Monday, July 17, 2006

The Trim Bin #31



- Two trailers of note: The Prestige, which contains not nearly enough Bowie but still looks very promising (at the very least, it has to be better than The Illusionist) and The Science of Sleep, which looks just plain delightful (I think Michel Gondry is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors).

- This week I want to talk about a troubling trend in cinema-related discourse, inspired by CHUD writer Devin Faraci's advance review of Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain. Some excerpts:

"I walked out of the film dumbstruck with awe, having just seen something brilliant. Brilliant is really the only word I can use to describe the film."

"I don’t want to create unreasonable expectations, but for me the question about The Fountain isn’t 'Is this one of the best films made in decades?' but 'What are the handful of films in my lifetime as beautiful and profound as this one?'"

"The Fountain is beautiful, gripping and utterly transcendent. It’s the best film of 2006."

Final score? 9.8.

The thing that irks me is, doesn't this review read like Aronofsky earned the extra .2 points? It reminds me of Entertainment Weekly film critic Owen Gleiberman's refusal to give any film an A+ on the grounds that only Citizen Kane has truly earned one. These ratings say more about the writers than they do about the films. It's partly a method of hedging one's bets, but it's also a statement of self-importance and, worse, detachment. Other ways that this beast rears its ugly head:

"The only thing I didn't like was..."

"That was very satisfying."

"Meh." (And I feel personally terrible about this one, because I suspect I may have helped invent it)

It used to be that critics like Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris expressed opinions positive and negative with passion; Kael, in particular, would laud a beloved film to no end and could mercilessly disembowel a film she found insincere or stupid. While film writers like Walter Chaw and Dennis Cozzalio have carried that torch, film writing is too often marred by a writer's attempt to demonstrate his/her own cleverness or insert a self-satisfied bit of snark. It's hard to believe that many of the film writers out there really love movies; their relationship to a work is indifferent and parasitic. Faraci's 9.8 is an insufferable stab at the heart of film lovers, smugly suggesting that it wasn't, y'know, perfect or anything.

Things that need to stop:

- Lists of a film's pros and cons. A film is the work of hundreds, sometimes thousands of artists and craftspeople. To weigh one like meat is an essential misunderstanding of the entire filmmaking process.

- Automatic dismissiveness of conventionally attractive people. Yes, there are a lot of meatsticks in film who get buy on their looks. But here's a dare: admit the competence of a teen icon. I'll get the ball rolling by stating that Kirsten Dunst, scatterbrained though she may be, is consistently talented, and her performance in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind deserved a supporting Oscar nomination. And I'm man enough to admit it.

- Condescension aimed at the reader ("You can't really appreciate The Matrix unless you've read Baudrillard.")

- The cult of "cool." This one is broader and thornier than the others. I'm actually a big supporter of the idea that pure style can translate into substance. However, this one comes with a standing dare for my fellow bloggers: write a rave review of a film that is totally square (I'm talking, like, You've Got Mail here). Avoid irony or self-deprecating humor. Really try to change our minds. Be fearless. Be enthusiastic. I triple dog dare you.

And to clarify, my criteria for a ten is as follows: an emotionally resonant, exhilarating experience that captivates my mind and heart for its duration. This is still pretty rare - I'd say there are about five a year (in a good year). But 9.8 is for sissies.

That said, films watched this week:

The Muppet Movie 10
Videodrome 9
Chinatown 10
A Scanner Darkly 9
Phantasm II 7
The Illusionist 4
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me 8
Escape From New York 8

9 comments:

Doug said...

Jim Henson was a god that was taken away from this world far too early simply because he didn't want to be a bother a taxi driver to take him to the right wing of a hospitol.

I have more respect for him as an artist than probably anyone else on that's walked this earth. (With kudos to the rest of his compatriots too.)

The Muppet Movie is one of those films that I will always watch and enjoy. No matter my mood, it always improves it. You can enjoy it as a kid, as an adult, and as an adult that wants to be a kid again.

Endless Greg said...

I don't know if you are familiar with the tastemaking music review site pitchforkmedia.com, but their review system is similar. A reviewer will write a glowing review of an album and then give it a 7.4 out of 10. The ratings seem superfluous, an afterthought. 10's are reserved for reissues of albums with historical weight, 0's are for bands the reviewer has personal beef with (they even gave a more-than-decent Sonic Youth album a 0.0, seemingly based solely on its disappointment factor).

Jess Conger said...

The Science of Sleep looks beautiful. I can't wait to see it. I saw Superman Returns yesterday. I agree with everyting you said about it. It made me 5 again. I couldn't stop smiling.

Max said...

Do you think that giving a film a grade of any kind (numbers, letters, thumbs up/down, et cetera) is also a type of weighing of its pros and cons? We all enjoy going to the movies for the visceral experiences they bring us to - but is it not also simply a tribute to the raw power of cinema that we can recognize, even in the films we anticipate with baited breath or rewatch with a different set of eyes, the flaws and successes of those artists (and the fruits of their labor) involved in the final version of a work of art?

Bemis said...

Doug - Total agreement. When I was ten I wanted to be Jim Henson. If someone asked me "What is postmodernism?", I would show them The Muppet Movie.

Greg - I think maybe superfluous is the way to go with numerical ratings (I thought you gave a great justification for awarding Brainscan four stars, incidentally). I started including mine every week to give readers some context about where I'm coming from - that I prefer Phantasm II to An Inconvenient Truth, for instance. But they're for fun, and I leave them out of extended reviews because I hope I can convey a 10 or a 4 with equal clarity. That's why the 9.8 troubles me - apart from it, the review reads like a 20.

Jess - So glad that someone loved it as much as I did. Regarding your livejournal post, yes, Routh-as-Clark is the bees' knees.

Max - For me, this isn't about whether it's possible to love a movie and still highlight the details (otherwise, my entire life would be meaningless). I feel like we just speak different languages. This is not a criticism; it's just that we'd both frame this discussion in drastically different ways (and I think there's a lot to be gained from the resulting friction). I don't measure things in terms of flaws and successes - Hamlet has a pirate attack deus-ex-machina, and it's still perfect. For me, it's a matter of feeling - something either rattles your bones or it doesn't. It's not that we all need to agree, or that a film can't be problematic and still have personal significance. I just have no use for critics who lack the courage of their convictions - if you love something, than really love it, y'know?

Max said...

I agree. I didn't take your post as criticism, nor was I trying to viciously challenge your viewpoint. It's fine that we think differently about the way we view movies. I don't really believe in giving a film a grade (I don't enjoy that aspect of my reviews for S.D.). I also think that repeated viewings of a film add to the layering of meaning involved in interpretation and analysis of a film - so the flaws in Jurassic Park that I didn't notice when I was 12 I sense today, and the flaws that I notice today in a film I might find positively charming in a few years. It's pretty rare for me to see a movie and be completely floored, totally involved with all aspects of the film (this happened for me with Oldboy, a film which after only half an hour I conceded was now part of my top ten favorite films). It's very hard for me to lose that specific type of detachment, precisely because the main reason I go to the movies is to learn. I love being enveloped in the experience, but for whatever reason it just doesn't happen that often. But yes, Devin's rating obviously doesn't match his review.

Max said...

Another recent enveloping, completely immersive film experience: The Proposition.

Endless Greg said...

Just for the record Max, there are two main reasons I think SD needs the rating system: 1) In many ways the zine is meant to be a hand-held reference, something you can take to a video store. so essentially they help with the glance factor. 2) The slam of "No stars" is so damn satisfying after giving a really contemptable film a negative review. Yhe satisfaction of giving an overlooked or underrated film four stars is similarly gratifying. That Dangerous Orphans and Band of Outsiders both deserve the rating is a testament to the inclusive nature of the Zine, and a declaration that films need to be viewed in context (an idea which still escapes many mainstream reviewers, amazingly).

As far as immersive experiences, I don't have them often enough. the two most recent:
Targets. Despite the dense self-reflexivity of Bogdonovich's masterwork, I was totally absorbed, on the edge of my seat. I also had the same thought: "This is now one of my favorite films."
Farewell, My Concubine at Images. Doesn't really cout, as I hadn't slept in like 36 hours. Also doesn't count: Candyman 3 on mushrooms.

Bemis said...

Candyman 3, huh? Now that I'd like to try. As for completely immersive experiences, the most dramatic one I've had recently would be United 93, which bypassed my critical abilities and just completely overwhelmed me. I've been holding off reviewing it until it comes out on DVD, in the hope that it will be easier to evaluate the second time around. And the last time I had that "This is one of my favorite movies" feeling was with El Topo - it's a wonderful feeling.