Lost in the Movies: April 2009

What Do Critics Dream About?

by Francois Truffaut (from the introduction to The Films of My Life, published 1975):

One day in 1942, I was so anxious to see Marcel Carne's Les Visiteurs du Soir, which at last had arrived at my neighborhood theater, the Pigalle, that I decided to skip school. I liked it a lot. But that same evening, my aunt, who was studying violin at the Conservatory, came by to take me to a movie; she had picked Les Visiteurs du Soir. Since I didn't dare admit that I had already seen it, I had to go and pretend that I was seeing it for the first time. That was the first time I realized how fascinating it can be to probe deeper and deeper into a work one admires, that the exercise can go so far as to create the illusion of reliving the creation.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Lawyers and critics worth their salt must share a morbid fear of getting it wrong. The greatest of them plunge forward anyhow, recklessly risking ruin for the sake of their duty. Without too close a comparison to the prosecutor who has imprisoned an innocent man or the defense attorney who has acquitted a murderer, we can surmise that the critic lifts pen to paper or finger to keyboard with a biting sense of agony: did I miss the point? If the critic does get it wrong, after all, it isn't a client or victim who will suffer, but the critic himself. Or herself.

Case in point: 1962, when Mr. and Mrs. Critic, the estimable and ever-feuding Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, agreed on the demerits of Lawrence of Arabia. What looks today to be the great masterpiece of the year (if not of cinema history) was rather rudely dismissed by Kael as a spectacle with a zero at its centre. Sarris, who went further, looks even more foolish in ever-wise hindsight. Among other bon mots, in escalation of sheer missing-the-point: "dull, overlong, and coldly impersonal"; "In my cultural adolescence I associated the name Lawrence with the initials D.H. rather than T.E."; and "Perhaps I am just plain tired of all these 'serious' moral films with no women in the cast." Sarris, in failing to be moved or even awed by Lawrence of Arabia while dismissing it as yet another shallow big-budget historical epic, shows himself to be missing the movie for the ad campaign.

And yet, as decades of nobly defeated lawyers (at least of the dramatic/cinematic breed) could tell you, there can be a certain honor in miscalculation. A few months after penning his irritated pan of Lawrence, Sarris authored a far more thoughtful - and far more devastating - dismissal of To Kill a Mockingbird, now as then a beloved adaptation of a cherished classic of children's literature. While the film's reputation seems indestructible today, and often for very good reasons, Sarris' arrows more often than not hit their mark. If he's too harsh on the film stylistically ("Before the intellectual confusion of the project is considered, it should be noted that this is not much of a movie even by purely formal standards"), disallowing the quiet poetry of the movie because it is occasionally forced, his observations on the movie's intellectual confusion are withering.

Among others: "I daresay the Maycomb courtroom is still segregated thirty years [later], and so much for Miss Lee's cleverly masked argument for gradualism." "When the Negro is shot (off screen) for attempting to escape, Peck is so upset that, by some inverted logic understood only by liberal southerners, he deplores the Negro's unwarranted impetuosity." "This is a heartwarming resolution of the novel and the film. Yet somehow the moral arithmetic fails to come out even. One innocent Negro and one murderous red-neck hardly cancel each other out." And finally: "It is too early to tell [if the Negro and red-neck are brothers under the skin], but it is too late for the Negro to act as moral litmus paper for the white conscience. The Negro is not a mockingbird."

When I say that Sarris is "wrong" here, it is admittedly in part an ironic assessment - a juxtaposition of his view with what has become the canonical one (at least among middlebrow audiences, but also tacitly by intellectuals, who do not seem to view Mockingbird's reputation with much resentment.) But I do like Mockingbird more than he does, think it is a worthier film than he appreciates (not only stylistically), and ultimately, feel that the film may be more ambiguous than he perceives. Nonetheless, or perhaps therefore, Sarris' criticism is a good place to start looking at the movie.

Just because you are a character, doesn't mean you have character...

Foolishly, I set out to tackle the 10 Characters meme, started by Squish (I was tagged by Jason Bellamy); only recently have I managed to narrow it down to forty. And even that's sort of a cheat, but you'll have to wait until the end of my list to find out why. In four parts, over nine categories, I revel in the great characters of film history. This list is full of my own prejudices. Hardly any of these people are folks you'd want to invite over for dinner. All but five are men (indeed, there are more non-humans than women), and many of my choices may seem rather arbitrary (especially given all the truly legendary, iconic characters who aren't on the list). I could easily justify a completely different list (well, some names would simply have to remain), but for now, this will suffice. Or, as someone once said to a character I almost included (before my non-human quota ran over): "That'll do, pig..."

Godard/Nixon or, Why I Must See This Movie

From Everything is Cinema, Richard Brody's biography of Jean-Luc Godard, which I'm currently reading:
"As the film [King Lear] inched forward, Godard thought of recruiting Richard Nixon for a '"distancing operation," a sequence of about twenty minutes during which Nixon and [Norman] Mailer would discuss "power and the loss of power".' Godard offered Nixon $500,000 for one day of shooting. Not surprisingly, Nixon did not respond."
Oh, how I wish he had.

But there's more:

A New Direction

I am changing my approach to The Dancing Image. This mostly means a behind-the-scenes reconfiguration on my part, but what will be its physical manifestations? In other words, how does this affect you, dear reader? Let me delineate:

1. Less is more
Quantity will drop, quality will rise. I will post maybe once a week, maybe more if the spirit moves me, maybe less. But only on a topic that excites me (no more self-imposed commitments; see below), and even when it's a lightning flash rather than a cultivated essay I will revise and improve as need be.

2. No commitments
I am dropping the idea of full-length posts on every film in the following Netflix queues: the Chronological Canon (that's where all the silent films have been coming from), Best of the 21st Century (which at any rate has been abandoned since August), and even The Director's Chair/Auteurs series. In their place, I will offer up capsule reviews of 25 films at a time for the first two queues, and, in the case of The Director's Chair, an analysis and reaction to a director's career once I've watched all of his movies.

3. Termites over elephants
I want to sacrifice comprehensiveness for intensity. Though this may seem to contradict my promise of more worked-over, thought-out essays, it doesn't - after all, Farber's termites connotated an extreme focus on detail over "balance." I will probably start attacking more movies from a certain point, focusing on a given aspect rather than trying to capture the whole. A little more of my old IMDB spirit, where I could be more succinct, pointed, and assertive given the lack of formal restrictions.

4. Whither greatness?
Exploring mostly new movies (new to me), I have not dealt with many masterpieces on The Dancing Image. Nor have I tackled films I feel passionately about. Both shortcomings will be rectified in my upcoming series on Favorite Great Movies - not guilty pleasures, nor Art That Must Be Studied - classics (or should-be classics) which I also happen to love. It may be 120, or 150, and it may take years to get through, because I won't write on a given movie until I can ensure it's the best writing possible. Sometimes I'll crawl inside the picture, at others stand outside and marvel at its formal beauty; I may riff on associations or deal explicitly with what's onscreen - the approach will depend on the movie and my own mood. Even within this goal, no artificial constraints. Except one: I'll unwind the epic list in chronological order...albeit without necessarily knowing what the next film will be. This series will essentially be the central function of The Dancing Image from now on.

5. It's the pictures, stupid.
I don't intend to compete with Jeremy Richey's visual panache (who could?) but since the early days, I've tried to crown my prose with an unusual and appealing still. Till now, this has been limited by what I can Google. But now I promise to offer up hand-picked frames from the movies in question (unless they are unavailable on DVD). The focus will still be on the word, but hell, it's a movie blog, right? I ought to give you something fresh to look at...

While blogging recedes as a personal priority, and as I attempt to move forward in my understanding, appreciation of, and involvement with cinema, this seems to me the best way to reconcile my own responsibilities and desires with my readers’ enjoyment. The Dancing Image will only get better from here on...that's my one last promise.

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