Saturday, January 28, 2012


Geliebten Baumhausers:

One last go and then I must figure out how to get down outta here. I'm no good at goodbyes but, fortunately, I don't have to be in this case because we all stay in touch (in comments, e-mail, Twitter, FB…) all year 'round. Maybe even in FaceMail™ (not New Flesh -- just flesh) one of these days?

Lemme start with another anecdote: I think I was probably in college before I even thought about whether any particular movie was popular or not. I mean, I remember waiting in line for Jaws and Star Wars (look it up) in the early days of the "blockbuster," but I loved it when I'd come into a theater and find there weren't very many people. That's great -- more room for me! I don't have to worry about somebody sitting in front of me and blocking my view (particularly if the movie's subtitled), and I can spread out and put my jacket on the seat next to me. I like to slouch and flop (I have terrible posture) and my legs get cramped if I can't stretch them one way or another during the feature (and double-bills were standard practice in the second-run houses I frequented).

I never connected the number of bodies in the seats with the movie on the screen, because I didn't have to. All that mattered to me was the quality of the experience. Unless you read the NY/Hollywood trades (and a subscription to Daily Variety or Weekly Variety was expensive), the only way you knew if a movie was a "hit" was by the lines outside the theater and the mainstream press coverage it attracted. This was all before Entertainment Tonight made box office numbers as widely available as major league sports stats and "Hints from Heloise." In the early 1980s, suddenly, every newspaper was promoting these numbers as if movie distribution and exhibition were a competitive sport -- the kind of thing we're now familiar with in the approach the MSM routinely take to coverage of politics, athletics and the Oscars.

My naivete was eventually shattered when I realized that, if there were so few people in the theater when I saw a movie I really liked, chances are it wouldn't be playing the next week when I wanted to take other friends to see it: the "tyranny of the marketplace" that Krzysztof Zanussi so memorably identified for me. And maybe this is where everything we've talked about -- awards, criticism, audiences, readership, distribution and exhibition -- coalesces. It may sound trite, but as far as I'm concerned, everything comes down to quality, not quantity.

Jason, you're right: there is no correlation whatsoever between a blog's traffic and whether the contributors are getting paid or not. Likewise, there is no correlation between how good a blog is and the kind of traffic it gets, or between whether the blog is any good and whether the blogger is getting paid. Scanners' traffic fluctuates wildly, day to day, depending on the latest posts, but I like it best when it settles down to a few thousand visitors a day (a mere fraction of Roger Ebert's traffic, as you would expect) and we get more intelligent, perceptive, challenging, introspective comments. In my experience, movie fans tend to fall into three partially overlapping camps: those who like to see movies (the largest group), those who read reviews (second largest), and those who seek out the more detailed kinds of criticism you can find in film journals and certain kinds of blogs. To paraphrase what I talked about in my last post regarding Bingham Ray and John Pierson, my desire is to write about what I find interesting and hope that, if I make it sound compelling enough (or if I just get specific enough), others will find it interesting, too.

Arthur Wegee's Crowd at Coney Island (1940)

That's why it makes me so happy to learn that Scanners (now almost seven years old) was the first blog Jason read (when he was just a wee one!), and that it led him to discover other blogs like The House Next Door and SLIFR. I wrote of my appreciation of Jason's "Tinker Tailor" piece (and I love his The Conversations features with Ed Howard -- whether I "agree" -- ach! -- with what's said or not -- because the insights and thought processes are intriguing, even when they occasionally travel down a dead end, which is often an avenue worth exploring), and I've written about, linked to, tweeted, Facebooked and otherwise talked up the terrific work by everybody in the Tree House any number of times over the years.

Which is my roundabout way of saying that, although I sympathize with Boone when he says "I want the mass audience to be the tree house," I just don't think it's likely to happen. I would not trade one reader like Jason or Boone or Sheila or Simon or Dennis (or any number of others I could name, some of them Scanners regulars) for (shudder) Drudge-like numbers. I would not trade a single probing comment that makes me reconsider or redefine my ideas for pages of impotent fanboy ravings that don't have anything to do with a particular movie, written by people who don't know or care about the difference between building a substantial argument and a bogus ad hominem one.

So, I tend to dismiss the idea that film criticism has ever been very influential, except to that tautologically self-defining group of moviegoers who are interested in film criticism. Let's just acknowledge that this has always been a minority -- even in the heyday of Siskel & Ebert -- and always will be. In the era of simultaneous nationwide and worldwide theatrical releases (remember this kind of massive wide release was the exception rather than the rule before Jaws in the summer of 1975), and instant access to reviews and reactions from amateur and professional critics via any number of Internet platforms, it's still possible for a good movie to become popular, and for a popular movie to be good, but I think it has more to do with successful marketing than criticism.

The plain fact is: Movies do not become hits (even on an art-house scale) because they get good reviews. As an exhibitor, you can only hope the reviews (and the marketing) get enough of the right people (can't emphasize that enough) in the door the opening weekend, and that word will spread from there. But if the movie itself doesn't give people something to respond to, it's not going to last very long. (Well, today movies have built-in shelf-lives of just a few weeks before moving on to the next release format: On Demand, theatrical, Internet download, DVD/Blu-ray, cable/satellite….)

And so it comes back to whether filmmakers, distributors, exhibitors, critics and moviegoers believe in something enough to try to communicate their enthusiasm to others. Boone gets to the heart of it here:

I cannot accept the uncivil future, where those of us in "the rarefied reaches of the blogosphere" retreat to our arthouses and rooftop screenings and home Blu-ray collections, occasionally joining with the unwashed for some thoughtless (or even sometimes pretty great) tentpole flick. It's not enough.

There is so much passion for movies down in places that the smarter film bloggers wouldn't dare visit--with good reason. The ghettos can be dangerous places. But people live there, too. Film culture there thrives on Netflix, cable and bootleg DVD's, and the discussions can become as intense as the fight Hoberman recalls having with Pauline Kael over the documentary Shoah. Except that the range of movies under discussion doesn't reach even a fraction as far "up" as our treehouse talks range "down." An intrepid film blogger like Dennis can dig Brett Ratner's Tower Heist, an Eddie Murphy comedy that a great many in the lower classes are likely to have seen, and Certified Copy, a film just as accessible and relevant to their lives but from which they are discouraged from even peeking at, like Bronx teenagers shooed out of Bronxville. There are spiritual riches in all kinds of movies, but only a certain class of people gets a gander at the whole menu.

I don't know what to do about that -- or if there's anything I ever could do. I will say this: Perhaps the most popular thing I've ever done on the web was my "In the Cut" piece on an action sequence in The Dark Knight, a cross-posting at Press Play and Scanners that has more than 220,000 views on Vimeo. This is a really detailed, 19-and-a-half-minute, shot-by-shot analysis in which I raised any reservations I could think of about nearly every shot choice (deliberately -- as I spelled out in my intro, I wanted to discover why I'd found the sequence so confusing, and a lot of it had to do with the sheer number of decisions that were vague enough they could be read ambiguously, when eliminating the uncertainties would have been so simple).

But I'm not fooling myself. It got attention because it was about The Dark Knight and it was mentioned on some comic book and gaming blogs that get much, much more traffic than mine! What was odd was the intensity of the response -- from those who engaged with it in the spirit in which it was offered (I certainly didn't expect everyone to read it the way I did), to those who would have none of it ("Nobody looks at movies this way!" said someone who was apparently in blinding denial, since I manifestly did), or those who thought that a legitimate response was to change the subject entirely: "You don't like it because you don't like The Dark Knight (isn't that putting the hart before the course?) and you don't like Christopher Nolan, so you are simply pursuing a nasty vendetta!"; or "You think you're right but really you're not!"; or "You chose a counter-example from Salt? That invalidates any arguments you may have made because that movie sucked, so you do, too!"; or "Why do you keep trying to make me feel bad and talk me into not liking something I already like?"; or "There are no established principles for continuity editing!"; or "Nolan isn't interested in those old rules!"; or "It's hard to make a movie and I'm sure they did the best they could, so cut them some slack!"; and so on… Man, it's hard to keep legitimate discussions on track when so many who aren't used to critical thinking (or don't think it matters) are simply determined to *win* by derailing it. Look at the GOP presidential candidates. I can say no more.

I could go on (I have gone on!) but I'd like to touch on one more thing, tangentially related to Sheila's remarks about Iranian films. (This is Not a Film hasn't screened in my neck of the woods.) As you know, I like to look very closely at how films achieve their magic after I've let them have their way with me (and I am a very impressionable moviegoer). People often ask if this doesn't "ruin" the movies for me, but I can honestly say that never even occurred to me. I'm the kind of fellow who might like to take a watch apart to see how it works, but I don't think that spoils the mystery of time itself. I had been thinking about an alternative to the "better than" list -- I'm suspicious of "either/or" arguments in favor of "also/besides" -- and it occurred to me that Certified Copy and A Separation would make a dynamite double-bill. Only after much consideration did I recall that, also, the writer-directors of both films are Iranian.

Quick flashback: I know I've told this story before, but when I was a mere lad of 18 or 19 I saw Taxi Driver in its initial release and it shook me to the core. It still does. One of the reasons I think I like to approach movies the way I do comes from the experience of, years later, coming in to a University District repertory house near the end of the picture and seeing, for the first time, how the shootout sequence was achieved. In those days (late 1970s) the movies were ephemeral, temporal phenomena -- they took place before your eyes and there was no stopping them. I had always been so worked up by the time Travis made his final approach to Sport the pimp that the rest of the sequence was a nightmare from which I couldn't awaken. But coming in just before the sequence, I was able to observe everything: the nauseatingly desaturated color (at the MPAA's request!), jerkily sped-up and agonizingly slowed-down effects that turn the figures into marionettes, compressing and expanding time and space…

Anyway, after watching Certified Copy a couple times, I wanted to see if I could pin down some of the movie's slipperier moments. But the more I tried to locate the precise moment in which a shift seems to occur (a cut, a glance, a gesture, a line), the more elusive it became. I haven't seen A Separation a second time, but it strikes me as a similarly slippery movie: the characters' actions, words, body language and motivations are forever adjusting to new circumstances and emotions. Is there any verifiable "truth" or "reality" in either of these movies? I'm not sure -- and, above all, I don't think either of the filmmakers is terribly interested in positing possible answers. The shifting, the ability to hold multiple possibilities in mind at once, is the essence of the experience. Some questions are more meaningful than others, and some don't have answers, even if it may be important to ask them anyway, if only so you can see that they don't lead anywhere.

Which leads me to… The End. I do hope Dennis will invite us again next year. But in closing, I wanted to address Our Gracious Host's final challenge, which was to recommend "a movie you loved from 2011 that you feel would translate well to a large audience who might not have been exposed to it." This reminds me of an old guy on the Floating Film Festival -- not a "movie person" by any stretch of the imagination -- who objected to my showing documentaries such as Chris Wilcha's The Target Shoots First, Julia Sweeney's God Said Ha! (based on her stage monolog) and Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan's The Corporation in successive years.

"Those aren't even movies!" he said in disgust. And I realized that, for many people, "movies" are nothing more or less than fictional feature films, shown in commercial theaters, with movie stars -- not something made by somebody with with a video camera, or some gal blabbing about her brother's cancer, or people sitting around talking accompanied by stock footage and animations. (Really, I think this particular rich guy was bothered by what he viewed as the anti-capitalist tone running through all these movies, but that's another story.)

So, would a "large audience" sit still for a movie about a couple white people walking around Tuscany talking about art and marriage -- when you can't even tell how they know each other from scene to scene, moment to moment? I don't know. I suppose Uncle Boonmee is out simply because ghosts and red-eyed monkey-people appear and they don't scare anybody or explain themselves. Carnage? No, it's a play and some people don't get the Buñuelian joke that the characters can't leave the room even though they would "in real life." (It's not "real life.") Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy? Great movie (I mean, as in will go down in film history as a classic), but a lot of people think it should be more explicitly about the plot than about what's going on underneath.

But what about Errol Morris's Tabloid? It's perfectly commercial in so many ways: there's sex, comedy, scandal, betrayal, obsession, mystery, S&M, skullduggery, public hysteria, science-fiction colliding with science-fact, cute doggies -- and a leading lady who makes the Bridesmaids look like nuns!

That is all for now. See you all soon at your pads, and mine, I hope!

Affectionately and arboreally yours,


Jim Emerson is a film critic whose work can be found at MSN as well as many other outlets, in print and online. He is also the Web master for Roger and presides over his own filmic domain, the influential and excellent blog Scanners.


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1 comment:

Robert Pirkola said...

Jim Emerson wrote: "Anyway, after watching Certified Copy a couple times, I wanted to see if I could pin down some of the movie's slipperier moments. But the more I tried to locate the precise moment in which a shift seems to occur (a cut, a glance, a gesture, a line), the more elusive it became."

I just had the pleasure of watching this enigmatic film for the first time yesterday. I had read your post and the above-quoted statement beforehand but knew little else about the film itself. However, as a result of your comment, I was keen on locating inflection point where the narrative shifts (even though I was unaware of what exactly the content of the shift would be). I took my cues from the film itself to establish certain "truths" which, if they were altered, might signal some shift. The most obvious became the conversation between Elle and the coffee shop proprietress where she begins acting as though she and James are married. I took especial notice of the fact that Elle maintains that James only speaks English. Soon after, when they are walking out of the coffee shop and talking (Elle engaging in a cell phone conversation while also having an argument with James) there seems to be a discontinuity that is really just a red herring. All of the sudden, after having followed the two in reverse down the alley, the camera pans left into the wall for no reason and then re-engages the couple before they emerge from the alley. Typically, this type of pan would be used to hide a cut in a particularly long shot, but in films where discontinuities are necessary, also provides a good way to signal (or hide) a shift in perspective or a narrative rupture. As a result, as soon as I noticed the camera panning left, I became hyper vigilant. Of course, my vigilance bore no fruit as the pan is seemingly meaningless as, after finishing the film, I realized that the ruptures aren't necessarily visual in Certified Copy but rather changes in dialogue. Cues like when James mentions that he is not the same man he was after 15 years and she would have to come to grips with that, erupt into the center of our interpretation of the scene we are witnessing and then color the rest of the dialogue, which I often felt could have made sense as that of a courting couple or one long married if the cues were removed. In the end, the pan in the alley (pun?) (and there may be others I missed) was a knowing wink at viewers who were trying to unlock where the "shift" occurs, like you and I were Jim, saying that "there are no visual cues, and like a well-made sword, the narrative overlaps were folded into each other so often and so patiently, the final product is lent beauty by its sturdy impenetrability.