Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Connecting the Movies

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Connecting the Movies


I like that title. I like that picture. They probably deserve a post that's more than, essentially, a link, but for now that's what I've got.

Like Clint Eastwood, I often find myself in imaginary conversations though - the state of the American politics being rather depressing - they more often revolve around the cinema than the presidency. Sometimes, however, that topic can be equally downbeat. I think we are living in a golden age of cinephilia, but a dark age of mass movie appreciation.

Jason Bellamy addressed this subject recently, from a somewhat different angle, in a widely-circulated piece on the recent Sight & Sound Top 10 poll. It has 43 comments at present, including 10 from me. The last five of mine, in particular, are what led me to write this post on the dead of a Saturday morning. Besides, I'm tired of looking at The Big Chill post atop the page (while I'm happy with some of the insights, it was a bit of a chore to write and I fear it may be a bit of a chore to read), and I don't want to put up my periodic placeholder post (in this case an end-of-summer incantation to, as ever, explore my blog via colorful directory pages) until after Labor Day weekend. Plus, I spent all yesterday compiling a quixotic reorganization of my Cinema of Pictures post which I ultimately deleted, so I want to put something up.

So, for now, I encourage you to reflect on the topic of whether and how cinephiles have "failed" cinema, and to read what Jason and his readers have to say on the subject. The aforementioned quintuplet of comments I left began when I woke up this morning, and after an hour of hammering away on my iPhone I wisely moved to my roommate's computer and (relatively) quickly finished my thoughts. They had to be split into several different comments, which should indicate how much this whole discussion triggered thoughts that had been circulating in my mind for a while. Well, it beats ranting at a chair.

Without further ado:


And because it seemed like a good idea, I've reprinted my entire comment after the jump. Typos and all.



Joel Bocko said...
Ok, I see what you are saying about film recognition. Does the casual movie buff at least KNOW OF these films. On that test I'd say the very, very casual buff - say, the average younger moviegoer (say 40/45 or under) who would say, yeah I like movies (rather than just shrug) has only heard of Citizen Kane and 2001, and maybe Vertigo. MAYBE Searchers and MAYBE maybe 8 1/2. Of these films they've probably only seen 2001 (and chances are maybe 50/50 they liked it).

For more discerning buffs, or slightly older filmgoers raised in a more film-conscious time (or when some of these classics were relatively now, or for those with a budding interest in classics, I'd bet on recognition for all the American films, plus 8 1/2 and at least a passing familiarity with the existence of Passion of Joan of Arc. Maybe if they have read a book or two touching on film history, they recall references to Rules of the Game and possibly Tomyo Story - and it's just feasible they know of Sunrise as the first Best Picture winner (although I remember the first Oscar books I read making it sound like the Wings prize was the top award). That leaves Man with the Movie Camera as the biggest outlier but since it's only just shot up on the list (and thus in critical consciousness) give it time; before long it will probably start appearing in more references and on more lists (which, like it or not, is actually one of the main ways exposure occurs).

When you get to someone who has a strong interest in classic movies, I'd be surprised if they aren't readily familiar with all of these titles, except perhaps Movie Camera, and most likely they've seen all of the American ones, and a good chunk of the foreign titles (they could at least tell you what country, era, and probably director they come from).

Now, of course, the real question becomes, what to do about this knowledge/exposure or lack thereof? And that's where it gets tricky. Hold on a sec, I think I'm going to need a new comment to finish this thought!
Joel Bocko said...
(continued)

And frankly, I'm not sure that it's fair to accuse cinephiles of 'failing' cinema. To the extent they are, it's due to circumstances that would have made past cinephiles fail as well.

When it comes to other 'hot' interests - food is the perfect example of a cultural concern barely on the radar 15 years ago but now widely embraced and follows, with best sellers written about it, countless show and even channels devote to it, and even hit films like Julie & Julia made about it - public interest doesn't have to be stirred up, just cultivated and maintained, and experts in the field are greeted with respect and awe. Though I don't have stats in hand, I'd guess increasing numbers of people are going into the field, either as chefs or writers/critics or whatever. In all aspects it's a growing field.

Something like music is a steady field. There hasn't been a lot of development on the contemporary front in the past decade (or 2 really, since the death of Cobain and the co-option of hip hop, what vital figures have emerged to widespread recognition?). However, the technological explosion has fostered a compensatory appreciation for the past; it isn't at all uncommon to hear a kid today cite the Beatles or Doors as their favorite band, groups that (believe it or not) their grandparents would have listened to at their age. Popular music, at least from the rock era on, has a certain timelessness to it.

Film has also seen a technological explosion, and the digital revolution has also improved the availability and condition of classics. Yet there isn't remotely the same appreciation for the past. 'Old' movies are discussed in ways no one would discuss 'old' music. I've known people who would gladly listen to esoteric music, and read highbrow books, who scoff at the notion of 'arty' films and throatily proclaim their affinity for superhero movies above all else. At a time when Netflix has made classic cinema available at ones doorstep, the taste for it has evaporated for all except the initiated. A few films break through this ghetto - Godfather most notably, and 80s+ cinema enjoys the kind of continuing currency granted 60s+ rock music. But casual movie fans are far more likely than casual music fans to dismiss older icons as 'dated', to grow restless with the aesthetic of 'serious' attempts at art, and to instinctively define the whole enterprise as one of gut reaction rather than more sensitive appreciation (the 'it's awesome' syndrome Brody somewhat unfairly assigned to your argument).

Consequently, this attitude ossifies the approach new movies take, as they fall increasingly out of line with past traditions and gravitate toward new media for inspiration and validation. It also discourages people from seeing movies as an exciting (vs. merely glamorous) field, and something they could actually do themselves (the DIY aspect is a big part of food's and music's appeal). Less enthusiasm in turn creates less opportunities (a winnowing field might briedly improve the odds but eventually gatekeepers will rightly assume there isn't much to be mined and close up shop). This has pretty dire consequences for the state of the art. Outside of the marginalia of mumble core and neo-neorealism can you name any young directors? I can't. Ours is the first generation this has happened to in decades.

Was the attitude conditioned to create the current marketplace? Is the marketplace a response to 'naturally' arising cultural conditions? Which came first, the chicken or the egg? All I can say for certain is that the cultural conditioning and the seemingly natural inclinations (or disinclinations) are mutually reinforcing. For whatever reason, our zeitgeist does not favor the art of cinema.

So with that in mind, what's a poor boy to do in sleepy cinephile town? Oh, I'm not done yet... ;)
Joel Bocko said...
(continued)

Ugh, my iPhone accidentally signed me off while I was composing an epic Part 3. I've switched to my roommate's computer; maybe it's a good thing and I can try to economize my point a little bit!

Ok then...I would submit that rarely has widespread appreciation of classic cinema been fostered directly by film criticism. Usually it's through pop osmosis or word-of-mouth - more people will hear of Citizen Kane through a Simpsons reference or via a friend's video collection than because the New York Times ran a piece on it.

Individually, talking about Man with a Movie Camera or Passion of Joan of Arc on blogs directed at primarily the third, and nominally the second type of movie buff I mentioned won't make much of a dent in the larger conversation. If we each focus on ways to reach larger audiences, I think collectively the conversation can turn a little bit, although for the dam to really burst larger conditions - which we have little control over - will have to change. In the mean time...

The most important issue, I think, is connectivity. Connecting classic cinema to contemporary (particularly mainstream) cinema. Connecting content to readers in forms they will find appealing. Connecting movies to the larger cultural conditions, and connecting enthusiastic cinephiles directly with the casually curious.

Forgive me if I talk aloud to myself here; no doubt others have grappled with these issues more extensively than myself, but hopefully my musing can be somewhat illuminating or helpful.

First up, connecting the classics and the contemporary. I know that personally I came to Godard after dabbling in foreign cinema, which I approached after beginning to explore Hollywood classics, which I turned to when I saw their connection to the blockbusters of my youth I enjoyed. There was a direct connection between watching Indiana Jones movies on VHS with my father and sister in first grade and sitting down in a Queens theater for two 7-hour shifts to watch Rivette's Out 1 a year after I graduated college. It's what I speak of above - in noting how all films contain elements of the cerebral and the visceral - and as evangelical cinephiles it's our job to establish the fact that "everything is cinema."

I think a lot of people who might otherwise be curious about more esoteric fare, are turned away when advocates of that fare sneer at popcorn spectacles. The curious think to themselves, "Oh, well I guess their love for movies is of a different (and, it would appear, more ossified, less enjoyable) nature than mine, and therefore I'm not really interested."

Of course linking up contemporary blockbusters with past classics can be difficult; CGI, shorter attention spans, the influence of video games and comic books, and the penchant for griming up entertainment with faux-"realistic" grittiness have all made mainstream aesthetics seem further distanced than ever from past styles, in a way Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark (however up-to-date) did not.

But in a way, that sensibility - which I certainly share - just proves that I'm one of those people I'm complaining about. Whatever its drawbacks, there's obviously something in those films that appeals to large groups of people. As someone who would like to see those same people at least curious about classic movies, it would behoove me to find out what that is and tap into it, showing them how the older films share these qualities too. After all, it worked for me.
Joel Bocko said...
(continued)

Then there's the matter of HOW we present this material to them. This question has probably haunted me more than any other in the 4 years I've been blogging. Partly by accident, because it's just how a scatterbrain like me is naturally inclined, I discovered the virtue of diversity, cataloging, and a visual approach. Some people like to read long essays. Others want a short capsule. Still more are primarily visual, impatient with dancing about architecture but eager to see for themselves what a film looks or feels like, via images or clips. And yet more want the content to be as creative as what's discussed - seeking new ways of combining words, images, videos, quotations. People want an experience as much as the information.

Presentation is very important too, but I've found this to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, as I've more heavily designed my own site it seems to have drawn visitors from outside the somewhat incestuous blogosphere - most of my hits are via Google image searches, and while the vast majority must be casual drive-bys, some obviously stick around and (helped by extensive and highlighted directories) even leave a comment on an older piece. On the other hand, in the fast-paced mobile age of Twitter, Tumblr, and iPhone, content has to be malleable. When I finally got an iPhone recently, I discovered how little my site lends itself to a mobile platform. I haven't figured out yet how to balance between these two qualities and am not sure I can. Ultimately, because of my own taste, I will probably chose presentation over malleability but it will cost me and if I really want to evangelize I'll have to find a way to compensate.

The third connection, connecting the film world to other interests and topics, is frankly something I haven't figured out how to do yet, although it may be the most important key. One thing that frustrates me about movie-blogging, or any blogging really, is the feeling of preaching to the choir. That isn't really true; the cinema revival tent is a fairly unruly cavalcade with lots of opportunities to debate, expose, and excite. But still I yearn to reach the unconverted...

In a way (and apologies for the increasingly personal nature of these reflections) I am not well-equipped to serve this evangelical role. I have (as these comments more than evince) a tendency to ramble on and overanalyze, qualities which most readers don't especially seek, especially in casual perusals of the blogosphere. There's still a place for it, but I need to balance it with pithier (yet still piquant) pieces. Just as a reader surfing for a cool image of Roger Rabbit might stick around to read my review, so the casual cinephile drawn in by a capsule on, say, The Big Lebowski, might be willing to dive deeper for a marathon piece on Lawrence of Arabia.

Of course that's only part of the problem - the bigger issue is reaching outside the already-baptized initiates who are usually the people to stumble upon movie blogs in the first place. Again, I really don't have an answer for this I just know it's a problem, and suspect there's a solution. In the past, TV shows and newspaper articles on film could lure in the viewer or reader who came to the channel or opened the paper for something else. But the internet is probably too big for that kind of bait-and-wait approach; it lends itself too readily for niche-ification. Increasingly, we're a society of individual interests which I fear won't cross-pollinate enough. I dunno, maybe someone has a book on this subject they could recommend. I'm stumped!
Joel Bocko said...
(continued; final section, I promise!)

I do suspect that people are more likely to check out a new movie than randomly read about one they've seen (speaking of very casual moviegoers here). In that sense, having original content on a blog otherwise devoted to celebration of other films could lead readers down the rabbit hole. In this sense, filmmaking and film analysis could serve as dual engines, powering one another: with the initial analysis reeling in the already cine-enthusiastic, who will then spread the word when the original material appears, thus leading curious web-surfters to the site, and leading in the long-run to their exploring what the filmmaker thinks of other films. It's certainly an approach I've considered and ultimately hope to pursue in one form or another.

Finally, there's the matter of direct connection between cinephiles and the casually curious. Face-to-face encounters are still the most effective way to sell anything; you'll get a higher volume the more indirect your approach, but with a much lower success rate. Even in this virtual age, the best bet for actually flipping someone into a film enthusiast is to discuss with them, person-to-person, your excitement about the medium, let them feel it and respond to it, and giving them opportunities to see what makes you tick.

This needn't be limited to friends & family (who, truth be told, are probably the least likely to respond to your exhortations) - one idea I had recently was to set up a free discussion group week to week, if I could find the space. The online listing/advertisement would be geared towards those who are not dyed-in-the-wool cinephiles but merely curious about the medium. The hook would be a video series I created last year, with 8-minute chapters each containing about a dozen 30-40 second clips from DVDs I own. The streaming quality is hit-and-miss but I also have discs with the same content - I thought it would be interesting to screen a chapter at the end of each session, and then take a vote on what people wanted to see next time, based on the sample taste they'd gotten it. Obviously this same approach could be taken using pictures, or even simply describing the different films but I think the element of choice (within parameters) could be a key attraction for this type of film.

It's just an idea, and something I haven't even begun to explore yet, but I'm sure there are thousands of such ideas out there; all that needs to be done is to put them in place.

Ultimately then, Jason, while we may be on the same page in many regards I think my emphasis is a bit different than yours. Yes, naturally advocating or evangelizing for cinema is important but I think what may be even more important is a very conscious, planned approach to change the way movies are viewed and discussed in this country. I don't know that we can do more than chip away at the problem, but sometimes one little chip can expose a serious gusher. Let's hope so because we need it; it's been a remarkably dry season.

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