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Welcome to my movie blog, containing reviews and articles. I've been writing since 2004 - with a short break during 2009.

CINECISM: RATED 18


As of 30th November 2007, I am officially rated...


It's been a long time coming. Part of the mission statement of this blog, 2 years and 176 posts ago, involved me bemoaning not being able to get my hands on most movies. In celebration of finally reaching 18, nobody got me any DVDs. Such is life.

So what have I learnt?

Well, if anything I've got more snobby. Film buffs, by definition, watch twice as many films as normal bods do, and get sick of the medium twice as quickly. Let me try and explain what I mean. It sounds confusing, but it actually boils down to something simple:

Most films are rubbish. And predictable. And lazy.

Now sometimes, you just need some trash. I don't have problems with the concept of an uncomplicated story, told in an obvious way. So far, so Hollywood. But when they just keep churning them out, and churning them out - lets have a love montage, and put some awful tweenypop music underneath so we can sell the album! True love happens! People live for a compressed 90 minutes, then wink out of existance! What a waste of money.

See one, it's great. See ten, its great. See five a week, and it starts becoming tedious. This is why
"All Classic/Foreign Films Are Better Than All Modern Films" is our unnofficial motto. It's not because we're snobby, its because we're bored. We've seen what modern films have to offer us.
OK, true love. America has given us the glossy romantic comedy. Britain has giving us Working Title and Richard Curtis. What do the Japanese think, with their more repressive history? Or the French, with their stereotypically permissive attitudes?

And it's not just the joy of seeing how different cultures treat the same issues. It's the whole package - the structure, the colours, the detail. This is when it becomes interesting. The English have their understanding of storytelling from the Brother's Grimm tradition. We have Christianity - the idea of a Christlike figure, whether it be Frodo or Obi Wan Kenobi, is there in the public consciousness. We have American comic books, coming all the way from Beowulf, with a proud, powerful hero defeating evil. These things inform the way we write and think, and the way we make movies. The Japanese have kabuki theatre, they have manga, they have Buddhism - they have a thousand little social nuances we'd never understand, any more than they could truly get...I can't think of any uniquely British social quirks, but you know what I mean? Even the British concept of a cup of tea is different to that of the Japanese. With such different histories, and different social ideas, how could their fiction be anything but different?

This is why I crave foreign films. Good defeats evil. hero gets heroine. Yawn. What about unrequieted love? Moral uncertainty? Anything for a change? It's not even that they're less cliched (ever seen a wushu flick with a happy ending? Martial arts heros have higher mortality rates than Spinal Tap drummers...) - they're new cliches.

Now obviously I'm talking about most mainstream movies here; I exonerate most indies. But if your film can be so easily boxed and packaged, then what's the point? Argue, if you like, that you don't watch films to find out what happens at the end. Surely the artificiality of the journey is enough to pull you out of the world, when you want to be immersed. I value atmosphere, and when you're watching, it has to be real to you - otherwise, it doesn't matter. "We had to do it this way, because every other film does it this way" is a foul excuse.

A digression on the last ten minutes of Rob Roy. Spoilervision because I am, of course, talking about the end. But arguably, it wouldn't hurt to read it, as I'm discussing the end in context of its obviousness.

In case you've forgotten...Archie, evil English nobleman, has wronged Rob, noble Scottish chap - pinching money, raping wife, shooting dog, burning house etc. The works. Now, Hollywood has engineered a climactic duel between the two. Who's going to win? Who do you think...

Rob had to win, because he was the hero, and Archie has to get his commeupance, because he's a horrible piece of work. Why? Archie's a professional swordsman, who doubtless spends hours practicing and showing off. Whatever Rob has to say about honour, he's still a highland thug with more strength than agility. The fight demonstrates quite clearly that Archie is the superior fighter. Then, when things are about to get interesting, and my father is nodding approvingly at how technically accurate and uncinematic the duel is, and I'm on the edge of my seat praying for an interesting reversal of fate, the Muses notice things are too unconventional and swoop down to make sure Rob wins in the nick of time! We've seen this before. Rob Roy would be worth an extra star with a different ending, the one where we think Rob's about to get killed...and then he actually does. The last thing we see is him falling lifeless to the ground. I'll even allow you some slo-mo, you've earnt it. Slowly fade to black, with Archie's expensive overtailored blue boots walking off in the background...Audience sit in shock. What?! What will happen to Rob's family? What will happen to his clan? But you can't let the nastiest bad guy this side of Gary Oldman walk off scot free? WHAT?!

The film we have: Rob wins - neat resolution, comforting end.
The film we should have had: Archie wins - the ONLY film you'll be talking about for months to come, and an ending you'll never forget.

Obvously, sometimes knowing what's going to happen is a good thing. Kubrick has a great quote I seem to have lost about this: the gist is, "at the beginning of crime films you suspend your disbelief, and temporarily forget your heroes will get their comeuppance." There is a difference between overraught cliche and knowing whats going to happen. Play it again Sam is a Woody Allen film. It stars Woody Allen as, you guessed it, an oversexed, nervous, likeable intellectual who's in love with Diane Keaton. Sound familiar? The "obvious" factor was increased by the constant Casablanca riffing, instantly signposting the end. Does it matter?

Yes and no. On the one hand, if you watch a Woody Allen movie then that's what you expect. That's what you want to see. On the other hand, if I claim that, then it negates the rest of my argument "then why did you bother with X if you thought it would be rubbish?"

My point is, there's nothing wrong with having conventions. If all films ran like Chien Andolou, with no reference to life or structure, then we'd get bored pretty quick. And Adaptation, quoted below, is answer to it's own question about having films about life, set free from cinematic expectation - it's clever, but tedious to sit through. This is less a rant about cliche itself, than the laziness that allows cliche to sneak in. I'd say my favourite films were consistant with these precepts: Butch Cassidy, School of Rock, Reservoir Dogs, Hot Fuzz, Dodgeball - they all live by consciously nodding and winking at convention, before roundly ignoring it as they choose. They acknowlegde it's there, then ignore it. Even Guns of Navarone refuses to be what it should be - a stiff upper lip, stilted, bigoted, emotionless Boys-Own.

One of my favourite scenes in Legend of 1900 is the piano duel. 1900, self taught piano genius has been challenged to a piano duel by the proud "King of Jazz" who intends to show him up in public. This scene hangs on the fact we know that 1900 can trounce him with a single hand and his eyes closed - we know he's got to win, and so does the director, so he just runs with it and gets the maximum dramatic possibility out of the situation.

Goddard says "films should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order." He's right. Why should things be chronological? Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation puts it pretty well too:
"It's just, I don't want to compromise by making it a Hollywood product. An orchid heist movie. Or changing the orchids into poppies and turning it into a movie about drug running. Y'know? Or cramming in sex, or car chases, or guns. Or characters learning profound life lessons. Or characters growing or characters changing or characters learning to like each other or characters overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end. Y'know? Movie shit."

...and his friend Margaret puts it even better:

"I swear, it'd be fucking great for someone to have the testicles to make that book into a movie, man. Instead of this bullshit all the time. Something not about sex and violence and car chases and love stories, people learning profound lessons. Jesus, isn't nature enough?"

This is what Peter Wollen has to say about "countercinema". At the time I first read this, I thought "hmmm", but now I understand him perfectly:
  • Classic cinema vs Counter-cinema
  • Narrative Transitivity vs Narrative Intransitivity (does the plot make sense to my mother? According to Googlebooks, this means one thing following another in a logical fashion vs. Memento or worse.)
  • Identification vs Estrangement (presumably, this is being able to say "Look, it's a Wise Old Mentor" or saying "This is a buddy-comedy-thriller" - incorrect guess, apparently it's empathy, a single focus and identifying star personas as opposed to "divided characters" and breaking the fourth wall. What that means i don't know, but there's nothing wrong with empathy)
  • Transparency vs Foregrounding (Erm, transparency is when you can see something...erm...I admit, I have no idea what this means...Apparently, this is trying to hide the cinematic process and making film a representation of the real world against presumably being more symbolistic)
  • Single Diegesis vs Multiple Diegesis (Are we dealing with StarWarsStyle single narrative, or a Magnolia/Babel style mess? Probably...Yup, I'm right. Unfortunately, this is where my Googlebooks preview runs out.)
  • Closure vs Aperture (My understanding of this is "Is everything neatly resolved at the end?" or are you watching Tideland? Things aren't necessarily satisfactorily resolved. I admire this very much. The reverse of this is, I suppose, the Tarantino style giving you almost no information about his characters - take Res Dogs, which only dribbles you relevant info on their backgrounds when absolutely necessary.)
  • Pleasure vs Unpleasure (Nice, Orwellian word Unpleasure. I disagree with this concept entirely - I don't think films should set out to unsettle any more than they should comfort. They should tell the story without dictating any emotional response. Hence my loathing of the "issues" movie, as well as my fondess for modern movie music over classic movie music. Give us space to feel!)
  • Fiction vs Reality (or rather, fiction presented as reality. Even though I love things which aren't real, I do like non-fictional presentation. Things like stupid irony, things like killing heroes without last words, stripping cinema of it's "cinematic" flourishes. Unless, of course, your name is Luhrmann. This lies at the heart of why I enjoy Tarantino - Pulp Fiction is an amalgamation of cinematic types (hitmen, femme fatales, godfathers etc), but thrown into a nasty reality. When Vince is looking for the case, Brett has to tell him which cupboard it's in: "Not that one, the other one" he comments. Well, obviously. Have you ever tried navagating your way around someone elses' kitchen?

As I said, it's pretentious, confusing stuff. But looking at the list again, it conforms far closer with my ideas of what makes an interesting, challenging film. Watching a film is essentially a passive process - you sit, you take in. If you're watching Classic Cinema, chances are you're on autopilot. This is what I mean by challenging - not single mothers suffering in poverty or anything, I mean something you need to switch on for. It's funny how many people who think of themselves as cultured and well read, will sit down to the cinematic equivalent of the airport novel without a moments throught. Miss Prism, of Importance of Being Earnest fame, incorrectly states "The good end happily, the bad unhappily, that is what fiction means". No it does not. Rather, the good and bad end as they need to. Carol Reed said something similar about The Third Man.

Now you may say "this is the classic framework of the hero's journey". Propp, Russian theorist, wrote about the structure of story so accurately that Star Wars, Die Hard, James Bond will still follow it to the letter. But it doesn't have to be like that.

Carbon copies, you can happily sit through without thinking, or concentrating, or feeling. Seriously, I don't think I've connected with a film emotion for weeks. I want to be out of the comfort zone. You get to the point when it's time for a change.

Why the vitrol? I have grown sick of watching movies.

Absorb the shock, then I'll continue.

Because when you start watching a film, you've no idea what it's going to be like, and I'm sick of watching crap. It could change your life, but it could be a wasted two hours. And the more films I watch, the more rubbish most of them scene. There are no new experiences to be had from mainstream film. I'm suffering badly from an attack of "Is this it? Isn't there anything else?" I look at everything on the unwatched DVD shelf with an attack of boredom, because I can see their plots and arcs stretching out without even picking up the boxes.

All this this happened a few weeks back, in a horrible sneaking epiphany which has resulted in me writing few blogs, and watching fewer movies. But it was no doubt exacerbated by counter-cinema Babel, with its wandering narrative, its characters presented but not glamorised or placed in set roles, and its absent, gorgeous soundtrack being interrupted last night for for overraught coming of age trash Take the Lead, about an inspirational ballroom teacher who tries to get no-hope hip hop kids off the streets and into salsas to transform their lives for the better. Will he succeed? Will he hell...

"...Or characters learning profound life lessons. Or characters growing or characters changing or characters learning to like each other or characters overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end. Y'know? Movie shit..."


So, todays favour is this: on the basis of my anti-cinema rant, recommend me a film, any film. But no "movie shit". And I'll put it on my very empty to-watch list, right under Miller's Crossing.

(the counter cinema stuff is taken from "Godard and Counter Cinema: Vent d'est." by Peter Wollen, and anyone who has a full copy in digital form, I'd be interested to read the whole thing. See also http://www.mediaed.org.uk/posted_documents/Indiefilm.html)

5 comments:

bbrown said...

Heh, I've been there. But are you asking for recommendations within the "mainstream film"? Because if you're open to anything, there's plenty of sources from which you can get good recommendations. One thing I've come to realise over the years is that if a movie has lasted 40, 50, 60 years as a Great Movie, it's probably because there's something great about it (i.e. it'll usually be a unique experience, even if you don't like it).

Directors that can change the way you look at movies: Bergman, Bresson, De Sica, Ozu, Rossellini, Herzog, Buñuel, Cassavetes, Resnais, and more... there's so much stuff out there.

(Let me know if you want a more precise recommendation. I'll do my best even though I don't really know what you've seen, what you like, etcetera)

bbrown said...

...and happy birthday!

Rob said...

First off, Happy Birthday! :) I hope you had a great 18th birthday and revel in the fact you'll be ab

Secondly, I can empathise with your feelings on movies at the moment. I've been debating with myself if I've been losing interest in the medium. I work through classics I'm indifferent to, but also avoid awful looking mainstream fare. Speaking of which, I've found the average age for nearly everything I attend (films, concerts etc.) is 55+, which is somewhat depressing.

But every now and again, something comes by and really blows everything else out of the water. The Assassination of Jesse James did that to me very recently, mainly through the pure beauty of the whole film. Persona did it through raw impact. But there are a couple of movies that really remind why I love film so much.

Requiem For a Dream is the first one. A bit of a cliche choice and it's a flawed film, but no other movie, before or since, has had such an emotional impact on me. I'd never reacted to a movie like this before and it jumped straight into my Top 20 simply by hitting me harder than any other film before.

Next would be Network because it's just the best damn writing, and probably acting, I've seen in any movie. There are contenders (All About Eve is certainly up there) but this one takes the cake by giving line after line, monologue after monologue of pitch perfect scripting. One of the best casts ever put together, as well (William Holden, Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, Ned Beatty and Beatrice Straight are all fantastic).

I know I'm always talking about it, but Aguirre really does live up to its legend. It's mindbogglingly good with what may be the most intense performance ever put to celluloid in Kinski's Aguirre. As I've said before, I first saw it when I was 8 and it scared the hell out of me. I've seen it five or six times since then and it has not once disappointed. Make sure you get the version with subtitles, though. The dubbed version is poorly done and distracting.

And finally, my number one recommendation for someone who has lost faith in film : Eraserhead.

No movie before it has created an atmosphere so effectively and held it, from first frame to last (Hell, if you get the DVD, it starts from the menu). It has so many images that will never ever leave you, no matter how hard you try to forget them. And I mean that in the best way possible.

It'll restore your faith that someone out there is completely insane enough to make something like this and to do it well.

I showed it to the girl I sit next to in English class, a quiet, mild-mannered lass who told me her mother had seen it before and refused to talk about it. When she returned the DVD, she said she couldn't get over how good it was.

And if you can't take the word of a friend of some guy on the internet, who can you trust?

So, those are my recommendations and Miller's Crossing, although a damn fine movie, will probably not make you take great joy in film as a whole again.

I should have been sleeping a long time ago, so I apologise for the incoherence and again, happy birthday.

Catherine said...

Happy Birthday!

I know what you mean, kind of, about being sick of film. One difference, I think, is that I've never been a great fan of pure plot, though. I'd be hard pressed to give you an accurate synopsis of many of my favourite films; but I could probably give you a vivid description of a scene, tell you how it made me feel, wax lyrical on the cinematography. I often don't mind what happens in the end, as long as getting there is enjoyable, thought provoking, interesting. Totally disagree with your dismissal of Adaptation as "tedious", as well.

But I'm going to take you up on your suggestion and recommend some films that speak to me. I don't know you very well and can't gauruntee that these will be to your tastes, but here goes:

All About My Mother (and everything Almodovar)
Jindabyne
Short Cuts
[safe]
The Squid and the Whale
Gloria (original, not remake)

Acually, take special note of that last one. It's most def a genre film, that accepts the limitations of being a genre film and totally has fun with the fact. Gena Rowlands is a hoot in it too

Will said...

I know it's late but Happy Birthday Emily.

I know how you feel about the generic hollywood movie. I tend to avoid at all costs the comedy that comes out these days. It is total crap. And I look forward to movies like Sweeney Todd because they tend to be not the usual fare.

I don't know if you have seen it yet, but the one movie that has really blown me away recently is Hard Candy. I have two or three other but I think I remember you mentioning them at other times. But Hard Candy really hit me hard.

Hope your trip to this side of the pond goes great. Happy Holidays.

 
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