Monday, February 26, 2007

Scorsese's Departure

This year's best picture winner, The Departed, shares more in common with last year's intruder than critics would like to admit. Conventional wisdom and plot similarities inform us that Babel is incredibly similar to Crash in its construction and themes. Interestingly, it is just as coldly manipulative and exploitive as the Oscar winning film as well. However, although I admire the Academy for selecting a genre film prizing pure excitement over big messages, The Departed strikes me as too reflexive, and not in a good way. Maybe Scorsese wanted to call attention to how rigorously structured the film is, but one would think that given the material he would want such manipulations to be non-existent rather than dogging every narrative step of the film. Yes, the structure reflects the film's themes of identity, betrayal, and the blurred line between good and evil. But to me, it is too calculated; the artifice is too upfront. Its utter precision in unveiling the dualistic plot took me out of the film rather than drawing me in, which is one of my many criticisms of Crash. Keep in mind that I think The Departed is a much better film than Crash. I just couldn't enjoy it for the great film that I knew it could have been. Its greatness lives in individual moments but drifts out of focus in the overall execution of plot.

Martin Scorsese has said that this is the first film he's made with a plot. While I love an excellently plotted movie as much as the next person, I think my inability to totally get into the film was partially due to the fact that I knew this was a Scorsese picture. All of his trademarks are here but something about it just doesn't feel right. Such a criticism is unfair and biased, but I must be honest about my feelings of the film. My love of Scorsese's films is rooted in his value of story and character. He is amazing at visually executing a story in a way that reflects the inner fears and passions of the characters. With The Departed, the Scorsese "look" is there, but the interest in the characters isn't; and that's because the movie is so focused on plotting that characters take a back seat. It's then no surprise that David Bordwell determined that the average shot length of The Departed is much shorter than the typical Scorsese picture; The Departed is Martin Scorsese bringing his look and sound to popular entertainment. Perhaps if I hadn't brought the knowledge of Scorsese's previous work to this film, I may have enjoyed it more and it would have made a greater impression on me. But the beauty of cinema and criticism is that viewers do bring knowledge and experiencs inside the cinema and out to individual films.

I certainly don't mean to demean Martin Scorsese's film or undermine its success. But just like the feeling I had with the sight of him clutching that Oscar, watching The Departed is a disjointed experience for which I had reserved enthusiasm; I don't think I've been so reserved yet so embracing of a film's ability to entertain. I am ecstatic that he finally won, much in the same way that he made a film that captured so many and is now back in the public limelight. But somehow, The Departed just doesn't gel the way most Scorsese movies do, even the ones that aren't masterpieces. It's overall very difficult to react to a film that both embodies a director's personal style so much yet feels so artificial and hollow by his standards, like he's consciously bowing to what people want to see. That being said, I still very much enjoyed the film despite the odd feeling I had watching it. But in the end, that feeling prevented me from loving the film the way I have so many other of his films.

Part of the reason for my reaction to the Oscar win of the film and the experience of seeing the film as muted excitement is that I had a real problem with how so many pundits, critics, and viewers were claiming that Scorsese has "returned to form." Jim Emerson revealed in a post a while back that he feels that we may be patronizing Scorsese at this point. And I think that whole discussion upset me, especially in relation to how I felt about the film. Honestly, as exciting and classically entertaining The Departed is, it doesn't have an ounce of the heart and passion that films like Raging Bull, Age of Innocence, Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and The Last Temptation of Christ possess. Scorsese makes excellent mob movies, but to say that he's better at making mob movie, and to pigeon-hole him for that is to horribly misunderstand this great director's work. He has made several passionate, brilliant films that transcend genre, despite many of them borrowing from conventions of certain genres. His films take those conventions and internalize them, giving them meaning through his fascinating characters and striking images. With The Departed, the shell appears to be all that's there; the conventions of genre. It is more of an outward celebration of genre and narrative styles. While it worked on that level, it doesn't represent Martin Scorsese doing what he does best. Scorsese "at his best" is not limited to certain genres or narrative conventions; it instead emerges when he makes films about people, films which explore guilt, death, violence, obsession, and temptation in visually exciting ways.

Why Blogging is Essential

Love him or hate him, the now legendary Marshall McLuhan was onto something when he famously surmised the heart of his entire argument regarding media in one five word phrase: the medium is the message. Some thirty years before the time of DVDs, iPods, the worldwide web, and digital technology, McLuhan rightfully predicted the path in which electronic media were headed, which in itself is fairly amazing. But, in a general sense, it's important to examine the relationships we share with these various media, since, as McLuhan understood it, media our extensions of ourselves. McLuhan had much to say about how various electronic media have emerged from print media, which shaped cultural consciousness in unfluencing the structure of thought and social institutions.

Strange as though it may seem, I am going somewhere with this. I could take this in any number of directions, but what interests me here and now and perhaps what is most relevant to my writing this blog entry is the medium of blogging itself. Andy Horbal recently wrote a couple interesting posts regarding blogging and film criticism that has compelled me to contribute my own thoughts to the discussion. And that right there, from my point of view at least, is what blogging is all about.

Many of us frequent the internet, be it for driving directions, telephone numbers, sports scores, celebrity gossip... you name it. Someone I know recently made the observation that if email were to crash - as if to vanish - society would crumble. Even those who don't use email as much would be greatly affected by such a catasrophe, and our communication habits would have to revert back to what they were like before email, before the internet. But this is practically impossible now. Our consciousness has been reshaped, re-calibrated. Internet technologies are now tools for understanding and working within the real world; and by real I mean the only reality that all people can on some level agree upon, that of social institutions (which I'd like to add are about as far from real as something can get, but that's another story).

With respect to blogging, I'll be honest about my relationship with the internet. Up until about a year and a half ago, the idea of blogging was totally beyond me. I didn't get it. I used email and had heard of Facebook (the college version of Myspace) and e-diaries, but the idea of a blog seemed kind of ludicrous to me. Since I love reading Roger Ebert's movie reviews, I frequented his site,, and every now and then would catch a link to a blog called Scanners by the editor of, Jim Emerson, who I had never heard of. Nevertheless, I found his thoughts on cinema and its many elements interesting and stimulating. I kept thinking how nice it was to read commentaries on film and film criticism not within the context of popularized conventions of film reviews as perpetuated by newspapers and magazines. At that point, I had been reading many scholarly texts on criticism and cinema studies and was awed by the amazing gap between the that school of thought and mainstream media, i.e. journalistic film criticism. Which is why reading Scanners was such a great experience, because it represented a different area of the spectrum; it wasn't on one extreme or the other. Jim imbues his blog with a very scholarly, intellectual approach to film criticism, and much of his material is very demanding. But he accomplishes this using many conventions of journalistic writing, and to this day I find it fascinating and stimulating.

I was further stunned by the amount of discussion that he sparked; good, intelligent discussion. I felt like a whole new world had opened up to me. For almost a year, I was content to merely read this discussion, and through his website I was able to link to other blogs I found interesting, notably No More Marriages! and The House Next Door. Then, one of my favorite writers on cinema, David Bordwell, began blogging. I know film blogs have been around for quite some time and that this world has existed long before I came into it, but so much seemed to be happening the more I was exposed to it. And like I've said before, I decided to throw myself into the discussion about two months ago. Though I have a long way to go in terms of learning about this community, it has been a great experience for me. Having some experience in both mainstream journalism and bureacratic world of scholarly publishing and reviewing, this new medium of film writing and discussion came at the perfect time for me, and I couldn't be happier about my decision to make a run at putting together a blog.

Getting back to my initial point about McLuhan, observing the practices and conventions of blogging, in particular film blogging, I have come to the conclusion, like many others, that the experience of blogging is both illuminating and frustrating. I say this because among those who aren't apart of blogging, "the blog" is an awful concept in many ways. I don't blame anyone for feeling this way. Just think about how many empty, useless blogs are out there. Like the internet as a whole, when it comes to blogging, you need to know where to look for find the worthwhile material, because it's buried under a sea of inconsequential nothingness.

And that is inherent to the internet. Any person with a computer can post his or her thoughts or feelings on something, which is kind of scary when you think about it. So, the frustrating thing about it is that by partaking in blogging, even in a productive way, it's hard not to wonder if I am contributing anything relevatory or intereting, or whether I'm as deluded as 98 percent of other bloggers thinking that my opinions are important, when in fact they're not really, at least in a public forum.

The world of publishing, especially in academic or journalistic film criticism, is so hard to break into that it's no wonder that there are so many wonderful bloggers out there. But the publishing world's greatest strength is also it's greatest weakness, and that is its checks and balances. Establishing oneself as a prominent figure in film criticism, no matter what the arena, is one of the most difficult things to accomplish. Even getting an individual article published can be a dreadful and laborious process. Not everyone is cut out to do it. Writers for these media are under deadlines and sometimes must perform assignments that they would rather not do because they rely on it for a source of income. This is both good and bad. In an earlier post, I argued that the two factions within film criticism, the scholarly academic end and the mainstream journalistic end polarize each other so much that the content of both sides has become questionable in terms of its validity. Like anything else, there is good writing in both, but one needs to know how to get to it amongst all the mediocrity. That is where the blog can potentially fill a great void.

Writers can do things on their own terms. It's the complete and total opposite extreme of deadlines and the politics of gearing material towards the least common demoninator in terms of audience and playing to advertising. It has freed up film lovers to express whatever they would like with no limits. The problem is that since it's so accessible to so many, the door has been opened for anyone, even those without any kind of qualifications or background, those who just have something to say, to pollute the blogosphere, thus giving it a bad name.

Which brings up the issue of credibility. As much as we have progressed into acceptance of these new media - such as the internet - the norms of print media have dominated our comprehension and relationship with such media, thus essentially keeping the internet among other things in the realm of "not to be taken seriously." And as stated before, who's to blame anyone for thinking that? We have entered into an electronic age of immediacy. Investigation, understanding various perspectives, and forming intelligent arguments are becoming ever so rare even among print media, since it has been influenced by the mass popularity of these new media despite still holding some degree of control over the position of new media in society. One reliable fact about published work is that its very framework suggests that those who partake in it have great experience with a particular discipline and aren't merely spouting out opinions.

Nevertheless, there are so many intelligent, insightful, and downright brilliant blogs out there. It's a shame that they only get noticed by those within the blogging community. But I suppose the same can be said of academic literature. Here's where McLuhan comes back into the picture. Our understanding of media often determine their content. So, however long internet is to be held in the category of "not worth it," which in many ways is true, then useful material will rarely emerge from within it. Yet that's not entirely true, as these many film blogs have proved. In fact, blogs have surpassed journalistic criticism in many ways as a result of being free of the shackles of pandering to the least common denominator. This aspect is what makes blog writing so fresh. It's where those of us with an actual knowledge of a given area of sudy tend to flee, outside of academia of course. But since academia can be so hard to penetrate, blogging can represent and fulfill a great need for those fed up with the practices of journalistic criticism, which has largely become so homogenized that it's scary.

Yet here I am publishing this long analysis of blogging and new media, pretending to embody both academic and journalistic tropes yet probably making several typos in the process. This analysis is also subject to lacking a strong cohesive structure that the editing process in publishing can provide. Some of the larger blogs are in fact edited much like a newspaper or magazine, but in my case, I have my own editing skills to go on, which are fine. But no writer can be his or her own editor and be good at both jobs. It's good that articles and books have to go through the hands of so many people and endure a review process to determine whether the arguments are succinct or valid. Yet such process can become very political and bureaucratic, giving an advantage to blogging in the sense that people can truly write about something that means something to them. Blogging, then, is a direct response from people who refuse to take part in the bureacracy of mainstream media. But the issue is that since anyone can do and it is situated within the discourse and practices of the internet, blogging is subject to a lack of credibility, which is reflected in the typos, mistakes and lack of cohesion in some blog posts since there is no peer review or editorial process beyond one's own. A blogger can go back and change what he or she has written, correct typos, and change the overall content if he or she so desires. This is both good and bad. Writing for publication is more final, which is why writing goes through so much editing and restructuring; again, which itself is good and bad. But the internet is so expansive and polluted with nothingness that it's often hard to know where to find the worthwhile blogs; and ones that are worthwhile are usually prone to follow the empty practices of internet immediacy. So, how can blog reading or writing be in any way credible? How do we know that we're not all buying into our own fantasies that we're contributing to film discussion? It's tough to say, because blogging is in many ways so incredibly different than other forms of published writing. It certainly helps that scholarly writers like David Bordwell have jumped in, crossing over from academia into blogging, bridging the two. His website is one of the most innovative staples in film studies; it is so great to see him embracing all forms of presenting film discussion content.

Then you have the issue of readership. I have no idea who reads this blog of mine. I've been at it for two months. I've had a few responses to my posts, which I greatly appreciate, though I wish I had more. Many of my profile views are due to my own account when I'm trying to see how much it's been viewed no less. This all hits on an issue so important to all forms of writing, which is the idea of validity and self-importance. How can anything one person conveys through writing really contribute to anything, really? And is not blogging or academic publishing just another form of an individual getting off from seeing his or her own name in print? I love reading blogs and have come across so many great ideas, but I'm always thinking about how I can engage them and what I can do with them. In other words, writing itself is one big act of indulgence. While I think there's something to that, I don't think that attitude is the be-all, end-all of writing. The point I'd like to make is that it's certainly worthy of discussion when we debate about these forms of writing. That angle is not exclusive to any one area of writing; it's something that manifests itself in all forms of writing in some form or another.

There are some things these media have in common. But it continually amazes me that the content of such forms of writing are often decided based on how the medium itself is situated amongst other media and our relationships to them as readers/spectators and producers of that writing. I don't think I'll be able to answer any of the "big" questions about the validity of blogging or any other form of writing, suffice to say that as is true of most media, there is quality blog writing out there. We just need to rid ourselves of overly simplistic and blanket notions about entire media, be it blogging, print media, the internet, scholarly writing. Blogging, and the internet itself, represents a form of communication that exploits the weaknesses of print media while in its own weakness highlights their enduring qualities. I think there is room for writing in all of these media, even if the content is often controlled by those very media. It is a direct result of the immediacy that the internet creates, which is why there is so much variance between blogs in terms of how ideas and concepts are presented. The format of most blogs allows for writers to structure long, analytical pieces as well as short, quick thoughts as well as reference other blog posts, thus becoming a more direct for of dialogue, something that is just not possible in peer-reviewed jurnals. There are an infinite amount of ways to engaged a subject like film. The discussion that may result from it can get you reading other blogs and becoming aware of so much more that is out there. So in that sense blogging is absolutely essential.

Blogging is one big discussion. All of us have a common love of movies that manifests itself in the writing of posts like these, which other film lovers can read and enrich their own ideas and writing. It's a more hands-on approach to engaging cinema and cinema lovers. It strengths and weaknesses are built-in to the frameworks that structure the writing and presentation. The content of these varaious media for presenting film writing all have strengths and weaknesses, and we must constantly be juxtaposing them and measuring them against each other, because only through doing that can we encounter new ways of conceptualizing and structuring arguments and discussion of film. Even though the internet is a far less credible institution by and large than peer-reviewed journals and such, it most definitely capitalizes on the weakness on display in those media. There is no one ideal medium for evaluating film, especially since we are still learning about all of the time. But the unique element of blogging is that it allows that discussion to exist in a different way and to allow all of our capacities for learning to grow. This past year and a half in the blogging world (though only officially two months) has been a great experience for me, and I know it has for others. I have encountered new ideas and different perspectives, and that is what this is all about. That is why I do this. That is why I take the time to write these long, expansive posts. I'm sure not many people will read it; but I have something to say, for better or for worse, and I am proud to engage in a larger discussion of cinema that may some day garner to notice it deserves.

The medium may indeed be the message, and there is still much room for improvement within all these media. But it is so crucial to consider the strengths and weakness of all these vehicles of writing and how they allow us to understand ourselves and our perspectives.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Links For Thought

In light of all the Oscar blather that's permeated the mainstream media and many sects of the film blogosphere, it's refreshing to read film blogs at their finest, discussing important, relevant issues and concepts in and about the medium. As a responsible blogger, I therefore find it appropriate to make mention of such instances of great writing and thinking.

Johanna Custer over at The Lone Revue, a wonderful blog with a more intellectual-based approach to cinema, recently posted an insightful, provocative entry about the nature of interpreting moving images and the relationship the viewer holds with the screen which contains those images. The post is entitled Audience, Meet Screen; Screen, Meet Audience..., and I encourage everyone to check it out. Apparently, it's the first of a couple of entries she will be making on these issues. As someone studying media and culture, I find her post fascinating and deeply knowing about how cinema works upon its viewers. I will have much more to add to the discussion in future posts of my own. Right now, I'd merely like to highlight this one and encourage discussion of it. Here is a brief passage:

"It's practically impossible for me to define myself outside of my own culture without studying every last moment in my life-most of which can not be recaptured-and yet, I am captive to all of those images and words. Perhaps you can relate. Born without immunity to all of the forces that shape us, we are the products of every interaction that we have ever had. It's a little bit freaky and exciting if you think about it from a backwards gazing perspective on your own character and what has brought you to this precise moment in time. Or, as a girlfriend of mine put it after she had her first child: "I can't believe how much influence I have over this person's life. It's really scary." In a way, it seems that in order to gain any immunity to the poison, we must drink up. The hair of the dog as it were, day by day.

We have all of these images impacting us in ways that we don't understand and won't necessarily ever understand, and we don't even have to go out of our way to consume them. Between ambient sound and light, it's nearly impossible to get away from media."

On the topic of links and cinema as a form of rhetoric, one must note that criticism is inevitably always tied to it. Which brings me to another excellent post about "good" and "bad" criticism at No More Marriages!. Always one to question simple summations and categorizations to which many of us inevitably cling, Andy cites some fascinating work in bringing up a larger discussion about film criticism as it is fixated within specific media, be it print or online. I've taken a few stabs myself at tackling some troubling and important aspects of criticism, but this takes an altogether different stance, one grounded in the medium in which criticism is manfiested. I hope to incorporate some of this material in something I'm writing now about blogging, so I'll withhold the long discussion... for now.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Choose Your Own Oscar Adventure

I have always been curious about the process of how a film is ultimately awarded the Best Picture tag. While I usually watch the Oscars and cheer for my personal picks to win, there is something really disturbing about the whole thing. I always feel it when I ask myself the question: what does it mean to be Best Picture? What is the formula that a Best Picture must execute more efficiently than all of the other American theatrical releases this year? While I have examined the dangers of awards and top ten lists - notably how they influence perception and intepretation of individual films as well as sustain views of film art which aren't exactly healthy - I'm more interested here in the elusive question of how a Best Picture actually wins the award and what this means for the discussion and understanding of cinema.

The immediate question that arises from awards discussion is how can some individual or organization label anything "the best," especially considering the subjective experience of perception and interpretation that guides one's view of a film. Because some experts vote on which is the best, and film X wins, does that make it the best film of that year? The short answer is no. But I cannot help but remain fascinated by the whole thing and why people love to argue about it. A great way to identify some of these questions and issues is to looking back at all of the previous winners and identifying thematic and/or structural patterns. One can then begin to piece together what the Academy values most in a film and learn how they measure "quality."

Kristin Thompson over at Observations of film art and Film Art has put together a fascinating entry concerning her own views of what should have won the Best Picture Oscar over the years. For each year until 2000, Thompson cites the winner from a given year as well as the film she thinks should have won. Her selections are fascinating because she seems to follow her own individual beliefs in naming what should have won. On her list are some critical darlings such as Fargo, Pulp Fiction, Psycho, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but also among her choices are some unexpected films (at least in terms of a more "serious" crtical approach, one I believe to be a fallacy and both she and David Bordwell have revealed as such in their work). These include Beetlejuice, Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Chicken Run.

I know that the Contrarianism blog-a-thon just ended, but I cannot help but think about dominant attitudes and practices in criticism which dictate that only films that are "serious" should win awards. And by serious I mean "important" subject matters, like those explored in films such as Babel or Crash. That is the major problem I have with the Oscars. Although they have gone against type and embraced films that on the surface didn't deal with important/serious subject matters (e.g. Silence of the Lambs), they tend to follow a very predictable pattern of choosing all-encompassing, life contemplating films with big thematic ideas. Even darker films like American Beauty adhere to this pattern.

What I admire about Thompson's selections is that she is unafraid to fly against the critical mainstream, risking being labelled as a contrarian, when in fact she and her husband, David Bordwell, are simply more free-thinking about criticism and film interpretation rather than simply being contrary to popular belief. Thompson's selections show her embrace of a wide range of films including Hollywood filmmaking, critical tradition, as well as seemingly unnoticed films not on critics' or Hollywood's radar. Her choices are incredibly varied. Although she provides no reasoning for her choices (which logically would have been rather cumbersome, taking her weeks to put together), the listing of the choices themselves speaks volumes to her openness to the film vieweing experience as a critic.

I mention this because I think that it's in the best interest of all critics and voters in film organizations such as the Academy to adopt such an open attitude when it comes to understanding film images and the meaning they create, as well as assessing their quality. I admire someone who is unafraid to embrace a film that is not deemed acceptable to like by whatever dominant institution or ideology of which the film is part or to which it is relevant. This doesn't mean that we should think anything dominant or mainstream is suspect and try to be rebels or contrarians, because ultimately they're no different than the ones they claim to rebel against.

Critics are often pinned as being cranky, predictable, and out-of-touch. While this isn't true of all or even most critics, there are a chosen few popular ones and a wealth of journalistic critics who emobody a naturally contrarian approach to cinema, as if nothing will please them and that good films mean "interesting characters, crisp dialogue, and a well structured plot." These critics have bought into their own empty rhetoric and don't think to question their own practices for one moment before employing them to deems films as worthy or unworthy. That's why I always find it refreshing and inspiring (especially as somebody hoping to make my own contribution to criticism someday) to see some critics embody everything good about criticism by effectivelly capturing their personal experiences with the cinema, in so doing evoking thought and discussion about the magic, artifice, pleasure, and anything else associated with experiencing moving images.

It's not always easy to "do your own thing," since every critic has been influenced by popular approaches to criticism, both good and bad, as well as several critics who serve as unofficial mentors and models for structuring one's own criticism as one ventures into it for the first time. As hard as it is to find one's own voice, it's so crucial to the overall discussion and state of cinema to be unafraid to state one's opinions while balancing those opinions with a continued pursuit of education. One's learning never stops, and that should be reflected in their ideas and writing.

To re-focus this post back to the original point of the Oscars and predicting the winners, I would hope that voters and contributors to the discussion of cinema on all levels - even the highest - don't promote static criticism, and are instead willing to challenge, question, and ponder commonly held notions of what constitutes film quality. In doing so, the critical community can therby address the relevant concepts of thought and discussion as they emerge from cinema as a personal and collective experience.

This more open and inquisitive perspective of cinema which Thompson evokes is often reflected in many Oscar nominations. But in terms of the winners, we still have a long way to go. Last year, for example, four of the five films nominated for Best Picture were provocative and uniquely nuanced in their own ways, yet the film that won, Crash, was a pastiche of popular network narrative styles cloaked in a facade of so-called ambiguity. This year, the Best Picture nominees as a collection are quite interesting, but perhaps not as much as last year, in which the nominees were fascinating more for their quiet instrospection rather than "big" ideas. Several of them dealt with important issues facing us today as citizens of a nation and as social beings in a culture. Some criticized the films as being "issue" pieces, but the only nominee guilty of this would be the eventual winner, Crash, which exploited popular contemporary stylistic devices to create an in-your-face examination of important issues. Babel is scarily similar to Crash in some ways in its use of the network narrative and thematic similarities of communication, culture, and social identity, but I think that actually hurts its chances since that was the trendy thing last year. I have written about both The Queen and Letters From Iwo Jima in my Cinema 2006 series, and I stand by my beliefs that they are both brilliant films. The other two films nominated, The Departed and Little Miss Sunshine, I enjoyed immensely but would hesitate to call them great. I didn't feel the emotional connection to The Departed that seemed to be brewing underneath its surface and despite it being very absorbing and exciting, it felt too concocted to me, the events too convenient. At times, the film felt like a blatent result of screenwriting structure. Little Miss Sunshine, one of the more charming films of last year, overcame a premise and stylistic execution that were both very traditional in their rebelling against classical tradition. But the film slowly found a really strong rhythm and offered a subtle examination of a family dynamic without being overly insistent on its themes of the broken American dream. I liked both of these films very much on first viewings and intend to view them again as in the near future. Neither of them left the impression on me that Letters From Iwo Jima and The Queen did.

To me, it's not about agreeing or disagreeing with what wins, since everything comes down to personal experience and interpretation. More interesting is the study of films that have won and identifying patterns of what the dominant institutions consider film quality, because it is absolutely essential that this perspective never remains static or complacent. No formula should determine Best Picture winners. Any film should be capable of garnering the award, not just "serious" or "important" films. Critics and awards committees now need to be confident enough to contemplate the medium itself and what constitutes quality; there is no set answers, because the idea of film quality like many other ideas associated with interpretation should be fluid and ever-expanding, along with our understanding of the film as an art form and a medium of communication.

In a sense, the Oscars are meant to represent the pinnacle of American film from year to year. Thompson observes that it's hard to really know how certain films will be remembered over time, which is why she doesn't choose her winners beyond 2000. The beauty of the Oscars in an American film history sense is that they represent cinema through the years. One film from a particular year is chosen to represent that year cinematically; and what it says about that year or that time is fascinating to study. It's really quite impossible to somehow know what will be revolutionary or important in the now; it can really only be determined in retrospect. This view of the Oscars sees the term, "best," not so much as best as most influential or most interesting that will someday transcend the present and be remembered. The fun of it is that we don't know what will be remembered once the now becomes the then. It's one big guessing game, and looking back on winners is an exciting exercise to see what has molded itself in our collective memory and what hasn't; what has really contributed to the American film experience and what hasn't.

I think this perspective of the Oscars is more fruitful than merely trying to pinpoint which film supposedly objectively embodies our collective notion of film quality. There can never be an objective understanding of "best" when we discuss these issues. But in order for that term to represent more than a failed attempt for objectivity and sustaining a facile and destructive notion of quality, we the critics, the bloggers, the lovers of film everywhere need to understand the term as not quality and objectivity, but a one word summation for which film stands out in our own individual perspectives as being the most noteworthy, stimulating, contributory to the advancement and discussion of cinema. While I value personal perspective in discussion rather than collective voting, I still think there is a place for almost mythical ceremonies like the Oscars. Some shun them and laugh at them, some live and breathe them. I am probably somewhere in the middle in that I value its place in our collective consciousness regarding cinema, but I also acknowledge its potential dangers and weaknesses that call for improvement (notably the compartmentalizing of the film experience and the notions of quality which are imposed on others' views of film). Nevertheless, the Oscars, in particular the Best Picture awards, are a fascinating staple in our film culture.

Later in the week, I will unveil my official predictions for Oscar night. But right now, in the spirit of Kristin Thompson, I now present my own list of my choices for Best Picture nominees and winners:

* denotes my choice for the winner

[Note: Since my quest to see as many theatrical releases as possible each year started roughly in 1999, it would only be appropriate that I started there.]

Being John Malkovich
Boys Don't Cry
Eyes Wide Shut *
Fight Club
The Insider

Almost Famous
Cast Away
Chicken Run
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon *
Wonder Boys

A.I. Artificial Intelligence *
Ghost World
In the Bedroom
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Waking Life

Adaptation *
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Minority Report
Spirited Away

American Splendor
The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
Lost in Translation *
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Mystic River

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Kill Bill Volume 2
Sideways *

A History of Violence *
King Kong

Children of Men
Letters From Iwo Jima
Miami Vice
Pan's Labyrinth *
The Queen

I'm interested in your feedback on who will win and who should win/be nominated.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Guilty Pleasure and the Problem With Film Criticism

[This post is for Jim Emerson's Contrarianism Blog-a-thon.]

I had to write about it sometime...

Something about the very topic of guilty pleasures and that I'm now writing about them makes me feel as though I'm indulging in one. It's been written about in so many different ways, and, as we learn, everybody has their own unique brand of guilty pleasures that appeal to them. But what is so guilty about them? The term combines two seemingly very different ideas (guilt and pleasure) that are actually perfectly suited for each other more often than we'd like to admit. Hence the term itself. The two words repel each other, yet somehow fit together. Then, what does a guilty pleasure really suggest? To me, it's a struggle between logic and anarchy, or order and disorder. Pleasure is frequently associated with guilt, and vice versa, but why? To see a film that you deem as a guilty pleasure is to acknowledge that despite it's failing to embody the idea of what a good film is (which for each person is different), the viewer embraces the experience anyway. But if one genuinely enjoys a film and is so self-conscious about it, assuring that "this is not a good film," then what attracts him or her to it?

While each viewer has his or her own ideas regarding what constutes good filmmaking, there are definitely more broadly stated cultural and societal parameters that influence each individual interest. After all, our individual selves do not exist independent of our social environment. So in a sense context is everything. These broadly stated notions tend to be about entire genres or modes of narrative, rather than the stylistic filmmaking devices that build the genre. Within certain cultural sects, it is acceptable to enjoy or watch certain kinds of films, and not others. But there are an innumerable amount of social institutions and cultural sects to which each individual subscribes, giving each individual his or her own "taste." But the point remains that this is often determined by surroundings. But for some reason, viewers (and critics too, as I have written about before) are stuck on the type of narrative and the plot rather than the medium itself. The view that each genre is defined only by narrative traditions, each having its own stylistic conventions, or cliches, is incredibly restricting.

The idea of a guilty pleasure seems to emerge from this populary embraced notion of watching films. Viewers make judgements about certain types of films based on plot and narrative, unfortunately. But audiences are not solely to blame. Filmmakers themselves (at least lazy ones) tailor the images of their films for easy interpretation, thus fueling the spectator's numbness to filmmaking styles and devices. By employing the same ones over and over again, viewers become passive to how the images are arranged and are conditioned to focus on the content. Therefore, many viewers' understanding of film style is based entirely on fitting the style to the narrative, rather than fitting the narrative to the style. Craving sameness rather than innovation, filmmakers and viewers smother the medium in many ways by not actively thinking about ways of seeing, about the images themselves and how they execute a narrative.

I don't mean to speak for all of cinema when I make these claims. I am rather limiting this discussion to "bad" cinema, as Deleuze knows it; the kind that bows to convention and cliche without much thought or consideration, and is not concerned with allowing originality to stem from familiar ways of seeing and building images. It is a process of numbness. "Good" cinema celebrates innovation, not by presenting wholly different kinds of stories or employing a neat new stylistic technique. Real filmmakers and critics understand and acknowledge the traditions of cinema, narrative, and media in general, and focus on contributing to it. Films are complex media made up of moving images - they are much more intricate than viewers often given them credit; even the bad ones. If we expand our understanding of genre, image identification, representation, and categorization to stem not from narrative techniques, but from the images themselves and how they are constructed, we can thus embrace a more open paradigm for viewing and interpretting all kinds of films.

Which brings me back to the "Guilty Pleasure." Such an idea only exists within an understanding of cinema as plot and "content." We then become conditioned to like certain genres and dislike others on the grounds of the type of narrative they may embody. Coming from the approach that form creates content, we can open ourselves up to understanding that any plot or narrative can be executed effectively and interestingly in the medium of moving images we know as cinema. Viewers should not feel guilty for enjoying something. Instead, they should embrace their enjoyment of a film and actively think about what contributed to their enjoyment of it. If we can free ourselves from the old approach to assessing films, we can become more receptive to the idea that great cinema exists in all forms and is not limited to certain types, genres, or narratives.

Cinema is a medium about itself; its conventions, its styles, its ways of presenting images, and within those images, ideas, emotions, and possibilities. So-called guilty pleasures may not be great pieces of cinema, but in choosing to write about a seemingly inconsequential and all but forgotten film for this blog-a-thon rather than tearing down a universally loved film or defending a universally hated film, I wish to highlight how the current dominant approach to film viewing and criticism is mislead in its endeavor to try to understand cinema.

A contrarian is every as much of a slave to the current ideology of interpreting and evaluating cinema. While a contrarian does indeed question what's popular or dominant when it comes to certain films, theories, or commonly upheld notions, but by acknowledging those dominant notions and merely reacting to them, the contrarian is essentially still buying into a very limited notion of what quantifies a good piece of cinema.

I feel that we need to embrace all kinds of films, challenge standards, and question popularly upheld concepts in criticism. This isn't so much being a contrarian as it is being a responsible and active participant in of one of the most complex and relevant media. I don't think any of the dominant critical and popular ideologies about cinema are necessarily wrong and all deserve to be overthrown. I only challenge the critics, the viewers to actively think about those images on the screen and how they create meaning.

I realize that to some extent there must be dominant ways of thinking and that contrarianism also must exist, but I refuse to stop believing that someday film viewers and critics can move away from a narrow capacity for absorbing film images. Perhaps with this long reflection on accepting and rejecting cinematic ideology only makes me another contrarian. That may be. But forgive me for hoping that someday viewers and critics can more openly approach this great medium which offers unlimited ways of seeing, hearing, and feeling. Someday, as David Bordwell has said, we may have a criticism worthy of the medium we all love so much. While such an idealistic vision of criticism as not stuck in applying certain theories to certain films and breaking images down into categories and labels may not ever happen, in this perfect world of criticism, we won't need contrarians.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Cinema 2006: Cinematic Magical Realism

Grappling with both the necessity and absurdity of narrative, Pan's Labyrinth may very well be the standout film of 2006. Its backdrop—fascist Spain—is not so much a setting as it an an integral element of the story. Director Guillermo Del Toro's camera closely observes the experience of Ofelia, a young girl incapable of comprehending the horror around her but nonetheless possesses an intuitive understanding of the dehumanization that permeates her life and country. She flees into a world of imagination under the instruction of the mysterious faun, who tells Ofelia that she must perform a series of tasks so that she may claim her throne as princess of a fantasy world.

Pan's Labyrinth lures you in with its fantasy underpinnings and establishes a constrast with war-time reality. Del Toro carefully constructs each frame with care, marrying sound and image together to form a beautiful world of magical realism. His images allow the spectator fully into the childlike perspective of Ofelia, positioning you to hope that each imaginative adventure serves as a sufficient escape from the brutality of her step father, who also constructs his own reality based on fascist ideology. His reality, however, infests the social structures of the time, and, thus, he wields unmistakable power and influence over the people around him. Del Toro is so commanding of both the narrative and aesthetic, which is essential given the film's focus on the function of narrative in the interpretation of our perceptions of the world. Imagination is absurd in many ways, but it is wholly essential to grappling with experience. A stunning sequence near the beginning involving Ofelia talking to her unborn brother in her mother's womb illustrates this well, incorporates sublime, fantastical images in a free-flowing yet succinct manner. The images coupled with Javier Navarrete's ethereal, lullabye-esque music represent one of the film's key scenes.

Allegorical parallels abound, but Pan's Labyrinth is restrained in its presentation of details, capturing both magic and horror in equal amounts while balancing the story between a character based war drama and a fairy tale. Where most stories would take this setting at face value, Del Toro makes it a more prominent element of the story than the imaginative world into which Ofelia flees. He is very sparing in how he incorporates the fantasty aspects, and he is also treats them with darkness. Ofelia's world is not happy-go-lucky by any stretch; it is a strong reflection of how Ofelia views and participates in the reality of her own life. As the narrative progresses and we are exposed to the brutal reality of Ofelia's life, it is easy to understand her imaginative impulses as more than a trivial distraction from the goings on of the dehumanization around her. But Del Toro knows full well what he's doing and allows the proceedings to culminate in a climax so poignantly hopeful and bittersweet. It isn't until the film is over that you can really put together the pieces and discover what Del Toro is after, and yet the ultimate meaning is open to interpretation.

The similaraties and contrasts between the two worlds serve as an inquiry into not just national and personal ideology, but the reality of experience. Our experience with the world outside is mediated by the circumstances of our personal upbringing and exposure to social policy. Del Toro evokes this by building a brilliant narrative within these two worlds and never quite allowing the spectator to entirely be inside one without the other. Moreover, this simple contrast reveals itself to be much more complex than we might initially anticipate. In the end, no amount of praising metaphors or adjectives can contain just how beautifully simple yet dizzyingly complex Pan's Labyrinth is. It is a masterpiece.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Spatial and temporal relationships: Seeing "new" images

I recently re-watched James Cameron's 1986 film, Aliens, because it is one of my favorite action/sci-fi films and it's been so long since I've seen it. From beginning to end, I was under its spell, marvelling at the film's seemingly simple ability to stir my imagination and engage my senses. This feeling made me want to understand what it is about the film that compelled me feel as such, or any film for that matter. I often endure similar experiences watching other films, even though they may affect me differently emotionally or intellectually. It made me realize how hard it is to try to make sense of the experience of seeing a great film. But what is it a film like Aliens or any other that someone may regard as great that makes that viewer emote so strongly?

A genre film like Aliens is very interesting, especially in light of more recent films similar to it (e.g. Doom), which are for the most part unbearable. Is there really so much difference between a film like Aliens and a film like Doom As a critic, I think about these issues all the time, as all critics should, and I wondered how easy and tempting it is to pin it a simple solution by saying that the characters are better developed or the screenplay is better structured; things like that. These are common cliches that critics employ to distinguish a good film from a bad one. But I'm not sure it's so simple.

What is it that allows a film to resonate in your mind or hold any meaning? The cinema is indeed one of the most complicated forms of media because it combines so many other media and technologies together. The specific elements of a film, such as cinematography, mise en scene, editing, music, etc. all contribute to a narrative and are the result of conscious and unconscious choices made by filmmakers in committing moving images to a screen. From a viewer perspective, each spectator is obviously very different and brings different experiences, questions, and expectations to a film, whether it's an action vehicle like Aliens or avant garde cinema. Based on how viewers react to the images of a film, filmmakers have tailored images to what audiences respond to best, thus creating a system of familiarity so that a viewer can identify the pattern and make sense of it in the context of a narrative. Obviously, the narrative medium commonly employed by cinema has been influenced by other media which have built narratives such as fiction novels and theatre. So, by the time cinema came around, filmmakers and viewers applied many of the same pre-established narrative norms and values to their approach to cinema, thus making the medium of film itself an extension of previous media, which as Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong have stated, all emerge from textuality, which itself emerged from literacy, which itself emerged from orality. In other words, all forms of media emerge from other media because media alter consciousness according to experience with a given medium.

The narrative has been manifested in different media in a variety of ways, but its evolution within cinema reflects a greater idea of visuality. To make a long story short, film is about seeing, and the relationship between the image and the viewer. The filmmaker must utilize other media and technologies to make a story and the many elements that make it up visible, so that the images on the screen occupy a space. But from the narrative tradition, cinema also must occupy a time, because without memory or sequential arrangement of time itself, there can be no narrative form. The narrative iself has existed for so long and through so many different cultures because it reflects human beings' need to communicate and to enable understanding. Therefore, the fascinating thing about cinema (apart from it representing the culmination of electronic, print, and oral media) is that in order for its images to make meaning, or make sense, they elements of cinema must occupy space and time. The technological tools for constructing, arranging, and presenting a film allow a filmmaker to present space and time in unique ways, but in recognizable ways. Because images are presented and made visible with a viewer in mind. The relationship a viewer holds with the image is spatial and temporal, and images can facilite that relationship in many ways.

At the birth of cinema, films borrowed heavily from previously storytelling media to communicate ideas and create meaning, but as I alluded to earlier, the evolution of the cinematic medium presents the critic or the viewer with a fascinating travelogue of how images are made, consumed, and intepreted. And, like any other medium, cinema has expanded with the viewer's capacity to comprehend moving images, making sense of stories visually.

Critics often look to content when discussing why a film is good or bad, but, what many fail to understand, to once again cite McLuhan, is that the medium is the message. The actual content of a film is irrelevant. the most perceptive of critics are aware that it's the medium itself that creates the message, rather than the idea that there are messages or content out there seeking an appropriate medium to be its host. How viewers make sense of moving images is more dependent on how they familiarize themselves with conventions of narrative, style, and genre, which are all patterns of categorization meant to allow for comprehensive consumption.

That is part of David Bordwell's broader argument of how filmmakers, critics, and viewers engage cinema; he deals with image consumption by looking at the institution of film criticism in "Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Intepretation of Cinema," and investigating stylistic tropes in American cinema in "The Way Hollywood Tells It." Bordwell's overall claim that the cognitive processes by which viewers associate images with ideas is how filmmakers, critics, and viewers ought to be approaching cinema. His thinking reflects an expanding capacity to understand cinema and a progressive approach to criticism. He advocates that critics be more analytical of the images themselves and how they are arranged within stylistic traditions and practices as well as presented on the screen and made visible for interpretation.

Christian Metz and others have theorized that due to the intricate nature of its signification system, cinema is indeed a language. However, I'm inclined to disagree fundamentally with this assumption while acknowledging its similarities. Images are produced and assembled for consumption much in the same way that the alphabet, words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, articles, speeches, lectures and books are. However, while the same system of signification is often imposed upon film (and to an extent needs to be), the history of cinema has shown that visuality is capable of being totally beyond the realm of language. It will never be totally separate from the origins of speech and language, but the elements of images interact with each other and can function differently within cinema, yielding new images.

Which brings me back to originality. The idea of originality - in which something exists pristine, totally new, and independent of all other action, media, and behavior - is an idealistic notion that is more a reflection of the system of signification of which it is a part than an actual plausible force. It's nothing more than idea. There is no way for anything to actually meet the standard which its definition sets forth. Especially in media, it is totally impossible to create something "new" because that new thing is the result of old ways of thinking being approaches differently and progressively, and a consciousness that has been shaped by previous systems and media. So, in a sense, everything is an extension of something else, which relates back to the notion of cinema being a culmination of so many different forms of media. In order to construct images within a medium, you must first see images and become familiar with what they are, how they are seen and made. Is there a such thing as a totally original image, let alone totally original moving image? Of course not, because every image is assembled according to what its makers and viewers have already seen, consciously or unconsciously. This holds true of still images, definitely, but with moving images, it gets much more complicated.

Gilles Deleuze wrote (and I'm paraphrasing here) that there is a difference between good cinema and bad cinema (substitute original and unoriginal for good and bad). Good cinema, to Deleuze, re-assembles elements already familiar to makers and viewers and situates them differently, thus allowing them to interact differently than previous, which forges a new kind of image. Because a medium of moving images is so complex, there are innumerable components that contribute to the image and which make those images move and "mean" as Bordwell puts it. And an original/good film can consciously or unconsciously (maybe both) situate those elements that have yielded familiar patterns and sequential arrangements, and allow them to interact with each other differently, thus creating a new space and a new time. A good film does not merely regurgitate old images, but creates new ones based on prior knowledge of how images are made, positioned, and consumed. The content or the message is almost besides the point - any plot or story can be made new, fresh, and interesting on film.

So, whenever I think of why I find the experience of watching particular films pleasurable, I think of these things, which is partly the inspiration for the title of this blog. Our cognitive processes and social makeup are so amazingly complex that we can only scratch the surface when it comes to understanding them. A good film situates its elements and its narrative within its own unique and "new" space and time. There is no set way of accomplishing this, and certain films may achieve this in totally different ways. Some are more self-aware than others, some comment on narrative or stylistic conventions of genre while commenting on them, others react to ways of seeing and understanding character and present their story elements in opposition to dominant ways of thinking. Still, other great films fuse together different images through history and art of ideas manifested, seen, and understood in different ways, such as images of heaven, hell, horror, goodness - abstract notions that have manifested themselves in art, societies, and history in various forms. There are an unlimited number ways of creating new images because when new images are created and made familiar, they can thus interact and transmorgify by contrasting with previous images or comprehending the elements that allowed that new image to be situated amongst previous images, perhaps challenging previous representations of an idea

Cinema is a media dreamscape that represents the artistic culmination of the evolution of media and visuality. We need not consciously impose old values to it or catch ourselves up on the content. Rather, we need to free ourselves of such a mentality and approach cinema as freely as possible. The medium itself is always changing and expanding along with our understanding of it, and that is reflected in the new images I see in films all the time. Regarding content, the form creates the content. Therefore, the content can really be anything. I don't consider Aliens (a masterful film in my opinion) any less of a movie than Citizen Kane because of its subject matter. We need to move away from these very notions, which purport that the content decides the quality and that the media is just the vehicle for that. This mentality has plagued film criticism for so long and it has corrupted how many viewers approach and interpret films.

So when somebody asks me what separates quality cinema from bad cinema, the short answer I give goes something like this: a good film can be any film. It situates itself within a space and time, facilitating a spatial and temporal relationship between myself in the image that provokes thought and emotion, and it can do that employing devices both new and old.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Cinema 2006: Narrative and Visuality

I recently came across this interview from last month with Alfonso Cuaron about Children of Men:

"What I hate is when cinema is hostage of narrative...

Let cinema breathe, in which narrative is an element of the cinematic experience, but it's [just] an element, as acting is an element, cinematography is an element. Music and decors, those are elements. But right now? Cinema becomes just about seeing illustrated stories as opposed to engaging audiences in an experience in which you don't explain much....

The principle of cinema is that you are looking at that screen. A lot of reviewers nowadays, they fall into that vice: they want stories. They want explanations, they want exposition and they want political postures. Why does cinema have to be a medium for making political statements as opposed to presenting facts, presenting elements and then you making your own conclusions -- even if they are elusive? There's nothing more beautiful than elusiveness in cinema."

Cuaron voices a rare and essential perspective about cinema as a visual medium. Too often, critics and filmmakers fail to engage these properties of cinema and, in so doing, miss out on the treasures that it can offer. I wish more members of the film and film criticism community understood that which they study with the same knowledge that Cuaron possesses.

Too many film goers, makers, and critics are focused on plot, exposition, and structure. While it may be true that some films are good precisely because how they incorporate plot elements, they are just elements in a larger picture. Great cinema is about the interaction of all of these elements, and there is no set way of achieving that. The components of each film interact differently depending on how each aspect is constructed and positioned. But cinematic greatness is achieved when every frame breathes with life as a result of such an interaction. Cuaron understands this, and his last three films are testimony to that understanding. Children of Men, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Y Tu Mama Tambien all feature meticulously crafted images capable of revealing subtleties in various aspects of the storytelling, which for each film is quite different.

Children of Men fascinates me because it confounds the lines between real and symbolic. Cuaron frames his near-future Britain with an approach featuring many long-take and hand-held shots, which creates a sense of authenticity. He creates a dismal-looking future defined by violence, atrocities, and fear, in which society has crumbled from within because women are infertile. Cuaron never bothers to provide reasons for the infertility, and he doesn't need to. That isn't what the film is about.

In the opening moments of the film, the images are just as focused on the world in which the characters inhabit as on the characters themselves. Furthermore, the film plunges you into its world without much exposition or explanation, which, as Cuaron explains, are almost irrelevant. He is interested in exploring how human beings exist in social spheres, and how they interact institutionally under extreme circumstances. And his observances of violence, death, and imprisonment are startling because the world he has created is oddly familiar, not only in terms of how it was constructed, but what is constructed. The comparisons are at times blunt. Cuaron wants to evoke feelings and thoughts that constitute how we currently relate to and interact with our visual culture and the outside world.

However, by not revealing particular details about the plot with exposition and scienctific explanation, Cuaron contrasts the very real feeling of the film with an allegorical subtext brimming with ambiguity. The focus of Clive Owen's central character, Theo, is ensuring that a miraculously pregnant woman and her baby reach The Human Project, a symbol of hope in the deteriorating world around them. The structure of the film itself performs a highwire act, balancing familiar chase story conventions and motifs while summarily rejecting them by integrating them into the social world that the characters inhabit. The "chase" motifs that inspire Cuaron's action sequences are not so much plot devices as revealing moments of the story and character.

Therefore, the film seems to exist unto itself, as if Cuaron is merely observing this world. The viewer is positioned not to question what occurs within the structure of the plot; a plot which reveals itself to be a symbolic journey simulataneously representing hope and dread. In a conventional sense, the film is about Theo's character arc, but the storytelling stretches far beyond its topical concerns. Theo's story resonates more effectively because of the manner in which Cuaron makes the plot relevant to the style of the storytelling, not the sole means by which the story achieves its weight. The interaction between the characters' mission (the plot) and the world of which they are apart (the social setting) meld seamlessly, yielding moments of pure mastery in the film's climax, in which all of the film's visual styles interact so effectively with the social environment they have created. Amongst the anarchy of gunfire and explosions that eventually unleashes, the sight and sound of a crying baby juxtaposed with images of war and destruction is profound moment of both hope and defeat.

Children of Men conveys conveys its themes in a way respectful to viewer, intwining many ideas and feelings into what could have been a somewhat conventional chase story. Instead, Cuaron's perspective of this world and the need to tell its story in relation to the characters' journey results in a visceral, emotional, and cerebral cinematic experience. Somehow, Cuaron melds these moods and feelings together into a piece of cinema that is beautifully... elusive.

[Note: I originally posted this review on 1/20/07, prior to the current format for my Cinema 2006 series. I've removed that post and posted it here among my other selections. For those who have seen this post before, my apologies. For those that haven't, and I'm sure there are many, this disclaimer doesn't hold any meaning. My mislead quest for perfectionism continues...]

Cinema 2006: Representing Royalty

The Queen (Stephen Frears)

In just a few weeks, Helen Mirren will be awarded an Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears' masterful film, The Queen. As Kristin Thompson has pointed out over at her and David Bordwell's blog, actors have a much greater likelihood of winning awards if they portray actual people. When the Oscars aren't awarding actors for most acting (which they refer to as "best" acting), they award actors for their portrayals of renowned historical and contemporary figures. For example, the previous two best Actor winners were Jamie Foxx and Philip Seymour Hoffman for their respective portrayals of Ray Charles and Truman Capote. But I have always felt that portraying a real person as opposed to a fictitious character conditions the viewer to rely on his or her own understanding of the person rather than the actor's creation of that character. Jamie Foxx excellently mimicked Ray Charles in Taylor Hackford's 2004 biopic-by-numbers, Ray, but I'm not sure his performance was as amazing as it was hailed. I think somebody who has never seen or heard of Ray Charles may have interpretted his performance differently and perhaps with less enthusiasm than someone familiar with Charles.

This brings up many issues if expectation and anticipation. It's both easier and harder to play a character with whom so many viewers are already familiar: easy because the actor can mimic that person, thus relying viewers plugging in the gaps with their own knowledge of the person, and hard since creating a character beyond mimicking is incredibly difficult due to those very expectations. Even with peformances that are nuanced, they can often be seen as a mimicking act. The best of actors can somehow tap into the consciousness and expectations of viewers while simultaneously and subtly building a real character existing unto itself, independent of preconceptions. Philip Seymour Hoffman achieved this in his portrayal of Truman Capote. But I should also note that performances are not solely dependent on the actors portrayal of a character. No element of a film stands independent of the other components that make up the film; each detail has a context and achieves its effect based on its interaction with these other elements. A film is elevated to greatness when all of these details flow together and improve upon each other. Hoffman had the benefit of not just a great screenplay but a director that was able to use this character as a springboard for exploring many abstract concepts and narrative threads. That film fixated itself within a space and time so vividly and operated fluidly on various levels that it's hard to be aware of just how great it is on first viewing for the reason that it so absorbs you in this character and the world. The point of emphasis in mentioning Capote is that no performance is in a vacuum. It both determines and is determined by the surrounding elements of a film, even in performance-driven films like this.

Now, moving on to a discussion of The Queen, it is impossible to convey the beauty of this film without mentioning Helen Mirren's staggering performance. Director Stephen Frears focuses his film on the week surrounding Princess Diana's death, a week that many of us remember so well. In a sense, he handicapped himself in dealing with something that was such a huge focus of media attention and one of the great media events of the last century. He further put himself at a disadvantage (from a viewer expectation standpoint) by constructing a narrative that conditions the viewer to identify with the one person who was most reviled through the proceedings. And Frears has made a film that not only both shatters and comments on viewer expectations based on media representation, but also makes a profound statement about public perception of any subject as filtered through the media.

Helen Mirren's performance is quietly heartbreaking. It is the result of an actor's amazing technique as well as a director's understanding of the above issues of media and how it shapes ideology. In its depiction of the reserved queen, the film is an intimate account of an individual forced to act within that spectrum, forced to relegate herself to a media image for public consumption, in so doing realizing that the idea of her figure is all that others will see and all that she has become. Mirren and Frears channel these concepts through the media whirlwind of events surrounding the death of Dianna as well as through the contrast of worlds and ideas of members of the British government. The film also focuses on recently elected prime minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), who struggles to get through to the queen when she refuses to bow to the people's demands of making an appearance or showing any remorse. Blair is more in tune with how to function within the media realm and how government must cooperate with media outlets in order to have a relationship with "the people." The film's contrast of ideology and communication within the two sects of government - the stagnant old-fashioned ideals of royalty versus the modernized, tie-wearing media soldiers of the "new" Britain - gives the film and its characters so much life, and it does so primarily in its intimate portrayal of a broken woman and how she relates to the people around her depending in their positions. Beyond the ideology and modernization issues that the film tackles, on a more personal level, the film is about appearances and perception. We as spectators have a very intimate perspective of the proceedings as they are seen through the views of different participants. It doesn't do anything stylistically extraordinary and it doesn't judge its characters, all of whom seem to withhold judgements of the the individuals with whom they interact until they are in the presence of others. Through it all, Frears' camera simply observes. The film shows confidence in its story and characters in presenting presents its narrative in a simple manner.

There is a moment somewhere in the middle of the film in which the queen, separated from everyone and everything around her, is somewhere in the hills of her massive estate. No family members, no phone calls or cameras, no portraits of her or previous royality hanging on walls. And in this moment she sees the stag that several characters had been hunting through the film. It looks right back at her and she smiles. Knowing that someone may be nearby to try to shoot it, she encourages it to run away, although it doesn't understand. It's a brief, passing moment, seemingly without any relation to the events of the plot. But in that moment, all of the film's concepts and feelings come together in a series of images of fleeting hope. Blink and it will be gone, and that is precisely what happens. Short-lived as it is, that exchange of images resonates back through what we have seen and what lies ahead in the film. For that one moment in time, there are no barriers to prevent understanding or decide perception. The whole film is in that one moment; the loneliness, the joy, and the bittersweet realization that in just a few seconds it will be over.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Cinema 2006: Redefining Cinematic Space

In defending her reasoning for naming Miami Vice as one of the year's best films, New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis cites the film's exploration of cinematic space. I agree with Dargis completely, and would argue that Michael Mann uses the digital medium to breathe life into the fairly simple cops-and-drugs story. Mann constructs beautiful images and sounds to create cinematic space dripping with moods and atmosphere which seeps into every area of the storytelling. In doing so, he explores the depths of his characters more fully with an atmosphere that is both seductive and brimming with danger. The structure and dialogue of this film are nothing extraordinary, at least viewed in relation to similar films of the genre. But Mann proves that how ever well-treaded or generic a plot may be, there are always different ways both stylistic and structural of executing it visually.

For instance, there is a very straightforward exchange between two characters on a speedboat midway through the picture that is charged with an eroticism only brought to life through the interaction of the elements within the moving images. Actions that would be processed without much conscious thought in a different film are here fascinating, whether it's in how the wind blows their hair or causes their clothes to ripple. The whole film is made up of these moments, and seeing them within a familiar narrative structure makes it even more interesting and original, as opposed to if it wasn't steeped in genre tradition. But Mann's juxtaposition of the new and the familiar results in a visual and auditory experience of pure intoxication that is both real and dream-like.

Valuing style over substance (forgive the cliche, but it's useful in this context), the film blends familiar narrative norms with new images, allowing the viewer to see and feel the story in a completely new way, despite being grounded in very conventional traditions. Mann not only redefines cinematic space with this film, but he also redefines the presentation sexuality, violence, gender, identification, and representation within a familiar narrative framework, thus reimagining the possibility of visual storytelling.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Missing the Cut

I should have approached this with more organization, but before I go any further with my list of my favorite films of last year, it would be appropriate to mention the films I haven't seen. Notable exlcusions are as follows:

49 Up, Apocalypto, Art School Confidential, Babel, Blood Diamond, Bobby, The Curse of the Golden Flower, Deliver Us From Evil, Fast Food Nation, Flags of Our Fathers, For Your Consideration, The Good German, The Good Shepherd, Hard Candy, The Illusionist, Inland Empire, Jesus Camp, The Last King of Scotland, Little Children, The Lives of Others, The Painted Veil, Perfume: Story of a Murderer, The Prestige, Shut Up and Sing, Stranger Than Fiction, Tristram Shandy, Volver, and Water

I hope to see them all in the near future, but none of them factor into my consideration of the films of 2006. Looking ahead, I will be away on business for the weekend, so I will be picking up my Best of 2006 List on Tuesday and complete it within the week thereafter. Until then, here is a short list of notable films from last year that didn't quite make my exemplary list:

Casino Royale
Conversations With Other Women
Little Miss Sunshine
Monster House
V For Vendetta