what you actually get, in the not completely unreasonable line of thinking that people are quite stupid and Can't Handle The Truth.

So if you collared somebody and asked him what the 2011 film No Strings Attached starring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher is about, he might only be able to say that it's about friends with benefits --

-- because some person somewhere with power watches the Today Show obsessively and so thinks that friends with benefits are all anyone under the age of 27 ever thinks about, and isn't that kicky --

and he might also get it confused with the 2011 film Friends With Benefits starring Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake, which would be a shame because that movie is not nearly as good as No Strings Attached.

2. It's not really about friends with benefits, because the two characters are never really friends. They have friends, both of them have multiple friends of various genders which in and of itself sets this movie apart from your average romantic comedy, but the two of them begin their acquaintance with each other with a romantic/sexual tinge. Which is all well and good, but that's not being friends. It's a love story.

3. It's a love story wherein one of the characters seems quite normal with love although he struggles with it a normal-person way (that's Ashton Kutcher) and the other one of the characters is fucked in the head about love to an alarming extent (that's Natalie Portman).

You don't get to see why she is fucked in the head about love to an alarming extent. The movie does not go spelunking in her past. It gives her more dignity than that, by simply saying "look, here is a reasonably functional person [she is a doctor] but she has a serious problem with not allowing herself to ever need anybody and it's started interfering with her life because she met this cute guy who looks mighty fine in an expensive sweater." (That's Ashton Kutcher.)

What this character proposes as a way of getting around her serious problem is a No Strings Attached sex-only relationship between her and this new guy. Which is probably what led to the idea that this movie is about friends with benefits, but that idea obscures the fact that she proposes this out of her dysfunction, that it's not kicky at all, and that the movie is about her figuring that out.

It's not about whether men and women can be friends. It's not about whether two people can have sex and not be in a relationship. It's about how to love. It's about how this one specific person could love.

4. It's about this one specific person, which is what makes it brain candy to those of us sitting on our couches watching movies in an effort to understand life. Even if our specific issue is not the same as Natalie Portman's character in No Strings Attached (and mine, I could mention, is not), it's still instructive to see a reasonably functional person figure it out.

It's rare, that combination of "reasonably functional people" and "serious problems" and "things that get figured out". It's special. (No Strings Attached has the added benefit of a strong supporting cast including Kevin Kline, Greta Gerwig, Mindy Kaling, Lake Bell, That One Guy From New Girl (Not Schmidt), and Ludacris -- excuse me, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges.)

It's good writing.

"Good writing" is what I say when I love something. When I feel it describes something that could stand describing. When I feel it. It's how I feel about the Stone Poneys' song "Different Drum", and I know no higher praise than that.


It's a maligned genre, the romantic comedy, although the recent death of Nora Ephron has changed that for a bit.

But who does not want to look through the lighted windows of relationships that actually work? Who does not want to know how to love?


Upcoming installments on At The Movies With Amy Wilson:

Burlesque: the 2011 film starring Cher, Christina Aguilera, and Stanley Tucci. A testament to the power of GLITTER. (Which reminds me, I've got to see that one...)

Country Strong: also 2011, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Tim McGraw. A powerful (truly) film about fame and what it does to human relationships. Combined with tequila and ginger ale, has been known to make grown women weep. 

"Frasier"/"Twin Peaks": already throwing that "universally panned" thing to the side, this installment will probably end up being me writing about logs for 2,500 words.

Guys, I'm psyched. ONWARD.