In Defense of the Slow and Boring and Fast and Entertaining

Hitchcock explains to Truffaut that he can't remember why he framed a single shot a particular way 40 years ago.

A recent New York Times article, by two critics whom I respect and mostly trust, gave me pause.  The article, entitled In Defense of the Slow and Boring, is a response from A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis to another article in The New York Times Magazine by Dave Kois (available here) that purports to describe certain films (I believe we call them ‘art house’) as slow, boring and, above all, not entertaining.  Scott, Dargis and Kois raise some interesting questions (although I do hope that they realize the questions are not exactly new): are films meant to be entertainment or art? Can they be both? SHOULD they be both? And so forth.  What troubled me about the Dargis/Scott article, however, was not that they asked the questions.  It was rather the way they asked them.

Being a film student and proud cinephile, I am not exactly new to the arena of film snobbery.  Ever sat through Michael Snow’s Wavelength? Ever had, by my count, 12 whole minutes of your life stolen by Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight? Ever stared blankly at Alain Resnais’s Muriel? Ever prayed for death during Diary of a Country Priest? No? Then don’t talk to me about boredom, confusion or general malaise.  Now those are all movies that I find dull.  But I have friends, cinephiles, who enjoy them.  Who find them fascinating, moving, educational.  And that’s just fine.  We can argue about it, debate the merits of Brakhage, of Warhol, of Resnais and Bresson.  We might not ever agree, but we can find some common ground for discussion.

As I’ve said before in this blog, I also like my fast movies, my stupid comedies, my entertainment.  And I baulk when someone accuses me of snobbery simply because I enjoy Resnais and think Michael Bay should not be called a ‘director’.  That’s not snobbery; that’s taste.  And if your taste is for Bay’s massive explosions, more power to you.  Those films will never go away, and really, we shouldn’t want them to.  Because the people those films entertain are not the idiot masses, as some film critics would have you believe.  Thor does not belong in the same class of films as Solaris, but (and here’s a shocker to Scott and Dargis): it’s not supposed to.  It’s a big, dumb action movie and it’s a pretty good big, dumb action movie.  It aspires to be nothing more; it should not aspire to be more.

There is an incipient disrespect for films at the bottom of the Scott/Dargis argument, not to mention a disrespect for audiences.  Modern audiences don’t want to think, apparently.  I think they do, just not every minute of every film.  Compare to the difference between eating a hamburger and a milk shake with eating a filet mignon and red wine.  You’ll always recognize that the filet is, technically speaking, BETTER than the hamburger.  That doesn’t mean you want to eat filet all the time.

The films that I find most pretentious are ones like Inception, the ones that purport to be full of depth and intellect and are actually nothing more than meaningless amalgams of better films blended with pop-psychology and a healthy dose of Sartre for Dummies.  Films like that insult the intelligence of the audience because they masquerade as something better, deeper.  But that’s just my opinion.  At base, movies (like books and theatre and television) have the capacity to provoke, to challenge, to educate, and to entertain.  Lest we forget that Alfred Hitchcock, the darling of the French New Wave and a massive influence on everyone from Truffaut to Tarantino to Scorsese to (I suspect) Malick, was one hell of an entertainer.

Geek Love #1: No, Seriously, Who ARE You Gonna Call?

No, as a matter of fact, I am not afraid of no ghosts.

I was going to do a review of Thor (big, shiny and sexy, for those who want to know), but then I decided that everything good, bad and indifferent about it has been written.  Go here for a good, comprehensive review by someone far more knowledgable about the Marvel Universe than I.  Instead, I’m going to favor you with one of my continuous obsessions.  One that a lot of people share.

I have a tendency to get really, really excited about certain things.  Books, movies, actors, directors, writers, bands … these usually form the center of my obsessive desires.  I geek out all the time.  But it’s a wide and varied spectrum, untethered by time period or coolness factor.  And there are gradations of obsession.  I was passionate about The Beatles for most of my high school career.  I don’t think there has been a time since I first saw Notorious when Alfred Hitchcock was not my favorite director.  Hunter S. Thompson has been a great hero since college.  And then there’s Ghostbusters.

You know Ghostbusters.  EVERYONE knows Ghostbusters.  It came out two years before I was even born.  When I was a child, I mashed the two Ghostbusters movies together into one gigantic Ghostbusting memory that undoubtedly involved the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man fighting the Statue of Liberty in the Hudson River.  Egon Spengler was one of the first crushes I ever had.  Yeah, that’s right, THIS guy:

I think it was the hair and the glasses and the whole brainiac thing.  Also, being a faculty brat and continuous student, I have a thing for slightly weird academics.  I still think he’s pretty damned sexy, but that’s another post.  I watched the Ghostbusters cartoon, wholly confused by the fact that Egon seemed to be wearing Cool Whip on his head and Peter sounded like Garfield.  I had an outfit, made up of khaki pants and an army jacket that I stole from my mother.  I pinned poorly drawn decals of ghosts to the sleeves.  I WAS a Ghostbuster, dammit!

In the years that followed, my passion for this greatest of American comedies waned.  I turned to other, more esoteric interests.  I became a cinephile and book nerd and looked down my nose at such common things as popular comedies.  Then, one day, I went to Montreal with my parents for a film conference.  And the first Ghostbusters happened to be playing on television.

That was when my little five or six or seven year old self began running around, crying to be let out.  I felt suddenly ecstatic, like someone told me the Easter Bunny was real.  In the days, weeks and months that followed, I basically relived all my childhood.  I wrote a paper for my horror/sci-fi class at NYU on comic apocalyptic imagery in the first film.  I rewatched both films numerous times.  I began watching the TV series again.  While I did not go so far as to, say, build a proton pack or buy a jumpsuit, I definitely did my best to completely geek out.

Ghostbusters for me was not just a really cool movie.  When I was a child, I was frightened of ghosts.  Still am, to tell the truth.  And what Ghostbusters did was prove to me that ghosts were scary, yeah, but they were also funny, ridiculous, something to laugh it.  And when they were scary, well, there were always those guys dressed like exterminators who would show up and stop them.  For me now, Ghostbusters represents New York, home, and the exceptional power of the comic to transcend terror.  In less than a week, I’m going to get a tattoo on my shoulder of the Ghostbusters logo.  It might be a little trite, a little straightforward, but it actually means something to me.  It means that, in the end, laughter will win.  Or maybe it just means that I was born in the 80s.  One or the other.

‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’: What About the Albino Crocodiles?

Only Werner Herzog could get me excited about a movie about cave paintings.  The thought of one of our greatest living filmmakers descending into the depths to examine the secrets of prehistoric man is wonderful to me.  And, as usual, Herzog did not disappoint.  He crafted a film in which paintings came alive, in which the weird world of calcified remains and sparkling geological wonders, buried beneath the surface, awakens into our own.  ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams‘ is both riveting and elegiac, and creates a sense of wonder coupled with a sense of just how small our current world is in comparison with that of our ancestors.

Herzog manages a great deal with a limited camera crew, limited lighting and limited mobility within the cave.  The images he produces are spectacular.  The paintings themselves — of cave bears, cave lions, furry rhinos, wooly mammoths, wild horses, and a host of other animals, many now extinct — are brilliantly shaded, complex drawings that exhibit the artistry of what we like to call primitive humanity.  The cave sparkles under Herzog’s lighting as he wanders on a narrow metal track, pointing out calcified skulls of cave bears, and the markings of animals and human beings alike.  One image that he can only describe and never show is that of a footprint of an eight-year old boy next to the pawprint of a wolf.  The images that evoke movement — a stampede of horses, two rhinos fighting — are linked to cinema, and Herzog dexterously draws out the correlation between some of the earliest forms of art with the most modern one.

There are moments when the film drags.  Herzog, for some inexplicable reason, seems to have an obsession with New Age choral music that detracts from the majesty of what he’s trying to present.  Rather than allowing the sounds of the cave to speak for themselves, he introduces a somewhat clunky heartbeat that recurs throughout the film and hammers home the point that the cave has a life of its own.  Some of the analysis of the archaeologists takes on a ‘well, we know nothing about this, so we’re going to speculate wildly’ tone, which might have been toned by a bit more scientific/historical discussion rather than what it feels like, which is rampant speculation.

There’s also plenty of Herzogian weirdness to go around.  A master perfumer wanders the forest trying to ‘sniff out’ caves.  One of the archaeologists attempts to throw a spear.  Another reveals that he was a circus performer before turning to archaeology.  And, finally, there are those albino crocodiles that take up perhaps one of the strangest postscripts in the history of documentaries.  But I won’t completely spoil that one for you.

I wish I could have seen the film as it was meant to be seen, in 3D (never thought I’d say THAT), but even in 2D, it is spectacular.  Herzog remains a master of his craft, a deft commentator on the beauty and futility of human endeavor.  He hasn’t quite mellowed in his old age, but he has achieved a new spirituality that is both welcome and, at times, a little weird.

‘Rubber’ Review: No Reason

If, like me, you are a cinephile, then I wish for you to take a brief moment to imagine the following film.  Imagine that Luis Bunuel around about his Mexican time period (when he was making a lot of films in the desert) suddenly came across a young producer by the name of Roger Corman.  Imagine that Corman asked Bunuel if he would be interested in writing a movie with a promising young man named Pynchon.  Imagine finally, that Bunuel and Pynchon wrote that movie for Corman, that Bunuel directed it, and that David Lynch supervised the editing process.  You might very well come out with Quentin Dupieux’s flawed but immensely entertaining ‘Rubber‘.

As everyone who has heard of ‘Rubber’ is well aware, the film centers around a psychopathic tire named Robert with telekinetic abilities.  That in itself was enough to make me want to see it.  What is pleasantly surprising about the film is that the psychopathic tire is only the beginning.  The film opens with a character addressing an on-screen audience, touting the need for a factor of ‘no reason’ in the greatest of films.  The lack of reason for Robert to become ambulatory, much less murderous, is what drives the plot.  Why does Robert wake up, shake off the sand that has covered him, and begin rolling across the desert? No reason.  Why does he suddenly discover a destructive ability to explode things (bottles, bunnies, people’s heads) just by … well, shaking a lot, but the implication is that he does it with his mind? No reason.  If the lack of reason in the film is meant to comment on the malaise of modern filmgoing, then there’s a problem.  But if, as I suspect, it is meant to be exactly what it says it is (an homage to No Reason), then it is remarkably successful.

That on-screen audience provides the highest dosage of meta commentary, as audience members (standing in the desert watching Robert’s progress) comment on the action.  And here the movie lags, then threatens to disappear up its own tail-pipe.  On-screen audiences show up far too much in cinema to be unique, although handing them binoculars and then torturing them in various way is a nice conceit.  Their comments neither move the action along, nor contribute to the enjoyment of the off-screen audience.  They are too self-conscious to be interesting, and the scenes centred around them become increasingly wooden and dull.  And about mid-point through, the entire film becomes derailed to concentrate on this audience in an overlong scene of metafiction.  The fact is, we really want to see what Robert will do next, not what the audience members think he will do next, nor how aware the characters are that they’re in a movie.

Robert is the most developed character, as we watch him come to life, discover his powers, discover sex, discover death and destruction, suffering and excitement.  Without speaking a word, without having a face or eyes or being anything other than a tire, he manages to evoke sympathy, terror, humor, and a good amount of self-awareness.  One gets the sense that Dupieux’s interests lie in the same place and that he was suffering from too much cleverness when he added in the running commentary.  If only he let Robert do the talking, the film would have rolled along much better.  As it is, though, I cannot resist the sheer enjoyment of watching a tire best humanity, without speech and finally without reason.

I’m assuming that ‘Rubber’ can be viewed in theatres, but it can also be downloaded from iTunes.  Really, it is well worth it.  

Scre4m: How Meta Can You Get?

Within the first five minutes of the new Scream movie, I was giggling uncontrollably.  Ensconced in my seat at the front of the theatre next to a whole row of twenty-somethings, my little cinephiliac mind flooded with endorphins.  I felt positively giddy.  Because the Scream franchise is among the cleverest out there, a self-aware product trading at once in parody and real slasher film aesthetics.  And Scream 4 (or Scre4m, apparently) goes to a place that the others only hinted at.  In a phrase, it goes beyond postmodernity.

In some ways, admittedly, the slasher film has run its course.  The knife-wielding psychopath isn’t really all that scary–the first Scream traded more on references and pastiche than in real scare tactics.  The Millennium did not require motives, but today horror films are  faced with a public that is not easily shocked or frightened.  Your typical Western audiences are so accustomed to the tortured terrors of the Saw Franchise, Hostel I and II, and the whole bevy of torture porn that ups the ante for pure shock with every new installment that a dude in a mask with a knife just does not provide serious shocks.  The Scream movies depend on an audience aware of the so-called rules so sharply laid out in the first installment: virgins survive, sex, drugs and alcohol kills, the blonde always dies, the multiple red-herrings, and that all-important final scare when you think it’s all over.  How then to cope with an audience that struggles to be shocked?

Well, the answer is simple.  Don’t shock them.  Entertain them.  What Craven is good at–has always been good at–is providing the jump factor, the pure enjoyment of waiting for the inevitable bloodbath, of betting on who will survive to the final act, who could be the killer, and what that final twist will be.  The darkness of the subject is lightened by the fact that it’s all a joke, a massive prank that the audience is in on.  For all the blood and guts, it’s still funny and we’re meant to laugh at it.

Scre4m merrily acknowledges the changes in technology that the other films did not have to address.  There are cell phones, Twitter, Facebook, iPods and iPhone apps, digital cameras, live streaming and web cams.  There are hyper-aware film geeks to lay out the rules–namely, that all the rules have changed–and to subsequently comment on them.  There are films within films, references to reboots and remakes, the veneration of the original, a whole pop cultural world the audience can recognize, relate to, be versed in.  There’s also an edge of commentary, amid the gleeful mayhem.  Cults of celebrity and the public lives of every individual are fixed securely in the viewfinder, right before the knife tears out their innards.  The film recreates the genre for the generation raised in the Millennium, a group able to surf the waves of metanarrative without ever stopping to have it explained.

Which brings me, finally, to my criticism of the critics.  I’ve already read several reviews of Scre4m that claim, among other things, that the film is for a generation afraid to be frightened.  Yes, it is addressed to us, the smart-asses, the hipsterish masses so aware of our hyper-reality that we seem incapable of existing offline or disconnected.  While the high schoolers of the original went to Blockbuster, we buy DVDs and mp4s, download music and hold four way conversations over multiple cell phones.  But we’re not afraid to be frightened.  We’re frightened all the time.  We’ve been told, for years now, that there are a million things to be afraid of, and the media, the government, Mom and Dad and the whole consumer culture trades on our fear.  Can you blame us if the psychokiller in a ghost mask doesn’t quite scare us? That we laugh rather than cringe at the obviously fake entrails or the crushing of bones? Or that we take open and obvious pleasure in the flaunting of the rules of horror that the makers of Scream themselves created? In the face of such overweaning terror, we either despair…or we laugh.  It seems to me that this generation has chosen laughter.

Nearing the end of the film, one character expresses to another:

“Wow.  That’s just so meta.”

“What?”

“I dunno.  Something I heard the kids say.”

We’ve gone round the bend, past meta, past postmodern, into an unknown land the critics have no word for.  Welcome to the Millennium.  Motives are incidental.