Dearest Tree Dwellers:
Sheila, I love what you say about Annette Bening and her glasses in The Kids Are All Right. They're not just a prop, an excuse for bits of business; she makes them an extension of her character. I don't think I had the same problem you did with Julianne Moore's character, Jules. First off, it's already been established that these two women occasionally get turned on by "gay man porn" -- cartoonish '70s stuff with bikers and leather and mustaches, like what Scott Thompson watches in Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy. It probably reminds them of their youth. And, as Jules (awkwardly, hilariously) attempts to explain to their son Laser:
"Well, sweetie, human sexuality is complicated. And sometimes, people's desires can be… counterintuitive… For instance, since women's sexual responsiveness is mostly internal, sometimes it's exciting for us to see sexual responsiveness more, you know… externalized… Like with a penis."
And when Laser asks if she wouldn't rather watch two women doing it, she says:
"You would think that. But in most of those movies, they've hired two straight women to pretend and the inauthenticity is just unbeara--"
Like most infidelities, Jules' fling with Mark Ruffalo's Paul has a lot to do with what she's not getting from her partner. He offers her the support and encouragement for her landscaping business that Nic withholds or provides only grudgingly. And it doesn't hurt that Paul is also the father of her children. I love the moment when she mimics him and talks about how she sees her own kids' mannerisms in him. It is complicated, and that's what makes The Kids Are All Right such a rich movie. It and The Social Network were my favorite comedies of the year.
Oh, and just to relate some of your splendid observations about acting to my insistence on the primacy of how one shot follows the next: I have seen terrific performances destroyed (and then re-built) in the editing room. Cut together incompatible takes and incompetents can make even Cary Grant look bad. (BTW, I think my favorite decade for movies is the 1930s.) Actors know that they have almost no control over how they come across onscreen -- it's all up to the director and the editor -- which takes the director chooses to print, which of those is used in the cut, and how they're put together. That's one of the most valuable lessons I've ever learned about filmmaking.
Jason: Attempting to read the "filmmaker's intent" is indeed one of the most dangerous traps a critic can fall into. As I said in a recent comment over at my place, I am not presumptuous enough to claim to read a filmmaker's mind; I can only tell you how I read the film. Movies will trick you: You'll think you know what they're supposed to be, but, as you say, they may in fact be something else entirely. Again, that's why I think it's so important to look at what the film is actually doing, shot by shot (after we've seen it all the way through and had whatever experience we've had with it), rather than just tossing off vague impressions and generalizations.
Movies are such an incredibly young form -- just a little over a century -- that (and I hope you find this cheering) I don't think we're in any danger of already cementing our ideas of what cinematic greatness looks like. (On the other hand, "frequent disappointment" is the name of the game, and always has been. As I like to succinctly put it: 90 percent of almost everything is crap. That applies to any field of endeavor.) I think of my own lifetime, which has spanned the French New Wave (though I was far too young to have experienced it first-hand), the 1970s "movie brats" (De Palma, Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, Schrader, et al.), the New German Cinema (Herzog, Fassbinder, Wenders, Syberberg, et al.), the New Australian Cinema (Miller, Weir, Schepisi, et al.) -- not to mention Robert Altman, Krysztof Zanussi, Lisandro Alonso, Lucrecia Martel, Gaspar Noe, Terrence Malick, Roman Polanski, Olivier Assayas, Krzystof Kieslowski, Bernardo Bertolucci, Joel and Ethan Coen, Bill Forsyth, Katherine Bigelow, David Lynch, Errol Morris, Terrence Davies, Wong Kar Wai, Catherine Breillat, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Todd Haynes, Pedro Almodovar, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, Michael Haneke, Todd Solondz, Jia Zhang-ke, Bong Joon-ho… it goes on and on and on. None of them play by exactly the same rules. They possess their own vocabularies, their own grammar, their own emotional and thematic interests. They are evolving from what came before them, and pioneering what lies ahead.
Take this last year. I have never seen a movie quite like Sweetgrass and I love it beyond words. Any good film creates its own world, its own rules. To me, movies are most like music (in terms of form) and most like dreams (in terms of content). Context is everything. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. As in dreams, there are, as you say, no "de facto rules" about what images mean -- or what a dissolve means, or what a long take means, or what a shakycam shot means, from movie to movie, dream to dream. The critic's job is not to force every film to fit the same template; it's to pay attention and illuminate what the movie is doing, and how it measures up to, or moves beyond, the critic's own cinematic values and standards. Surprises are what we live for.
Dennis: When The Player was shot, I was living two blocks down the street from the studio (the former American Zoetrope). That meant something at the time. One of the things I enjoyed most about living in Los Angeles was the sense of inhabiting a movie set, even when I wasn't prowling around a studio backlot. There's where Elliot Gould lived in Altman's The Long Goodbye. That's my neighborhood in Miracle Mile. There's Lana Turner and Johnny Stompanato in my favorite neighborhood bar (the Formosa Cafe, in an old Red Car) in L.A. Confidential-- across the street from the old Warner Hollywood Studios. (Trader Joe's is on the other side.) And one of my very favorite neighborhood places (when I lived on the corner of Oakwood and Sierra Bonita for three years) was El Coyote, before it was a hipster spot. One time at the Chateau Marmont I told John Waters that it was where Sharon Tate had her last meal (which is true) and he was horrified. (It was a professional interview, but he asked me where he could go for lunch.) Having interviewed him in years previously, I had to point out that he was the one who was fans/friends with various members of the Manson family, so don't blame me for mentioning it.
Oh dear, I've barely gotten 'round to discussing Dennis's latest post, but I'm afraid I must now go collect a sample of poop from Edith Olive Eggplant Dog (who took a vocal dislike to Trash Humpers last night -- good doggie!) for her fecal exam. And last night's snowfall is melting, so it's just a mess out there. Wish me luck!
THE SLIFR TREE HOUSE #1: INTRODUCTIONS
THE SLIFR MOVIE TREE HOUSE #2: IS THERE ANYTHING GOOD PLAYING THIS WEEKEND?
THE SLIFR TREE HOUSE #3: A BLUE VALENTINE TO THE PERSONAL
THE SLIFR MOVIE TREE HOUSE #4: THE BELLAMY AWARDS AND DIFFERENT WAYS OF LOOKING AT MOVIES
THE SLIFR MOVIE TREE HOUSE #5: SO MUCH TO SEE, SO LITTLE TIME