Thursday, March 27, 2008

The state of the (Cinematic) Art and other updates

The last six or seven weeks have been extremely busy for me, with business travel, social engagements, college basketball, and other activities filling up my calendar. Added up, these events have left me just barely enough time to upkeep a regular schedule of film viewing. And although I've maintained my screening schedule of about 12 to 15 movies per month, only a few of these films have I seen completely through on one viewing. I find myself starting a movie after 9:00 or 10:00 PM more often now, which I used to do quite frequently a couple of years ago. The difference between now and then is that I would last through a whole movie back then. Now I find myself watching a movie in halves or thirds much more, which is acceptable --even useful-- on second or third viewing, but not ideal for a first viewing.

With that said, I have seen several late 2007 movies on DVD; some wonderful (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Helvetica, Syndromes and a Century), some good (The Darjeeling Limited), and some mediocre (I Am Legend, Lust, Caution). But it's been nice to catch up on some of the 2007 releases I've missed in theaters, especially as I begin thinking about my upcoming Cinema 2007 post.

Fortunately, I've also had a few moments to counter all of these current films with a few older treasures (by comparison), which I've seen for the first time. One of these gems is Peter Jackson's famous low-budget horror film, Dead-Alive, one of the most delightfully twisted movies I've seen in some time, and a perfect movie to watch after 10:00 PM on a weeknight. It's is a pure joy from both a comedy and a horror standpoint, and its self-conscious nods to genre favorites are great for fans of the genre. And it's worth noting that the third act may boast the grandest orgy of violence these eyes have seen. So much I enjoyed the film that I couldn't resist posting the picture above (from the end of the film), featuring a lawnmower-wielding lovelorn hero ready to mow his way through legions of zombies. After the recent crop of serious zombie flicks, it's nice to look back on one with a bit more of a comedic approach to the irresistible sub-genre.


These excursions into cinephile indulgence that have given me reprieve from the busyness of other time-consuming activities. Apart from these film viewing experiences and other events, I've experienced a number of computer problems, which has severely handicapped my ability to write or post a new entry. So even though I've been able to somewhat maintain my film watching, my reading and writing has taken a hit.

Alas, my frustrations have finally paid off, and I'm coming to you now from a brand new computer with all kinds of new features. (Who knew that new versions of Microsoft Word would include a feature for writing blog posts!) I'm still trying to work out the kinks with adapting to the new system and to Vista, but now that I am up and running I can at least plunge head first into all the blogs I've only been glancing at here and there in recent weeks. As my familiarity with the computer grows, and the rest of my schedule begins to settle down (hopefully), I expect to be more active on the blogging front. But before I dive into some more elaborate and focused posts, I'd like to share just a few thoughts on blogging, from both inside and out.

In the past few weeks, I've only managed to visit web sites and blogs on a sporadic and limited basis. But since I've set myself up with the new computer, it's been refreshing to jump right back in to all the fun. One thing I've learned from being away from the film for a short time is that it moves very quickly. There is so much to catch up on. Perhaps Peter Bart wasn't too far off when we referred to bloggers as "busy bodies," because there is so much activity among film blogs that it's hard to streamline any of it. So much of our own material is rigorously controlled and always changing. We are the gods of our own universe, changing posts content and visual interfaces at will, shifting the entries on the all important blogrolls, and moderating the comments following our posts. Millions of threads of discussion are sprouting in new and old places that to try to jump in is like awkwardly trying to join a race already in progress. One just feels out of place. But when Big Events happen, the explosion of discourse is almost overwhelming (in a good way).

A great example of this would be the recent news that Nathan Lee was laid off by the Village Voice. Some of the discussion that's come about on various blogs has been incredible, reminding me of why I love this medium to begin with. But as Matt Zoller Seitz bittersweetly reminds in a comment over at his blog, The House Next Door, blogging as criticism will likely not be defined as the next step.

"What we're seeing here is the passing of a notable and vibrant phase of movie writing. It'll be replaced by something else, yes, but something very different.

I think we're fast approaching the point where criticism will become, for the most part, a devotion rather than a job.

I'm not quite sure what to make of that. There are definitely a lot of hack-y film critics (and there always have been). But some of the great ones that came along during the era of newspapers and magazines could not have reached a national or international audience without the support of a paycheck, editors, and the rest of the superstructure that professional publications have in place. And that's still true. The best film blogs are influential within the context of the film buff community, but the fact is, on their best days, even the biggest independent, halfway serious film blogs don't have a fraction of the readership of blogs that are attached to advertiser-supported big media outlets.

Will that change as the print medium dies out and becomes mulch for the next phase of journalism?

I wish I knew the answer to that."

While the explosion of online film discourse likely signal the dawn of a new movement in film criticism, as Matt remarks, its lack of structure and tangible direction demonstrates its somewhat perishable nature as well. Ultimately, all this blogging from the variety of professional and non-professional writers alike may not amount to much (in the professional sense), but I'm glad to be apart of it as a reader and a contributor. And as many have already said, hardly any of us have a clue where this little experiment is headed. But maybe that is what keeps us compelled to do it.


On to some matters regarding TCA:

As I noted above, I will be posting more regularly in the near future. Many of these posts, at least for the next two months, may coincide with a project I'll be working on, which, ironically enough, will look at film criticism and new media in the digital age, specifically exploring the problematic binary of analog / digital and its constraining approach to engaging and understanding the role of new media in cultural and critical discourse.

This project will dominate the bulk of my free time until the end of the semester, but I will also reflect on some other topics in film criticism and on the blogging circuit. I may even post the occasional movie review. But I'm still struggling over how much I should indulge in my own cinematic tastes and experiences, as opposed to providing more currently relevant commentaries. Ideally, I don't want to be reactionary or inconsequential, which is a struggle for all of us "non-professional" bloggers, but it's something worth pondering reflexively as I attempt to gain a kind of critical relevance as a blogger. But if I want to build a solid critical relevance, that means engaging other media and critical outlets outside this blog, both online and in print. Coming months will determine what these endeavors may bring.

For now, however, I have some pieces in the pipeline that should give this site the boost it needs. I'll be presenting a piece on my favorite movies of last year, and will also be offering long-delayed thoughts on my presentation at SCMS.

As always, thanks for reading (and feel free to comment!), to those who take the time.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

On the cinema of music

"There's a role that music plays in just filling up the screen. You don't necessarily hear every detail, but it's behind all the action, it's around all the action -- in the front of it, on the sides."

"One thing you don't want is for the music to become self-conscious, for the music to draw attention to itself. It really needs to be in the film, not sitting on top of the film."

"It really takes the right notes, the right gesture, the right amount of activity at the right time..."

- James Newton Howard

Musicians and filmmakers who intuitively grasp their art form have a way of tapping into the mysteries of perception, movement, and memory, and how they relate to each other. There are striking remblances between music and cinema. One can even say that cinema is a kind of musical expression, or that music has a cinematic-like motion.

These were thoughts I had while watching Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton, a movie about law, corporate corruption, and social responsibility. Involving from start to finish, the film has a consistent line of quality regarding formal details, such as writing, acting, lighting, etc. I was surprised with the amount of very distinct moments in Michael Clayton that were like little cinematic universes to themselves. By that I mean the kind of moments that breach that elusive momentary sublimity that the best cinema constructs. These moments creep in, out, and around the movie, despite never really defining it. Sometimes it's a simple composition of a darkly lit street or office building corridor, or a well-acted and crisply-written exchange between two actors. Other times it is an intangible abstraction within seemingly simple movements. These moments often occur when the movement of sound and image interact together.

One of these moment occurs at end of the film, as Clayton (George Clooney) walks away from Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) as authorities swarm the premises. He walks directly toward the camera in a simple, evocative shot of hotel lobby area. As Clayton walks from the lobby to the escalator, the musical score enters into the image with just the right sound, speed, and rhythms to imbue the images with nobility and finality. A subtle piano chord accompanies these long shots of Clooney exiting the hotel and getting into a cab. It's a simple theme, consisting of only a few notes, but it compliments the images and the catharsis of the movie's climax to an extent that they breathe outside the typical Cathartic Climax you so commonly see at the end of a film. Until that point in the movie, the score is hardly noticeable. It features eletronics and ambient sounds, and builds subtle motifs for various moments and characters. But at the end, despite it still remaining quiet, it enables the climax a kind of fresh catharsis, one that hits the right note without overstating it. The sustained string chords and the extended shot of Clooney's face in the back of the taxi cab make for one of the more memorable film endings of 2007. Both the image and the music to "fit" each other. Neither would be right without the other.

The music was written by James Newton Howard, one of the more prominent composer of American film scores today. Howard seems to grasp not just musical theory and composition, with a strong knowledge of classical tradition of both the western orchestra and film scores as well as a keen ear for contemporary arrangements and electronic ambiance. Yet unlike many prominent film composers who write for Hollywood studio films, Howard understands the role of music in cinema. Music itself is a kind of cinema. In a recent video interview, Howard discussed the frequencies of music, noting that certain notes have particular textural and sensual properties. Many musicians have noted this in the past, but Howard's explanation of this notion of particularly interesting. He says:

"I've always felt that all music comes from the same source. I visualize a gigantic shpere --maybe it's a universe itself-- and from that sphere is basically everything that already exists. Because let's face it: everything in music already exists. It's just a matter of unravelling certain things and uncovering certain numbers of layers and finding things that were there. We're not inventing any frequencies. The frequencies exist in physics. They have always existed; they're there. The patterns of frequencies, the relationship of frequencies to each other, the timbres involved -- they're all pieces of some wonderful puzzle that a composer takes and puts together in whatever way [she or he] is able to to form a musical idea. But the salient idea for me is that its already there; it's there floating all around us. it's just a question of getting out of one's own way and letting it kind of come to you. That's really all I do. I spend most of my time trying to get out of my own way."

James Newton Howard would make a very good film critic. His understanding of music stretches beyond music, and seems to have more to do with the plane of sensory perception, i.e. experience. When we evaluate movies or pieces of music as cohesive wholes, all we have to go on is our memory if the chain of moments. These moments don't have specific starting or end points, but are instead multi-varied, ambiguous, and constantly bouncing off of each other. Our experience of perceptual stimulii of any kind seems to come down to how we arrange those moments, how we pluck them from the plane of experience and structure them to make sense, to mean. They cannot be reduced to mere linearities, boxed into symptoms or descriptions, but instead function assemblages of sound, memory, and emotion. The specific sensation of one single note or image is difficult to isolate from the rest of the experience and examined; it is changing along with the image and/or music.

In art, or narrative in general, we arranged images and sounds in recognizable patterns according to visual or musical vocabulary so that the viewer/listener may perceive them and situate them according to the pre-established clusters of visual and musical information. But the essence of cinema, and music as well, is in the experience of those sensations. It's not about understanding or interpreting, but seeing, hearing, feeling. The most effective cinematic and musical compositions are about moments that we experience in unison with various other moments, which we then reconstruct in our memories to form a greater sense of a shot, a scene, or a film, or a note, a bridge, and melody. The only difference is that we see images and hear music. But do we not also hear images and see music?

Although we have been socialized to experience and understand perceptual stimuli in a heavy categorical manner—i.e. sight, touch, taste, etc.—one could argue that sensual perception is a far more fluid process, and that we only condition ourselves to separate and distinguish between them. Artistic expressions like cinema or music employ all of the senses to construct and consume. Some would argue they even incorporate different ones. To "see" a film is to hear it, to touch it, to smell it, to taste it.

This idea is the greater basis for a more Deleuzian definition of cinematic movement, in which the movement-image is not exlusively a visual phenomenon, but also an auditory one, a musical one. Images—even those without sounds—are rhythmic, auditory, even musical. By the same token, cinematic sound deeply embodies the aesthetics of fluid motion and movements in an image. Movement and sound are entwined together. And that's the beauty of each. Cinema and music are the same expression insofar that they each dive into the senses and innate processes of sensation, thought, and lived experience.

We can analyze cinema from a particular theoretical perspective, e.g. Lacanian psycoanalysis or Bordwellian cognitivism, but as useful as it is learn about a film's thematic meaning or systematic relations, perhaps cinema creates a new kind of sensual experience that goes beyond the universalization of experience, which many of said bodies of concepts purport. Maybe it's difficult to recognize how perfect cinema really is because we've broken it down via theoretical or empirical means. But the Deleuzian cinema is right there in front of us. Maybe we just need to know how to see it.

What are some other movies or movie moments that capture this fleeting wonderment of sound and motion?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Canonized auteurs and contrarianism

One of the running themes on Jim Emerson's scanners blog over the last year (roughly) is contrarianism as it relates to film criticism. Starting with a string of posts about Martin Scorsese's pedantic and shallow Oscar winner, The Departed, and various other things, Jim wrote piece after piece examining the idea of contrarianism. The discussions that resulted were enormous and rich, which is (I would guess) partly why he felt so inspired to continue writing about it. Eventually, he organized a contrarian blog-a-thon, which turned out to be quite a large event in the film blogging circuit, bringing in a number of contrarian perspectives on film, culture, and contrarianism. Although I would have loved to have delved more into my own contrarian passions, of which I have many, I opted to write more broadly about guilty pleasures. (My long gestating contrarian perspective of Frank Marshall's brilliant 1995 film Congo is still in development, and will see the light of day on this blog sometime in the hopefully near future. I promise.) But I love to relish in contrarian viewpoints, especially on taboo subjects like critically panned movies.

One recent example of how the critics turn against their once-darling filmmakers is Youth Without Youth, Francis Ford Coppola's long-awaited return to directing. I remember eagerly anticipating this film when I read about it last year. I was disheartened, however, to learn that most critics ripped the film -- it scored a poor 28 percent on the Tomatometer -- and its maker for being overly pretentious, heavy-handed, and condescending. Francis Ford Coppola, it seems, has fallen out of graces with the critics who championed him as the wonderboy of cinema 35 years ago. Amazingly, much of the criticism of the film echoed the same rhetoric about other supposedly "once great" auteurs, namely Woody Allen, whose recent films are unfairly simplified and situated within the "What Happend to Woody?" narrative to a sickening degree. Although Youth Without Youth is the first movie to be subject to such negative judgment, I fear that Coppola may be doomed to the same fate with critics, many of whom are so baffled that a filmmaker dares to offer something different from her/his previous work that they choose to deride the art. In trying to be contrarian and cutting edge -- like most critics are painted -- critics actually draw themselves as the boring community of homogenized writing styles they so adamantly reject.

Based on the skewering criticism, it came as no surprise in its very limited release that was quickly "shown the door" at the cinema arthouses last December, when films like There Will Be Blood, Persepolis, and various others were competing for cinema goers' attention. In the blink of an eye, it seems, Youth Without Youth was gone, never to be heard from again like so many interesting looking films as awards season reared its head and started cutting down films to the small number that will be admitted into contemporary critical canon. It should be noted that films admitted to canon now often fail to resonate as much as films that were ignored in-the-moment, but over time were more memorable.

I discussed the danger of awards season discourse in a recent entry, in which I highlighted the importance of critics who were willing to swim against the current and talk about films no one else was talking about during awards season, such as David Cronenberg's mesmerizing, every-bit-as-good-as-No Country For Old Men film, Eastern Promises. But I admire just as much the critic who admirably discusses, and demands that we pay attention films that not only get forgotten, but which are disparaged and then forgotten, like Youth Without Youth.

Larry Aydlette is one of these critics. His seemingly bold take on the film, whether you agree or not, is utterly necessary at a time when so much criticism appears the same, not just in tone and structure, but in viewpoint too. His review of Youth Without Youth is inspiring, and should make and cinephile or critic want to see the film. Given that it would be impossible for any critic defending this film not to position her or himself as a "defender" of it, Aydlette takes on these criticisms head-on, and is baffled with the strangely uniform and predictable critical response to the film.

"I was completely mesmerized by Francis Ford Coppola's “Youth Without Youth.” If I had seen it last year, it would easily have made my Top 5 films of 2007. Where are all the cinephiles on this one? Why aren’t they supporting this legendary filmmaker? Isn't this what bloggers say they want more of: Independent movies with intelligence and storytelling and heart? I think that the failure here is not Coppola’s, but ours.

"Youth Without Youth” is told with passion and a love of a cinema that no longer exists. It’s the best movie Francis Ford Coppola has made since “Apocalypse Now.” Coppola has long promised to return to smaller, artier, more experimental films. This isn’t exactly experimental; it’s very soulful and old-fashioned. But in today’s film language, that’s downright radical. “Youth Without Youth” is one from the heart. Go see it."

Simple, direct, and somewhat fiery. It's perfect. I should probably disclose that I haven't seen Youth Without Youth, but whether I've seen it or not is really the point. The reason this is important is because it reminds of how much critics actually become figures predictable sameness in their attempts to be cultural contrarians. It's firstly interesting that so many directors in their later years tend to be unfairly judged in a negative manner, as if critics recognize that they perhaps gave a filmmaker too much credit for her/his classics or masterpieces and are now making up for it. It is quite fascinating, though, to examine critical trends, specifically how certain filmmaking styles and aesthetic conventions suddenly become taboo, such as mise-en-scene and classically-influenced cinematography.

But in a broader sense, I wonder if critics are losing touch with what it means to see films and write about them, and whether their sense of history contorts their understanding of contemporary cinema. Do we need a proverbial slap in the face to pull ourselves away of the same-old, boring conventions of predictable contrarianism? And at what point does being contrarian actually become the very act of sameness that contrarianism sought to reject in the first place? But I suppose the bigger question to come out of this is whether there is any way of shifting the critical dialogue away from the dominant binary approach of majority/minority and injecting it with the same amount of nuance that complex films demand?