Friday, February 9, 2007

Blog Chat: Film Buffs

This dialogue between Matt Zoller Seitz and Keith Uhlich from The House Next Door is pretty interesting. I'm going to nitpick and shoot spitballs at it from the sidelines here, but if you're at all interested in concepts like "the future of movies" and "the death of cinema" it'll be worth a read.

First, I thought it was funny that while they point out the cyclical nature of those "death of film" think pieces, they didn't acknowledge that their complaints about fuddy-duddies like Paul Schrader ignoring non-narrative cinema are just as cyclical. Ever since Birth of a Nation, Film As Art Guys have been decrying the dominance of "conventional narrative" and evangelizing non-narrative film.

I used to be pretty gung-ho about non-narrative movies. Well, gung-ho about the idea of them - I have to admit that there weren't many actual non-narrative movies that I enjoyed watching.

Nowadays, though, my main interest is in stories and storytelling, and, at least when it comes to movies, books, and comics, give me Steven Spielberg, Gore Vidal, and Peter Bagge. I still like to read and talk a little bit about the artsier, "exploration and expansion of the medium" stuff, but I'm no longer driven to keep up with it. (I'm no longer driven to keep up with much of anything, which is a very liberating feeling).

I'd guess that most people are going to be like me: we go to the movies to get a story.

But, as this dialogue at 2Blowhards suggests, non-narrative "movies" have a future at YouTube. I'd wager that while there will never be a big audience demand for feature length, large scale, non-narrative film experiences, there will be a growing demand for small scale, five-minutes-or-less, non-narrative video clips, made with a sense of fun, outside of (or at least peripheral to) any existing avant-garde film/video movements, by amateurs and hobbyists.

Second, my major gripe with the piece is the shrill tone they take when they're attacking retrograde ideas about film. Who do they think they are - the film critic thought police? Statements like this...
It's a little embarrassing at this point to still be debating the issue of whether or not a movie is less of a movie because it was shot with a camcorder; and whether television can be art; and whether series television is inherently less worthy of attention than, say, your typical mainstream Hollywood genre film. People who catch themselves talking in those terms should cringe and correct themselves, because it's 20th century thinking.

...make me cringe.

Who cares if you're out of it? This constant pressure to keep up, to adopt the latest and most fashionable attitudes toward cinema (or to anything else for that matter) is pretty unpleasant. It doesn't feel all that different from the pressure we get from Big Media to stay on the cutting edge of consumable crap. And there's something a little bullying about their "get on the bus or get run over" language. I don't think these guys are bullies, at all, but I do think they get carried away here. Do they realize how badly they come off to someone who has honest disagreements with them?

Third, Keith writes that:
I do my best not to be closed off to the potentialities of any motion picture: "Hollywood films", "Foreign films", "Avant-garde films", "Home videos"—at a very basic, gut level these distinctions are anathema to me.

But it is a very rare person who is going to like all of these kinds of things equally, because, well, they each offer very different kinds of experiences. No one would say that because you like books you should try to like cook books as much as travel guides as much as volumes of poetry. We're all going to have our preferences: kinds of movies we respond more to than others, kinds of movies we just aren't interested in. Consider that even within a specific "type" of movie - conventional narrative Hollywood stuff - most people are going to have strong preferences for certain genres, styles, subject matter, etc. It always seems a little forced to me when someone proclaims equal love for all of these things (but that might just be because I used to try to force myself into thinking/responding that way).

This has been a little bit of a hobby horse with me lately, but I think criticism of any kind benefits when the critic is honest and upfront about the specific kinds of experiences he or she actually responds to and is interested in.

Tangentially, one of the defining moments of my own career as a film buff came during the first few weeks of my cinema studies program. I was talking with a classmate and I noticed that he had no familiarity with most of the movies I was bringing up (mostly old Hollywood, but also French stuff from the 1930s). After I asked him "Have you seen that?" for the sixth or seventh time, he told me: "I don't like watching movies much. I just really like the idea of cinema." I didn't say anything more about it at the time, but what I have come to realize is that I really don't care about "movies in general". I do, very much, care about specific movies, and I'm very much interested in the people who make them and they methods they use. But "the idea of cinema"? Eh.

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