Film Thought: No List Is Ever Complete

I recall once that Roger Ebert tweeted a link and added to it something to the extent of “See this is why I don’t do lists.” I got his point. It was a completist’s one, meaning how can you legitimately make such and such a list claiming it’s ever or all-time when you haven’t, you couldn’t possibly, have seen every qualifying film. Fair enough.

However, it was only recently that I followed this line of thought out further when thinking of my own lists. If I say these are the 10 Best Examples of This I Ever saw, am I disingenuous? No, if I haven’t seen something or disagree, that film, performance or whatever else isn’t on the list. Surely, there are year-end best film lists made by people who saw less than every film released that year. How do those lists differ? They don’t.

Therefore, what I resolved is that if I make a list, barring year-end ones which are time sensitive, that for all intents and purposes it is perpetually a work in progress. Why should it not be? Do I anticipate never hearing another new voice actor (referring to an older not re-posted here list)? I’m preparing a Spielberg ranking, will it not automatically re-shift when Lincoln comes out? I will also no longer be married to round numbers. If something should demand 11 choices, there will be 11. Much in the way my best films of last year lists were assembled, I felt there were 25 films worthy of being cited. Clearly there were still only 10 in the top 10.

The important thing is to do these things in order to express oneself, create discussions and learn. I may be pointed towards a film I have not yet seen or heard of through a list or a post, and why shouldn’t I?

Similarly, I plan to continue to write on the new releases I see but in ways I find enriching, which will not always mean a standard review. I did as such for The Dictator and I think that Brave and Madagascar 3 should be treated in a unique fashion also.

These new precepts I feel will encourage me to re-post more, to write on films more quickly and to avoid procrastinating, and ultimately I believe they will make my content more interesting and dynamic. I hope you do too.

Film Thought: Critical Buzzwords in Need of Banishment

A recent comment, which for the purposes of this piece will remain unnamed and unspecified, brought to my attention that when critiquing a movie whether positively or negatively there are certain buzzwords and catch phrases that are bandied about haphazardly and in essence they are meaningless. The reason the words are meaningless can be repetition or lack of serious thought about the connotations that such words carry.

I will list below some of the words and phrases I have come to loathe and will refrain from using from hereon in and I welcome suggestions of others as I’m sure I’ll forget some.

1. Manipulative

Why: When we go to see a movie we are going wanting to be moved, asking to feel. In our attendance at the auditorium or in our rental of the film is an implicit understanding that we are subjecting ourselves to a piece of fiction which will make us feel emotions we otherwise wouldn’t be feeling, therefore, any and all cinema is manipulative by nature and to call something manipulative is not only redundant but an ineffectual rebuff of the work.

2. Pretentious

Why: Very rarely is the word pretentious accompanied by a specific example of what it is that makes the work pretentious. Typically the word is assigned to a film that is intentionally cryptic. Whether or not the film in question is actually good is irrelevant because the dismissive, lazy and facile usage of a word so sloppily applied in and of itself does not condemn a film. If one one can illustrate how the film is bloated or more arcane than it needs to be or in some other way an affront is a much better critique than the flippant use of a trope statement.

3. Self-Indulgent

Why: This is really a film school/film student special for it was there that I really heard it for the first time and it was immediately rebuked by some. Any film, aside from the obvious product or franchise-extenders (though they are not all exempt), is self-indulgent by nature. A director and crew members and then actors are all in essence saying “This story is very important and I’m the one that needs telling it.” While that sounds like an over-simplification that’s some of the essence. That’s the artistic impetus that drives the creation of film. The financing of said films is driven, obviously, by other factors but everyone who wants to either direct a film or start their own production has the same core belief: “My story matters most.” While that’s sincere it is self-indulgent to an extent because what makes that true to an individual is clearly subjective, and yes, you want to entertain an audience but you also want to make your film. No escaping it logically.

4. Instant Classic/Classic

Why: The first is clearly oxy-moronic. We all know what it’s supposed to mean but it’s tired at this point. The case for classic is really one with a caveat. It should not apply to films younger than 25 years old (I’m guilty of using it as such) and, of course, does not replace actual commentary and analysis.

5. Must See

Why: Many of these do come from the realms of blurbs, however, when writing you can try your darndest to avoid writing something that’s blurbable (and occasionally fall ass-backwards into it anyway) or you can pander to it; this phrase is closer to the latter. Must see in my estimation, while a positive (I tried to find balance), is in and of itself meaningless especially depending on your level of film nerdiness.

Certain actors used to trigger a film as a must-see for me, now there are fewer of films that create a lot of chatter (good, bad or mixed) sometimes become “must-sees,” on rare occasions award and/or festival pedigree, however, regardless of what the reason is whose to say what’s a must see? Yes, no film should be dismissed out of hand, we’ve all been surprised but you can’t watch it all. Your criteria has to remain your own and this essentially boils down to the interpretation of critique as consumer advocate. True, that’s less the case than ever before (not that it ever really should’ve been for myriad reasons) but it stems from that and like any over-repeated phrase it’s started to mean nothing. Case in point is the recent The Devil Inside: it caused an internet firestorm because of the vitriolic reactions it got from crowds. I know I went full circle from liking the trailer and anticipating it, to hearing the negative reaction and doubting my interest, to hearing so many negative and angry reactions that I just had to see it for myself. The story illustrates that “must-see” was coined as a ringing endorsement of a film can apply to films that you hope you’ll like but know you likely won’t too, so it’s meaningless.

Those are the few I came up with rather quickly. What are some buzzwords and phrases you feel should be banned?

Film Thought: Sorry, No Refunds For Bad Movies

Sign at the Avon Theater Warning People about The Tree of Life and the no refund policy


Attention to All and Sundry:

After hearing about people seeking refunds for disliking The Tree of Life because it was too artsy and a woman suing the makers of Drive because it’s not an action flick and now people in the UK are unaware that The Artist is (mostly) silent.

I’ve recently had cause to go on a few Twitter rants about all too frequent substandard filmgoing experiences but this is one where I have to defend exhibitors.

Essentially we as filmgoers have to grow up and take some responsibility and think about what it means to buy a movie ticket:

1. The film you watch may, in fact, be bad and that’s OK.

To be truthful watching some movies I hated has been just as memorable as one I thought was great, maybe you really just have to love the form but the bottom line is that money you pay may be for something you dislike. It’s a mystery, that’s part of the fun. The theatre does not guarantee your enjoyment of the film, what it should guarantee is a clean, quiet auditorium, a properly projected image and crisp, clear sound. In short, they should guarantee you enjoy the experience of watching the film not the product itself.

2. Make Sure You Want to See The Film

If you are one who shows up looks at the showtimes and picks something at random, live with that. The same goes for something you think will be stupid or that you can’t wait to see. Also, if you are seeing a film because you think it will be stupid normal codes of conduct still apply to you. Your snarky disposition is not a license to speak or be otherwise disruptive.

3. Forewarned is Forearmed

This goes for things as basic as sound/silent (a rare conundrum), color/black & white (nearly as rare), synopses and parental information, some who are defending the audience members make it seem like finding out The Artist is a silent film is a chore. If all you knew is it won awards you can find out. As an experiment I just searched “The Artist Movie” on Google and results came up in the usual split-second and then it took me just a few seconds to scan down and find the Wikipedia entry that in the abstract starts by stating the film is silent. Such a chore.

4. A Movie Is Not That Different From…

Perhaps the best comparison (the most apples to apples) I can think of is books. Everyone has likely read a bad book and in all likelihood you owned it. I never once thought of reading something and then taking it back to the store. What does the store have to do with it? They only made it available to me. I chose to buy it.

Movies are similar. The difference is it’s a scheduled artistic presentation not unlike a concert. You are buying a ticket that guarantees you admission, not fulfillment. Has anyone ever seriously sought a refund because they didn’t know who the opening acts are or because Guns N’ Roses didn’t play “Pretty Tied Up”?

In both books and concerts there’s an accepted level of the unexpected and we’re fine with that. Why not films?

5. Trailers Aren’t Accurate

Things will make trailers and not the final cut, tone will be mangled and you will be manipulated. A trailer is a commercial. They are meant to make you want to see a film. Some are bad and some are good and they rarely are an accurate representation of the film’s quality.

6. Knowledgeable Complaining & Spending

If you truly dislike some film trend like remakes or a given franchise then you’d be best served by not giving those things your money. Otherwise, your complaints fall on deaf ears as the studios cash their checks. If you are curious to see those things that’s fine but know they will still exist if you contribute to their box office. If you just want to be informed as you besmirch them that’s fine but don’t delude yourself into thinking you can wish them away.

The box office is really all that decision-makers will listen to 99 times out of 100.

7. When I Should Complain/Seek a Refund

The theatre’s responsibilities are limited to presenting the films it has. Therefore, issues such as sound, projection or anything else that adversely affects your viewing are grounds to complain and/or seek a refund. I’ve read that being compelled to walk out can get you one but I wouldn’t bet on it hence the above stipulations.

I could probably get further bogged down in the minutiae but the above seems to be the minimum that needs to be stated in light of the recent silliness that seems to have occurred at the movies perpetrated by patrons.

Everybody’s Got Stories: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and My 9/11

Thomas Horn and Tom Hanks in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Warner Bros.)

I worked in 1 World Trade Center from 1999 to 2001- to September 11th, 2001 to be precise. My story about that day isn’t all that dramatic really. There are details I could divulge but suffice it to say I wasn’t on the schedule for Tuesday mornings that month. So I was not on either the 106th or 107th floor on that day, nowhere close, thank God. I thought about taking that shift when the proposed schedule came out but decided against picking up an occasional AM shift. I was juggling college and the job and Tuesday was an off day from classes and I decided to use that to rest.

Of course, we all know what happened that day and since then I’ve been fairly quiet about a number of topics that pertain to the day itself. I’ve also had varying reactions to works of art which have dealt with the attacks.

I am writing this, of course, because Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is due out soon and it’s been lambasted by some as exploitative among other things. I have yet to see the film so I cannot defend its artistic merit, however, we should look at other depictions of 9/11. One other caveat: so unimaginable and unpredictable were the attacks to me that while working there I wrote a post-apocalyptic script wherein a family eventually lived in the World Trade Center.

First, there is the tandem of fairly fact-based films World Trade Center and United 93. Neither of these films interest me in the least. I have, more times than I care to, been able to imagine, only imagine but what more can one do, what those floors looked like that day. Having worked there I get a much clearer picture than I care to so I needn’t see any dramatization thereof. The films may be fine and as propaganda-free as possible but I just have no interest. To me those smack more of exploitation for it takes actual people and focuses on the event and tried to feed on rampant patriotism to generate box office. Some see it otherwise and that’s fine but as I said I have no reason to see it.

Remember Me, which I wouldn’t have seen anyway, was your standard father-son drama and decided to use 9/11 as a twist ending rather infamously and in classless fashion.

On the flip-side Stephen King in his collection of short stories Just After Sunset deals with the tragic day in New York in two different ways. In “The Things They Left Behind” he deals with the aftermath and those lost but in “Graduation Afternoon” it comes in at the end, in the distance. It does not inundate all that preceded it and change the entire story and feel like a blatant, in-your-face exploitation. It is there, it is stunning and it affects all, but it does not compromise the tonality of the entire piece.

In Brian K. Vaughn’s brilliant comics series Ex Machina the first issue concludes with a newly-minted superhero’s biggest failure, the fact that he only saved one of the two towers. Considering the tone of the series was serious, political and a very post-9/11 story it all fit.

So the last three I enjoyed so I can take in a tale of fiction which cites something that so closely affected me. Yet it seems this film gets quite a bit of vitriol just in the “How dare you?” realm. The question of “How should art deal with 9/11?” is a valid one but it seems that was never asked for the two that try to most closely replicate it. Bastardized truthiness does not a documentary make and what function is being served there? Those are movies about 9/11 but in a bright piece of marketing Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is being labeled as being about every day after. In some ways those days were harder.

Furthermore, the word art is formed from the word artifice. It is about subterfuge. Exactitude is what a documentarian strives for but even they know there’s a gray area.

This film reminds me of some of the reading I did about Kapó before I decided to buy it. The film features perhaps the most over-analyzed shot in film history of an inmate dying in a concentration camp. It raised questions of morality in film, however, what should be moral about film? Absolute morality eliminates myriad genres. Horror is where we imagine out nightmares to try an exorcise them and horrid, immoral things are imagined and inflicted upon the people that populate those stories. What need have we of narrative morality?

Not to compare disparate tragedies but surely there was a time when the holocaust was an untouched topic. However, through the years different narrative avenues about events in and around World War II have been found, some not universally embraced, Stephen Daldry’s (the director of this very film) The Reader comes to mind.

The fact of the matter is there are events in world history that defy logical explanation and easy categorization. However, that does not stop us as human beings from exploring them and one of our biggest means of exploring is through the arts. Some say “Why make this film?” I say “Why not?”

Film Thought: Excuse Me, Did You Like The Movie?

Hayden Panettiere and Cayden Boyd in Fireflies in the Garden (Senator Entertainment Co.)

It happens far too often that I leave a movie theatre and am left shaking my head not at the film I just saw but rather at the chatter that I can overhear walking out of the auditorium. All too often I hear confusion at a rather simple film or mental constipation due to the fact that the film as somewhat more artistically rendered and opaque than the run-of-the-mill fare which makes up the bulk of our cinematic diet.

The example I’m about to cite is not meant to smack of regional elitism but rather to illustrate that all too often now little of what once drew us out to the movies is still what appeals to us about it. It seems to be more out of habit than for the aesthetic pleasure and a communal activity.

The tale is relatively simple: I was visiting an old friend in New York and amongst the activities we decided to engage in was to go to one Manhattan’s many theatres and see something we couldn’t find anywhere else.

The film in question was, the critically dismissed yet left me rather moved and affected on a few occasions, Fireflies in the Garden. As soon as the film was over someone came up to me and asked “Excuse me, did you like that movie?”

We exchanged a brief and cordial discourse about it. The gentleman asking and his screening partner differed in opinion. I allowed that I could see that specifically due to one of the casting decisions of a younger version of a character (what I didn’t mention was an unusual family structure within the narrative) but I told him I did like it.

That was all that was said. It was short and not too detailed but it’s an all too rare occurrence. This part of the communal aspect of moviegoing is virtually extinct it seems. Many will lament how etiquette, whether it be talking or being distracted by mobile devices and other faux pas are bigger problems but this is a side effect of the mentality that seems to be “This is just something to do” or put differently “I’m not here just to watch this film.”

I’m not saying that every screening should be like a post-screening bull session in film school or that all layouts be art house in nature with a cafe where you can sit down and debate the finer points of the narrative, however, a quick exchange wherein you say “Yeah, I did like it. I can see where you might have issues…” should not be so much of a shock.

I recently stated that that’s what I like about Twitter, you can go there and have a group of followers who have have seen that film and have their own insights into it. It’s a minor but not insignificant part of the moviegoing culture that ought not be ignored: there should be more stimulating conversation on the way out of an auditorium rather than inadvertent eavesdropping and muffled sighs.

I am all for taking the time to absorb a film, any film at all, however, some of them present questions and quandaries that should be discussed in a more open way and post-screening discourse should not be so endangered.

Film Thought: The Elasticity of Film

Occasionally on Twitter I’ll post a random epiphany-like encapsulation of a belief I have about film in general and hashtag it #filmthought. I have decided to write this one out here because it needs more explanation than Twitter can bear.

Today, I was sitting through my third screening of Hugo (Reviews of some sort on many of the films I’ve seen will come- apologies for being behind on new content) and the theatre I was at had some issues with the polarizer on the 3D projector. The polarizer is essentially what adds the additional D in layman’s terms. If you’re one who is physically or morally averse to 3D you do not want to see it with a polarizer on the fritz. Anyway, that got me thinking, once the issue was resolved, about 3D in very general terms. I will avoid a film if it’s post-converted or slam really poor 3D. However, when there’s an artfulness to it as there is in Hugo and Avatar the technical aspect can wow me personally. For the record, Hugo is an infinitely finer narrative than Avatar.

In watching this tale about the true birth of cinema, at least in part, and seeing such proficiency at the “latest and greatest” innovation I came to a realization. There have been an abundance of articles about how since film is younger than the other arts it always seems to be in peril in the eyes of those who love it most. Whereas 3D, alternate distribution paths and piracy are the big threats once upon a time sound and color threatened to end the seventh art and didn’t.

In a manner of speaking film has gotten somewhat experimental at least in terms of technique. Many techniques are being rolled out before they’re necessarily perfected but solely to innovate. I think a part of the fear of film critics, historians and enthusiasts in general is that they feel history repeats itself and have found cinematic trends to be cannibalistic rather than symbiotic.

That is to say new alternatives present themselves and become dominant rather than an additional option. In the annals of film history, taking all of it into account, it’s becoming one of the more well-rounded arts in terms of media employed. However, what I’d love is for such choices as 2D or 3D, color or black & white, sound or silent to be actual choices.

Think of all the options a filmmaker has in his arsenal if with the potential success of films like Hugo and The Artist.

There are more media than one realizes:

Short

Feature

Color

Black and White

Silent

Animation (Various techniques of animation as well)

3D is medium when there is thought given to it.

Motion capture

And there are even more rare instances for example: The French filmmaker Chris Marker took the still photograph montage, a wrinkle for an editorial change of pace brought in by the New Wave and created an entire film, La jetée, from it.

It is imperative that film keep its elasticity of form. That the evolution of the art creates more creatures with which this art can be expressed rather than killing them off entirely. Some of these creatures may become increasingly rare but survival of the fittest need not apply to an art especially when there are many artists out there who do not want to conform or be mainstream.

In summation, I will always welcome well done 3D and loathe it when it’s lazy and exploitative. There’s always room for more; in film the ways in which visual narratives can be constructed should not be limited. There are as many ways to tell stories as there are to tell them as long as there is an audience. In an ever diversifying world the artform needs to continue to push aesthetic boundaries not hide away in a CG 3D impermeable shell.