Monthly Archives: March 2010

On Recommending Movies

When someone I don’t know tells me “I have to see it,” I can be almost positive I don’t. The reasoning behind this is simple: If they don’t know me, how can they know what I have to see, let alone what I’ll actually like?

Yet it happens all the time, and not just with me. People go around telling each other that they’re “Going to love it,” when so often what they really mean is, “I loved it.” The impulse to share enthusiasm is a good one, but when it’s misdirected, when the enthusiast confuses his taste with others, an unfelt frisson begins, one that could potentially discredit the recommender and leave the recipient wondering, “How well does x really know me?”

I’m not exaggerating. To recommend a movie is to know the person you’re recommending it to, to know a person is to understand them, and to understand them is, in a small way, to share a bond. Which is why I’m reluctant to go around telling certain people what they have to see. Only true rapport can convey that kind of emotional knowledge, the good gamble that there may be an equation sign between x person and y movie.

On the occasion – not as rare as you might expect – when a close friend recommends a movie I end up truly loving, I do in fact feel something like kinship. I feel the warm hand of understanding on my back, and I think, “Yes, thank you for seeing a part of me.” A part of me I might not even have seen myself.

What often ends up happening is that you learn something about the person who recommended the film to you. “Yes, I can see why x loves y! I would have never thought that he…or that we…” It’s a good feeling.

This is all to say that I can’t go ahead and recommend Deep End, Jerzy Skolimowski’s turbulent film of 1971, but a friend of mine did, and I sure liked it (I’ve posted a short clip above). But how did he know that this perverse, low-budget bit of kitchen-sink (sur)realism, poorly dubbed, and tonally fractured, would even remotely appeal to me, especially when, truth be told, I don’t have much patience for films in which fantasy (maybe) becomes reality?

Honestly, I don’t know my friend knew. That’s what makes recommending films – or books or music or anything – less a prerogative than a talent. To do it well, you have to see something others can’t. You have to see into people. And films. If you can do both, you can make a whole lot of good happen a whole lot of the time.

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Critical Condition

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, Todd McCarthy, Variety’s leading film critic for three decades, gets fired.

Oh, no wait. Variety claims they offered him a freelance gig in recompense (which I imagine would feel like dating your ex-wife). But other sources claim not.

I don’t want to sound like the unrefined, intellectually malnourished blogger Variety would like you to think I am, so I’ll refrain from using the hostile lexicon that has earned us the epithet “unprofessional,” and instead, put my reaction to this sad, backward news in the gentlest language I can: Variety is fucked.

T0dd McCarthy wasn’t merely a valuable asset, a fringe benefit to the paper, he was the paper. His knowledge was (was? Is this a eulogy?) far reaching, his sense of the business and the technical aspect of filmmaking unmatched by contemporary film analysts, and his prose style – if you went in for varietyese – cut to the showbiz heart of it quicker than any other. I don’t want to get hyperbolic here, but I’m sure that McCarthy was to film journalism was Confucius was to the Chinese. Get in, get out. Illumination.

He left no room for sentiment. He loved film, I’ve no doubt about that, but he was a scientist first – a surgeon, really – and an aesthetician second. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s the last paragraph from (what may be) his last Variety review.

Even if you know, or think you know, what’s coming at the end, the emotional undertow is hard to resist and is of a piece with the picture’s articulated philosophical position about doing all one can during one’s brief moment on earth. Gotham locations are evocatively but unostentatiously used, Marcelo Zarvos’ fine score stirs added emotional turbulence, and tech contributions are more than solid.

I wouldn’t feel the need to mention what film he was reviewing, were it not for its title – Remember Me.

When he got the news, Roger Ebert tweeted, “Variety fires Todd McCarthy and I cancel my subscription. He was my reason to read the paper.” David Poland’s headline was “RIP Variety.” Anne Thompson: “It is indeed the end of an era.”

Well, of course. Why else would a person read Variety? Certainly not for its hard-edged journalism and inside scoop. These days, everyone has scoop, and it travels at lightening speed with the click of the mouse.

The paper’s only trump card was McCarthy. But the morons let him go. Schmux nix crix.

What makes this the saddest film critic firing to date is that McCarthy was uniquely qualified in a field of unqualifieds. Where most of his peers had strong eyes and wrote nicely, few had the hard-earned means to consider motion pictures on behalf of a particular, insider market, in this case, the Hollywood community.

As the opinion epidemic spreads, making more heretics into kings with every passing day, it becomes clearer that each person, entitled to his point of view, also feels entitled to authority. They aren’t. In our own way, we can all address story and character and the various elements of narrative – a God-given impulse that stretches from the cities the farthest stix (rural areas) – but only a cinema surgeon like Todd McCarthy can tell the art bone from the tech bone, the B.O. artery from the market capillary and diagnose the patient’s various interlocking conditions accordingly.

But not anymore. The doctor is out.

Oscarnacht

Oh boy it was a grim Oscars. So grim I’ve put off writing this.

Now here I am and I feel like the Underground Man from Notes From the Underground or that guy from Camus (or was it Sartre?) who begins his book with “my mother died today, or was it yesterday?” What, I wonder, is the point of going on? It seems almost silly to ascribe significance to a ceremony in which Taylor Lautner makes it to the stage, but Lauren Bacall and Roger Corman are only allowed to wave from the audience. Yet therein lies the significance.

In trying to appeal to the young, in trying to stay fresh and relevant, and in trying to keep the show moving at the pace of contemporary attention spans, the producers of the 82nd Academy Awards turned what could have been a meaningful evening into a bloodless night of dinner theater. They made it Weekend at Bernie’s. The Kodak Theater was Bernie.

Admittedly, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been old too long; they’re right to want to try a new tactic. If their members do not reach out to young people, serious film awareness could and probably will become a thing of the past, and the Samuel Goldwyn Theater will become an adjunct of Cedars-Sinai. But tread lightly, good people of Mantilini: to revoke history is to revoke the very essence of your establishment. Giving Oscar a facelift isn’t going to make him seem any younger; it’s just going to make him seem not himself. Attend the tale of Sweeny Kidman.

The very thing that gives the Academy its gravity is, like the British Empire, the sense of tradition that once fortified the Oscar ceremony. Imagine what coronations would be like if Westminster Productions decided to bring in young royals and cut out all that old fashioned business about God and Country and the Henrys and Elizabeths. England would become a role-playing game, with Parliament instead of a twenty-sided die.

I love James Taylor, but the “In Memoriam” segment should not be a music video, no matter how somber the accompaniment (I couldn’t help but think, “Karl Malden is dead and James Taylor will collect swag.”) Nor should the necessary rundown of the year’s Scientific & Technical Award Winners be dashed off like a homework assignment in the moments before class. (This segment will forever feel irrelevant if it is constantly treated as if it is. In truth, the Sci-Tech Awards are just as relevant, if not more relevant, than many other Oscar categories. These are the people who make film work, literally work.) Want to make the Scientific & Technical Awards fun? Then tell us the truth about the amazing things these gifted artists have achieved.

Why were people dancing to film music? Michael Giacchino should not have to compete with flipping. Why Neil Patrick Harris? He’s fun, I know, but how is he relevant to motion pictures? And why such a long tribute to John Hughes? No doubt about it: his influence on teen culture of the 80s was as formative as Salinger’s was on the 50s, and he should be honored in kind, but when Bergman died three years ago, I don’t recall seeing him in more than a few images in the “In Memoriam” reel. Do you see what I mean? Something is terribly, tragically off. Perhaps the Academy could make up for it by financing a Bergman revival. Perhaps they could get hot young actors to introduce the films. But what would they call the series, Girls Gone Wild Strawberries?

Of course I know Bergman won’t keep people tuned to the television sets. I know that’s not a practical solution. But without the great legacy of film in attendance, the Academy Awards will become just another Bar Mitzvah-looking award show. And God knows we already have The Golden Globes.

P.S. I was there for the whole thing. As my date and I left, we saw Michael Haneke lingering outside. He was holding court in a circle of three or four people and he was laughing. He was laughing.

Kubrick Before the Chill

There’s a whole lotta Kubrick love going on at Not Coming To a Theater Near You. So I threw down for one of the greats.

To watch Paths of Glory, Kubrick’s first masterpiece, fifty years after its release, is to oversee the great web of Kubrick’s career. In each direction you can see a strand of thought leading on toward a film of the future. In time, the bravura dolly shots that follow General Mireau through the trenches of World War I, will become the unyielding long takes of Full Metal Jacket, following Gunnery Sergeant Hartman as he dispenses his savage insults to his platoon. The expansive white interiors of General George Broulard’s chateau, sterile in their civility, will be reprised to similar effect in 2001A Clockwork Orange, and Eyes Wide Shut, films in which places of elegance – like the barren theater where Alex’s cronies do their raping, and the site of the latter film’s famous orgy – are made desolate and cold. And Paths of Glory’s execution scene, as painful a moment as any Kubrick ever filmed, is composed with a stateliness that looks ahead to the excruciatingly paced duels of Barry Lyndon.

There are nascent proclivities here, but none is more pervasive, or upsetting, than the thematic strand connecting Paths of Glory to Dr. Strangelove—futility in the face of cold-blooded savagery. Looking at the iniquities of war, with its bloodsoaked barracks and Kafkaesque bureaucracies, there seem to be only two reasonable responses: one can either scream in horror or laugh in disbelief. Paths of Glory is Kubrick’s dramatization of the former; Strangelove, the latter.

Paths of Glory – a film about three men portentously court-marshaled and executed to justify the horrid incompetence of their superiors – is fueled by ironic tensions of guilty innocents and innocent criminals, a fact that Kubrick reiterates structurally, through his use of incongruous contrasts. We are not meant to laugh at the awful hard cut that takes us from the aftermath of an execution to teatime. We’re meant to recoil, as Kubrick does, from “civilized” apathy. Like Kubrick’s Humbert Humbert, Generals Mireau and Broulard are all manners and no man. Worse than mere pretense, their so-called refinement and intellectual sophistication is actually antithetical to human dignity. Paths of Glory’s court-marshal, governed by a cluster of highly decorated officials, is a display of vaulted iniquity, positing the formal values of due process over the needs of man. “Gentlemen of the court,” says Dax, “there are times that I’m ashamed to be a member of the human race, and this is one such occasion.” To be a gentleman of the sort Dax is addressing is to know nothing of what it means to be human.

There’s more. Please read on at Not Coming to a Theater Near You

Stiff Uppers

I’ve always been a sucker for a good thwarted or impossible romance, stories wherein the hero or heroine has to deny or hide his or her passion from his or herself or loved one or the world around him or her. You know, profane love.

Every country has their version. The Italians and French do it in opera, the Latins do it in Magic Realism, and the Americans do it in romantic comedy. But no one does it better than the British.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the English have always excelled at erotic sublimation, and I for one get a big kick out of watching them – I mean, their actors – suffer in noble silence. Yes, “noble silence.” Is this not at the heart of every great Jeremy Irons performance, from Brideshead Revisited all the way up through Damage? (Is he not the noblest screen sufferer since Liv Ullmann? [Yes.])

It’s actors like Irons that make the “lie on your back and think of England” subgenre so cinematic. If you’re not sure, check him out as Proust (Swann in Love), The French Lieutenant (The French Lieutenant’s Woman), Kafka (Kafka), either of the two Mantle brothers (Dead Ringers), René Gallimard (M. Butterfly), or Humbert Humbert (guess). You’ve never seen such cold passion.

In the seconds before Irons finally breaks down (and he always does, in an inevitable third act reversal), I always get that here we go rush of Fred Astaire approaching the parquet. His every wrinkle tells of bottomless heart pain beyond imagination, and each quiver of the hope to overcome it. When his moment of wordless eruption at long last arrives, you can’t help but feel a little bit grateful for the opportunity to observe, from the comfort of your home (or theater), nothing less than the destruction of a human being, a man thrown off the cliff of his very own beliefs. But of course it’s just acting. No Limeys were harmed in the making of this motion picture.

So when I heard Colin Firth was going to be doing the minimal thing in A Single Man, I got very excited in a very quiet way. Before I pressed play, I sat in my room, in a wooden chair by the window, stared out onto the street and just thought. If you were to see me, you wouldn’t know what I was thinking, but you would be sure that I was thinking something, and if you were to judge by the muted shadow across half my face, you might reckon it was something serious. You might even be affected by what you were seeing – a man, sitting by a window, looking out onto the street. But what is he feeling?

To read Firth’s face is to squint into the fog at a blade of grass thirty miles away. The only way to know what’s going on in his head is to be told, with a choice flashback, and Tom Ford tells and tells. But this is only performance by association, by implication. Critics love this – they went for it hook, line, and sinker in I’ve Loved You So Long – but remove the actor’s reactions from their context, and they present like the Kuleshov Effect gone bad. That makes Firth’s performance less a performance than an editor’s creation. Noble silence? No, just silence. Without those inserts, you have a man in a chair.

My heart ached more for Firth than his character. He’s a good actor, but no actor can overcome the kind of vacuum Firth was up against in A Single Man. When a boat heads into the wind and looses steerage, sailors call it being “in irons.” When a British actor tries to show you everything by showing you nothing, I call it “not Irons.”

The Arthurian Romance

Well, it had to happen. They’re remaking Arthur. With Russell Brand.

The original Arthur, written and directed by Steve Gordon, and starring Dudley Moore in the title role, is one of those almost-great movies with so much great and non-great in it, it’s hard to not not watch all of it, over and over again.

What it has is a sensational first half, loaded with rapid-fire one-liners so well-crafted, rhythmically attuned, and deliciously delivered (by Moore, of course), one can’t help but compare the high points of the film to Noel Coward’s best moments. The difficult thing about one-liners, as low-level productions of Coward and Wilde have famously shown, is that, when mishandled, they can come off as arch, or improbable to the point of distancing the players from the play. They can sound like spoken literature, not dialogue.

In Arthur (and while we’re at it, Arthur 2: On the Rocks), Dudley Moore surmounts the challenge by speaking his lines not to declaim the joke, but as if to entertain himself. And only himself. Watching Moore, we understand that Arthur, who laughs sometimes just to laugh, is an unyielding, almost compulsive hedonist of humor. He even finds his own laughter funny, which is funny. In fact, Arthur gets such a kick out of Arthur, he doesn’t seem to care that no one else does. That makes him a kind of stand-up deposed, and creates a pathos lacking in most contemporary interpretations of Coward, or Wilde, or even Preston Sturges, who often hurries his jokes on through without stopping for a moment to ask why.

It means that Moore’s Arthur, for all of his frivolous whimsy, is absolutely real. Chaplin had that too.

The first twenty minutes of Arthur are among the funniest twenty minutes of film ever shot. Then Steve Gordon lets it get sentimental, he pushes Moore to mush, and before our very eyes, Liza Minnelli (oh yes, she’s in it too) seems to shove a pluck-filled hypodermic needled into her best vein and overdose for two hours. It’s a shame. But that makes it good fodder for a remake.

If there is one thing in Arthur that never flags, it’s John Gielgud. As Arthur’s butler/nanny, Gielgud is unspeakably gud. Like all brilliant actors, Sir John had the rare ability to fuse one attitude with its opposite, and linger, somehow, in the gulf. To observe him negotiate irritation and devotion is to witness a lifetime’s accumulation of skill distilled into a single performance. And as a former Cowardian, and onetime muse to Coward himself, Gielgud knows his way around a bon mot. Tynan described the actor’s technique as a feat of nimble grace. In 1953, he wrote, “Gielgud, seizing a parasol, crosses by tightrope.”

As I write this, I see that Meryl Streep is rumored to take on the Gielgud part. I’ll alert the media.

Not My Opinion

Last weekend I was at UCLA’s Billy Wilder theater for a screening of Gerald Peary’s documentary, For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, a story which – spoiler alert – does not end happily.

True, Peary closes the film with a misty-eyed snapshot of Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell, arm-in-arm, leaving a cozy, small town movie theater, but it’s put there to help us look back, not forward. Looking forward is a much scarier prospect. Thomas Doherty, in his piece, “The Death of Film Criticism,” explains why:

The transfer of film criticism from its print-based platforms (newspapers, magazines, and academic journals) to ectoplasmic Web-page billboards has rocked the lit-crit screen trade. Whether from the world of journalism (where the pink slips are landing with hurricane force) or academe (which itself is experiencing the worst job market since the Middle Ages), serious writers on film feel under siege, underappreciated, and underemployed.

Why buy the cow, in other words, when you can get the kvetch for free? So says the younger generation to the old. “But the kids don’t know the first thing about movies,” replies the golden age. (Or as Richard Schickel said, “What I see of Internet reviewing is people of just surpassing ignorance about the medium expressing themselves on the medium.”) You can see where it goes from here. It’s On Golden Pond meets The Paper Chase. (Charles Laughton plays Schickel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays “The Kid.”)

The septuagenarians are out of touch, says the youth. The youth is under-educated, says the septuas. Of course, these statements are meaningless reductions.

The real problem is the new generation’s misreading of film criticism’s purpose. The new technology is innocent, as is the general drift of the reading-population towards the cheapest-possible (i.e. free) format. That technology is here to stay, so the fogeys should get used to it (Roger Ebert has, and he done beautifully.) What’s torn asunder serious film criticism is the erroneous belief, held by many of the new generation, that critics are there to offer an opinion. And – to follow the logic – because everyone has an opinion, there’s no reason why this arbitrary group should be elevated to the level of special elite.

As a member of the new generation, I have a sense of why this is. Growing up post-modern products of a deconstructionist age, wherein our liberal arts colleges taught us the death of the author has rendered analysis a free-for-all, and each of our $40,000 a year opinions, which can be voiced in break-out study sections, is as uniquely perfect as a snowflake, it’s no wonder that my people are irked by the idea of intellectual authority, especially with respect to pop culture and media, our favorite pastime.

I was there when Academia became est.

Now everything is valid if you “feel” it. Now we “feel” Kubrick’s intention. We “feel” Barry Lyndon was too long. We don’t “think” it’s too long. No, not any more. The democratization of intellectual authority has done away with all that. (How do you feel about that last statement?)

But film critics aren’t there to offer their feelings. They’re there to offer insight. And while every one of us, no matter what our training, can bring thoughtfulness to the understanding of a motion picture, only a select group, who knows their history, their theory, and has a basic understanding of the realities of production, can bring serious, comprehensive intelligence. Feelings are for book groups.

I’m not getting Ayn Rand on you, so let’s be clear. Everyone’s invited. Whether you’re young or old, a blogger or a print journalist, come join the serious conversation. Just leave your opinions in the lobby. Serious film criticism is begging you.