Saturday, September 03, 2005

Scope in Story

I think one of the biggest problems in film criticism, and other media criticism, is the fact that most critics evaluate something more on the bad things about it than on what it does right. So, the best reviewed films are frequently the ones with the least bad things about them, rather than the most good.

This may sound like an arbitrary distinction, but it actually has a huge impact. If you evaluate a film based on what it does wrong, you're more likely to give a review to a safe film, one that doesn't take that many risks, so it doesn't have anything particularly wrong with it. Mystic River is one of the best examples of this, there's nothing really wrong with the film, but it's not a good film, because it doesn't do anything particularly good either. The film's problems lie mainly in just how safe it plays things, never doing anything interesting with the medium. People talk about Clint's films as harking back to old Hollywood, in their invisible editing and filmmaking techniques, and simple well told stories. However, as much as I enjoy some old Hollywood stuff, it's the fact that these films are so safe that makes them good films, but very rarely great.

If Mystic River is a prime example of a film that benefits from this critical approach, I think the Star Wars prequels, Revenge of the Sith in particular, were films that were hurt by it. Take a look at Revenge of the Sith next to virtually any other movie ever made and you'll see that in terms of story and visual scope, almost no other film can touch it. The film does so much, and the vast majority of it is successful, however, I don't think everything works. Natalie Portman was awful, some of the dialogue was weak, and there were a couple of awkward effects moments. However, in reviewing the film, people seize on these moments and use it to justify a negative review, while completely ignoring the fact that the film does so much that's phenomenal. Let's say the ambition of Mystic River is at a 3, and it acheives that, while Sith is aiming for a 10 and lands at around an 8. So, Sith may have more grating flaws, but it also has so much more that's good than Mystic River does, and that's why I think it's a better film.

I'd rather see a movie that attempts to do as much as possible and fails on a few counts than something that is completely safe and accomplishes everything it sets out to, but is trying to do something so small, it's not really worth doing in the first place. Now, Mystic River isn't a film I hated, but it's the fact that such a safe, routine film was considered one of the best films of 2003 and is still in the top 200 on IMDB. Sideways is another example, that was a film I did enjoy, but it was by no means one of the five best movies of 2004, it's this perceived shortage of quality films that makes critics shower praise on films that are solid, but unremarkable.

This is a huge thing in comics too. I read the first trade of Gotham Central, a book that got a lot of critical acclaim. The basic premise is a police procedural in Gotham City, and it's a servicable book, solid stories, but nothing you couldn't find an episode of Law and Order, and that's free, while you've got to pay ten bucks for the comic. That's part of the attitude in comics that TV and movies are superior mediums, so if we could just make something as good as CSI, people will read it.

The thing is, as a medium, comics can do things that no one else can, however, the industry is inferior to TV or movies, in the sense that if people want a story, they're not going to look to comics first. I know in my case, I got into comics because I saw the X-Men movie, and wanted more, and that led me to comics. However, most people are satisfied by seeing one X-Men movie every couple of years, the fans of the comics are the ones who need a bit more. That's why comics have such a burden, people don't look to them first, so they have to be good enough to make you pass on the DVD and pick up the trade.

What this means is that it's not enough for a comic story to be just good, it's got to be great. I don't want to read something I could watch on TV, I want to read something great that could only be done in comics. That's what Grant Morrison does, he's the best creative person in the world today, and his stories all take full advantage of what the medium can do. Alan Moore's another great example, it's no surprise that the movies based on his work have been awful, his books are so tied into the medium, and use it in a totally unique way that the medium and the story are inextricably linked. Someone like Warren Ellis may tell good stories, but you can tell he really wants to be making a movie, but couldn't, so he made his story for comics. That's what the whole widescreen action thing was about, trying to make comics into movies, instead of taking advantage of the medium's actual strengths. Most people get enough story from movies, they don't need more movies in their comics.

But getting back to the point about the scope of stories. All too often I'll leave a film saying that was good, but completely disposable. As an artist myself, I don't understand how someone could put in all the time it takes to make a film, and then make something like Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo. I think of making films as a higher calling, like being a doctor, you're not going to become a filmmaker just by coincidence, it's something that should dominate your life, it's not a job where you just go into the office, do 9-5 and then go home, it's got to be an all consuming passion. So, I wonder how people could make a film and create something impersonal and just there. Reading reviews for Red Eye, I saw a lot of three star reviews, to the effect that it's a solid B-movie, a nice disposable entertainment. The thing is, is that why you become a filmmaker, to make disposable entertainment?

Now, I guess I just assume that if you want to be a filmmaker, you'd have the 'evolved' taste to love auteur films and look down on Hollywood product. But I guess some people go into movies to make just fun things, but I find that odd. I wouldn't want someone to make a film just because it's a good script, each film should have some personal resonance and be an expression of the artist's personal passion. When you hear Wong Kar-Wai talk about 2046, it's clear that this was a story he needed to tell, a story that dominated his life for five years while making the film. Similarly, with David Lynch, each film seems to be an expression of something deeply personal, it's not like David just decided, it's been a while since I made a movie, why don't I throw something together?

What WKW and Lynch do is make films that do so much and leave you with a lot to ponder. Watching the film is really just the first step on the journey to fully understading the work. They create films that are visually dazzling and use the medium in extraordinary ways, and in that sense, these films aim incredibly high. So, if WKW fails on some levels, as a lot of his projects do, they attempt so much that they're much more rewarding to watch than the staid, unexciting filmmaking of Eastwood.

If you're looking at films that aim high, no one can match PT Anderson in the late 90s, with his two epics, Boogie Nights and Magnolia. These are films with at least ten main characters in each, and that are a virtual textbook on how to use film techniques to enhance the emotional dynamic of a story. In Magnolia, the subject matter is small from an objective point of view, but for each of the characters, it's the biggest day of their lives, and the film's finale is an emotional apocalypse before the rebirth at the finale. Boogie Nights tells the story of this entire family of characters, the history of porn in the 70s and 80s, and at the same time can be read as an allegory for the failure of auteur filmmaking in the 70s. That's ambition.

Now, the thing is, there's no reason why every film shouldn't aim as high as Anderson's work, in its own way. Directors need to try to tell stories that aim high and make full use of what the medium can do. This means not making a script that at its best is just going to be good, it means aiming for great with every project.

But here's the problem, we live in a society where films that aim for greatness are criticized as overambitious or pretentious, criticisms that Magnolia received. 2046 also was criticized for trying to do too much. Here's the thing, critics only see a film once when they review it, I won't give my final opinion on a film until two viewings, and particularly with WKW, his films are often ok on the first viewing, then stunning on the second, once you don't have to worry about plot mechanics and can just enjoy the visuals and emotion.

It's the same in music, where 'back to basics' groups are lauded, while the Gorillaz are criticized for using a choir in their songs, claiming it tries to bring the song a false grandeur. False or not, I'd rather hear a song that aims for grandeur than something that just is trying to match the dynamic of something from the 70s. It all goes back to the fall of auteur cinema and prog rock, when personal expression became linked with pretentious excess. And unfortunately, the age of 'lean' and 'efficient' being synonymous with good is still upon us, while the people who aim a bit higher are criticized when small pieces of their work fail, even if the rest of the work puts to shame the vast majority of so called art.

No comments: