So I hadn’t really put all the pieces together on this one until I found this wonderful article about Steven Spielberg’s stupid-looking new movie War Horse, basically paring the whole thing down as a gay metaphor. Hearing this Oscar-bait, bullshit family film cut down to size was bizarrely satisfying for me but I couldn’t understand why at first.
Or furthermore, why had I been so 100% dismissive of this entire movie from the moment I heard it announced like two whole years ago?
I mean Spielberg is undeniably a master filmmaker and is certainly responsible for two or three of the best American films ever made (The Terminal and Amistad obviously . . . oh, wait, I meant Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of The Crystal Skull and Jurassic Park: The Lost World . . . shit . . . I mean A.I. . . . oh never mind). And it’s not like this movie features dead-eyed, gross looking, CG-inflated cartoon characters, so what was driving my antipathy?
Then of course it hit me: Horse Movies suck.
Pretty much all of them. Horse Movies is maybe the worst genre in cinema history, with the possible exception of Poker Movies (but I’m still unpacking this, so I can get back to that). Why do I even know this though? How many Horse Movies can I even name?
Not that many: Black Stallion, Black Beauty, National Velvet (that was about horses right?), Seabiscuit, Secretariat, Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. And have I even seen any of these movies? Certainly not the two newer titles on that list, (those of the sub-subgenre: “Celebrity Horse Movie”) and I did somehow watch Wild Hearts Etc. with my wife at some point last year (it was an identical experience to my memory of watching it with my sister years prior; both times I’m pretty sure I was asked to leave the room by the end).
So what of the three old ones: Two Blacks and a Velvet? I have no idea what these movies are about, except that of course I do: they are about beautiful, powerful horses and the presumably young people who share a wordless bond with them. It is passionate. It is real. It is love. Pure and simple. I know this because all horse movies are about the same damn thing and also because I have some strange, unspeakable back-of-my-mind notion that somewhere in my childhood I was subject to abuses, of a cinematic kind, but apparently no less haunting, made to watch an endless stream of Horse Movies made for The Whole Family, because like every family in the suburban south mine loved horses.
Wait, no we didn’t. My Grandpa had been thrown from one as a child and suffers to this day from a fear of them that was passed down to me as a kind of darkly cautionary tale. “Don’t ever ride a horse,” he would tell me while I watched him fashion wooden swords for me out of scrap-wood from his garage workshop. As far as I know I have no memories of my father or mother riding or showing any interest in horses. So why of all movies did we gather around to watch Black Beauty on a Sunday night?
I have no idea.
All I do know is that I hated every minute of every one of those films. It isn’t something I think about very often, but reading that article sent me on quite a trip through the past. A past full of boring shitty memories of watching shitty Horse Movies.
War Horse looks like something I would have to watch with a babysitter when my parents had a party to go to or something. One of those times when they rent a movie for you as a surprise and you have that moment where maybe they are going to tell you it’s Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey and then: nope, surprise War Horse. Have fun.
I should stop beating up on that movie though; it’s kind of unfair, especially since I haven’t seen it. I think I should attempt to focus instead on understanding why I hated/hate the Horse Movie genre. Obviously it all comes down to: taste in genre in any medium is so totally subjective it’s almost not worth attempting to understand or explain. Why some people have an endless appetite for reggae music and zombie movies is completely beyond me and obviously plenty of people would be equally baffled by my general enjoyment of free jazz and Space Horror (the genre of horror films that are all set in space, e.g. Leprechaun in Space and Event Horizon). So for me to say that all Horse Movies are in some ways the same is both obvious and redundant; of course they are, that’s what makes it a genre. All Boxing Movies are the same too, but I thought last year’s film The Fighter was totally amazing. So I will concede that there are people out there who just love all these Horse Movies that parents around world seem to jam down their kids throats year-after-year. These people want more more more. More horses! More shots of humans hugging horses and crying! I can only speculate what’s behind this reaction; if my own natural disinclination to theses films springs at least partly from an inherited fear of horses, then I must assume the opposite factor is at work in the hearts and minds of Horse Movie Lovers. These are people with a natural love of horses or people who perhaps have known the love of a good horse. (No laughing at that please. I am going to talk about Zoo later, but for now I still mean Innocent Love of horses).
So yeah, if you grew up around horses, or had your own horse, then I would bet that you get more out of Horse Movies than I do. If you’ve experienced this apparently near-mystical horse-human connection, then you are understandably going to be more affected by watching people like Tobey Maguire pretend to be having it as well. But as film genres go, some things are just more cinematic than others, and in my own subjective opinion certain things kind of automatically make for less engaging films. This is where the comparison to Poker Movies comes back. Poker Movies are really really really really really really really awful. Because poker itself is the most boring thing in the world to watch, unless of course you’re just WAY into poker, and if you are, you can spend hours watching those terrible celebrity poker tournaments because you can mentally project yourself into the game and sort of “play along” with them. Now, in most poker movies there is no actual poker going on, so the best you can hope for is that people who are way into poker will be entertained by just hearing their stupid familiar expressions — “Oh shit, he got two kings on the river” or whatever. Those of us who hate poker will be doubly bored because we have no intrinsic interest in the game, and we hate the terminology, (oh and you know that whole Poker Face thing? You know how in order to be good at poker you should be as blank and emotionless as possible? Yeah, you get it, watching actors act like they are playing poker means watching really expressive people NOT express anything for two hours).
So I’m taking the long way around here, but I think I just convinced myself that the Poker Movie is indeed The Worst Genre. Because while Poker and Love of Horses are both things that are totally un-cinematic, and interest in them in a movie is disproportionately dependent on the audience’s previous knowledge and/or experience (more so than say, boxing. It’s two dudes punching, easy to follow and grasp), at least Horse Movies have horses in them. Does it sound like I’m contradicting myself? See there are plenty of great, awesome, powerful, exciting movies that have horses in them, look at all Westerns, hell even Melancholia had some awesome horse sequences. Horses are beautiful animals and they look amazing up on the big screen, especially in slow motion. And horses as photographic subjects are wonderfully compelling, so it’s a very weird irony that movies featuring horses are great, but movies about horses bore me to tears.
Still: Someone should make a movie about a bunch of horses playing poker in slow motion. That would be the apex of both these genres. Throw some William Basinski music down for the score and I’d watch that all day long.
Hmm. I kind of feel like I completed my thought there, but I promised earlier to talk about Zoo, which is the notably huge exception to everything I have just said. Zoo is the movie about the guys who have sex with horses and one of the guys dies because the horse-sex kills him. I wholly adore this movie and have watched it several times.
(And no, in case you are wondering there is not a bunch of graphic horse sex in the film; it’s a documentary made of voiceovers and sort of “unsolved mysteries style” re-enactments, none of which involve actual horse sex, with the exception of maybe two or three seconds of actual footage that appears very small in the frame, on a television set being watched by characters in the shot).
Why do I like this movie so much when I can’t stand all the other ones I mentioned? I think partly because it is more real and because it’s not a movie for kids, and also because it combines (an even more baffling) Love of Horses (these guys know the love of a good horse, right?) with my naturally felt fear of them. I think all of the kids movies about horses all feel like bullshit to me because they very obviously and rightly leave out all of the weird shit humans have going on with these animals. I mean, the sort of Freudian thing about little girls and horses is silly and cliché as any tired old “What does a cigar look like?” jokes your dad could come up with. We all know that there can be this weird sexual component to our interaction with horses, and if you’re at all like me you look at these things and see Giant Dangerous Animals, just as much as beautiful graceful creatures. So Zoo seems really vital to me as one of the only movies to really capitalize on all of that stuff, (I realize now that I have never seen Equus, doesn’t that have dark, sexual, horse stuff too?). And add all of this to the fact that Zoo is an exceptional story and a true story, so it’s that much more interesting. By exceptional I mean that it is precisely not the story of a normal kid who discovers a passionate connection with an animal. No, it’s the story about a group of guys who have sex with horses, and beyond that it focuses on the guy who died from it. So he’s a unique member of a unique group and this factor makes it interesting.
As a kid one is supposed to watch those horse movies and project one’s self into them, have a vicarious relationship with the black stallion for two hours, but because I was never all that interested in horses it didn’t work for me. I’m not looking to project myself into the story; Zoo works for me because the characters couldn’t be more different from me.
The true story aspect makes a difference too; take for instance The Horse Whisperer vs. Buck, (both terrible titles btw). I couldn’t be less interested in the Redford film, but the doc looked pretty fascinating. So I guess that’s the takeaway: When it comes to horses go documentary over narrative.