Thursday, May 28, 2015

When Even the Basic Language of Cinema Eludes You

I often listen to or read pundit's reactions to movies that fill me with a sense of dread.  Dread because, much of the time, I get the feeling that so many of the learned chattering class understand little to nothing about how movies work.  Especially when it comes to movies acting as ideological lightning rods for one side or the other. Take Zack Beauchamp's dissection of American Sniper from this video on Vox (here's the whole idiotic thing).  It is, sincerely, one of the most wrongheaded dissections of a movie you will ever stumble across.  Within it is such a breathtaking lack of understanding of how cinema works, that I have to use it to get my point across because it's real.  In other words, we sometimes make analogies that take complex issues or ideas to their logical extreme because casting them in the extreme makes them easier to understand.  Here, Mr. Beauchamp has actually done that in reality so I don't have to make up any of it to get my point across. Let's begin.

The first sign of danger comes with this sentence, "but viewers of the movie may be surprised at the way it talks about the Iraq war in general.  From the very beginning of Kyle's military career, it's about a response to terrorism.  He joins the military after we see the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and we see his and his wife Taya's stunned reaction to 9-11."

To anyone who has seen the movie, this is immediately problematic and very manipulative.  On the one hand, the real Chris Kyle did join the military three months after the bombings.  That he didn't join up specifically because of them does not mean in any way that we shouldn't show him reacting to them as that clearly informs his character.  Also, the movie's main concern is the story of Chris Kyle, and since his feelings about terrorists are vitally important to that story, showing this and then showing him join the military is no great cinema sin.  In fact, it's a common device in which the action is reduced to what's important.  Where it gets manipulative is that last part where Beauchamp says, "He joins the military after we see the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and we see his and his wife Taya's stunned reaction to 9-11" (emphasis mine).  Beauchamp, amazingly, in a video designed to point out manipulation and misinformation on the film's part, immediately manipulates and misinforms.  In the movie, as in real life, Chris was already in the military when 9-11 occurred but the way Beauchamp cleverly, and casually, puts the earlier bombings and 9-11 together, makes it seems like, in the movie, Chris joins after witnessing both of these events.  But this still isn't what I'm getting at.  Here's the biggest problem and the one sadly representative of how too many people approach the cinema in this day and age: Beauchamp thinks the movie is obligated to be an encyclopedia.  He implies that the movie should have given us every detail on what led to the invasion of Iraq.  Hell, he practically says it outright.

He mentions that the Kyles are married and, to quote him directly, "bam, shortly after that Kyle's at war in Iraq.  There's no intervening time spent on George Bush, weapons of mass destruction, or Saddam Hussein.  The implication that the viewer gets is that the invasion of Iraq was a logical response to 9/11."  He then gives us a timeline of what actually happened.  Whew, I was worried there that we'd never know.

For the record, and for anyone whose seen the movie, and for the rest of you who have ever seen a movie, of any kind, there is no such implication, there is simply truncated time.  It's kind of what movies do to avoid running times that stretch into thousands of hours.  There's no implication in Lawrence of Arabia, in the famous cut between the match and the sunrise, that after Lawrence blows out the match, a futuristic teleportation device whisks him away to the middle of the desert.  We understand, even though we don't see it, that papers were signed, preparations were made, he was transferred out of his current unit, transported to his new locale, given a contact, and on and on. And that rather than show all that, David Lean, the director, just took us to the desert. Well, at least, we get that.  Zack might not.

American Sniper is about the Navy Seals sniper Chris Kyle.  His feelings on terrorists and enemies in the battlefield play strongly into his character.  We're not seeing the cut from 9-11 to his wedding to Iraq to implicate a direct connection militarily, we're seeing it to help connect the dots for the character of Chris Kyle.  And here's what is finally so frustrating about all of this: it's pretty goddamned obvious.  Obvious to the point that to see it the way Zack Beauchamp sees it is, honestly, a little frightening.  What in God's name does he expect from movies?  Boyhood must have driven him mad ("The problem with Boyhood is that the filmmakers imply that he aged several years in only a couple of hours, without showing us every incremental increase in height, weight, and beard growth in that time. In actuality, it takes years! [goes to chart showing average growth rate of human male]").

Unfortunately, especially when anything "based on a true story" is a part of the bargain, people expect every detail of every moment to be documented, accurately, every time.  Do filmmakers imply things with edits and story choices?  Of course they do, just as director Clint Eastwood did in American Sniper.  He implied, with those very cuts Beauchamp is talking about, that Kyle saw the world in the blacks and whites of right and wrong.  I got that.  I'm going to give practically everyone else who saw the movie the benefit of the doubt and say they got it, too, because Eastwood communicated it so well.  Except Zack.  He didn't get it at all.  He shouted, "Hey, they're trying to say Iraq was involved in 9-11!"  No, Zack, they're setting up the character. [shakes head and mumbles, "Jesus H. Christ"]

Ever seen Patton?  It's a good biopic of General George Patton as portrayed brilliantly by George C. Scott.  If you take the movie at face value, the German military higher-ups believed that George Patton was running the entire Allied operation.  Every time you see the Germans, all they want to know is what Patton's up to.  I've thought about it long and hard, and I think the reason for that is because the movie's about Patton! Were it about Eisenhower, the filmmakers would have probably focused on conversations the Germans had about Ike.  Just a hunch.  Also, Patton is, in many ways, a despicable character but the movie isn't about how wonderful he was, it's about who he was, and that includes the megalomania.  American Sniper is about Chris Kyle's black and white world and his post traumatic stress.  It's not about the Bush administration, Kyle's own weird lies about bar fights, gas station shootings, and looter snipings, or the lack of connection between 9-11 and Iraq.  It's about Chris Kyle.  The documentary No End in Sight is about all that other stuff.  If Zack would like, he can check that out. Weirdly, it doesn't mention Chris Kyle, or Patton, at all.

Sometimes we want movies to say more than they do, I get that.  But can we at least stop calling movies out for simply following the goddamn basic language of cinema?  I really don't want to start sitting through 10,000 hour long movies because the Zack Beauchamps of the world don't get storytelling.  Movies these days are long enough as it is. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Facebook Conversation: Les Blank, Documentaries, and the Filmmaker's Ego

Doing a TCM writeup of YUM, YUM, YUM! A TASTE OF CAJUN AND CREOLE COOKING from 1990, done by the great Les Blank and damn am I hungry! Seriously, though, you just watch people cook and eat for thirty minutes (it's a short) and it's pretty captivating from start to finish. I really miss documentarians who knew how to take a simple subject and through their *UNOBTRUSIVE* observations, make it fascinating. Les Blank and his kind are sorely missed.
Like · Comment · 
  • Paul DionneBrian Doan and 2 others like this.
  • Greg Ferrara Also, wasn't joking up top, I'm super hungry now. Everything they make looks fantastic! And I'm including the frogs and the cow tongue.
    Like · Reply · 12 hrs
  • Greg FerraraAnd also, seriously, sooo sick of documentarians who constantly insert themselves into the movie. Blank is there with them the whole time but you only know it from hearing them say things like, "Les, taste this," or something. We don't get a goddamn one-liner filled monologue from Les at the start talking about how he was the weird kid in school who always wanted to try cajun cooking and finally decided to grab his camera and go down to Louisiana to try it. I mean, really, that kind of "making yourself more important than the subject" thing has become a fucking sickness with documentarians. Fucking watch Les Blank and take a goddamn lesson!
    Like · Reply · 1 · 12 hrs
  • Bill Ryan Did you ever see that Paul Williams documentary? If you haven't, don't. I think you'd have an aneurysm within the first ten minutes.
    Like · Reply · 12 hrs
  • Greg Ferrara I didn't but I love docs and lately (as in, the last five years or so) I get through only the first few minutes of most of them because, and I don't think I'm exaggerating here, the first ten minutes or so of at least half the docs out there are monologues by the documentarian about their journey to making the documentary. Jesus, fucking enough already!
    Like · Reply · 1 · 12 hrs
  • Bill Ryan That's exactly what happens in the Paul Williams movie, and in some ways it gets worse from there.
    Like · Reply · 12 hrs
  • Greg Ferrara I'll just save myself the trouble of an angry first ten minutes then and not watch it. I watched the Atari ET game doc about a week ago and barely made it through. The guy who made it thinks he's really funny and clever. The backstory of Atari was the only thing keeping me watching.
    Like · Reply · 1 · 12 hrs · Edited
  • Greg Ferrara Les Blank filming Cajuns cook frogs and crawfish for thirty minutes blows practically every doc I've seen in the 2000s out of the water.
    Like · Reply · 2 · 12 hrs
  • Bill Ryan And isn't that thing only an hour long?
    Like · Reply · 12 hrs
  • Greg Ferrara Yeah, it's around 70 minutes or so. It wasn't worth it but I liked seeing the old footage of the seventies and the history of the company.
    Like · Reply · 1 · 12 hrs
  • Greg Ferrara You learn to lower the bar with these things.
    Like · Reply · 2 · 12 hrs

Monday, May 25, 2015

It Was All One Big Lie

I left this place over a year ago. Shut it down, turned off the light, and hunkered down at my home, Turner Classic Movies, where I write twice weekly blog posts and multiple articles for the main site.  A part of me felt I simply had too much to write on assignment to write posts here for free that would get in the way.  After all, it seemed foolish to waste valuable writing time for a blog that at its height received no more visitors than a mere fraction of a fraction of the bigger, pro sites that took over blogging years ago.

And blogging isn't even blogging anymore, really, is it?

It's all lists and slide shows and "Number 14 will amaze you" and "You won't believe how she responded" and "What he did next will shock you" and all the requisite bullshit that fell down upon us like a shit storm of mediocrity. And who can compete with that?  Oh sure, we all make fun of it and belittle it in humorous (?) Facebook and Twitter posts but all we're really doing is desperately trying to remind ourselves that we're superior to those people and, ha, ha, don't they feel bad now?  But, of course, they don't because despite all our belittling we still click on the goddamn links every damn day, don't we?  It's why they keep doing it.

So I left blogging behind because blogging left me behind first.  That sounds so clever and pithy and it's the same self-satisfying "I haven't changed, you have" baloney we've all heard since the first time a reporter asked an actor why he left a tv show or a guitarist left a group or a politician switched parties.  It's always the same answer.  "The show was taking the character in a direction that was wrong," "the band stopped being about the music," and, of course, "I didn't leave the [fill in the blank] party, it left me."  It's always the other guy who made the ill-advised change, the bad decision, that ruined it all.  And it's always bullshit.

I'm no exception.

Here's the truth:  I stopped blogging here because I stopped watching new movies and didn't want to admit it to anyone. There, that's the truth.  If you want to stop reading now, go with peace, my brothers and sisters, I wouldn't blame you a bit.  If not, I'll elaborate.

TCM does take up a lot of my time, it's true, but not so much that I can't take in a movie a night on streaming or, maybe twice a month, a movie in the theater.  That would be 24 a year in the theater which would be about my average a few years ago.  Then it dropped to about 10 and most of those were classics that I took in at the AFI.  Then it dropped to one or two, a year!  Then, it stopped completely.  The last movie I saw in a theater was...

I honestly can't remember. Really, I can't.

The last time anyone was even foolish enough to invite me to one was Adam Ross, about a year ago, when Chinatown was playing at the AFI.  I turned him down because it was a commuter hassle having moved out of the Silver Spring area and because it felt strange to be going to a movie after work again even though that was never a problem before.

I kept up with movies at home but even that fell off, precipitously at times.  Some weeks have gone by with not a single new movie watched.  I used to take in at least one or two movies from the last year or so every week.  Then, once a month.  Now, sometimes, not even that.  In place of new movies I have, more and more, watched older movies (70's on back to the 20's) almost exclusively and I'd like to say that it's because of my job with TCM but, actually, it's just a time period I'm more comfortable with than the 80's on.

The reason for this is inexplicable to me and, so, I see little chance of successfully explaining it to you.  I adamantly DO NOT believe new movies are worse than the movies of yesteryear at all.  I've written many times before that history weeds out the bad and makes it so when you think of 1960, you think of The Apartment and Psycho, not Seven Ways from Sundown and Vice Raid.  But it's important to remember that there were far more Vice Raids than Psychos.  And so it is today.  But today is different in one important way: quantity.  With television shows being produced at multiple outlets, movies by first timers being so cheap to make (entire movies are now made on iphones) and big budget spectacle being so expertly and slickly produced by the studios that, frankly, there's never been a better time for cinematic entertainment in history.  Never.  Not even close.  And I don't want to miss out on that anymore.

I needed time off, time from the barrage of entertainment available at my beck and call. I felt like Robin Williams in the grocery store in Moscow on the Hudson: too much choice.  I froze, crumpled into a ball, and called out for Orson.  I needed time to organize my thoughts and understand my feelings and try to wrap my head around why I had so forcefully abandoned the modern cinema.  I still don't have the answer but for the first time in a long time, I have a desire to at least try to find out why.  And watch new movies again.  I've got a lot of catching up to do.