Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Is that any way to review a movie?

Jim Emerson of Scanners has devoted several video posts to scenes from The Dark Knight in which he hopes to understand better why he dislikes the film and better explain it to those who would disagree with him. One scene in particular, the school bus escape from the bank, has been analyzed, studied and dissected in an attempt to achieve these goals. Some readers like the exercise while others feel it is overkill. I have nothing against a blogger obsessing over details, it is, in fact, what usually draws me in. I like it when I start to notice the same things being focused on again and again, whether it's a genre, a director, an editing style or a time period, by a blogger. It signals to me that they have a passion for the movies, a love of cinema, that cannot be sated by a general overview but by a veritable feast of forensic analysis. The posts by Jim signal that to me as well. It's clear to any reader who happens upon Scanners that Jim has a passion for the movies. But...

The Dark Knight posts keep bothering me. Why? I've made it clear that I didn't like the movie very much so why should I care, especially since the posts are concerned with "exposing" the movie's flaws? And yet, the posts bother me. As a budding filmmaker myself, a photographer and the husband of a successful painter I have my own ideas of what makes art work and how one should judge it. And I can't get away from the nagging feeling that you don't judge a painting stroke by stroke but as a whole. If I focus on the over sized hands and arms of the reader in Edward Hopper's Chair Car, I lose not only the feel of the whole work, but the point of art as well.

It's not about getting that human figure to be perfect in shape and size, it's about the idea the artist is expressing and that is gathered by taking the painting in as a whole, not breaking it down into digitalized pixels. This led me to imagine how one might do the same thing for a fairly celebrated film in American cinematic history, Citizen Kane. I thought it might be a tad difficult, but in actuality, it was rather easy. Given access to a DVD ripper so that one may use whichever scene one desires, anyone reading this post could probably do the same with just about any movie in existence. Let's begin.

First let's take this simple shot. It begins as an exterior shot in which the viewer sees Charlie Kane writing and Jed Leland sitting and dissolves into an interior shot viewing the same two characters from behind. Here's the clip:


Anyone who knows the language of film knows that shot is all wrong. It uses a dissolve for its transition from exterior to interior. When does one use a dissolve? Most often to emphasize the passage of time. When going from exterior to interior without a passage of time one simply cuts to the opposite shot. Okay, but what if Welles actually is implying the passage of time? What if he wants us to understand that Kane has been writing up against the window for a while now? It's still all wrong. Any director worth his salt knows that if one wants to use a dissolve to illustrate the passage of time with the same characters in the same location, then the characters positions must be moved around, for the sake of both aesthetic consideration and to not confuse the viewer. For instance, in the first exterior shot we would see Jed pacing in the background and Charlie sitting at a desk writing. Dissolve to interior as we see Charlie writing against the window and Jed sitting next to him. The passage of time has been effectively communicated. Watch this shot from Casablanca, made in roughly the same time period (within a year) of Citizen Kane. It's a two for one clip in which we first see a dissolve to illustrate the passage of time and then see an exterior shot of Ingrid Bergman on a balcony then an interior shot from the opposite angle as Humphrey Bogart opens a bottle of champagne. Here is the clip:


And there you have it. The dissolve and the exterior/interior cut demonstrated properly by director Michael Curtiz. Am I to believe that Welles was not familiar with this most basic syntax of film language? That he and his editor Robert Wise didn't understand the fundamentals of dissolve transitions? It's difficult to believe and yet there it is. When they were in the editing room, and they had the two shots before them, and knew they had to put them together, they chose to use dissolve for reasons unknown. I could argue from this single scene that Welles and his editor, Wise, were incompetent, or at the very least, poor visual storytellers. It wouldn't be true, but if I choose to isolate my criticism of the film to a series of single scenes, I could do so.

Now let's examine a different part of the movie in which the criticism goes to another criticism of The Dark Knight, heavy handedness. This writer in particular leveled that criticism against it. But look at this scene from Kane. Kane is reading his Declaration of Principles and while doing so is shrouded in shadow. How far down the educational chain would one have to travel (third grade, second, kindergarten?) before finding someone who didn't get the visual metaphor there? I've heard it discussed many times and equally praised. I've rarely if ever heard it mentioned how screamingly obvious it is, how closely it falls in line with amateur writing reaching for obvious metaphor. Here's the clip:


Now let's take a different tack: Visual clutter. The Dark Knight has been accused of this and few movies clutter up the screen like Kane. Is it beautiful or is it a mess? Let's take this clip of what I'll call The Eye of Susan. It's a transition shot from Susan's face at the picnic to a hallway in Xanadu. As the shot dissolves we see Susan's eye replaced with the eye in the stained glass. Here's the clip:


Kane is full of visual treats like this but if it doesn't go towards a better understanding of the story or character, if it serves no purpose, it's just clutter confusing the viewer with too much information. Upon listening to the commentary track of both Roger Ebert and Peter Bogdanovich during this transition it was not surprising to find that neither mention it. Most people never do. Why? Because once mentioned, meaning must be discerned and what does it mean? That Susan who is now about to leave Charlie is all-seeing? That Susan is like artwork built into the house? Neither of those is very convincing and even if they were meant to show that, by this point in the film the relationship of Charles and Susan has been made clear to the viewer without the added clutter.

Finally, let's tackle the ending. Some, including this viewer, found the ending of The Dark Knight to be a bit ham-fisted. This same criticism could be levelled against Kane. Visually, it's beautiful, as the camera pulls back finally revealing thousands of crates awaiting disposal. But listen to the dialogue. It's a classic moment of "gee thanks for the sledgehammer over the head but I think we all got that without you saying it." Here's the clip:


Since this one is dialogue specific, and some viewers may not have sound available on their computer due to their work environment here is the transcript:

Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn't get, or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn't have explained anything... I don't think any word can explain a man's life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a... piece in a jigsaw puzzle... a missing piece.

Dialogue that, with some name changes, could have been lifted straight from a high school term paper on The Great Gatsby.

So there you have it. Citizen Kane is an incompetent mess of a movie. Hammy dialogue, visual clutter, obvious symbolism and baffling editing choices. It's a wonder this movie gets any play at all. Maybe if it weren't for all those Kane fanboys we'd never have even heard of it. What a disaster.

Just as it is important for the reader of A Christmas Carol to understand that Jacob Marley is as dead as a doornail, it is equally important for the reader here to understand that I love Citizen Kane and don't believe a word of what I wrote in the preceding paragraph. But if using individual elements to critique a movie is one's method, then one can elevate or destroy anything. It's too easy. I'd rather see a full review in which the entire movie is taken into account. If you're trying to convince me a movie is not worth my time based on individual scenes you have plucked from the whole then you're not going to convince me. Art is understood from a perspective of the whole. No one praises Van Gogh's Starry Night based on the church steeple alone. No one writes essays about the fourth star from the left. Those two things might get mentioned, especially the steeple as it occupies the center of the frame, but only in the context of the whole. Telling me the school bus escape doesn't make sense doesn't tell me The Dark Knight is a bad movie. It tells me that particular scene doesn't make sense. In the meantime, I've learned nothing about the rest of the film. I've learned nothing about the themes of the film. I've learned nothing about the story, the characters or the plot's development. In short, I've learned nothing except that the critic publishing the piece knows how to pick a scene out of a film to suit his or her purpose. That way lies sophistry. And that's no way to review a movie.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

From the Library: The Illustrated Movie Quiz Book

I've done the occasional book review from something in my movie book library here at Cinema Styles before with the most recent one being a review of Lotte Eisner's The Haunted Screen. Then on a year-end post just around three weeks ago I announced that I wanted to do that more often, picking a book from the shelves and writing about it. Not a review proper but an impression of what it means to me. Well, consider this the first intentional post in that area after some previous random, scattered offerings.

The ongoing series is titled simply, From the Library, and to start things off I decided to go not with a revered tome like The Haunted Screen but a lark of a book, a quiz book to be exact, the one you see at the top of this post, The Illustrated Movie Quiz Book by Rob Burt. That cover at the top is a scan I did of my copy (just as the Eisner review used a scanned photo of my own copy) because I don't want you to see some Amazon.com cover picture, I want you to see my cover, from the copy I own, because it means something to me. I got it in 1981, a time in which I had grown confident enough of my movie knowledge that surely I could easily breeze through the quizzes in this book without a problem. I was wrong. But it wasn't all my fault. Many of the questions in the book are of the "who was the 2nd Unit director on..." variety and the like. Really, there are a lot of questions like that. Also whose birthday is when, where was this star born and what was their non-famous brother's name. I don't know. Who the hell wants to know? Who cares? But there are also plenty of questions concerning the big stuff that you might think you know but probably would have to slide on over to IMDB just to make sure. Of course, at the time, there was no IMDB but fortunately the answers were provided in the back of the book. And I read them all.

My goal was to study the book like a text and test myself on it, which I did often. I checked off ones I knew, marked stuff in the back to re-learn and when pondering a difficult question, drew on the cover (which you can see in the top photo). I followed this process for years and it helped tremendously, not only with the acquisition of movie knowledge but in providing a checklist of titles in my head of movies that needed to be seen. Yes, I admit it, I was a teenage cinedork. I'd be at a party drinking and smoking with friends while all the time thinking, "I can hardly wait to get back home and learn some more movie minutia!" Full-Flower-Cinedork.

It's been years since I've seriously quizzed myself from the book and most often now when I look at it, I can't recall half of the answers anyway. But a rush of nostalgia permeates my brain every time I do look at it and that's the principle reason I'll never get rid of it. It no longer contains any information that can't easily be found online, it's missing the last thirty years of film history and most of its trivia is of no value even to a cinephile. But oh the volumes it speaks to me about who I was at that particular moment in my cinephiliac infancy. When I pick it up, I'm there! I'm back! Back in high school, laying on my bed memorizing the answers. Back in college, packing it in my bags to make the 600 mile interstate journey to my dorm room because I couldn't, wouldn't be without it. Back in my basement apartment just after college, already starting to use it as nostalgic defense against the world around me. It's literary value is almost non-existent but to me, it's priceless. And prized. It wasn't the first movie book I ever got and it's far from the last but it's one of the most important to me. And always will be.


As a post-script, I'd like to highlight some of the pages contained within to give you an idea of how the book is set-up. It's quizzes are defined as "Specialist" or "General." All of the below pics can be clicked on to enlarge.

The individuals are divided up between The Players and The Movie Makers with the latter being used for both Actors and Directors and The Players restricted to just actors. Here's one of The Players quizzes, on Carole Lombard. You can of course answer all of these by looking her up online, but how many can you answer cold?


Another type of quiz in the book, The Big Picture, centers around a specific movie. This one is all about David Lean's Great Expectations (1937).


Finally, most of the pages are filled with multiple items. Some have a Mystery Movie with a picture of the poster and the title blocked out, others have Screen Test quizzes about actors and their roles and some, as on this page, have Star Couples, a song quiz, a Gregory Peck quiz and a Mystery Star quiz. See how many of the songs you can connect to the movie they debuted in without hitting IMDB, Google or Wikipedia. Good luck.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Supporting Evidence

Like Rick Olson, I haven't seen enough 2008 movies yet to do a full wrap-up and may not before January is out at which point it becomes kind of pointless to do one anyway. But I have seen the two top contenders for one of the big Oscar categories, and that, along with the whole idea of the category itself, is the topic for this post today.

In 1944, Barry Fitzgerald found himself the center of an interesting dilemma. Since creating the Supporting Actor Oscar category in 1936 the Academy had not defined the rules for nomination in any of the acting categories. Before 1936 the idea was to nominate any performance that was thought to be among the best of the year. It could be any role, big or small, but quickly it became clear that lead roles were the only ones being nominated and so they created the Supporting Acting categories to solve the problem. And it did until 1944. That's when half the members voted to nominate Barry Fitzgerald for Best Supporting Actor for Going My Way and the other half voted to nominate him for Best Actor. And the Academy let it stand. Fitzgerald remains the only actor nominated twice for the same exact role in a single film. He won the Supporting Oscar and lost the Best Actor Oscar to his co-star Bing Crosby. After that the rules were changed to state that whichever category the actor receives more votes for nomination in is the category for which they will be nominated. What wasn't defined, and still isn't and most likely never will be, is what is a supporting performance?

In my days of studying theatre in college the discussions of Protagonist and Antagonist were plentiful in class as we endeavored to understand dramatic conflict and the structure of playwriting. Although most people assume the Protagonist is the good guy and the Antagonist is the bad guy the true meaning is quite different. The Protagonist is the lead, or main, character and the Antagonist works in opposition to him. They are not defined according to good or bad. Two plays that were often used as examples were Othello and Amadeus. In both plays, the Protagonist is what would classically be called the "bad guy." Iago from Othello and Salieri from Amadeus are the main characters with more lines, more stage time, more everything. The title characters, Othello and Amadeus (Mozart), operate in opposition to them, and in both cases, unconsciously, unaware there is any opposition at all. Were Othello and Mozart the main characters consciously working against the designs of Iago and Salieri in an effort to "defeat" them, they would be the Protagonists instead.

Both plays have been made into films and in the case of the 1965 version of Othello, Laurence Olivier, in the supporting role of the Antagonist Othello, received a nomination for Best Actor while Frank Finlay, in the lead role of the Protagonist Iago, received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. With Amadeus, both roles, played by F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce, received nominations for Best Actor. And it's happened at other times too.

In 1972, the character of Michael Corleone, the character that clearly carries the arc of the entire story on his shoulders, the character that dominates the film, the character that undergoes significant change from beginning to end, was considered a supporting part by the Academy and Al Pacino received a Supporting Actor nomination. The character of Vito Corleone, the character that can not only be seen in opposition to Michael but as a catalyst for his change (his helplessness in the hospital affords Michael the first opportunity to show his nerves of steel that will eventually take him to the pinnacle of power), a character clearly presented as secondary to Michael, dramatically speaking, was considered the lead by the Academy and Marlon Brando was nominated for, and won, Best Actor.

One other notable occurrence would come in the same year that Amadeus itself swept the Oscars in which another nominee, The Killing Fields, had it's lead and supporting characters flip-flopped in the nomination process with Sam Waterston getting the Best Actor nomination and Haing S. Ngor getting the Supporting Actor nomination.

Which takes us to this years Oscar eligibles for Best Supporting Actor. As I look at polls and critics awards it is becoming clear that there are two front runners for this award, Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight and Eddie Marsan for Happy Go Lucky. The most recent one announced, The National Society of Film Critics, gave the Supporting award to Marsan with Ledger in second. The one just before that, a Village Voice polling of critics, went the other way with Ledger getting the nod and Marsan coming in second.

Marsan winning the National Society of Film Critics award makes me happy for a number of reasons not the least of which is that it lets me know that I wasn't alone in being wowed by his performance. Long before his explosion at the climax, which most people will see as the centerpiece of his performance, Marsan was making quite an impression. After just a couple of scenes of his character Scott's pedantic obsessions with driving my wife and I both turned to each other (I think it was after one of his early frustrations with Poppy where he struggles with the seat belt) and said, "damn he's good in this." But I'm also happy because the character of Scott, the driving instructor, is indeed the supporting part, the Antagonist that works in opposition to Poppy and, like Vito Corleone, acts as a catalyst for change in her (we can assume).

Heath Ledger's character of the Joker on the other hand could be seen to be the Protagonist of The Dark Knight. Like Amadeus and Othello, most people will assume that "Title Role" equals "Lead Role" However, the story of The Dark Knight is, to this viewers mind, the story of the Joker. The Joker sets things in motion and Batman reacts. Batman is the Joker's Antagonist but there's more to it than that. In fact, I would break down The Dark Knight this way:

Joker/Batman - Protagonist/Antagonist
Batman/Harvey Dent, aka Two-Face - Protagonist/Antagonist
Harvey Dent/Joker - Protagonist/Antagonist

In other words, each of the three characters is both a Protagonist and an Antagonist throughout the film. Since the Supporting category is so poorly defined anyway and most Academy voters simply go with screen time (of which Ledger has a great deal) I say nominate Heath Ledger for Best Actor for The Dark Knight, not Best Supporting Actor.

Of course, I know that will never happen but I think it would be the proper category for his nomination. And I want Eddie Marsan to win Best Supporting Actor, an award I think he richly deserves. I understand the sentiment behind a posthumous award and I know how important it would be to the family and friends of Heath Ledger, and how emotional. But I also know that Eddie Marsan is alive and may not get another role like this for some time and Heath Ledger, wherever he is according to whatever you believe in, doesn't care one way or the other.

But apart from the classification of Supporting/Lead there's another reason I want Marsan to win. The character itself, Scott, is more richly written and developed than that of the Joker. Now I know, the award is about the performance not how well the character is written but still, it irks me just a little bit, that a character like Scott, who without giving us many historical details of his life somehow lets the viewer in on everything about him, will be pushed aside for a character like the Joker, who speaks in teenage profundities throughout the film. Heath Ledger does a great job with what he's given but there just aren't many places to go with the character of the Joker.

Finally, my own personal choice for Marsan is also influenced by the movies themselves. Happy Go Lucky took me by surprise. As I watched it I thought it was good. But as I thought back on it and discussed it with fellow bloggers it continued to make more of an impression on me. It's not easy to do a slice-of-life, plotless movie with an always perky lead character but Mike Leigh did it and did it well (and looking back on Sally Hawkins performance, maintaining that chipperness throughout the movie and then not missing a beat at the end when she has to combine revulsion, terror and sympathy into one bag for her final scene with Scott, I have to hope for her to win Best Actress as well).

The Dark Knight, on the other hand, not only disappointed but quite frankly, slightly annoyed. As I watched one scene after another use the Sledgehammer School of Artistic Expression in which pious platitudes and teenage level profundities pass for dialogue I was, I must admit, a bit shocked. I don't know the last movie I've seen that contained as many "Oh Brother" moments for me as The Dark Knight: The prisoner throwing the detonator off the boat to show us the moral righteousness of humanity (oh brother), the line, "I'm an agent of chaos" (oh brother), every time Batman and Dent discuss anything (oh brother) and that ending, that ending! Here is the last line, spoken by Gary Oldman (very good in the movie) to his son who has asked why Batman is running: "Because we have to chase him." He then continues with what should be described as one of the most heavy-handed lines in movie, theatre, television or high school production history: "Because he's the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we'll hunt him (pause for effect) because he can take it. Because he's not our hero. He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight." It's exactly the type of line Ben Stiller would do in a parody trailer for a fictitious action movie. And so as to that last line, with all my heart, Oh Brother!

Had I heard nothing beforehand about The Dark Knight I would have thought it an average movie. That is how I think of it now. I find parts of it good, parts bad and much in between that simply feel average. The camera work is uninspired, the editing fairly sloppy and the characters one-dimensional speaking in platitudes to fool us into thinking they're three-dimensional. Nothing wrong with that, not every movie's a masterpiece. And so I choose to think of The Dark Knight as that summer movie I saw that was okay and had some good parts and try to forget how many people there were over the age of seventeen that were impressed by it. And I am impressed with Heath Ledger for what I think is a marvelous performance, given very little to work with.

But as Best Actor, not Supporting. Marsan is the winner there and deserves it. Nominate Ledger for the lead category. Give him the award if you like, just don't cheat Marsan out of what is rightfully his. It's something I believe in. It's an idea I can get behind. It's time to petition the Academy voters to put these two actors in the categories they deserve, lead and supporting. Heath Ledger as nominee for Best Actor, Eddie Marsan as nominee, and winner, for Best Supporting Actor. That's an idea that has my full and unconditional support.