I love all of the tentacles of our conversation. Let me try to address some of the things that came up for me in reading all of your essays.
Steven, your comments are, as always, a necessary and healthy tonic in a sometimes cynical world. One of the most obnoxious things that happens constantly when talking about film is that you are accused of being an "elitist" if you like something no one has heard of. Or, worse yet, your motives are called into question. "You only like such-and-such because EVERYONE likes it." If you declare your love for Blue Crush (as I have, repeatedly), or G.I. Jane (as I have, repeatedly), a different group of people ceases taking you seriously. I got a dismayed note from a film critic on Facebook early on in my time on Facebook when I listed 10 movies I loved and he sounded truly sad and anxious. He had respected me, but his faith had wavered. "I had thought we were more in sync, and I don't understand this list at all, but don't worry, I still like you!"
Don't worry, dude, I'm not worried at all.
You see, I refer to the whole shebang as "show business". That's what it is to me. There has always been lowest-common-denominator stuff, there has always been highbrow stuff, but your point, Steven, about where these movies get play and in what neighborhood is very well taken.
It makes me think of an old venue in New York (and I am sure you remember it) that we all just called "The Two Dollar Theatre". It was on 50th in between 8th and 9th, if memory serves. You could see current releases, a couple months or so after they were in the "real" theatres, but all tickets were two bucks. Therefore, the place was always an absolute madhouse. I saw some great stuff there, some heavy-hitting stuff. These were not just blockbusters created for the masses. Arty films played there, seriously romantic dramas, gross-out comedies, rom-coms, even foreign films that had made a splash got at least a weekend at the Two Dollar Theatre. I'd still frequent the Two Dollar Theatre if it still existed. If you were used to the hushed silence of the audiences at the arthouses, you were in for a giant shock. The Two Dollar Theatre crowd did not treat the movies with precious kid gloves, and while yes, sometimes it was obnoxious if you wanted a little more solemnity in the atmosphere, that was also part of its awesome charm. I don't want to make a blanket statement. I, too, enjoy going to small theatres and gathering to watch a Carole Lombard festival with like-minded enthusiasts. But I wouldn't sniff at going to see Certified Copy with a packed crowd of people who were ONLY there because tickets were two bucks. That would be a very interesting experience.
In a piece I wrote about seeing The King's Speech in a crowded multiplex last year which touches on some of these issues, I said, "Being a crowd-pleaser doesn’t necessarily mean that a film plays to the lowest-common denominator. It can mean that, but it doesn’t have to. If a film works, it works, and if it works for a large number of people, so much the better. Shakespeare wrote for the groundlings in the pit as well as the aristocrats in the balconies."
And that's why I like calling it show business.
It's a pure term. It's honest about what is actually going on.
The performers who seem to "get" that on a deep level are usually the ones who survive the ruthless ups and downs of the business. Cary Grant is a prime example. He was a realistic and practical man, who made careful business decisions from the get-go, who grew up in poverty and so pinched every penny he ever earned, and was cautious about the crafting of his own persona. He didn't mess with it indiscriminately. He understood why audiences loved him, and he was careful to "be Cary Grant" because he understood the business he was in. Show business. He understood that he was "product". You'd never catch Cary Grant talking about art. But art was, indeed, what he made. When the time came for him to take risks in order to deepen his persona (and, consequently, lengthen his career as a leading man) he trusted very few. He trusted Hitchcock. He trusted Howard Hawks. And that's about it, in terms of deviating from the "Cary Grant' audiences had come to expect. This frustrated other directors into distraction. Billy Wilder was driven insane by Grant turning down all of his projects. George Cukor begged Grant to do A Star is Born. Perhaps Grant wasn't always right in his decisions, but that would only be retrospect talking. The biggest star in the world, taking no advice from anyone, and he rarely made a misstep. His legacy continues.
I often wonder who will have such a future legacy akin to Grant's among the actors working today. My guess is Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, and Leonardo Dicaprio. But time will tell.
Jim, about that dinosaur moment in Tree of Life. Your original piece was a feast of analysis, and the collation of quotes and "takes" on the moment were awesome. It's great when you go deep into a particular moment like that. The "dinosaur bit" in Tree of Life is an example of the Lost Innocence obsession that can sometimes annoy me with Malick, but it is really more of a philosophical difference than an artistic one. I just don't believe in the benignity of nature, in the way he seems to. Showing another creature mercy (or: grace) is what will elevate the human race, and (on occasion) has. It is our only hope. Malick's theory there seems to be that the capacity for mercy exists in all of life itself, even in prehistoric life which was supposed to be notoriously red in tooth and claw. Nature is benign, because God is benign: an intelligent and loving force that pushes us all forward in our evolution. To go off on a tangent for a bit, but it is related: Malick's depicted the Native Americans in New World as so saintly and blithely innocent at first that I found it hard to swallow, although it's a lovely concept. (To quote my friend Dan Callahan who had this to say on New World, "I can't believe in innocence like that. I've read too much Henry James.") So before the Europeans came, no Native Americans got into a petty fist fight? Or stole someone else's blanket? Or cheated on their wives? Were they ever malignant in their motives? Never? For real? As I say, Belief in Innocence is a philosophical stance that goes back to the days of Rousseau, and, hell, earlier. The Garden of Eden. Where does Tree of Life fit into this? The pacing of Tree of Life was so deliberate, and yet so meandering, that I actually welcomed the chance to sit in my chair and think about all of this stuff while the movie was happening. My unfolding thought process during that sequence: "Oh yeah right like that raptor wouldn't eat that other dino up, come ON, Terry, give this bullshit a REST!" And five seconds later, I'm onto Rousseau and thinking about the obsession for Lost Utopias so common to the human race, and then five seconds later I'm thinking, "Oh, look at that pretty exploding volcano." Literally. That was the thought process. Maddening, and yet unique and engaging.
Forgive my lack of segue in what follows, but it's something I really must mention.
The exploding success of not only A Separation but Certified Copy highlights one of the biggest stories of the year which is what is happening in the world of Iranian film. While it is heartening to see these fine films get the recognition they deserve, the situation is brought into stark relief by the persecution being faced by their friends and colleagues in Iran. The daily news from Iran is not only dismaying, but downright appalling: roundups and arrests of filmmakers, closing of theatres. It's war. And so even personal films that are not explicitly political, like A Separation and Certified Copy, become, in a way, political statements about freedom of expression.
I've been writing about Iranian film for years on my site, and the arrest of Jafar Panahi in 2010, with the sentence coming down a few months later, was devastating news. Panahi's films are gritty and natural street dramas (he prefers exteriors) and often deal with the position of women in Iran. The fascinating thing is that The Circle is a brutal depiction of the status of women in his country, a relentless and hopeless film, while Offside, which tells the story of 6 young women who dress up as boys in order to see a soccer game (not being allowed in the stadium as women), treated the whole situation as one big JOKE. Panahi himself said about making the film, "I mean, it just strikes me as funny. Women aren't allowed to see a soccer game. Isn't it absurd?" While Panahi has always had trouble with the authorities, it strikes me that his comedic treatment of the issue in Offside (I saw it in the theatre, and it's pretty much a non-stop romp, with a laugh on almost every line) may have stuck in the mullahs' craws the most. Being laughed at means you are insignificant, it means that people think you are silly.
Panahi's arrest came because he was suspected of making a film critical of the current regime, especially after the violently contested 2009 elections in Iran. His whole family was arrested, and a younger colleague as well. While his family was released, Panahi remains in jail.
When word of Panahi's awful sentence came down (6 years in prison, 20 year ban on film-making, interviews, and no leaving the country) I threw together an impromptu Iranian Film Blogathon on my site. Kevin Lee, the editor at Fandor at the time, asked me to write a piece on my experience with the blogathon. The majority of people were helpful in promoting or participating, and at least Tweeting messages about the blogathon. But I did get a bitchy email from a well-known critic, scoffing at my attempt. I had no illusion that what I was doing was going to help Jafar Panahi in any way. But Iranian film has always interested me (I have written more about Iranian film on my own site than any other genre) and it is important that these issues are addressed. And even more important, these films need to be seen.
Dictatorships require privacy. Tyranny requires the rest of the world to look the other way. I wanted to deny them that, if only for a week, if only in my small corner of the web.
Iranian citizens are some of the most well-wired technologically savvy people on the planet. The state-run media no longer has a monopoly on information. And so you can bet that regular Iranian film fans know exactly what is going on, and know that speeches were made about Panahi at the Berlinale and at Cannes, and these things matter. Do not let the cynics tell you different. And do not let the cynics tell you that it doesn't matter.
They are wrong.
And so the biggest miracle for me this year was seeing Panahi's This Is Not a Film (my review here, filmed on his iPhone and a borrowed camera, the edited footage of which was then smuggled into France inside a cake in order to premiere at Cannes. In the film, Panahi sits in his Tehran apartment, waiting for his sentence to come down. He hopes it won't be the worst. (Of course, it was the worst.) He decides to take this time to describe the movie he had been going to make before he got arrested. He tapes out the floor. He describes his casting choices. He shows us pictures of two of the girls he cast on his iPhone. He describes the opening shot and how the camera will move. He is in the zone of work, like any other director in the planning stages.
At one point, he gets overcome by emotion and says, "If we could tell a film ... why make a film ..."
This Is Not a Film is the most important movie of the year.
In light of Panahi's struggle and his sacrifice, not to mention his courage in making This Is Not a Film in the first place (because he will be tortured for it, and probably has been already), everything else in good old show business pales in comparison.
This is the fight. This is what matters.
If we could tell a film ... why make a film ...
His words reverberate.
Sheila O'Malley is a playwright, actress and freelance writer who blogs with passion at The Sheila Variations.
TREE HOUSE #10: MESSAGE FROM THE MANAGEMENT
TREE HOUSE #9: WHERE'S MARTIN YAN WHEN YOU REALLY NEED HIM?
TREE HOUSE #8: RARIFIED REACHES
TREE HOUSE #7: BOMBAST, BIG BUDGETS, BREAKFAST BURRITOS
TREE HOUSE POST #6: DISCOVERY THROUGH A SECOND LOOK
TREE HOUSE POST #5: PEDIGREE "BETTER THAN" HYPE?
TREE HOUSE POST #4: CHURCH OF THE MULTIPLEX
TREE HOUSE POST #3: FESTIVAL FAVORITES AND NETFLIX NUGGETS
TREE HOUSE POST #2: AGONY, ECSTASY AND THESPIAN PRIDE
TREE HOUSE POST #1: INTRODUCTIONS AND AN OPENING SALVO