Thursday, October 21, 2010

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Movie Love

Having said that...

We may have reasons for thinking a movie is good or bad, whether it is well made or incoherent, whether we find it honest or deceitful, but we don't, maybe can't, choose the movies we love.

"Love" here means more than just happening to align with personal preference and/or taste. It means more than really enjoying watching a movie or thinking that it is "one of the greats". The movies we end up loving can be distasteful to us at first. That's often been the case with me. My initial, immediate reaction to Lost Highway was to reject it, but it haunted me: it made demands on me that I could not ignore.

To put it another way: some movies call on us to champion them, to defend them against their critics; other movies, objectively just as well made, just as much within the boundaries of our own preferences, do not.

These thoughts came up when I was mulling over my response to a film that is much beloved by a cinephile friend. I thought that the movie in question was, without question, a good one. I admired it quite a bit. And, on paper, it had all of these qualities that I love and feel we don't see enough of: apart from being beautifully shot and acted, it strove to capture a certain time and place and a way of being in that time and place without trying to make a large statement. But I didn't love it: I can come up for reasons why it's a great movie, but they're not reasons I fully believe in.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Two perils of film criticism:

1. Making a fetish of objectivity

Which means: talking about personal preferences as if they are aesthetic axioms.

Example: "This film is bad because the filmmakers show contempt for their characters." As if a preference for a certain arrangement of the relationship between author, audience, and characters should have the weight of a moral rule and is not merely a matter of taste.

2. Making a fetish of subjectivity

Which means: using personal preference as a shield, pretending that taste isn't something that can be developed and needs to be transcended.

Example: "This film is great because it perfectly captures my experience of being an adolescent." As if the ultimate in art is to perfectly reflect and reinforce your view of the world and your view of your self.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

"Male Unbonding" by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld

The pilot episode gave us the first pillar - the awkward ambiguity of communicating through signs - and here we have the second pillar: obligation and its discontents. Most everything else that follows will rest on these two foundational themes.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


I thought about this line from Thom Andersen while watching Richard Fleishcer's Violent Saturday last night:
As thriller plots have lost their moorings in the real world of causes and effects, something valuable has been lost. When actions become arbitrary, stories lose their power to help us make sense of the world and they become strictly formal patterns. Thus many of us now turn to documentaries for the emotional knowledge we once found in fiction films.
Andersen qualifies this - "[y]et these formal patterns can still be of some use: they can describe a world, more or less adequately, and they can make it strange" - but his original point is still worth mulling over. Violent Saturday feels very different from many of the post-Jean-Pierre Melville crime pictures - like Michael Mann's Collateral or Johnnie To's Exiled - because the crime is taking place within a recognizable social setting. It's economically built and perhaps not that deep, but it has a genuine breadth. The actions of the criminals aren't measured according to an abstract code, but rather by how they upset the existing web of compromise and failed hopes that make up the movie's small town America.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Reprehensive Retrospective?: On Lars von Trier and Roland Emmerich

My friend Nick and I always have a good time arguing about movies. A while back, we had this online discussion of Terminator 2 and have wanted to do that kind of thing again, but, until now, we just haven't had the time. So, this post is the first in what we hope will be a series, the topic of which I'll let Nick introduce, since it was his idea.

Nick: There are plenty of filmmakers loathed by the people in our small group of cinephiles. Two are commonly abused by me: Lars von Trier and Roland Emmerich. I guess I became especially aware of this in 2009, as they both recently released movies that seem obvious considering their career trajectories: Antichrist and 2012. Or, at least based on how I’ve previously assessed their careers.

In honesty, I’ve only seen a couple von Trier's movies and maybe 4 of Emmerich’s. I’ve derided von Trier as an anti-American masochist, churning out hateful pretentious (or worse, boring) art house blah. (Jon, on the other hand, claims he's never seen a von Trier movie he hasn't liked, but I'll let him explain that for himself). And Emmerich as a joke, making CGI-heavy nonsense without even the (marginal) taste or skill that the Bays and Scotts of the business do.

But with Antichrist and 2012 coming out at about the same time, I started to considering these two as an interesting pair for analysis.

Emmerich, 54 is West German born. He’s an openly gay director who, after watching Star Wars, decided to become a filmmaker. He lives in Hollywood. He’s a populist, a humanist and, seemingly, loves America and its culture. His first big U.S. theatrical release, Universal Soldier, hit theatres in 1992. (See here for a take on his earlier efforts).

Lars von Trier is 53. He was born in Copenhagen, and is twice married. After two critical successes, Zentropa (Europa) and The Kingdom, his life took a strange turn. From Wikipedia:
In 1995, von Trier's mother revealed on her deathbed that the man who he thought was his father was not, and that she had had a tryst with her former employer, a man named Fritz Michael Hartmann, who descended from a long line of Roman Catholic classical musicians, in order to give her son "artistic genes." After four awkward meetings with his real father, the man refused further contact. The revelations led von Trier to attempt to "erase" the connections with his stepfather by converting to Catholicism, and to rework his filmmaking into a style emphasizing "honesty".
This resulted in the Dogme95 movement. It’s also interesting to note that he suffers from multiple phobias that make it difficult for him to travel.

Two European directors born about ten years after the war. They first found success in the early 90s. We’re going to explore and contrast what they’ve done since then. We’re watching these movies with a clean slate. No baggage. No preconceptions. The retrospective is as follows:

Europa & Universal Soldier
Independence Day & Breaking the Waves
The Five Obstructions & Godzilla
The Day After Tomorrow & Dancer in the Dark
Dogville & The Patriot
10,000 BC & Mandalay

And, hopefully, Antichrist and 2012.

Wish us luck.

Jon: I should point out that I paired the movies up this way in a more-or-less chronological fashion, but I also hoped that the juxtapositions would be interesting. Before starting this project, I had seen most of the Emmerich movies (just not Universal Soldier and 10,000 BC) and none of the von Trier movies - although I do like the other things I've seen by von Tier - The Element of Crime, The Boss of It All, and, especially, The Kingdom. (Looking at that list, it's a little odd that I've managed to miss most of his major works, but that's something I can delve into as we go along.)

So, let's start with Europa and Universal Soldier. There's actually a (perhaps weak) thematic connection between the two, as they both refer to the lingering problems of wars in which the U.S. was involved - WWII in the case of Europa, Vietnam in the case of Universal Solider - but, not surprisingly, their p.o.v. couldn't be more different. In Europa, though the main character is American, what's at stake seems to be the soul of Europe. Universal Soldier is more like Platoon, in that Vietnam is only important as a psychic wound on the American consciousness: the Vietnam War as an American problem and not as a Vietnamese one. This U.S.-centric p.o.v. is, of course, (unfortunately) pretty conventional, but what makes it worthy of note is that (a) Emmerich isn't an American and (b) it stars two obviously non-American performers (even though they're supposed to be playing American characters). I have to say I find a lot of value in von Trier's more global perspective. Watching Europa I was reminded by an attack friends of ours made against Inglourious Basterds this summer by saying that Tarantino's movie was not really a World War II movie. But it seemed to me they were making the mistake of saying that only movies about the experience of U.S. soldiers really counted as "World War II movies". Europa belongs with others movies in the category of "World War II movies that aren't about American soldiers" that often get overlooked when people are talking about "war movies".

Anyway, I have some specific questions for you regarding what you think about von Trier's take on America in Europa and how that relates to what you see as his anti-Americanism, but first, what you'd think of the movies?

Nick: As I said, I really wanted to approach von Trier’s movies with a clean slate. My notion of his anti-Americanism comes mostly from things I’ve read and heard in interviews, as I’ve only actually seen a couple of his movies. I mostly liked Europa. I don’t think all the tonal shifts quite work (the lovemaking scene atop the model trains, for example), but I definitely don’t see the movie as anti-American. The POV character, of course, is US-born, but he has good intentions—probably the best intentions of anyone in the movie. The other American character is more slippery, but he doesn’t come off much worse than the Germans. The protagonist is a naïf who is way, way in over his head (both figuratively and literally, in the end). I think von Trier is more interested in juxtaposing this fresh-faced character, from a less than two hundred year old country with the vastly complicated, conflicting and contradictory relationships in Germany and, more expansively, the whole of Europe.

I think the movie is meant to be viewed as a grotesque comedy, one that uses Kubrickian and Lynchian techniques while composing (gorgeous) shots that parrot and parody classic World War II movies from both US and European directors. I think von Trier sees Europe at that point in history as a twisted joke, and one that America couldn’t possibly understand. There’s now way the tone deaf can keep up with the shifting pitch. What do you think? I also think it’s funny that, upon losing the big prize for this movie at Cannes, Lars flipped off the judges and stormed out. But I can see why they didn’t award it the champ (it did receive several other awards). For all its artistry, the director’s bag of tricks overshadows the characters and narrative. It’s good. But it ain’t Grand Illusion.

As for Universal Soldier…it’s pretty bad. I think it’s funny that, a year after Lars flipped the bird at Cannes, Emmerich’s two stars, JCVD and Dolph Lundgren staged a shoving match for publicity. Neither of our subjects will be arrested for crimes of subtlety.

I think the movie has a little charm. The necklace of ears is a nice touch (though a Vietnam cliché and executed in more interesting fashion in Tim O’Brien’s story "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong") but the movie is really a rehash of movies Emmerich likes. Terminator, most directly. In the end, it plays like a hybrid of the lousiest Universal horror movies and wannabe Cameron. There are touches of humor, and some OK shootouts. I guess if there’s something to be said for it, it’s that it doesn’t lack spirit. It doesn’t feel like Emmerich is going through the motions—more like he doesn’t have any moves yet. I think he was just happy to be there. I knock Europa a little for not being Grand Illusion. I’ll knock Universal Soldier for not even being second-tier Verhoeven.

Jon: Grand Illusion is a pretty lofty target for any other movie to live up to (it's one of the greatest war movies ever made), but, otherwise, I like your take on Europa. Universal Soldier, on the other hand - forget second-tier Verhoeven, it doesn't even manage to be second-tier Stephen Hopkins.

Two things struck me about the movie:

(1) Both of the leads are horribly miscast. Van Damme is likable in Bloodsport and Kickboxer, but here he's supposed to give a performance that's a cross between what Schwarzenegger does in Terminator and what Jeff Bridges does in Starman and it's just way too much for him. He ends up looking confused and constipated. Lundgren, on the other hand, has real presence - until he opens his mouth. It would have been a better idea to have this character not say anything at all.

(2) The action set pieces are all "okay", but the movie falls down in the way it resolves them. The way the scenes are linked together doesn't make any sense: Van Damme keeps escaping - after the fight at the motel and the one at the gas station - but he never seems to do anything to earn his escape. There's no story logic behind any of the action sequences: they're only there so that Emmerich can blow things up and knock holes in walls. It might be cheating at this point to suggest this, but this flaw is where I see the most connection with Emmerich's later movies.

Anyway, I think that's a good start. If there's anything else you or anyone else reading this wants to talk about, the comments are open.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thoughts inspired by seeing Richard Kelly's The Box a week after Scorsese's birthday

Scorsese might be the father of American "post-classical" cinema. He - along with De Palma, Bogdanovich, Spielberg, Milius, and Lucas - developed a style that grew out of his love for classical Hollywood filmmaking. Scorsese took the expressive techniques of Ford, Hitchcock, and Lang and used them in such a way that his original emotional and intellectual reaction to those techniques became part of how his movies make meaning. Scorsese's personal take on film history is woven into the texture of his movies, even if - as in Raging Bull or After Hours - the explicit subject has nothing to do with cinema.

I would differentiate Scorsese et al. from Robert Altman and Terrence Malick. Though Altman's movies were in dialogue with those from Classical Hollywood (i.e. The Long Goodbye with The Big Sleep, McCabe and Mrs. Miller with My Darling Clementine), Altman's style isn't informed by his attachment to those older movies in any way. (Richard Linklater is a modern Altman in this respect). While Malick - like Michael Mann and M. Night Shyamalan - makes movies as if no one has ever made a movie before.

Today's "post-classical" directors - P.T. Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, Steven Soderbergh, and Richard Kelly - go even farther, making movies where their original emotional and intellectual reaction to the movies they loved exists not only as a subdermal layer of meaning but becomes, in some ways, the primary layer of meaning. The Box, for example, is more of an exploration of Lynchian acting and an exercise in turning suburbia into one of Kubrick's dream/nightmare realms than it is an ethical parable or sci-fi thriller.

This movement is toward decadence and Tarantino is it's Oscar Wilde: his great subject has become the way that our relationship to the movies we love can act as a way of being in the world - a way of coming to a greater sense of self-understanding.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Reeling and 5001 Nights at the Movies by Pauline Kael

Continuing a closer look at this...

I first read Pauline Kael's film criticism not long after finishing the paper that had led me to Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. Considering I was a burgeoning film buff, I'm sure I would have gotten around to reading her work on purpose, although I ended up discovering it by accident. Our neighbors across the street were renovating their basement, which they had been using to store all of their books and they offered to pay me to box them all up. I noticed that they had quite a few books of film criticism and while taking a break (it was a hot day - I needed to stay hydrated) I picked up a copy of Reeling and started skimming through it.

By this time, I was already familar with, if not the exact movies she was wiritng about in Reeling, many movies from that era. One of the "major events" in my cine-biography was moving from a rural New York town of 10,000 that had a good, solid video store (Village Video on Raymond Street in Malone) and a single screen theatre to Montreal, a genuine, world-class city with a number of great video stores, multiplexes, and (at the time) even a few rep houses. And given that I was a fan of Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman, I had ended up watching quite a few movies from the "American New Wave". So, my brief look at the book was enough to get me hooked: passionate writing about the kind of movies that I was just beginning to get passionate about - a perfect match!

I went to the bookstore the next weekend to get my own copy, but, since I couldn't find Reeling, I bough 5001 Nights at the Movies, which replaced the Halliwell's Film Guide that I was contiually checking out of the library as my main source for movie recommendations. Over the years, my copy of 5001 Nights stayed with me, moving from house to dorm to various apartments, getting pretty beat up along the way from almost constant reference.

Over the years, I've come to agree with Michael Blowhard that Kael's criticism is more valuable as writing - for its humour, its voice, its passion - than as film criticism, per se. As a critic, Kael is perhaps too reliant on her immediate reaction: her wisecracking confidence doesn't leave any room for doubt or self-reflection. Too often she writes as if she's trying to have the last word rather than start a conversation. But the things she taught me to value in movies - mainly a sense of vitality and emotional truth - are still important to me today. And I still use too many em dashes.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Greatest

Over in the comments at Sean Collins' blog, I talk a little bit about Casino - one of my favorite Scorsese movies - and different ways to measure greatness (by way of answering the question of Scorsese vs. Malick).

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Decade of Lists

I really liked Chris Stangl's first entry in his look back at his favorite movies of the decade. I fully endorse his philosophy towards making top ten lists:

Each citizen in a world of moviegoers builds a little history of film for themselves, complete with private pantheons, household classics, the unjustly dismissed, overpraised or overlooked. These histories are influenced by our selective blind spots, parents and gurus, taste economies, social engineering and pure dumb chance. List-making is an act of criticism all by itself. It winnows and excludes, reveals and conceals, and for the list-maker causes at least cursory examination of critical values and assumptions.

It is not the most insightful critical practice. List-making is also rife with problems and begs a lot of questions, particularly of the apple/orange variety, and can easily slip into attempt to stratify and quantify the unquantifiable. As much as an awards show, the building of lists can transform art appreciation into a sporting event. When it comes to matters of “Greatest” and “Best,” what we’re really talking about is “Favorites” perfumed with false objectivity. We don’t cotton to objectivity at Exploding Kinetoscope. An objective observation on a movie would read something like “the film was projected onto a screen at a rate of 24 frames per second.” Farber also said in interview that the last thing that matters is whether a writer “liked” the movie or not. Point taken to heart, but it is also the inevitable starting point for all that follows, all critical arguments and observations proceed from preference....

The only qualities I am making conscious effort to project are honesty and a degree of eclecticism. The lists were not built with an eye to looking smart, sophisticated, worldly, populist or contrarian. If they end up that way, so be it.

Chris is insightful on all ten of the movies he writes about here, although I especially appreciated his comments on Mission to Mars and Battle Royale, two of my favorites.

Looking at my own revised top ten list for 2000 (see below) I'm surprised by how many of the movies on it remain at the top of my "decade favorite" list. Partly this is a function of time: I've lived with these movies longer, had a chance to return to them over the years, and so my admiration and appreciation for them doesn't feel like it's based on momentary whims or being overpowered by novelty. They've earned their place in my personal pantheon by not letting go of my imagination over the last nine years. That said, perhaps I'm being unfair to those movies whose immediate, visceral effect on me was greater, but has faded over time.

Anyway, here's my 2000 Top Ten retrospective (with the caveat that I still haven't caught up with some likeyly contenders):

1. Yi-Yi
2. The Gleaners & I
3. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
4. Battle Royale
5. Mission to Mars
6. The Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors
7. Cast Away
8. The Claim
9. Unbreakable
10. Dr. T and the Women

Actually, going back on what I wrote up above, there is one fairly "new to me" movie on this list: I didn't start catching up with Hong Sang-soo until earlier this year. The Virgin is probably my least favorites of his movies that I've seen so far, but I still think it is something special. When I first saw it, it reminded me of Jim Jarmusch's early movies, but, as I have gotten more on Hong's wavelength, I've come to see it - and him - as possessing a one-of-a-kind sensibility.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan by Robin Wood

Beginning a step by step journey through this list...

My first steps towards cinephilia started with a love for action movies (especially those starring Arnold Schwarzenegger) and what my brothers and I called "epics" - i.e., movies that came on two VHS tapes (The Towering Inferno, The Right Stuff, The Great Escape), which we liked to rent because they gave us more bang for our (parents') buck.

After that I got into actors. My favorites were Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman, and for my 14th birthday, my parents got me - appropriately enough - coffee table "The Films of..." books for each of them. If I were making a list of books that were important to "my life as a movie watcher", those two would have a place on it, but this list is about my life as an amateur critic.

I checked Robin Wood's Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan out of the Westmount library in order to research a Grade 10 English paper that I was writing on The Graduate. Though I didn't find much in it that directly related to my thesis ("Coming of Age in The Graduate"), I ended up reading through the whole book. I wasn't entirely sure what to make of it.

I had, at this point, learned about the basics of literary analysis in English class, but this was the first book length work of criticism that I had ever read, the first work of criticism that assumed the reader was familiar with the basics of Freudianism and Marxism, and my first exposure to close readings of movies. I can still remember reading Wood's Feudian take on Blow Out and being shocked by all of the phallic symbols he was able to find.

I'm not sure that I found him entirely convincing. Today, I still don't quite agree with his arguments and I value his Howard Hawks book (even though there's lots I'd argue with there, too) more than this one. But what was important to me was less Wood's specific approach, than the idea that I could approach a movie with a critical frameworks in place. And that, by doing so, I might be able to unlock deeper meanings, hidden under the surfaces of the films I loved.

Friday, November 13, 2009


In the comments of Dave Kehr's most recent entry, Kent Jones asks:

I wonder: are the Coens really satirists? One powerful characteristic of their work is self-containment. Every film presents us with a completely self-contained world with its own rules, its own peculiar shared argot. Whenever I watch one of their movies, I feel like I’m looking inside a snow globe, but I don’t think it’s just a reflection of condescension or smug superiority. They seem obsessively devoted to confounding expectations, and that plays out partly in the way they twist a little here and tinker a little there and invariably come up with something out of Lewis Carroll.

I don't think that the Coen Brothers are just satirists and I agree that the various patterns and organizational strategies hidden in their movies is what makes their work interesting and rewarding. I do think that what makes them satirists has to do with their point-of-view towards their characters, in general, and less to do with having any specific targets, but, that said, the movies do have targets.

Not a comprehensive list:

Raising Arizona - baby mania
Barton Fink - the movie business, idealistic writers
The Hudsucker Proxy - big business, fads
Fargo - capitalism
The Big Lebowski - David Mamet
O Brother, Where Art Thou? - the intersection of American politics, folk culture, and popular culture (see also Nashville)
Burn After Reading - the US intelligence establishment
A Serious Man - the search for meaning

"The Seinfeld Chronicles" by Larry David & Jerry Seinfeld

Here, at the beginning, we already have that focus on reading signs, on looking for the hidden meaning behind every moment of social interaction. Direct communcation - trying to cut through the signs - would mean dropping your defenses - taking the risk of appearing needy, uncool, incomplete. Of course, this leads to the awkwardness: with such imperfect information, how do you know which way to move?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Blue Grass Dreams

Last night I dreamt that I went to a screening of Resnais' Wild Grass, a film I've yet to see in my waking life. In my dream, the movie was made up exclusively of long duration, fixed camera shots, where in each shot, the left two thirds of the frame seems to have been painted over with green or blue paint. I somehow knew that this had been done by hand: Resnais himself had painted over the film, frame by frame, so that almost all of the action was obscured and we in the audience had to guess what was going on in the part of the image now covnered by paint.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Serious Men, Take 2

On the latest post at Dave Kehr's site, Kent Jones leaves a comment that speaks to the subject of my previous post:

Flaubert and James aren’t great artists because they’re overflowing with sympathy for their characters. They are intensely interested in them, which is a different matter. Sympathy for characters can be just as much of a hindrance as a help. Don’t all great works of art result from equal measures of cold detachment and warm engagement? In my opinion, that goes for Cassavetes as well as Kubrick. As for the idea that an artist’s attitude toward his or her characters reflects his or her attitude toward people, that’s a tough one. What are we talking about, humanity at large or people as individuals? And what people, loved ones or people you meet on the street? Then there’s the question of basic human contradiction, which allows people to be great humanitarians and monsters at home, or public misanthropes with an abiding love for their children. And on a more atomized level, don’t people’s stances shift continually? Who is wholly consistent on a moral level? If Cassavetes and Renoir and Elaine May and Aristophanes and Sophocles have taught us anything, isn’t it that people are entirely and maddeningly inconsistent?
I endorse the idea that an author having "intense interest" in their characters is probably more important than whether or not they love or hate them and whether they look upon them with approval or disapproval.