Tuesday, January 11, 2011


To my fellow Tree Huggers, er, Housers –

It’s great to be allowed into the tree house. After spending all night hunting for snipe, I need to relax. (By the way, Sheila, your directions sucked. I didn’t catch a thing, despite that special chant you gave me: Owuh-tanna-siam. Owuh-tanna-siam. Owuh-tanna-siam.) Already, each of you has offered up some terrific thoughts about film in general and in 2010 specifically, but before I respond to any of those, I’d like to detail why 2010 was, for me, an odd movie year. And to do that, I need to tell you a little bit about January 1998. So let’s go there....

I was a junior in college, a few weeks away from my 21st birthday. Then, like now, I was writing on a Mac (though back then my monitor was huge and didn’t include my hard drive). Then, like now, I was writing about the previous year in movies. And then, like now, I was writing in letter form … or at least that’s the way I began. Ever since my high school years my uncle and I had traded annual letters in which we shared our thoughts on the previous year in film, mostly by predicting who we thought would and should win Academy Awards. Spotting the Golden Globes on TV, I realized it was time to write my year-end letter, and so I sat down to type out some thoughts about the year of Titanic, L.A. Confidential, Boogie Nights, and whatever else came out that year. I was only a few paragraphs in when I realized that picking my favorite films and performances based on Oscar’s list wasn’t going to cut it. So I decided that instead I would create my own nominees. I closed my eyes (literally), cracked my knuckles (figuratively, because knuckle cracking is gross), reflected back on the movies I’d seen that year and started writing.

Perini Scleroso accepts not a Bellamy Award, but a People's Global Golden Choice Award from Lola Heatherton

The next thing I knew, what I thought would be a fairly typical two-page letter had morphed – Black Swan-style, you might say – into a 13-page program outlining my nominees for 13 awards that ranged from the typical (Best Picture) to the not-so-typical (Best Moment) to the derisive (Worst Acting). Delighted with what I was creating, I kept going, crafting hand-folded winners envelopes that I closed with golden notary seals. In doing all of this, I realized it was too big to share with just my uncle, so I made a few more copies of the program, bought a few more notary stickers, folded a few more envelopes and sent the whole enchilada to a dozen or so family and friends. The “Bellamy Awards” were born. And they have lived ever since – through graduation, through various jobs, through four time zones, through graying hair, through relationships, through four states and the District of Columbia. Until this year. Because, alas, 2010 is the year that the Bellamy Awards died.

If at this point you’re expecting me to tell you that the death of my annual project is directly related to the year in film, guess again. The fact of the matter is that life just got too busy. My day job, which is terrific (not just because it pays the bills and the box offices), has consumed an inordinate amount of time this past year, cutting into my cherished writing time. Long story short, something had to give, and I decided – with reluctance and relief – that it would be the Bellamy Awards. “Officially,” if I can consider my hobby in any way official, I made that decision a month or two ago, but somehow I think I knew back in March that the streak would end. Or maybe I’m now convincing myself that I knew, because all of the above has been lead up to this: 2010 was the year in which I stopped remembering the movies. Or at least it’s the year in which I stopped remembering them as well as I used to.

The potential explanations for my fogginess are obvious: increased age, reduced writing time, intensified focus on the paying gig, etc. But there have been times this year when I’ve wondered if my diminishing memory is due some other kind of decline, as if perhaps movies aren’t staying with me like they used to because I’m not letting them in as much as I used to, not allowing them to move me like I used to. That feels strange to write, and, as I pause here, even stranger to read. I mean, I’m not even two weeks removed from posting a rather lengthy and fairly wide-ranging “Bests” list for 2010. So clearly many shots, performances and films connected with me and stayed with me. And yet I feel like too many of them “got away.” Case in point: Over the Thanksgiving weekend I found myself wondering: “Did Shutter Island come out this year, or last year? And did I love it or loath it, or something in between?” I honestly couldn’t remember, and I’d reviewed the darn thing. That’s the kind of year it’s been for me. I’ve still got a healthy list of films I feel are worth championing (and I’ll do more of that later), but too often I’ve felt like I was on the outside looking in, or perhaps on the inside looking out. One of my favorite mental snapshots from 2010 is Ewan McGregor sitting in that picturesque office in The Ghost Writer, the beach dunes in the background almost – but not quite – invading the room through the floor-to-ceiling window. Alas, too many movies this year – including that one, actually – have felt like that beach: close but untouchable.

So before I get into some of my cherished cinematic experiences, let me pause and state the obvious: As filmgoers, we’re all moved by different things and to varying degrees. I point that out as a way to loop back toward Matt’s observation, quoted by Dennis in the opening, that “the ability of the average viewer to read images is only slightly better than their ability to read text,” and that “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.” Damn straight. It’s always fascinating (and often infuriating) to watch the comments unfold at Scanners, because, Jim, I think you connect to films in a way that is absolutely foreign to about 99 percent of moviegoers: you seem to appreciate film construction not just as a means to an end but as an end itself – and not just in hindsight but in the present tense, as a movie is unfolding. To the average viewer, this is almost beyond comprehension, akin to appreciating a rollercoaster not for its stomach-churning dips and face-flattening turns but for the craftsmanship of its track. Those who don’t see movies as you do feel like they just “go along for the ride,” and they’re puzzled why you’re paying so much attention to the nuts and bolts of the structure, failing to grasp that for you the nuts and bolts are the thrill (or at least can be). They’ve become so locked into their way of seeing a movie that they can’t see it any other way, can’t imagine it to be anything else. But, alas, average viewers aren’t the only ones who get locked in: the danger of being able to read images is that “non-average” moviegoers (I’m being careful not to say “advanced”) can get lost in the 1s and 0s of a movie’s structural code and forget what the film is at face value (as if that’s immaterial), reading the filmmaker’s intent and perhaps granting it an effect that it doesn’t actually achieve.

If we hope to see cinematically illiterate viewers become enlightened about the way a film’s compositions, camera movements and cuts, etc., inform its text or subtext – or, heck, if we just want average viewers to realize that there is subtext – then more literate viewers must strive to remain equally open minded, recognizing that cinema isn’t unilingual. A follow shot in one movie doesn’t need to mean the same thing as a follow shot in another movie, for example. I’m not arguing against leveraging experience. I’m arguing against creating de facto rules for what a dissolve means, what the effect of a long take is, what the effect of un-steadycam is (beyond nausea), and so on. I’m arguing in favor of allowing cinematic language to evolve, sometimes quickly, sometimes radically, sometimes from film to film.

Strangely enough, this brings me to an argument I once heard Chuck Klosterman make, that there will never be presidents greater than George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in the history of America, less because of the circumstances of their presidencies or their actual levels of competence (though those are factors), than because George Washington and Abraham Lincoln created our mental image about what a “great president” is, and in doing so created the characteristics of presidential greatness. What the fuck does this have to do with the previous year in movies? In a sense, not much, and I promise to stick closer to the point in future entries, but there is this: As the past year has unfolded I’ve cringed at the possibility that in 2011 – still so early in what will be a long life for cinema – we might have already cemented our opinions of what cinematic greatness looks like, and thus doomed ourselves to frequent disappointment.

Gee, that was a real uplifter, wasn’t it?


Jason Bellamy is the Proprietor and Head Jack-of-All Trades at The Cooler.







Anonymous said...

2010 was the year in which I stopped remembering the movies. Or at least it’s the year in which I stopped remembering them as well as I used to'... this is EXACTLY what has happened to me. And I'm still trying to figure it out!

Don Mancini said...

The opening statements from all the "Tree Huggers" are so terrific -- so intriguingly varied in perspective -- that I am simultaneously sad not to have been able to do one, and relieved not to have been, inevitably, embarrassed for not measuring up.

I especially loved Sheila's thoughts about acting, which themselves represented a very interesting (and egalitarian) riposte to the notion of audiences' cinema illiteracy.

I also can't wait to read exactly what Jim thought of TRUE GRIT, and I really wish Jason would give us a glimpse of some past Bellamy Award winners -- specifically, some "Worst Performance" nods.

The Treehouse is already a terrific success. Congratulations, all!

Jason Haggstrom (haggie) said...

I love your comments on how Jim approaches writing at his site. This "attention to the nuts and bolts of the structure" is what I value most about the film blogs I read (of which Jim's is the only one I peek at daily). We have dozens of pro film reviewers already, so I don't always find value in blogs that only focus on film reviews rather than real criticism. We need more sites like Scanners that consider those nuts and those bolts and provide readers with a new way to see a film (or a shot) instead of just a simple opinion of whether the film is worth seeing.

Because of blogs, we have more film criticism available to us today than ever before. I believe that there is a great benefit of this criticism coming from amateur writers and former and current pro film reviewers instead of academics. Obviously, there is a lot of great criticism in academia, but the often overwrought language of many such writers acts as a barrier to the "average viewer" and even to film nuts such as us (I mean, really, if I have to re-read a passage 2-5 times to understand the author, is it actually good writing?). So, yeah, the downside is the ever-spiraling-out-of-control comments on sites like Jim's (oh, I remember the days long gone when there was the small group of about 10 of us who actually commented there; now, it's hard to keep up with the conversation). but that's probably a good thing. Even though we get some truly bizarre comments (such as the ever present "stop already with the Nolan bashing" comments), I am glad to see that more "average film watchers" are reading film criticism.

But less I just ramble about Scanners in response to your article, let me congratulate and and applaud you, Mr. Bellamy, for your work in reviewing ESPN's 30 for 30 series. not only were you the only film reviewer that I know of to cover that great series, but you did it with great style (and quickly!) as always. Your reviews of the show were fantastic.