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16 January 2005

Comments

Britopia

Back to the thread about writer-directors and the good old days, which may only interest Filmbrain, Aaron, and me. Warning: the following are bits and pieces, rather than a well-knit argument.

While we’d all agree that the economic and social structures are radically different now from those of 1939, we can’t quite change them. (It’s a commonplace to observe that free agency dramatically changed both movies and sports, in the U.S.)

As far as I’m concerned, the most important difference, or recurring issue, between now and then has to do with the two fundamental and occasionally conflicting impulses in film, and all art forms: being patient and showing off. The conditions of the moment are slanted heavily toward the latter (see the first sentence of most first novels for confirmation).

The studio system stifled individuality while rewarding craft; the Sundance system celebrates individuality while minimizing expertise. Not to bash my usual straw man, Q.T….well, why not? I usually find his films boring, because they fetishize the minute and they ignore the day. (Appropriate that he headed the Cannes jury that awarded Fahrenheit 9/11 the Palme d’Or, since Michael Moore also prefers special effects to structure and storytelling.) I like minutes, and I like days. It’s a shame to see the first eclipse the second.

Again, I’m not against showing off; we need Melies, Eisenstein, and Godard as much as we need Lumiere, Renoir, and Ozu. And being patient, notwithstanding the maxim, should not be its own reward. I am, however, opposed to a system that inevitably favors showing off (Guy Ritchie) over being patient (Abbas Kiarostami), because it puts too great a burden on debuts, and on sleight of hand. It forces young talents into announcing themselves as auteurs, whether they are or ever will be.

Two major feeders for directors since the collapse of the New Hollywood have been advertisements and music videos (which, of course, are also advertisements). These genres don’t exactly encourage thinking beyond the minute. This doesn’t have to turn everyone into McG or Antoine Fuqua. Spike Jonze and Sofia Coppola, to name the inevitable two, are advertising/music videos alums, and their work, when it succeeds, both watches and shows off.

I suppose my defining question would be this: does the movie trust its audience? Does it trust me to think, to be alert, to talk back? Or does it have to tell me what to think, and does it want only to impress me? This is a major problem not just with Guy Ritchie but with the “old-fashioned” cinema of Steven Spielberg. The worst parts of his movies are always the first five minutes and the last five minutes, because they show that he's afraid that his movie and his audience might have a conversation without him (see Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, etc.)

(Tangent alert.) This is why I think that Slacker is one of the great films of the last twenty years. It’s a total show-off, but it also watches the hell out of people. And its influence, or at least prescience, has been enormous, without always being apparent. Who is Charlie Kaufman if not one of Slacker’s many long-winded conspiracy theorists? Lost in Translation echoes Slacker’s leisurely investigation of a particular culture, and of strangers and locals, and of the weirdness of being yourself. (And yes, it also echoes all the filmmakers that Coppola thanked at the Oscars last year.) Or think of Michael Haneke's fabulous Code Unknown: another thoughtful synthesis of showing off and sitting back.

I guess that wasn’t a tangent, insofar as 2004: The Year in Movies goes. The two most commonly praised films, in these parts, seem to be perched on either side of the continuum, from being patient (Before Sunset) to showing off (Eternal Sunshine). But Before Sunset (hardly Linklater’s best work, but better than most stuff we see) nicely fuses a structural “gimmick” (to use a word tossed out elsewhere in the comments) and a commitment to the everyday. Eternal Sunshine is a bag of tricks, but it’s also about actual stuff--memory, fear, landscape. While neither may be able to bear the strain of its hosannas, what’s nice about these films is their desire to trust the audience.

Lastly: I reiterate my praise of Deadwood, from several posts ago. Surprisingly, given the pedigree of the often-unwatchable NYPD Blue, David Milch’s series/film beautifully moves between patience (camera, story arc, character development) and show-offiness (Ian McShane, dialogue, genre self-consciousness). The tension between stasis and energy makes the thing work. And I feel trusted.

Filmbrain

Absolute perfection, Britopia. You managed to beautifully express what I was unable to.

I suppose my defining question would be this: does the movie trust its audience? Does it trust me to think, to be alert, to talk back? Or does it have to tell me what to think, and does it want only to impress me?

My god, that's it to a T. This explains why though I didn't like Beyond Sunset, I would never criticize it as I do Million Dollar Baby. In the case of the former it's pure subjective dislike for the characters and the resulting situation -- Linklater isn't forcing our hand. The latter film is, to me, guilty of exactly what you mention, and while this alone would usually anger me for a moment and then be forgotten, it's the endless praise and defenses that are being applied to the film that are making me see red. If it made you cry - great! - but don't try and tell me that the film is anything more than a carefully constructed piece of manipulation, riddled with clichés, pointless, insulting dialog and supporting characters that serve as exposition and nothing more.

Aaron

And, obviously, I'm on the other side of the fence from Filmbrain re: MDB I absolutely can't take anymore the criticism "a carefully constructed piece of manuipulation." That is what every film is and should be. Whether you love it (as you do) or you don't (that would be me), you don't think The Brown Bunny is a "carefully constructed piece of manipulation"? The problem and when "manipulation" starts to annoy me is when it isn't carefully constructed. When it's slapdash. In fact, I would argue that Britopia's entire comment -- which I too think is wonderful, at least mostly since I might quibble here or there -- is based on applauding "carefully constructed" films.

The issue for me is how hard the filmmaker is hitting me over the head with anvils and whether I feel stupid. I never once felt stupid in Million Dollar Baby, even when it did fall into cliche and mildly annoyed me. I know you whole-heartedly disagree, and we've been through this over and over again, but things such as an hour of driving and nothing more to emphasize and reemphasize a character's lonliness and depression and wandering feels much more manipulative and smack-me-in-the face obvious than most of what Eastwood did in his film. That's just my reaction. I also really liked Hotel Rwanda, but talk about a movie that spent way too much time telling you exactly what to think. If just the one line of Juaquin Phoenix crying and saying, "I feel so ashamed" had been cut, that alone would have made the film immeasurably better.

The main quibble I suppose I have with Britopia's comments are that I don't think every story needs to be plodding nor does flash and style signify good direction (unless you're voting for Oscar, obviously). However, unless I'm simply taking you too literally, I think dividing every movie into "showy" or "patient" is a bit unfair. I think plenty of the better films these days manage to straddle that line, but more importantly, not every film should be patient nor should every film be showy. I wouldn't want Eternal Sunshine to be any more methodical, nor would I want Sideways to be any more showy. And while awards may favor showy, I don't think the system always does. In fact, even most major Hollywood studios probably do separate their slates into divisions similar to what you describe, but they would call it "popcorn" versus "prestige." You have the huge, moneymaking, event movies -- all flash and dash -- and then the end-of-the-year prestige films for which they don't expect grosses as large but hope to win awards.

The Globes just started, and Natalie Portman just won, so I'm floored and have totally lost my train of thought. More later ... maybe.

dvd

"If just the one line of Joaquin Phoenix crying and saying, "I feel so ashamed" had been cut, that alone would have made the film immeasurably better."

You know, now that I think about it, I agree with you...but when I was watching the movie, I was so afraid that he'd act on his shame, and so relieved that he didn't, that it wasn't an issue for me.

Filmbrain

That is what every film is and should be.

Tell that to Robert Bresson.

Clearly we have different ideas about film and emotional manipulation.

dvd

I think what Aaron means (correct me when I'm wrong) when he says that every film is and should strive to be manipulative (albeit carefully constructed) is that the very nature of cinema implies a manipulation of the viewer -- a reaction on a variety of levels (from the ocular to the emotional) brought about by controlled stimulae (narrative/edits/etc). The level of control on the part of the filmmaker is where the definition of a 'manipulative film' begins to break down, which is why I wouldn't consider The Brown Bunny -- or, say, a Bresson film or a Cassavetes film or certain documentaries -- manipulative on most levels other than those essential to their cinematic nature. If you believe the old adage that every cut is a lie (or a manipulation), and that removing the cuts thereby removes their manipulative implications, then you'd have to agree that a film like The Brown Bunny is far less manipulative than Million Dollar Baby (until Gallo starts using flashbacks and - surprise - more editing to provoke a stronger emotional reaction at the end, at which point he's as guilty as Eastwood).

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