Monday, January 26, 2009

Links: In the Shadow of the Seventies

Jonathan Rosenbaum's essay on the ideology behind The Godfather movies is provocative, interesting, and short (so you have no excuse not to go read it right now) (link via The House Next Door). Here are some of my thoughts from back when I last watched these movies.

I think Zach Campbell's riff on Rocky and Rocky II makes some excellent points about the absence of working class sensibilities in contempo Hollywood movies. (His follow up post is also worth a look). (The Wrestler makes interesting "art" movie stabs at bringing this to the screen, but a lot of that movie feels like it's putting quotation marks around Rocky.)

And I always like reading through the digression-filled discussions in Dave Kehr's comments section. This one, from a few weeks ago, starts with a proposal that we can look at Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as a Hatari/Donovan's Reef-like "late" movie. Lots of good point made, although the back-and-forth gets a little nasty in places: the main Spielberg defender seems to have a bit of a chip on his shoulders. Towards the end, Blake Lucas writes:

Do you really feel [Spielberg] should in some way be exempt from any critical challenge? No one else is you know. And I don't think they should be–and I'm referring even to my own favorites among all directors. The people who love them should always feel it is on them to defend them and their works. It should never just be a given–he or she is great and we shouldn't question it.

Somehow, in the new Hollywood, Steven Spielberg actually has this cachet, maybe not on this list but with most people who just take it as an article of faith that this is a great director.

Yet the complaints we have are real. He never wants us to forget that he is the director, and that he possesses directorial virtuosity. The quieter scenes that good directors (and great directors especially) give so much skill and subtlety to between the set pieces of theirs that play in anthologies and tributes (Minnelli is a great example, but in fact Hitchcock is as well) are scenes that always seem to try his patience, as if somehow in the way of the game he wants always to be seen as playing and winning. Please don't doubt the sincerity of those of us who are actively annoyed at this and the attitude and sensibility that do seem to underlie it, and the truly damaging effect some of us believe this has had on Hollywood filmmaking.

I don't go negative on Spielberg to rain on anyone's parade. I do actively dislike him, and I'm someone who likes so many directors and wouldn't for a moment claim they are all great. Most of the films I've enjoyed in my life are probably more easily defended as entertainment than great art, whatever artistic qualities they do have–and I'm not talking about someone like John Ford, who even when most out of fashion, was probably perceived as an artist by most people who had given any thought at all to cinema.

Again, what's ironic is that Spielberg fans act so wounded when he's criticized, but has there ever been anyone less affected in the wider consciousness by the perceptions of those who don't embrace him. He just goes on and on, seemingly immune to the deeper critical perspectives about his work which at least ought to be seriously addressed.

I agree with the general points he makes here - although not on the specifics: I'm a Spielberg fan. However, I do have to say that 10 years ago, I was laughed at (literally and on multiple occasions) when I'd try to talk with other cinema studies folks/film buffs about Spielberg's work in a serious fashion. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the Spielberg defenders on that thread had found themselves in similar situations and were reacting partly to an attitude towards Spielberg that doesn't seem to exist anymore (and certainly doesn't exist on that thread: the people "going negative" on Spielberg are all taking him fairly seriously). I think a lot of conversations on the internet are fouled up because one or more of the parties involved is acting from assumptions formed in completely different contexts. I've been reading a film buff message board where there are a lot of "So and So Is Overrated" or "So and So Is Underrated" threads and I often get the sense that the people starting them are reacting to some specific context that they're not spelling out.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Links: Slumming

Jim Emerson hate-hate-hated Slumdog Millionaire. I enjoyed watching it, but had a number of reservations - like how it hits that yucky "sweet" spot between wallowing in misery and providing feel-good uplift - which have grown over the past few weeks. But here's how honest backlash works: my reservations aren't growing simply because the movie is winning awards and being praised all out of proportion to its actual (modest) merits, but it is because the movie has been winning awards and getting praise from all over the place that I've kept thinking about it. I liked Zack and Miri Make a Porno and My Brother Is an Only Child about as much as I liked Slumdog Millionaire, but those movies haven't collapsed under any great claims made for them. I saw them, I enjoyed them, I mostly forgot about them*. If I spent twenty minutes thinking about their problems, I might start liking them a lot less than I did when I left the theater right after seeing them, which is essentially what has happened to me with Slumdog. (I mean, without even getting into the movies that I really liked from last year, there are about twenty that I saw that are better than Slumdog**.)

I also liked Steve Sailer's suggestion that Slumdog would have been better if it hadn't been edited in such an "on the nose" manner. Steve proposes a cut of the movie where we see all of the questions in rapid succession at the start of the film and then, instead of cutting back-and-forth between the game show and Jamal's story, we just see the story and have to try to find the answers in there ourselves. A little more interactivity definitely would not have hurt.

And while I (obviously) don't agree with everything Ross Douthat writes here, I do agree that the Academy Awards would be a lot better if the voters weren't so "risk averse". I don't think The Dark Knight was the best picture of the year and I don't think it should get a slot just because it made so much money, but still... It's a very strong (if flawed) movie that resonated with audiences and critics and it would have been exciting to see that kind of movie go up against the more usual kinds of Oscar fare like Slumdog Millionaire. (Also: they should have given Clint Eastwood an acting nomination and Danny McBride a supporting actor nomination for Pineapple Express.)

(I should also note that after seeing and being relatively underwhelmed by Slumdog Millionaire my brothers accuses me of not really liking it only because it was popular and critically acclaimed. In my defense, I pointed out that among my favorite movies of the year were Wall-E, The Dark Knight, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona - hardly minority tastes. While it's true that I go out of my way to defend movies when I feel the fix was in on them - as with Speed Racer and The Happening - I never let other people's enthusiasm for a movie get in the way of my appreciation for it.)

*I've remembered a couple of performances, especially Elio Germano's in Brother.

**Wendy and Lucy, Baghead, The Tracey Fragments, Iron Man, Tell No One, Mad Detective, Be Kind Rewind, The Visitor, Changeling, Pineapple Express, Man on Wire, Reprise, It's a Free World..., Punisher: War Zone, Diary of the Dead, Leatherheads, Ghost Town, Charlie Bartlett, Sukiyaki Western Django and Definitely, Maybe.

Mechanism vs. Art

I really like what Dan Sallitt says here in his piece on a "Late Hawks" series:

Film critics... tend to favor the paradigm of filmmakers hitting their artistic peak in early or mid-career, and thereafter laboring in vain to capture the flair of their youth. It's a natural attitude for the reviewer on the beat, deluged with mediocre contemporary product and doomed to wistful fantasy about golden ages. Implicit in the myth of decline is a vision of movies as mechanisms: uncanny objects that somehow "work" or not because of the confluence of ineffable forces. And the late films of many directors seemed often not to "work."

Auteur critics set out to substitute for the mechanism model an artist-oriented aesthetic that was borrowed from older art forms that had clearer claims to being the expression of individuals. Instead of working or not working, movies partook of the creative personality of their directors, and a valuable personality almost inevitably imparted value to individual works. Part of the auteurist agenda was to find a new mythology for the late periods of directors: where most critics saw the pitiable flailings of age, auteurists often saw the mature work of artists who had become too serene and wise for their public to keep up with. The paradigm of the early peak is still pervasive, and if auteurists courted ridicule by playing the "late period" card too freely, they often enough succeeded in installing late works in the canon.

I don't think you need to fully embrace auteurism to appreciate that the "work"/"doesn't work" model of looking at movies (or arts & culture stuff in general) is extremely limiting.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Links: Directors/Choices

There's an interesting discussion on the religious/Christian elements of auteurism in the comments to Dave Kehr's post on (appropriately enough) the new Magnificent Obsession Criterion set. For what it's worth, the less I approach auteurism as a religion, the more comfortable I am as an auteurist. To use Kent Jones' words, I find it to be "a fairly simple but useful way of looking at movies". (Which might mean that from a hard core auteurist's perspective that I don't really have what it takes!) But the question of faith vs. evidence is interesting. For me, evidence comes first, but faith plays a part. I mean: it's the greatness of Wagon Master and Going My Way (evidence) that makes me willing to jump into the deep end with Donovan's Reef and Satan Never Sleeps (faith).

There's also some back-and-forth over what "Sirkian" means. One of the issues that commenters seem to be skirting around is that the renewed interest in Sirk is partly due to a convergence of auteurist interests with camp aficionado interests. While the auteurist impulse is to take in the whole body of work and find the underlying connections, the camp aficionado focuses on the most extreme expressions of Sirk's aesthetic.

Via Tom Spurgeon, some outrage over the casting of M. Night Shyamalan's live-action Avatar adaptation. I'm a little surprised that these casting decisions were so boneheaded. I wonder if the commercial failure of Lady in the Water - which had a Utopian multi-cult vibe - made M. Night shy away from fighting for a more diverse cast. Also, I'm not very familiar with Avatar - I've half-watched an episode or two and have always meant to go through the DVDs at some point - but it does not strike me as material that is particular suited to Shyamalan's sensibilities/strengths*. A fun game: (1) Name an adaptation where a seemingly bad director/material pairing made for a good movie. (2) Name an adaptation where a seemingly good director/material pairing made for a bad movie. A bit depressing that question (2) is probably a lot easier to answer than question (1).

Via Richard Modiano at a_film_by: I liked this interview with Bertrand Tavernier. FWIW, I agree with him about John Ford, not so much about George Lucas. I had seen a few Tavernier movies over the years, but none made an impact until Safe Conduct, which I watched on DVD last year. I really loved it and am now looking forward to catching up with the rest of his movies.

And, if you haven't already, be sure to check back through all the posts that came out of Ed Howard's "Early Hawks Blog-a-Thon" which wrapped up yesterday. Lots of interesting posts, but I especially liked Glenn Kenny's on Walter Brennan's proto-Stumpy performances.

*Which I say as a huge Shyamalan fan.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Links: Movie Critics

I had never seen Jonathan Rosenbaum's review of Midnight Run until I followed a link from The House Next Door the other day, but reading it was like discovering the ur-text of the kind of criticism I've been trying to do/promote here for the last two years (or so). More and more I'm seeing my "big theme" as: "In criticism, appeals to principles may work rhetorically, but they obscure a necessarily contingent process." What I like so much about Rosenbaum's criticism is that it's always self-reflexive and aware of its own contingencies. (Incidentally, Jim Henley linked to this post and described it as me laying out my "standards", but they aren't really standards: just five different, not-necessarily-compatible things I enjoy from movie acting).

After poking around on Dan Sallitt's home page I ended up reading David Edelstein's Slate Book Club take on David Thomson from a few years ago. This is one of the best written examples of how not to read/judge a critic that I've ever come across. Edelstein's underlying problem with Thomson is that he disagrees with him on the relative worth of specific movies. The Altman paragraph Edelstein quotes seems to me like a very strong piece of criticism: it's evocative and challenging and, most importantly, offers a new angle on how some of Altman's major movies work. That it gives short shrift to this-or-that late Altman movie is besides the point. I think I've mentioned this before here, but I don't value a critic like, say, Michael Sicinski (my fave) because his opinions/tastes line up with my own. I like him because (a) he has interesting observations about movies, (b) he expresses these observations in an interesting and/or appealing manner, and (c) I wouldn't necessarily have made the same observations or expressed them in the same way. Any idea that even smells a little bit like "Good critics are the ones who agree with me" deserves to be held up to ridicule.

Speaking of ridicule: lots of it on Jim Emerson's blog directed at Armond White's latest obnoxious "Better Than" list. Pairing and comparing movies can be a revealing and interesting tactic, but, as Jim and his commenters point out, when White does it it confuses rather than clarifies. Still: I thought about White's lists while watching It's a Free World... last weekend. I couldn't help comparing it, favorably, to The Visitor. The Visitor obscures the issues its dealing with by abstracting them from their real world context, while It's a Free World... not brings these issues to light within their larger context. The Visitor is the more artfully made film - it's coherent, where It's a Free World... is choppy and threatens to go off its rails in a few places - but, at least in this case, a little less art may have been a good thing. And it helped me to get a handle on what Free World did well when I looked at it in terms of what The Visitor does well.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


This post on the "Ozzie and Harriet Syndrome" reminds me, once again, that no one today who invokes Ozzie and Harriet seems to have ever seen their TV show (link via Dirk Deppey). The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet is not like Leave It to Beaver, where father knows best and each episode offers a little moral about proper living. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet is much more its own thing: a precursor of both the immature dad sitcoms - like Everybody Loves Raymond - and more "experimental" sitcoms -like Buffalo Bill or Seinfeld (because, of course, conventions weren't as set in stone). For instance, in one of my favorite episodes that combines these two aspects of the show, Ozzie decides to protest the fast pace of the modern world by... staying in bed all day.

I find Jim Emerson's argument that the action movie elements in The Pineapple Express are meant to be read as "stoners imagining themselves the heroes of a movie they'd like to see" unconvincing as a literal interpretation of the movie. Despite all the evidence Jim musters, Occam's Razor leads me to think that this is more of a case of bending and mixing genres than an attempt at a story with multiple layers of reality. Still, there's a lot there to mull over and tease out regarding the way conventional narrative movies mix and match different levels of "movieness".

This piece makes a compelling case for 300 as the definitive movie of the Bush era. Some other contenders: Burn After Reading, 28 Weeks Later, Darkon, Flags of Our Fathers, Hostel, A History of Violence, The Descent, The Village, and Mystic River. Looking at this list, I'd argue that genre films manage to capture the era better than movies that try to deal with current events directly because (a) they act as allegories/metaphors with multiple possible readings/meanings (in other words they're slippery) and (b) filmmakers have more freedom with how they enact/realize/shape fantastic/unreal/"genre" elements than they do with "real world" elements (in other words they're more supple).

Friday, January 16, 2009

More thoughts on how we watch movies...

As a follow-up to my last post (which was a follow-up to this post from Jim Emerson):

I went to see Let the Right One In last night. For most of the movie, I had a fair amount of distanced admiration for the filmmaking, but, as Sean Collins put it in this (excellent) post I really felt all those minutes. I wasn't pulled in and/or engaged like I was with movies as different as The Dark Knight, The Flight of the Red Balloon, Rambo, or In Bruges - movies that "had" me almost from the word go.

But the last twenty minutes of Let the Right One In put a whole new light on the entire experience: they retroactively made the entire movie cohere for me and I went from admiring the movie's pieces from a distance to fully embracing it as a whole.

I had the opposite experience with Happy-Go-Lucky: I was definitely "with" the movie from the beginning - thanks mainly to Sally Hawkins' performance - to the point where I was willing to forgive things that seemed like missteps/headscratchers (the scene with the homeless man). But the final scenes between Poppy and her driving instructor, where Mike Leigh's schematic message finally locks into place, struck me as being so heavy-handed and dishonest that they retroactively made earlier scenes seem more heavy-handed and dishonest than they had at first (especially the sequence where Poppy visits her married, settled sister). Once these final scenes made me certain of what Mike Leigh was trying to do with the whole, little problems that I had been willing to ignore became bigger problems that I didn't want to ignore and pieces that hadn't even looked like problems turned into problems because of the way they fit together within the bigger picture.

Another way to think of this is that movies are both a performance - those bits and pieces - and an object - the whole they add up to.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Some thoughts on how we watch movies...

Jim Emerson has started a very interesting series of posts on The Dark Knight. I thought it was a very good, but flawed film, and, though Jim thinks it's a bad movie, the issues he raises tie into why I don't think it's a very good film, full stop, let alone a great film.

My take is that it's a sloppier piece of filmmaking than Batman Begins (and a much sloppier piece of filmmaking than The Prestige), but that the many moment-to-moment examples of spatial/plot incoherence are overwhelmed and - to a certain extend - made irrelevant by the movie's thematic and emotional intensity and specificity. Or, rather: the incoherent moments are overwhelmed by the intensity and it is the specificity of how that intensity is achieved that makes it easy for those of us who like the film to ignore them even when, after the fact, someone like Jim points them out to us.

I think that you can do these or similar kinds of exercises with other movies on this tier - "very good, but flawed" like No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood - but I doubt they have much effect in terms of changing a sympathetic viewer's mind. This can still be a useful and/or interesting conversation to have, but, at one point in the comments Jim says that "the movie" comes before "don't like", which I think is true only to a certain extent. Most people - critics included - do not watch a movie with a mental checklist of how all the little pieces are falling into place or how they're not falling into place. Rather, I think we're always moving between the little details and the Big Picture that's coming together in our heads. In fact, without some sense of the Big Picture, we can't even begin to make sense of the little details.

And there are some movies that require you to buy into the Big Picture upfront, because, otherwise, none of the little details are going to make sense. Take A History of Violence or Eastern Promises: if you approach these as if they're meant to be "realistic" crime dramas, they'll probably come off as sloppy, incoherent, and ludicrous. I don't think either of these movies has any major flaws of the kind Jim is talking about (or I was talking about here or Dan Sallitt was talking about here), but if you're not a sympathetic viewer, every moment probably looks like a flaw.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


There's no correlation between how faithful a movie adaptation is to its source material and how good it is. Accusing a movie of infidelity is a lot like accusing a movie of historical inaccuracy. As I wrote in this post:

Sometimes I get the feeling that unsympathetic viewers will bring in a concept like "historical accuracy" to make their argument against a movie stronger: it gives the impression that they are holding the movie up to an objective standard. This is a suspect maneuver, IMO, because most viewers (general audience members, film critics, and film buffs alike) are not at all consistent in terms of which movies they hold to that standard. "Historical accuracy" is like a club they pick up when they feel the need to beat on movies they don't like.

So we can use "source infidelity" as a clubm, but also as a hook. That's basically what I was doing in my post on The Spirit. It isn't the fact that Frank Miller's movie isn't faithful to Will Eisner's comics that makes it a bad movie, but comparing what it does unsuccessfully to what Eisner's comics do successfully is useful and illuminating. More importantly, perhaps, it is a natural comparison to make.

We can also talk about different kinds of infidelities. The movies of Atonement and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe all stick reasonably close to their source novels in terms of incident, character, and theme, but fail to translate the sensibility of the original, because they substitute the conventions of contemporary, mainstream narrative cinema for the more personal voice of the respective novelists.

The Narnia movie takes C.S. Lewis' "stuff" and presents it as a souped-up action/adventure fantasy, with none of the fragility of the original story. Despite its heaviness as an allegory, I think that Lion shows a light touch (especially when compared to Tolkien's more elaborate fantasy novels). The Narnia books are more bedtime story than fantasy epic, something that the movie completely misses.

The movie of Atonement is high-energy and twisty-turny - a period melodrama played like The Usual Suspects. It's a choice that works (on a certain level), but it also jettisons the more contemplative aspects of the original novel (which happen to be those elements which made the book memorable). The effect is that the movie is more intense than the book, but also less gripping - or maybe less grippable: there's not as much there to think over once the movie's done.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Spirit

Kim Thompson says that The Spirit is bad in a way that suggests Frank Miller made exactly the movie he set out to make. I think he may be right, but a big part of what made watching the movie such a disappointing experience was that there were hints - around the edges - of what a better Spirit movie might look like.

Specifically: in the opening and closing voice-overs, the Spirit rhapsodizes about his beloved city, but the city plays no part in the movie. Where the Gothams of either the Burton or Nolan Batman movies are fully-realized places, Central City in Miller's movie is barely even a background: to call it abstract is giving it too much credit. Calling it generic, even, implies that there's some form there that's fulfilling certain conventions, but there's just nothing.

Anyway - that absence points to how Miller should have made this movie: with Central City as the main character and the Spirit operating in the background. Hey - he could even have split the movie up into three separate stories - maybe even stories from Will Eisner's comics - with some recurring characters to give us a sense of a living city.

For me, it isn't a question of whether or not Miller should have been more faithful to the original comics. However, completely ignoring what made the original comics interesting and sucessful - or rather, giving it lip service but not following through - seems like a bad idea.

This happens to tie into my Comic Book Pet Theory #2 (#1 is the thing where I say that Watchmen is all about gravity and that Dave Gibbons doesn't get enough credit for it): apart from a few early homages to The Spirit in Daredevil, Frank Miller's work bears no relationship to anything Will Eisner has ever done. Miller keeps trying to pass himself off as an "Eisner acolyte", but they are completely different artists. Eisner is interested in the city - in its geography and in the way that geography shapes the lives of its denizens. It's the line that runs through his work from The Spirit to the graphic novels. His heirs are Ben Katchor and Chris Ware. Miller is an action/adventure cartoonist working with outsized figure-drawing and Steranko-inspired page layouts. Though I don't think he's ever said this, he's a follower of Kirby, and, to the extent that you can talk about his innovations, the main one is that he either (a) puts exaggerated Kirby-style super-hero figures into non-super hero genres (Sin City, 300) or (b) brings various noir elements to bear on super-hero comics (The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One). (I think his best super-hero work is The Dark Knight Strikes Again partly because he's dealing with super-hero comics on their own terms, even if he seems to find those terms somewhat retarded).

It's (unfortunately) not surprising then, that a cartoonist whose work centers on figure-drawing would make a movie that is so (detrimentally) "figure"-centric (and I don't say actor-centric because none of the people on screen are creating characters or playing objectives or doing any of the other things we like to see actors do). That's partly why Central City is such a non-entity: Miller is only interested in it as a backdrop for highly-stylized images of movie stars and would-be movie stars. The problem, as Michael Barrier would point out, is that, the drawn figure tends to be much more expressive and much more congenial to exaggerated expression than bodies on film. So Miller is trying to do something he knows, but he's working in a medium where it's very hard to do that kind of thing and he's not using the right kinds of tools.

I'd still argue that what he's trying to do, doesn't really make a good fit with the material, although that becomes a side point as Miller doesn't even do what he seems to be trying to do all that well.