Inside Llewyn Davis
"Inside Llewyn Davis" is the most satisfyingly diabolical cinematic structure that the Coens have ever contrived, and that's just one reason that I suspect it…
* This filmography is not intended to be a comprehensive list of this artist’s work. Instead it reflects the films this person has been involved with that have been reviewed on this site.
China's military says "Pacific Rim" is American propaganda; the nudist colony member who just won't leave; a guide to Craigslist crime; remembering cinematographer Vadim Yusov; a case for the doofus Batman of yore; the 50th anniversary of MLK's "I Have a Dream Speech"; Park Chan-wook directs a music video.
The big loser in the 2012 Sight & Sound critics poll is... funny. OK, we know there are no losers, only winners! But, still, with the obvious exceptions of "Citizen Kane" and "Rules of the Game," this decade's consensus choices for the Greatest Films of All Time are not a whole lotta laughs, even though they're terrific motion pictures. There's not much in the way of chuckles or joie de vivre to be found in "Vertigo," "Tokyo Story," "Man with a Movie Camera," "The Searchers," "The Passion of Joan of Arc"... At least "Sunrise," "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "8 1/2" have healthy senses of humor, but "Kane" and "Rules of the Game" are the only movies in the top 10 with the propulsive vitality of (screwball) comedy. They are flat-out fun (even if they are regarded as "classics"). And with "Kane" bumped to #2 this time, The List has become, to paraphrase a great comedy from the 1980s, one less funny.
I say this as someone who believes that comedy is everything, and that drama is lifeless (or at least emotionally stunted) without it. Some might argue that comedy without drama is also limited and superficial, but I think comedy is more profound and complex -- and more difficult to pull off successfully. I can name plenty of comedies that capture a mature vision of human existence (if you're into that kind of thing -- like all of Buster Keaton), but a drama that (artificially) excludes humor is feels false and inert to me. [No, I'm not saying the other movies in the Top Ten are humorless or lack cinematic exuberance; just that their energy is not primarily comedic, as i feel Welles' and Renoir's are. To some extent, I'm talking about the overall tendency to value "seriousness" above "humor" in these sorts of exercises.] As for the 2012 Sight & Sound Top Ten, compare it with 1982 ("Singin' in the Rain," "The General"), 1992 ("L'Atlante") and 2002 ("Singin' in the Rain"). The lack of comedy on the new list hearkens back to the Somber Ol' Days of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. As somebody once said: Why so serious?
UPDATED (08/01/12): Scroll to the bottom of this entry to see my first impressions of the newly announced critics' and directors' poll results.
Vittorio De Sica's "Bicycle Thieves" (1948) topped the first Sight & Sound critics' poll in 1952, only four years after it was first released, dropped to #7 in 1962, and then disappeared from the top ten never to be seen again. (In 2002 only five of the 145 participating critics voted for it.) Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" (1941) flopped in its initial release but was rediscovered in the 1950s after RKO licensed its films to television in 1956. From 1962 to 2002 "Kane" has remained at the top of the poll (46 critics voted for it last time). This year, a whopping 846 top-ten ballots (mentioning 2,045 different titles) were counted, solicited from international "critics, programmers, academics, distributors, writers and other cinephiles" -- including bloggers and other online-only writers. Sight & Sound has announced it will live-tweet the 2012 "Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time" (@SightSoundmag #sightsoundpoll) August 1, and as I write this the night before, I of course don't know the results. But, for now at least, I'm more interested in the process.
Given the much wider and younger selection of voters in 2012, ist-watchers have been speculating: Will another movie (leading candidate: Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," number 2 in 2002) supplant "Kane" at the top of the list? Will there be any silent films in the top 10? (Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin" and Murnau's "Sunrise" tied for #7 on the 2002 list, but the latter was released in 1927 with a Fox Movietone sound-on-film musical score and sound effects.)
Though there's been no rule about how much time should pass between a film's initial release and its eligibility (the Library of Congress's National Film Registry requires that selections be at least ten years old), most of the selections ten to have stood the test of time for at least a decade or two. The newest film on the 2002 list was the combination of "The Godfather" (1972) and "The Godfather, Part II" (1974) -- but they won't be allowed to count as one title for 2012.
Or: This IS my beautiful life! How did I get here?
The deaths of Andrew Sarris and Bill Sweeney on the same day last week got me to ruminating about my own life with movies and what drew me to them so strongly from an early age. Yes, there's that innate childhood desire to escape into new worlds (see "Moonrise Kingdom), and to create them, too (I started writing stories and shooting live-action and animated movies with my dad's wind-up 8mm Kodak Brownie before I was in my teens). But I think I've always known, too, that movies are like dreams, less about escapism or distraction than about getting closer to an understanding of the relationship between your inner self and the world. Tom Noonan said: "I think life generally is a distraction and that going to a movie is a way to get back, not go away." To me, the best movies have always been more real than real. Life, John Lennon sang, is what happens while you're making other plans; art gets to the core of what it means to be alive.
I've had many life-and-death (and near-death) experiences in waking life that were no more vividly real, memorable, ecstatic, traumatic, or profoundly and indelibly affecting* than certain (sometimes recurring) dreams or, oh, "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Sherlock Jr.," "Sansho Dayu," "Chinatown," "Nashville," "Kings of the Road," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "The Searchers," "Only Angels Have Wings," "The Magnificent Ambersons," "Vertigo," "Un Chien Andalou," "No Country for Old Men" -- and those are just a few of the titles that popped into my head as I was typing this sentence. (And yet it's still such a young medium -- only a little more than a century old.) There are familiar places that exist only in my dreams, that I remember from dream to dream, and I revisit them often. Movies are those kinds of places, too.
Did somebody say "ambiguity"? I'm a big fan. Generally speaking, I much prefer movies with a little uncertainty, or a little emotional ambivalence, to those that spell everything out and tell me exactly how I should feel about it. Most of my favorite movies of 2011 thrive on ambiguity, open-endedness, a sense of the fluidity (or "slipperiness" as I like to call it) of time and space: "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," "Certified Copy," "Margaret," "Meek's Cutoff"... But sometimes resonant inconclusiveness slips into deliberate laziness, substituting opacity for meaning. And when that happens, it's a shame.
Or, as Ignatiy Vishnevetsky writes, sometimes it's "Shame," the movie by Steve McQueen starring Michael Fassbender and Carrie Mulligan:
... McQueen... opts to shroud the movie in vagueness. This goes beyond the characters--Fassbender as the barely-sketched lead, Mulligan as the generic broken woman (tellingly, her sex life is played as comedy while Fassbender's is played as grand tragedy), Beharie as the foil whose attraction to Fassbender is never explained--and their relationships; Shame is a Choose Your Own Meaning movie, full of blank spaces that a sympathetic viewer can fill with their own interpretations (this culminates in a lengthy sex scene between Fassbender and two women, with Fassbender's facial expression serving as a sort of Rorschach blot).
It's smart filmmaking--and also totally duplicitous and self-serving, the arthouse craftsmanship nearly hiding the film's middle-brow triteness (see also: I Am Love), every scene ladled with big dollops of cinema's most respectable cop-out: ambiguity. When McQueen isn't marking time with exercises in post-slow-cinema aesthetics (as in the long tracking shot of Fassbender sternly jogging to his bitchin' Glenn Gould playlist), he elides and defers. Shame wears its emptiness like a badge of honor; McQueen is trying for banal blankness, and though he succeeds in that respect, you kind of wish that a filmmaker (and one with a background as an artist at that) would aspire to do more than just say nothing.
Each of these astonishing "cinematoGIFs" (animated .GIF files) by Gusaf Mantel distills the essence of a cinematic moment into a living, breathing "movie still" -- an indelible moment preserved in time. Once you start gazing into them, you'll find it hard to stop...
Above: The apes and the monolith: "2001: A Space Odyssey" (Stanley Kubrick, 1968).
Below: The tension of Travis Bickle, keeping his television perpetually balanced on the edge of smashing to the floor: "Taxi Driver" (Martin Scorsese, 1976).
Let's start with the big picture: As near as I can divine, Terrence Malick's movie "The Tree of Life" is about itself, and that statement probably sounds as confounding and imposing as viewers will find the experience (as a whole or in part) of watching it. What I mean (if I can take another flying leap at it) is that the movie expresses the drive behind its creation, somewhat like the way that "Days of Heaven" embodies the peeling and unfurling process of its own making... but, OK, not exactly. This is a movie about (and by) a guy who wants to create the universe around his own existence in an attempt to locate and/or stake out his place within it.
In other words, it's not a modest motion picture. The ambition on display here is Tarkovskian¹ or Kubrickian in scale: think "Solaris," "Stalker," "The Sacrifice," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Barry Lyndon" -- journeys to the far reaches of space and time that are also explorations of worlds within: memories, desires, fantasies, the exercise of will and intelligence. What it comes down to, then, is that "The Tree of Life" is the story of one family (and one filmmaker) projected infinitely outward in all dimensions. (3D is so trifling, comparatively.)
The multiple narrators whispering in our ears are sometimes (but not always) identifiable as members of the O'Brien family, with the strongest voice being that of Jack (Hunter McCracken), eldest of three sons of Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain). Jack is also played as an adult by Sean Penn. The family's story isn't told chronologically, but covers umpteen billion years, give or take, from the origin of the universe to the dissolution of our solar system, with most of the action taking place in Waco, Texas, in 1956 or thereabouts, when Jack is around 11. (I got some of those factoids from the press notes, some from other published material about the film. Consider them guideposts. They may or may not be literally true, and Malick isn't particularly interested in nailing down these kinds of specifics within the film itself -- including the names of all the O'Briens, some of which can be found only in the end credits. But it helps to have a few solid points of reference on hand when discussing the movie.)
When I was a child I was taught that it was unacceptable to call something -- a movie, a song, an activity -- "boring" because: 1) it doesn't make sense (a thing can't be boring, unless perhaps it is a drill bit; a person feels bored); and 2) it's indefensible, since the quality of "boringness" cannot be isolated or identified as an element of the thing itself; it's a feeling and it is yours).
So, saying something is "boring" is not exactly like saying something in a movie is "funny" or "moving" -- though, again, I'd prefer to place the responsibility for a response on the "feeler" rather than on the object -- because at least you can describe how something is presented or intended to be received as humorous or touching, even if you don't think it is. (Yes, there are exceptions to that, too.) I mean, a joke or a gag or an emotional situation can be objectively analyzed, but there are no agreed-upon cultural standards for evaluating "boring."¹
"Boring," I believe, is more like the word "entertaining" -- too vague to be of much use in a critical vocabulary. So, I might say I found something about a movie "tedious" or "engaging" or some other thesaurus word, but I'll attribute the emotion to myself and my taste, and even then not without a serious attempt to describe what I'm talking about, and to give at least one specific example.²
But now, "boring" is hot, at least in overheated Interwebular film criticism circles, since the publication of Dan Kois' New York Times Magazine piece called "Eating Your Cultural Vegetables," in which he says:
From Jesse Richards, Granby, MA:
In the summer of 1981, Robert Redford gathered novice and veteran filmmakers together for the first of what has become known as the Sundance Institute's Directors and Screenwriters Labs. Eleven projects were chosen for the workshop (there are 13 for the 2010 program) -- which, over the last 29 years, has included such films as Paul Thomas Anderson's "Hard Eight," Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs," Tamra Jenkins' "Slums of Beverly Hills," Darren Aranofsky's "Requiem for a Dream," Hany Abu-Assad's "Paradise Now," John Cameron Mitchell's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and Kimberly Pierce's "Boys Don't Cry."
That's the old news.
Click above to REALLY enlarge...
UPDATED 01/28/10: 2:25 p.m. PST -- COMPLETED!: Thanks for all the detective work -- and special thanks to Christopher Stangl and Srikanth Srinivasan himself for their comprehensive efforts at filling the last few holes! Now I have to go read about who some of these experimental filmmakers are. I did find some Craig Baldwin movies on Netflix, actually...
Srikanth Srinivasan of Bangalore writes one of the most impressive movie blogs on the web: The Seventh Art. I don't remember how I happened upon it last week, but wow am I glad I did. Dig into his exploration of connections between Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" and Jean-Luc Godard's "History of Cinema." Or check out his piece on James Benning's 1986 "Landscape Suicide." There's a lot to look through, divided into sections for Hollywood and World Cinema.
In the section called "The Cinemaniac... I found the above collage (mosaic?) of mostly-famous faces belonging to film directors, which Srikanth says he assembled from thumbnails at Senses of Cinema. Many of them looked quite familiar to me, and if I'm not mistaken they were among the biographical portraits we used in the multimedia CD-ROM movie encyclopedia Microsoft Cinemania, which I edited from 1994 to 1998, first on disc, then also on the web. (Anybody with a copy of Cinemania able to confirm that? My Mac copy of Cinemania97 won't run on Snow Leopard.)
From Kalyan Chakravarthy Navuduri, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India:
Lars von Trier, maker of calculating horror comedies, is a shrewd showman -- if not exactly in the classic Hollywood tradition then at least in the Barnum & Bailey one. He pleases his audiences by teasing, taunting and testing them, keeping his tongue in his cheek. I picture him as a dancing, grinning little prankster on the fringes of world cinema, alternately flaunting a streak of astringent sadism and hiding for safety behind a shield of facetiousness.
He's also, in "Antichrist" particularly, a thudding literalist whose mock-academic ideas and images are so over-rationalized and in-your-face that (like the mysterious cry of a baby placed too far forward in the sound mix to be haunting or ambiguous) they don't have much room to resonate. When they ought to be harrowing, they're obvious and over-explained, which cuts them off from genuine emotion or experience. Nevertheless, "Antichrist" is a serviceable, sometimes atmospheric horror movie, until the last chapter-and-a-half when it just goes flat. By then it's already gotten a little too much of a charge out of commenting on its own giddy morbidity, and whether the audience is laughing at it or with it doesn't matter. Either way, the laughter is dismissive.
View image Richard Widmark, straight shooter.
You may have heard some version of this story about Richard Widmark, who died last week at age 93. I was there, at the Telluride Film Festival in 1983 when it happened, in the Sheridan Opera House for the tributes to Andrei Tarkovsky and Widmark. Emotions were heightened, perhaps, not only by the thin mountain atmosphere, but but by a terrifying Cold War showdown between Leonid Brezhnev's Soviet Union and Ronald Reagan's USA (I don't know which scared me more at the time) over the shooting down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which we didn't learn about until we got to Telluride. Things were chilly up there.
The emotions associated with my memories are indelible, even if their precision has faded. But the gist of what Richard Widmark said that weekend, and the eloquence with which he said it, will always stay with me. Shortly after Widmark's death, I contacted Gary Meyer, director of the Telluride Film Festival (whom I'd known as co-founder of Landmark Theatres), to see if Widmark's tribute speech was transcribed anywhere, because I would love to reprint it. Those were relatively early days for the Telluride festival (which began in 1974 and seemed much more remote than it is now) and Gary couldn't find any record of the speech, which I remember Widmark reading from notes he produced from his jacket pocket. But he did find some 1983 press coverage, from which I have pieced together the following "story."
View image Genre picture? Marketing label?
Charles McGrath wonders if critics and the public give genre work enough credit. In "Great Literature? Depends Whodunit," published in Sunday's New York Times, McGrath makes a case for pulp fiction that applies to movies as well as to literature. Often behind the generic labeling, he says, is: ... the assumption that genre fiction — mysteries, thrillers, romances, horror stories — is a form of literary slumming. These kinds of books are easier to read, we tend to think, and so they must be easier to write, and to the degree that they’re entertaining, they can’t possibly be “serious.”
The distinction between highbrow and lowbrow — between genre writing and literary writing — is actually fairly recent. Dickens, as we’re always being reminded, wrote mysteries and horror stories, only no one thought to call them that. Jane Austen wrote chick lit. A whiff of shamefulness probably began attaching itself to certain kinds of fiction — and to mysteries and thrillers especially — at the end of the 19th century, with the rise of the “penny dreadful,” or cheaply printed serial. The market and public appetite for this stuff became even larger in the early years of the 20th century with the tremendous growth of pulp magazines, which specialized in the genres and eventually even added a new one: science fiction. I think of genre conventions as something akin to sonata form in music, or the chord progressions from a popular standard that jazz musicians may use as a foundation. The familiar prototype is just that: a recognizable structure upon which a craftsperson (even an artist) can create almost anything at all -- even turn it inside out or blow it apart.
Kenji Mizoguchi's "Sansho Dayu" (aka "Sansho the Bailiff").
The ballots came in from all over the web. Edward Copeland tabulated them (and found nice stills for all the winners), under the supervision of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Jimmy Carter. OK, I don't know about that last part, but Edward did some great good work here.
He's calling it "The Satyajit Ray Memorial Anything-But-Definitive List of Non-English Language Films." Copeland writes: "The name comes, of course, from the great Indian director who failed to land any of his acclaimed works on the final list of 122 nominees."
In all 174 people chose their top 25-or-so non-English-language talkies made before 2002 (nominees had to be at least five years old). The Top 100 is here -- accompanied by comments from people who chose them. (Comments and vote totals for the other 22 nominees are here.)
My top choice was Kenji Mizoguchi's "Sansho Dayu" (which came in at #46 and is available on a Criterion DVD), about which I wrote: If I had to choose just one movie –- one movie –- above all others on this list, Mizoguchi's would be it. I've long felt that if there were a god, the closest expression we're likely to find on this earth is in this movie. It's not the only film on my list that gives me goosebumps whenever the title is mentioned, but I don't believe there's ever been a greater motion picture in any language. This one sees life and memory as a creek flowing into a lake out into a river and to the sea.That seems a little florid to me now (it was the night before I left for Toronto, and I was trying to tie together the imagery in the first and last shots of a masterpiece), but the emotions, and the awe, are genuine.
Here's the Top 25:
1. "The Rules of the Game" (Jean Renoir) 2. "Seven Samurai" (Akira Kurosawa) 3. "M" (Fritz Lang) 4. "8 1/2" (Federico Fellini) 5. "Bicycle Thieves" (Vittorio De Sica) 6. "Persona" (Ingmar Bergman) 7. "Grand Illusion" (Jean Renoir) 8. "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (Werner Herzog) 9. "The Battle of Algiers" (Gillo Pontecorvo) 10. "The 400 Blows" (Francois Truffaut) 11. "Fanny and Alexander" (Ingmar Bergman) 12. "Tokyo Story" (Yasujiro Ozu) 13. "Rashomon" (Akira Kurosawa) 14. "Ikiru" (Akira Kurosawa) 15. "The Seventh Seal" (Ingmar Bergman) 16. "Ran" (Akira Kurosawa) 17. "Jules and Jim" (Francois Truffaut) 18. "The Conformist" (Bernardo Bertolucci) 19. "La Dolce Vita" (Federico Fellini) 20. "Contempt" (Jean-Luc Godard) 21. "Breathless" (Jean-Luc Godard) 22. "Ugetsu Monogatari" (Kenji Mizoguchi) 23. "Playtime" (Jacques Tati) 24. "Au Hasard, Balthazar" (Robert Bresson) 25. "Andrei Rublev" (Andrei Tarkovsky)
Bad news: "Amelie" made the list (though only at #92). Good news: "Life is Beautiful" (which isn't) wasn't even nominated!
Stop wasting your life. Get watching.
View image Number 74.
I was not familiar with TotalFilm.com, until I spotted a link over at Movie City News.
Thanks a lot, guys.
The link was to a pair of articles listing Total Film's choices for "The Greatest Directors Ever" Part 1 (100 - 49) and Part 2 (50 - 1).
Will I return to this site? I think probably not. Why am I linking to it now? Because it's my shameless attempt to stimulate discussion, which I hope will be on a more informed level than this list. Or maybe it's just to have a laugh. Or a moment of sadness. What do I think of the list itself? Well, let's see:
Baz Luhrmann is #97.
Tony Scott is #74, just edging out Milos Forman, Kenji Mizoguchi, Satyajit Ray, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and Buster Keaton, who comes in at #88.
Bryan Singer is #65, two slots below Robert Bresson, who immediately follows Sam Raimi.
Rob Reiner is #35.
Michael Mann (#28) is on the list, but Anthony Mann is not.
Bernardo Bertolucci is... not on the list.
Otto Preminger is... not on the list.
Richard Lester is... not on the list.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder is... not on the list.
Max Ophuls is... not on the list.
George Cukor is... not on the list, but George Lucas (#95) is.
Andrei Tarkovsky is... not on the list.
Eric Rohmer is... not on the list.
Claude Chabrol is... not on the list.
Luchino Visconti is... not on the list.
Vittorio De Sica is... not on the list.
Michelangelo Antonioni is... not on the list. Not even the top 100.
What's worse are the little names they have for each director. Sophia Coppola (#99) is "The dreamer" ("Dreamy, brave and cool, this Coppola is doing it for herself"). Singer is "The new Spielberg." Robert Altman (#26) is "The outsider" -- oops, but so is Hal Ashby (#58). Somebody ran out of labels. Well, at least they are not outside all alone; they are outside together. Sam Fuller (#50) is "The hack." Mike Leigh (#49) is "The grouch." Quentin Tarantino (#12) is "The motormouth."
OK, that's enough. Have at it if you feel like it. If you don't feel like it, you'll probably live.
ADDENDUM: A reader, spleendonkey, describes TotalFilm as a British magazine aimed at teens and pre-teens, designed to broaden their film horizons. For the record, here's the mag's description of itself on its subscription page:In 2007, Total Film celebrates its tenth year of being the only film magazine that nails a monthly widescreen shot of the whole movie landscape. It’s the essential guide for anyone who’s passionate about movies - whether they’re into Cruise or Cusack, Hollywood or Bollywood, multiplex or arthouse, popcorn or - er - sweetcorn. Each issue is pumped full of reviews, news, features and celebrity interviews on all the latest cinema releases. The all-new home entertainment section, Lounge, is the ultimate one-stop-shop for everything you should care about in the churning world of DVDs, books, videogames and, occasionally, film-related novelty furniture. The mag regularly features highly desirable, Ebay-friendly FREE stuff - exclusive film cells, posters, postcards, DVDs… We’re currently in discussions with Health & Safety operatives about sticking a magical compass to the cover when "His Dark Materials" comes out. Subscribe to Total Film now, or forever be belittled by precocious children in discussions about what’s best and worst in movieland.Doesn't sound all that different from Entertainment Weekly to me, but there you go...
View image "Zabriskie Point" -- an Antonioni movie on the cover of LOOK magazine in 1969: "Had he violated the Mann Act when he staged a nude love-in in a national park? Does the film show an "anti-American" bias? As a member of the movie Establishment, is he distorting the aims of the young people's 'revolution'?"
Watching Ingmar Bergman's "Shame" (1968) over the weekend (which I was pleased to find that I had not seen before -- after 20 or 30 years, I sometimes forget), I recalled something that happened around 1982. Through the University of Washington Cinema Studies program, we brought the now-famous (then not-so-) story structure guru Robert McKee to campus to conduct a weekend screenwriting seminar. McKee, played by Brian Cox in Spike Jonze's and Charlie Kaufman's "Adapation." as the ultimate authority on how to write a salable screenplay, has probably been the single-most dominant influence in American screenwriting -- "Hollywood" and "independent" -- over the last two decades. Many would say "pernicious influence." (Syd Field is another.)
It's not necessarily McKee's fault that so many aspiring screenwriters and studio development executives have chosen to emphasize a cogent, three-act structure over all other aspects of the script, including things like character, ideas, and even coherent narrative. Structure, after all, is supposed to be merely the backbone of storytelling, not the be-all, end-all of screenwriting. But people focus on the things that are easiest to fix, that make something feel like a movie, moving from beat to beat, even if the finished product is just a waste of time.
The film McKee chose to illustrate the principles of a well-structured story that time was Ingmar Bergman's "The Virgin Spring."
"Shame" is another reminder that Bergman's movies weren't solely aimed at "art" -- they were made to appeal to an audience. Right up to its bleak ending, "Shame" is a rip-roaring story, with plenty of action, plot-twists, big emotional scenes for actors to play, gorgeously meticulous cinematography, explosive special effects and flat-out absurdist comedy. I don't know how "arty" it seemed in 1968, but it plays almost like classical mainstream moviemaking today. (And remember: Downbeat, nihilistic or inconclusive finales were very fashionable and popular in mainstream cinema in the late 1960's: "Bonnie and Clyde," "Blow-Up," "Easy Rider," "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry"...),
It's important to remember that Bergman and his fellow Euro-titan Michelangelo Antonioni, who both died on the same day last week, were big-name commercial directors -- who also helped moviegoers worldwide see the relatively young, originally low-brow, populist medium in a new light: as a (potential) art form. (The Beatles, who in 1964-'65 were the most popular youth phenomenon on the planet, even wanted Antonioni to direct their second feature, after "A Hard Day's Night"!) And if they hadn't been so popular and famous, they would not have been so influential. These guys won plenty of high-falutin' awards at film festivals, but they were also nominated for Oscars in glitzy Hollywood.
Matt Zoller Seitz's "The House Next Door."
I feel strongly that film, and film criticism, are two sides of the same coin, each essential to the experience of the other. Without both sides, the coin itself couldn't exist in three-dimensional space (and certainly wouldn't be worth anything!). If movies are just forgettable eye exercises, patterns of light and shadow and sound that have no artistic or psychological or cultural significance, then what is there to analyze or criticize? And if the unexamined life is not worth living, then I don't see how the unexamined film is worth watching.
Last Saturday, I was supposed to have been on a panel called "Why Film Critics Matter" at the Port Townsend Film Festival in Washington State, organized by Kathleen Murphy. And I would have been, if it hadn't been for a scheduling misunderstanding. As it turns out, I was still in Toronto. But I sent Kathleen some thoughts to share on the panel, and I'd like to share 'em with you, too. This e-mail was composed after a lunchtime conversation with one of my favorite movie bloggers, Girish Shambu, and what we talked about was still reverberating in my head, so I want to thank him for his substantial contributions to this train of thought:
* * *
It's Friday, I'm still at the Toronto Film Festival which winds up this weekend, and I just got back from lunch with Girish Shambu, a movie blogger based in Buffalo, NY. I'd never met Girish before -- I've known him only through his blog, and the community of bloggers who contribute to critical discussions of movies on one another's sites (including my Scanners blog) -- and I've never been more excited about the future of film criticism than I am at this moment.
First, let me explain what I mean by "film criticism." In traditional, mainstream print media (mostly newspapers and magazines), it is usually thought of as reviewing. Newspapers run their critics' reviews of movies that are entering theatrical release in their local market. This is the most common, and narrowest, definition of what "film criticism" can be -- part consumer guide (a recommendation on a binary or sliding scale from positive to negative), part reportage (what the story's about, who's in it, who directed it), and, if you're lucky, part film appreciation (how the movie functions as an assemblage of images and sounds).
Slavoj Zizek in the wake of Melanie Daniels, crossing Bodega Bay in a small motorboat.
At 150 minutes, in three parts, "The Pervert's Guide to Cinema" (catchy title, no?) is probably the fastest-moving, most shamelessly enjoyable film I've seen in Toronto so far this year. There is no story, and only one character -- but what a character he is. He's Slavoj Zizek (more precisely, Žižek), Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, and he comes across as a delightfully unhinged Freudian maniac, the sort of heavily-accented mad doctor who might narrate an Ed Wood movie. But, believe it or not, he's the real thing. (I Googled him to be absolutely sure, and now I can't wait to read more of, and about, him.)
And what he does as narrator of this film (directed by Sophie Fiennes, sister of actors Ralph and Joseph) is talk -- and talk and talk and talk -- about movies. He's terrific at it, too. Turns out the good doctor is quite the cinephiliac (with a strong Freudian/Lacanian bent, natch), and in what feels almost like a two-and-a-half-hour free-association, he lets his brilliant and facile mind wander through many of the greatest films ever made -- with a heavy concentration on Hitchcock (emphasis on "Psycho," "Vertigo" and "The Birds"), David Lynch ("Lost Highway," "Blue Velvet," "Mulholland Drive," "Wild at Heart") and Andrei Tarkovsky ("Solaris," "Stalker"). One image, one idea, flows into the next, which makes for an intoxicating strain of film criticism.
This isn't quite the first film of this sort ("A Journey Through American Cinema with Martin Scorsese" springs to mind) -- but there ought to be more. The genre of movies about movies -- in-depth appreciations and evaluations of films that go beyond clip reels like "That's Entertainment!" into something deeper and, well, more entertaining -- is something I hope will blossom over the next few years. It's something I've been thinking about a lot: Film criticism needs to expand beyond mere words, and make better use of other media, including the web and film/video itself, where the images themselves can be seen while they are analyzed.
Robert Bresson, the lonely giant of the French cinema, is dead.
The Festival International du Film, held annually in Cannes, France, has become the world's most prestigious film festival—the spot on the beach where the newest films from the world's top directors compete for both publicity and awards.