Illustration by Sonja Vasiljeva for an article on Malcolm and Marie
Just because you'd never want to lay eyes on a movie again, doesn't mean it's bad. (Illustration by Sonja Vasiljeva, San Jose State University)

‘Malcolm and Marie,’ and Why Movie Watchability Doesn’t Equal Greatness

The Netflix film is phenomenal, captivating audiences with nothing more than two characters and a few moments of heavy silence. So why would some people never want to watch it again?

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Illustration by Sonja Vasiljeva for an article on Malcolm and Marie

The Netflix film is phenomenal, captivating audiences with nothing more than two characters and a few moments of heavy silence. So why would some people never want to watch it again?

There is much debate surrounding the criteria for the “goodness” of a piece of media. Each medium is recognized as having different standards for being what one could consider good — such nuance is crucial, as the shorter runtime of television shows must draw and keep attention in a different way than a 90-minute movie. However, there is one distinction I find rarely made that is relevant to each medium, ranging from novels to feature-length films. Its main concern is with watchability — or readability when discussing literature — as distinct from the goodness of that art.

Too often critics make what is known as a category error, or the error that arises from arguing a concept on improper definitions. For example, one would make a category error if they said they disliked tomatoes because they dislike vegetables, as tomatoes are fruit. The same mistake is made when a critic asserts a movie’s goodness on the basis of their mere enjoyment of it, or when they assert a movie’s badness on the basis of their mere lack of enjoyment of it. For, at its core, a movie’s goodness correlates with, but is not necessarily the cause of, its watchability — meaning that, while it is perhaps more likely for a viewer or reader to enjoy good art, it is not necessarily the case that the art is bad if they fail to enjoy it. “Malcolm and Marie,” in particular, provides an instructive example.

The films that will be discussed portray things graphic or disturbing to most, so discretion is advised.

Now “Malcolm and Marie” is a very ambitious movie. It is character drama distilled to its most pure and refined form. The entire movie consists of only two actors, Zendaya and John David Washington, in a single house — and within that house, they are shown mainly in the living room. For an audience to be engaged with the movie for all 106 minutes, these characters must be incredibly dynamic and interesting, as there is literally nothing else to be engaged with.

Despite these goliath hurdles to overcome, director Sam Levinson is able to invest the viewer in these characters with nothing more than dialogue and well-executed silence. In fact, their dynamic is so well done that it is very easy for a viewer to see both characters as real individuals having real discussions, given the very natural ebb and flow of conversation throughout. “Malcolm and Marie” is an excellent film, as it nails naturalistic dialogue and character writing in a way only the best movies can.

But Good God and Baby Jesus is the movie impossible to watch. Had the Lord in his Divine Glory and Sovereignty come down from his Heavenly Abode and held my head straight at the television screen with his Benevolent and Omnipotent Hands, still I would find some way, any way, to turn this movie off. The two characters, Malcolm and Marie, are flawed — which, of course, is necessary for any drama. But they are flawed in such complementary ways that they drain life from the viewer like vampires. All they do is argue, then make up, then argue again. For 106 minutes.

What exacerbates this problem is what I mentioned previously — the dialogue and acting are both outstanding, so rather than the audience member feeling as though they are watching a movie argument, they feel as though they are watching a real one. For that reason, sitting through “Malcolm and Marie” is like voluntarily sitting through almost two hours of a real-life scarred couple bickering in a doomed relationship — miserable to say the least. To many, “Malcolm and Marie” is nearly unwatchable on a deep level despite it being a great movie at its core.

Both “Inglourious Basterds” and “12 Years a Slave” illustrate this dynamic well. Many, including people I know personally, positively cannot watch these two movies. The trauma they depict is so raw that the emotions they can evoke within someone can be too much to bear. In the minds of many critics, though, these two movies are two of the best ever made. “Inglourious Basterds” has an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes, while “12 Years a Slave” has a staggering 95%. Though all three of these films are outstanding on both an artistic and technical level — and are difficult to watch as well — “Malcolm and Marie” lags behind at a poor 59%. Evidently, watchability is independent from quality, even among many of the same critics — so to say a movie’s quality is poor due to its poor watchability is a category error. Furthermore, notoriously bad movies like Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room” — which fail on every level imaginable — are also well-known for developing cult followings due to their hilarious ineptitude. This makes them, to a sizable number of critics, incredibly watchable despite their egregious flaws.

Still, we are left with a question — if all three movies are great and are unwatchable in similar ways, why do only two of them receive critical acclaim? It’s because some tragedies are sexier than others. It is a fundamental truth that we, as humans, shy away from the pressing sort of pain and are drawn to the more distant, macabre sort simultaneously. The overwhelming majority of movies’ audiences were not alive to witness the Holocaust, and no one was alive to witness American slavery; it is for this reason that movies portraying the horrors of genocide are, strangely, more palatable — the viewer feels some level of detachment and, in the worst and most despicable scenes, can comfort themselves by keeping in mind how these events are in the distant, barbaric past.

They can falsely convince themselves that these problems are resolved, and that nothing this horrific could happen today. This solace allows for more prolonged exposure to and appreciation of the art, as if the movies are science fiction — tales of events and conflicts far removed from oneself in space-time. “Malcolm and Marie” does not provide this degree of separation. Abusive and miserable relationships exist to this day and every day in the future, and the reminder that such a terrible experience can be inflicted upon even the most well-intentioned people — especially a reminder in such gruesome detail — makes for a movie that, while great, is both hard to watch and hard to enjoy. But to say that a nearly unwatchable, nearly unenjoyable movie is a bad movie is to make a big, big mistake.

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Amiri Rivers-David

Pomona College
Undeclared

I am someone deeply interested in the influence of technology and culture as it relates to philosophy.

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