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.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Big Picture

A few days ago I finished reading a book called The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood, a book that examines the ways that Hollywood changed since the 80s as a result of the fact that all the majors are now owned by absurdly huge media conglomerates who see films as media commodities that can support their television channels and consumer electronics products. The book lambasts the present Hollywood studio system, dwelling on the way that mainstream films have ceased to be art and instead are loss leaders for ancillary products.

Now, the reason I read this book was because I read an article by the author on why there's less nudity and sex in movies recently. The reason for this is because of all purpose twenty-first century villian, Wal Mart, who consign films with nudity or sex to the 'adult' area of their video section, and refuse to give them prominent placement at the front of the store. Wal Mart is even reluctant to stock R rated films, which means that studios will lose a major revenue source if they put out films with the sort of content that runs contrary to Wal Mart's values.

Now, in the book he goes on to talk about how marketing campaigns are geared entirely to the opening weekend, which means they want a film that will make most of its money in the opening weekend, then get out of the theater so they can ride the coat tails of the theatrical campaign for the DVD release. So, they want films that don't rely on building an audience, they want presold properties, hence the huge amount of TV remakes this summer. You don't have to explain the premise to people, they already know it. The thing that vexes me is the fact that I seriously doubt most people under 20 have heard of Dukes of Hazzard, yet the film is targetted at them, so the brand name won't even appeal to your target audience. Why not make an original film then?

The book makes me feel very bad about the state of mainstream cinema in America, I've seen enough bad films to know that they really are churning out product, not art, and the thing that has me so annoyed is the fact that people continue to see these shitty films and buy them on DVD, while ignoring the stuff that is really great. It's reached the point where I've seen only one American film this year that I'd consider a truly great movie, and that's Revenge of the Sith, a film that despite being a prime example of the commodification of movies, also works as a stunning piece of art.

That's the crucial thing to keep in mind, just because your movie doubles as a toy commercial, that doesn't mean it can't be a phenomenal movie. Sure, your Star Wars or Lord of the Rings generates a ton of money through licensing, but they are also great films, whereas so many blockbuster movies don't even try to do something original, they just synthesize things that had been successful in the past into a 'new' film.

The book does give you a good idea of why most Hollywood product is so awful, there's so many stages a film has to go through to get made, it's inevitable that the auterial spark will be diminished along the way. It's a tough thing, as a writer, I'm sure there's a ton of great writers out there who refused to compromise, and ended up not having their movies made, as many as the number of writers who did write a great script, but ended up having it lost on the journey to the screen.

A while back, I did a blog comparing the current American film scene to that of the 70s, ending on the hopeful note that this summer of bombs would lead Hollywood to become more experimental and get back to the more challenging cinema that was dominant in the 70s. However, this book would lead you to believe that's never going to happen.

The reason for this is because of the Wal Mart thing I talked about before, and the fact that those more challenging films don't translate well overseas. Stars and effects are apparently universal, while more subtle stuff doesn't play as well. The other reason is that while the box office may be slumping, the DVD market is keeping the studios quite wealthy, which means there's not really a dire threat. Studios don't make that much money from theatrical distribution, and since they have no financial stake in theaters, there's not a huge need to try to help them out.

While the studios are churning out increasingly less artistic films, they still do keep indie studios under their wing, things like Focus Features and Warner Independent. These subdivisions usually do lose money, but they also churn out the best American films that are made, usually supporting auteur filmmakers with more challening projects. Looking at my top ten films of 2004, there were five American movies on the list, all of them from these mini-majors. So, that's where we're seeing continued support for more challenging films in America.

The only problem is this means that most of the best filmmakers in the country don't have access to big budgets, or big audiences for that matter. The sad thing is that even though I really wish that studios would make more challenging films, people are so conditioned to expect a certain type of story that they really couldn't handle more challenging films.

I showed Irreversible at my film series and a woman asked me, "Why would you watch this movie," and I talked about how it uses cinema to depict the way a single act of violence can destroy people's lives, as well as showing the futility of revenge. She responded to this by saying "Ok, but that's not an evening's entertainment." People just expect a movie to tell a story, to entertain you, and I suppose that's valid. The thing is, I find being challenged by a film much more entertaining than just watching a disposable comedy, laughing while it's on, but leaving barely remembering what happened. But, I view film as art and most people don't.

That said, the upside of America is that TV has become a medium very friendly to auteurs. Look at the story of Joss Whedon, struggling screenwriter, doctoring scripts, but unable to express his true vision. He makes a show and is given basically carte blanche to do what he wants, and as a result, he's able to tell a story with more scope and fully developed characters than any film I've ever seen. In the new highbrow serial type show, we see the mature subject matter and challenging characters that were the hallmarks of 70s Hollywood, but now with the added bonus of added time to develop much larger and more complex storylines. This season of Six Feet Under was better than any film I've seen this year, with the exception of Sith, and The Sopranos puts to shame even the brilliant Godfather and Goodfellas. TV is still looked down upon, but the work being done there is really phenomenal, and if I could do anything, it wouldn't be to make a film, it would be to be able to do a long form series on HBO.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

My Film Projects

Today I set up a little site to showcase the films that I've made over the past couple of years. I finished editing Ricky Frost yesterday and finally figured out how to make a managable file to post on the net, so that went up and I also put on Extracurricular Activities. You can get to the site here.

I'm quite happy with the way Ricky Frost came out, it's a fully realized story, and very stylish. I think it touches on issues that are actually quite relevant to a lot of people my age that haven't been discussed in movies before. It's definitely the most personal film I've done, most of the stuff I write incorporates stuff from my life, but only to build characters, not as the central plot elements, but with this movie, I tell a story that could happen in the world I live in, to the people I know. It's something that's worth doing occasionally.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Creative Projects

I haven't posted here in a while, and the main reason for that is that I haven't had the chance to watch that many movies or read anything lately, and that's because I've been spending almost all my time working on my own creative projects.

Last week I was spending all day editing Extracurricular Activities, the film I made with the summer workshop I ran for LMC. So, I had an odd relationship to this film, because I didn't have much to do with the creation of the story, or the physical shooting of it, that was done by the kids in the workshop. But at the same time, I was in charge of the whole thing directing how things were going and helping the kids get good shots. And then Jordan and I edited the whole film and put it to music, so I did a lot on the film.

So we finished that movie Monday and screened it twice, first for the parents of the kids in the workshop and then later in Jordan's backyard for our friends. It went over quite well, and a lot of people were calling it the best movie we've ever done. I'm not sure about that, but I found it interesting that people responded so well to a film that I really like, but find a bit impersonal. There are some artistic bits, but it's much less artsy than the movie we made last year in the workshop, A Cold Summer. Extracurricular actually has a pretty tight narrative, and with a few exceptions, sticks pretty strongly to the Hollywood rules, about goal-oriented characters driving the plot forward.

I'm not necessarily opposed to this, but I guess I'm unsure how I feel about making something so conventional. But, the important thing to keep in mind is that this workshop was about showing kids how to make a movie, not my personal expression, so getting paid a lot of money to make a film that turned out well isn't bad at all.

Once this was finished, I started editing Ricky Frost, the film Jordan and I shot over winter break back in January. It had lain dormant for a long time, but I'm glad to bring it back. The thing about Ricky Frost is we never quite finished shooting, we ran out of time, so some scenes were never filmed. This leaves me with some holes in the story I have to fill in during editing. And then we've got these massive dialogue scenes with no cutaways, which are very tough to make sense of and to make interesting. However, I was on camera for the vast majority of this movie, and it looks great. So, I'm trying to sculpt the raw material into a unified film. It's not so much narrative as just a look into some characters' lives at a point in time. I don't think people are going to respond to this film in the same way as they did 'Extracurricular Activities,' because its primary concern isn't telling a story.

As I mentioned a while back, this summer I came to realize that the mainstream moviegoer really does look for the traditional Hollywood narrative. They view film exclusively as a storytelling medium, and taking time to show things that are just beautiful is considered a waste of time. And in that case, this film will have some wasted moments, but I think they're beautiful, and it's my movie so I'm editing it in a way that pleases me first, and the viewer second. But, at the same time, there's some very relatable dilemmas in there, so people may respond, especially people my age. I know both Jordan and I wrote a lot from what we'd experienced, so it should be pretty real.

That editing goes on, and at the same time the first issue of my comic, Division Shadow is almost finished. We've got 21 of 24 pages drawn, about 12 inked, and I'm still working on securing a letterer, but once he's in place, the thing will be basically good to go. I've set up a site for the comic over at, definitely check out the gallery section, where you can see some finished pages.

This project is something I'm really proud of. It's been dominating my thoughts ever since the artists started on it, and my greatest problem is I keep coming up with new scenes for an already bloated project. And each new page costs me more money, but if it helps the work, it's worth it. I've been so busy with this film stuff, I haven't had a chance to work on new material in a while, which means that the artists are almost catching up with me. For a long time, I'd just had three scripts sitting there, and no rush to finish things, so now having to hurry is a bit annoying in the short run, but good in the long term. I'd really like to get at least a rough version of everything finished, so I know how long the book will be.

So, that's what's up with me now. Once I finish Ricky Frost, I'll have a lot more time, hopefully by Monday that project will be in the bag, and I'll have some time to do some writing on the comic before I go back to school.