Sunday, January 15, 2012

Five Years, Five Peeves, Five Reasons to Go On

When we make the decision to publicly announce our fondness for the cinema, write about it in an open diary and allow others to engage us in a discussion of our opinions, we take a risk.  We take a risk that not only will someone, perhaps many people, disagree with us but that, at some point in the inevitable future, someone will violently disagree with us.



It's the chance you take when you become a writer of, or commenter on, opinion on classic or current cinema.  The toughest part, excepting sociopaths with a bloodlust for online sparring, is stating your opinion without denigrating the opinion of another.  Writers who spend much of their time insulting other writers' points of view develop a reputation for such behavior and, unforunately, that reputation often secures them well-paying writing gigs (because contrarianism pulls in the readers, I guess) while those they insult slog along writing with little to no exposure.

Obviously, I'm not going to point anyone out as an example, rather, I just want to assure that I am not that way, personally.  I don't believe getting into any kind of situation where you're writing pieces entirely about another writer, and the argument that you're having with him or her, is very constructive and yet, I see it happen often enough to know it's not relegated to rare instances of ire that flare up under extreme circumstances.  However, I have also noticed that this tends to happen almost entirely among paid writers, which would lend credence to the suggestion that, perhaps, they're simply doing it by request, as it were, to pump up the ratings.

When I look around the film websites and blogs, I see a lot of disagreement among cinephiles without ever seeing much vitriol and that's a good sign.  It's a good group of people, for the most part (that's my favorite generic caveat, by the way, because it allows for everything while saying nothing),   Mainly, I see people with a passion for discussing film, and engaging each other daily in an exciting back and forth of tastes, opinions and beliefs.

The thing is, I don't take part in most of it.  I used to, for a short period, way back at the very beginning but I really don't anymore.  I found that arguments in comment sections took up too much of my valuable time, cut into my writing and generally made me feel depressed.  When I first started blogging, I started by direct confrontation, that is to say, I originally blogged about politics.  Then, slowly, I worked film into the mix.  Eventually, I let my true love of cinema take over, got rid of all the political stuff and the crazy comment sections it inspired, and became a classic movie blogger.

Not long after, I took up movie arguing and did so, often, on Dennis Cozzalio's great page, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule.  I spent so much time arguing with people there I had little time for anything else.  Then I migrated over to Jim Emerson's Scanners and argued with people there but that was tougher because the comments had to clear approval first so an ongoing argument required a lot more patience.

Finally, after a few good rows at different blogs, I decided, "I got to cut this shit out.  I'm not doing anything but arguing."  But it's still there.  It's still lurking under the surface, pent up and ready to explode.  I see opinions all the time that bother me to no end and I say nothing, so snugly nestled in my own complacency am I.  And it bothers me because I feel I'm not being honest but when I want to express it, it comes out angry and snarky and there has to be a way - has to be - to say it without raising anyone's defensive alarms.

So now, I'm going to try.

Let's begin.

1. THOMAS KINKADE HAS WON AND WE, ALL OF US, HAVE LOST

I have a problem with a lot of modern cinema.  I don't like the way most of it looks, I don't like the way it's edited (too choppy and frenetic) and I don't like the way it's acted (so painfully naturalistic that a wide range of performances are thoroughly interchangeable).  And I have that feeling with a frighteningly high percentage of modern movies.  But mostly, I have a problem with the way the movies look.  And when I say I have a problem, I mean even with movies I like.  We all know I don't like CGI very much (I even do a series on special effects before CGI took over) and this is a big problem because it's now everywhere, in practically all movies.  Take Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese.  I use this movie as an example because it was a movie I liked and thus, I can assure you it is not me reacting to a movie I hate or using it as an excuse to hate the movie.  No, I liked Hugo but I hated most of the look of it.



The opening pre-title-card sequence in Hugo takes us through all the mechanisms of all the clocks in the colossal train station that Hugo, the boy who lives, orphaned, inside the clocks, maintains daily.  It twists and winds its way through in a way that I know that camera actually couldn't so I know I'm not watching an actual set and scene presented on celluloid but a CGI construction.  This is thoroughly unimpressive to me.  The more elaborate CGI shots get (this one was reminiscent of the pathways taken by the winding camera that opens Fight Club) the less impressed I am by them.  It's like this:  When I'm watching Broadway Danny Rose, and Danny and Tina and Lou are walking along the hallway towards the camera as they discuss Lou's career and just before they get to the camera Lou announces he's leaving Danny for another agent and Danny freezes right in front of the camera, that hits me hard.  It's a great, emotional moment that hits the audience in the chest as squarely as it hits Danny.  Later, looking back on it, you can be impressed by how perfectly they timed their conversation with their approach and savor the fact that it was all about a vision that director and cinematographer had about how the scene would play out and look and then, by God, they rehearsed it, prepped it and did it.  With Hugo, CGI animators were given a frame presentation of how and where the "camera" (the monitor screen on the computer designing the scene) would be and began to busily draw and render and create the scene.   And the scene is quite elaborate, which is why, conversely, it is unimpressive. That walk in Broadway Danny Rose, that's impressive!  It's simple, not complicated.  It's not a Rube Goldberg construction designed to wow us beyond belief but an elegant play between actors and camera that performs its task so beautifully and, seemingly, effortlessly, that we cannot help but be moved.  By contrast, at the end of the opening sequence in Hugo, when they finally get to him looking out the glass from behind the clockface and show the title, I thought, "Thank god that's over."

But it's also the look.   Again, with Hugo, which I continue to use because I did like it, the skies all look like someone contracted Thomas Kinkade to do one of his famous paintings of light for every backdrop.  I'm tired of the glossy, overly detailed design of most modern film.  It's like we left modernism behind and re-adopted Late Baroque because we were tired of all that pesky streamlining and restraint and wanted every sky, in even the grittiest of dramas, to look like a Kinkade painting in every gaudy, gauche and garish detail. Most of the scenes in the movie, whether inside the clocks, inside Georges Méliès studio or the train station, all had an overly glossy, tinkerbell dust, magical realm feel to them.

Okay, it's Hugo, right? It's a children's story and we shouldn't expect it to look like The French Connection or Midnight Cowboy. That's true and I understand that but why, I would ask, is the glossy, Kinkadish look necessary even for a children's story? You can make something look fantastical (Willy Wonka, Return to Oz, every other movie ever made before CGI) and give it a nice matte finish with flourishes of light and shadow without making everyone nauseous at the same time.

Finally, my biggest problem, aside from the general look of movies these days, is the fact that I do often feel quite alone in this and since the whole reasons I got into blogging was to talk about movies with everybody, it's a problem I have a difficult time comprehending, much less solving. I feel alone because when people see Rise of the Planet of the Apes, they say, "Oh, the CGI doesn't look as bad as it does in the ads or the trailers. In fact, it was really good." Now, see, the problem here is that, when I saw it, I started to think a mix-up had happened and somehow I saw the rough-cut, not the finished product because, oh dear Jesus was that CGI bad! You want to talk about being taken out of the film? I was taken out of the film. Ninety percent of this movie looked like a fair to competent rendering of a cut scene on the latest PC game technology. Caesar, the lead ape character, never, ever, ever, EVER looked real to me.

But that's not the problem. The problem I'm having is I don't understand why everyone else isn't bothered by the awkwardly, physically wrong feel of CGI representation and movement of living things. How is it that anyone thought the apes in the movie looked good?

Let me say it again from a different angle. I don't doubt Rise of the Planet of the Apes uses the most advanced CGI technologies available to it, I'm saying that even the best CGI representations of mammals look like crap. And when I say "crap" I mean, doesn't look visually connected to the rest of the action. In other words. optically printing a stop-motion creation over a live-action scene looks more "together" to me than a CGI overlay. Everything starts to look airbrushed, like the actors are real and they're walking around with this fantasy-art performance piece, and the physics, the mechanics of motion, never seem quite right either. Close, yes, but far enough off that they distract. And it's as frustrating to me as when I go to someone's house and they're watching an Academy-ratio movie or tv show on a widescreen tv, stretched out, and don't notice or care about the difference.

So the look of movies, clearly, bothers me. It bothers me to the point where I have to start saying it so people stop wondering why I rear up when I see certain visuals.

But let's look at problem number two.

2. I'M BORED, BORED, BORED TO TEARS WITH THE POST-SEVENTIES TEMPLATE OF ACTION/ADVENTURE/FANTASY

The modern template for action adventure movies comes from, primarily, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. It's an influence so great that you can see the setups and payoffs from Jaws, The Terminator, Aliens and Jurassic Park used again and again and again. These two directors, unlike the lead-footed, ham-fisted George Lucas, have a real feel for action. Both of them shoot and pace it extremely well. The problem is, a lot of people who don't have the same feel have followed in their footsteps and are too unimaginative to take it anywhere else. Zack Snyder seems to think ramping (slow down, speed up, slow down, speed up) is an innovation so special it must be employed everywhere and always. Edgar Wright, not an action director but certainly a notable contemporary sometime-fantasy director (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs the World) employs whiz-bang techniques in his stories like the hyper montages that show scenes of action!/no action/stillness/action!/no action/action!/no action and then the scene reverts to normal. It's his calling card and unfortunately, that's exactly what it feels like, a calling card. It doesn't ever seem to add anything to the surrounding movie.



Both of these directors have their supporters and I certainly don't think they are undeserving of such support. For right now, I'm simply calling out specific techniques. I think Snyder did a fine job as director of The Watchmen, even if I didn't love the movie, though I did like it, and as for Edgar Wright, I like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz both very much. But the top director (top offender, I suppose I should say) for me in this area is J.J. Abrams. I liked Star Trek and Cloverfield but, on the whole, Abrams style seems nothing more than Spielberg warmed over. Maybe that's why when most everyone else loved Super 8, I did not. It came up on Facebook when a posted a status update on how much a certain scene made me angry but then, I admitted to liking it a little or, at least, certain parts because I didn't want to have to explain all this but the simple truth is, if I never see that movie again, it won't be soon enough. I'm glad Abrams has such a nostalgia for seeing Spielberg in the seventies but I'd rather he just watch Spielberg movies from the seventies than try and emulate them and give me the ball-washing tripe of Super 8.

Let's use this to segway into number three.


3. WHEN WAS THE BAR LOWERED AND WHY WASN'T I TOLD?

Let's go back to Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  As of this writing it stands at 83 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.  Personally, I hate Rotten Tomatoes but that's for another post.  Maybe.  For now, that means that 83 percent of critics reviewing it liked it enough, even if just barely enough, to recommend it.   It's average rating is a better indicator and it's a high 7.1 out of 10.

When did this happen?  When did a movie like Rise of the Planet of the Apes start getting 83 percent on Rotten Tomatoes?  It's average at best and I don't mean that as a bad thing.  What I mean is, it does what you would expect it to do, fairly well, although it is a bit predictable.  It has most of what one would expect (Intended-to-be-touching scenes between ape and grandfather figure slipping into dementia.  Caesar wondering if he is a pet, not an independent individual.  Animal shelter owner revealed to be uncaring asshole. Shelter's animal keeper and feeder a sadistic monster.  Caesar pulling together the other apes through strength and compassion, showing himself to be an enlightened leader who won't kill.  Corporate CEOs blinded by greed who get their comeuppance in the end. And the list goes on.) and doesn't exert itself trying to provide much more.  There's one predictable set-up and payoff every ten minutes or so, I'd say.

What entertainment value I drew from the origin story in the first few reels quickly gave way to the big action/battle climax for the last third as the apes make their way to their adopted redwood forest home.  The movie tries to draw out some profundity, I suppose, by revealing the evils/sins/dangers(?) of animal testing but for the most part, it's just an average, if well made, adventure/sci-fi movie.  And yet, it's got 83 percent.  Shouldn't we reserve the upper levels of our ratings for the truly upper levels of cinema?  Shouldn't four stars, or five or whatever the top amount given is, be doled out three, maybe four times a year?  I understand liking a movie and thinking, "Hey, it's pretty good, nothing great but kind of fun," but that's not what I'm getting here.  I'm getting reactions that should be reserved for much better movies.



I feel the same way about so much more.  Toy Story 3, Inception, the last several Harry Potter movies... wait, let's go back.  Toy Story 3.  There exists in the bizarro movie universe of moral equality a category of de facto villain where a movie doesn't really have one, or need one, but creates one anyway using questionable methods. TS3 does this in spades.  A discarded toy, Lotso, a bear that hugs a lot,  becomes this movie's de facto villain.   He was left behind, lost and replaced and became embittered, convincing the other toys left with him that they were purposely and maliciously replaced.  This sense of abandonment has made him bitter and provides the perfect opportunity for TS3 to above and beyond and really explore this angle for kids.  How a misunderstanding can lead you down the wrong emotional path but with friends (read: therapy through companionship) you can work through it and come out on top.

This doesn't happen.  Instead, Lotso becomes psychotic and rather than try to provide any kind of emotional resuscitation, the film makers go for a cheap, mean, nasty joke.  In the end we discover (and here comes the "joke") Lotso is tortured for the rest of his existence by being enslaved in bondage to the front of a truck.  Ha, ha, that's so morally filthy it's funny!  Oh wait, no, it's just morally filthy.

When I saw this,  I wondered, "Why didn't anyone bring this up?"  But, of course, I, myself, was equally guilty of not bringing it up.  I knew what would happen if I did so I didn't.  I knew I would get, "You're crazy for saying that a toy, who only turned out bitter because he was lost and replaced, shouldn't be tortured at the conclusion of the movie.  Sorry Greg, but they should in no way teach redemption by having the Lotso bear recover from his bitterness, they should get a cheap laugh by showing us that he will spend the rest of his existence in bondage.  What's wrong with you, Greg?!"  And I will get that, I promise.  I won't get, "Uh... oh, wait.  Yeah, that is kind of screwed up."   What I'll get is an apologist philosophy that roughly goes, "Sure, that part's bad but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater."  And I'll think, "But that's its lasting and final image of Lotso bear and it's really kind of repulsive."  And then I'll think about how it's like reading a book on child rearing where they give you 10 pieces of advice and two of them involve beating your child.  And when you criticize that, you hear, "But, hey, those other 8 pieces of advice are pretty solid."

And yes, TS3 does have that other 80 percent that does work reasonably well.  I understand that, I do.  It doesn't work well enough for me, of course, and if I had given a proper review to the movie, I would have slightly split in favor of not recommending it for that plot choice as well as, if not more so, for doing little more with these characters than was done before.  In the end, it felt redundant to me more than anything else but I guess I just wish the Lotso choice bothered more people than it did (this has happened with Pixar before, only worse, as explained in this earlier Cinema Styles post).

The point is, it seems to me the vast majority of films released should fall in the mid-range.  We should only be getting "This film is GREAT" or "This film is AWFUL" a few times a year.  Most movies are well-enough made and there are plenty of entertaining ones each year but let's not hand out top ratings and glowing reviews just because a movie does what it's supposed to do.  Let's reserve that for movies that do so much more than that.  For the ones that really stun you.

Onto number four.

4. HALF OF US LIKE THESE DIRECTORS, HALF OF US HATE THEM

In a way, this one is a kind of hanger-on from the last one, only reversed.  Half of the folks I know and love like the movies in number three and probably half don't.  Or maybe only a small percentage don't.  But when it comes to directors, it's a different story.  I once did a whole post on how some people love David Fincher and others hate him while some love Christopher Nolan and others hate him and how both hate each other for liking the other.  I don't like doing this with directors and so, quite simply, I don't.  But others do.



For instance, take a look above.  Note my extreme distaste for Toy Story 3.  It was directed by Lee Unkrich.  He directed (co-directed, technically) Monsters, Inc and Finding Nemo.  I like both of those films.  See, I didn't hate them because they were directed by him.  Conversely, I didn't love Toy Story 3 because it was directed by him, either.  Or take note above of my unenthusiastic response to the filmic stylings of Zack Snyder and Edgar Wright and then, recall, that I liked some of their movies.   This is important because I get really tired of hearing about the Coen brothers being "frauds" or "hating their characters" or some such thing.  Or "it's the same old Woody Allen."  Or "here goes Fincher again, hating women."  Or maybe that's Woody.  Or it could be Christopher Nolan, who's so bad with action (and, actually, he really is, but he's good at other things) that we should hate everything he ever does.  Oh wait, I wouldn't want to leave off Quenting Tarantino.  "Dumb, predictable, talky Quentin Tarantino."

And it goes in the exact opposite direction, too!  Steven Spielberg?  "Never made a bad movie, ever." "Paul Thomas Anderson's a genius!"  "Todd Haynes is my personal hero!"  "Lars von Trier is God!"

The point is, seriously, just shut up.  If you purport to love the cinema and don't take it on a film by film basis - Just. Shut. Up.   Again, back to Toy Story 3.  I don't like a lot of Pixar but sometimes, I do!  So I keep watching them!  Wall-E, for instance.  I didn't like the second half but I did like the first half.  And, importantly, I didn't dislike the second half for any moral reasons, like the Lotso resolution in TS3, simply that I felt it took a very powerful and moving story and ramped it up into a high-energy chase/slapstick production that worked against, not with, the first half.

I also don't like every Coen brothers movie I see but I do like several and love some.  But mother of mercy, I've come across bloggers and critics on this here interweb who practically hate the Coen brothers.  They hate them!  I mean, there's some mediocre, badly done shit out there in movie land and we can be thankful that the Coen brothers at least give us quality films, on purely technical terms, because they are very skilled film makers.  To say otherwise is to be completely disingenuous.  Take TS3, again.  Do I hate its philosophy towards Lotso?  Yes.  Is it incompetently made on the technical level? No, of course not.  It looks beautiful.  Not even that Kinkadey.  So when the complaints against the Coen brothers lapse into how they're bad film makers, I just move on to someone else not trying to convince me the world is flat.

But for the record, the "I hate the Coens/Spielberg/Allen/Tarantino/Fincher/Nolan/Anderson, etc." statements are bullshit, plain and simple.  Cinema doesn't operate on averages, it operates on individual movies.  Stop using sweeping statements against directors as a lazy way to "critique" their movies instead of taking on the movie directly and honestly.

5. THE BACKLASH BANDWAGON

So sick of this one.  I'm sure I don't have to describe "The Backlash Bandwagon" to you but, actually, I'm thinking of it a little differently than you may be so, if you'll bear with me, I would like to explain.  This isn't about everyone loving a movie and then, over time, more people voice their suspicion that it was over-rated.   That's common and is often piled onto the "backlash" trash heap but it's really not the same thing, just eventual re-assessment.   Backlash is something much harsher, much meaner and more clearly shallow, transparent and phony.

Let's go back to Avatar.  When it was released, it received a fair amount of praise (Don't deny it, it did.  Look it up.)  Then it started making money.  Lots of money.  TONS of money!  And then a backlash occurred in which, essentially, it was called garbage.  It was horrible.  It was one of the worst movies EVER MADE!  Same thing happened with The Dark Knight.  Again, it received very good reviews and then a second side declared, not that it was, perhaps, over-rated (I felt it was) but that it was awful.  Abysmal.  Bottom-scraping flying rodent fecal matter.  And then everyone started yelling at each other and, even now, just bringing the title up can unleash a whole big mess o' smug from both sides of the movie aisle.



With both, I fell on the side of unimpressed but not hateful.  Here is my original review of Avatar.  I praise James Cameron's expert direction of action, critique its many character and story elements as poorly written but, on the whole, can only describe my response as middling, not vitriolic.  I never gave a proper review to The Dark Knight but I felt much the same way:  I didn't like it, but the "I hate it" camp seemed a little too extreme for my tastes.

There's a milder form of backlash that also occurs that I dealt with directly in this post last year on Black Swan (I'm nothing if not consistent about my online irritations).  It's the one where there isn't so much as an overload of money or attention or praise, like The Dark Knight, but a movie that some think is great, like Black Swan, but others find not so great and express this by ridiculing either the movie, its supporters or both.  It's happened many times, most recently with The Artist.  I saw a comment from one critic that even described it by typing "movie" with the quotes there to signal us that, despite using a camera and a full cast and crew, The Artist somehow didn't even qualify as a movie anymore.  I have seen some real hatred thrown at this very skillful, very well-performed, very entertaining movie and it feels all out of proportion.  I hate to keep going back to it, but look at Toy Story 3.  That has a story element that actually morally offends and still I can find the balls to say it's not a bad movie, just misguided in that element and redundant overall.  But when people don't like Black Swan or The Artist, why is there a need among some writers to insult the intelligence of those who do?  If you'd like a true template for how to handle this kind of thing properly, go to Ferdy on Films and read Marilyn Ferdinand's review of The Artist.  She didn't like it, explains why and avoids calling anyone who did an idiot.  We should all take a lesson.

FIVE YEARS, FIVE REASONS TO GO ON

I've been at this now for five years and in that time, the pet peeves I list above have gotten worse, at least to my eyes.  Maybe that's nothing more than a perception problem on my part.  Maybe it's the same as ever or has even improved but I'm so tired of dealing with the same old, same old, that it feels bigger to me now.  Maybe.  I do know that in my online experience I've started one blog after another and joined up with a few others to boot.  I've done movie blogging, political blogging, humorous blogging, photo tumbling, group blogging and even a short stint at entertainment news blogging.  I've stuck with two: Cinema Styles and If Charlie Parker was a Gunslinger There'd be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats.   I was also lucky enough to be asked to join the group of great movie bloggers at TCM's Movie Morlocks for which I am eternally grateful.

That's three reasons enough, right there, to keep right on going, despite the frustrations and irritations that sometimes yank me backwards like a dog being choke-chained but there are a couple more, too.  One, I wouldn't want to not converse with the online community of film lovers and friends I've discovered in this time and two, I've never learned more about the movies than I have in the last five years.  Before that, it was all isolated knowledge that seemed pretty impressive in a room of people who didn't spend every waking moment thinking about, reading about and talking about cinema.  But once I got online, I realized I was a novice.  Hell, I realized we all were and if we didn't learn from each other, no one else was ever going to fill us in on the 99 percent of film history ignored by the film history books.

If there's any vow or resolution to be made here it's only that I be more honest with myself and everyone else about how I feel about modern cinema and not worry about getting into arguments.  But if I'm to be honest now, right now, I have to admit that I probably won't.  Instead, once a year or so I'll write a piece about how annoyed I am at this or that and do my best, the rest of the time, to write about those movies that bring me joy.  If that's the deal I have to make to keep this blog going, I suppose I can live with that. After all, to not write about, talk about and share my love for movies would be to not live at all.  And that's not a choice I'm willing to make.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Blogathon That Never Was

When Arbogast on Film died (apparently burning in Hell) so did a blogathon.  Years ago, Arbo and I discussed doing a blogathon that went against the grain of most blogathons.  We were tired of all the blogathons about big time directors, actors and/or movies.  How about a blogathon about an actor who got, at best, bit parts, a couple of failed tv shows and years of good, quality, reliable, steady work?  How about a blogathon about Lawrence Pressman?

No, seriously.

It started when I brought up Ladies Man, a failed sitcom Pressman starred in that lasted one season in 1980, in a comment thread whose attached post I can no longer remember.  I watched Ladies Man and, yes, I liked it, or rather, I liked Pressman in it.  I liked him in 9 to 5, too.  Other parts got mentioned:  His role as Dr. Hellstrom in The Hellstrom Chronicles (he had the lead!) was mentioned by Marilyn Ferdinand and a few others chimed in to mention other small parts where Pressman stood out in their memory.

Arbo e-mailed me and said we should do a whole blogathon and if only a few people posted, who cares?  I tried to make it something bigger ("How about a blogathon for all bit players?!") but Arbo thought that defeated the purpose.  He was right.  We never did the blogathon.

The point of all this is not that I want to go ahead and do that blogathon now - the moment is past and the momentum is gone - but that the very idea of it inspired me to start doing The Wanderers, posts on actors without Oscars (or even nominations) and barely any name recognition.  It was that blogathon that got me to thinking, "Would I rather talk up the same classics and heroes of cinema or bring some under-appreciated and under-known artists into the limelight?"  The answer was obvious.  Illumination is more enticing than elaboration.  So thanks, Arbo, for guiding me, in your small way, towards the true spirit of the film blogger:  A personal journey through the history of film that acknowledges the classics but spends more time shedding light on those players in the shadows that enriched our cinematic history without ever getting the recognition they deserved.