Monday, January 10, 2011


Jim, Sheila, Jason:

Welcome, all, to the inaugural edition of the SLIFR Movie Tree House, one which I hope will become an annual tradition in the style of a certain other yearly gathering of movie-oriented brains to both celebrate and perform an autopsy on the film year just past. But before I introduce this year’s participants, a word about the name of our enterprise would probably be, if nothing else, at least good form.

The previous coy reference to that “certain other yearly gathering” was of course
directed at the Slate Movie Club, and though we are here essentially lifting the e-mail exchange-critical roundtable format from the Movie Club wholesale, I didn’t exactly feel right about simply calling our version the SLIFR or any other kind of Movie Club. So, in thinking about what I wanted to brand our little undertaking, I imagined that if theSlate folks really were a club, then their exchanges would naturally be happening in a clubhouse. And the next best correlative to that idea that came to mind for the SLIFR version was not a clubhouse (since we would be eschewing that word), and certainly not the back room of some famous restaurant—the painting of the Algonquin Round Table that graced the top of my last post was meant ironically. And though I have not had either the occasion or the location to do so in many years, I remember a time when, if there was something serious to be discussed, my friends and I would gather in a dilapidated old tree house in the backyard of one of my compadres. And so the best place I could think of for my online gathering of film-tastic friends to take place would be in a tree house of the mind, a place where the popcorn and soda are free, where any point of view has safe harbor, and yes, where even girls are allowed. (Some childish things should definitely be put away.) Privacy is the only thing this particular tree house cannot promise, its walls being porous in the very latest virtual manner. But really, the conversation, wherever it takes place, was always meant to be shared, and so even though there are only four of us setting up shop in the beginning, anyone who wants to join in the fun in the comments thread will be welcomed. That’s the great thing about this being a virtual tree house— neither parents nor the fire marshal need worry if we pack the place beyond capacity.

Near the end of the 2010 Slate Movie Club, Matt Zoller Seitz wrote about his turnaround on Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, a movie he hadn’t much use for upon seeing it originally but which cast a spell on him the second time around. Here’s something he said that seems germane to what’s happening today in the tree house:

“The world in Wright's film is at once actual (real friendships, romance, and heartbreak) and figurative (comic book visuals, video game graphics, pop-up annotations). When Ramona Flowers tells Scott that one of her previous boyfriends punched a hole in the moon for her, and then Wright shows us a little hand-drawn-looking moon with a hole through it, it's not just a fanciful metaphor; it's real/unreal, poetry made tangible. Before Scott Pilgrim, whenever I referred to a friend that I made online but hadn't met in person, I felt sheepish; I've even put implied quotes around the word ‘friend.’ Post-Scott Pilgrim, I don't do that anymore.”

The three folks joining me this week are people who have been important to me from early on in my online writing, which began in 2004. I have never met any of them face-to-face, yet I think of them (and I think of them often) as friends in precisely the same way I think of friends whom I’ve known more traditionally for years. Each one is someone whose writing I treasure, someone whose intelligent willfulness to call me on my own ideas and expressions is always done in the spirit of friendship and sincere investigation of what the movies can mean, and who always finds a unique angle from which to look at even the most scrupulously, relentlessly examined films and trends. And they are honorable people, one and all, people who love the movies but find plenty of room to allow the non-cinema-oriented pleasures, wonders and frustrations of life to inform their writing, to percolate through their words and thoughts and expressions, and to, intentionally or not, ward off the mythology surrounding online writers as basement-dwelling, digitally enabled boors with little experience outside the movies.

Case in point: Jim Emerson has spent plenty of time engaging with the world of cinema through his blog Scanners, an enterprise self-described as being chiefly about “movies, criticism, journalism, politics, religion, music -- ok, basically whatever comes up.” Working from Seattle, Jim is the founding editor of Roger as well as the late, lamented Microsoft Cinemania (It was the first CD-ROM I ever owned) and other encyclopedically oriented Web sites. A former member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Jim wrote about film for the Orange County Register and has written for such publications as Film Comment, Premiere, the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times. Jim also booked independent and foreign films for the Market Theater, a successful Seattle “art-house located in the city’s historic Pike Place Market and also booked an ongoing film series at his alma mater, the University of Washington. (The fact that this tree house harbors two participants partial to the Oregon Ducks of Eugene bothers Jim not a whit, or so he claims.) He has enjoyed creative collaboration with Julia Sweeney, his friend of many years, co-authoring with her the play and screenplay Mea’s Big Apology and the film It’s Pat: The Movie, and served as “Extra Special Creative Consultant” for Sweeney’s stage monologue Letting Go of God. Jim, you were an early supporter of this blog; your writing has been influential and instrumental in its survival and growth and it’s a real honor to have you join us this week.

Sheila O’Malley is the superlative writer at the heart of The Sheila Variations, a blog like Jim’s not tied simply to things cinematic. Sheila is one of the best writers I know on the alchemy of acting, but she also dazzles with her wit and acumen in burrowing into the heart of the literature she loves. She has devoted a goodly portion of 2011 to the poetry of Seamus Heaney, continuing an investigation into the form which was preceded by examinations of such poets as Eamon Grennon and Michael Longley from The Penguin Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry and Emily Bronte from Six Centuries of Great Poetry: A Stunning Collection of Classic British Poems from Chaucer to Yeats. But lest I paint Sheila as some sort of high-minded shut-away holding forth on “high” culture from her attic, please note that she has also written eloquently about Robert Mitchum in The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Leo McCarey and Make Way for Tomorrow and films germane to our discussion this week like Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer and Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother. And her archive on the pieces she has written on actors is an embarrassment of riches—enriching for her lucky readers, embarrassing in the quality of her observations that so effortlessly put so many of us to shame. I remember stumbling across Sheila’s site in the early days and realizing that, like Jim, she too had crafted a model for how excellent, inquisitive, personal writing could thrive in a virtual sea of underachievers. It’s a genuine thrill to have you here, Sheila, because I know the conversation is going to be fun and you're going to make us all look so much smarter in the process.

Jason Bellamy mans the goings-on inside The Cooler, itself overseen by a still from Steve McQueen frosting his heels inside of one of the movies’ most famous coolers in The Great Escape. I’m not entirely sure how long Jason has been at this whole blogging thing, but a glance at his movie review archives suggest a history that stretches back quite a while, and it’s one that every movie fan should get to know, if they don’t already. I’ve always admired Jason’s writing for its cogent, economic analysis and straight-shooter thinking. And with fellow writer Ed Howard, Jason has established himself as a reliable, unpredictable source of fascinating, challenging, in-depth conversation about the movies in an ongoing feature for The House Next Door entitled, appropriately enough, The Conversations, in which he and Howard allow themselves unlimited space and enthusiasm to apply to whatever cinematic subject suits their fancy. (Currently under the microscope: Darren Aronofsky.) Jason is a frequent correspondent in the comments thread at both Scanners and SLIFR and I always look forward to reading his often-lengthy responses because I know they’re going to be well-considered, respectful and frequently challenging to one aspect of the premise of whatever he’s responding to. But Jason is the kind of guy who always makes me feel honored when he writes, either on my blog comments or in personal e-mails, for the reasons already cited but also because he’s the only person I know who writes longer e-mails than I do (sometimes). He also hails from Eugene, Oregon, number-one on my list of Beloved Places on Earth, thus providing further proof of the quality of that good old Willamette Valley stock. I write this on the eve of the BCS National Championship college football game which pits number one-ranked Auburn against the #2 Oregon Ducks. The outcome of tomorrow night’s game could affect the mood around here this week, I suppose, but I’d like to think that Jason and I will be able to rise above all that… unless Oregon wins, of course. But however the game turns out, I am beyond happy to have you here with us this week, Jason, because I know that a conversation with you, if your writing to date can be trusted, will be one to remember.

Okay, this has gone on to a ridiculous length for a simple introduction. It’s time to open the gates and let the horses out. I’ll do so by referencing one last quote from Matt Zoller Seitz culled from last week’s Slate Movie Club, a thought that crossed my mind more than once as I viewed, of all things, The King’s Speech a couple of days ago. Here’s Matt:

“One of the reasons mainstream movies are so generally mediocre to awful is because the ability of the average viewer to read images is only slightly better than their ability to read text. And the system likes it that way; it's much easier to crank out variations on cheeseburgers than to challenge moviegoers' aesthetic palates and expand their range of acceptable cuisine. But viewers won't give a damn about the aesthetic, political, and social components of filmgoing if we don't open the door of personal response—emotion, minus the whithers and wherefores and qualifiers, the wearily above-it-all routine—to lead them to a consideration of films outside their comfort zones.”

I think each of the writers represented here is comfortable with the idea of bringing the personal to bear on one’s experience of a film, much more so that perhaps film critics of previous generations have tended to be. I’m curious about two things: What movies did you most personally respond to from this past year, and if you wrote about that movie, how did you bring that response to bear on your writing? And what about that idea of the average viewer’s ability to read images? For example, there’s a level of visual sophistication going on in The King’s Speech that isn’t by any means groundbreaking or even envelope-pushing, yet it tends to reinforce the feelings of isolation and despair being felt by Bertie (soon to be King George VI) by means as simple as purposefully imbalanced placement of solitary figures in the frame. And my guess is that most people who see and enjoy The King’s Speech, to name but only one example, don’t experience it as anything other than fairly straightforward visually, which I think is perfectly understandable and not necessarily incorrect in the whole.

Also, I just got back from a showing of Blue Valentine and I’m so glad I don’t have to write about it this second. I’m not sure I’d trust anyone who could formulate and articulate an immediate response to a movie whose emotions are as ragged and contradictory as the ones in this movie. I will say, though, that the performances were suitably raw and effective, and I am pretty much in awe of Michelle Williams right now. Sheila, have you seen Blue Valentine? Because I’d surely love to hear you talk about Williams does here. I'd agree with Stephanie Zacharek: I have no idea how she does what she does, because I can’t “see” her acting, but she gets to a level perhaps no other actress reached for me this year.

And what about True Grit, Jim? Does it seem strange to you than the Coen Brothers have a $100 million+ hit on their hands? And did Mattie Ross badgering the colonel about buying back the horses he sold to her late father strike you as the family-friendly corollary to Chigurh toying with the gas station owner in No Country for Old Men?

Looking forward to striking it up with you all, friend-os. Let us seize the cinema of 2010 and see what shakes out.




Craig said...

Why does Jason have a picture of Seann William Scott?

Ed Howard said...

REALLY looking forward to this, Dennis and fellow treehouse guests. This promises a great conversation.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Thanks, Ed! I predict Sheila floors me with a roundhouse to the jaw in the first round.

Craig: I thought he looked familiar.

Jason Bellamy said...

That's a new one, Craig. The popular comparison right now is to the guy who plays Dr. Sweets (why does that have to be his name?) on Bones. I've had at least four people come up to me and ask if I watch Bones. I don't. But now I just nod and say, "Dr. Sweets?"

Sample for yourself.

Craig said...

The popular comparison right now is to the guy who plays Dr. Sweets (why does that have to be his name?) on Bones.

John Francis Daley? Nah, I don't see it. Of course I know him better as Sam Weir on "Freaks and Geeks."

For the record, I've been told I resemble everyone from Nicolas Cage to Sacha Baron Cohen. I would submit that my true doppelganger (for better or worse) is Adam Goldberg in "Dazed & Confused."

Machelle said...

This is so exciting! I could read Slate's Movie Club all year long-now I can! Sort of. Thanks for hosting Dennis-your (and Sheila's, and Jason's, and Jim's) readers await!

Greg said...

It's only a typo but I will forever think of Jim as "Jim also Emerson." As if "also" is his middle name. It's kind of fitting, really. He edits, also he writes, also he discusses politics, also...

Look forward to the discussions to come from all of you!

Sheila O'Malley said...

Dennis - Clearly I need to work on my roundhouse kick.

No but seriously - psyched to be involved, and really looking forward to this whole thing.

Greg said...

You corrected the typo.

[shakes fist in air] Damn you, Cozzalio!!!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

[ Chortling ]

Richard Bellamy said...

Dennis, Jim, Sheila, Jason:

I have read the first round of Movie Tree House responses and I have enjoyed them, and the topic has been an interesting one. But I disagree with the opinion that “the ability of the average viewer to read images is only slightly better than their ability to read text,” and I believe the industry shovels out horrid sequels and film-versions of vapid TV cartoons and sit-coms because they think that’s what audiences want, though box office takes don’t always corroborate that. In response to the question here, I believe viewers instinctively understand the language of film, in varying levels of sophistication, and that they actually read images better than they read text.

I teach seniors and 8th graders, and I introduce 8th graders to film history, and I find that even though the 8th graders have a lot to learn, there’s a lot they understand about what a film does. On their first viewing of Citizen Kane, they are not befuddled; they are fascinated and engaged; they understand what’s going on. Viewers understand a lot on a subliminal level; otherwise, the film medium never would have taken off. Viewers would have come out of The Great Train Robbery and said, “WTF!”, and the medium would have died. No one gave viewers of Silent Era films courses in film viewing. Their eyes and minds instinctively interpreted.

Among my Drama Club students and my seniors, teenagers who are likely to enjoy watching a piece of junk like Scary Movie 2, many of them have chosen Black Swan as THE movie to see; all my seniors have seen it. At lunch, I hear them talking about the scenes, interpreting and debating, and it is clear that they understand what the images are saying and that their young minds are ready and eager for challenging films.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

"No one gave viewers of Silent Era films courses in film viewing. Their eyes and minds instinctively interpreted."

Of couse you're right about this, Hokahey, and it is encouraging that your students are taking up the challenge of a movie and dealing with it as something more than just stimulus to the eye that needs no interpretation.

But Black Swan has also been marketed to appeal to a specific audience. Even within the way the movie itself is a hall of mirrors where one is never sure what's going on, it is to some degree engineered to be a water-cooler movie, and one need not understand the degree to which it derives its effects and ideas from other movies for it to function that way. Plus, it is, I think, as sensationalistic a movie as any $200 million Holywood CGI blockbuster-- lots of sex and gore and bizarre behavior on display here. It's just been dressed up in the couture of high culture.

None of which invalidates your students' (or anyone's) excitement over dissecting what's going on in it. Critical thinking processes have been weaned on far cruder films (and books, and plays), I'm sure. What I'm saying is that in a real sense Black Swan is itself conventional. I'd be more excited if your students, or my kids, or anyone learning how to express ideas through imagery, got just as turned on by a 70-year-old Josef von Sternberg movie, or a contemporary film (like, say, Wild Grass or even Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) that really shuffles the deck and rearranges the world as they know it.

I'm not saying I think you're wrong. I just think that people, and young people especially, should be encouraged to broaden their experience with various kinds of film imagery, to seek out films that aren't presold to them as essential experiences that you have to see just because everybody's talking about them. Their young minds are eager and ready for more challenging films. They just have to be lucky enough to have someone like you to steer them towards those films, or to be willing to seek them out themselves.

Thanks for reading, and even more so for offering your thoughts up to the Tree House!

Richard Bellamy said...

Dennis: I think Black Swan is more than a water-cooler movie - or at least it's a water-cooler movie and a whole lot more - and I think the same students who see it are open to the kinds of movies you mention here.

Also, I wanted to add in response to your basic question that in the final analysis I found 2010 to be memorable movie year - though memorable due to a minority of excellent films. I would have wished for more films that did memorable things, but given what was out there, I found enough to satisfy me.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Yeah, I think that's a fair assessment of the year. The list of movies that I found to be generally worthwhile (meaning, I suppose, I liked 'em despite their weaknesses) far outnumbered the movies which I thought truly excelled at their purpose and intent and made a home in my heart and my mind. But when I stopped down and considered those top tier films, they certainly were superb. I already gave a bit of a hint as to what films were hovering near the top of my list (which Ill publish next week.) What were the movies you thought were truly excellent this year, Hokahey?

Richard Bellamy said...

Dennis - Top on my list, in alphabetical order, are -

127 Hours
Black Swan
Let Me In
Never Let Me Go
True Grit
Winter's Bone

And each one was distinctly different.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I'm really glad to see Let me In on your list. It seems to be the movie most deserving of end-of-the-year talk that has been least talked about.

And I've really got to find my way to Monsters-- that movie sounds fascinating.

Richard Bellamy said...

And I forgot, How to Train Your Dragon provided a big boost at the beginning of the movie year. It's an imaginative, touching, visually dazzling film.