Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Cinema 2006: Responsibility and Redemption

L'Enfant (The Child) (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne)

While watching the Dardenne brothers' latest film, I was reminded of Vittorio De Sica's Ladri di Biciclette (The Bicycle Thief) (1948). Like the Italian Neo-Realism masterpiece, this film tells a very intimate story one boy (or child), Bruno. However, instead of falling victim to the unfortunate events, this film depicts this character (played by Jeremie Renier) as the catalyst of actions that hurt himself, and more importantly, his girlfriend and child. In this film, the camera observes him and those around him so closely that as he makes mistake after mistake, what likely begins as passing judgement on Bruno evolves to sadness as we see the results of his actions and unwillingness to change.

Adopting a more organic approach to depicting Bruno, which includes hand-held camera work and very long takes, the Dardennes familiarize viewers with the nuance of this character, as if allowing them to peer right into his soul. But despite filling the story and images with heavy symbolism, the directors aren't overt when it comes to messages. Instead, their camera looks upon Bruno lovingly, as a parent would of a child who continues making mistakes. At the same time, as close as the camera gets to the boy's relationship with his girlfriend and following his every day actions, it never feels instrusive, and as the story evolves, its manner of capturing his action does as well.

While the film embodies many of the characteristics of a morality tale, it doesn't feel nearly as staged or preachy. As the story reaches its conclusion, we see the slightest bit of change in the boy's eyes as he attempts to take responsibility, but the story doesn't have Bruno becoming a different person or succeeding in the end. Rather, it shows him taking a step, which means much more because of how the camera has observed and depicted him as the film reaches its final heartbreaking and redemptive scene.

L'Enfant could have very easily been a fluffy inspirational redemption story, but, even though the story progresses along such a line of plotting, the film is more genuine because of how it follows Bruno so intimately while avoiding the invitation for the viewer to pass moral judgement. By subtly inviting the viewer to contemplate issues of responsibility and the consequences of what may seem to be simple but potentially very destructive decisions through the (real and symbolic) actions of Bruno, the Dardennes elevate the story beyond a phony morality tale that instructs its viewers how to think and feel.

L'Enfant is a close study of a person who makes wrong choices and slowly inches his way towards understanding his own motivations and how he hurts those around him. The Dardennes simple trick is in creating a narrative that (unlike other narratives) positions viewers not to be judging voyeurs, but to empathize with person who makes bad decisions. That empathy results from stylistic choices, true, but it really arises from the viewer's acknowledgement that every person makes wrong decisions. Every father may not abandon his son or mistreat his loved ones on the scale that Bruno does, but seeing his story depicted so honestly taps into all the little things people do to arrive at the same destination that Bruno does.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Cinema 2006: An Intimate War Picture

I should first note that I have not yet seen Flags of Our Fathers (though I will be doing so in February, when it is released on DVD). Most of the critical perspectives I have encountered concerning this film have approached it in relation to Flags, which is why it's pertinent to mention. More to the point, this film is a powerfully cerebral and emotional examination of organized violence that frames national ideology through the prism of the feelings of soldiers on the front line approaching their doom. It depicts the battle of Iwo Jima from the perspective of the outnumbered and nearly hopeless Japanese soldiers charged with the task of defending the island. One of the film's great strengths is that it communicates so much thought and emotion through very traditional storytelling and cinematic styles, i.e. flashbacks, voiceover letter writing, but what separates the presence of such devices in this film is that they contain subtleties that are largely unexplored in many other films, in particular war cinema. The film chronicles the feelings of various characters from all levels of the military - from the commanding General (excellently portrayed by Ken Watanabe) to a lowly infantry member - through the letters they write and the memories they recall while writing them.

The film is an intimate study of several characters attempting to uphold the ideals of country and honor but are most loyal to their wives and children. Eastwood also examines war from a greater humanist perspective, offering a subtle exploration of personal and national perspective while at the same time capturing the notion of how the institution of military and its ideals allows one to filter his or her perception of violence and the perception of the "other," or the enemy, and an understanding of country and honor. The vivid images of soldiers taking their own lives will live with me forever, and while they are capable of conjuring so much emotion, Eastwood's subtle exploration of perception and identity and how they relate to organized warfare is powerful and cerebral.

But Eastwood never slams you over the head with messages. The beauty of the film is its simplicity. Its themes may seem broad since they are the focus of many war narratives, but Eastwood's honest and contemplative narrative exposes many of those stories for how superficially they attempt to understand such issues. He is more interested in observing the inner feelings and behavior of those engaged in war than simply manipulating characters as narratives devices for pushing an anti-war messaged story. His film is far deeper and more knowing than that. His narrative devices only work because of sublimity with which he imbues the images of death and how soldiers react to it. It goes without saying that the performances strike a resonant chord within the world that the shadowy images have created.

Throughout his career, Clint Eastwood has attempted to grapple with mortality through many different storytelling styles and images. With each story he tells, he provides a uniquely different perspective on not just the ability to take another person's life, but the feeling of powerlessness your own is stripped from you, which is the focus of this film. All of the memories, thoughts, insights, and feelings of each man that dies in the name of some greater ideal is terminated as he becomes just another body amongst bodies. Every time a man is killed and his life drains away, Eastwood forces you to take notice where other films have not. He is not merely throwing you into the lion's den and making you feel the viscera of battle; he wants to understand the feeling underneath it, whether that be fear or exhiliration. He doesn't push any ideas on the spectator. His brilliantly focused story is instead interested in inquring into how a human being grapples with facing his or her own mortality as well as the worth of national ideals and ideas such as honor.

Cinema 2006: Descending Into Darkness

Neil Marhshall's horror masterpiece The Descent is an homage to the narrative style of classic horror films from the 70's and 80's. For viewers who think that horror cinema has something to offer beyond blood and guts, seeing this film is a nostalgic experience. Marshall's stylistic influences are many, from George A. Romero to James Cameron, but what makes this film so significant to the horror cannon is that it doesn't treat its characters as card board cutouts meant for devouring. Focusing on woman named Sarah as she struggles to deal with a monumental tragedy, the plot involves her and several friends spelunking through caves underneath the Appalacian mountains. What happens within the caves reflects the fear, rage, and guilt felt by Sarah, representing a physical and mental descent into darkness. But Marshall refuses to make the mistakes M. Night Shyamalan's committed with Signs, in making the actual plot too heavy on symbolism and lacking in any real feeling in the process. Marshall's images are capable of representing or symbolizing many things (For more on this, check out Jim Emerson's excellent imagery analysis of The Descent), but he cares very much for the characters and doesn't let the imagery overtake the immediate emotions of the story.

This film brilliantly guides the spectator on descent into physical and mental darkness, and there is surprising ambiguity as to the "meaning" of the plot beyond its thriller core. Marshall instead makes the film a journey just as much for the spectator, building moods and and relationships between characters, luring the spectator in before unleashing an experience so physically and mentally frightening that the darkness and brutality of the last act seems to take on a resonance of its own. But it works because of Marshall's careful construction of the film's characters, moods, images, and themes, which together culminate in an inescapable nightmare of dread and darkness.

The Descent borrows its scare tactics and storytelling techniquies liberally from the horror classics of the past, but Marshall gives them freshness because he has a story to tell and isn't interested in replicating those influences. He lively incorporates them into a carefully constructed narrative framework that is rarely seen in the horror genre these days. To me, this film is Marshall's cinematic argument to remind viewers that horror not only can still be scary good fun, but that it is capable of much more as storytelling. Plunging the spectator into the primal depths of the mind and soul, The Descent is one of the finest pieces of horror cinema in years.

Note: I have seen both the American theatrical cut and the original British cut and recommend the latter, which is available in a director's cut DVD format. The only difference in the two cuts is in how the film ends, with the American release bowing to a more generic shock ending and the British cut offering thematic closure and ambiguity while remaining consistent with the narrative threads and style. Despite exemplifying much of what is currently wrong with horror cinema, the American theatrical cut makes for interesting contrast, consideration, and discussion about the conventions of the genre in relation to the original cut. From that perspective, I recommend seeing both. But if you're choosing between the two, make sure it's the director's cut.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Recapping the Cinematic Year

In framing this introduction to my assessment on the year in movies, I'd like to address the now cliche observations that many critics apparently reflect upon at the end of each year. I find that negativity often pervades many top ten lists. Critics routinely provide commentaries about the sorry state of filmmaking seemingly unaware that they emulate (in the form of film criticism) the very faults for which they attack mainstream filmmaking. These commentaries rarely contribute much to the discussion of cinema and are highly selective in what they discuss. As Gilles Deleuze says (as anybody who has ever seen Andy Horbal's blog is aware), "the cinema is always as perfect as it can be."

Though I am fundamentally in opposition to upholding a test-like assessment of cinematic offerings in a given year, I find it relevant to point out particular films that I feel significantly contributed to the medium in some way. This is a broad characterization, but there is no way to fully encompass the capabilities that cinema posseses. Cinema creates meaning in various ways through the relationship of the image and the viewer. What transpires within that relationship is a limitless exploration of feeling through perception and interpretation of moving images, which is why I find it frustrating that so many critics bemoan about the death of cinema. Real analyists and lovers of cinema are instead quite aware that cinema is about endless possibility; it is a complex beast which can be engaged, perceived, and interpreted in an endless number of ways. Cinema is alive and well, and it will continue to be as these possibilities are continually analyzed, reconstructed, re-positioned, and made visible in new ways.

Upcoming is a short list of films that I think significantly contribute to the discussion of cinema. Since I haven't had much of a chance to review each film individually, it is somewhat unfair (not to mention daunting) to devote just one post to all of these films. If I were to do that, I would by limiting the extent to which I could write about each of these films. Therefore, each film will gets its own post, and the content of each post will vary. Some of these reviews will be short, others will be longer. But the element of each film I plan to discuss least is plot. I'm going to assume that readers have either seen the films under discussion or are familiar enough with them to know what each film is about topically. I will inevitably mention characters and plot elements, but I find detailed descriptions of such aspects to be moreorless pointless and very limiting.

The range of narrative and stylistic content of these films varies immensely because each film embodies different elements of the cinematic experience. The one unifying element of each of these movies is that they were all released (in the United States) in 2006. But another thing these films share in common is that - from my perspective - they all showcase the provocative nature of the art form we know as movies.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

And the Winner Is... (Criticism Part III)

With the Oscar nominations having been announced earlier today, the forthcoming month of buzz and anticipation for Oscar night will cap off the season of critical discussion of the year in cinema as can only be delivered by hollow top ten lists. Like many others, I claim that top ten lists and awards don't mean very much to me, yet I always find myself writing about them and keeping up with them.

At Jim Emerson's Scanners blog, David Edelstein briefly responded to one of Jim's posts about the deadness of lists. He said: "Ten best lists are a pain. They're depressing to do. They are inherently a compromise. We do them because our readers like them and because there's something onanistic about sitting around and ranking movies. (See High Fidelity for a fuller evocation.)" This brief quote effectively summarizes the difficulty and inevitabiity of "best of" lists and perhaps awards as well. Despite my many suspicions about lists and rating systems, I acknowledge that on some level they are inevitable and, if viewed from the appropriate perspective, can be very beneficial for the individual genuinely interested in cinema.

In an earlier post on criticism, I voiced my worry that categorization and list making shapes a critic/viewer's outlook, promoting the notion that seeing films is like going down a checklist in order to determine quality. If we start to believe that these systems achieve what they are designed to do, then the perspective through which we see and interpret films becomes incredibly dull and promotes sameness. Art is not about that, criticism is not about that, and film is not about that. I hate to think of myself and others engaging in these activities, but I attempt to justify my insatiable appetite for creating lists and organizing everything by acknowledging the dangers of participating in them and understanding that they will never constitute the beauty of cinema. Rather, they serve as organizing devices to help whittle the (film) world to a manageable size (I can't use such a phrase without citing Spike Jonze's brilliant Adaptation (2003)). The fact that I even need to justify my participating in list-making and ranking speaks volumes about my mistrust of yet insatiable attraction to them (as does that I made note of it, but I'll end the reflexivity here).

To me, however, awards shows and presentations are potentially an even greater offense. Still, I say this as somebody who keeps up with them every year. I think they can be pointlessly fun, but in the end they have less importance than lists and can be more damaging. Awards presentations crown one film as the "best" in each respective category, with which I have several problems. First, there is almost no discussion. It's like a race; which ever film can get the most attention and whose studio pays the most dollars towards a campaign seems to win. Secondly, the term "best" supposes a certain amount of objectivity. It doesn't help that members of the Academy are untouchable. We never see or hear from them. "The Academy" is more of an idea, stripped of any kind individuality or perspective. With lists, there is at least variance: each critic forms a different list composed of varying films, and usually forms some kind of argument as to why these ten films are the most noteworthy chievements in the previous calendar year. The key here is that lists unveil themselves as personal perspectives. Many people like to read them, and, for their own accounts, many critics like to formulate them, despite their many drawbacks.

The other aspect to consider about awards shows is that they compartmentalize the film viewing experience, purporting the notion that filmmaking elements like costume design, art direction, and cinematography stand on their own, independent of the other elements of the film. This re-enforces a terrible approach to analyzing films. The beauty about narratives executed with moving images is that all of the elements transmorgify constantly, influencing each other to create a cinematic experience. Taking note of a particular element as it pertains or relates to other elements is acceptable, but to award specific, confined areas of filmmaking fundamentally undermines the beauty of cinema. This brings to mind the first point about the lack of discussion or commentary. This can be improved. The Oscars in particular are of interest to anyone interested in American Film history and can actually serve a good purpose in that name.

I have my critiques of lists as well, which I have voiced in prior posts, but those focused more on employing lists as a critical device. Here I will detail the elements of lists themselves. First, I try to avoid making a list of 10 films for my yearly round up, and for obvious reasons, the main one being, why 10? Why not 11, 12, or 14? That's why I encourage if you are going to partake in rating and list systems, figure out what works for you based on what you know. Don't just make a list of ten films if there are several others that are worthy of being featured in your perspective on the cinema's best annual offerings. Some critics choose not to rank either, opting for a more fair alphabetical way of listing. Again, this is personal preference. As I stated before, it's all rather unreliable in any objective sense, so if you're going to do it at all, choose what works best for you and do it. To what degree you engage in this act of making distinctions and categorizatizing doesn't really matter. We all do it on some level. It constitutes how we communicate. Language itself is a structured system of organization from which other organizing systems emerge.

Also, no critic has seen every film released in a calendar year. For this and other reasons, the act of list making all comes down to perspective. So any attempt to sum up "the best" is doomed to fail and represents a mislead approach to criticism. Therefore, I often enjoy reading lists adopting different frameworks for presenting "best of" lists. For example lists that discuss particularly scenes rather than whole films are kind of unique. It makes just as much sense as any other list, but it can allow more insight into films as a whole and can be more detailed. Some see it as a negative, but this perspective typically has been influenced by the overarching ideas that lists and awards push, which is that there is or should be objectivity to it all. But the beauty of art and criticism is that is informed by perspective. Therefore, singling out cinematic moments in a calendar year is no less valid than singling out films amongst a sea of releases.

There are so many different ways and systems by and through which an individual can present his or her perspective of the year in films, and I encourage them all. If more variability is presented not just in the content of such lists, but the structures of them, critics and readers will soon realize and consider that these lists are subjective and that individual perspective is a good thing.

But they by no means encapsulate film art by any stretch. I urge list makers everywhere to enjoy the benefits of them because they can be great personal artifacts for revisiting years later, as well as inciting the discussion of cinema in new and engaging ways. As long as that is understood, than such lists can a good thing. But I can't emphasize enough that lists and ranking system can also reduce our way of intepreting films to judgements like "good" or "bad."

The prominence of lists and awards reflects how we communicate and structure our collective and individual experience. Such things do not exist only in the film world, but in almost every aspect our social existence. To some extent, we cannot avoid but be influenced by the mentality of rating, ranking, listing, and structuring since it they are the basis for how we build and partake in a the system of signification we call language, a greater framework of which we all participate. Therefore, I realize that my idealistic perspective on film viewing and criticism is not possible, especially since I like anyone else am positioned within the system however much I may comment on it.

The problem I have with such popularly employed structuring devices is that they can determine how we understand and experience art, because art essentially flies in the face of everything that our systems of communication represent: order and structure. Art is about abstraction, thinking and feeling in unidentifiable and different ways. Therefore, criticism represents an essential portal through which we filter experience with art, making them relevant in the structured world of communication. Therefore, criticism serves a significant purpose: to incite discourse and enhance ways of understanding. Without it, we would be lulled into complacency, not possessing any incentive to question, challenge, or think differently.

Therefore, we need to be actively considering the elements that constitute criticism and the frameworks with which we structure it. Lists, ratings, and awards are a reflection of our desire to categorize and compartmentalize everything. They can be very influential and damaging to criticism as well as how cinema is made and consumed. But, given that to some extent such structures are inevitable, it is important to consider new ways of engaging them, which would therefore allow those who participate in cinema and criticism at any level to challenge the norms and conventions that determine perception. Our current systems don't need to be abolished; but if they are evaluated, challenged, and modified, we can encounter new ways of exploring cinema and criticism.

[Note: I will write about the actual nominations and more about Oscar material in coming entries. I just had to finish off this mini-series into which I've written myself. I fully expect to encounter these and other issues about the critical debate in the future, but I'm finished for now.]

Friday, January 19, 2007

"Independent" Cinema

The dirty little secret about independent films is finally out: they're not so independent. David Bordwell has written at great length (most recently in the wonderful "The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies") about so-called post modernism in cinema, and how much of what we call original or innovative can be traced back to classical Hollywood stylistic techniques and devices. Whether or not today's filmmakers choose to abide by the conventions set forth by classical Hollywood filmmakers is not really the point. Bordwell's argument is that they form their knowledge of film viewing and making based upon such tropes and therefore act in relation to them.

Reflecting on the opening of the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, Richard Corliss provides an excellent commentary concerning the diminishing originality in Sundance films. The article highlights several reasons for the lack of originality, all of which are fascinating within the context of Bordwell's argument. Here are some noteworthy excerpts:
"The kind of indie film nurtured by Sundance has become the dominant non-Hollywood movie form for smart people. They're the ones who made Little Miss Sunshine a hit, and Ryan Gosling's turn in Half Nelson a must-see. The moguls have taken note too. In terms of product and talent, Sundance has become the crucial farm system for the major studios.

Problem is, indie movies are getting as predictable as Hollywood's. Sundance movies have devolved into a genre. The style is spare and naturalistic. The theme is relationships, beginning in angst and ending in reconciliation. The focus is often on a dysfunctional family (there are no functional ones in indie movies) that strives to reconnect. Within this genre are a few subspecies: the family breakup film (The Squid and the Whale), the finding-your-family-at-school movie (Half Nelson, Brick), the gay drama (Mysterious Skin). Way too frequently, the family goes on a trip. Given the typical Sundance pace, which is leisurely to lethargic, these road movies rarely get in the passing lane.

The predictability of recent Sundance films is a pity, because the fest used to discover original movie minds. The honor roll of those who introduced their early work there includes both the big fish of indie cinema (among them Joel and Ethan Coen, Jim Jarmusch, Kevin Smith and Darren Aronofsky) and some of the mainstream's champion swimmers (including Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Bryan Singer and Christopher Nolan).

What most of these directors share is a gift for bending, sometimes gleefully mutilating, film form: taking old narratives styles like the crime movie or musical or horror film and making them fresh, vital, dangerous. The subjects could be familiar--amnesia in Nolan's Memento, obsession in Aronofsky's Pi--but when the story was told in reverse, or turned into a weird thriller, the narrative ingenuity became bracing and delicious. They were different from Hollywood--and different meant better.

You don't find as much originality in Sundance films these days, and for a simple reason. In the beginning, the festival was a home for the homeless, for a rambunctious outlaw take on filmmaking. There was no need to be cautious, since indie films were rarely hits. But as Sundance became the showcase for a form of movie gaining marketplace pull, young directors naturally made films to fit the new mold. Sundance films weren't quirky; they did quirky. Quirky became another genre...

Sure, there are good Sundance movies, with fine actors providing glimpses of behavioral truth. But in general the films are way too cozy. Instead of the high-budget sequels Hollywood deals out, the indie scene offers virtual remakes of earlier, more vibrant films, the rehashing of familiar feelings. Sundance used to be a daring, occasionally dazzling alternative to Hollywood; now, it's just a different sort of same."

Corliss has a wealth of knowledge about film history and trends, and his observations are spot-on. Leonard Maltin (another very knowledgeable film historian) also posted an entry some time ago about the amount of studio backing these so called independent features are receiving. Corliss argues that this is evidenced by the more homogenized storytelling and filmmaking styles employed by many "independent" filmmakers. This leads me to further believe that the Hollywood and Independent filmmaking and viewing ideologies may be merging together. When it's not adapting popular fiction works or producing more sequels to huge hits, Hollywood looks to Sundance and the now trendy "indie" mentality. The similarities have become so prominent in recent years that the difference between them has now become so clouded. And instead of sticking to its rebelious roots, Sundance warmly embraces Hollywood's progressively larger presence in Park City, Utah. All of the sudden, that town isn't so quiet anymore.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Sex and violence as filtered by the MPAA

"Remember what the MPAA says: horrific, deplorable violence is ok, just don't say any naughty words."
- South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (Trey Parker, 1999)

When I saw the headline in Variety reporting that the MPAA will be making alterations to the film rating system, I was momentarily high with excitement. It turned out that my naive sense of hope once again has gotten the better of me, because after reading about these proposed changes to the system, I quickly settled back to the same frustrated state when thinking about our film ratings system. The changes are minimal, and although they may impact certain areas of the appeal process in particular, these changes will likely not amount to much more than a political and bureaucratic move.

Not surprisingly, the state of movie ratings has become a very strong political issue. Many well known liberal commentators call for the system to be totally renovated, while conservatives tend to favor it and encourage that it clamp down even more than it already does, in the spirit of the FCC with radio and television. Where one falls on this issue inevitably depends on a great deal on individual values and what is considered appropriate when it comes to regulating arts and entertainment.

I am not much of a political person in a right/left sense, but I don't pretend to have an unbiased take on this issue. As a cinema lover, I do not approve of the system in the smallest way. I would eradicate it and start from scratch if I had the chance. However, I am not foolish enough to think that such a momentous course of action could ever be feasible.

Esentially, the MPAA ratings system is a sectioned off version of the Hays code, the one and only standard of film censorship in the United States from the 30's into the 60's, before the MPAA. All films released in the United States were subject to the same restrictions. There were certain things one could suggest, and certain things one couldn't. For example, a kiss could only be held on screen for a certain amount of seconds. It was a cut and dry system that ensured that all films had similar standards. Filmmakers were always trying to get around the rules and slip through the cracks in the system (see the romance scene between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman early in Alfred Hitchcock's 1946 film, Notorious). Hitchcock and others were always trying to push the envelope while also point out the utter hypocrisy of the system and its fundamental inability to encapsulate film content. Filmmakers like Hitchcock knew that the content of moving images often went beyond what was visible at a given moment. So much more can be suggested in cinema that attempting to quantify the appropriateness of sexual content, violence or anything else is practically irrelevant, and a facile understanding of what images are capable of.

Today, the ratings system essentially categorizes films with the G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17 ratings. And, being that films are hugely marketing pieces of merchandise, studios and filmmakers have learned what quantifies each system and make their films accordingly. In a perfect world, from my point of view, we wouldn't have anything like this. It greatly undermines the artistic endeavor that filmmaking can and should be and it promotes films being forced into a specific territory when it comes to content. Instead of one big code, there are now segregated options. The MPAA claims to be a voluntary system, but, economically, the reality is that films that do not submit for an MPAA ratings have no chance of being distributed.

The meaning of ratings has changed, and such change is often ushered by adding or deleting ratings. For example: the PG-13. The rating was first suggested by Steven Spielberg after angry viewers complained about the level of violence in the PG-rated Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Feeling that the level of violence didn't deserve an R rating, (at the time, R was much less acceptable and less mainstream than it is today) Spielberg suggested an "in between" rating. But all it has done was alter the content of other ratings. The G - meant to suggest family entertainment - is all but gone and has been replaced by the PG - a rating that allows some innuendo and minor curse words, but is a far cry from films like Jaws, which was rated PG in 1975. The PG-13 has replaced the old PG rating, and the R is now much more acceptable and regular than in the 70's and 80's. The NC-17, previously X, is the phantom rating because there are so few films that have been rated it. It's a commercialdeathwish to get an NC-17 since it's viewed as pornography. Therefore, the standards of the R, which are much more constraining than many think, have not adapted. Therefore, the level of violence, sex, and "thematic content" (a great MPAA phrase) are standardized and are allowed within very careful bounds. It doesn't matter if ratings are added or subtracted, because in the end, any change in system will adjust and level out accordingly, and films will continue to be made and seen according to what's "allowed" under each rating. What skewers the whole thing, however is the phantom NC-17 rating; since no film ever achieves it, and it is supposed to represent something, the more tame R of today is essentially the maximum level of "mature" content allowed. I'm no fan of having to make films that adhere to this system, but I suppose it must exist on some level.

Determining the level of content allowed in each rating category is where all of the controvery has risen. Observing trends in filmmaking and culture reveal that the MPAA is notoriously soft on violence, yet strangely limiting when it comes to sexuality, which to some degree reflects the values of our culture.

Many filmmakers have spoken out against the hypocrisy of the MPAA, notably Kirby Dick, who made a expose-like documentary, This Film is Not Yet Rated, which I have yet to see. Since it was deemed an NC-17 rating, no studio or theater chain wanted to distribute it, which in a way is another way for Dick to make a statement. The film will be released next week, and I have every intention of seeing it. Some speculate that the changes to the system were partly due to the film, which apparently exploits the biased natures of the ratings board.

In the minds of the ratings board members, depictions of violence is quite alright, but when it comes to sex and curse words, filmmakers better be careful. Now, let's be clear about something. Cinema allows such acts as sex and violence to be depicted in a variety of ways, and they have both featured prominently in cinema throughout its history. Over time, viewers form a familiarity with particular conventions of how they are depicted. Many techniques exist that suggest certain emotions or events and are used quite frequently. Shot-by-shot analyses of films would reveal many of these devices and stylistic techniques, but right now I would just like to vent my beliefs about how these particular devices have defined the overall cinematic understanding of such things.

Sex and violence are fascinating ideas to study in a cinematic context. Many question why films feature so much sex and violence, and the answer to such a question is complicated. Firstly, there is something about the senses of sight and sound that, when you put moving images on a screen, we respond in a very immediate way. The cinema can make you feel in ways different than other narrative and/or art forms. Sexuality and violence can be very visceral and emotive, which is what cinema can do evoke best. Where some viewers claim that depictions of these acts corrupts minds (which, in many cases really depends on the depiction and context), I contest that through the cinema, viewers can particpate in an emotional and immediate experience capable of provoking different manners of feeling and thinking. However, as much they are built-in or socialized into our individual selves and cultures, sex and violence are large elements of who and what we are. Therefore, I think these ideas manifested through the narrative art form of moving images may allow us to feel and think about them in ways more productive than merely claiming they corrupt people. We can learn much about ourselves and our culture and society (especially considering the increasingly visual culture of which we are now a part) based on how violence and sex are made visible through narrative art. Images are so powerful, and based on the feelings they provoke, we can question and expand upon our own views about such matters by exposing ourselves to different ways of seeing, feeling, and thinking. A discussion framed from this standpoint can therefore be very useful and worthy of study.

Several writers and critics rarely waste an opportunity to blast the MPAA for its inconsistent, extremely biased approach to rating films. Roger Ebert has written extensively about the MPAA's influence of filmmakers and viewers, and how they make sexuality visible in the cinema. This from his review of Alfonso Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien:

"The movie is realistic about sex, which is to say, franker and healthier than the smutty evasions forced on American movies by the R rating. We feel a shock of recognition: This is what real people do and how they do it, sexually, and theMPAA has perverted a generation of American movies into puerile masturbatory snickering...

It is clear Cuaron is a gifted director, and here he does his best work to date. Why did he return to Mexico to make it? Because he has something to say about Mexico, obviously, and also because Jack Valenti and the MPAA have made it impossible for a movie like this to be produced in America. It is a perfect illustration of the need for a workable adult rating: too mature, thoughtful and frank for the R, but not in any sense pornographic. Why do serious film people not rise up in rage and tear down the rating system thatinfantilizes their work?"

I couldn't agree more with Roger's sentiments. As a culture, we are much more at ease with images of violence than we are with sexuality, which is something that I don't understand. We seem to fetishize violence in different forms; sometimes in the form of pleasurable entertainments, sometimes in the form of serious narrative trying to depict violence honestly and responsibly, while some films represent more of a cross between these two ideologies of depicting violence. The point is that there are so many ways in which violence is depicted, viewed, felt, and understood in the cinema, but when it comes to sexuality, there is much less available, at least in terms of the mainstream. Many films made outside America are much more comfortable with it, as well as lesser known productions within American. But for the most part, in this country, people appear to be afraid of sex. Some might disagree and claim that there is so much suggestion and innuedo featured in entertainment, to which I say, of course! Because we have become so timid in regards to depicting and viewing human sexuality in any kind of mature way, it has manifested itself in other ways, usually in the form of comedy, innuendo, and representations suggesting just enough sex that is acceptable. Such standards are defined by the FCC and MPAA . which wield great power in what we see and consume. Films that are daring, honest, and up-front with approach sexuality maturely are slapped with an NC-17 rating and are never seen, let alone produced and distributed by a major studio. As for television and radio, advertisers wouldn't touch such material with a 50-foot pole. Instead, we are given the same assembly-line, mass-produced schlock that is "acceptable." Perhaps if we are more honest and unafraid of sexuality, it won't be such a hush-hush topic and we can actually see it as something more than forbidden and immoral, which is how it's currently viewed and depicted.

The point I make with all of this is that the MPAA (as well as the FCC) sustains and upholds supposedly tasteful standards for sex as part of our culture that are sickening and hypocritical. Images are everywhere. All of us are affected by mainstream entertainment, consumerism, and advertising in one form or another. In fact, I would argue (and this is the subject of a later post) that images have become more influential in shaping our views and interaction with our society and its institutions than words. We are all influenced by these infantile visions of sex perpetrated on us, and until the MPAA and FCC and the American people (it's a cyclical effect and it starts with those in power) are willing to embrace a more open and healthy perspective of sexuality, we will be uncomfortable with it not just as participants in media and culture, but as individuals. The cinema is an essential and relevant visual medium that can reflect and inform, and it is the responsibility of filmmakers to construct and present images that provoke thought and feeling, especially in regard to the increasingly visual culture of which we all are members.

What we have now isn't working, and making little tweaks to the current approach will not address the issue. I suppose the current changes can be viewed in a positive light, because, hey, at least it's something. But I urge that we must go further. I know it's not easy, but as cinema lovers and as social beings, we must refuse to be manipulated any further and press for change.

But perhaps I'm just being naive and overly hopeful again...

Contrarian Blog-a-thon!

Jim Emerson announced that he will be hosting a Contrarian blog-a-thon that will take place on the weekend of February 16-18! I encourage all of my fellow film bloggers to contribute any contrarian reflections or criticisms to what I'm sure will be a great discussion. I'm looking forward to adding something of my own, as if I haven't written about it enough this past week!

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Bond Between Cinema and Criticism (Critical Debate Part II)

Recently I suggested that the cinema and criticism may not be very different from one another. I have always felt that any story can be told effectively through the cinema, which is what separates the cinema from most other art forms and narrative media. Because as any writer on the cinema knows, the content of a film arises from its form. Without form, there can be no content, which is what Roger Ebert evokes with his famous statement: "A movie is not about what it is about, but how it is about it." I think that this approach is significant in regard to film criticism as well. There is no linear formula for writing engaging criticism.

Andy Horbal at No More Marriages! approaches the issue with a keen understanding of film and criticism as important art forms, not trade practices:
"It is not the job of a film critic (in my humble opinion, of course, and this is the only time I'll actually say that) to assess a film as 'good' or 'bad.' This is an impossibly subjective judgment, one that requires an immense amount of space for examples, discussion of standards, and placement not only in the history of film and film criticism but in the history of art and art criticism...

To assess even one film as 'good' or 'bad' requires a book's worth of argument, and multiple volumes at that. Which doesn't change the fact that this is the tacit goal most professional film critics have for both their reviews and their year-end lists...

Describing and analyzing a film is work enough for any one review or article, evaluation is a waste of time. 'Good' and 'bad' are irrelevant: what's important is what the film is, what is is. To this kind of critic 'good' films are not more valuable than 'bad' films; instead, primary emphasis is placed on interesting. And because new/different is interesting, new/different films are especially worthy of attention."

Andy's use of the terms "good" and "bad" with quotations emphasizes the point of how flimsy such terms are. Yet they are often the ends of so much critical thinking; a fact that I find depressing. If we are to form our arguments and criticism around such ideas, should we then not consider how and why readers/viewers determine what makes up "good" and "bad?" Andy surmises that one would have to build extensive arguments in an attempt to objectively encompass something that is, quite simply, subjective. Some will inevitably claim that since it usually comes down to a matter of opinion, criticism is not to be trusted and is not as informative as it should be. But like the cinema itself (or any other art form), criticism is about perception and interpretation. One cannot construct engaging criticism by simply saying a given film works or doesn't based on certain grounds.

Apart from representing an expertise in a given field, it is meant to be a reflection on film images: how they are constructured, positioned, and perceived. Varying approaches reveal different perspectives and ways of seeing images, uncovering meanings and ideas through discourse and interaction. Of course opinion enters into it, but the expression of an opinion is not the basis for the criticism itself. Opinions are informed by a knowledge and exploration of the cinema, its history and its practices. Those opinions are presented in relation to one's knowledge of and experience with the cinema. This can be done in any number of ways and from various approaches.

Yes, of course it's about expressing an opinion through the structure of language, but, like films, criticism can provoke feelings and thoughts that can cause one to think or question how he or she sees and interprets a film's images. Some of it will abide by certain writing structures or styles, as some films do, but the written form is a complex beast as well. The moment one attempts to structure it with a "formula for success," it becomes monotonous and boring. However, there is a great struggle amongst many critics to provide simple ways of conveying whether a movie is worthy of seeing, e.g. thumbs up/down, stars systems, annual top ten lists.

I think that is one of the great tensions of film critism as a practice, which I have mentioned in my previous post about criticism. Since many journalistic film reviews appear in newspapers and magazines, they are positioned as marketing devices and serve as consumer guides. "Here is why you should see this film," is what most journalistic film criticism comes down to, and that is more a necessity of the context in which it exists. The tension emerges because that attitude greatly undermines the goals of film criticism. It's a similar tension that constitutes the "art versus commerce" war within the cinema. That is what I mean when I draw comparisons between film and film criticism, which inevitably influence and are influenced by each other. So long that much of the moviegoing public is interested in witnessing the same images, conventions, and cliches that make up a great amount of mainstream films, mainstream journalistic criticism will continue to be defined by the very same trends. Because it doesn't make any sense for reviews to be analytical and incisive if readers want to go to a film and become passive recepients of recycled and sloppily constructed images.

The star system, a trademark in film reviewing, is a perfect example of how criticism is being reduced to a consumer guide, one meant to briefly sum up whether the reader should go see a film. The star system is now such a staple in journalistic film criticism that many readers complain to newspapers that don't use them. But they are limiting, restricting devices that are as impractical as they are structured. When I was writing reviews for a few local papers and my college paper, I used the four star system. I kept a log (and still do) of movies that I see and how I rate them, which can be beneficial for the individual, but it can also be damaging. I've realized that such devices represent another futile way of giving some kind of order to things that cannot and should not fit such an order.

There is no way - even for one person's individual tastes - for such a system to yield consistent results. Also, an even more important consideration is that these systems condition readers and critics also to make their opinions of films conform to a pattern of measuring quality that is nothing more than a graded test, as a film does X, Y, and Z to earn three and a half stars, or a B+, or whatever system a critic may use. These systems distort our views of films to the point that many viewers and critics have bought into the mindset, seeing films as exercises to grade or rate, and in so doing have created a whole mindset for how we see and interpret films.

Every film is different, and what viewers bring to a film varies depending on his or her experiences with other films and throughout their lives. In short, there are just too many factors and variables involved to try to simplify everything into one coherent structure; it's just not possible. Which is why I think that the less stock that one puts in one, the better. Ratings and "best of" lists serve the purpose of providing some semblance of order for individuals who like to keep track of yearly lists, logs, and films they have seen and how (in a nutshell) he or she feels about a film. However, while these lists and systems serve to provide structure to one's experience with the cinema, they also shape that experience to adhere to a specific pattern, and since perception is such a large factor in seeing and interpreting films, that pattern can influence how one evaluates the experience of watching films and the quality of individual films. Concerning the impact of these systems on readers of journalistic criticism, ratings and lists also advertise film criticism as a throwaway marketing device and journalistic necessity, not a valid and strong medium for writing and analyzing another medium. All of these devices further promote cinematic consumption as an act of determining "good" from "bad." And, unfortunately, this mindset shapes how films are seen and made.

In an editorial for Cinema Scope, David Bordwell explained why he is unhappy with the state of criticism:

"Film criticism lies at the centre of nearly all intellectual discourse about the cinema, and if we take criticism to be an effort to know particular movies more intimately, it probably deserves its prime place. But contemporary film criticism is failing. In academic venues, it mostly grinds Movie X through Theory Y, in the hope that somehow the exercise will yield political emancipation. Meanwhile, film magazines and free city weeklies promote that self-assured nonconformity which prizes jaunty wordplay and throwaway judgments.

We read nonfiction for information, ideas, opinions, and good writing. Most orthodox criticism overdoes opinions, which create the critic’s professional persona. Soon opinions crystallize into tastes, and the persona overshadows the films. I realize the pressures here. Readers at all levels don’t take film as seriously as they take music or architecture, so film journalists are obliged to be superficially entertaining in a way that reviewers in other arts needn’t be. Still, most film criticism is fact-free...

As I get older, I’m less interested in opinions, whoever holds them, and more interested in ideas and information... Intellectuals should turn insights into clear-cut ideas, reliable information, or nuanced opinions, but neither journalistic critics nor academic ones do this very often.

My critique has been broad, and it sounds harsher than I’d like. There are some fine journalistic critics and film scholars. Still, no one, as far as I know, is producing what I’d like to see. The film writing I have in mind would be essayistic, but it would have a solid understructure of evidence. It would be conceptually bold and bristling with subtly defended opinions. Its judgments would be nuanced in optimal awareness of the history of cinema, its economics and technology as well as its auteurs. Add a graceful writing style leavened with humour and purged of vainglorious anecdotes. We might then have criticism in a broader sense than we now usually find it, and something worthy of the art we love."

This brief editorial made a great impression on me since I read it last year; it seemed to inform my own opinion while also validate some of my own established views. I find Bordwell's piece to be a complementary approach to Horbal's take on the "good/bad" perspective that permeates much of critical thinking. This issue takes an interesting shape in relation to the subject of the first post about criticism and contrarianism, in which I argue that there is currently a two-pronged structure dictating the course of criticism, splitting it into two factions warring each other, but both distancing each other from the heart of what criticism is all about. The problem is more complicated, since within those two main ideologies there microcosms of the same system; two sides fueling each other's disdain for the other. All this ultimately feeds the "good/bad" ideology that now dominated so much critical thinking, as David Bordwell alludes to. And this has affected all circles of criticism, I fear.

Right now, the blogging community is breathing new life into the greater discussion of cinema. But even amongst some of the more intelligent and serious venues, I sense similar attitudes that make up the "good/bad" approach to criticism, which was the subject of my last post about warring ideologies devolving into cyclical trends in which true criticism and cinema appreciation is glossed over in favor of being contrarian. I am all in favor of disagreement and debate, but when this simplistic attittude begins defining what it is we claim to care so seriously for, I worry. Those ideas and attitudes often fuel the "good/bad" approach to cinema and criticism, in which viewers base their interpretations more on presumptions and unquestioned acceptance of pre-established conventions and structures. When that perspective defines critical thinking, criticism is thus reduced to a consumer guide meant for passive absorption. And that is not something that should ever constitute cinema and film criticism as aesthetic practices or essential art forms.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

A Critical Debate About Criticism... Contrarians Galore

A very interesting discussion is currently underway at Jim Emerson's Scanners blog about a contrary approach to contructing criticism. In short, contrarians base their criticism upon rejecting others' (or the popular view) without really forming a basis for which they assert their own often-empty claims.

The very practice of criticism - not just film criticism - is perhaps designed for this kind of banter. If we are all such discerning critics, much discrepancy will inevitably emerge amongst our discussion, often inciting discourse and (sometimes) frustration amongst participants when someone else fails to see one's viewpoint. This of course leads to name-calling and other forms of verbal abuse, or (to a smaller extent) calculated, slyly written jabs, which are just as damaging.

I think many of us at some point have engaged in these sorts of things, but I would like to think that we have all learned from our mistakes and experiences enough to know that engaging in such behavior is highly unproductive. Apart from that, it also undermines the fundamental values and benefits of the practice of criticism, an institution designed to allow people to share their views, hold discourse and understand different perspectives on a given subject. It's a cliche, but there is no right or wrong answer. And those who assert their own views, especially in opposition to others, are often doing little more than putting on display how little they understand what criticism is all about.

It seems that a certain image has been perpetrated on critics, one that is now perpetuated by many. So many journalistic critics have reduced themselves to byproducts of pop-culture, appealing to the populus, and in so doing damaging the image and reputation of critics. In many cases, critics themselves have fueled this idea that has lately defined a great deal of criticism. There is very seldom discussion about the cinema in any productive way; rather, so many journalistic critics sound the same, as if buying into a trend about a given movie, all spouting off the same thing. Of course, there are many exceptions to this. These exceptions show that there are ways of appealing to the public ithout being condescending or disrespecting the institution of criticism.

Critics need to be the ones informing debate and discussion about the cinema. They should set the trends for thought about the cinema, not react to them. But right now some critics are upholding a natural contrarian nature that supposedly is built-in to being a critic. But such a mindset has only emerged because critics are no longer viewed as those who inform about a given subject, but rather cranky people who are out of touch with consumers and now desperately trying to win their approval. Sadly, too many people have bought into this idea that now even some critics have as well, fueling a cyclical process that has resulted in the current image of film critics.

Naturally, this image has affected criticism itself. Case in point: contrarians. There are some who consider the only worthy criticism is the kind that wouldn't have anything to do with the established norms of dominant critical thinking and reviewing. But I have observed that many of these people who purport such ideas are often perpetuating the same flaws of whom they criticize. They are slaves to the same system, thus do not achieve anything constructuve fresh in the world of film criticism. It's the flip side to the same coin. The problem is in the belief of the generalization that if you abide by the conventions that define mainstream criticism in any way, you can't possibly have anything relevant to say. Never mind that some critics can accomplish great things with a certain method (not to mention bring up deeper issues and commentaries on practiciding such methods). But, this contrarian approach breeds a self-riteous attitude and a reverse establishment usually taking the form of academic prose - the other extreme to mainstream commercial criticism. (The system appears to be much complicated than this - with contrarians emerging to tear down more "mainstream" academic film criticism) And so what you have is two warring ideologies defined by each other. Meanwhile, actual criticism is lost in the mix. I'm not doubting that that there aren't thoughtless pop-culture critics out there giving real critics a bad name, just as there is plenty of empty rhetoric amongst the academic community. There are a great deal of good critics that contribute significantly to the discussion of cinema on both sides, and in between.

I think there are more productive ways of evaluating criticism than merely slamming critics like AO Scott and Roger Ebert (two critics I greatly admire) for their homogenized styles. Merely pointing out how bad one's opinion is by using your own differing opinion as a source of comparisson is just as foolish and reveals a great hypocrisy in the claims of anti-establishment intellectuals, as many of their own styles of criticism are subject to a series of conventions and ideologies which dictate the nature and direction of their own criticism. If you acknowledge the impact of critics like Ebert and Scott, then they have influenced your own standpoint in some way and you are positioned to react to it either by making it part of your own or rejecting it and choosing to make your criticism and observations less homogenized. For this reason, I think it is foolish to lambast popular critics for their writing and critiquing styles, especially when the best form of doing so is to tear them down for their conventional approaches to criticism; rather than actually criticizing the text and providing a valid argument for why it makes for ineffective criticism and pointing out the grounds on which you form your own argument and building one's own approach. Because, in the end, those views are defined every bit as much by Ebert and Scott's critical ideologies as Ebert and Scott are.

Criticism is similar to the cinema in many ways. These contrarians remind me of the avant garde filmmaker who insists upon how uniform and cliche mainstream Hollywood films are. What these people don't realize is that their supposedly original styles still stand in relation to the pre-existing conventions with which they have become familiarized. That very mainstream practice that they tear down essentially allows for contrarians to exist at all. They are still members of the same system of communication. The very idea of a contrarian supposes a two part system and the more everyone buys into that, the more that system permeates and defines what we know as criticism, which has resulted in two extreme groups polarized by each other.

Gilles Deleuze emphasized that true originality is only possible when you can utilize what has been made familiar and make already established elements and styles interact differently. It is a building process which thus unveils new perspectives and approaches. This is true of filmmaking, film viewing, and film criticism, all of which cyclically influence each other. Being contrary by insisting upon how original one's ideas in relation to the dominant ideology is incredibly foolish and a highly unproductive manner of engaging in criticism. In fact, it's only perpetuating the same cycle, one that does not allow progress to occur. There are great critics on both sides of the spectrum, and in between. But the only way of changing and allowing that spectrum to grow and encompass a wider capacity for learning and knowledge is by productively participating in criticism and allowing your own views as well as the institution to grow. Not by playing contrarian.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Pushing Into the Digital Realm

Variety today reported that James Cameron is beginning production on his next big budget sci-fi epic, Avatar, in April. While the news of Avatar has been the subject of much discussion in internet sites like Aint It Cool and countless message boards, this is the first official announcement of Cameron's return to Hollywood moviemaking since Titanic (1997). Cameron remarked in an interview with Aint It Cool that he will have a rough cut of the film by the end of this year, but that post production would take about a year and a half because of the digital photorealistic technology he will be using to render characters and environments.

What is perhaps most interesting about this news is that the film will supposedly revolutionize the digital medium that he helped to create with his films The Abyss (1989) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991). More on these Cameron films and others in the future, but now I would like to focus this discussion on the impact of the digital cinema. Since those two films, a huge shift in big-buget filmmaking has taken place, starting with Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1993), before ultimately leading up to George Lucas' new Star Wars trilogy (1999, 2002, 2005) and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001- 2003). There have been many experiments in between, including the box office failure Final Fantasy (2001) and The Polar Express (2004), but the trio of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Peter Jackson have been the forerunners in the digital effects revolution that is seemingly now upon us. All have used the technology differently, yielding different results and various approaches to the medium.

The way the news reports have been presented, it would seem that Avatar will be the culmination of the progressively larger curve that digital cinema has been making since the late 80's. And leave it to the man who gave the medium its biggest push to take it the next level. What interests me is how this all affects current filmmaking trends and overall scope of cinema. Many critics and bloggers have complained in recent years that big budget filmmaking is being destroyed by the digital medium, citing that the emphasis is often more on flashy effects than on storytelling. It's hard to say if such generalizations are objectively true, because each of us has an individual perspective and will cite specific examples to make the case over whether this movement is good or bad for the cinema; it's all a matter of which perspective you choose to frame your film viewing and interpretation. Some will cite the recent Star Wars pictures as being too effects-heavy and the slew of empty Hollywood epics defined more by grand, sweeping shots of armies than actually telling a story. But, like I said, this is a very limited perspective. I would contest (from my own perspective) that for every one of these examples of how effects overpower storytelling, there are as many films that have made the medium part of the storytelling to great effect. Further complicating matters is how each individual views the medium of digital cinema and how this informs their perspective on given films. Some viewers adopt more traditional values when it comes to achieving special effects; these people would rather see something real and concrete on the screen as created by makeup, production design, and various stylistic techniques of presentation rather than something created on a computer. These viewers tend to scorn anything that they know contains so digital effects and question films for using them when they can create effects in a more genuine manner.

I find that this approach does not hold water for a number of reasons. The cinema is an ever changing medium. It was the first vehicle that allowed moving images to exist on a screen. Since its birth in the late 19th century, the media and technologies it has spawned have shaped culture and communication differently for everyone. Now, with digital technology affecting nearly every form of media, we can't escape images. Whether its television, news, internet, the immediacy of the content has made it such that we cannot live without these media. They force themselves into almost every aspect of our lives; the presence of cellular telephones, iPods, and digital cameras have affirmed that. From that point of view, it would only seem natural that the cinema take part as well. Whether these technologies have contributed significantly in a positive or negative manner is solely a matter of individual perspective. Those who do not embrace these media vehicles are informed by their experiences without them, and would rather continue living in the comfortable manner in which they have most of their lives without these media. This often determines one's perspective on the manner in which these new media and tecnhnologies contribute to our lives. There are several confounding factors contributing to each individual's perspective on whether this technology upsurge is good or bad. But even thinking in such terms of positive or negative reflects much about how those ideologies are formed. Perhaps rather than commenting on how or why a given technology is good or bad, we should be focusing on the factors that have lead to the creation of such media and technologies and what their emergence reflects about our current culture and manner of communication (as well as why some will inevitably embrace cutting edge developments and others rejects it). It ultimately is an issue of socialization.

Bringing the focus back to the cinema, every time a new technological advance has been made throughout history, it was met with almost unanimous trepidation and sometimes fear. Some artists embraced the possibility of advancing the medium, while many claimed that they ruined the integrity of the medium, i.e., the emergence of talkies, technicolor. The journey of the cinema is particularly relevant in regards to the content of the previous paragraph because the cinema itself is an immeasurably powerful form of communication. Its history and evolution in the last hundred years is something of a microcosm for all of communication, and the media filters which now shape it. As stated earlier, the moving image has changed the way we relate to the world. Media outlets (be it news, television or cinema) shape our socialized experienced by forming representations of the "world outside." Its progression as channelled through changing vehicles of technology has resulted in an inevitable demand for more immediacy - bigger, better, and faster.

In a way, this has happened recently with digital cinema. Filmmakers are exploring the medium in dynamic and interesting ways - some use it as a way of channeling traditional storytelling such as George Lucas's Star Wars prequels, which build almost entirely synthetic worlds. Lucas has come under heat because these films showcase a mix between old and new ideals that have been brought on by digital cinema. The problem he had with changing the vehicle of achieving his style is that audiences had a knowledge of the previous films, all of which were cutting edge, but were firmly implanted in the filmmaking trends that have dominated movie making since its inception. Equipped with the knowledge of the previous films, many viewers found Lucas' new creations to be an awkward mix of the old and the new, or the old channeled by the new. His films were met with mixed criticisms, but they are a fascinating staple in modern digital filmmaking that embody a somewhat awkward stage that the cinema finds itself in as the digital realm breathes over us. His films are often known for that akward style, but they also showcase the positive, with almost sublime fusions of new and old filmmaking ideologies, resulting in powerful images and a vastly new approach of telling stories. During individual moments of those films, it's hard not to feel as though we are stradling old and new ways of seeing and interpreting images.

Other filmmakers are exploring how this new vehicle of forging images can provide a new way of seeing images in relation to storytelling as a whole. Michael Mann's recent film, Miami Vice (2006) exemplifies this very new trend. In the case of the Star Wars films, Lucas wanted to achieve the same stylistic result, only the means by which he created that style has changed. With Miami Vice in particular, Mann explores the relationship between the image and the stories those images produce. The screenplay could have yielded a very basic action film featuring familiar visual and stylistic approaches that typically define the genre and categories to which the film belongs. But with his film, Mann challenges those tropes, visually reinventing how such stories typically are presented by actively calling attention to the environment in which the story takes place and the characters live. He attempts to redefine cinematic space by deliberately confounding the presentation of stories that are inherently traditional. While this discussion is venturing into David Bordwell's territory of story and style in modern movies, it is still relevant within the digital discussion because Mann achieves his effect with the digital technology he employs to construct and present the images of the film, which in turn affects every other element contributing to the film's style. By choosing to shoot the film digitally, Mann took full advantage of the visual possibilities that the medium presented him and deliberately confounded the stylistic norms that dictate cinematic space.

These films exemplify how the technology is changing the cinematic medium in large ways and small - in how we experience the same conventions with it and how its presence confounds those very conventions. Other filmmakers are utilizing the technology to function more fluidly with the storytelling. Steven Spielberg's recent big budget efforts are particularly noteworthy because he wants the digital elements to slip in unnoticed with the other classically positioned and constructed elements, thus creating a different effect. His Minority Report (2002) and War of the Worlds (2005) both feature extensive effects sequences in crafting images that otherwise could not be made without digital effects. However, they are made to look "real" within the environment of each film. Other filmmakers have attempted to work digital elements seamlessly into their films, but ultimately this has failed on almost all counts with the exception of Spielberg. His use of the digital medium is often mean to enhance his commitment to classical style and structure. But, he too is drifting away from many of the trends that have constituted many of his own earlier films and classical Hollywood filmmaking as a whole.

Debating over whether digital cinema will positively or negatively effect filmmaking and film viewing is really beside the point. It is here to stay, and such debates serve as indicators of how certain viewer's allegiances to particular styles and manners of film making and viewing are determined. But this is a constricting approach to the cinema, since the cinema over the years has defined, reflected, and informed the evolving modes of communications that dictate our lives. The medium itself is about possibility. The extent to which the ways of seeing that cinema provides will further be altered remains an interesting subject of discussion. For example, the forthcoming 3-D "revolution," something that has come and gone over the years, provides an interesting element to the discussion because it essentially redefines the parameters by which we can see. This prompts questions about what the cinema is and what specifically makes it up. To what extent these new media and technologies alter the experience of the presentation and consumption of images seems to be changing all of the time, and given the interactive nature of much of modern media, 3-D cinema fits comfortably within that realm. The question of whether 3-D cinema can actually be called cinema is indeed an interesting one, especially given the current discussion of digital cinema, but that will be the subject of another post. In the mean time, it's prudent to think about what actually defines cinema. Is it the four corners of the two dimensional screen or can it be more interactive? It's tough to say.

Nevertheless, with all of these technology vehicles altering the cinematic experience, the cinema once again reveals itself as an ever-changing media of image productions and consumption. And it makes for a significant subject of thought and discussion.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Looking Ahead

Now that I've established in broad terms what you can expect from the content of this blog, I will now provide the structure through which I will present it. Being that this is not my profession and that I attend graduate classes in the evening, it's incredibly hard to keep up with all of the new releases (especially this time of year!) the way many critics and other bloggers do. However, my hope is that this blog will actually keep me motivated to see films in a timely fashion.

In the midst of my writings about the medium of cinema, as well as commenting on critics/historians and evaluating how they have shaped currents ideologies about image production and viewing, I intend to provide capsule reviews for the films that I view. For the most part, these capsule will be for recent theatrical releases, which I will have seeb either in the theater or on DVD. Sometimes I will review older films, though. Like I said, interspersed with these reviews, I will be writing about the movie industry, film theory, social trends in the cinema, and other topics regarding film and communication. Some things that lie ahead include a look back at recent award winners and some brief pieces about filmmakers and critics/philosophers that have influenced the cinema and my experience with it. Also, within the month, I will recap the films of 2006 as seen through the prism of my critical perspective, after which I have seen more of the so-called "cream of the crop," the big award contenders such as Pan's Labyrinth, Letters from Iwo Jima, and Flags of Our Fathers, and various others. Many of these are films that I have to see as a self-respecting critic, even though my own view of these films is informed by the rest of the critical community by way of the huge number of "Top Ten" and "Best of" lists. In a later entry, I would like to explore this notion further, but I will wait until I unveil my own personal list before I spout off about the functions of lists. For now, check out Jim Emerson's and Andy Horbal's views on lists at their respective blogs. They sum up the problem with the very concept of Best Of lists rather nicely, but each offer a unique perspective concerning how we as critics must deal with that problem, since, after all, it is inevitable whether we choose to form these lists or not. But I digress. With any luck, I will contribute my own perspective to that discussion, but, back to the issue at hand...

In terms of what films I see, I try to keep a balance between mainstream efforts, independent productions, and foreign films. It all really depends on distribution, but I try to keep a balance as there are worthwhile films in all shapes and sizes. Typically, I see between 80 and 100 theatrical releases per year. That includes films viewed in the theater and on DVD. I try to get to as many opening weekend releases that I can, but sometimes my schedule doesn't always allow that. Whatever slips through the cracks I try to see on DVD upon release. So, I'm usually about a half a year behind most critics when it comes assessing each calendar year's list of cinematic offerings. I won't be caught up on most 2006 films until sometime in May or June. As it stands now, I have seen 41 theatrical releases from 2006, which is somewhat low for me. 2006 was an incredibly very busy year in my life, but in coming months I will be trying to catch up on many of the films that I missed. Hopefully 2007 will allow me the time to see more films, but for now, I anticipate seeing somewhere between 75 and 90 films from last year. That leaves me much work to do this winter. But I look forward to getting back in the swing of things. There are still so many films I have yet to see, and so many that pique my interests based on what I've read on other blogs. Right now is as relevant a time as any for the medium. That has shown in films of recent years, which is why it amazes me how there are some amongst us who think that the cinema is dying. But that's a whole other post.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

A Short Guide to Being a Good Film Viewer (And Critic)

For those who take the experience of watching films seriously - abosrbing their images and ideas, reflecting upon them, and engaging in lively discussion about any and all concepts spurred from watching films (individually and the broader idea of it) - Film Analysis classes often fail at presenting the first steps of immersing your own individual experiences and thoughts into the emotive experience of watching a film. These classes condition students to look at films as passive viewers, not participants. They'll teach students to take notice of stylistic elements and observe that a particular image is noteworthy, but rarely ask why. I hope to delve into these questions more deeply with future posts, but, for now, I will provide a brief guide for how someone who is interested in studying film and/or writing about the cinema. Over time I hope to build on it and further elaborate on these points and others. But this is really meant as an introduction to freeing oneself up to the experience of watching films, not from the a stagnant perspective forced upon students in survey classes, but from a perspective that promotes asking questions about the experiencing of seeing moving images on the screen and wondering how and why it works. The answer to these questions are elusive, but we cannot begin to understand them before we can position ourselves to view films from the right mindset of opening oneself up to be part of the film. How and why something works individually in a film, or if a film works as a whole, and how we come to understand what's "good" or "bad" cinema, and where these ideologies are formed within the institution of criticism and the social processes of viewing films and enjoying them... all of that comes later. But now, for those provoked by film, for those who are interested in the medium I offer this very brief guide to how to begin to explore the many capabilities of the cinema as an art form and an aesthetic medium.

First, buy a notebook, or if a computer works for you, have it handy when you're getting ready to watch a film. When watching films, takes some notes. If something doesn't make sense to you, write it down. After the film, re-read your notes and consider them in context of the entire film. The first time watching a film, one is meant to experience it and ruminate upon that experience in an organized review or criticism or even capsule. You can analyze or think about why a film is working a certain way or ask questions as to why the images have been positioned and presented as such, but only after reflecting on the entire film can you think about the individual elements of it which build one's view of the entire film. Which leads me to the following point that the second viewing of a film (even the ones that don't necessarily strike you on first viewing) can be just as fascinating as the first. The experience is different in that you can anticipate the images - when watching a film for the first time, you are vulnerable to its actions, to how it is organized, arranged, and presented for you make sense of. You may not be aware of all of the inner workings and intricacies of the stylistic elements when watching a film the second time, but having reflected on the picture as a whole allows the viewer to pay closer attention to such elements, inviting more in-depth analysis. From there (perhaps after one more viewing to familiarize oneself with the film taken as a whole), break down the film by performing scene-by-scene analyses, which may thus in turn inform one's perspective of the film as one flowing visual narrative. Start anywhere, with any film.

Once you have assessed films in relation to each other and built a knowledge of the cinematic medium, your knowledge will inform the experience of viewing and thinking critically about a film and the broader idea of cinema. From there, you can raise questions and contemplate ideas about the conventions by which genres have been constructed and the aesthetic elements of a film that construct the experience of a flowing visual narrative. Issues of ideology, expectation/anticipation, representation, and interpretation then become more clear after you have built a knowledge and experience of cinema, at which point can you examine the relationship of the image and the viewer, the image and the maker, the experiences, values, and expectations that inform and dictate how images are positioned and seen, and cognitive notions of how an individual sees the images of a film and makes sense of it based on cultural and genre norms and practices. Then you can observe film in a broad sense, as a communication device, and examine it in light of culture, socialization, entertainment, media, etc. and examine any number of things; for example such as how the cinema has influenced other media, and vice versa; how it has been influenced by the written narrative and vice versa?

Force yourself out of a comfort zone; ask questions and allow yourself to think about a feeling that you have watching a film but might otherwise gloss over. The possibilities for the study of the cinematic medium are endless, but it all begins with watching films: serious films, popcorn films, old films, genre films, black and white films, experimental films - films of all kinds and varieties. Ask general questions of oneself regarding why you are or are not entertained by this experience, and contemplating what it is about seeing moving images that is pleasurable; furthermore, how and why we make distinction as viewers as I just made, between the old and the new, amongst genres, documentaries and fiction, foreign versus domestic, Hollywood versus indie. Those distinctions are key to the experience of constructing a knowledge and memory of films and how viewers perceive moving images and understand them spatially and chronologically. Expectation and familiarity inform and position viewers as to how to understand the images, and they also determine the principles for which the images are created. As Gilles Deleuze, David Bordwell, and others have explained, images are seen and made according to what has already been seen.

Thinking about and exploring these concepts becomes inevitable and essential to the study of cinema, and it is only the beginning. But when one is ready and willing to approach film discussion and criticism with the appropriate mindset, this process becomes second nature. The experience of watching movies is never lost on those who love movies, even ones who analyze details. Such practices enrich the experience of sitting in the dark and becoming vulnerable to a film's sensibilities. Critics and film historians do what they do because they have all felt the touch of the cinematic magic. We all react to it differently and pursue that passion in a variety of ways, but all of this analysis and exploration goes back to the central feeling of being moved - emotionally or intellectually - by the experience of watching a movie. Film lovers and critics will forever try to understand what that means and answer all of its questions. There are thousands of ways of approaching it and studying it; and as enriching as it all is, there is no one answer or one method. Therein lies the beauty of it all. The pursuit of trying to answer these questions can be just as moving and significant as experiencing the movies themselves.

Opening Comments and Welcome!

Firstly, I'd like to welcome anyone who happened to stumble across this blog. If you're here, than you must love movies as much as I do. As Jim Emerson and many others have pointed out, the blogging ream is a great place for serious, relevant discussion about all things related to the movies. Where mainstream journalism fails, blogs fill the void for those interested in film criticism and discussion. Of course, there are thousands of books out there, but in terms of immediacy and the journalistic world of communication we now find ourselves in, the internet has become a haven for people who love the craft of the cinema and film criticism.

So, why me? My own contributions to the discussion of film aren't by any means more valid than any other person's. I am here because I have a passion for the cinema and a passion for writing, which is the holy ground where film criticism is formed. Having been inspired by several noteworthy blogs in the last couple of years, I have finally decided to make my contribution to the stimulating discussion that has been circulating in the blogosphere about cinema. My contributions will be limited at best, as there are certainly more knowledgeable minds out there than me.

But I am student of the cinema with a background in communication studies, an area of study oddly positioned by existing schools of thought in psychology, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy. Film, like all media, adds to the dynamic nature of communication studies and is a central experience to our public and individual consciousness. Studying film in relation to all of these areas of study has enriched my own understanding and knowledge of communication and will hopefully contribute something relevatory to study of these many things. I will have much to say about filmic images, theories of representation, socialization and culture, genre study, and the aesthetic tropes that determine how we view films and shape our own experiences in light of them and vice versa. Interpretation and perception are crucial to this mix and how we as social animals are positioned to react to moving images.

I will deal with all of these concepts individually and in relation to each other, and I hope to spark vibrant discussion amongst readers. I look forward to engaging your perspectives and others as I make my first venture into the Cinema's blogging realm.