I was going to review “Suffragette” today, but since it’s not a new release and the plot is straightforward: Carey Mulligan plays a young oppressed Englishwoman who joins the suffragette movement at great personal and professional cost, I decided not to. Also, it would have been cheating because I skipped the last third of the movie. I’m sure the real life stories were exciting and drama-filled, but this one was not, plus a lot of scenes appeared to be filmed in almost complete darkness. So certain aspects of the oppression had to be left to the viewer’s imagination.
I rationalized this decision by the fact that I had just seen a Ken Burns’ documentary on the (American) suffragettes and I figured that even though parts of that were slow, I sat through the whole thing and learned something to boot. It struck me that “Suffragette” (the movie) was an example of spinach cinema, defined by Word Spy, as movies that are not very exciting or interesting, but that one feels one must see because they are educational or otherwise uplifting. The performances of the actresses themselves are excellent, but the only way I would have been excited to see it if it was during school, and it gave me an excuse to do nothing for an hour.
People go see movies for a variety of reasons, some noble, some not so much. People see movies because they are too nice to say no to their companions. People see movies just to kill time or to sit someplace with air conditioning. Or because “everyone” is seeing the film.
Then there are movies that you wind up seeing for the wrong reason because either you’re mistaken about the content or the trailers made the movie look like something else entirely. The movie “Osama,” which is used on Word Spy as an example of spinach cinema, may have had other viewers who, like me, was under the mistaken impression that it was about bin Laden. It’s actually about an Iranian girl whose family becomes impoverished and whose mother sends her out dressed as a boy to find work, and who winds up having to get married to a creepy elderly man and become part of his harem. It’s as grim as if it were about the original Osama, but that’s the point.
With spinach cinema, you may not be entertained, but at least you emerge blinking into the light afterwards and realize that you learned something.
Spinach cinema is usually on a politically correct topic. Also it is depressing. Characters typically go mad, suffer horrible atrocities of the spirit, murder, commit suicide or are sexually assaulted. If you yourself are prone to mood dips of the clinical kind, you might wind up staggering the number of such films you see.
I did this when “Schindler’s List” came out, choosing a day when things were going kind of blah (weather and otherwise), so I figured my mood wouldn’t have too far to plunge. This turned out to be a wise decision.
A popular time for spinach cinema is the fall, as Oscar season approaches. This is when it is assumed that the discriminating moviegoer has had enough of the big budget summertime offerings (junk food) and is ready for Something Serious. This is often when movies about racism, slavery, the Holocaust and World War II get released. Spinach cinema may be synonymous with Oscar bait, though not always.
A good movie changes the viewer in some way. And change may not be pleasant or comfortable, but in the end, it is worth it.
Did you enjoy yourself? Or at least, did you learn something today?
That is the question.