Lost in the Movies: Who's Killing Cinema - and Who Cares?

Who's Killing Cinema - and Who Cares?

I've just finished one of the best essays on film I've ever read. It's called "Has Hollywood Murdered the Movies?" and it's by David Denby in The New Republic. Denby's essay is about the effect that over-digitalization and informal formalism have on movies: how the narrative art has been pruned to the point of poisoning the tree, how a concern with fleeting impression over deep-seated effect has destroyed the relationship between the spectator and the spectacle. In six pages, Denby effectively conveys things I've been feeling and saying for years. I don't necessarily agree with all of Denby's examples (some of the films he sees as exceptional I think are endemic, and vice-versa) but his overall point seems irrefutable. Movies are no longer made, marketed, or (especially) received the way they used to be, not in an evolutionary sense (these goalposts are always shifting) but fundamentally. This passage in particular had me shouting "Yes!" aloud as if I was watching the Patriots score a touchdown:

"The glory of modernism was that it yoked together candor and spiritual yearning with radical experiments in form. But in making such changes, filmmakers were hardly abandoning the audience. Reassurance may have ended, but emotion did not. The many alterations in the old stable syntax still honored the contract with us. The ignorant, suffering, morally vacant Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull was as great a protagonist as Julie Marsden. The morose Nashville was as trenchant a group portrait and national snapshot as the hopeful Stagecoach. However elliptical or harsh or astringent, emotion in modernist movies was a strong presence, not an absence." (emphasis added)

What an elegant and perceptive way of contrasting the formal revolution of the fifties, sixties, and seventies with that of today. Elsewhere, at times, Denby falls into the trap against which he cautions in his opening: "Nostalgia is history altered through sentiment. What’s necessary for survival is not nostalgia, but defiance." Denby is a brilliant diagnoser but suggesting viable solutions is not so much his strong suit, whatever his best wishes. That's okay; we need more defiant voices right now, more people who, as Denby puts it, "are made crazy by the way the business structure of movies is now constricting the art of movies." What's so astonishing is that so few people seem to be concerned about this; as Denby says later:

"These observations annoy many people, including some of the smartest people I know, particularly men in their late forties and younger, who have grown up with pop culture dominated by the conglomerates and don’t know anything else. They don’t disagree, exactly, but they find all of this tiresome and beside the point. They accept the movies as a kind of environment, a constant stream. There are just movies, you see, movies always and forever, and of course many of them will be uninspiring, and always have been. Critics, chalking the score on the blackboard, think of large-scale American movie-making as a system in which a few talented people, in order to make something good, struggle against discouragement or seduction; but for my young media-hip friends, this view is pure melodrama. They see the movies not as a moral and aesthetic battleground, but as a media game that can be played either shrewdly or stupidly. There is no serious difference for them between making a piece of clanging, overwrought, mock-nihilistic digital roughhouse for $200 million and a personal independent film for $2 million. They are not looking for art, and they do not want to be associated with commercial failure; it irritates them in some way; it makes them feel like losers. If I say that the huge budgets and profits are mucking up movie aesthetics, changing the audience, burning away other movies, they look at me with a slight smile and say something like this: “There’s a market for this stuff. People are going. Their needs are being satisfied. If they didn’t like these movies, they wouldn’t go.”"
Denby argues, on the contrary, that "The audience goes because the movies are there, not because anyone necessarily loves them." I tend to agree, and agree as well that to the extent audiences, at least younger audiences, do seek out this form of entertainment, it's more a matter of conditioning than inherent predilection. Lately I've had conversations with people only eight or ten years younger than me, but there's already a sensible generation gap in the way they view movies: when I argued for originality, for a cinema that created new characters and stories and experiences instead of endlessly rehashing the same material they seemed perplexed - they went to movies precisely to see the familiar "rebooted" with new technology but the same old connections. The sense of adventure, at least beyond the adventure of ever-slicker fantasy worlds, has gone out of cinema, and with it, I think, a sense of emotional investment, a feeling that movies were somehow important and exciting.

Did everyone feel differently in the past? Probably not. And yet sixty years ago, even thirty or forty years ago - hell, I'd argue even ten years ago - movies were a bigger part of the national psyche, part of the way we engaged with the world around us whether (as Denby has it) we were younger kids being dragged to "adult" movies, half-understanding what we were seeing and intrigued by what we didn't understand, or adults who had to see the latest topic of conversation so we'd know what to talk about at the party. Movies were important. Important no matter what type of person you were, or where in society you came from, and the more obscure films basked in the reflected glory of the more iconic examples: thus even the most challenging avant-garde experiments felt like brothers under the skin to the blockbuster titans. Everything was cinema.

I've written about this before, from a more personal angle (exactly a year ago, in an essay called "The Big Picture") and I've also alluded to many of these arguments - the way digital cinema has thrown the relationship between illusion and reality out of whack, the decline of movies as they are colonized by younger art forms (comics and video games), the possibility that audiences - in an age of increasing interaction (with media) and atomization (from one another) are losing their orientation toward cinema and engaging more with more long-form, episodic, open-ended formats like a TV series. Denby doesn't touch on all these points in his essay; it's a frustrated cri de coeur but sometimes I feel like he might be missing some connections. It would probably take a full-length book or at least a much longer essay to really nail the how and especially the why of cinematic decline.

Most of all, Denby doesn't really seem sure where to go from this crisis. At essay's end, after pinpointing numerous causes and outcomes of "a new and awful way to put a picture together", he has only this to offer as a shred of hope:

"So are American movies finished, a cultural irrelevance? Despite almost everything, I don’t think the game is up, not by any means. There are talented directors who manage to keep working either within the system or just on the edges of it. Some of the independent films that have succeeded, against the odds, in gaining funding and at least minimal traction in the theaters, are obvious signs of hope. Terence Malick is alive and working hard. Digital is still in its infancy, and if it moves into the hands of people who have a more imaginative and delicate sense of spectacle, it could bloom in any one of a dozen ways. The micro-budget movies now made on the streets or in living rooms might also take off if they give up on sub-Cassavetes ideas of improvisation, and accept the necessity of a script. There is enough talent sloshing around in the troubled vessel of American movies to keep the art form alive." 
This is rather thin gruel after working up our appetite, but at the risk of sounding ageist part of the issue might just be that Denby is in his fifties or sixties. His proposals are essentially returns to a past, yet he himself, in one of the essay's most provocative and essential passages, notes that past forms were not inevitable but in large part accidental; that the train has not derailed from its one truth path but taken another route, one it could have taken from the get-go but for historical and cultural circumstances of the early twentieth century:
"A long time ago, at a university far away, I taught film, and I did what many teachers have no doubt done before and since: I tried to develop film aesthetics for the students as a historical progression toward narrative. ...  But I now think there was something merely convenient in teaching that way. The implication of my lesson plan was that the medium had by degrees come to a realization of itself, discovering in those early years—say, 1895 to 1915—its own true nature embedded within its technology: the leafy oak of narrative lodged within the acorn of celluloid. It is a teleological view, and it is probably false. In truth, there is nothing inherent in the process of exposing strips of film to light sixteen or eighteen times a second (later twenty-four times) that demanded the telling of a story. ... It is likely ... that narrative emerged less from the inherent nature of film than from the influence of older forms—novels and short stories and plays. ...  If creating fictions is not encoded in the DNA of film, then what is happening now has a kind of grisly logic to it."
With this in mind, I doubt what will "keep the art form alive" is a strengthening of the weak elements that right now preserve the flickering flame. I think those embers are dying and fanning the ashes will not ignite a new conflagration; what is needed now is an entirely new spark. This will, unfortunately, entail a sharp turn from the dying elements which added so much to the meaning and romance of film in its early years: the communal experience, the texture of celluloid. The new cinema will be broadcast through the internet and viewed on computer screens; it will be fashioned with cheaper and more flexible tools, less prohibitive in cost, less restrictive in ability. Many movie-lovers want to revive the lush and glamorous means used to weave a spell. But these means have always been in the hands of those with money and power, the gatekeepers to the system, and they will not relinquish their money or power any time soon. Creators and critics need to get it into their heads that the essence of cinema, its soul so to speak, lies not in the trappings of Hollywood but in what is conveyed amongst those trappings, or what was once conveyed.

Since the Hollywood gatekeepers will never let us in, better to fashion our own world outside the gates, just as those within (or their ancestors) did once upon a time. If you can bring down costs, simplifying the input, you can multiply the output. The film industry essentially arose from scratch. Why not repeat the experiment, and delight in the fresh and unexpected results?

Movie content is a story that grips you, a character you care about, but also a throwaway gesture that delights you, a fleeting expression on a face that moves you, a color or location or change of light or piece of scenery you find thrilling for some unexplainable reason. Movie style is how a shot contains its elements, how editing creates the exquisite ecstasy of frisson, how the actors' or camera's movement opens up a new world with each footstep or turn of the dolly wheel. Celluloid was sensitive and added many qualities of its own while the experience of viewing with a big audience amplified and extended the experience; no doubt we are losing something as these qualities disappear, but in lightening its load cinema will also become more fleet-footed, more flexible in its ability to reach viewers and reflect new aspects of their reality - and their imagination.

Perhaps because I am young enough (twenty-eight, and disillusioned with contemporary cinematic trends for about half my lifetime) I can understand this better than someone in his sixties or seventies. Then again, on the same day, on the same website, David Thomson, no spring chicken, published a companion piece that points in the right direction. At first, more than halfway through his essay, "American Movies are Not Dead, They're Dying" I thought Thomson was merely indulging in his recent penchant for dismissing both the cinema and the cinephiles who adore it with a reckless passion he once shared: "older cinephiles stay at home nursing their Criterion securities. They have never had it so good, or so misleading. ... don’t worry: new movies will be released on any Pad you have, streaming, screaming, and available for interruptions of all sorts."

However, as it turns out the operative description in his dismissal is "older," not "cinephile." Thomson goes onto praise the inclusion of The Man with the Movie Camera in the recent Sight & Sound top 10, an inclusion he attributes to the younger viewers. Observing that "Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film is the single work in the new top ten that seems to understand that nervy mixture of interruption and unexpected association," Thomson goes on to praise viral mashups recontextualizing Lindsay Lohan and Scarface. Ultimately he is observing a similar phenomenon to Denby - a cinema stripped of the need for (conventional) narrative and returning to its frenetic pioneer roots; only Thomson detects the silver lining. This suggests that perhaps the problem with the new mainstream cinema may not be the new ingredients but the old - not that contemporary blockbusters are fragmented, unmoored, and driven more by speed than gravity, but that they are all this while still clinging to old cliches. The worst of both worlds, so to speak: narrative accouterments without the soul of emotional involvement, formal fireworks without the full freedom Vertov's experiments allowed. Ultimately Thomson fudges on his enthusiasm for the young, and ends on a pessimistic note but his uncertain hopefulness is more significant. He can't see how the jokey You Tube videos might evolve into something more ambitious and rewarding, but I can.

For older viewers, the decline of emotional involvement and the ascent of video (both in the recording and viewing sense) are inextricably tied. But when I fell in love with movies, I could move with ease between the home living room and the neighborhood multiplex; I was equally fascinated by the Hi-8 images recorded in my father's home movies and the 35mm prints projected on a large screen in a dark room. That's how I know digital technology and home viewing are new developments in cinema, rather than its end. Likewise I intuit that as narrative continues to develop (and as films continue to explore avenues that are not primarily, essentially, or even minimally, narrative) the movies can still retain, indeed strengthen and evolve, an emotional relationship to the audience.

Just as the past glory and the present misery of the movies were not inevitable, neither is the future. We must make it ourselves.


Here are some more great passages from Denby's essay, to whet your appetite until you're convinced to read the whole thing:

"When I speak of moviegoers, I mean people who get out of the house and into a theater as often as they can; or people with kids, who back up rare trips to the movies with lots of recent DVDs and films ordered on demand. I do not mean the cinephiles, the solitary and obsessed, who have given up on movie houses and on movies as our national theater (as Pauline Kael called it) and plant themselves at home in front of flat screens and computers, where they look at old films or small new films from the four corners of the globe, blogging and exchanging disks with their friends. They are extraordinary, some of them, and their blogs and websites generate an exfoliating mass of knowledge and opinion, a thickening density of inquiries and claims, outraged and dulcet tweets. Yet it is unlikely that they can do much to build a theatrical audience for the movies they love." 

"The Iron Man movies have been shaped around the temperament of their self-deprecating star, Robert Downey, Jr., an actor who manages to convey, in the midst of a $200-million super-production, a private sense of amusement. By slightly distancing himself from the material, this charming rake offers the grown-up audience a sense of complicity, which saves it from self-contempt. Like so many big digital movies, the Iron Man films engage in a daringly flirtatious give-and-take with their own inconsequence: the disproportion between the size of the productions, with their huge sets and digital battles, and the puniness of any meaning that can possibly be extracted from them, may, for the audience, be part of the frivolous pleasure of seeing them."

"Many big films (not just the ones based on Marvel Comics) are now soaked in what can only be called corporate irony, a mad discrepancy between size and significance.
Most of the great directors of the past—Griffith, Chaplin, Murnau, Renoir, Lang, Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, Welles, Rossellini, De Sica, Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, Bergman, the young Coppola, Scorsese, and Altman, and many others—did not imagine that they were making films for a tiny audience, and they did not imagine they were making “art” movies, even though they worked with a high degree of conscious artistry. (The truculent John Ford would have glared at you with his unpatched eye if you used the word “art” in his presence.) They thought that they were making films for everyone, or at least everyone with spirit, which is a lot of people. But over the past twenty-five years, if you step back and look at the American movie scene, you see the mass-culture juggernauts, increasingly triumphs of heavy-duty digital craft, tempered by self-mockery and filling up every available corner of public space; and the tiny, morally inquiring “relationship” movies, making their modest way to a limited audience. The ironic cinema, and the earnest cinema; the mall cinema, and the art house cinema."

"The intentional shift in large-scale movie production away from adults is a sad betrayal and a minor catastrophe. Among other things, it has killed a lot of the culture of the movies. By culture, I do not mean film festivals, film magazines, and cinephile Internet sites and bloggers, all of which are flourishing. I mean that blessedly saturated mental state of moviegoing, both solitary and social, half dreamy, half critical, maybe amused, but also sometimes awed, that fuels a living art form. Moviegoing is both a private and a sociable affair—a strangers-at-barbecues, cocktail-party affair, the common coin of everyday discourse. In the fall season there may be a number of good things to see, and so, for adult audiences, the habit may flicker to life again. If you have seen one of the five interesting movies currently playing, then you need to see the other four so you can join the dinner-party conversation. If there is only one, as there is most of the year, you may skip it without feeling you are missing much."

"Constant and incoherent movement; rushed editing strategies; feeble characterization; pastiche and hapless collage—these are the elements of conglomerate aesthetics. There is something more than lousy film-making in such a collection of attention-getting swindles.
Again and again I have the sense that film-makers are purposely trying to distance the audience from the material—to prevent moviegoers from feeling anything but sensory excitement, to thwart any kind of significance in the movie." 

"People who know how these movies are made told me that the film-makers could not have held those shots any longer, because audiences would have noticed that they were digital fakes. That point (if true) should tell you that something is seriously wrong. If you cannot sustain shots at the dramatic crux of your movie, why make violent spectacle at all? It turns out that fake-looking digital film-making can actually disable spectacle when it is supposed to be set in the real world. Increasingly, the solution has been to create more and more digitized cities, houses, castles, planets. Big films have lost touch with the photographed physical reality that provided so much greater enchantment than fantasy. 
In the scriptorium, an unspoken vow was repeated daily: audiences need to get emotionally involved in a story in order to enjoy themselves. The idea is so obvious that it seems absurd to spell it out. Yet in recent years this assumption, and everything that follows from it, have begun to weaken and even to disappear."

"It is shocking to be reminded of some of the things that are now slipping away: that whatever is introduced in a tale has to mean something, and that one thing should inevitably lead to another; that events are foreshadowed and then echoed, and that tension rises steadily through a series of minor climaxes to a final, grand climax; that music should be created not just as an enforcer of mood but as the outward sign of an emotional or narrative logic; that characterization should be consistent; that a character’s destiny is supposed to have some moral and spiritual meaning—the wicked punished, the virtuous rewarded or at least sanctified. It was a fictional world of total accountability.
Space could be analyzed and broken into close-ups and reaction shots and the like, but then it had to be re-unified in a way that brought the experience together in a viewer’s head—so that, in Jezebel, one felt physically what Bette Davis suffered as scandalized couples backed away from her in the ballroom. If the audience didn’t experience that emotion, the movie wouldn’t have cast its spell."

"This seems like plain common sense. Who could possibly argue with it? Yet spatial integrity is just about gone from big movies. What Wyler and his editors did—matching body movement from one shot to the next—is rarely attempted now. Hardly anyone thinks it important. The most common method of editing in big movies now is to lay one furiously active shot on top of another, and often with only a general relation in space or body movement between the two. The continuous whirl of movement distracts us from noticing the uncertain or slovenly fit between shots. The camera moves, the actors move: in Moulin Rouge, the camera swings wildly over masses of men in the nightclub, Nicole Kidman flings herself around her boudoir like a rag doll. The digital fight at the end of The Avengers takes place in a completely artificial environment, a vacuum in which gravity has been abandoned; continuity is not even an issue. If the constant buffoonishness of action in all sorts of big movies leaves one both over-stimulated and unsatisfied—cheated without knowing why—then part of the reason is that the terrain hasn’t been sewn together. You have been deprived of that loving inner possession of the movie that causes you to play it over and over in your head."


This is a Top Post. To see other highlights of The Dancing Image, visit the other Top Posts.


Jon said...

Well lots to think about here. Are we talking just American movies? Or all movies in general? Yes there may have been a time when people were more engaged with film....but were the films better? I mean the good ones? I'm not talking the Forrest Gumps of the world...but are there really fewer great films in 2012 than there were in 1980? Or 1990? Or 2000? I think it will probably be the case that when examined...there is probably about 10 or so outstanding films from any given year...and that's proven itself out to me in my own viewing. There have been too many transcendant movie watching experiences over the last 10 years for me to say that film is dying....now if you're just talking about Hollywood I'm not so sure that Hollywood has been the place to go for great films consistently for some time.

Joel Bocko said...

Denby's focus is largely on the Hollywood model. However I think you're asking about a quantitative difference whereas Denby is interested more in a qualitative difference, as am I probably. That is to say: has something in the DNA of cinema fundamentally been altered, not so much are there fewer great movies or more bad ones (I think he'd argue there are, but that its symptomatic of his larger point).

Aside from that, on the questions you pose, I really do see a slippage in great films today - at least in America and Europe (Asia and Latin America, waxing rather than waning are another story).

Personally, I haven't had as many transcendent experiences with recent films as with films from the past. Especially when it comes to Hollywood. Also, though it isn't a point Denby delves into much, the average movie, the run of the mill film with no claims for greatness, arguably has gotten worse for many if the reasons he describes. The middle range of moviedom tends to skimp over character and emotion and the charms of captured reality, which were pleasures to be found in what Pauline Larl might have fondly called 'trash' 40 years ago. These qualities were part of what made people love 'the movies' not just the cream of the crop.

Jon said...

Of course this is nearly impossible to prove...as far as qualitatives go. Who really cares about the run of the mill film though? I don't watch those and never have. I'd rather watch something important than just kill time. There have always been and there will always be the 60-90% of films that are really doing nothing except attempt to entertain. There is a small percentage that are for people interesting in cinema as art form. I have a list of 700 of my favorite films. Actually the number of films I have listed as superior in the 2000's are more in number than the 1990s. Over the last several years...films like Blue Valentine, Tree of Life, The Deep Blue Sea, Wendy and Lucy, Synechdoche NY, Winter's Bone, The Wrestler, Drive....all American films (not necessarily Hollywood?) these are the films that give me hope. I wonder if what we're getting at is the devaluing of art form in favor of ticket sales. This might stem from Jaws/Star Wars. I suppose it could be argued that since then, Hollywood's clamouring for box office has climbed in opposition to artistic relevance.

Joel Bocko said...

It's not impossible to prove so much as difficult to demonstrate thoroughly, which is why it would take a book rather than an essay to fully elaborate on Denby's point. But the evidence is out there.

A few counterpoints to some of your observations:

1. Re: the run if the mill film; I certainly watch less of those films than I used to as well because there's so many classics yet to see. But in shifting my cinematic diet this way I know I'm losing something too. Man cannot live on caviar alone, and I think a healthy cinematic diet probably contains a balance of old and new, great and merely entertaining. Also, if one is seeking out great films which haven't been canonized yet (either due to recent vintage or just being overlooked) this will entail wading through a fair amount of non-great stuff. If this not great stuff is bad and alienating rather than junky but fun, it will have a disheartening effect on the viewer. I think the 60-90% is more demoralizing now than ever before, at least from the small but probably representative percentage I've sampled.

2. Of the specific films you mention, I haven't seen Deep Blue Sea or Winter's Bone. The others were compelling to varying degrees but other than The Wrestler and perhaps Synecdoche few reached me in terms of character and emotion, in part because style helps carry this and only two of the films you mention had distinctive styles beyond the generically artsy IMO (Tree of Life & Drive which, oddly enough, are not the two that drew me in character/story wise!). Most of these works are in the minor key (except Tree and to a certain extent synecdoche) which is fine but as Denby points out there's a whole cinematic muscle that isn't being flexed anymore quite simply because the financiers don't see the need to spend money on it (although I would argue that low budgets don't have to mean limited vision and/or focus, they usually do). In the western world at least, art films don't seem to want to think big, either in terms of style or subject. Again not everything has to, but when hardly anything does, I think that's a problem. Side note: there's certainly a pattern in your picks and I can't say I blame you - she is cute, isn't she? ;)

3. Devaluing the art form vs. ticket sales ... It's more than that though. As Denby points out (and, just in case you haven't yet, I'd recommend reading his full piece and not just the samples I've featured here) something fundamental in movie storytelling has changed to the extent that maybe you can't even call it 'storytelling' anymore. It's more a 'forest' argument than a 'tree' one and while its driven by what sells tickets, there's more going on (something I'm not sure Denby fully explains, but which I have some theories about). The irony of course with Jaws and Star Wars, kind of a side point but worth pointing out, is they'd have no place in today's blockbuster cinema. Lucas' film was a personal project which established a universe (and franchise) rather than comfortably riding the coattails of one which already existed; a big no-no on today's unimaginative Hollywood. As for Jaws ... Well, the other day I read a review of Battleship on Netflix which stated 'after a slow start (about 20 minutes of character development stuff) the film finally got going with some cool actiony scenes.' I can just see that viewer's review of the Spielberg film: about 2 hours of boring character stuff, but there's a cool explosion in the end!

Peter Lenihan said...

I haven't read the whole piece yet--I will later when I have time, and try to return here. I've never been much impressed by Denby as a critic, and nothing in the first two pages here alters my opinion all that much. I remember listening to a podcast a couple years back in which Denby and Richard Brody were discussing their favorite films of the year or decade or something. And Denby made a fundamental distinction between his work as a critic and Brody's--he pointed out that for him to grapple with a film seriously, to want to include it on his list or whatever, it had to be a film that A LOT of people had seen, that had played at multiplexes or at least a lot of screens. Brody made the point that movie-watching practices had become more compartamentalized in some sense but that one shouldn't turn their back on movies not a lot of people were watching--which I totally agree with. & frankly, I think Denby's approach, which I would argue fuels some of the ideas in this piece, are just insane.

I've been making a concerted effort to watch a lot of contemporary movies from around the world, both "run of the mill" and those designated as "great." I've seen well over 100 2012/11/10 releases this year--many of these films will receive distribution in the States, many of these won't. A lot of these films are crap, a lot of them are interesting, and a lot of them are pretty great. Obviously movies change--but I don't see your slippage of great films at all--and plenty of contemporary mainstream stuff are fascinating and sometimes great (the most obvious example here is Steven Soderbergh's extraordinary Magic Mike).

I can understand that Denby is disappointed that the megablockbusters everyone goes to see kinda suck (and they do), that "normal" (condescending term but it's Denby's idea) people feel disillusioned about contemporary cinema, but if people are looking for something new I think they'll go out and find it--and I suspect they do. What Denby seems to be bemoaning just as much, though, is that as a film critic he now has to go out and do work, he has to find all these new, interesting, beautiful movies himself rather than have them handed to him by the nearest multiplex or arthouse, and as someone who spends a lot of time doing this and doesn't get paid for it, I can't say I'm too sympathetic.

Joel Bocko said...

Peter, that is a bizarre argument on Denby's part and I have to say I've been ambivalent about him in the past; I saw him give a talk similar to this essay years ago and afterwards when I asked him about critical responsibility for a decline in standards he was evasive and snarky. That said, so many things in this piece strike me as true, and I see so few critics or movie buffs making these points, that I have to embrace it. (I also think it gets stronger as it winds toward its conclusion, though the conclusion itself is weak, so I'll be interested to hear your overall impression when you finish.)

You raise an important point in your second paragraph, and one where I am vulnerable, because I DON'T see a lot of contemporary films - in fact the last few years I've seen only a handful. However, they were often among the most praised films of the year so if we don't have a crisis of quality, I'd say we do have a crisis of criticism. I haven't seen Magic Mike, but Soderbergh is a good example for me of what gets praised but doesn't satisfy - what I've seen of Soderbergh's 00s work seems highly skilled yet somehow lacking in soul. I don't see the 'there' there though maybe that's on me as so many seem to love him. All in all I see a lot of really talented, highly skilled, and often quite individual directors and yet a lack of great movies. Which suggests to me something fundamentally wrong with the system ( and not just financially) more than the participants.

At any rate one of the reasons I don't see many new movies (aside from cost) is because I used to but as the years went by I gre more and more disappointed upon leaving the cinema. The last time I really attempted to 'catch up' was doing the 'best of the 21st century?' series a few years ago. What I discovered was that the Asian picks generally excited me but that the American and European ones more often earned a cool admiration but not the exaltation I expect from masterpieces. Even the ones that I did really like struck me as 'small' films which is absolutely fine in and of itself - as long as there are 'big' films too. But I don't see enough of those around.

Which brings me to one of Denby's most important points, perhaps where I agree with him most and maybe where you and I differ. I don't endorse his notion of popularity or accessibility (or ambition?) as qualifiers, but I do think SOME great films should have these qualities. Otherwise cinema risks becoming a niche art like theater or the novel where there is a great divide between what most people enjoy (often on a disposable level) and what critics and enthusiasts praise. I don't want to see that happen, I just don't, and yet it seems to have begun. I think Denby effectively broaches the subject of why. And I applaud him for that.

Peter Lenihan said...

I'm curious as to what you (and Denby) mean as "big" films. His argument strikes me as a tad incoherent--that is, all the big films on big budgets suck, but we should being giving all these other directors big budgets? I don't understand what kind of movies he's looking for, and I think that's a lot easier to say from an armchair--Fincher (to name one director he mentioned)got a bigger budget and a franchise with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and it was the least interesting film he made in a decade. I'm not saying there aren't great, big movies made by talented directors (I would actually put Fincher's Benjamin Button in that category), but there's a whole lot more Dragon Tattoos.

So I guess my question to you is what do you mean by big or ambitious films? Do we really want more The Bridge Over the River Kwais? Is that what we're really going for? Because personally I prefer Brief Encounter (or Wagon Master to The Searchers, as you know), and many of may faovrite American films of the last few years have been defined by their smallness (Meek's Cutoff, Road to Nowhere, Magic Mike, etc.) And I consider that a virtue.

Peter Lenihan said...

And just to prove I'm not talking out of my ass here, this is some of the best movies I've seen this year. Is every one of these films a masterpiece? Definitely not--but they're all pretty striking achievements, and their not all arthouse films either--there's plenty of mainstream genre entertainment too.

A Burning Hot Summer (Philippe Garrel), A Simple Life (Ann Hui), Century of Birthing (Lav Diaz), Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg), The Day He Arrives (Hong Sang-soo), The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies), Dredd (Pete Travis), Dreileben: Beats Being Dead (Christian Petzold), Faust (Aleksandr Sokurov), Goodbye True Love (Mia Hansen-Love), Headshot (Pen-ek Ratanaruang), House of Tolerance (Bertrand Bonello), Howling (Yoo Ha), I Wish I Knew (Jia Zhangke), The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne), Life without Principle (Johnnie To), Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh), Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson), Motorway (Cheang Pousoi), Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan), Sawako Decides (Yuya Ishii), Scabbard Samurai (Hitoshi Matsumoto), Sword of Desperation (Hideyuki Hirayama), This Is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi), Warrior (Gavin O’Connor), Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold)

Joel Bocko said...

Speaking for myself, 'big' has less to do with production scale than with the ambition of the filmmaker's vision and/or the size of the potential audience ('big' probably isn't the best term for that latter criterion, but I used it so I'll try to own it). Sadly, I still haven't seen Wagon Master (it's just around the corner on Netflix) but Brief Encounter might be my second favorite Lean film (after Lawrence of Arabia). Though it is intimate, I'm not quite sure I see at as 'small.' Certainly not in the latter sense - it's one of the most popular and iconic British films of all time, but maybe not in the former sense either. When I think of Brief Encounter I always think of that scene where Celia Johnson imagines an exotic future with Trevor Howard (almost projecting herself into future Lean movies); though its feet are planted on the ground, the film's head is in the clouds.

One area I disagree with Denby on is his $3 million statement. I mean, look, I'd love to see great directors get to play with ever-larger train sets too (though, as you point out with your Fincher example, often this entails - self-imposed? - restrictions) but I don't think the smallness, good and bad, I see in contemporary cinema is a condition of budget. I certainly don't think Godard's shoestring films were small. I think that's one reason Denby can't quite summon the optimistic solutions he seeks in the end, because his notion of great, ambitious, and popular filmmaking is too tied to the past (and to conventional frameworks). I doubt we will return to the old Hollywood of (at least attempts at) sophisticated glamor or thoughtful epics - but this doesn't mean everything has to be chamber drama either. There are many different routes.

Joel Bocko said...

Peter, to your second list I can speak generally about 21st century but not at all specifically about 2012. For a variety of reasons, some beyond my control, I've only seen three films this year. One was This is Not a Film, which I did think was great, and forward-looking (although technically it was 2011!).

So yes I'm aware that I run the risk in generalizing that I am wrong - that, while I wasn't looking, American cinema took a sharp turn away from its previous trends, but I've seen little evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, that this is the case.

My disillusionment with contemporary cinematic trends began in 2003 (and had its earliest roots in '99) when I was still an avid moviegoer. Since even those who like what they see don't aver that those trends have reversed, and since most of the time I do view an acclaimed new movie my intuitions are confirmed, I see little reason to change my diagnosis.

Peter Lenihan said...

Most of those films are 2011 releases--the complications of international distribution all but guarantee it takes at least a year for films to reach those not in NY / LA--and well, I live 250 kilometers away from the nearest movie theater (although thankfully my job requires me to visit the city and its movie theaters fairly often).

I think your notion of "big" is hard to engage with as it seems, the way you describe it anyway, to be almost wholly subjective--I certainly don't see Brief Encounter as smaller than any of the films on my list. I remember somtime in the past you spoke positively of Jia--who is, in my estimation, one of the world's greatest filmmakers. But is he a "big" or "small" filmmaker? I mean, his films do, in some sense, unflashily capture little moments particular to very specific groups of people, but he is at the same time grappling with pretty huge political, moral, spiritual themes. I'd argue that's true of almost all great 21st century cinema (Hou, Weerasethakul, Garrel, Kawase, Oliveira), and much of the cinema of the past as well (including many of the masters Denby mentioned: Ford, Ozu, Rossellini, etc).

Joel Bocko said...

To help clarify my position a bit - on the TSPDT top 100 there are 82 American or European films (which strikes me as imbalanced but perhaps the preponderence of critics sampled are Western? Anyway, that's irrelevant). I've seen 79.

Of these, about 12 strike me as definite masterpieces or close to. Making allowances for films I think fundamentally flawed but still powerful or distinctive in a way that could be considered great (There Will Be Blood) or films that don't hit me on the same gut level as that top dozen but seem nonetheless to be highly original and accomplished (Far From Heaven) or films I don't really 'get' but whose admirers are so enthusiastic I'll be willing to grant Im probably missing something (The Son) or films I'm not sure are as great as the others but for whom my own personal enthusiasm squeaks them by (Summer Hours) - making all these adjustments, the number rises to 32. So generously, less than half. I doubt any other similarly composed decades list would have such a low proportion.

There are a lot of good movies on there - I quite like Sideways and The Hurt Locker for example - which don't seem nearly special enough to qualify for the transcendence of greatness, not to mention films I think are highly overrated (Mystic River, A History of Violence). Yes, I'm sure the handicap of immediacy plays a role; it often takes hindsight to see what's truly great and this 100 is compiled of annual top 10 lists I believe, which certainly doesn't have that benefit. Nonetheless, I think we're also dealing with a weaker field than usual.

Or, as I said, the problem is with criticism (and audiences and distributors) - the zeros is as chock full of great Western movies as the Sixties or Seventies, or not so far off, and these canons - and by extension myself since I use them as a guide - have been looking in the wrong places. Maybe so, but even then the larger point remains: there some sort of crisis if the bulk of best movies are slipping so far below the radar that not only general audiences but even enthusiastic cinephiles don't know they're there. If this is the case then Denby's attitude of irritation is less a result of personal laziness, as you suggest, than concern for the movies themselves. No doubt there were a lot of great films in the seventies that didn't get their due, but there were also so many that deservingly did. Likewise the eighties and nineties, however less the extent. Not so sure that's true today, and that in itself is cause for concern.

Joel Bocko said...

Yes, Jia is DEFINITELY a big filmmaker, whatever the criteria. His scope is broad, his concerns of wide historical importance, his style wildly inventive. I would say someone like Weerasethakul might be smaller-scale in his focus, more low to the ground in his concerns but still 'big' due to a similar use of stylistic imagination and also a dreamy universality, tapping into the collective unconscious (like Lynch).

I suppose here's what I think when I think small: narrow in focus, conservative or restricted in style, very local in its concerns vs. universal, more about the moment in and of itself than about its relation to a larger context. I realize that when we started covering this ground I wanted to avoid too much of a pejorative association with 'small' and make the argument that it isn't small films per se I object to but the absence of big films. But now I realize that most films I consider great tend to be 'big' in at least one aspect. Take something like The Mother and the Whore, 'small' in so many ways yet powered in large part by its ephemeral, mournful association with the sixties and the New Wave, 'big' in absentia.

The one quality listed above that I consider an actual advantage of smallness, or at least of equal value to the 'bigs' is the last: focus on the spontaneous, unique moment. It's one reason why I love energetic cartoons and the immersive avant garde, although both have stylistic imagination which seems 'big' to me. Maybe the best example of all is documentary, particularly verite (although often these have 'big' themes or associations).

Probably my favorite 'small' films then are either certain home-movie documentaries (Place de la Republique is a perfect example) or character-driven narratives with a kind of naturalistic documentary air to them (Rohmer's Six Moral Tales). This might be one reason why I think so many of the best films of the zeros, the ones least burdened by either straining for something or wearily thriwing in the towel, were documentaries, which could play to the strengths of a 'small' era (on the other hand, the docs were often thematically 'bigger' than the narratives so who knows...).

So that's where I'm coming from with the big/small distinction. How about you? Might as well see where our Venn diagram crosses and then redefine terms if necessary.

On another note, it's interesting that Manny Farber hasn't come up yet. It strikes me that I'm veering dangerously close to arguing for white elephant art, which frightens me a bit. (Also, one could note that the termite/elephant distinction rather effectively defines Denby's and Thomson's approach to their dueling essays.)

Peter Lenihan said...

I'm probably being a bit ungenerous to Denby and his attitude of irritation--I might as well just come right out and say I don't like the guy; he's always rubbed me the wrong way and there's definitely a history I'm bringing to the piece in reading it. But I honestly find it very hard to believe that he cares about the movies themselves, or at least the films of someone like Hou or Garrel, whose work will never be hugely popular--I think it's clear that his concern has always been and always will be with popular cinema, and that he is interested in mainstream cinema and that his concern with how great more marginal forms and film movements is, as best, limited.

And do popular critical appreciations of the nineties move that much beyond Scorsese & Kieslowski? I'm not trashing either director--they're both amazing--but I don't see that much difference between how the nineties and 00's are discussed in non-hardcore-cinephile circles, however much of a misrepresentation it is in either case. Suffice it to say, my list would look radically different than TSPDT--the number of Anglo pictures on their list is laughable. At the same time--I think it's clear that there are great pictures coming out of America and Europe both in the last decade and now (The Deep Blue Sea from the UK, Magic Mike from the US, Cosmopolis from Canada, Goodbye True Love from France, etc).

Joel Bocko said...

You know, I guess I'm not familiar enough with Denby's critical history to judge his treatment of marginal cinema (I do recall a respectful piece on mumblecore though). When I think of stuff I've read by him, it's usually bigger 'think' pieces that come to mind. I do know he was an enthusiastic Paulette before she kind of broke it off with him (according to that recent bio, she didn't think he should pursue a career as a critic and when he did, their friendship cooled). Obviously it was an article of faith with her that cinema should be populist - even as her own taste wandered pretty far from the public's in later years.

As for the 90s, that's always a tough nut for me to crack. I always hear people say that actually the 00s is a richer cinematic decade, with more high points. Perhaps my view is colored by the fact that, beneath the peaks, the 90s seems to me to have a clear advantage. Your average mainstream picture, while probably less stylistically sophisticated and more cliched than its successors, is usually a bit warmer and more in touch with the rhythm of lived life - for example, The Fugitive was just on TV and I'd rather watch that any day than, say, the Bourne movies. It seems to me that in the 90s, popcorn movies weren't afraid to taste like popcorn. One thing that irritates me about contemporary blockbusters is their fondness for glib darkness and faux-realism.

Returning to the peaks, the 90s had more bona fide great films that were also popular in the mainstream - Goodfellas, Schindler's List, Pulp Fiction (although I seem to recall you are not a big fan of Tarantino?). Granted, all of this is straying from your area of concern - since you're probably more interested in what and how many great films there are than in the health of the midrange or the crossover appeal of classics. But I think often times the heights are partially dependent on what goes on below. If the cinema becomes too alienated from its base I think it starts to atrophy. Truffaut said that all films should express the joy (or agony) of filmmaking, and maybe most should express the joy of moviegoing as well. That's what makes even the most obscure Rivette or Godard film blood brother to a Hollywood genre piece and one thing Denby seems to feel has been lost (I agree).

I'm not sure this effectively addresses the question of whether or not the 90s had more great films than the 00s. To that, I'll say I'll take a look at the 90s list and see how it fares with that same test I applied to the 00s. Tomorrow though...

Peter Lenihan said...

It's hard for me to speak of a small / big dichotomy because almost always when I describe a film as small I mean it as a compliment. And, I mean, I love Farber as a writer but I'm not sure how helpful the white elephant / termite dichotomy is (Dave Kehr once described Farber as a great poet whose views remained incomprehensible, if not incoherent, and I'm inclined to agree). When I speak with admiration of a small film though, I mean one which never overreaches but which contains, within its own modest framework, its own universe, a network of movements, gestures and ideas that are generally reflective of a sensibility or view of the world (in spiritual or moral terms generally, though not exclusively). I wouldn't argue that's true of all great films or anything, but I think it often is--and think there's something really admirable in the ways so many great filmmakers are able to do this on such a modest canvas (I think it's far more difficult too). But, Andrei Rublev is one of my favorite movies too, so again, nothing exclusive here.

The best film I've seen this year (and one of the best films I've ever seen, frankly) is Lav Diaz's Century of Birthing--it probably couldn't be called a small film in any sense--it's six hours long, for one thing, and is about "the cinema" etc in the most ambitious sense. Yet it always remains particularized, specific in a way that I'd relate to the way I think about small films--even as it stands as a disturbing, complicated, perhaps self-annihilating metaphor for everything movies are and aren't capable of, it always lives in the present moment, and as beautiful as some of Diaz's images are, the whole thing has a formal sloppiness & spontaneity to it I associate with small films.

You bring up mumblecore and as much as I dislike those films as a "genre," Bujalski is another director who falls under this umbrella, I think. If you look at something like Mutual Appreciation, that's very clearly a small film, yet in its gestures, movements, dialogue becomes something else--there's something there, an understanding or one understanding of how people relate to each other and the world that ends up giving the film a sense of spiritual vision--moral force, if you will.

Nothing against Tarantino, btw, although I definitely prefer his more recent work. His last one especially.

Joel Bocko said...

Yes, I like Bujalski a lot too, another one who kind of in his own, perhaps cooler way, fits into the Rohmer/Malle-doc school (oddly enough, I haven't yet completely warmed to Cassavetes, I have more of an admiration than an enthusiasm for him, speaking entirely personally).

I was going to say our big/small distinctions don't have much overlap but actually I think they do, we're just emphasizing different parts. Out of curiosity, though, one thing I'm not totally clear on yet, do you feel the cinema benefits in any way, either spiritually or materially, from being a 'popular art'? Does the question of whether or not it becomes a niche, loses its basis in the popular culture, interest you at all or does it seem kind of irrelevant?

Side note: I'd be interested in your take on some of the films I discuss in my 'films seen in 2012' post which went up this (or yesterday, depending where you are) morning, particularly Story of Film if you've caught it. Also, Me and My Gal is kind of a quintessential 'hangout movie', Tarantino's definition which kind of overlaps with your characterization of 'small' cinema.

Peter Lenihan said...

Well, I think cinema always has been and always will be a popular art, and I think the parameters of popular art has benefitted a lot of film artists in the past--that the constrictions and limitations of the commericial apparatus was a good thing historically for a lot of directors. Not all, obviously--it's impossible for me to imagine Lav Diaz or Pedro Costa working within a commercial context, for example, but I think commerce continues to be tied to pretty much all cinema--I thought pretty damn highly of the recent comic book movie Dredd, and I think all it accomplished was pretty directly tied to its budget ($45 million--pretty modest for a comic book blockbuster) and the director's and screenwriter's ability to work within that monetary context, and wanting to make the best picture possible using those resources (it was shot by the DP of Trier's Antichrist). So it's complicated, but I don't think championing Oliveira or Diaz means commerical cinema will go away, or should, and obviously I think there's been a lot of great commercial cinema--I think probably about half the movies I mentioned before were at least moderately popular in their home countries; some were arthouse ghetto releases, but not too many.

Peter Lenihan said...

Btw, I have a post up on my blog in which I talk a bit about Dredd and Savages (the latter of which I like a lot less than you). I saw Me and My Gal for the first time earlier this year. A very, very likeable movie, and up there with The Strawberry Blonde, Colorado Territory & White Heat as one of the best Walshes I've seen.

Joel Bocko said...

We must've seen the Walsh around the same time then - I watched it on You Tube and it's already been pulled.

Jon said...


Haha yes you noticed my crush on Miss Williams. Funny. Didn't notice it was THAT obvious. ;)

Also The Deep Blue is actually a UK film. My mistake. I think all of this argument is of course relative due to everyone's reaction to different films. One person's masterpiece is another's most overrated etc. So then how do you evaluate the decline of cinema if we're using qualitative criteria? This is impossible and really not worth the argument. The only thing that has changed IMO is the way people view movies. We have niches that we can explore through netflix or whatever and there is digital streaming etc. This has created a personal and more lonely approach to film. It's not about going to the water cooler and chatting about the weekend's blockbuster, cause everyone is watching some miniseries or weird film from their netflix account and no one shares commonalities. This is the same thing that has happened to music. We are consuming the movies differently. But I don't think there is a noticeable decline in the quality of cinema.

Joel Bocko said...

Jon, I don't entirely agree that we can't establish a rough kind of 'shared subjectivity' (in lieu of scientifically demonstrable objectivity) in which we can establish that, say, Fantastic Four is a worse movie than The Godfather. But I've had this argument elsewhere, and its a largely abstract, theoretical, and academic debate and not one I necessarily want to reactive right now, so we'll let the point sit for the moment.

I definitely agree with your second point and to me one of the challenges of the new era will be finding ways to take this new cinema of loneliness and fashion a community of individuals around it, to find a way for solitary experiences to still be shared in some sense. That's worth a post of its own, but I think blogging is a step in that direction.

Jon said...

Well Joel yes of course you can handpick certain films and determine that one is better than another...even using subjective terms. The question comes into evaluating cinema as a whole. One could say that cinema is broader and bigger than it ever was...meaning it's nearly impossible to see it all. My opinion is if I believe that there aren't enough great films anymore, I'm just not looking hard enough.

Yes I agree, I think blogging is sort of filling a gap...for those of us interested in sharing commonalities but not able to find them in our own localities.

Joel Bocko said...

Actually I think it's probably easier to assess general trends than individual movies. If your judgement of a given era is 'are there at least x amount of great movies' than yes, probably no era will disappoint. But I'd argue there's a bigger picture. How do technological or economic changes affect the way, and what kind of, movies are made? Is the cinema exploring new avenues and visions, is it repeating past successes? Most importantly, is it cultivating new talent?

So many of these questions are not just about the nature of the present, but also an investment in the future. Richard Brody, in his piece on these two articles, argues cinema isn't even sick let alone dying, naming films like Hugo and Moonrose Kingdom and Tree of Life as evidence of the very individual and rich artistic flowering right in the heart of the industry. But let's examine these films, or rather the filmmakers for a moment. Malick, Scorsese, and even Anderson got their foot in the door years ago, when conditions were different. That they receive financing now is due to contacts they have made ad a track record assembled back when Hollywood took risks on the young and different.

In the past innovation that had a wide pact usually came from young artists outside the system - but close enough to make it in, whether their vehicle was indie film and/or music video in the 80s and 90s, film school in the 70s, or TV in the 50s and 60s. I'd argue the Internet is that avenue today, but at the moment it's all potential.

Those creating the bulk of movies in American cinema today did not get there by a path the next generation could follow. That goes, by and large, for 'indie' films as well which tend to be reliant on famous actors and studio distribution. As an aspiring filmmaker this situation definitely concerns me but it should really concern anyone who cares about the future of movies.

RAR said...

I'll contribute more later. It's getting late, and I'll probably head to bed soon, but I just wanted to chime in and say I feel even Rohmer's films have their 'big' qualities that enable them to stand out alongside the other European greats of thee sixties. At least My Night at Maud's is certainly 'big' in certain respects. They're certainly ambitious on an aesthetic level even if the ambition isn't as formalistically obvious the way it is in a film like Hiroshima, Mon Amour, for example. Maurice Pialat is another French great who made 'small' films but whose realism kicked you in the gut enough to carry the work into the 'big' category.

Joel Bocko said...

Totally agree, RAR. I don't know if it's the fact that they are islands of calm in turbulent times (which can't help but soak in some of the apocalyptic tenor way offscreen, thundering in the distance) - or if it's the fact that consciously, within their own bonds, they touch in core emotional experiences and psychological/philosophical questions (some as old as Pascal's Wager, maybe older). Maybe both.

Or maybe it's just that any film which hits its stride so thoroughly that it deserves to be called "great" seldom seems small.

RAR said...

The issues regarding mainstream cinema speak for themselves. With respect to art-house films, however, the problems seems to be that many contemporary coterie 'art' films seemed to be estranged from the fundamental visceral purpose of celluloid. There seems to be a refusal to engage the viewer on a visceral level. It's as though the filmmaker is playing hide the salami as far as visceral stimulation is concerned. A perfect example would be Sissako's Waiting for Happiness. And when the filmmaker does attempt to engage you on a visceral level it feels insufferably academic. In other cases, the films may be interesting, but ultimately, they're 'small'. That's precisely how I feel about Hong Sang-soo for instance. A film such as Lee Chang-dong's Poetry, on the other hand, was decent, but it also felt academic at times. I think part of the issue is "art-house" cinema is often approached more as an intellectual/academic activity than as an artistic activity these days. Hong Sang-soo may be a great intellectual, but he has yet to convince me he's a great ARTIST. As you were saying earlier with respect to obscure Godard and Rivette films, I would say films like Bertolucci's Before the Revolution, Ferreri' Dillinger Is Dead, or Akerman's Les Rendez-Vous d'Anna are still blood brothers/sisters of mainstream Hollywood fare. That's not the case with a film like Waiting for Happiness. I suppose I feel it does a disservice to the medium and to the creator him or herself to keep cinema's sensual/visceral potential at arm's length. That's why Ozu, Antonioni, and even Kubrick are geniuses whereas Hong Sang-Soo is merely interesting. There are exceptions, of course. Philippe Garrel's Regular Lovers is a masterpiece. Clearly, this is an issue that would require an entire book to truly flush out, but I look forward to continuing this discussion.

Joel Bocko said...

I know what you mean. I haven't seen most of the specific films you mention, and I'm generally fond of the Asian films I've seen, moreso than the American or European art films - but I do get the sense that as entertainment cinema is pulling further away from art, so the reverse is true as well.

RAR said...

Then again, one must ask how entertainment is defined. It's a very broad concept. Also, as for the notion of cinema as a popular art, what does that entail that distinguishes it as a medium from poetry or painting? Kubrick once said it's not easy to create a film that exhibits both popular appeal and the profundity of a great work of literature. I, however, would contest it's probably easier to create a work of art exhibiting both genius and popular appeal within cinema than within literature. Perhaps that's what Peter means when he refers to cinema as a popular art. Then again, Dostoesvky, Dickens, and Shakespeare were considered 'popular' during their respective lifetimes. The notion of great art as a thorughly high brow domain is primarily a twentieth century construct to counter the contemporaneous onset of kitsch. Let's face it, Dostoevsky is both entertaining and profound.

RAR said...

Also, the problem isn't that art is moving further away from conventional entertainment, but rather that it seems to be doing away with sensory stimulation, rendering the experience of watching the film wholly cerebral. That's not what art is supposed to be about. It can certainly have an intellectual component, but it should be coupled with a sensory component. I know it may seem as though I'm complaining about a lack of instant gratification, but I'd say there's a fine line between instant gratification and sensory stimulation that can be easily breached if one isn't careful. An Antonioni, a Vigo, or an Ozu avoids breaching the line, whereas many recent 'art' filmmakers simply run the other way.

RAR said...

Not to seem impatient or pushy, but did you have anything to say in response to my two most recent posts? In any case, perhaps you've been preoccupied, which I can understand.

Joel Bocko said...

Ha, no worries. Yesterday was my birthday so I tried to avoid too many online distractions, with mixed results. (Plus I just finished a major revamp which took up most of my time on the site.) Your comments got lost in the shuffle for a moment but I can respond now.

However, one reason I didn't respond instantly is that you raise a complex issue which requires some reflection. Namely cinema's status as a popular art and what that entails especially vs. other forms. (Peter Lenihan has an interesting post on the movies' supposed distance from other arts but from a different angle - click on his name above in the comments section to see it.)

I'll return later to flesh this out but for now I'll just say I think the reason cinema is more a mass/popular medium is in large part historical - it's newer than the novel which was eventually, to a certain extent (we don't want to exaggerate) passed over for other forms of storytelling.

Also, of course, Dickens was popular but not on the scale of movies; world and even British literacy had limits in the 19th century whereas anywhere that could afford a projector or screen could show a movie.

I'll be back to discuss more down the line but fair warning its going to be a crazy busy weekend for me and this conversation is worth investing time & thought in so it may be some time, maybe a few days, before I'm back.

But I see this as a long-term, ongoing discussion at any rate - heck, it's been over a month already!

RAR said...

Happy Birthday.

I understand this may not receive a response for a few days, but I'll chime in anyway. When you said you feared cinema was becoming a niche art like the novel in that there's a divide between what the public enjoys and what the experts praise, what exactly did you mean? I have an idea, but I do think it may even be starker with respect to film. For example, I'd presume a much larger proportion of people in the English-speaking world under the age of say 45 have read Crime and Punishment or even The Sound and the Fury than have seen a Bresson film. Then again, perhaps you were referring to more recent novels from say the past 20-30 years that only connoisseurs read and appreciate. It's inculcated into us by society from an early age that people like Van Gogh, Mozart, and Dostoevsky are significant artists whose importance shouldn't be questioned. No filmmaker has that status, at least not yet. The appreciation of Bresson, Ozu, or Vigo is still considered a niche practice. That's not the case with Dostoevsky or even Proust.

However, the overall intellectual atrophying of our culture since the 1970s has contributed to the niche status of 'film as art'. Contemporary 'art-house' filmmakers have seemed to respond to the situation by approaching filmmaking in a more cerebral/academic manner. While many recent coterie films are certainly inspired, the overall trend is what counts.

Joel Bocko said...

Ok, let me try again. And to make a virtue of misfortune, I'll try to be more concise.

2 thoughts in response to your last comment:

1) Yes, you're right about contemporary "serious" literature having become a niche form while the past remains somewhat alive. Certainly I can't think of much from the past 20-30 years that has crossed over between critical acclaim and popular readership the way Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse 5 did just before. However...

2) I also think that reading in pleasure in general is more marginal than moviegoing for pleasure. I know a few people who don't see movies very often, to be sure, but I've met many more who matter-of-factly claim to have read about 5 books in their lives.

People generally know of Crime and Punishment or War and Peace to be sure, but fewer have read them, and fewer still for enjoyment rather than being forced as required reading for school.

Meanwhile, those who do read for pleasure often stick to either information-(rather than art-)based nonfiction and/or mass-market entertainment. True, one could say that in film audiences always went to movies for the show rather than a deep aesthetic experience but arguably more art was smuggled into entertainment in the past. Certainly one film artist who arguably WAS/IS as well-known as Dostoevsky or Dickens would be Hitchcock, who was the king of mixing art and entertainment (although it was only very late in his career that the former quality was really recognized).

What worries me now is seeing average viewers start to drift toward this same attitude in movies as the novel, not only getting less imagination and insight in casual entertainment but also seeking out movies in general less, and treating them as a mild diversion rather than a cathartic experience when they do. That's my suspicion at least.

RAR said...

I feel film's status is probably challenged from both sides. On the one hand, there are people like those you mention, who seek out movies less and less and don't give two figs about novels either. In other words, a member of the masses or more aptly a philistine. On the other hand, you have the person of letters who views cinema as an inferior medium whose works are incurably incapable of achieving the depth and profundity of a work of literature or a philosophical treatise. More succinctly, you have a philistines on one side and 'verbal' people on the other side, neither of whom would give 'film as art' the time of day. The dilemma of the philistines speaks for itself. With people of letters, however, they simply fail to understand cinema's function as an art form, because what they simply don't realize is that it isn't a film's purpose to offer the sorts of insights you find in a work of 'high' literature just as it's not a painting's purpose either. If someone claims Antonioni or even Polanski for that matter is thematically and philosophically shallow and that their work only tackles issues that have already been grappled with in a more profound manner in Kafka or Proust superficially without properly comprehending them, I'll say, "duh, they make movies. they don't write novels." In other words, they judge film merely on its ability to do what literature can do but not on its own terms. They look for attributes that aren't meant to be there in the first place.

Joel Bocko said...

Interesting - I would have hoped those film-is-a-lesser-medium voices would have been drowned out by the 60s. However, there is definitely a strand of academicism in film appreciation now which has kind of a dry, literal (rather than literary) perception of movies. They don't condescend to film per se but their attitude toward it is condescending nonetheless in its reduction of a rich and ambiguous form to transmitter of late 20th century ideological signifier.

RAR said...

Perhaps in a film literate society like France they have been drowned out, but the whole notion of 'film as art' has always been a bit contentious in the English-speaking world. This is an issue that would also take a book to flesh out, but suffice it to say that it would take quite a bit of convincing and hand-wringing to prove to a literature professor, unschooled in film, that even films like Psycho and Rosemary's Baby are every bit as artistically significant as Balzac or In Search of Lost Time. That may just be my impression, but it's what I would sense the attitude would be, not that I agree with it.

Joel Bocko said...

Yeah I see what you mean with this. It's a bit differently phrased, but since it has some overlap you may appreciate Jonathan Rosenbaum's pithy putdown (read this on a blog comment somewhere):

"To the best of my knowledge, the U.S. is the only country in the world where art is actively hated by many intellectuals, and this bias is, alas, fully apparent in their work."

(here actually: http://girishshambu.blogspot.com/2009/04/narrative-synthesis.html#c3482798819931127488)

RAR said...

Interesting. Rosenbaum always has intriguing things to say, even if he sometimes finds ways to make even the most ardent cinephiles feel like philistines. I'm thinking of his Bergman piece.

Joel Bocko said...

Ah yes, the timing & tone of that one were wince-inducing. But it did inspire an incredible analysis by David Bordwell, which is one of my favorite blog pieces (or movie-writing, period). It's a great explication - if not quite justification - of what Rosenbaum wrote.


You know, it was another year before I started blogging myself (or following other blogs regularly) but that moment was when I first really became aware of the film blogosphere, if I'm not mistaken.

RAR said...

Well, as much as Rosenbaum may be unwilling to take Bergman's work at face value, I understand where he's coming from. He is the middlebrow's notion of a high brow filmmaker, and I think that's what bothers Rosenbaum. Bergman's films scream seriousness and intellectualism, which enables a relatively large bourgeois audience to feel as though its consuming a cultural vegetable in a relatively palatable manner. Don't get me wrong. I love Persona, Cries and Whispers, and Through a Glass Darkly, but the artistry of less 'serious' films, such as Rosemary's Baby and North by Northwest, both of which Rosenbaum appears to embrace, is subtle enough that only a true film enthusiast would pick up on it even if more casual film viewers warm to them for their entertainment value. Thus, I think Rosenbaum's skepticism is generated by Bergman's public reception. Nevermind the fact Bergman has been presented to the masses as the preeminant non-Anglophone filmmaker when Rosenbaum may feel the work of Bresson, Antonioni, or Dreyer to be superior. The issue, of course, is that L'Eclisse, Red Desert, or Au Hasard Balthazar are simply too 'difficult' to attract the 'educated' bourgeois audience that Bergman's maintained.

Joel Bocko said...

A fairly succinct summation of Rosenbaum's beef. What I like about the Bordwell is that it contextualizes WHY a cinephile might feel Bergman is inferior to Bresson, Dreyer, etc. in terms of what's actually onscreen.

Joel Bocko said...

Another thought: though in so many ways their sensibilities and approaches differ, there's interesting overlap between Rosenbaum and Kael here. Their target is the middlebrow notion of art cinema and both favor the inventive pleasures of Hollywood as well as more effortlessly individualized art films (although Kael had no use for the sobriety Rosenbaum accepts, and her angle was more populist, people tend to forget that - especially early in her career - she was a passionate advocate of Renoir and other European auteurs; didn't she also call L'Avventura the best film of 1960 before turning sour on Antonioni?).

RAR said...

Very relevant point, and I am fascinated by the paradox of someone like Hitchcock receiving more "high-brow" love than Bergman. And yes, I'd say your spot on regarding Kael. The one issue, of course, with respect to their targeting the middlebrow notion of art cinema is that sometimes you may wind up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Then again, Persona happens to be one of the few Bergman films Rosenbaum embraces.

RAR said...

In any case, I can't fathom how even Rosenbaum could be resistant to the first 10-15 minutes of Through a Glass Darkly. It's as revelatory as anything Dreyer ever did. In fact, the entire film is, although the helicopter drone towards the end probably overstays its welcome.

Joel Bocko said...

Love that movie. Easily a top 3 Bergman for me. Incidentally I've always been more enamored of the B&W ones than the color. Fanny & Alexander in particular seems to me very good, but still rather overrated. He'll, I'd probably rather watch one of the really early ones, like Summer Interlude or Dreams than, say, Autumn Sonata. Just taste I guess.

RAR said...

Well I'd say Autumn Sonata and Passion of Anna are among Bergman's weakest, but I do still like Cries and Whispers very much. As for Fanny and Alexander, it's been way too long since I've seen it.

RAR said...

I will say Rosenbaum can occassionally take it a bit far with his tolerance for sobriety, sometimes descending into apologism. In either case, I enjoy reading plenty of what he has to say. With that said, while I'm in favor of open-mindedness, there tends to be a tendency in certain cinephile circles to give the benefit of the doubt to anything from outside the Western world that lacks mainstream appeal even if the film is merely good. Rosenbaum can often appear a bit too supportive of something simply because it's removed from the mainstream.

Joel Bocko said...

Sorry, postings and responses got a bit muddled. Thought I already responded to these.

I can't call Autumn Sonata or Passion of Anna Bergman's "weakest" simply because he's got some stuff that's just mediocre or even god-awful in his canon, like All Those Women (god-awful) or The Devil's Eye (mediocre). The price of being prolific, I suppose.

Rosenbaum is a good example of someone whose sensibilities I don't really share, but whom I love to read for that very reason.

RAR said...

Well I guess I just felt Autumn Sonata to be one of his less cinematically interesting film, even if it still has value from a narrative standpoint. With that said, I finally realized where Woody Allen got his eighties look. In any case, it's always annoyed me that people presume an artist needs to have a batting average of 1.000 to qualify as a genius, which simply isn't true. Just look at Truffaut and Bertolucci. Only a genius could produce films like Before the Revolution and The 400 Blows. Granted, there are others like Louis Malle and Jim Jarmusch who have perhaps made some very good films, but I'm not sure either one of them is a genius. The same goes for Scorsese and Kieslowski, although I'm on the fence concerning whether or not Kieslowski was a genius.

Joel Bocko said...

Welles said something once to the effect of "You only need one" - although he had more than one.

I'll go to bat for Scorsese too - anyone who can generate that much visceral excitement from cinema has got to be some sort of brilliant. Malle's narrative films are fine, but I think it's his documentaries that are his strongest legacy - Place de la Republique and God's Country are particularly great.

RAR said...

I take it you don't care for Jarmusch and Kieslowski?

Joel Bocko said...

Ha, that seems to be the implication but I wouldn't say so, although I'm more personally invested in the first half of Scorsese's career & Malle's nonfiction films. Jarmusch I just haven't seen much of. Generally I think of him in terms of a 90s minimalist indie thing that isn't really my bag but I LOVE Stranger Than Paradise so there you go. Kirslowski I have some mixed feelings about. He's undoubtedly brilliant in his use of the medium and evocation of mood. But he can be a bit heavy-handed and self-important at times, especially in the bookends of the 3 Colors. Decalogue I think is a masterpiece and a wonderfully clever conceit - not just the 10 Commandments but the variations in cinematography and direction between the films. I covered it here last year:


Shamus said...

Joel (I'm posting here because the comments still look active),

So I finally got around reading the whole six damn pages of the Denby article and it was frustrating and annoying really. I think that Peter Lenihan was right when he said that Denby was really interested in movies for "normal people." The kind of "people" who don't film magazines, or attend film festivals or read blogs online- which by all accounts describes Denby himself. And the thing is, Denby admits that those "solitary cinephile activities" are all flourishing, which completely undercuts his argument.

Also, he brings up a whole platoon of "great" filmmakers from Griffith, Lang, Ford, Rossellini and Welles contrast with Jon Favreau, and it's crazy really. Welles only made a handful of studio films and spent the rest of his career trying to fund his independent films, Lang spent much of his American career on poverty row or in independent productions, Griffith couldn't make a film in the last years of his life and while I'm not sure about Rossellini's productions, he sure as hell never made blockbusters (or ever worked in Hollywood). And Ford- well, he may have glowered when you mentioned the word "art" (as Denby alleges), he cherished the films he made on smaller budgets for studios like Republic, which WERE self-conscious art films. Enough already. Denby is pointing to some magical time which never existed: and anyway, comparing those auteurs with Michael Bay and Whedon is a false comparison.

So Hollywood does not make many good films now: move on, Denby: go see Oliveira, Kiarostami, Tarr, Pedro Costa, Jia, Hou, Panahi and stop confusing "movies" with "Hollywood".

(Actually, the one auteur that Denby's complaint about the lack of funding might apply is someone he never refers to- Terence Davies. He's British, so it doesn't matter, presumably.)

RAR said...

I certainly agree about Kieslowski's heavy handedness, and The Double Life of Veronique contains its fair share, as well, but the mood and the atmosphere of the film make up for it, even in the bookends of the Three Colors Trilogy, even though Veronique is perhaps superior to either of those films. In any case, he certainly knows how to use a camera.

I know this is random, but would you consider Bergman and Antonioni to be at all self-important or heavy-handed, or not in the way Kieslowski is? Even if he's one of my favorite filmmakers, I can certainly see how some people may find Antonioni a bit "superfluously arty" at times, but to label him heavy-handed would probably be a bit misguided. Then again, his moments of "over the top artiness" are usually brilliant, nevertheless. Tarkovsky and Malick though may be somewhat self-important and heavy-handed at times, even if they're not without their merits.

RAR said...

I'm certainly in agreement with Shamus, regarding Denby's article, although it should be noted films like La Dolce Vita, The 400 Blows, Blow-Up, The Seventh Seal, Breathless and The Seven Samurai were extremely popular in their day, even outside the art-house circuit. La Dolce Vita was a bona fide blockbuster.

Joel Bocko said...

Shamus, thanks for stopping by! Comments are always active as far as I'm concerned.

I think to a certain extent you're misreading Denby (although part of your disagreement is down to a difference in sensibility, which I'll address in a moment). He doesn't seem to me to be claiming that the great auteurs always succeeded in reaching mass audiences just that they did not conceive their works as appealing just to a niche audience. What he's arguing for is not an exclusively mainstream, broadly-accessible cinema (although there's evidence his own tastes run in that direction) but rather that a healthy mainstream benefits cinema as a whole.

THAT, I think, when the misconceptions or semantic disagreements clear, is what many cinephiles seem to differ on - the importance of cinema remaining, in some capacity, a mass art vs. a niche one. I am emphatically in Denby's camp on this, I viscerally LOATHE the idea of cinema going the way of theater and literature, with a unbridgeable divide between the tastes & discussions of a small coterie of marginal enthusiasts and the wider public which casually consumes a few works for occasional enjoyment or even distraction.

I've a lot more to say on the subject but I'll stop there for the moment as this has been a wretched afternoon/evening due to unresolved technological mishaps about halfway through writing this comment. But this promises to be an interesting and provocative dicussion, when I commit to it.

Watch this space...

Joel Bocko said...

RAR, I think those are important exceptions to note and go along way toward validating Denby's thesis. But as I said to Shamus above, I'll have to return later to engage more deeply (title today's problems "Who's Killing My Computer - and Yes, I Care").

Joel Bocko said...

In the mean time, I should point you guys to a piece I wrote about a year ago (it's linked in the above as well).


While not directly addressing my bias toward cinema as a mass/popular art per se, in painting a portrait of where my own cinephilia comes from and what I value in it, it does offer some clues, at least for understanding my emotional commitment in the matter.

That said, and more importantly - since personal enthusiasm isn't really an argument (interesting, illuminating, and even persuasive as it might be), I think there are very strong pragmatic/rational reasons to fight the cinema's marginalization and/or balkanization. However, those (already addressed somewhat in my response to Denby, and the initial discussion which followed) will have to wait until my computer issues are less distracting, which will hopefully be sooner rather than later.

Joel Bocko said...

Oh and while In directing your attention elsewhere, you guys should check out the first entry in my Favorites series. Designed to encourage discussion (each post ends with a series of questions) so far only...crickets. Granted, the title is obscure but the questions are designed for those who haven't seen it as well as those who have.

Lurkers, this goes for you too!

RAR said...

Perhaps it's just an issue of semantics, but emphasizing cinema's status seems to be partially undoing what Bazin, Truffaut et al. were striving for. I have never regarded the French New Wave as a postmodern attempt to equalize all art, good or bad, high or low, but merely to elevate cinema to the level of the "high" arts like poetry and painting. Then again, perhaps their efforts, even if well-intentioned, have had certain negative consequences.

Shamus said...


You're being way more reasonable than Denby is. Arguing for a better, healthier mainstream cinema is not the same thing as proclaiming the (near)death of cinema. I suspect that such nonsense would not do anything but marginalize "art cinema' (god, do I hate that term) even further. And, I think, there are increasingly better films "out there" for cinemagoers to discover, both from some of the auteurs named above and directors whom we might not have heard of before [the discoveries which are the stuff of good film festivals and informed (online) discussion].

You may be right about a difference in sensibility- I can't honestly say that I really give a fuck about the "normal moviegoer", who are far too fucking many in number anyway. Worry more about the cinephile, I say.

RAR, I'll grant Denby Kurosawa for the sake of his argument. I'll also take your word about Bergman and Fellini.

Joel Bocko said...

RAR, the New Wavers definitely were not postmodern, they were too romantic and too invested in a movie metaphysic for that, but they also definitely dovetailed with a Pop sensibility of the time, if not corresponding exactly. Their love for movies grew directly out of a love for the glamor and entertainment value of Hollywood as much as the poetry of neorealism or Renoir (and it was the former enthusiasm that stood out at the time and made their impact so extraordinary).

Joel Bocko said...

La Dolce Vita definitely had broad-based appeal: it was in the U.S. (!) box office top 5 for its year.

I don't recall Denby explicitly saying cinema was on its way out; in fact he tries to be optimistic although he doesn't really know how (he's too wedded to an older/conventional conception of the cinema experience - the narrative cinema experience, at that to see some of the ways forward). Anyway, whatever flaws in his prescription I find his diagnosis too accurate to dismiss.

Shamus said...

One other thing (the last post on the subject, I promise): Denby berates what he calls the "sub-Cassavetes" practice of independent filmmakers not to use scripts. Only problem: Cassavetes used to extensively script his films before he filmed them (although he let his actors improvise). Fact check, Denby.

I would not have taken exception to Denby's article at such length but I get the sense he is longing for the ultimate middle budget middlebrow cinema in Hollywood- character development; setup, crisis; moral dilemma; climax; resolution; the good end well, the bad badly and so forth - not that there's nothing wrong with that but to proclaim the death of cinema in its absence, well.

I guess I can get on with my week now.

(Ugh, I also noticed that my previous posts had a lot of typos; I hope they still make sense.)

Peter Lenihan said...

I'm not sure I buy this whole La Dolce Vita = blockbuster thing, although obviously I could be wrong (I wasn't around in 1961). According to Wikipedia (yeah, I know) La Dolce Vita was the sixth highest grossing film of 1961 after theaterical re-issue(s) (emphasis mine). Did it really gross more than Breakfast at Tiffany's or Guns of Navarone? Again, I wasn't there, but I really, really doubt it.

Joel Bocko said...

You know, I actually own a book which lists a top 20 year by year based on what was actually grossed WITHIN that year - unfortunately it's across the country right now so the debate remains unresolved! That said, rereleases of La Dolce Vita have been fairly limited, no? I find it hard to believe they'd account for as high a percentage if the film's overall score as, say, the Disney or Star Wars films.

Keep in mind too that La Dolce Vita was considered more sexually frank and provocative than any Hollywood film dared to be at the time so there was plenty of incentive even for those who weren't interested in the sick soul of Europe to see it.

A few critics (I think Ebert was one of them) have remarked that Fellini was the most famous filmmaker in the world at one point. That certainly must be untrue, given Hitchcock's name recognition, but its telling they could even believe that, I suppose.

Anecdotally, for whatever its worth I can recall an episode of Punk'd where some stunt led the drug-addled Tommy Lee of Mötley Crüe and some Backstreet Boy he was hanging out with to remark that the situation was "Felliniesque". Not sure what that says about the auteur's name recognition but there it is. And yes, I have to answer for watching Punk'd. I promise it wasn't with pleasure.

Joel Bocko said...

Well to be fair to Denby I think calling them 'sub-Cassavetes' was an attempt to characterize them as going for C's sense of raw spontaneity without the discipline that undergirded his experimentation. Though I may be giving him too much benefit of the doubt.

Here's the thing though - I think Denby is right to bemoan the lack of a popular bridge between art and entertainment, a bridge which has almost always taken the form of what you describe (and, in a certain sense, dismiss). I suspect something else will have to replace it, but that something will still have to tap into the touchstones and elements that break through the public's resistance to art.

Personally, I'm kind of enjoying the back and forth even though its a bit of a distraction from other things going on. Or precisely because it's a distraction, haha. At any rate I'll return soon and close off my thoughts from earlier since I never finished that response.

Joel Bocko said...

Also, on another note, I think this characterization of Denby is a bit unfair, Shamus: "I get the sense he is longing for the ultimate middle budget middlebrow cinema in Hollywood- character development; setup, crisis; moral dilemma; climax; resolution; the good end well, the bad badly and so forth." Particularly the last bit.

Denby precisely and pointedly nips this objection in the bud with what, to me, is one of the most powerful passages in the piece: ""The glory of modernism was that it yoked together candor and spiritual yearning with radical experiments in form. But in making such changes, filmmakers were hardly abandoning the audience. Reassurance may have ended, but emotion did not. The many alterations in the old stable syntax still honored the contract with us. The ignorant, suffering, morally vacant Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull was as great a protagonist as Julie Marsden. The morose Nashville was as trenchant a group portrait and national snapshot as the hopeful Stagecoach. However elliptical or harsh or astringent, emotion in modernist movies was a strong presence, not an absence."

Looking over these comments again, I think perhaps people are projecting a bit too much on Denby here (the way a different group of film buffs have been projecting on Andrew O'Hehir after his own "death of cinema" piece). I think he pretty clearly celebrates more obscure and marginal cinema, and doesn't suggest it's irrelevant (although as Peter indicates, he may have implied as much elsewhere) - and he also makes a really strong case that modernist cinema and classical cinema share a certain quality that (much) contemporary cinema does not.

That said, I still think he's too rooted in the past but it's not the past everyone seems to think. It's a mixture of New (no longer new) Hollywood and Old, with indies, arthouse, and other narrative works thrown in.

Limited? For sure. There's no place in Denby's piece to celebrate Man with a Movie Camera, as David Thomson does in his own response(?), and when Denby describes his misconception of the history of film as inevitably narrative he seems greatly saddened by this misconception.

Nonetheless, Denby's point of view is not quite as limited as you guys are taking it to be. Certainly I wouldn't have much interest in defending it if all it said was "let's go back to the thirties."

Joel Bocko said...

And finally, 3 reasons I think film's basis as a popular art, with a mainstream that serves as a bridge between art and entertainment, matters:

1) Cross-pollination. In the sixties, not every American may have been lining up to see Breathless, but they were certainly lining up to see the films shaped by it. Hollywood needed a fresh injection around '67 and because it was open - out of financial necessity, of course - to the avant-garde and foreign shores, it received that injection and was reborn. Truffaut, Godard et al. celebrated entertainment films as art, and American filmmakers returned the favor by meeting them halfway (just as a rather stuffy French "Tradition of Quality" opened up to capture some of the verve, glamor, and youthful charm of Hollywood, so a crassly calculated film industry began to filter in deeper concerns, wilder styles, and more ambiguous approaches).

2) What about the public? Let's assume that the average moviegoer has no interest in a lot of the things that cinephiles value, which seems a reasonable assumption. Yet that doesn't mean their experience need be reduced to mindless and forgettable spectacle or rote recitation of familiar and vaguely entertaining tropes (oh, hmm, look an explosion, she's kind of hot huh?, yawn, time to go home). I continue to think entertainment of the past provided a richer, more fulfilling experience to the casual moviegoer, the one not consciously looking for form or experimentation or mind-expanding consciousness, but still for something that engages the emotions and captures one's imagination. Do today's mainstream films do so? Am I just so alienated from their touchstones that I can't see/feel it? Maybe. But I suspect it's the films, not me, that are missing something and that most people are just passively going along with the flow as executives assume (with relief, since in a sense these films are easier to make however expensive, their success more predictable). And after all a while they will just as casually disengage from moviegoing as the habit aspect drops away with other distractions (as has already been happening to some extent for 60 years) and other mediums come to fulfill their more fundamental desires. Which, again, could be bad for movies as a whole.

Joel Bocko said...

3) The "idea of cinema" as Bordwell put it - that passionate ideal that has fueled so much filmmaking of the past century gets a huge amount of fuel from cinema's basis as a popular art, a communal experience (even when it's watched solitarily on TV or a computer, one knows others out there are doing the same), something that is a part of the public sphere and the pop culture. For that to go away can't help but have an effect on present and future filmmakers, and a mostly deleterious one. Just look at today, already: anecdotally I know few people who are interested in making movies, which wasn't true 15 years ago. Just look at my (your?) generation. NO filmmakers under 35 have made it anywhere close to the mainstream, and most of the more notable ones working outside are working WAY outside, in tiny little niches (I mean that in terms of subject and style more than budget). We are already seeing the effects of cinema losing its steam, as well as the film industry - with less of a need or compulsion to be adventurous and edgy - closing all outsiders from its ranks.

4) Finally, there's the fact that today's casual moviegoer, especially today's young casual moviegoer could be tomorrow's cinephile. I grew to love the films of Godard because I began by loving the films of Indiana Jones. My journey was similar to Pauline Kael's in that sense and I've always delighted in the undercurrent of Trash, Art, and the Movies which too often gets missed: that great films are not wholly separate from the enjoyment we took in childhood trips to the movies, but extensions of them. If that tie gets severed, I fear for the future not just of casual moviegoing or filmmaking but of cinephilia itself.

The movies remain, however wobbily (sp?), a house with many rooms. A figure much in movie news this week said something once about a house divided against itself - ditto that.

Joel Bocko said...

Oops, that was 4.

RAR said...

But is this popular/high dichotomy entirely unique to cinema? Couldn't one say reading Harry Potter led them to Kafka and Dostoevsky, or that listening to The Beatles led them to Schubert or even John Coltrane? I know The Beatles may have more artistic legitimacy than J.K. Rowling, but you probably get my point.

I don't disagree with your post, but I simply feel the bridge between art and entertainment is important with respect to other mediums, as well. Certainly with respect to the novel and music.

Joel Bocko said...

Theoretically, yes. I don't see it as often, though. Granted, I'm more engaged with cinephile than bibliophile or audiophile circles. But these different passions also operate differently: you don't see the same catholic, broad, universal tendencies at play. Throw a stone at a gaggle of cinephiles and you're bound to hit someone who celebrates offbeat cult b films, mainstream blockbusters, and highbrow art films simultaneously. It's the nature of the beast. In literature, I don't get the same sense that popularity and art share the same turf (although literary circles seem to have had their own pulp revaluations, with sci-fi and mystery masters elevated to the pantheon, a stricter genre segregation remains in play). Also, you have the issue of nonfiction: books serve a dual position as art/entertainment and information that simply isn't as true of cinema, especially since TV serves that function for visual media (which remains in so many ways a different medium, more cut off from movies than fiction from nonfiction books, although maybe less so than it used to be).

As for music, the snob has always - or for a long time - held a place of pride in those circles, unfortunately. You're more likely to find people who narrowly focus on their area of interest - and pop music (not to mention classical or jazz) is even more geared toward niches and turf distinctions than literature. I don't want to exaggerate - I know plenty of readers whose bookshelves overflow with many different kinds of books, or listeners whose iPods are jammed with every era and style of music. He'll, I'm one of those readers/listeners! Yet to go back to that Bordwell quote, the one I've already mentioned, which opened my Big Picture piece, could one really say that about the novel or popular music? Maybe in the 19th century or in the sixties, respectively. But I think those eras are long past, and I hope the cinema's isn't passing as well.

RAR said...

I also think it may be easier for artistic genius and entertainment to coexist in cinema than in literature, which could explain why many cinephiles are more willing to embrace both the art-house and plenty of mainstream fare. I just feel the physical and technical nature of the medium makes it easier for entertainment and art to coexist. Of course, you have your thoroughly "high-brow" films like L'Avventura, Tokyo Story, or Mother and the Whore, but then there are films like Rosemary's Baby and Melville's Le Cercle Rouge that effortlessly pull high and low simultaneously. I think it's more difficult to pull that off with a novel, although it was certainly accomplished by several 19th century writers.

Joel Bocko said...

Yes, because the nature of visual attraction - at least in the 20th century - is/was more visceral, more "gut", less removed from the everyday, than verbal description. So "high" and "low" had a lot of overlap, because they shared a similar language.

Actually, I suspect culture and society is becoming less visual - the nature of present technology is to convey information more than visual experience. Also, media is becoming more interactive. Both trends are additional factors (along with everything else that's been discussed) in cinema's potential decline as a mass medium, or at least as THE mass medium (although TV arguably supplanted it in that last category several generations ago).

Shamus said...


So, yeah, I'm posting again because I too am enjoying this exchange-

1. "Let's go back to the thirties" is not a bad idea. Many of best films in world cinema were made then and some of my favorite directors (and actors) were at their peak then. No need to name names here: we all know who they are.

2. I'm regretting that "middlebrow" crack, now, as I love much of Golden Age Hollywood. But sympathy with the character alone is not the sole predicate to any kind of decent cinema. If that were true, the Oscar season repeatedly showcases precisely the cinema Denby is mourning. Think something as dull as King’s Speech- the ultimate “middlebrow” film of recent years (that I can think of).

3. (My last Denby related comment, at least) What films does D. take as examples of "radical experiments in film form," which are now seemingly lost forever? Jezebel and Stagecoach, Your Honour. Case dismissed. [Although some would argue that Stagecoach is an experimental film but I don't buy it- for a purer example of a Ford experimental film from the 30's, I'd definitely pick Pilgrimage, which, at times, looks almost like something by Straub-Huillet (who deeply loved Ford).]

4. Why is cinema for the "normal moviegoer" so important, as an art from. Why is appreciation of poetry or literature or classical music less important than appreciation of cinema? [Saying that literature and music have past is not reason enough.] More importantly, why should the audience determine the nature or type of film (the implicit aim of “mainstream cinema”)?

5. So you have come to Godard via Indiana Jones. Okay, but your example is a sample of one. How many persons, the world over, have seen Indiana Jones? Now, how many members of your – yes, our – generation have come to Sternberg via Spielberg? The cinephile who has arrived to view the cinema of the past right now, generally as a result of some solitude, a degree of discernment and not a small measure of perversity. I’ll go even further. A lot of people might be tempted and watch Citizen Kane or Vertigo or Searchers, especially after Sight and Sound Polls. But how many go on to see Tourneur and Preminger and Lubitsch? And how many would go back to watching Judd Aptrow (or whatever the fuck his name is)?

I am not so perverse as to say that all mainstream cinema ought to be terrible. But other than that, I wouldn't really give it a second's thought (although these comments may indicate otherwise). I don't think it seriously affects cinephiles. Just as some poor college professor who periodically writes an editorial that not enough kids read these days, doesn't really concern the readers.

RAR said...

I think what Joel is saying is there has to be some give and take between the "mainstream" and the "high-brow" level, in order for a medium to truly survive.

Joel Bocko said...

1. Re: the thirties, it's sort of a tangent (and I guess, a contradiction to my desire to be forward-looking) but I've often felt that the default style for your average, run-of-the-mill movie should be thirties style: clean, economical, with a kind of sheen to all the components, both visually appealing and dramatically unfettered. And that, on a similar note, the default style for action films should be early 90s. However, this is a matter of the low-to-middle range rather than the upper, so I guess we're making different points...

2. I guess Denby's main regret is that that type of cinema is limited to Oscarbait rather than being present (he would probably say prevalent, although I'm happier with just "present") on a more widespread basis in genre films as well - i.e. the types of movies that mass audiences go to see (although wasn't The King's Speech a surprisingly big hit? I think it may even be on the top 250 of all time or something).

3. No, I definitely think Denby's tastes are conservative and limited BUT they are not limited to classical cinema. Yes, he prefers (even demands) narrative and emotional engagement with character, but he goes out of his way to include the 60s New Waves and New Hollywood in that formulation, explicitly tying Raging Bull to Jezebel and Nashville to Stagecoach. That still leaves a lot out, to be sure, but it's an opening by which one can proceed and expand the definition to include more outrightly experimental fare. (Incidentally, as he spoke of cinematic modernism I took him to mean Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Breathless as well as Nashville and Raging Bull. But maybe he only means American film? I'll have to go back and read between the lines again.)

Joel Bocko said...


4. You may be working your way down the comments and responding, and not have seen them yet, but I think my "3 (strikethrough) 4 reasons" response covers my answer here: to wit, mass cinema inspires filmmakers, creates more cinephiles, provides a wider forum for experimental infiltration. Also, though it appears kind of tautological in this context, I think the public deserves a more deeply satisfying cinema and that they're not getting it now. (But I flesh these out more above.)

What do you mean by this though: "Why is appreciation of poetry or literature or classical music less important than appreciation of cinema?"

Do you mean less important for the public to be involved with? I'm not so sure it is, theoretically, just that it's a lost cause at this point. The majority has moved on from those forms, they are lost as ways to communicate in pop culture except for rare exceptions that tend to prove the rule. And that's what I'm afraid of happening to cinema in the long run.

"Why should the audience determine the nature or type of film (the implicit aim of “mainstream cinema”)?"

Not sure what you mean by this. Films are financed, generally, because people think other people will see them and help them recoup their costs, at minimum, or hopefully make a profit. Hence audiences already determine and always have the nature of types of film. The question is how best to use this mass base for the advantage of the art form. Doing away with that mass base doesn't solve the problem, it just creates new ones.

5. I think you're looking through this from the wrong end. Yes, few average moviegoers become hardcore cinephiles. But, proportionally, I'd argue few fewer hardcore cinephiles arose out of something OTHER than average moviegoing.

To use Pauline Kael's formulation (from Trash, Art, etc.), I think most people passionate about movies originally drew their passion from the mainstream and then found their way to wilder shores. Fewer dismissed movies until they discovered "serious" cinema and then sober-mindedly approved of it. And those who fall into that latter category are probably missing a lot of what's actually going on in cinema.

To phrase it more succinctly, and using "moviegoer" to connote someone who goes to mainstream movies for entertainment: the point is not that all moviegoers become cinephiles. It's that virtually all cinephiles were once moviegoers. Reduce the pool of moviegoers, and you're reducing the pool of cinephiles. It's a numbers game.

"Just as some poor college professor who periodically writes an editorial that not enough kids read these days, doesn't really concern the readers."

But it would matter if most readers came to reading through that college professor's editorials. And if those editorials where a point at which enthusiastic readers and casual perusers of the editorial touched base. And if those editorials made up a significant portion of the literary landscape, virtually dominated media coverage (and thus audience exposure), and locked up the resources for further writing. That's why this particular college professor's editorials matter!

Don't get me wrong, I'd love to see the American film industry die (although that sounds a bit sociopathic, given all the jobs connected to it; I guess I'd rather see it magically disappear). But I would want to see it replaced by another mainstream venue for cinema, ideally something more democratically-based in terms of creation and exposure (like the internet) rather than just fragment into a million niches as movies go the way of the novel or classical concert.

Shamus said...

I saw your point about there being lesser filmmakers around, and I actually wanted to add another comment below, but I decided to wait for your response first. Yeah, that point I concede, (as well as your point about the numbers game). But the prospect of less directors does not anguish me. Jonathan Rosenbaum thought it was preposterous that the ultimate prize for an "indie" director (from Sundance, say) was a project with a major studio (this in an article written about the time of Tarantino's rise, I think), because when they got Cherished Project (so went his argument, or perhaps this is my argument) they made films pretty much indistinguishable from the others. Everyone takes an "a film by" credit, nowadays, but their individuality is annihilated in the mass production. "Less directors" means pretty much the same thing as "less packaged soup flavors". They all taste the same, anyway. [Even so, there just might be a few filmmakers even in a completely debased system who might, just might, be able to make it new, as it were, and who would still provide enough interest for everyone, cinephiles and "moviegoers". Numbers game, as you say.]

Okay, as for the Bordwell's point of the idea of cinema in your earlier comment- there are still plenty of film festivals and film societies (not that I'm a member of any) and so on, for the community to form physically, if transiently, but not just a community over the internet.

I apologize if I was unclear in previous comment but you generally responded to what I actually meant, (even if it wasn't what I wrote). But I so far as "mainstream cinema" goes, it is as also a kind of genre, designed, in our case, to be about Serious Themes, etc, but to not provoke the audience with too much virtuosity- maintaining, in short, a level of decorum to pretend that the movie still needs to be taken seriously without seriously challenging the viewer in any way at all. That is what I mean by "mainstream cinema" and I tell you, I loathe it. A decent action, however preposterous the premise, still has more credibility in my book- I would take Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter over King's Speech or any recent Woody Allen film, any day.

Lastly, my college professor is avowedly hypothetical- you are not to draw any inferences whatsoever, either from his (non)existence or his (non)editorial!

[By the way, I would argue that the novel writing business (so to speak) might controlled even more by the publishing houses than film industry is controlled by the studios, inasmuch it may be more difficult for a self-published novel, say, to achieve mainstream success and widespread popularity than it might be for an independently produced film. Just a thought]

Joel Bocko said...

Shamus, 3 points in response to the young directors thing.

1) I'm not just talking in the mainstream, I'm talking period. All the exceptions I know of exist in self-imposed ghettos like mumblecore or neo-neorealism which, aside from whatever aesthetic problems I might have with them, have the most stringent limitations on what they can/want to do (that said, as I mentioned in conversation with Peter above, I think Andrew Bujalski is a genuinely great filmmaker - but I'm not sure there should be more than one or two Bujalskis).

2) To a certain extent, this is chicken and eggs. Is the film industry producing fewer interesting projects because it allows fewer adventurous filmmakers in? Or are fewer adventurous filmmakers allowed in because the industry produces fewer interesting projects? Either way, the result is the same so it's kind of a moot point I guess. The general issue is that Hollywood makes fewer adventurous and interesting films than it used to AND it allows fewer young, inventive filmmakers into its ranks.

3. As for why it bothers me, the point is admittedly quite personal: I am, and always have been, an aspiring filmmaker and while increasingly I set my ambitions toward creating something viable outside of the hidebound (and completely closed-off) film industry (a more exciting project, anyway), it does get my goat that I can't look around and see other people my age accomplishing new and exciting things with cinema, something that simply wasn't true of any previous generation. (Yes, I know there are young independent filmmakers out there and I'm in the process of trying to get in touch with them and find out more about their work, but they are quite buried in a way previous young filmmakers were not.) In a way it can be inspiring too - more to overcome & all but it certainly makes it feel less "natural" and more bizarre to even aspire toward such a thing. Like wanting to walk on the moon. It's a good thing that technology and distribution have opened up so much though, so that potential and opportunity can compensate for the strange lack of example.

As for the rest...

Re: "the idea of cinema", yes but these communities have an incestuous quality about them, and my point was precisely that cinephilia, however much its own thing, draws much of its strength from being connected to something larger and more prevalent among society. It's like a distillation of a popular trend, an avant-garde in the literal sense of being the forward edge rather than a marginal outlier.

For "mainstream cinema" I take it you mean middlebrow melodramas, right (i.e. Oscarbait)? Well yes, but this seems a bit of a strawman - after all, the films Denby explicitly mentions are generally the works of auteurs who manage to balance thematic richness, dramatic ambition, familiar conventions, stylistic coherence, visual invention, and personal idiosyncrasy to varying degrees (the modernism he celebrates lessens certain effects and heightens others but maintains the ultimate mix).

That's what I don't want to lose sight of here: the possibility that adventurous forms, ambitious content, and dramatic conventions need not be mutually exclusive. They certainly weren't in the 60s and 70s. There are other ways too, but as RAR paraphrases me (with admirable succinctness): "there has to be some give and take between the 'mainstream' and the 'high-brow' level, in order for a medium to truly survive." I'd just modify "survive" (literature and theater have survived, after all) to "thrive".

You have me intrigued if a tad mystified with the somewhat cryptic professor proclamation by the way, haha.

And as for novels, yes, agreed. Every institution has its gatekeepers. In a way the film industry, in its crass and vulgar way, is more honest about its exclusivity than others.

Joel Bocko said...

Oh, and ironically I have been using these comments to distract myself from tweaking a screenplay I'm working on, on a day where I don't have work till 8pm and have had all day to get to it. Bemoaning the lack of young people making movies is a quite convenient way to avoid actually making movies as it turns out. I'll try putting my phone on airplane mode at least for an hour or two, lol. But keep commenting in the meantime - I'm greatly enjoying the conversation even if I have to put off responding until I get a bit more accomplished...

RAR said...

I suppose that's my issue with the likes of Ceylan, Sissako, and Hong Sang-soo. They seem to consciously avoid indulging in what cinema does best, afraid doing so will rob them of intellectual respectability. That's part of the problem these days. Many cinephiles will measure a film's artistic worth merely by how far it strays from mainstream conventions. Jonathan Romney, for instance, wears such sentiments on his sleeve. That's not to say there aren't some inspired coterie films out there, but appealing exclusively to some overeducated elite shouldn't be something to aspire to.

Ceylan and Hong Sang-soo certainly have their strengths, so I'm not disregarding them entirely, but their approach to filmmaking can sometimes feel a bit academic, which will inevitably happen when you deliberately seek to alienate a wider audience and only appeal to an intellectual elite. Do you honestly think Kafka or Gaugin sat down and actually thought, "I don't what anyone except for overeducated intellectuals to find anything of value in my work. Thus, if a plebeian appreciates my contributions I will have failed." Of course not. The 'public' knew who Picasso, Joyce, and Stravinky were for very similar reasons. This point, in my opinion, indicates why Ceylan or Pedro Costa (yes, I know dropping these names in such a context will strike a nerve with postmodern cinephiles, sorry, had to say that) will never have the reputation or recognition of a Stravinksy or a Gaugin or a Kafka a century from now. I'll bet money a filmmaker like Pedro Costa truly lives in fear of attracting a relatively wide audience in a country like the US or the UK. Antonioni knew a film like Red Desert wouldn't be a blockbuster anyway, so why concern himself with such issues anyway.

RAR said...

Another aspect of modern cinephilia that's worrisome is the emphasis on eclecticism over great art. The result is standards get thrown out the window and people are labeled philistines for contesting the claims of others. Why must I be labeled a philistine for proclaiming from the top of Mt. Olympus, "the films of Hong Sang-soo and Sissako might be interesting, but they're NOT L'Avventura, L'Atalante, or even The 400 Blows. They just aren't!" Not to be combative, but it's just what I feel on a gut level. Why must one be suspicious of true genius? Instead everyone feels the need to curl up in his or her shell with his or her personal favorites, and goddamn if someone dare call them out on their opinions. Why does considering The 400 Blows or 8 1/2 your favorite film need to be deemed "safe" and "unadventurous". If we prize eclecticism over greatness, we'll eventually have no standards by which to judge anything. It may all sound a tad bourgeois, but it's the least of all evils.

Eclecticism can certainly have a positive influence, but only within limits. At the end of the day, things could get dangerous if you start taking canonical works for granted, and this applies to all mediums, not just film.

Peter Lenihan said...

RAR, while I can certainly understand your ambivalence re: Hong, Costa or Sissako (which is not to say I endorse it), I really can't see a meaningful difference between Red Desert and, say, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and I feel like that Ceylan is the kind of film Joel wants to see more of, and the kind of film Denby is not seeing when he is talking about the apparent non-presence of sixties arthouse modernism in films today.

Also, while some of Shamus' and my points do align, I don't think the films that are coming out of Hollywood are as terrible as everyone else here seems to agree on. Are there as many great films coming out of Hollywood now as there were in 1933, or 1953? Of course not, but the implication that almost all Hollywood productions not directed by someone we've all heard of are crap is one that I certainly oppose.

RAR said...

Well, my issue with films like In Vanda's Room, Waiting for Happiness, and even Uzak and Colossal Youth, but perhaps less so with Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is they seem way too deliberately tailored to the tastes and predetermined desires of contemporary cinephiles, which impoverishes their ability to draw in the viewer on a visceral level. I agree Once Upon a Time in Anatolia avoids this pitfall to a certain degree, and the film has some brilliant moments to boot. Uzak does, as well, mind you, but it's not without its flaws.

As for Hong Sang-soo, he has a wonderful sense of humor, and he sure does know how to write a script, but my issue with him lies in the 'filmmaking'. Whereas a film like Jeanne Dielman, which certainly has a cinephiles-only tag attached to it, still 'lets the viewer in' so to speak, Hong seems unwilling to do that, as he talented as he may be on a verbal level. Much like Sissako with Waiting for Happiness, I sense this need on Hong's part to keep the viewer at a distance. When I watch something like The 400 Blows, L'Avventura, or even Muriel there's a "there there" so to speak. I don't feel that with Waiting for Happiness, In Vanda's Room, or Turning Gate. Naturally, you might just dismiss L'Avventura as being more accessible, whether or not you like it. In fact, I'd presume you probably are partial to Antonioni. However, I've often concluded in many instances the reason a film or any work of art might be "less accessible" is simply because it's not as good. That's not always the case, but it often is I feel.

RAR said...

And as a follow-up to all of this, I just think it needs to be said that not every film from a non-Western country that gets a two-week run at the IFC Center or at Film Forum or that's shown at some "Korean New Wave" festival at MOMA or the Museum of the Moving Image is a work of genius. That's what many cinephiles simply refuse to accept.

Shamus said...

Peter, I guess those are the perils of generalization. I try to avoid it and I guess was unsuccessful here.

But there are fewer and fewer decent films from Hollywood, and all of the films share a highly questionable style of editing and shopworn screen writing tropes which makes them all look and feel identical, even if they not.

Looper, for instance, might have been the revelation that everyone seems to agree that it is, but the fact that it never lingered on a shot for more than a second or two (especially early on), and that its screenplay made absolutely no sense, was kind of a deal breaker for me, even if the later scenes in the film had undeniable moments of interest.

And there is an undeniable cult of personality so far as potential auteurs who might be able to make something personal in a middle-to-big budget film (cf. PT Anderson), which I find distasteful.

If, on the other hand, you are able to suggest some recent films which can stand with the best of 1932 and 1952, I'll gladly look into it. As for films that released here this year, I liked John Carter, Hugo and Resident Evil: Retribution (although none of them qualified as revelations). Are there anything else?

RAR, Pedro Costa is a very fine, intelligent (and highly articulate- read some of his essays and interviews) director. His taste in Classical Hollywood films is exemplary. I've not yet seen all his films yet, but the ones I have seen impressed me a great deal. I'm not sure what your beef with him is

Peter Lenihan said...

"And as a follow-up to all of this, I just think it needs to be said that not every film from a non-Western country that gets a two-week run at the IFC Center or at Film Forum or that's shown at some "Korean New Wave" festival at MOMA or the Museum of the Moving Image is a work of genius. That's what many cinephiles simply refuse to accept."

I've never ever met anyone who sees things like that, although I'll grant you some cinephiles would be more willing to seriously consider that kind of movie than say, Resident Evil: Retribution, which Shamus cites below (and which I didn't care for all that much, frankly).

I'm still on the fence with both Antonioni and Hong, who I think are both really interesting filmmakers but whose work doesn't necessarily strike me as great. & yeah, I mean, I don't think Waiting for Happiness is a particularly good movie, so we certainly see eye-to-eye there. I'd go for the ropes for Costa, though, and put In Vanda's Room over pretty much every film we're discussing here (with the possible exception of Muriel). I know I'm just outlining taste here, but I think it's important for us to understand where each other are coming from here. I put The Strange Case of Angelica on my own imaginary S&S top ten, which I suspect is the kind of film you're railing against here, but that's where I'm coming from.

@ Shamus, yeah, John Carter & Hugo were really good. Also, Magic Mike, Dredd, Warrior, Get the Gringo, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning, for starters. Haven't seen The Master or Lincoln or Flight, though I look forward to all three very much (all directed by world famous auteurs, admittedly). I don't agree with your characterization of Looper at all, which I liked a whole lot, and will return later to comment...

Shamus said...

I too love Oliveira, and Angelica is wonderful, although I like Inquietude and even the underrated Talking Picture, even more. I need to see more of his films in a more sustained way, nevertheless. He may be the most refined, thoughtful, and avant-garde-old fashioned director in the world. (Without stretching the parallel too far, I think that Clint Eastwood, notwithstanding his recent cranky behavior, may prove his Hollywood equivalent, especially considering the amazing Gran Torino.)

And, Peter, thanks for the recommendations. I'd actually read your capsule review of Looper after I'd seen the film, but I would still like to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Resident Evil is not the kind of film I usually watch but I was intrigued when I saw that both Cinemascope magazine and Dave Kehr were speaking very highly of Anderson. I liked it quite a bit even if I still have some reservations (especially the middle sections with the fast editing) but Anderson's sense of composition is very fine (the use of the overhead camera angle is especially striking) and use of colour (esp. white) is fantastic. But, it still made me wish acutely that I was watching Fritz Lang's Spione again, [the greatest film I saw this year, incidentally].

What is missing even in well made action films is an authentic style, a newly discovered attitude- the sense of the actors creating new and exciting gestures; the cinematographer finding fresher set-ups for lighting a smoky room, for instance; or the screenwriter's efforts to alight more strongly on personal and political themes. Most of the Hollywood films of the pre-code era had strange, incredible plots and never an especially realistic or convincing way of depicting them as "real". But, boy, did they have style. But now, that sense of attitude is standardised, with shorthand in techniques to underline them for lazy audiences (for instance, the use of slow motion to emphasize the "cool" parts).

Joel asked (rhetorically) a few comments back whether the industry produced fewer interesting projects because it allowed fewer adventurous filmmakers or whether it was the other way around. I think that the tepid consistency in the output of even occasionally interesting filmmakers makes it clear that some ominous standard appears to be established, cutting across filmmakers.

(Disclaimer: I'm conscious that I've made a lot of ominous generalizations here. To forestall any misunderstandings, I'll add any exceptions that any of you could mention would only prove my rule.)

RAR said...

Just for the hell of it, here's my personal top ten (no order). This things can change from day to day, but here it goes, without giving a filmmaker two entries:

The 400 Blows - Truffaut
Vivre Sa Vie - Godard
The Green Ray - Rohmer
Red Desert - Antonioni
L'Atalante - Vigo
Muriel - Resnais
We Won't Grow Old Together - Pialat
Don't Look Now - Roeg
8 1/2 - Fellini
Before the Revolution - Bertolucci

Honorable Mentions: Last Tango in Paris, A Clockwork Orange (yeah, I like those first two), My Night at Maud's, Contempt, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, L'Avventura, Eyes Wide Shut, M, Ugetsu, La Gueule Ouverte, The Soft Skin, Persona, Through a Glass Darkly, Love in the Afternoon, Regular Lovers, Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Double of Veronique, Le Cercle Rouge

Of course, there are many other great films, but this is just a preliminary list, although I do feel guilty about excluding Bresson, especially since some of the films in the honorable mentions section are arguably guilty pleasures.

Shamus said...

Just to be clear: a filmmaker's style applied to a subject matter reveals the attitude. I don't want to conflate the two.

Joel, a friendly suggestion: would you consider un-moderating the comments, at least for frequent commenters? The delay in the response, aside, it becomes difficult to see what you've written, unless you have it saved on a word document or something. On the other hand, if moderating comments is something you've learnt from bitter experience, then I withdraw the suggestion.

Joel Bocko said...

Comments are now un-moderated (I usually have to approve them first because I spammers tend to get past the word verification, but given the lively discussion here and my own long hours without a phone to view & approve comments each day, figured I'd make an exception).

Peter Lenihan said...

Are movies supposed to make sense?

I hope that capusule sums up my enthusiasm for the film pretty well--shots in Looper definitely last longer than a couple seconds even if Johnson cuts too much. That dialogue between Daniels and Gordon-Levit in which the latter rats out his friend is great, but the close-ups struck me as pretty haphazard, at least on the one time I've seen it. And while I'm definitely a formalist at heart, I mean, films are more than images--I was really sold on how it both presented this really traditional redemptive born again plotline in this incredibly moving way, and then completely reverses it so that the woman that saved him, that saved his life, becomes the reason that he's killing kids. And I mean, that happens, that's real, but it's not something you get to see in the movies. Certainly not one starring Bruce Willis. Maybe someday I'll bang out a longer piece on it, but I think it's a remarkable work.

Shamus said...

Joel, Thanks! We have strayed pretty far, though.

@Peter (if you're still there) Some thoughts and a few objections:

[I'd expected a Bruce Willis actioner where he and his younger self battle off invisible foes. Of course, that didn't really happen. Blame the poster- it's misleading. So most of the time, I was wondering why there was so much dialogue for an action film.]

Okay, so first, the movie began with groan inducing exposition as though delivered to a particularly mindless audience ("This is called closing the loop," etc). Also, its crass Sociology 101, sportscars ambling past homeless people dying of hunger, tossed off almost as an aside really, bothered me. When the shots that did seem interesting: the swirling coffee, the 90 degree tilt in the nightclub (or is it 180 degree tilt?), they never lasted particularly long for it to register. Although you might argue that the cutting takes its cues from the drugged up lifestyle of the protagonist, but that's a non-argument, so far as I'm concerned.

Some of the later scenes (like I said) were done very well, like the spectacular scene where Willis breaks out of the mob (?) house, or the shot in the fields where Johnson frames Willis firing from the background at the boy running in the foreground. But they were not worth the whole movie to wait.

Then, there's the ending - The ultimate Oedipal ending - the "father" has killed himself and the boy has the mother all to himself.

As for plausibility, I don't buy it that a mob would go to such trouble just to kill people- they would surely invent a much easier way. And the whole "golden handshake" thing made no sense. How would the mob be sure that the Looper would still be alive after so long considering the druges they take), or that they would know where find them when the victims know that the killers are coming! But the movie still negates this elaborate, scarcely plausible premise when we see the mob killing Willis's wife in a spectacular fire which could possibly be seen from Mars (but the mob still insists on dragging Willis to the time machine). Such is the way of screenwriting today.

Search This Blog