[1958] Separate Tables

I have a strong connection to 1958’s Auntie Mame because it’s a movie that I would watch with my father every so often as a younger lad, but often enough for its lore to remain etched into my brain. Auntie Mame is a story every way in which Separate Tables is not – thematically compelling, dramatically lighthearted and fun, funny, charming, you name it. Granted and absolutely, the two films have disparate aims. Separate Tables is Grand Hotel-esque as its characters continue to lead lives apart but plot ensemble. I found every character unlikable and stereotypical, with almost no attempt to resolve any issues, whether plot-related or personal. Two movies nominated for Best Picture during the same year, two films embedded in Cold War Culture but only one is ‘watchable.’ For all its star-power, and it commanded quite the ensemble cast, Separate Tables is an unfortunate dud in an otherwise dull year.

We need to talk about storytelling rigor and what it means for a film to be ‘unwatchable.’ First, and most likely foremost, taste is subjective. Each of us has had a conspicuous life and will continue to do so, complete with our own experiences, feelings, memories and futures; these together start to compile our taste profiles and, to each of us, what’s subjectively ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ Good art accesses our taste profile and the best art does so implicitly – a small tribute to other art here or there, a historical nod, a cheeky anachronism or a running joke without actually spelling out its joke. Its themes are elastic and its structure clear, and concise (if not concise then purposefully bloated). Bad art meanders around half-baked everything and might pander to the offensive (not as a social observation) for a cheap laugh. It’s cheap and we feel cheap. We build our taste profile by compiling, either alone or among friends, the collective experiences of good and bad art.  Continue reading