Thursday, February 9, 2012

Please, Sir, I Want No More.

Maybe it's just me (in fact, almost assuredly, it is) but I find my generation of film enthusiasts a bit too hung up on the whole pop art aspect of cinema.  I like the popular cinema, I do, really I do.  But I also like film as an art form and as I watch more and more of it, that's the cinema I lean towards.  I understand that as a business, film as a whole can't strut around displaying one Playtime, Persona or Repulsion after another and remain a viable enterprise.  I understand the need for the blending of art and commerce, the kind made so popular and so successful by the likes of Steven Spielberg and I also understand films like Melancholia or Tree of Life don't fire up the imagination of the general citizenry like a good Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jaws (or even Warhorse or Tintin).  I understand that and to take it a step further, I even appreciate the skill and talent behind Raiders and Jaws to the extent that I not only cannot imagine a cinematic universe without them, I wouldn't want to.

But can we stop talking about it?  Or them?  Or just Spielberg?

It's not that I hate Spielberg (I don't and not even Armond White's hyperbolic elevations of Spielberg or his crude put downs of anyone who doesn't like him can totally turn me off of Spielberg - although sometimes White comes close) it's that he is the most popular film maker of the last forty years.  If I never read another thing about him and I live to be 125, I'll never suffer from a lack of analysis of the man and his works.  And that popularity provides the very reason we should move on.

This isn't about Spielberg, it's about the thousands of films still to be discussed, still to be dissected.  It's about the myriad directors whose works are still woefully under-known and undebated.  And I'm not talking about the average, dull film goer.  I'm talking about the goddamn cinephiles that populate my world.  So when I see another piece on the brilliance of, oh I don't know, just pick one... say, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I can't help but think, "Okay, yeah, great, got it!  Can we talk about something else now?"

Sorry, but I just don't care to rehash the same goddamn "oohs" and "aahs" that I've been rehashing for forty years now.  I see one fucking article or essay or video salute or list after another about Spielberg and his films and the last one was so fucking inane the guy doing it didn't even seem to comprehend that A.I. Artificial Intelligence was a terrific piece of science fiction.

Or how about someone discuss 1941 for a change?  How about that?  It's a step, at least.  It's a gesture.    Discussing what is perceived to be a director's failure is often much more illuminating than discussing a success.  And the miniatures used in that one are amazing pieces of craft work. But, in all honesty, I'd probably hate that, too.

Look, I'm not here to suggest films or tell anyone we should all start discussing underground Lithuanian cinema from the sixties, I just want to move on from Spielberg.  It is my great misfortune to find him rather dull despite the fact that I admire his talent.  This is my misfortune because, lately, online, I've seen him and his films discussed everywhere.

And I'm not talking about Warhorse or Tintin because those are new films and haven't had years and years of discussion yet.  Want to discuss them? Fine.  But don't give me another breakdown of E.T. the Extraterrestrial, please.

I'll shut up now.  It's been inside me for a while.  I have nothing to say to the argument, "But we should be discussing any film maker we want and you're free to discuss someone else, pal, so go ahead and stop your moaning!"  I have nothing to say to that because it's true.  Nothing I've written above (or very little, at least) can be supported by any form of logical argument that cannot be instantly dismissed with a simple, "Oh, so you're saying we shouldn't discuss one of the most critically and commercially successful film makers ever.  Check [rolls eyes]."   Yeah, I know, it's a rant ripe for ridicule.  But it's a bitter piece of bile that made its way down to my asshole years ago and I just finally had to shit it out.  Thanks for listening.


Adam Ross said...

"If I see one more PERSONA clone this year, I'm going to -- oh who am I kidding, I can't resist!"

I feel the same way, unless the author goes out of the way to explore a new viewpoint or interpretation, I can't read another HALLOWEEN, ANIMAL HOUSE or even CITIZEN KANE piece. And this coming from someone's who's written a couple.

Greg said...

Lately, there's been a real rush of Spielberg posts out there. But it's also been going on for a while. More than anything else, I think it's too easy. Not much of a chance someone hasn't seen the films you're discussing so the onus isn't really there to explore too deeply in an effort to explain yourself to the uninitiated.

Adam Zanzie said...

I see one fucking article or essay or video salute or list after another about Spielberg and his films and the last one was so fucking inane the guy doing it didn't even seem to comprehend that A.I. Artificial Intelligence was a terrific piece of science fiction.

Do you remember who this was, Greg? If you can't say who it is in public, that's okay, but since A.I. has been getting a healthy number of supporters in recent years (way more than it had in 2001) I can't seem to think of anybody who still thinks it fails as a movie, let alone as science fiction.

As you know, I love Spielberg. But to answer your question, "Can't we move on from him?", well, no, I don't think it's the right time to stop raving about him just yet. It was Michael Crichton who once said that Spielberg is the most misunderstood of all American directors, and I still believe that to be the case. I know some critics who think Schindler's List made pornography out of the Holocaust, that Saving Private Ryan was a piece of masturbatory, pro-war jingoism and that something as recent as War Horse is too "sentimental" for its own good. I disagree with all of the above, but these sorts of arguments never seem to go away; as dubious a source as Armond White may be, he's onto something when he sadly remarks in one of his interviews, "Spielberg can't win."

And it's true. The concept of Spielberg being taken seriously as a great filmmaking artist makes some critics (Carney, Hoberman, Godard, etc.) grow blinders. For them, Spielberg will NEVER win.

I don't mean to suggest that it is wrong to call Spielberg out whenever he's guilty of a cinematic error. Matt Zoller Seitz is an even bigger Spielberg fan than I am, and even he has admitted that Spielberg's style is sometimes frustratingly middlebrow. A big complaint of mine is that he deals with R-rated material only occasionally. He feels so committed to pleasing his family audiences that he doesn't seem to realize just how exceptional he can be as a filmmaker for adults, too. I'm serious when I admit that Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan and Munich have probably given me more to think about than any other American films released in the past two decades.

There's tons of fantastic literature about Spielberg out there in the blogosphere right now, some of it fairly recent. Look at Ed Howard's beautiful review of Munich, or Roderick Heath's eloquent defense of Amistad (which he considers to be the finest "serious" film of Spielberg's career), or Jake Cole's excellent piece on Empire of the Sun, or even Keith Uhlich's interesting take on Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Until Spielberg's work is as commonly celebrated as Hitchcock, it will never be tiring to keep discussing his work. I know because I have a bad habit of talking about it a lot -- often, with those who can't tolerate him. Indeed, sometimes the opposition to his work can be so fierce I wish I didn't love his movies as much as I do -- because defending it can be a painful, exhausting exercise indeed. It is not uncommon for committed fans of his work to find themselves in embarrassing minorities. But then I read the pieces by MZS, Uhlich, etc., and I know my efforts are not in vain.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Repulsion was a major art house hit back in the late Sixties.

I like 1941, or at least parts of it, better than some who Spielberg films. The jitterbug sequence was perfectly realized. I also like the runaway ferris wheel. Munich could use more love but I guess people don't much like Spielberg when he gets a bit nasty.

Peter Nellhaus said...

That should be "whole", not "who".

Gekko P. said...

I swear I had my piece an A.I. in progess for a good while before publishing it last week.
But I totally agree with you.

Ed Howard said...

Hahaha sorry for posting about Indiana Jones all week! I promise, I have reviews of Satantango and some avant-garde shorts lined up for next week.

Seriously, I do agree that it's better to shine a light on lesser-known cinema. I think it's one of the most vital functions of blogs, which aren't tied to what's new or what's popular, as compared against the professional critical apparatus. But then, sometimes it's nice to write about something that people have actually seen. And people like to read about stuff they've actually seen: it has not escaped my notice that this week I got substantially more hits every day than when I write about Stan Brakhage or old French movies or whatever. Not that that will change what I write about in the least, I just think it's interesting and helps to explain why so much film writing, even online, doesn't venture away from the popular and the familiar.

Greg said...

Adam (Zanzie, that is) - None of this, I hope you'll understand, is meant to be a put down of Spielberg. It's about the massive coverage lately. It started with Press Play's multi-part tribute to him (by Matt and Ali) and that was very well done though I personally don't see the need for such a thorough piece on Spielberg who has so much exposure already to even the general public. Matt and Ali are brilliant guys, don't get me wrong, but I feel like, "Well, yeah, don't we already know all this stuff you're talking about? How about break down the films of someone else that we're not familiar with? Guide us, lead us somewhere new."

Then, there were plenty of pieces on Spielberg movies online after that (and plenty of links to it) that were all fine and celebratory until the backlash of everyone complaining about Spielberg started up, led by this piece by Bill Wyman, then this list (this is the one I refer to as "inane")by the same author (Wyman) that lists A.I. as a "massive misfire." Sorry, but if you can look at A.I. and see "massive misfire" instead of brilliant sci-fi, you clearly have no understanding of science fiction. If that was a misfire, all of science fiction is a misfire.

So that kind of bugged me and starting getting my back up. First there was all the celebration of Spielberg, then all the backlash started (and even THAT became the subject of articles like this one until finally I said, "Enough! No more about Spielberg, please!"

So I think you can see where I'm coming from now. This is more a current trend than overall. I'm not saying "Let's never discuss Spielberg," I'm more saying, "Can everyone just shut up for a little while and talk about something else?"

Also, his older stuff has been trumpeted enough. I'd rather read thoughts on his newer work now and, yes, there is some out there but not enough. When people talk about Spielberg they're perpetually stuck in the nineties and before, unfortunately.

Greg said...

Peter, as you know, Dennis loves 1941 and it's a movie that I kind of like, too. I don't love it, but I like it enough that I can enjoy it. That's the kind of movie, not A.I., that I would view as a misfire on Spielberg's part but an entertaining one and with great, great special effects sequences.

Greg said...

Gekko, I'm so glad you like A.I. so much and it's good to see a review that seems to understand it.

Greg said...

Ed - You know you're never part of the problem. That said, yes, I did see your Indiana Jones post and said, "Even Ed's focusing on Spielberg! What's going on?!" Of course, you're always insightful and I'm not calling you or Matt and Ali or anyone else out (Well, maybe Wyman. His stuff seems motivated by the desire to whip up page views more than anything else), it's just that it all seemed to be reaching a fever pitch. All I could think was, "It's Spielberg. Hasn't he been publicized a billion times over by now?"

And for the curious, no, the irony has not been lost on me that I put up a piece on Spielberg by posting this. Believe me, that cruel irony kept me from posting this earlier because I thought, "Wait, but, aren't you doing..." and then I thought, "Ah fuck it, I'm not posting about him, just about everyone talking about him." So, take that for what it is.

bill r. said...

I can't help but feel like this is all somehow my fault. Not really, actually. I didn't do anything!

I think people like Dan Kois and Bill Wyman just bring it out. I haven't paid as much attention to movie blogs and related sites recently, but I know that when someone writes a piece as stupid as Wyman's, a lot of people want to call him on his shit, and defend the subject of Wyman's idiocy. Add to that the fact that Spielberg had one of his two-movie years (and they came out a week apart!) and this saturation is bound to happen. It will taper off. I mean, until LINCOLN and ROBOPOCALYPSE come out.

Greg said...

Bill, you know what bugs me about Kois and Wyman on one side and White on the other? [mulls over for a moment how to put this delicately]... They're morons.

If I hated Spielberg, I wouldn't turn to Kois or Wyman to back me up. They don't seem to provide arguments as much as unswerving judgment, backed up by nothing. If I loved Spielberg, I wouldn't turn to White. Hell, in one single article on Warhorse and Tintin he managed to call everyone who doesn't view those two films as a turning point in the history of art "dullards." I mean... what the...? And google it and read it yourself. No exaggeration here. He says they're turning points in the history of art. And their detractors? Dullards. I mean, damn, that just puts people off, it doesn't convert them to your view. And I think you have to be a little dumb not to get that, but White doesn't.

I know, it gets tiresome, me always writing about how aggravating it is that people make films and filmmakers so polarizing but I guess if I'm ever considered a "single issue" blogger (I'm not, I don't think), that's my issue.

Greg said...

Oh, and I'm looking forward to Lincoln. I may be supremely disappointed but I'm looking forward to it. Really looking forward to it! And, not because of Spielberg (no offense intended or anything) but because Daniel Day-Fucking-Lewis is playing Abe! That. Is. Awesome!

Neil Sarver said...

And google it and read it yourself. No exaggeration here. He says they're turning points in the history of art. And their detractors? Dullards.

I considered googling this to find out how that might make sense to someone. Then I remembered it's Armond White and I don't care.

I agree, for what it's worth. I sometimes feel the need to get sucked into reviewing or commenting on new movies, but I promise I have nothing to add to the discussion of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and that's why I'm not writing about it.

bill r. said...

Yeah, I trust you about White. That's nothing new for him. "Dullard" is pretty restrained, actually.

As for LINCOLN, I'm looking forward to it, too, and for the same reason. But as an overall film, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't looking forward to ROBOPOCALYPSE more.

Neil Sarver said...

Somehow I missed the existence of Robopocalypse. I need to pay more attention. I thought Greg's original use was a joke.

Now that I've realized it's real, and read a bit on it, I'm very interested in that.

I didn't say before, but I agree with Peter, Munich is very good. I'd be interested in watching that again and writing about it.

And A.I. is amazing, but is another I'd feel I have nothing to add to by writing about how amazing it is.

Greg said...

I promise I have nothing to add to the discussion of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and that's why I'm not writing about it.

Damn. You're the one person in the whole world that had me thinking, "Now if Neil wrote something on CE3K, I'd read it!"

Greg said...

And because I can't resist, here's the opening of White's piece:

Movie watching can never be the same after the doubleheader of Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin, his first animated film, and his live-action War Horse. Each film upgrades the way our imaginations construct the world, the way we see ourselves in the digital age. All art devotees should recognize the history being made.

Later, he sighs:

Only dullards would misunderstand these visions as either trivial or clich├ęd.

Wow, Armond, I'd feel stupid now not liking those movies (when I see them). Glad I read you first. If I don't like them, I won't reveal my stupidity by openly admitting it.

Seriously, does he believe these third grade debating tactics actually work?

bill r. said...

...but is another I'd feel I have nothing to add to by writing about how amazing it is.

I feel this way all the time.

White's a lunatic. He might actually be clinically crazy. I'm not kidding, there's something seriously wrong with him.

Greg said...

A lot of paid writers are arrogant, belligerent and snide and that seems to be why they got hired. I think magazines and papers look for someone who can bring in readers by word of mouth when they write outlandish, embarrassingly immature things.

White's most striking characteristic is his childish behavior. I remember reading about the NY Film Critics dinner from two years back where he was openly taunting film makers like Darren Aronofsky who were critiquing him and his childishness. I believe one of the things he said was something along the lines of, "Despite your award tonight, we still know the real truth about you as a film maker," or something like that. I thought, "How sad. How pathetically fucking sad that this dimwit is acting like this for an awards dinner of which the organization for which he serves as president is holding."

When you come across someone like Matt Zoller Sietz or Tom Carson, by contrast, you think, "Hey, how'd the normal guy get hired?"

Joel Bocko said...

Yes and no...

No for the reasons Adam mentions above (I knew he'd show up here, haha) - Spielberg is a critically a very divisive figure, despite his public popularity and ubiquity (anyone who's ever expressed filmmaking ambitions even if they want to do avant-garde documentaries about the indigenous dance ceremonies of equatorial tribesmen, has been told by overeager relatives that they'll be "the next Spielberg").

It isn't just that a lot of people don't like him - it's that a lot of people don't seem to think he even deserves recognition as a director period; they seem to want to wipe him out of the discussion (I suppose it's because he's established himself as a powerful mogul as well as a filmmaker, and being a businessman as well as an artist doesn't sit well with a lot of film lovers).

Also, more fundamentally, I like the idea of discussing BOTH the ubiquitous and the obscure - for one thing, somebody who discovered or visited Ed's site to read about Indiana Jones might stick around to find out about the upcoming Satantango review. So there's a utilitarian value to it, rather than just carving out a niche and sticking to it. Cast the net wide, I say (as do you, of course - I'm just sort of resisting the general argument that anyone has been discussed "too much").

On the other hand, yes - as you say there's been a glut of Spielberg focus lately and while I don't want to see the discussion go away necessarily, I would like to see it take a broader look - there should be more engagement between the anti- and pro-Spielberg arguments; instead, it seems like a line in the sand has been drawn. As people here have noted about White or the others (whom I've not read, but I know the type, GOD do I know the type...) it's less about engaging the other point of view than overpowering it with sheer force of rhetoric.

I mean there's a reason Spielberg is both beloved and despised, but increasingly I can't recognize any similarity between the person/artist that is celebrated and the one who is dismissed. I'd like to see a piece that tries to tie together, with thoughtful understanding, how the positive and negative aspects of his vision and presence interact on the screen.

Also, as far as wider audiences not embracing Tree of Life and Melancholia to the same degree, I hear ya but it's kind of ironic when you reflect that one is an apocalyptic sci-fi film and the other has dinosaurs. ;)

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I like Joel's idea: "I'd like to see a piece that tries to tie together, with thoughtful understanding, how the positive and negative aspects of his vision and presence interact on the screen."

For a couple of months now I've been preparing for an article in which I will try to articulate why I think 1941 has become, for me, a great movie, as in Great. This piece might be a good place to try out some of what Joel is suggesting, as that movie seems to encompass the bipolar reaction to Spielberg and his films.

I understand your frustration, Greg, and as far as I'm concerned I would add Scorsese and Carpenter and maybe even Kubrick to the list of directors whose reputations have coasted on the gaga enthusiasm of film bloggers for years now. There can't be too much more to say about E.T. or Indiana Jones at this point, and for me Spielberg remains an artist whose output is wildly variable.

That said, I would count 1941 among my top 10 favorite movies, I think highly of Temple of Doom ad A.I., and I am over the moon about War Horse. I suspect more will be written about this movie after it's had a few years to settle into the culture. Those essays and articles I will read.

Joel Bocko said...

Interesting, 1941 is one of the few Spielberg films I haven't seen yet, along with Always (and, truth be told, everything he's done post-Munich, though what I've heard of Indy 4 doesn't want to make me rectify that). I'll try to keep tabs on that post though I'll also try to see the film itself first...

I think there's always room for more pieces on Kubrick, Spielberg, Scorsese et al BUT in a way they set the bar a bit higher - if one's going to engage with them, one can't just coast on presenting them & their film to the reader (the way one could with a more obscure director, whom the discerning reader is happy just to be reading about in the first place). In that sense, they provide a unique and welcome challenge to the film-writer...

Joel Bocko said...

Also, one last thought on the "why" of the Spielberg love/hate - he's quite similar to Lucas and Disney, the only other filmmakers who come to mind that created business empires as well as connected to the public's imagination. They are uniquely American figures in this sense - it's hard to figure out where the businesslike calculation ends and the artistic expression begins, which can be troubling but also kind of provocative: it really makes the thoughtful viewer examine what they consider legitimate aesthetic responses & methods, and how extrafilmic considerations play out within the parameters of a film itself.

In a way, they represent the whole American cinematic experience within themselves - all Hollywood films are part product, part artwork but usually an auteurist approach allows us to parse out the individual sensibility (director) and the commercial considerations (producer). No such like with these guys, as they are wearing both hats at once (now obviously there are lots of directors who produce their own films, but usually they seem to produce at the service of direction - but Spielberg, Lucas, and Disney were obviously major industry players as well as being personal filmmakers).

The more I muse on this, the more I'd like to read a piece focusing on this. Anybody have any suggestions in terms of a bio or essay already out there?

Greg said...

Joel and Dennis - First of all, I think Spielberg has many talents and many faults. It's why I'm turned off by both the "SPIELBERG IS GOD" crowd and the "SPIELBERG IS CRAP" crowd.

The first crowd plays defense too much. Watch Press Play's video series on it and you'll find the first several minutes are defenses against accusations ("People say he's too sentimental" "People say he's too manipulative" "People say..." and so on). They want to convince you that he isn't any of those things but constantly bring them up. If he's not those things to you, don't even bring them up. Ignore them. I'm sick of the first 20% of any piece on Spielberg doing this.

If you are going to mention them, address them head-on. They don't do that as much. They say what "some people" say and then declare, "but he's not like that." Well, okay... why? Explain.

The other crowd needs no explanation. To them Spielberg's a hack and always will be. Yawn.

I'm of the mind that Spielberg is an exceptional craftsman more than an artist. If he were a painter, he'd be the guy who could whip up a painting using precise techniques that rendered it utterly realistic and lifelike but also more than a little soulless. He could never be a Matisse or a Picasso or a Gauguin.

But I really admire his craftsman sensibilities. Here's the part I have trouble getting across to super fans: I don't mean the craftsman line as a swipe, it's a compliment. Some people are artists, some are craftsman, and both sides have a little of the other. Spielberg has a bit of the artist in him which is why he was drawn to film in the first place, to create. But his craftsman side is much stronger and can't be denied. Nor should it be viewed as a bad thing. He's a fantastic craftsman.

But his films never have that crazy sense of abandon, that sense of "I've got a vision and I don't care how fucked up this movie seems, it's my vision." I get that from a lot of filmmakers. Others have more the craftsman vibe.

Spielberg, Kubrick and Scorsese all have very strong craftsman sides but I think Spielberg leans that way much more. He's an expert at putting a scene together and if you give him a good screenplay, he can do wonders with it.

All that said, I think his artist side is weak which is why his films bobble uneasily between sentimentality and violence. He's much more uneven and shaky-handed when it comes to character and emotion. I think his best films are ones that don't rely much on dramatic characterizations but characterizations drawn through action. His action/sci-fi movies are, to my mind, his best. His dramas don't work as well for me. But his action/sci-fi is some of the best ever made.

And Dennis - 1941 is as close as he ever got to crazy abandon but it still feels too scripted. Still, I do like it. There's something almost comforting about it.

Joel Bocko said...

Late comment:

"his films bobble uneasily between sentimentality and violence."

I think he usually maintains a pretty good balance - reserving the violence (at least the mindless violence) for his popcorn movies, and the sentimentality for quieter, more people-driven films (even if they have special effects).

This occurred to me watching Super-8 the other night, in which Abrams tries to fuse the emotionalism of E.T./Close Encounters with the action-packed high body count of Raiders/Jurassic Park. And it just doesn't work.