Sunday, December 09, 2007

Film in 2007: A Medium in Flux

The past few years, I’ve made a bunch of posts about the changing relationship between cinema and television, and with each passing year, the visual works that have really amazed me have been more and more on TV. This year is being called a great year for movies, but I haven’t seen one movie that I really loved, a movie that I could wholeheartedly recommend to people as a great cinematic experience. We’re approaching the end of the year, and I haven’t seen one truly great movie, and only a few really good ones.

Last week, I saw No Country for Old Men, a movie that’s being called the best film of the year by a wide range of critics. Personally, I liked the film better the first time the Coens made it when it was a pop, scrappy B movie called Blood Simple. No Country isn’t a bad movie, but it never gave me a charge. The plot wasn’t predictable, but the film style was. Once I figured out there was no music, and they were shooting from a restrained, objective style, I just sort of settled in, and was never really wowed again. Was I surprised by developments late in the film? Yes, but the problem is, as a two hour film, it’s hard to make me engage with the characters in a way that makes me really care about that surprise.

It’s a loose connection, drugs mainly, but watching the film, none of the characters had half the pizzazz of even minor players on The Wire. The thing that long form TV shows can do that features can’t is let the characters just exist. In screenwriting, tightness is admired. If you put a gun on the wall in the first act, it’s got to go off in the third act. The mother in this film has to factor in later because she’s talked about early on. At this point, it takes a truly fucking amazing story to make me care about the characters in a film.

The thing that changed that was watching long form TV series. The best TV shows create fully realized world. In The Wire, a character can just be there, not serving a narrative purpose, rather existing until he’s needed again. Someone like Bodie doesn’t need to be in the show after the first season, but he’s an interesting character, and it’s nice to spend time with him. The gun on the wall doesn’t have to fire in the third act, maybe it just looks nice on the wall.

I think Bodie, to choose a random example, is a more interesting character than Welyn because Welyn is always subject to the needs of the narrative. Because the film is only two hours, shortcuts are used to show us who he is. We see the truck, we see his home life, we know the guy. But, we don’t really. We’re dropped in at a point in his life when something interesting happens. The longform nature of The Wire means that we can really become a part of the characters’ lives, and understand their entire world. There’s story that happens, but the real point of the work is to create a world.

Those shows have been so successful that they’ve turned narrative cinema as we knew it in the past into a second rate medium. It baffles me that a film like No Country could get so much enthusiasm, is a competently executed film enough to make people go nuts, to be ranked the sixteenth greatest film ever made on IMDB?! The filmmaking is solid, but solid isn’t exciting. I don’t get a charge out of watching a “well made” film because I can watch a well made epic in The Wire. On TV, there’s less of a need for showy craft because they can create truly interesting and fully developed characters and worlds. In a movie, just telling a story in well done way doesn’t do it anymore.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love movies, I just think they have to operate in a different way. TV has taken over stories, that’s gone as we knew it. What movies can do is tell stories in a way that TV can’t. That’s where style comes in. Wong Kar-Wai is the template for me, his films are not narrative based, instead they are about using film style to represent character emotion and create a really visual filmic experience. His movies could not be done on TV because they are about perfectly executed dazzling setpieces that immerse you deeply in platonic concepts of emotion. Looking at 2046, there is a narrative in there, but the specifics are stripped back to instead leave you with this overwhelming emotional force. It’s a perfect use of what only cinema can do.

Miami Vice is another great example of this, a film that also falls in the territory of The Wire. However, unlike The Wire, it chooses to dwell in an emotional place. The camerawork draws you into the characters’ lives and provides a constant string of visual spectacle. The visuals and music are entertaining, without any narrative attached to them, but the real purpose is to use these enveloping visuals to make us feel the relationship between Isabella and Sonny.

Looking at this year, the best movie so far has been Death Proof. What Death Proof did was decentralize the narrative and instead let us just hang out with the girls in the first half. The specifics conflict is not really spelled out, instead we just get the emotion of moments like Julia texting her boyfriend. And, throughout Tarantino is wowing us with the spectacle of his dialogue and the pitch perfect cinematography and musical choices. He is showing us a place and letting us hang out there. Narrative occasionally enters the film, but the real focus is the hanging out.

Planet Terror, its grindhouse counterpart, is another fantastic film. This was a movie that went so far over the top, the joy is in watching Rodriguez push his film to comical, grotesque heights. In both Terror and Death Proof, there’s so much joy in the filmmaking itself, such a love of the material, it’s infectious. It’s this pop fantasia that separates those films from most horror films.

Other than that, there’s not much to speak about for this year. I saw There Will Be Blood the other day, which I can’t fully review for a couple of weeks thanks to a press blackout, but I’ll just say that it lacks the pop dynamism of Anderson’s other films, and is marred by an awfully hammy Daniel Day Lewis performance. Rather than use film technique to let us feel character emotion, as in Magnolia, Anderson just lets Lewis go nuts, to the point that he completely loses touch with reality. I never at one point got the sense that this was not a performance, that it was a real person. It baffles me that he’s in consideration for a best actor award, the guy should get some cheese to go with that ham.

It disappointed me because there were some great moments in there, but again, critics are hailing Anderson for the film’s “maturity,” which is a code word for boring, unobtrusive filmmaking. When you can do much with the medium, just sitting back and letting things happen is pointless. I don’t want minimalism, I want filmmaking that creates stirring emotional moments, the sort of filmic crescendos you can only get in movies. Look at a moment like Pocohontas’s arrival in England in The New World, that is a just awe inspiring moment because of the full combination of screenwriting, shot choice, music choice and performance. You couldn’t get that awe if you used a more minimalist style.

To use Anderson’s own work, what makes Magnolia so special is the way cinematic technique is used to make us emotionally engage with these characters. Look at the audacious “Wise Up” sequence, that sequence gets to me so much, and just those elegant, silent push in shots of the characters do so much. Blood lacks that grandeur, it’s like Anderson saw his sets and decided he didn’t have to do anything more, just sit back and film it. Coming off the formal experimentation and virtuosity of his past three films, it’s distressing to watch him retreat to a more hands off style.

It’s not mature to make movies like that, it’s that adolescent notion that ‘realism’ is somehow more valid than fantasy. Wong Kar-Wai movies may not look like the real world, but they feel like my subjective experience of reality. There are moments in Miami Vice that feel like what I’ve done in my own life, and that’s what cinema can do, that TV cannot, capture our internal feelings. But, it can only be done through the use of film technique that can be considered “showy” or “intrusive.” But, believe me, the unreality of the “Wise Up” sequence pales in comparison to the unreality of Lewis’s film closing histrionics. It’s particularly disappointing coming off the lighter, but still magical Punch Drunk Love, a decidedly underrated film.

So, if this is a great movie year, what are the great movies? What do I need to see that I missed? People who’ve read the blog know my taste, so perhaps they could recommend this year’s Domino, the kind of crazy, but great film that can slip through the cracks.


Anonymous said...

Brand Upon A Brain!... a must see

Graham K said...

Whoa! I didn't realize my inner monologue had its own blog. Seriously, we're totally on the same wavelength (except, perhaps, for your thoughts on Southland Tales-- though I do agree that it would have been much better if it had been shortened considerably). Your writing is captivating! Can't wait to read more :)

- Graham

warmth of the sun said...

I meant, "Brand Upon The Brain!"
YouTube clip.

Robert Temuka said...

Who is calling this a great year for movies? Personally, I've found it to be a fairly lacklustre year, although I was hugely impressed by The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford when I saw it recently. It is very slowly paced, but has fantastic performances and a crushing sense of inevitability, making it my favourite film of the year.

Patrick said...

I've got to see Assassination of Jesse James, I've heard really good things, and the cast is stellar. So, it's on the list, and Brand Upon the Brain is too, though there doesn't seem to be a DVD release out there.

Jacob said...

Two that I saw recently and really liked -

The new SLEUTH, whose pleasure is very straightforward and uncomplicated: watching a couple fine actors (Caine and Law) ripping into each other with zesty dialogue for ninety minutes.

MICHAEL CLAYTON. It reminded me a lot of "The Insider." It lacks Mann's visual pizazz (although it had a couple really gorgeous sequences all the same) but it really got me intellectually and emotionally; it's a serious movie of ethics and issues without being didactic or obvious, and showcases some sharp writing and sharp performances.

I'm also admittedly fond of movies that give you a window into a part of the world, or a job, or a lifestyle, that you wouldn't ordinarily see otherwise. Not being a member of a world-class law firm, I can't speak to Michael Clayton's veracity, but it feels truthful and well-researched, not like a Hollywood idea of what that would be like.

mala said...

I don't exactly know your taste, but Magnolia is also one of my favorite films ever, so maybe you'll enjoy The Edge of Heaven as much as I did, which was a lot.
(By the way, I started watching the pilot episode of "Babylon 5", and it was so bad I couldn't believe it! I googled and found your post, which convinced me to keep watching till things get more interesting. We'll see...)

Patrick said...

I'm really looking forward to The Edge of Heaven, Head-On was one of my favorite films of recent years, really intense and powerful.

As for B5, it takes its time to get going. The first episode is really awful, the first season has some ok moments, but generally isn't that good. However, in season two things really pick up and the rest of the show is pretty great. The filmmaking is never that good, but the scope of the story makes up for it. I'm recommend sticking with it, though there definitely are some weak episodes mixed in there.

Mauricio said...

Mmmmmmm. Basically, what you are saying is that you don't like minimalistic films that force you to look, with a certain detachment, the way reality (or at least the “diegesis”, the inner reality of the movie) unfolds. That’s the reason, I guess, why you don’t like the very emotionally demanding Million Dollar Baby, but you think Domino is great just because it’s visually crazy (but extremely puerile and sort of stupid in it’s pop masturbatory complacency). It’s all very postmodern, of course, but I don’t know… At the end of the day, it seems to me that you only want to be entertained (in a self referential flashy way) and are not willing to put the effort. I mean, what to make then of Ozu, Bresson or Tarkovsky; directors that are not flashy, but create an aesthetic that is actually quiet striking and beautiful if you’re willing to watch it without expecting a cut every 5 seconds. It may not be fast, but it’s feels quite transcendent. That’s actually the reason why Von Trier put out the Dogma 97, to try to subvert that idea. Maybe, also, that’s the reason behind your obsession with superheroes. I mean, how about some Art Spiegelman or Adrian Tomine for a change? They’re not flashy or crazy, but much more demanding in an intellectual way than the last Superman. Less is more, because less is more complex. Still, great and very engaging blog. Merry Christmas from México.

Jacob said...

Man, Adrian Tomine is about as intellectually demanding as a Husker Du CD. His chief appeal is not his warmed-over Raymond Carver impersonation but his crisp, detailed linework. His people, though, feel ripped from the pages of a bright eighteen-year-old's creative writing notebook.

Drawing imaginary distinctions between superheroes and everything else and demanding that people take sides is reactionary silliness. Those of us who can walk and chew gum at the same time somehow manage to handle both. I can't speak for Patrick, but my Kirby and Ditko sit comfortably next to my Kolchalka and Dylan Dog and somehow, some way, my brain hasn't exploded yet. Maybe I'm just that awesome.

Patrick said...

I'll admit Domino isn't a particuarly emotionally challenging film, and by no means would I want every movie to be like Domino. What jumped out to me about that movie was the sheer audacity of the style, the way the cutting and film processing turned it into a nearly avant garde film wrapped inside a blockbuster action movie. If Kenneth Anger had made that movie, and it's not so far off from what he did, it'd be playing at MoMA, instead Tony Scott did it and it's a critically lambasted bomb.

I did enjoy Million Dollar Baby, but one of the points of the piece is that a movie like that doesn't work for me like it did for some people after watching longform TV works, like The Wire. Watching really longform stuff makes you just aware of how contrived the three act structure is, and how manipulative most films are when it comes to creating character arcs. Look at a film like Zodiac, I can practically see the screenwriter thinking, this detective is a bit quirky and I want to endear him to the audience, let's have him eat animal crackers all the time.

Now, part of this may come from studying so much film, I can't get lost in stories in the same way that the 'average viewer' does, and need stylistic flourishes to gloss up a film.

As for Ozu/Bresson, I've seen some stuff from them, but it just didn't do it for me. I don't think that minimalism is necessarily the best way to tell a story. Occasionally it can work, as in the perfectly scripted and acted Before Sunset, but a lot of the time minimalism winds up just being boring.

I do think there's a fundamental divide in art cinema between the Ozu school and the Godard school, the minimalism versus the pop stylists. Today, on the Ozu side you've got someone like Kim Ki-Duk and a lot of other Asian directors. I actually really like Kim's film, minimalist though they are because he's able to extract a lot of emotion from the viewer, and tells his stories in an interesting visual way.

I think part of the problem with watching 50s/60s European art films is that the pacing was already slow back then, and movies have sped up so much, it can seem almost glacial today. It's best to watch a whole bunch in a row, then you can get in the mindset and appreciate them, but watching just one is tough.

Ultimately, I am of the more is more school. But, I don't think films with a high emphasis on visual style need to be shallow. Directors like Wong Kar-Wai and Terence Malick have almost overwhelming style, but are alos deeply emotional. The New World affects me on a deeper level than Million Dollar Baby. To use a cheesy line, Million Dollar Baby tugs on your heartstrings, The New World tugs on your soulstrings. The same is true for 2046 or Days of Heaven, these are films that remove you from the viewer perspective. You're not watching something happening to the characters, you're experiencing it just as they are. I think that's a powerful use of cinema, and a lot more than just doing a cut all the time.

But, ultimately film is instinctual. What one person loves, another might not, and my taste now is definitely impacted by having experienced so many longform dramas that change your expectation for narrative and character depth.

As for comics, I've read a lot of art comics, I read Maus, I read Jimmy Corrigan, I read La Perdida and these books worked to varying degrees. I loved Jimmy Corrigan, but I don't think Maus is anywhere near as strong as Moore or Morrison's best work. It's emotionally affecting and deep certainly, but it's a work I repsected more than really enjoyed.

And, a lot of indie comics are plagued by genre familiarity. The tone of La perdida is similar to many other autobio cartoonist comics I've read. I just didn't enjoy the book that much, it didn't pop for me in the way the best stories do.

Admittedly, I've been reading/writing about a lot of superhero books lately, but when they're written by Grant Morrison or Jack Kirby, it's going to be great, and a great comic is a great comic, superhero or not. But, I've read a ton of non-superhero stuff, a lot of Vertigo books and a lot of indies.

A lot of this goes back to the inherent bias a lot of people have against fantasy works. Realism is not a sign of quality, to quote Alan Moore "The idea that Art should, only ever be a mirror to reality has always seemed ass-backwards to me, given that Art is always and everywhere well-groomed and impeccably turned out, whereas Reality wears a pair of two-year-old Adidas trainers and a Toy Story T-shirt. As far as I’m concerned, it’s rather the job of reality to try and reflect Art. The purpose of Art is not to mirror reality, but to shape it by the imprints and aspirations that it leaves in the human mind. "

But, definitely throw back some thoughts, I love to talk about this kind of stuff, and it does make more think more and why I like the kind of stuff I like, and what I can to expand my taste.

Mauricio said...

Well, good comments. Let’s see.
1. It’s not a bias against fantasy works. On the contrary, I love fantasy works. I just don’t like limited, conventional and conservative work like the 95% of superheroes comics out there. I enjoy Alan Moore, the pre sin city Frank Miller and some of Morrison and Gaiman work for different aesthetic reasons, but they all seem to have one thing in common: they’re extremely subversive towards the notion of the superhero. They all seem to grasp the extremely reactionary and religious quality that the superhero culture inflects on some people, and reflect on it with intelligence and insight. I had a funny discussion the other day with a friend: he said that there’s a point in your life where you make a choice about fantasy and cinema: either you thin k about fantasy in adult terms –and you embrace the work of people like David Cronenberg or Jan Svankmajer-, or delude yourself in the idea that Tim Burton and George Lucas are great filmmakers. My friend is full of crap, of course. Ha ha. I mean, I enjoy some of Tim Burton’s work and the occasional pop corn movie, but there’s some truth in that, I think.
2. I don’t think movies, or for that matter, art in general should portrait reality in a hipernaturalistic manner. As Godard said, cinema is about telling lies to reveal big truths. Actually, why should cinema tell a story in conventional narrative terms? Why a story at all? I once attended a Peter Greenaway conference here in México. He said that cinema was constrained by a “story dictatorship”, and that basically was in a “precubist” age. And what Picasso did with cubism –portraying reality from his own fragmented mind to the canvas--, the great film artists should do with cinema, if cinema was meant to survive as art. That’s why I think Mulholland drive and Inland Empire are extremely important films; more than telling a story, it’s about feelings and obsessions toward certain motifs. They’re about the life of the mind.
3. Clint Eastwood movies are very classical in aesthetic terms nothing wrong with that), but full of complexities about the human soul, the violence of existence and the true nature of heroism and myth. I don’t know, you make him look like a corny guy. Come on!
4. Tomine, yes, sometimes is too full of the teenager I’m a loser vibe. But there’s a couple of very short and disturbing stories in the first issues of optic nerve that, well, are pretty much in synch with the best Raymond Carver.
5. I like your view on Tony Scott’s work. I hated Domino and what it seems innovative fragmentation to you is senseless masturbation to me. The texture of the image seems so fake and boring that even Tom Waits seems uninteresting. But, yeah, your take it’s interesting. I'm gonna give it another look.
6. It’s not a matter of I like this and therefore I don’t like that. I definitely agree with your view on Malick and Michael Mann. Film as a vortex where the sound and image melt in an oceanic sensation of rapture. Their films do that. Absolutely. But also Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Bergman an Ozu do that. They’re just different in the way they conceive the transcendent experience. I mean, are there more beautiful and disturbing and mysterious shots in cinema that the long close ups of woman faces in Bergman movies? Just ask David Lynch! These artists demand more effort form the viewer. But, believe me, it’s for the best: there’s also music in the silence.

Patrick said...

That definitely clarifies a lot of your points. I really like the idea of Inland Empire as a first step towards 'cubist cinema.' I think the tricky thing is movies have a wide dichotomy between what's popular and what's artistically valuable, and even most critics don't embrace challenging works like IE.

As for the classic art filmmakers, I really like some Bergman. Persona is brilliant, though I'm not as big a fan of The Seventh Seal. Antonioni isn't a personal favorite, but I certainly respect what I've seen from him. I really love Fellini's stuff, particularly 8 1/2 and Satyricon. Those are immortal films people will be watching a hundred years from now.

I think one of the encouraging things looking at past films today is that it's mostly quality stuff that survives. The schlocky blockbusters fade from memory, but the good stuff lingers. For some reason, everyone goes to see these films they know are bad, and end up watching the good stuff later down the line. That's the power of a good marketing campaign I guess.

Mauricio said...

Persona is brilliant. Actually, there are a couple of shots iun Mulholland Drive that are very remioniscent of Persona. And they share the whole idea of the doppelganger as well.

Anonymous said...

Scorsese once said that he wasn't at all interested in narrative for narrative sake, (and that is an awful paraphrasing) but that if one wants to have two characters tongue wagging that they can do that in a play - a place where the medium is made for such a thing. But film is a different beast.

And we're not talking movies. (I know, it's a play on words). We see tons of movies a year. Master Shot. Close Up, Over the Shoulder. Blah, Blah, Blah. Some of these movies have good stories and that's all most people care about.

And I agree, I enjoy a good story as much as the next person, but a film uses all aspects at hand: music, cinematography, art direction, et al, if not, then it's a waste of the medium.

Wong Kar Wai makes films, Junet (Amelie fame) makes film...Meirelles (sp) may not always do it...but he did it with City of God-an excellent film.

It's been YEARS since I've been excited by a film. But there's been tons-o-movies