Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Like any other year, 2011 showed me some good movies, but I never feel compelled to celebrate them during awards season. In fact, I would love to terminate all awards shows tied to the gang of conglomerates we still refer to as Hollywood. They are empty pageants for salesmen, gossips and the liberal faction of the 1%. It seems crazy that glitz and glamour are the aspects of old Hollywood that endure on life support in the new century, while the stuff of value, good old-fashioned storytelling, has given way to what I call Junior Secretary Filmmaking--movies made with such chirpy efficiency and plastic personality that they should work the front desk at the Church of Scientology.

Hey there, y'all. This tree house is a perfect perch from which to lob my rocks. :-)

Dennis, I'm glad you brought up Armond White. What sets White's Better-than list aside from typical raincoat-flashing contrarianism is its disgust at the whole rotten system. It's one thing to bitch about this or that film's failures and betrayals. It's a whole 'nother bag of trouble to declare the industry at large culturally toxic. White might be all over the place in his film tastes, but he has been mighty consistent in his disdain for knee-jerk careerism.

I sense in critics in general a dependence upon and automatic deference to whomever is this year's buzz or big spender. Even in the most coolly analytical reviews I sense an undercurrent of fear of missing the boat, of losing relevance in a media climate that now moves faster than light. That's what all this constant Tweeting is about. Even snark directed at absurdly bankrupt studio product has the character of counterintuitive studio PR. To gripe that Transformers: Dark of the Moon is trash is one thing. To say that the studio which produced it is as unconscionable a polluter and exploiter as Walmart (my words, not White's) is a whole 'nother 'nother. Few who wish to earn some kind of living at film criticism are willing to go quite there.

But why? Is there really so much to lose at this point? Do we need to cooperate with the studios so readily in order to produce commentary someone other than our aunties might read?

Or is the general sentiment that these corporate entities rest so deep in the culture that we can't cut them loose without severing some vital cultural artery?

Mainstream movies rounded out their turn-for-the-worse in 2011-- bigger, louder, meaner and uglier than ever, in Digital 3-D, IMAX, Grope-o-Vision, whatever. The multiplex experience is now a nightmare of strenuous mediocrity. Responding to Hollywood's insults in kind, audience members have taken to texting and chattering openly. They simply don't give a flip, because at this point the contempt is trickle-down: The last man on the movie chain before the film meets your eyeballs, the projectionist, is now a mere file clerk, activating some time-sensitive digital copy of Jack and Jill from a windowless bunker once known as the projection booth. He is the same kid who, when filling in at the concession stand, dribbles into your popcorn when you're not looking.

Or am I the toxic one, failing to see that the movies, even the giant, metal-munching ones, can still be a force for good in the world?

From this perspective, it's hard for me to weigh in on which individual 2011 titles are memorable. I recently submitted a list to Fandor to which I neglected to add some solid honorable mentions like 13 Assassins, Fright Night, The First Grader, My Joy, Road to Nowhere, Silent Souls and, yes, Dennis, Uncle Boonmee. World cinema is evergreen, but here in the States it continues to serve a select clientele, even as blessings like Netflix and YouTube randomly broaden palates. The problem is that demographic apartheid still reigns like Ghaddaffi.

All of the films we love from last year should have been available at the multiplex, for cheap or even free. There are ways to make this happen, but the major studios and exhibitors don't care to explore such options. It's not enough that we can access virtually the whole platter as Video on Demand rentals and online streams. So long as mainstream commercial theaters remain in business, they function as quasi-public spaces, and as such have the potential to reinforce (and even awaken) the kind of humanist values that we all complain are lacking out in the street. The multiplex could be a space far more transformative than school or church-- as American movies once were. Right about now, it can't even compete with a sports bar.

In other words, The Tree of Life should have been available for free or dirt cheap at every multiplex that carried it, in a quiet corner auditorium. And, Sheila, the same goes for Juliet Binoche and her lipstick. And experimental films. And silents (real ones, not just The Artist). And little, delicate DIY films, from Maya Deren to Lena Dunham. And, Simon, Love Exposure and Film Socialisme. We are not serious about liberal, progressive values (yep, I am assuming everybody in this discussion claims liberal and progressive) if we go another year comfortable with a cinema landscape this undemocratic, stratified and mercenary.

Pass the chips.


Steven Boone is a freelance writer whose work can be found at Capital New York, The Demanders (, Press Play and Hentai Lab.


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Joel Bocko said...

F*cking fantastic (in case Dennis considers this a family blog) - I agree with almost everything on display here, particularly the fed-up tone.

(Minor exceptions? I don't think a rejection of the top-down film model should necessarily be tied to liberal/progressive values - a lot of conservatives, particularly more liberterian ones are disillusioned with Hollywood too, some for dumb (imo) reasons, some for decent ones. Also, I'm skeptical - agnostic might be the better word, since I haven't seen Tiny Furniture yet - on Dunham, given some of her face-palm statements on Nick Ray and The Godfather.)

As far as the future of exhibition, I don't think the multiplexes are going to convert to this model anytime soon. Rather, I suspect that the future of good movies lies on the internet. Is something lost in streaming to the computer screen, putting programming in the hands of the individual user? Well, sure (something's gained as well) but I'd argue it isn't anything that wasn't lost decades ago when the video age began. I do think, if this practice - streaming non-Hollywood projects - grows more popular a public space for exhibition can be opened up. But the default home for outside-of-the-box movies will, I suspect, remain virtual.

Another issue is the wedge driven between art and entertainment by both mainstream movies and indies (something critics like Richard Corliss have noted, although his approach, to slum with the spectacles, doesn't help any). There have always been masterpieces that would not connect with a wider audience (I love Weeasekthakul, but I suspect he would fall into that category even with better exposure). They certainly need to be cherished and celebrated by vigilant viewers.

However, there used to also be masterpieces that DID connect with a wider audience and thus served several functions at once: maintaining the cinema's position as a popular art form (by keeping that mythic quality alive), serving as a gateway for curious cinephiles into the wider possiblities of the art form, and keeping the border between "film art" and "the movies" from growing too thick.

As I alluded to under Jason's piece, I think part of the problem is that Hollywood does not cultivate younger talent other than to hire a commercial director here or an executive's nephew there to direct some by-the-numbers studio project according to a stylistic blueprint. (Amazing how much aesthetics have calcified in the 40-50 years since the New Wave, isn't it? Fast cuts and close-ups are now as tiresomely limiting as the slow-moving masters and continuity editing they replaced. And what's with the monochromatic color-coding you find on virtually every movie or TV show these days?)

What I would like to see is more people taking advantage of cheaper technology, broader access to funding (see Kickstarter), and free distribution (via the Internet) to craft and promote features that, on the one hand, push aesthetic boundaries, and on the other, exemplify more classic, popular values (the old-fashioned storytelling, the atmosphere, the mood you note has been lost) in order to show that Hollywood can be beaten at its own game for a fraction of the cost. It's certainly something I hope to check out more (email me at movieman0283 at gmail if you have any particular recommendations in this direction) and to work towards myself in the coming years.

Great stuff, Steven - keep up the good work.

P.S. Thanks for reminding me why I used to read White, before his contrarianism became too predictable, and why I still harbor some fondness for him despite it all.

Steven Boone said...

Joel, Thanks for this incredibly thoughtful response. Among other cool things, it led me to your thrilling, gorgeously laid out blog:

Lena Dunham: She's no Maya Deren, but she has a distinct voice and (so far) makes her movies with her own two hands, so I will definitely advocate for her full pardon when the revolution is in full swing. heheh.

Re: Your political comment; As with government, disillusionment about mainstream movies is bipartisan and equally intense on both sides, but for generally different reasons. On the right, the grievance tends to be with political correctness and moral relativism. On the left, folks decry Hollywood's simplistic pandering and lack of subtlety. What both often have in common is the assumption that the mass audience, voting with its wallet at the box office and with its words at test screenings and focus groups, shares a heap of the blame.

I've got something to say about that, but I'll save it for my next turn in the Tree House, since it ties right into Jason's and Jim's comments. Stay with us.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks Steven, and thanks for the shout-out. I will give Lena a chance one of these days - I've got a queue devoted to Criterion releases, so Tiny Furniture will be Netflix'd one of these days... You're right about the different reasons and I guess what I have in mind is less the Big Hollywood crowd (whose mission seems to be putting a lie to the notion that conservatives hate whiney, aggrieved interest groups since they ARE a whiney, aggrieved interest group) and more individual moviegoers who resent Hollywood's smug generalizations and condescension towards ordinary life and ordinary people - something I think the anti-elitisms of the left and right have more in common than they know...

Glad to hear they'll be more down the line; I thought these individual pieces were one-offs. Kudos to Dennis for opening up this great conversation.