Thursday, January 19, 2012


Tree Peeps (Treeps?) –

Before I get around to telling you how Steven sat next to me while I had my biggest cinematic orgasm of 2011, let me begin by throwing some cold water on his typically cogent flames, lest the tree house burn down before everyone has had a turn.

Indeed, when 13 of the 17 highest grossing movies of 2011 are sequels, prequels or reboots of been-there, done-that movie franchises, and when the exceptions to the rule include The Smurfs, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, which aren’t technically part of a movie franchise (yet) but might as well be, it’s easy to feel as if Hollywood is becoming ever more soulless, ever more selfish, ever more myopic to the bottom line.

It’s easy to feel that way because I think it’s true.

But let’s go no further before correcting the record on one thing: Armond White’s “better than” list more closely resembles Hollywood in its current state than it chips away at “the whole rotten system.” With immediate full disclosure that the “better than” head-trip is the only White joint that I read this year, its mission is as transparent as ever: to promulgate the Armond White Brand.

White doesn’t attack Hollywood with his “better than” piece. How could he? His infallible hero, Steven Spielberg, was made from Hollywood’s rib and, along with George Lucas, helped create the original sin that subsequently has mass-reproduced to the point that now each spring, summer and fall (and sometimes winter) the multiplexes are stuffed with merchandise-peddling (wannabe) blockbusters. No, White’s attacks are aimed at critics in the hopes of grabbing the attention of the masses, using a shock-jock style reminiscent of early Howard Stern – he doesn’t care if you love him or hate him so long as you pay attention to him. (Which is why I haven’t paid attention, by the way, and why I’m hesitant to mention him now, but the extreme altitude of the tree house apparently has me dizzy.)

How delighted Armond must have been that The Almighty Spielberg made two movies this year, The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse, that except in fleeting moments never come close to Spielberg’s greatest works or even his very good ones, thus giving White the opportunity to be both pro-Spielberg and anti-smug-hipster simultaneously. His version of a win-win.

“Contrarian” is the label permanently attached to White, and it’s accurate, and the most infuriating thing about his enterprise is that he refuses to admit his mission statement – like big tobacco denying the addictive properties of cigarettes. “Film tastes” have nothing to do with that “better than” list. Self-idolatry is more like it, which is precisely why each entry consists of only about 25 words of explanation – because just like Hollywood, White doesn’t care how much you enjoy the show or if you learn anything so as long as you buy a ticket.

That said, Steven, I think you’re right that critics (and other engaged cinephiles) are as susceptible to the Hollywood hype machine as the average moviegoer. The hype factory affects not just which movies win awards but, long before that, which movies enter the discussion forum to begin with, en route to being entered into countless Netflix queues later on. And while this unfortunate reality inspires you to dream of a world without the ballyhoo and the “bargain” matinee prices that are anything but, it inspires me to think of something just as unrealistic:

What would our cinematic discussions look like if movies were released anonymously?

We’d still recognize Tom Cruise scaling that skyscraper in Mission Impossible and the Deathly Hallows (that was the title, right?). But if we didn’t know that Brad Bird directed MI:4 (yeah, yeah, Ghost Protocol), would I have encountered as many claims that it has the best action sequences since The Incredibles, which, surprise, Bird also directed? Likewise, would Moneyball have been approached as openly as “serious cinema,” rather than dismissed as frivolous “sports cinema,” if super-screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian weren’t attached? And would the movie geek-o-sphere (which I’m happy to call home) have gone so crazy about that opening credits sequence in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which is sometimes mentioned as if it’s more significant than the film that follows it, if we didn’t know it was a David Fincher product, or would that sequence have been dismissed as some overly-stylish James Bond-esque trifle?

Knowing the artist behind a film creates expectations, and, don’t get me wrong, that can be extremely valuable. The perfect example from 2011 is The Tree of Life, which famously frustrated some casual moviegoers who had their expectations set by the A-list acting talent on the marquee (Brad Pitt and Sean Penn) rather than by the name of the anonymous-as-he-can-be auteur who made it, Terrence Malick. But regardless of whether you loved The Tree of Life or hated it, or something in between, if you were familiar with Malick’s cinema, the movie couldn’t have seemed out of character, even if you didn’t quite understand why dinosaurs needed to make a cameo.

Often, though – and I suspect The Tree of Life’s critics would say it applies here, too – these kinds of expectations can be as destructive as the multi-million-dollar marketing campaigns and the celebrity-making profiles in Entertainment Weekly, because they encourage us to find relevance, depth or, to use a Tree of Life buzzword, grace, that might not be there at all – or, hell, maybe it is there, but our ingrained distrust of the artist or our hatred of the artist’s politics, peccadilloes or Polanski-level assaults convinces us to see past them.

I didn’t make an official top 10 list this year (although I did write a wide-ranging "bests" list), but if I had, I’m certain that J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 would be within arm’s length of it. It’s a “flawed” film (sorry, Mr. Ebert), but, as I wrote earlier this year, it does a super job of capturing “the mixture of ambition, naïveté, insecurity, cheer and general naked emotionality of childhood,” and I loved it for that.

Apparently forgotten by now, several months and two impressive young-newcomer performances in The Tree of Life later, is the bravely lonesome and vulnerable performance by Joel Courtney as Joe Lamb, the young protagonist. More memorable is the performance by Elle Fanning, as Alice Dainard, the mysterious (because to young boys all girls are mysterious) object of Joe’s affection, who makes jaws drop on the screen and off of it with a powerful tearful goodbye to her movie-within-a-movie husband.

But I don’t bring up Super 8 because it’s among my most cherished movies of the past year. Rather, it’s because if 2011’s movies had been released anonymously, I suspect Super 8 wouldn’t have been derided as a corrupt Spielberg ripoff, as it was by many, but instead would have been confused for the real thing. (OK, so maybe it would have needed 75 percent fewer lens flares. But you get the idea.) Because when we look at the movies themselves, removed from all the implications of expectations, it’s Super 8 that has the spirit of Spielberg, and it’s Tintin, with its never-ending parade of action sequences that seem lifted from Spielberg’s previous films and mashed-up in digitally animated, motion-captured form, that feels like an impostor, and it’s War Horse that, despite its epic scope, seems atypically small.

Point is, Hollywood isn’t the only one building myths around products that haven’t yet hit the screen. We do that on our own, which is why we’re so susceptible to the breeze from Hollywood’s hurricane.

So which movies and moments really moved me in 2011? Given that I’ve rambled so long already, I’ll have to dip into that next time. (One entry in and my tree house membership is already in jeopardy; not good.)

For now, I’ll close with this:

I don’t give a rip about the Golden Globes. (This year I watched a few minutes here and there. Most years I don’t.) And I detest the pre-show “horserace” analysis of the Academy Awards. And while I admit feeling a strange satisfaction when a performance or film I love happens to win an Oscar, I don’t lose any sleep over “snubs.” But I do watch the Academy Awards – every minute, every year – because I still subscribe to the belief, however unhip, that movies are better off with the Oscars than without them.

Yes, I recognize the ills: The subjectivity of it all. The influence of hype. The way Harvey Weinstein seems to have mastered the art of buying those golden statuettes. The way the three-movie-a-year consumer could be fooled into thinking that he/she happened to see the best movie made that year. (Way to go, James Cameron.)

But here’s the thing: For each nomination tied to a high-profile, mega-money, fast-food-friendly, box-office-busting vapid Hollywood spectacle, there’s another tied to a movie that has a 20-minute creation sequence instead of 2 hours of CGI-crafted destruction, that has opera on the soundtrack instead of a Billboard hit, that speaks in italics instead of ALL-CAPS.

Whether the average consumer seeks out these lower-profile, smaller-budget, foreign-tasting, struggling-to-break-even movies is up to them, of course. But even when the Oscars are helping Hollywood print money by confirming the greatness of the already successful, they still create the best “better than” service I know.



Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler and is a regular contributor to Slant Magazine’s The House Next Door, coauthoring The Conversations series with Ed Howard. He’s also a contributor to Press Play. Follow him on Twitter.







1 comment:

Joel Bocko said...

Pedigree IS a problem, and not just for the reasons you mention. It's indicative of a larger trend: critics and film buffs focus on & praise new releases from old masters in part because the younger generation has fallen silent - or been silenced. Can you name any famous Hollywood or even high-profile independent directors under 40? Outside of Jason Reitman, I can't. (The younger directors I can name are mostly limited to the niches - some might say ghettos - of mumblecore or neo-neorealism.)

It's the first time in decades that there's been such a lack of breakthrough artists. Young blood has always transfused new ideas into Hollywood (in the 80s and 90s, it was often via the indie root, but the inspiration still got there eventually). Now that vein has been slashed.

I doubt it's a matter of talent; more likely, the opportunities for establishing a voice within the mainstream of the industry have vanished. Ironically, the Hollywood Star Wars helped create is one in which Star Wars itself probably wouldn't get greenlit; after all, Lucas and Spielberg were products of 70s Hollywood's fascination with and indulgence of youth, auteurism, and cinephilia.

As for the Oscars...personally, I've given up on them. They always had their issues but, like you, I still tuned in every year despite my qualms. But then, a year or two ago, they dropped the Honorary Oscars from the broadcast. Not only was this the one area in which they "got it right" it was a blatant sign of disrespect to the aspect of Hollywood which retained appeal: its past. The Honorary Oscars were one area where pedigree SHOULD have been appreciated, and the Academy blew it - sad, and sadly unsurprising.