Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Devil and Samuel Raimi

*Spoilers herein. I try to avoid discussion of plot details in my reviews altogether but I found it essential with this one to discuss not only plot details, but specifically the ending. Consider yourself warned. I note this because I love all of you.

After a decade long interlude with Spiderman, Sam Raimi returns to his roots with the incredibly economical Drag Me to Hell. Raimi bridges the gap between the different phases of career with his latest; it has the subversive, goofy sense of humor of his early B-Movies, as well as the prestige polish of his Hollywood efforts. The result is an uncharacteristically idiosyncratic Hollywood blockbuster. And while it is easy to take Drag Me to Hell strictly at face value; indeed, it does provide the visceral scares that the advertising campaign promises, to do so would be to ignore the film's joyous sense of humor, grounding in horror film history (especially the great Val Lewton), and unique moral sensibility (yes, I just said that).

An anti-corporate message takes on particular resonance during recession ridden times, and Drag Me to Hell could perhaps be classified as a horror morality play. When we're introduced to the main character, Christine Brown (played by Alison Lohman), she is practicing her diction, and Raimi frames her against the Los Angeles skyline; the landscape of high-rises, corporate offices, and Starbucks that she is conforming to. Later details illuminate that she was a farm girl, and a fat one at that, and it's details like this that really speak volumes about her character and her motivations. The first scene set in her loan office establishes that she is one of two people in the office being considered for a promotion to Assistant Manager, though her number-crunching boss informs her that she needs to be a little 'tougher' in her approach if she wants to succeed in the corporate world (in other words, she needs to dissociate herself from human qualities such as empathy--- little things like understanding get in the way of the bottom line). Her competition for the promotion is one of those disingenuous, self-serving ladder-climbers who will let nothing, least of all fairness, stand in his way.

With this bit of information in mind, an old woman comes into the office asking for a third extension on her mortgage--- times are hard, and she hasn't been able to foot the bill, though she hopes to be in better economic shape soon (don't we all). It's clear that Christine is conflicted about what to do, at first, but she eventually decides to play by the rules and denies the woman's request--- she rejects her basic humanity for the sake of corporate interests. The old woman proceeds to beg, and Christine further rejects her plea and has security escort her out ("You handled that just right", her boss informs her). However, when Christine goes to her car that night, she finds the woman in her backseat--- and, in a scene that is simultaneously scary, shocking, and hilarious, the woman attacks her and, eventually, rips a button off her coat and puts a curse on it: the owner of the cursed object will be, obviously, dragged off to hell in three days time.

It's worth noting that, unlike traditional horror movies which punctuate their scares with a laugh, Raimi tosses humor into the mix at unexpected moments, to the point where you don't know what's around the next corner--- a scare, a laugh, or some combination of the two. This is a testament to Raimi's ability to play the audience like a piano (to paraphrase Hitchock), as well as his unique directorial sensibility. Raimi deserves credit for being able to inject so much of himself into his films (the Spiderman movies, especially the much maligned third installment, stand as some of the most uniquely personable blockbusters of the modern era), and Drag Me to Hell is nothing if not a splash of imagination and personality in a movie scene dominated by an adherence to formula--- especially horror movies. There are grotesqueries abound, this is a horror movie after all, but unlike the Saw or Hostel movies which lays on the blood and guts strictly for a gross-out effect (they do this to supplant their lack of imagination), Raimi actually uses the Macabre in a subversively hilarious way. The scares that the movie earns don't come from throwing extreme amounts of violence up on the screen, but rather genuine cinematic craftsmanship.

And this craftsmanship has a grounding in horror film history. It begins with a retro, though not archaic Universal logo, and this sets the stage for the film's unique bridging of classical and modern aesthetics (that he made the film with a studio rich in expressionistic horror makes this all the more fitting). The way the film deals with the occult and the way objects come to symbolize the demonic--- in this case a necklace and, predominantly, a button, is very much reminiscent of the films of the legendary Val Lewton, notably his collaborations with the great Jacques Tourneur (the demon itself feels lifted from the duo's Night of the Demon). A scene near the end of the film, set in a graveyard during the thunderstorm-to-end-all-thunderstorms (is there any other kind of climactic downpour?), is a wonderful and exciting encapsulation of Tourneur and his grounding in expressionistic film making; slanted angles, distorted sets, and swelling, intense strings on the soundtrack. She puts herself in the graveyard to return the Old Woman's gift back to her, in effect casting her to the depths of hell come morning.

In spite of the film's tendency towards classicism, Drag Me to Hell is thoroughly 21st century. Alison Lohman, previously unknown by me, re-enforces the film's classical/modern dichotomy, and she is fantastic as the conflicted, tortured Christine Brown. Lohman, though very pretty, certainly doesn't have an un-real pin up quality about her, and it's refreshing to see a dynamic portrait of a woman at the center of a summer film. At once vulnerable and self-sufficient, there isn't a hint of misogyny in Raimi's portrayal of Christine--- though he undoubtedly is getting a kick out of the morality play element of his story, which isn't to say that Raimi tortures her (and therefore the audience) out of mean-spirited sadism. Again, Christine's punishment arises from her greed and rejection of her sympathy for the old woman. Her rival in the office, Stu, doesn't have any sympathy to begin with--- she does, however, and Christine ignoring her sympathetic tendencies is worse than not having them to begin with. The corporate world thrives on people betraying their values in the manner she does. She sells herself short for materialistic reasons, and this is where the film's unique morality shines through.

But this element isn't really illuminated until the film's masterfully subversive final scene. After the aforementioned graveyard sequence, the movie tricks us (it tricked me, anyway) into believing that all the nasty stuff is behind us and Christine has a nice, cushy promotion waiting for her when she returns from a weekend excursion with her good-looking, if bimbo-ish boyfriend. On her way to meet him at the train station, she notices a coat she desperately wants in a store window and, in a clever mirroring of the film's opening with the old woman, Christine asks the store-keeper to bend the rules for her (the store was closed when she arrived), and she purchases the coat as a symbol of her new-found status. There is something that rings false about this bizarrely saccharine and materialistic ending, and that's because Raimi has one final trick up his sleeve. The moment Christine thinks she's out of the woods, her boyfriend reveals that she shouldn't have gotten rid of the old coat because he found the button that the old woman tore off. In a delicious final irony that brings to mind the final moments of De Palma's Carrie, Christine is swallowed by the earth and sucked into the pits of hell as the film's title is splashed onto the screen, highlighting it's literal-mindedness.

Drag Me to Hell is everything that it promises to be and more. It works on so many different levels that it would have to count as one of the most well-constructed summer movies of recent times; every part is put perfectly in its place and oiled to perfection. It's economic, scary and (forgive me) funny as all hell. Raimi's refined aesthetic sense suits the story well, and it's his use of audio-visual technique that generates the tension, but he does this without going for cheap or unearned scares. If nothing else, Raimi illustrates with Drag Me to Hell the relevance of horror, while being diminished by hackery and nihilism, is as powerful now as it has ever been.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

On Things Big, Loud & Dumb

Okay, that was un-called for (not really).

Anyway, what I'm naturally referring to is the wholly-expected (and probably well deserved) critical trashing of Michael Bay's latest opus Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a title so ironically cornball-serious that I wonder if it doesn't encapsulate the bizarre dichotomy of Bay's entire career: that is, the incredibly stone-faced high camp. The idea that a film maker could be so out-of-touch with reality that he treats his ridiculous scenarios as though they are anything but. What irritates me most about Bay's career is not that he makes dumb, crass, lowest-common-denominator movies aimed at mass-consumption (that is, quite honestly, a war I am tired of waging); it's that he makes said dumb, crass, lowest-common-denominator movies without a touch of class, grace, or wit--- it's just visual noise. Plus, Bay's pictorial rhythm is so choppy that his action sequences are downright incomprehensible, at best. It doesn't even go down smooth (incidentally, I Googled "big, loud, and dumb" and the first image hit I got was a poster for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The second image was Mr. Sham-Wow himself, Billy Mays*. Take that as you will).

Michael Bay uses his camera as a toy, not a tool. This is probably what made him the ideal choice for the first Transformers film--- a movie I legitimately enjoyed (Who but Michael Bay could get seriously emotionally involved in the odyssey of Happy Meals?). Bay turned down his crass, misogynistic teenage pandering 'humor' and allowed the film's breathless sense of spectacle and wonder to be its guiding force (the Spielberg touch, perhaps?). Plus, the film was grounded not just by its CGI--- which is legitimately some of the finest in modern day blockbusters--- but by a star-making turn by Shia LaBeouf, someone I never would have thought I might enjoy in a film. But there is such a lack of pretension from LaBeouf, a nerdy-yet-endearing charm, that he carries the film incredibly gracefully on his shoulders. He keeps the movie grounded and extremely enjoyable.

I so enjoyed the first Transfomers that I was legitimately looking forward to Bay's sequel, as much as one can look forward to these things. I wanted to take my little brother because, in spite of Bay's propensity for crass toilet-humor, there was little-to-none of that in the first Transformers, and my little brother had a helluva good time (he was born in '97, so he's more used to having his senses assaulted on a daily basis than I am). The first film may have had something of an edge--- that teenage 'tude that arises from its adherence to MTV-generation apathy (still gotta make it teeny-bopper friendly), but it was also an effective children's film, because it taps into that child-like wonder that we projected onto our toys as children; the idea that they're really capable of anything.

From what I've read, it sounds like Bay is up to his old tricks again with Transformers: ROTF (or as my main man Jim Emerson calls it: Transformers: ROTFL). Roger Ebert's hilariously scathing review details it more effectively than I can (considering, y'know, he's seen the movie in question):

"Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a horrible experience of unbearable length, briefly punctuated by three or four amusing moments. One of these involves a dog-like robot humping the leg of the heroine. Such are the meager joys. If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination.


Aware that this movie opened in England seven hours before Chicago time and the morning papers would be on the streets, after writing the above I looked up the first reviews as a reality check. I was reassured: "Like watching paint dry while getting hit over the head with a frying pan!" (Bradshaw, Guardian); "Sums up everything that is most tedious, crass and despicable about modern Hollywood!" (Tookey, Daily Mail); "A giant, lumbering idiot of a movie!" (Edwards, Daily Mirror). The first American review, Todd Gilchrist of Cinematical, reported that Bay's "ambition runs a mile long and an inch deep," but, in a spirited defense, says "this must be the most movie I have ever experienced." He is bullish on the box office: it "feels destined to be the biggest movie of all time." It’s certainly the biggest something of all time."

What interests me less than Ebert's review (which feels very much like vintage Ebert--- this may be his most enjoyable trashing of a movie since his infamous review of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen back in '03) is that last paragraph, where he quoted other critical lambastings of Revenge of the Fallen. It amuses me to no end that many of the same critics who gave Star Trek a pass ("reignites a classic franchise with action, humor, a strong story, and brilliant visuals!") could cite any other film as being loud, dumb, and incoherent ("a noisy, underplotted, and overlong special effects extravaganza that lacks a human touch")--- just take a moment to soak in this positively delicious irony, which is so subtly farcical that it's almost Heller-esque. So Michael Bay's distinct brand of visual noise is bland, while Abrams' calculated blandness counts as visual imagination? What is it about Michael Bay's sensibility that makes him such an easy target?

What's always bothered me about a Michael Bay release is that it suddenly becomes open-season for critics. Suddenly, they call care about film's implications--- on the social, cultural, and even formal level. Suddenly, almost magically, they all have a refined aesthetic sense and care about a film's visual syntax--- as though these are important values to them when the director isn't Michael Bay. Where, I ask, were these mini-Bazins when two of the most visually imaginative blockbusters in recent memory--- Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and the Wachowski's Speed Racer--- were getting critically trashed? Why, they were taking part in the trashing of course, because a precious few critics legitimately think for themselves. And a new Michael Bay release is a chance to show off how clever they can be, how creatively they can rip a movie to shreds. ("a 150 minute waterboarding session!", "it carves out its own category of godawfulness", "smashes and bashes the senses") This public execution style of criticism is a large part of what puts people off to critics in the first place.

What I'm saying is these criticisms would mean more if they were put within a meaningful context--- the exact thing modern criticism lacks. A critic who ignores the visual incomprehensibility and inherent misogyny in product like Star Trek literally has no right to cite those things as flaws in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen--- no matter how true they are (and I don't doubt for a second that the movie is legitimately awful). My point is that critics will only take pot-shots if you're an easy, almost established target like Michael Bay, but they're less willing to cite a film's lack of imagination when it's helmed by Pixar, Christopher Nolan, Clint Eastwood, or J.J. Abrams--- then your lack of imagination is praised as bold film making. Armond White (sorta) edifies in the NY Press (note the sarcasm, please):

"WHY WASTE SPLEEN on Michael Bay? He’s a real visionary—perhaps mindless in some ways (he’s never bothered filming a good script), but Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is more proof he has a great eye for scale and a gift for visceral amazement. Bay’s ability to shoot spectacle makes the Ridley-Tony-Jake Scott family look like cavemen.

Who else could compose a sequence where characters (albeit robots) go from the bottom of the sea to another planet in one seamless, 30-second, dreamlike flow? That transition typifies the storytelling in this sequel to 2007’s Transformers."

Sorry, Armond, not only am I not 'wasting spleen' (whatever that means) on Mr. Bay, I am not wasting money on him. Reports have suggested that ROTF has taken in as much as 60 million in its first day in nationwide release. This simple statistic is more abominable than anything Bay could throw up on the screen. Yes, I know, I am an amateur 'critic' and it is my social duty to subject myself to the most unimaginable of cinematic tortures for the sake of the form--- but my reasoning for not paying to see this latest Transformers film is more than just principle, it's self-preservation.

In Hollywood, a ticket purchase is an endorsement. I don't have to explain the faulty reasoning of this principle to a thinking human being, but H-Wood sees human beings as nothing but demographics, and a ticket purchase is a vote for a film's ethics--- or lack thereof. Naturally, this logic doesn't take into factor the people who saw the film and didn't like it, who saw the film against their will, or who bought their ticket out of boredom. All that counts is that the ticket was purchased (Hollywood is, after all, bred by inclusive bratty little University shits who don't have an actual connection to anything resembling humanity-- only numbers). If we want these kinds of movies to stop being made (and who doesn't?), we need to purchase our tickets more carefully--- and critics need to break down their observations so that they have some relevance. Just flinging shit at a film and film maker, even one like Michael Bay, is just counter-productive.

Now, I'm not saying that all the negative reviews of Revenge of the Fallen are just senseless mud slinging, I'm just saying that for the most part they sure are. But the sad thing about criticism is how the herd-mentality has become the guiding force, and so many critics figure that their observations are such a given that it's not worth the time to flesh them out. "Of course Michael Bay makes crass-entertainment, so I shouldn't have to flesh out why this film is crass. It should be obvious enough." They have better things to do than, ya know, their job.

So, I am not purchasing a ticket. I am not saying it's okay to make this kind of movie. I don't want an opinion on it. I don't need an opinion on it. I don't really give a rat's ass. I'm still so behind on my watching (my class and work schedule of late has left little time for the finer things in life) that I don't think spending over 3 hours in a movie theater so I can watch Revenge of the Fallen is a good use of my time, money, or derriere. I have better things to do, like watching paint dry while I'm getting waterboarded, at the same time someone hits my head with a frying pan and rapes my eyeballs.

*6/28, 1:40 P.M.: I have just found out about Billy Mays' death at the age of 49. Needless to say, this makes me feel like a real heel. I hope my joke was not a contributing factor. Rest in peace, Mr. Mays, you made our whites whiter than we could have ever hoped for.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The House that Pixar Built

The Pixar I remember as a 7 year-old going to see Toy Story for the first time is no longer. Their wit, which was once simultaneously clever, universal, and sophisticated, has regressed into heartless snark, bad puns, and toilet humor. While Up is never as smug and contemptuous as the second act of last year's Wall-E, it similarly never reaches the sublime heights Wall-E did in its first half. Rather, Pixar has whored itself out to sugar daddy Disney and Up is the bastard child of clashing sensibilities.

In the world of Pixar, everything--- be it toys, insects, monsters, fish, cars, rats, or robots--- is given abundances of humanity. Everything, that is, with the exception of human beings. When a portrait of human beings is moved to center stage in a Pixar film, they can't contain their contempt for humankind. Be it the portrayal of human beings as fat, lazy, and destructive that shattered the otherwise splendid Wall-E or the bland caricaturizations in Up, Pixar shows that human beings themselves are not their strong suit. Like Up's protagonist, Pixar has become the cranky, disaffected old-man batting passersby with its cane. Up attempts to indict today's children (their core demographic, no less) with an overweight boy-scout who is ignorant of the world outside his insulated corporate landscape; and while this portrait isn't quite as mean-spirited as the citizens of the Axiom in Wall-E, it's still moralistic and snarky. Coming from a studio owned by no less than The Walt Disney Company, this is the equivalent of the pot calling the kettle black.

Which is not to imply that Up doesn't have its moments--- it certainly does. Things start out well enough with the delightful short Partly Cloudy, Pixar's finest short film to date (though they've all been memorable in their own right). If the short that preceded Wall-E--- the magnificent Presto--- was Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes-esque, then this is a perfect 3D re-inhabiting of Walt Disney's own Silly Symphonies. Unlike the feature that follows it, Partly Cloudy's use of 3D is inventive, subtle, and effective--- and proves that Pixar still has chops as visual storytellers.

Unfortunately, things get problematic pretty quickly with Up. Wall-E, at the very least, had sustained brilliance for its first 45 minutes before regressing to formulaic banality and a hateful depiction of humanity in its second half. Up begins with an admittedly touching montage showing the main character, Carl Fredrickson (voiced by Lou Grant himself, Ed Asner) and his wife's life together--- the only thing that separated them was death. This is an extremely simple but eloquent statement on the nature of love and loss, and would rank with Wall-E's first half as flawless visual storytelling. Carl's wife, Ellie, looms over the remainder of the film like a ghost, only the ghosts are those in Carl's soul.

This would rank among Pixar's finest moments, judged apart from the rest of the movie. However, the moment immediately after Pixar has pulled our heart-strings with the death of Carl's loved one it plays Carl's status as a sad, lonely, bitter old man for cheap laughs; the "Habanera" comes in on the soundtrack, as though we're supposed to be amused by the fact that Carl's days are numbered. This tacky juxtaposition makes all the sap that follows (which there is a lot of) ring false. But we wouldn't want to upset the kiddies with tragedy, so instead Pixar tosses some infantile slapstick in with their oppressive schmaltz. This would explain the need for the fat, stupid, annoying child (is there any other kind in the world of Pixar?) as a comic-relief sidekick, and endless lame jokes involving talking dogs (apparently, that's a joke that Disney/Pixar thinks gets funnier each time they tell it).

There is a moment early on in the film that would have made Tati proud. An exterior shot of Carl's wonderfully colorful house cuts to reveal that the house is alone in a sea of apartment and office buildings; a splash of imagination and personality in an increasingly homogenized society, driven by corporate interests. However, coming from Disney, the studio largely responsible for the collective dumbing down of the masses, this notion is dubious; they tried to play the same card in Wall-E, and it was fallacious then as well. This sentiment is made all the more ironic by the endless demographic pandering that follows; it tries to appease the children with lowbrow humor, it tries to appease the adults with bad puns and trite ruminations on life and death. The universal quality that made early Pixar so special has become as mechanical and formulaic as the worst of Disney's modern-day product that they peddle as entertainment.

Pixar is far from talentless, but they are willing to squander their talent to their corporate masters. This makes them something worse than hacks--- it makes them sellouts. The 3D in this film is just a tacked on marketing gimmick; after the inventive use of 3D in Henry Selick's Coraline, this unimaginative and extraneous use of the device is unacceptable. Pixar is so flippant with their gifts and resources that they're willing to exhibit Up and its extraordinary color-palette a shade darker simply for the sake of added revenue. Indeed, through a good chunk of the movie I found myself peeking from behind my 3D-glasses to take in the film's wondrous and imaginative art-direction without the obtrusive and distracting 3D. But Pixar doesn't care about aesthetics anymore; everything about Up reaks of cold, calculated marketing--- it's every bit as manufactured as the Pavlovian reception of these increasingly poorly made films.

Take the central imagery of the flying house in Up. The image of the house taking off is a breathtaking one--- as the balloons burst through the chimney and rip the house out of its foundation, the extraordinary use of color, contrast and tonality in this sequence heightens our senses. This is wild, spectacular imagery that sets the imagination on fire. However, when the main duo reaches South America in its second half, it focuses on banal plot mechanics and the spectacular use of color and image becomes mere window dressing for Disney/Pixar's adherence to trite formula and mechanical plot-beats. Ultimately, the spectacular art-direction is little more than the equivalent of cinematic bubble gum.

Maybe Disney can't do any better than this--- they lost their spark long before they acquired Pixar--- but Pixar Studios certainly can, and we deserve no less. That they think we do is the highest of insults. Ever since Walt Disney's death in 1966, DisneyCo's focus has been solely on increasing GDP and making their stock-holders richer (the company actually never turned a profit during Disney's life-time, as he would continually invest his earnings into bigger and more daring projects), and they have done this through a series of conservative (read: safe) business moves. It's always about the bottom line for DisneyCo. Now Pixar, once defined by unique artistry, is content to be just another asset--- another link in The Walt Disney Company's morally bankrupt chain. This makes them worthy not of our cheers, but our jeers. And they pilfer this infantile crap in the name of children's entertainment, as though they deserve any less than the best we can give them.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Books on Film

The memes are coming, the memes are coming! I've been tagged for this meme, started by MovieMan, three times; twice unofficially (Ed Howard and Glenn Kenny cheated by tagging everyone under the sun), and one officially, courtesy of Bill at The Kind of Face You Hate. Anyway, the meme states that those who take part in it discuss their favorite books about film--- the books that helped shape the way we see the medium. I confess to not reading nearly enough about my preferred medium; most of the writing about film I read comes from the internet, which has its benefits, for sure. But it's also not exactly a substitute.

But that certainly isn't to say that there haven't been some books that made a big impact on me, especially at a young age. The most essential would be, naturally, the above pictured The Great Movies, by a certain critic named Roger Ebert, a writer who has found limited success in print and on television. I remember picking this book up as a 12 year old burgeoning cinephile and having my eyes opened to the powers of film; not just the latest piece of marketing that topped the box office, but to film as an art form. I remember being particularly struck by a passage from the opening:

"We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls. They allow us to enter other minds --- not simply in the sense of identifying with the characters, although that is an important part of it, but by seeing the world as another person sees it. Francois Truffaut said that for a director it was an inspiring sight to walk to the front of a movie theater, turn around, and look back at the faces of the audience, turned up to the light from the screen. If the film is any good, those faces reflect an out-of-the-body experience: The audience for a brief time is somewhere else, sometime else, concerned with lives that are not its own. Of all the arts, movies are the most powerful aid to empathy, and good ones make us into better people"

If I could trace it to a point, I'd say the reading of this book from cover to cover (which included many movies I'd never heard of, let alone seen, along with some I had, too) I began to realize that films needed to be thought of in a more abstract way. Reducing films to their elements; story, character, dialogue, direction, etc... is dubious. It's how these elements work in tandem--- or clash--- with each other that counts when trying to appreciate a film. This rocked my 12 year old world.

And the list of films in that book is very diversified, which gave me a taste of how eclectic cinema can be; all the different kinds of stories it can tell, from fantasy to realist-drama . Everything from Casablanca to The Exterminaing Angel; from Citizen Kane to Star Wars. The first time I ever heard the names Welles, Kurosawa, Bunuel, Dreyer, Hawks, Reed--- all courtesy of Mr. Ebert. I made it my mission to see most, if not all of these films (I still haven't seen a few--- Detour and the Up documentaries), and around the time of what I can only describe as a cinematic explosion is when I remember refining my aesthetic sense.

Moving on, another book that has been of great importance to me is a guide-book called Film Directing Shot by Shot: Visualizing From Concept to Screen by Steven D. Katz. Generally I dislike books of this ilk--- books that catalog 'formulas' for cinematic storytelling, but Katz's eloquence, knowledge of the subject matter, and lack of pretension is quite incredible. He breaks down what David Bordwell would call story-telling 'norms' into such simple, economic language that I'd say this book is almost essential for anyone looking to pick up a camera and make movies. He states over and over again that there isn't one way to make a film--- but he does make the (very true) point that a film maker needs to understand these principles, and why they are established principles, if they wish to break them. This is more than a book for aspiring film makers, it's a book that perfectly articulates how we tell stories visually.

It breaks down what Katz calls 'shot-flow'; how images relate to one another. It's not just a simple regurgitation of the dictionary definitions of "shot/reverse shot", "the 180 degree rule", or the like... though these concepts are included. Rather, through the use of storyboards (some from authentic films and some drawn up for illustrative purposes), Katz shows the readers how film can convey a sense of space, motion, and time. Quite incredible stuff.

Moving on to the last two books I have chosen for this here meme, two textbooks. But they're so much more than that--- highly encompassing accounts of film history and film form, written in a wonderfully personal style. The first, a book my school would never use because of its extraordinary quality--- the irreplaceable, essential Film Art by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, a mainstay of film academia for 30 years (my school uses a shitty book called Movies and Meaning for their basic cinema course).

This is just an astounding documentation of the different types of form modalities. A brief history of the medium (though a far more all encompassing account can be found in the duo's Film History) precedes an incredibly all-encompassing account of the basics of film-form--- as a starting point, one really couldn't do better than Film Art. And it's all written in Bordwell and Thompson's highly knowledgeable yet personable style; they break down such complex concepts to their raw essentials so beautifully that they deserve to be thought of as artists as much as scholars.

Plus, it's not rigid academia (which is probably why some in the academic community dislike Bordwell and Thompson), but a simultaneously personal and objective journey through the different aspects of film. For example, in the chapter about Cinematography (in the edition I have, at least), Bordwell uses examples as varied as The Crime of M. Lange, Wild Strawberries, Back to the Future, and Die Hard. In other film text-books I've read, this tends to come off as a trick the author uses to get the attention of the college age readers. "Look," the books cry "I'm talking about films you're actually familiar with in addition to these 'arty' ones!" The examples Bordwell and Thompson uses are both relevant and personal, as the examples in the text reflect Bordwell and Thompson's wonderfully eclectic taste in cinema. Plus, I just adore the two of them to pieces--- they're definitely the cutest Film Scholar couple I can think of.

I have taken exactly two courses in college that I can honestly say changed my life--- that is to say, these classes legitimately shaped my outlook on the world. The first would be the Astronomy class I took last fall, where every day I got a unique lesson in the workings of the Universe. The other class would be a History of Animation course I took to satisfy my Art requirement--- and the assigned book for the class, Cartoons: 100 Years of Animation by Giannalberto Bendazzi, is essential reading for any fan of animation and cinema.

Talk about an exhaustive account of the history of animation. Bendazzi goes by era AND by country, making connections between world animation and world cinema, going all the way back to the earliest days of both forms. Animation really does deserve more dues than it gets, as the history of cinema and the history of animation are so closely interwoven that they are almost one and the same. As a people, our first moving images were drawn ones.

And the class itself was just wonderful--- nothing like the Cinema 101 course I took my first semester at school, where my Professor pandered to the bad taste of my peers instead of attempting to enlighten them (not worth the effort, I guess). I expected similar things from my Animation class, but this Professor had a really acute aesthetic sense and an incredible knowledge of the history of the medium. We saw so much, from Disney to Chuck Jones to Miyazaki, to more obscure animation artists like Oskar Fichinger (whose abstract art-work inspired the Toccata and Fugue portion of Disney's Fantasia). He bored most of my peers to tears but I was enraptured by the films week in and week out--- I think it's the only class I've taken that I've never missed once, and it was early in the morning to boot. Not all of them were great, though some of them were, but they all had something noteworthy about them. He even showed some Méliès on the first day, which is certainly okay by me.

So these are my books, please do leave suggestions in the comment box for my illiterate ass.

I tag.... anyone who feels like doing it.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Beware the Tomatometer

Look out, critics! There's a new game in town. Individually, your voices are meaningless; mere 'opinions' on works of art, culled from world-view and experience. But together, something real, something powerful, something fruity can be created. You can create a Freshness score on the blessed Tom-a-Tometer, a number many Internet-era movie fans worship like it was Mecca or The Wailing Wall.

Before I go any further I will confess that I do use Rotten Tomatoes, even while realizing it should be taken with a grain of salt. Sometimes I'll use it to browse reviews quickly; I've discovered some under-sung writers on RT that I quite like--- and sometimes I'll just try to get a feel for the consensus of the film. What is the general sentiment surrounding the latest new releases--- golden eggs or stinkers?

But this is where the dubiousness (is that a word?) of Rotten Tomatoes comes into play--- it gives the impression of the consensus when it's no more the authority on that than myself or anyone else. It gives the impression that film critics are a united force instead of individuals. (which is, admittedly, a long standing impression--- how many times do they say of a movie "The critics loved it!" or "Forget that movie, man, it was panned", as though every critic feels the same way about a film?) . It's part of the desire for everything in this world to be tied up nicely and neatly, with no acknowledgment paid to the gray area in-between. Rotten Tomatoes just gives the illusion of a 'consensus'.

But those of us who love to discuss film know that virtually all interesting discourse about film lies in that gray area. The older I get, the less interested I become in qualifying terms--- "good", "bad", "masterpiece", "garbage"--- and the more interested I become in the emotions and ideas that the work itself brings up. In other words, what I love about my favorite critics is the way they express what the experience of watching the film meant to them, as opposed to the opinion itself. Much as I love Roger Ebert, he truly is among the most eloquent writers to have written about film, didn't his and Siskel's systems of "Thumbs Up" and "Thumbs Down" really pave the way for this ADD wave of film criticism? It's simply a quick verdict so teenage boys know what to see on a Saturday night. The difference between the "Thumbs" system and the "Fresh" system was that at least Siskel & Ebert's Thumb system acknowledged its own inherent subjectivity--- part of the essence of criticism. Rotten Tomatoes eschews that notion of subjectivity in favor of a false sense of objectivity. In the world of the Tomatoes, you either like something or you don't. Degrees mean nothing.

It's ironic that, in the digital age where personal expression is literally as easy as the click of a button, a fair amount of Rotten Tomatoes' users would move towards a unification of thought. Maybe I'm just the disagreeable type--- but I hardly agree with anyone on a lot of movies, even good friends of mine. Why would I expect to agree with all major critics all the time? Why are critics expected to be spokesmen of the 'average moviegoer'? And isn't the concept of the 'average moviegoer' condescending in and of itself?

Take the RT page of Up--- and you'll see that, for the most part, the only reviews with comments threads on them are the negative ones. This isn't because Tomato-users are using it to build discourse and an exchange of ideas around a dissenting view--- it's just basically a forum with which to bash the reviewer, regardless of the strength of their arguments. Most of the cries more or less amount to "Boo! Dissenting opinion!" and little else. Some even go so far as to suggest that these snarky 'contrarians' (bastards!) be ejected from the Rotten Tomatoes system all together! How fucked up is that?

Off with their heads!

Just check out Mahnola Dargis' typically eloquent review in The New York Times, which was mostly positive, if also somewhat critical of what she deems Pixar's mechanical nature. I haven't seen Up yet, but this trite banality and smug condescension was certainly presented in Wall-E's second half, so I certainly understand where Dargis is coming from. Naturally, the comment section says things like "Up with the movie, down with the critic!", "Why do you hate children?", and so on. Because, naturally, we should hold children's films to a lower standard than we hold more 'sophisticated' films to.

Is that one of the side-effects of having communication on such a mass-level, the desire on the part of some to squash opposing view points? With the exception of Obamania, no fervor swept the country last year quite like The Dark Knight, and it inspired the most militant fanboyism I've ever seen in my life (no small feat). For what I feel is the most frightening example of this, check out the comment thread from Keith Uhlich's review from The House Next Door way back when the movie came out, where Nolan-ites descended on his website like flies on shit, saying all kinds of terrible things (from death threats to grotesque sexual imagery) because he didn't like a movie most of them hadn't even seen yet. In the case of these two reviews, the outrage had nothing to do with discussing the merits (or lack thereof) of the films themselves--- it all revolved around the utterly inconsequential number score on the tomatometer. How dare those bastard critics lower a movie's score? How dare they have an opinion? How dare they speak for themselves, and not the people?

My point with all this is that in an age where an exchange of ideas is more accessible than ever before, it also gives the herd mentality a forum with which to be that much more aggressive with their suffocation of dissent. What these people attempt to do is to shut down discourse so their shallow world-view can be the only one that is endorsed. This is willful ignorance at its worst, masquerading as populist anti-intellectualism. Of course, the trolls will never succeed in silencing those who don't agree--- the pen has always been mightier than the sword, and it always will be.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Notes on the Blogaissance

A refreshing meme came my way from Greg F's corner of the web, Cinema Styles. The post is titled "Why Being a Cinephile Matters", and it discusses the importance of cinephilia and blogging in the context of the current movie scene. This was a refreshing thing to see first thing in the morning, as most discourse surrounding movie bloggers tends to involve disparaging of them. Mere "hobbyists" who are stealing thunder from the oh-so-mighty and essential canonized crew of "professionals". The evolution of blogging is a perfectly natural evolution of the mass-communication of the internet and traditional film criticism.

Though if there's one thing I despise it's the 'one or the other' mentality with respect to the print criticism/blogging dichotomy. Blogging, to me, is a natural extension of the art of criticism; and the two certainly need not be mutually exclusive. Look at people whom I would consider Teachers to us all on the way this exciting new technology should be harnessed; David Bordwell, Matt Zoller Seitz, Jim Emerson--- these critics/bloggers have shown us the way digital technology can be harnessed in order to approach a greater sense of objectivity in criticism. They've used frame-grabs and videos to, what I feel, is a revolutionary effect: to back up their critiques with actual evidence. No longer are you left scratching your head at what may seem like baseless observations--- it's right there, in the movie, and this allows for a more detailed illustration of the criticism itself. Film is a visual form. Criticism is a literary form. The two are only compatible to a certain extent.

And this move towards a larger sense of objectivity is perhaps the most important thing about blogging to me. Blogging has torn down the notion of a 'consensus' surrounding films. With more voices out there, film criticism is not as black and white as it used to be. Which isn't to say that there isn't a uniformity to a certain extent--- but you're more likely to find dissenting or niche views on the internet than you are in the mainstream press. In an age where so many print critics pander to audiences and regurgitate ad copy, the blogsosphere is a place where anyone can put their voice out there and be heard. And the sheer volume of voices indicates that movies do indeed matter to a great many people. If a movie doesn't have discourse surrounding it, the film dies. Bloggers help keep the spirit of cinema alive.

There are a great many lessons to be learned from the blogosphere. Here are some of my most valued:

* Spielberg isn't exactly hated, but I still like him proportionally more than most.

* You're allowed to make a case for Hollywood and genre. You don't get voted off the island for making a case that Rio Bravo is as good a movie as The Seventh Seal.

* Ebert is a better blogger than critic.

* Comments don't necessarily need to have anything to do with the topic discussed in the post. There is no such thing as a non-sequitir.

* Speaking of non-sequitirs: waffles.

* That Jonathan Lapper dude is really named Greg.

* It's pretty commonly accepted that Verhoeven is totally boss.

* Opinions come in many shapes and sizes.

* The Siren is a class-act through and through.

* Sometimes, one of the net's most eloquent bloggers will inexplicably join your blog when you don't have a single reader.

* Maybe Lars von Trier isn't so bad after all.

* People actually like Marnie.

* Saying you like Mission to Mars will still get you into trouble.

* In fact, you still kinda get weird looks for liking De Palma.

* No, actually, there's no performer too obscure.

* Girls blog about movies, too.

* They will never, ever let me play "Name that Movie".

* Bill R. will fucking kill your ass.

* Just be yourself, engage with others, and you will make friends. Thanks to all my blogger posse, you guys and gals are what make it fun.

*There's so many movies in this world worth seeing. It's a banquet that can never, ever be depleted. And every time you think you're a littler closer to having it all figured out, the well grows even deeper. It's truly humbling.

And there's my 20. I even managed to avoid being sappy right up until the very end there.

Th-th-th-th-th-th-th-that's all folks.