Monday, January 10, 2011


Dear Dennis, Fellow Tree-House Inductees, Ladies and Germs:

It is a pleasure to be occupying this virtual arboreal pad with all of you, after several years of reading your marvelous stuff and engaging in other forms of correspondence with you, from blog commenting to e-mail and snail mail. (Dennis, did I ever properly thank you for that Christmas tape of the New Beverly Cinema, my old neighborhood haunt, from a few years ago? Probably I didn't.) I don't know why, but I would like to remind everyone here that I still have an 8.5" x 11" picture of Dennis on my fridge (like the wee one over there, at the right) -- a litho (OK, a printout) of an original by his daughter -- even though I've never met the man in the flesh. I've met people who have met him, though, and that will have to do for now. At Ebertfest last year, I "met" (in person) for the first time several people with whom I had long corresponded electronically -- among them Matt SZ, Ali Arikan and Kim Morgan -- and it was just like I'd known them for years. Which, in fact, I kinda had. I have no doubt I will feel the same if we should ever share the same physical/geographical environment.

Funny you should mention "True Grit, " Dennis. I just saw it last week and already at least one Scanners reader tried to take issue with what I wrote. Which was an odd preemptive move because I haven't actually written anything about it yet. I'm still letting it percolate. Nevertheless, this fellow was certain he knew what I meant, even though I hadn't said it. This isn't the first time I've run across this phenomenon (see "On liking and not liking (Part Deux)"), but I wish we could get away from the idea of film criticism (or reviewing, which is not necessarily the same thing) as awarding black eyes or feathers in one's cap. That, as Joseph Heller attempted to illustrate in "Catch-22," is silly.

OK, in my deliberately idiosyncratic Exploding Head Awards 2010 I did mention Carter Burwell's "True Grit" score, a certain sequence that recalled "Night of the Hunter," and cited the movie as a good argument for remakes (along with "Let Me In"). But the aforementioned commenter who really disliked "True Grit" scolded me for putting it on my ten best list. Which, of course, I hadn't done. He said it wasn't fair that I should criticize Christopher Nolan's films and not hold the Coen Boys accountable for their failures. OK, but on what grounds? And don't cinematic values and tastes come into play at some point? I have my (well-explained and documented) reasons for not particularly liking some of Nolan's work, and for liking most (but not all) of the Coens'. So, I do hold them to the same standards, and I value one more highly than the other. (My counter-example, in a reply comment, was that I know many people have their criticisms of Mahler, and I understand why, but in general I'd rather listen to anything by Mahler than anything by Tchaikovsky any day. And, if pressed, I could explain why, but mainly it's just the way I'm wired.)

True, I have indeed submitted a couple ten-best lists to different critics' polls, but I hadn't seen "True Grit" in time for those deadlines, and I haven't made my final list for Scanners because I'm still catching up with stuff I really wanted to consider like, well, "Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World" (thanks to the recommendations of Glenn Kenny and Matt), "October Country," "Another Year," "Tiny Furniture," "Wild Grass," "Greenberg"… And I've still got so many more to go, including "Blue Valentine," "Nenette," "Four Lions," "An Unfinished Film," "Around a Small Mountain," "Everyone Else," "Vincere," "Life During Wartime," "Mid-August Lunch," "The Human Centipede" (maybe)… I can't even think of them all. Most of 'em I'm seeing on screeners, or Netflix (or Netflix Instant) or xfinity (formerly Comcast) On Demand, or Amazon On Demand.

Frankly, I don't even know what's playing in Seattle theaters right now. The number of theatrical releases available at any given time seems so limited. Which reminds me (what, you expected me to stay on topic?) of something that came up at a recent critics' panel (on a stage, not in a nifty tree house) at Seattle's Frye Art Museum: A guy in the audience, who's worked in the local art-house scene for a good 30 years or more, asked those of us on the raised platform if we would comment about the state of The Industry right now. It seemed to him (as it does to me) that there's rarely anything at the multiplex that interests him enough to make him feel he had to see it right now on the Big Screen. (I second that as someone who was quite disappointed in "Avatar" and "Inception" -- which I did rush out to see, and which left me feeling mildly bored, disappointed and depressed.) This year, as many writers have noted, there were such long, arid spells between decent Hollywood pictures that nobody seemed to be having much fun at the movies.

But (and this is what I thought was really interesting), there's so much art-house "product" opening each and every week that it's impossible to keep up with (especially when you add in day-and-date theatrical or DVD releases available On Demand from IFC, Magnolia, Sundance, etc.). The theatrical problem is, they usually play in locked engagements -- a day, a few days, maybe a week or two -- and then they're on PPV and DVD before you know it. Lots of interesting, small, unpublicized movies, right there for the picking. But who has time for them all? That's a whole different world than the one I grew up in (or the one in which I worked as an art-house exhibitor in the mid-1980s), when a hit foreign or independent film could play for months.

I don't think any of us really knows what The Industry is right now, but it seems to me that HDTV on-demand viewing is shifting moviegoing patterns in ways that resemble how TiVo and DVRs have revolutionized TV-watching. Movies are no longer exclusive events that happen at a particular place and a particular time. Our whole relationship to them has changed since the advent of home video technology. "Event movies" are still events, but people seem more interested in convenience -- watching movies that they can fit into their own schedule, rather than having their schedules dictated by theatrical showtimes. Well, that's what I was thinking, anyway.

Now, about this emotion thing. When Matt posted the Slate Movie Club piece you quoted ("Emotion is the gateway drug to all cinephilia"), I responded (on Facebook, "Social Network" fans, where all our mutual friends could see it!):

And yet the reason a particular moment in a movie has such a strong emotional effect often comes down to a composition, or a cut, or a camera movement. Change a few words in a poem and you can ruin it. Change a few shots in a movie and a moment of transcendence can become banal. You can't separate the emotion from the film itself. That's what I want more people to see…

Matt, of course, agreed with this sentiment wholeheartedly, which made me glad because this, more or less, summarizes my Mission Statement for my own movie blogging at Scanners. We all have emotions (I hope) and we all develop opinions (though it can be debatable which comes first, the evidence or the opinion), but I most enjoy looking at how films are composed, moment by moment, to achieve their effects. That's something that has, in the short life of the cinema, been difficult to do -- until the advent of home video (making it easier to do "close readings of the text" without having to rely exclusively on memories and notes taken in the dark) and the Internet (making it possible for cinephiles to use video and frame grabs and analysis that, in the past, would have been available only to those taught film classes or published film journals).

OK, I have to go watch an Arabic documentary about Guantanamo for 2010 ten-best consideration now…

Jim Emerson is the genial Master of All He Surveys at Scanners.





Sheila O'Malley said...

So we're all chatting on Facebook right now (well, Jim, Dennis and me), and we figured we'd bring it over here, since conversation is what these posts are all about.

Jim, I am always amazed at what a hard time some of your readers give you. Either about your taste or that you dare to analyze WHY something works/doesn't work. Seems like an odd pet peeve for someone visiting the site of a film critic!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

It is a very curious phenomenon, one which Jason touches on too. But really, if you're not interested in a personal, perhaps idiosyncratic analysis of a movie that examines why and how it does what it does, why are you reading a site like Scanners in the first place?

Sheila O'Malley said...

And the laying-out of why a shot works, why it doesn't - as Jim does so amazingly (his Dark Knight stuff was incredible) - whether or not you agree, how about you make your case like a rational human being and express why you think it DOES work? I remember Jim encouraging people in the comments to do so - and only one or two were able to do it. One dude in particular, defended something Jim had criticized in such a specific way - like: that's the way to talk about this stuff. Also, it's actually FUNNER that way.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Yep, it sure is. Without it, you've got Monty Python's Argument Clinic. But actual intellectual engagement is kinda scary-- might get exposed for not knowing what the hell I'm talking about! Or I might have to concede a point or two on a position about which I am ABSOLUTELY CONVINCED is the case! I'm having these trepidations right now as I prepare to post my own contribution! :)

Sheila O'Malley said...

Also - I think people also have a hard time saying, "You know what? I just loved it." People seem very defensive about what they like/do not like. not everyone - but those types definitely do. They are looking for validation - but why look for validation in something that you love? I don't care what anyone says, I love GI Jane. I could read every bad review that came out, and whatever, I will still love that movie. Shrug.

I see its flaws (what the hell is HAPPENING in that last scene in Libya?) but I just enjoy the damn thing. I also don't subscribe to the "guilty pleasure" thing. My pleasure in GI Jane is not guilty at all. I just love to watch it. It's fun.

I don't mean to sound too simplistic, but there is such a thing as over-thinking something. As being too damn serious about something that is, after all, one step away from roaming bands of puppets and acrobats in the Renaissance. Just say you liked it, and don't FREAK OUT because someone else didn't. Why be so defensive?

It's very strange, but I'm pretty immune to it.

nd then there are the, "IT'S JUST A MOVIE, JUST ENJOY IT" people. I've run into them too. I remember saying I didn't feel the zombies looked real enough in I Am Legend - I just didn't find them scary and a couple people commented like I was ruining their fun. "God, stop over-anlayzing ..."

I realize I may sound like I am saying two contradictory things but I am really not. I suppose it has to do with the tone of the discourse, as usual. I love to read articulate defenses of movies I despised. I LOVE IT. I love to read take-downs of movies I adore, if the writer is good, that is. Thoughtful criticism is not about agreement - it's about, you know, THINKING about things.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Precisely. "It's just a movie" is so diminutive. If what goes on in a movie is so beneath discussion, wouldn't it be just as fascinating to sit and stare at a lava lamp for two hours? You're right, too, that validation is the big prize. And... I'm just as guilty of this as anyone-- it feels good when someone who you know is smart happens to have a similar reaction to a movie and then writes about it in a way that attempts to translate that excitement to her/his readership. But when this doesn't happen-- see SPEED RACER-- the thing is not to go about trashing everyone who disagrees but take a look at what they're saying, consider it, see if it makes any sense compared to your own reaction, and then be happy with the way the movie makes sense to you. People shouldn't have to agree with you in order for you to enjoy something. I know I have a wagonload of "Whatever-- I liked it" movies, and though they may not be perfect, I'm perfectly aware of that and have probably determined that perfection might even turn it into a movie I wouldn't love as well or deeply.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Strangely, it's often the "it's just a movie" people who ALSO want their particular pet movie taken seriously and considered seriously. But when faced with criticism, they rail, "God, stop over-analyzing - it's just a movie."