Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Dear Jim, Sheila and Jason, and everyone peeking through the slats of the SLIFR Movie Tree House:

To paraphrase a very famous chocolatier, so much time and so little to get to. Scratch that. Reverse it. I came into the last month of this year thinking that it seemed like the collective experience of the movies was headed toward a big fizzle, and maybe even the movies themselves. I usually keep a pretty close eye on what I’ve seen and where I saw it over the year— long ago I came to understand, as Jason has, that it was beyond my capacity to simply see the films and rely on my memory alone to sustain my experience. When I was a freshman in college in 1977 something compelled me to begin keeping a list of the movies I saw, where I saw them, when I saw them, and a convenient-though-relatively meaningless one-to-four star rating, and that list has been maintained to this day, 33 years later. But I had fallen behind on compiling 2010’s films, and when I began sifting through everything I’d seen to get to the most contemporary entries I realized that against everything my feelings were telling me about the year, the films I liked far outnumbered the ones I didn’t by about 3 to 1. Chalk a lot of this up to increased discernment in the movies I choose to see, of course-- when it costs $16 a pop, I’m a lot less likely to casually choose to see The Hangover just to kill some time (and man, did that movie murder it some time, brutally)—so I’m missing out on a lot of the stuff that might make my tally much more bottom heavy. And of those movies that I liked, fewer still were movies that I felt stood out from the pack, ones I loved with barely a reservation. Still fewer, films which I couldn’t shake from my head, films that I didn’t want to lose for days, weeks after seeing them. These were the movies, critical consensus and Oscar chances be damned, that ended up making up my top 10 list. This is a rather more emotional approach than I have typically taken in the past, but it just felt right to me, especially in a year where I could make the intellectual case for 15 or 20 other films which could easily occupy a spot in the hallowed 10 but couldn’t so easily have taken up space in my heart. In a very real sense, for me the movie year ended not with a fizzle, but an unexpected bang.

There has never been a way for a man like me to be all caught up and tidy and ready to write up my year-end round-up by the first of January, and so it goes this year. I have yet to catch up on a long list of titles for year-end consideration, films like Rabbit Hole, Somewhere, Catfish, Inside Job, Client 9, Wild Grass, Dogtooth, White Material, Marwencol, Monsters, The Strange Case of Angelica, Soul Kitchen, Vincere, The Tillman Story, Restrepo, Mother, Valhalla Rising, Life During Wartime, Smash His Camera, Animal Kingdom, Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Suss, Casino Jack and the United States of Money, OSS 117: Lost in Rio, Agora and, yes, Trash Humpers. For better or worse, many of these titles are currently available on DVD, Netflix, Vudu or any number of pay-per-view services, and it may be a little easier for me to get to a few more of them before it’s time to seriously sit down and write. But the biggest danger, of course, is in commoditizing the leftover films to be consumed with as much savoring as befits a Healthy Choice microwave meal. With this little time left, quantity is far trumped by quality, of both the films themselves and the situations we create in which to experience them. Yet the attempt to be be discerning still rules the day.

This is why I had to shut Mother off last night after only 20 minutes. I got it started late and I knew there was no way I was going to have the stamina and the alertness to get what I needed to get from watching it, and I was right. After waking from my first 15-minute doze, I forced myself to put it away and save it for a time when I could give it my full attention (a difficult task under the best of circumstances given the inherent distractions surrounding the home theater, or at least mine.) And what I saw, including those mesmerizing opening credits, signaled that the movie was definitely one to stay awake for, one which deserved my best and brightest.

(Not sure where this is all leading, but I feel that you all have given me and everyone so much quality thought and writing to chew on that I suspect I could spend all of my remaining slots just responding to the first three posts. I will try to control myself, but faced with such a bounty I can make no guarantees.)

As Jim has alluded, all these viewing options tend to blur the meaning of the moviegoing experience. DVD and home video (and, of course, Netflix) have ushered in an age when the typical complaints about film critics talking over the heads of an audience have been rendered close to moot. Many of the movies discussed in forums like these and on various critics lists are easily available in Butte, Montana as they are in Brookline, Massachusetts, and it’s now up to John Q. Public to figure out for himself, if he so chooses, the difference between a Catfish , a Jackass and a hole in the ground. (Film critics, online and in traditional print, can be helpful in this regard, but it often takes some patience and some digging to find the good ones. There happen to be three of them visiting here this week, by the way.) And 2011 is promising even more availability than ever of freshly minted indie cinema in unusual or nontheatrical formats.

What’s really strange is that, for all of this availability on demand and on DVD and on your iPhone and whatnot, the theatrical shelf life of specialty films is just as short-lived and as endangered as ever, maybe more. Art houses book independent specialty films and rereleases of classics, but they’re often guaranteed only a week’s run and are frequently met with indifference from the public, even that segment of it which can claim some heightened awareness of the trends in and buzz about contemporary film. And right now, here in Los Angeles, we have the strange privilege of hearing of the one-week booking of Dogtooth at the Cinefamily, typically a one-night-only revival cinema, being talked about as if its presence were a freakism of exhibition instead of the normal way of things that would have been 15 or 20 years ago. Right now the opportunity to see a minimally distributed movie like Dogtooth in a theater is almost unheard of; it’s a shame that its arrival has to be treated in a fashion similar to the circus rolling into town, though one guesses that even in L.A. more film fans would probably come out to see the elephants.

But one of the things that became most clear to me in 2010 is the gulf between the experience of watching a great, crowd-pleasing movie with a very pleased crowd and seeing the same movie at home, alone. I revisited one of my all-time favorite comedies this past year when I snagged a dub of W.C. Fields’ Never Give a Sucker an Even Break off of TCM. God, I was so excited to see it again—it had been at least 30 years since I first saw it in a revival theater in Eugene, Oregon, and laughed my generously proportioned ass off. I popped in the DVD and smiled for nearly the entire 70-something-minute running time, but I didn’t produce belly laugh one. It was a strangely disconnecting, almost dispiriting experience. What could account for my strange, listless reaction? Was I just too damn old? Was the movie something less than I remembered it being? I had a perfectly satisfying intellectual response to it—that is, I was completely aware that the comedic concepts were funny, but they were not propelling me to the state of gasping, panic-inducing laughter I knew I was capable of achieving in the presence of the Great Man, Mrs. Hemoglobin, Gloria Jean, Franklin Pangborn, et al. Cut (or lap-dissolve) to a few months later. The New Beverly Cinema here in Los Angeles ran one of their patented triple-feature bliss-outs featuring the Marx Bros. and W.C. Fields, and Sucker was one of the three. I took my daughter, already a huge Marx Brothers fan, and sure enough, what was missing from my DVD grab was the live audience. Within minutes we were all reduced to rib-bruising hysteria and I learned once more for the umpteenth time in my life that even the dumbest exploitation movie, to say nothing of a masterpiece like Sucker, is enhanced and heightened by the theatrical experience, especially if the audience is in genuine tune with the picture. And my guess is the same thing would be true of an oddity like Dogtooth too. I hope that I get a chance before Thursday to find out.

I want to touch on the comments of Matt’s that I quoted and Jason’s response to them, not because I have much to add to them, and certainly not in the eloquence department, but because they make me things of things, tangentially related or not, to the idea of emotion and cinema literacy as it specifically relates to images. I don’t know how much of this goes on now, since home theaters and high-definition television have become such a part of our environment, but what Matt’s comments about the “average” viewer’s ability or lack thereof to read images as subtext or even text made me think about was my mom. It was she with whom I had all my initial arguments about letterboxing vs. pan-and-scan. (“But why would I want to waste two-thirds of my TV screen? I want to use ALL of my TV screen!”) And though you’d think nearly 30 years of exposure to varying aspect ratios and letterboxing and anamorphic transfers would effect a change in her perception, I’d be willing to bet that on some level she still thinks of letterboxing, even on her new wide-screen TV, as a waste of space. It was my mom who also claimed to not be able to tell the difference between videotape and film. And if the representation of imagery on some of the more inexpensive high-definition TVs I’ve seen is any indication, that line may be being blurred in even stranger ways in 2010. I walked into a room recently where a TBS cable-cast of Hairspray (2007) was playing on a budget HD monitor, and when I first glimpsed it I thought it was outtakes that were shot on hi-def video. It was only when I looked closer that I realized there was something about the pixel quality of the TV that made this movie, which was shot on film, appear to have the sheen and plasticity of a Disney Channel sitcom. Somewhere my mom is leaning back in her rocker going, “See? I told you there was no difference!”

Jim, you said, “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.” And when I read this I immediately thought of my reaction to what can only be termed a somewhat conventionally mounted film, The King’s Speech. This is a movie, Jason, in which I think it can be fairly said that a lap dissolve or a cut or a long take means pretty much the same thing to any and all viewers who are cognizant of the simple fact that films are composed and arranged for effect, whether you think much about how those effects work or not. It’s a movie for which the term “classical” is probably not inappropriate, as much for its subject matter—the hidden adversity of British royalty—as for the way director Tom Hooper shies not away from his awareness that in these kinds of scenarios and films a certain approach to visual style is expected—the way the images connect to each other in a solid, stable fashion, the way the set design and the tactile elements of the color and cinematography complement each other. It would be boorish, it seems to me, to take points away from a movie like The King’s Speech for not being more visually daring or experimental. Hooper knows how to direct actors for the camera though, and he occasionally finds some quietly playful ways of playing with the space between the actor and the camera—unexpected pull backs on Firth and Rush and Bonham Carter in Rush’s apartment office, where the speech therapy sessions are being conducted, which find them in positions designed to promote muscle and vocal cord relaxation that are decidedly unroyal, for example, or the simple invasion of the “personal space” between Firth’s Bertie and the camera, visually implying his position without more obvious use of lower camera placement or some other familiar visual cue.

Sheila, in reference to your earlier question about the way Hooper places actors in the frame and uses negative space, it’s a small point, and it hardly qualifies as a visual motif. I would agree with your comments about the rather ordinary way in which the final speech in framed and executed visually. But two central sequences in the film which are essentially therapy sessions between the film’s two main characters feature a simple visual strategy that Hooper uses to subtly place emphasis on how Prince Albert has found himself in a situation where his royal privilege cannot conquer his pressing dilemma, where he must be the subjugated rather than the one imposing his position on others. In a series of simple cuts between close-ups of the actors, close-ups that use the negative space in the wide-screen frame and the imbalanced (but, oddly, never jarring) placement of the characters within that frame, Hooper deconstructs the royal advantage and emphasizes the fear and frustration roiling inside a man whose public position insists on an entirely more stoic and composed presentation.

As someone who is familiar with but by no means expert in the ways images can be read, I found these superbly acted sequences marvelously enhanced by the way Hooper used his camera in what seemed to be a simultaneously unassuming but also quite probing, almost ostentatious way. The “average” viewer might experience the power of these scenes and yet still see the movie as handsomely but rather conventionally shot. Nevertheless, the potential power of the scene has been conveyed. (I was rather relieved when I took a look at a screener and confirmed that the composition and framing of these shots, what with their little extra portion of headroom to go along with the negative space on the extreme sides of the frame, did indeed seem to be intentional and not just the symptom of the typically poor projection at my local Pacific Theater outlet.)

Deep down I think you’re right, Sheila, to suggest that the “average” viewer is probably not given enough credit, in terms of her/his ability to process something like The King’s Speech or even a more visually claustrophobic film like Blue Valentine on its own terms, in the way the director intended. But there is also a marked impatience where the general audience is concerned for films which, as Jason suggests, might involve the evolving of cinematic language, which would allow the rapid change in meaning of familiar devices like cuts and camera movement and lap dissolve to radically change from film to film.

And as far as that change goes, to a certain degree I think it's already happening. Certainly a tracking shot in a Gaspar Noe movie doesn’t mean the same thing as it does in a Brian de Palma movie or in one made by Orson Welles or Robert Altman or Ron Howard. My gut feeling is that in the films we respond to on the deepest level—at least the ones that affected me most this year— this kind of redefinition of what technique can do and how it can serve the material is precisely what is going on. In three of my favorite films of the year-- Please Give, Let Me In and Toy Story 3-- there is a mastery of technique apparent that is utilized to serve and accentuate and deepen the story. There’s simplicity of craft, elegance of form in all three of these movies, yet they can’t be said to be after the same game, even within the reality of their being primarily creations of narrative, in regard to the techniques they employ. Even so, within each there’s a shift in meaning, where one man’s long take is the equivalent to another woman’s slow dissolve, where the shaky-cam can’t be universally dismissed, even if we might want to say good-bye to it forever, and each film’s narrative goals are gloriously achieved. Jason, you’re arguing for a scenario in which cinematic language can evolve, and I’m not sure who would argue against you, except perhaps those whose primary interest is in perpetuating a model of Hollywood business that is without interest at best, a self-cannibalizing dead-end at worst. I suspect that for those who love film and who love to make it, its visual language will always be evolving and it will always be important for there to be people well-versed enough to read it in all its permutations and discern between an achieved and a merely intended effect without, as you said, losing sight of the simple and complicated emotions that are the bedrock of all that technique in the first place.

Baaaah, I have far overstayed my welcome, as I suspected I would, and with so much left to touch on. Thank God the rest of the week awaits. I want to talk about Blue Valentine and (sigh) Michelle Williams, Easy A and Emma Stone, Please Give, Mother and Child, Jim’s exploding heads, the mystery of Tony Scott, our favorite moments of the year, great documentaries (like Sweetgrass)… And I'm fascinated, Jason, and troubled by your thought that "we might have already cemented our opinions of what cinematic greatness looks like, and thus doomed ourselves to frequent disappointment." But all this will come. I now look forward to more from my most treasured fellow Tree House dwellers. I’m off to go get some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Kool-aid and maybe some Bugles or some Ruffles. Anybody need me to bring back anything else?









Sheila O'Malley said...

Dennis - awesome illustrative screengrabs of what you were talking about in KING'S SPEECH. I admit that that worked on me on an unconscious level.

Andy said...

Within minutes we were all reduced to rib-bruising hysteria and I learned once more for the umpteenth time in my life that even the dumbest exploitation movie, to say nothing of a masterpiece like Sucker, is enhanced and heightened by the theatrical experience, especially if the audience is in genuine tune with the picture.

This can work in the reverse, too! I once nearly walked out of a screening of The Red Shoes, one of my all-time favorite films, because the audience was so perceptibly not on the same page with it that I was made uncomfortable.

Interestingly, Dogtooth, the film you go on to mention at the end of this paragraph, may be a film that I dislike because of the circumstances under which I saw it. Along with (if I remember correctly) a full house of my fellow Pittsburghers, I braved the cold to attend a special screening of the film at one of Pittsburgh's more inconveniently-located theaters as part of the 2009 edition of our Three Rivers Film Festival. The crowd felt unsettled, which was presumably Director Lanthimos's intent. And suddenly I had a choice: I could either hate the film for failing to engage me (because I was not engaged) and/or for what it was doing to everyone there in the theater with me, or I could decide to love it. But indifference was no longer an option, not when I could see that this was a movie that affected people, that it was a movie that worked. Alone in my living room, I might have just said "meh" and moved on with my life. But there in that theater I was agitated. And I remain agitated. And one of these days I will sit down with the film and figure out exactly why. All because I saw it out, not in!