Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Thoughts On Missing the Deadline (Part I)

After weeks of preparing for Edward Copeland's Top 100 Non-English Language Films List, Sunday came and went, and, alas, I failed to submit my list. I noted in different posts (here and here) last month that my place in the discussion of international cinema is small (at best) and that I still had a long way to go. With the deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni immediately following the online response to the updated list of American classics earlier in the summer and the subsequent announcement of the Non-English Language Films List, I decided to spend much of my movie time on films I should have seen years ago. I did this not just so I could enter the rich discourse sparked by Edward's project, but that I could also broaden my cinematic sensibilities. While I have seen a number of classic non-English language films over the last seven or eight, I made a point to introduce myself to the work of particular filmmakers about which I only knew from reading film books. These directors include Jacques Tati, Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson, and others.

In a sense, I knew that my own list would represent only the beginning of my journey through the works of countless artists of cinema. Nevertheless, I still wanted to try to submit a list of 25 films from the 123 that were nominated. I realized as I was watching one treasure after the next that there was no way I could embark on this endeavor responsibly. That is to say that when I received the movies in the mail, I would watch them, in most cases relish them, and then send them right back so that I could see more. It was a constant revolving door of movies I knew I had to see many more times, movies that had to dance around in my memory for some time before I really came to grips with them, no matter where I've only seen each one of them once or several times. It's almost too difficult to process so much great cinema at once, if you'll excuse my indulgence. It's not that I missed what seemed like the mediocrity of everything else, it's that I became aware that I was beginning to think that much of what I left behind was mediocre; you know, all those ordinary movies. Of course, this isn't true. Lucky for me, I came to that awareness.

Awakening somewhat hung over to the September morning sun after hosting many friends for a fiesta on August's last warm night, my friends and I decided to put on Reno 911!: Miami (2007). As we watched the movie over the next 90 minutes, crammed in my living room, we probably woke immediate neighbors of mine with all the laughing (as if we hadn't kept them up all night with the music and noise already). I was hesitant at first, but it turned out to somehow be the perfect movie to watch at that moment; certainly not the best one, but the right one. I had seen the show before and enjoyed it, but I didn't expect to enjoy the many hilarious stagings, framings, and visual gags that the movie boasted. It also contains one of the funniest shootings I've ever seen with an unexpecting victim begging for immunity. Is Reno 911!: Miami a great movie by the standards set by the movies I've seen previously that month? Of course not, and nor should it be. It's a totally different film, designed for a totally different response. And whether or not the context in which I saw the film had great influence on my enjoyment of it was rather beside the point. I may not have enjoyed the movie as much at any other time, and I likewise would not have enjoyed a film by Truffaut or Godard as much had I watched it then. Acknowledgment of this subjectivity of experience is both crucial and very difficult to grapple with on being a responsible critic.

When one is exposed to a great deal of anything -- whether in cinema or other art forms -- that is situated within canononical frameworks and acknowledged to be brilliant, innovative, and all those other superlatives, there is a great risk of becoming "too good" for the rest of it and becoming reactive as a critic. Context appears to be both essential to obtaining knowledge of something -- in this case cinema -- but it can also be dangerous, I learned. As a proponent of the notion that the discourse of social context determines the level at which we engage the world, each other, and our own thoughts and experience, observing the limitations and potential dangers of too much conscious emphasis on context is a harsh reality to face, but an important one. While we cannot escape various levels of social conventions within our discursive practices, too much outright awareness of these structures can negatively affect how one approaches a medium as a critic. We must remember to see films as films; to, on some level, strive for an openness to a film's images, sounds, and stylistic approaches, while never forgetting the context in which we see it and in which the film itself situates within the grander context of the medium. This is an immensely difficult task, one that may not be entirely achievable. But that flaw is what makes artistic expression so unique in the first place. Yes, we have to consciously appreciate film history and its many treasures; I want to soak them up for years to come. But it's so essential to maintain as open an attitude as possible about all types of cinema, of both of the past and of the now, international or domestic, animated and live-action.

That's the Great Lesson Ted Learned in reflecting on missing the deadline for submitting my list of non-English language films for the project. Upcoming, I'll discuss some of the recent films I saw because of my ill-fated intent to participate in the survey, as well as other non-English language films I've seen over the years. Some of the films I'll discuss are not on the list of nominated films for the project (I missed the nomination vote for that as well), so this list will be uniquely my own, reflecting both my connection to Edward's project and my disconnect to it. Be warned: my list will no doubt display my relative inexperience with international cinema, but that's alright. It will, however, represent a springboard from which I will launch into the movies of all languages that await me in coming days, months, and years.


Anonymous said...

Nice post, Ted. I wish more "real" critics were as honest as you.

Context is crucial, and it's a tricky beast indeed. In fact, in a bit of weird serendipity, a men's magazine site I'm doing some work for was doing a best of the eighties list and asked for lists from everyone -- I received their request just as I was completing Ed Copeland's ballot.

I tried to be both as honest as I could be and as populist as the context kind of demanded, sort of in the same way you would have been a pretty big idiot if you had insisted your friends all watch some slow-paced French film about a donkey instead of "Reno: 911."

Knowing that I was maybe the only person answering such a quiz who had seen more than one Godard or Bergman film and actually liked some of them, but also knowing that I didn't want to see "Fletch" or "Weird Science" listed as the best movies of any decade, in any context, I split the difference.

Despite my own very mixed feelings about lists in general, it wasn't TOO hard as my own tastes are rather middlebrow by many standards -- but I'm still sure that many of the other writers think I'm some kind of egghead on loan from a semiotics seminar, when I'm anything but.

So, even on my relatively film snobby list, you have results where I ranked both "Spinal Tap" and "A Fish Called Wanda" ahead of "Ran," and I felt like I was taking a big risk putting "Fanny and Alexander" in the #2 spot after "Do the Right Thing." Spike Lee's joint at least has cursing and hot female nudity in it, F&A not being a big T&A kind of a movie or anything, though someone does, in fact, light a fart and it's actually funny, so it's kind of like "South Park," I guess.

Is this not quite right? Maybe. Is the listing impulse all that worthwhile? I've written on my site that I have strong doubts. But that's show business and, in some sense, we're all a part of it.

Ted Pigeon said...

Well, I have written quite a bit about lists before. I have both disdain yet an impulsive need for them. But I share your sentiments. I both embrace and rejct canon. It conditions us and allows us to appreciate. Maintaining that balance of context and accepted norms, I think, is key to being a responsible critic. It enables one to appreciate A Fish Called Wanda as much as Fanny and Alexander.

Cinema is a lucrative medium for artistic expression. To limit that to certain kinds of movies is really to limit one's own experience with images and narrative. Any movie can be great. Subject matter and generic style is almost besides the point.

As Deleuze says, "the cinema is always as perfect as it can be."