Sunday, January 22, 2012


Treeps -

Forgive the negative connotation of the label I'm about to use, but before we go further I think we should admit one thing: as far as cinephilia is concerned, we are the 1 percent.

In saying that, I don't mean to imply that we are the haves in a world dominated by have-nots. Not at all. I mean only to point out that in the universe of movie consumers there is only a tiny fraction that approaches cinema with the same obsessiveness that we demonstrate: not just seeing movies but analyzing them, not just analyzing them but writing about them, not just writing about them but tweeting about them, not just tweeting about them but dialoging about them, not just dialoging about them but reading about them, not just reading about them but reading even more about them, and so on.

It strikes me now that the first blog I ever read - about movies or anything - was Jim's Scanners, which I discovered one day while going to Roger Ebert's site to print off a few of his recent reviews to read over lunch. From Scanners, Jim introduced me to The House Next Door, which at the time was in its infancy, founded by a professional critic, Matt Zoller Seitz, but published by an amateur enthusiast's means - a Blogger-hosted site with the most minimalist design available. It was The House Next Door that, one way or another, led to my eventual connections with Sheila, Steven and Simon, but before that it was Scanners that pointed me to the first bona fide non-professional movie blog I ever laid eyes on, this one, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule (which still has the best blog name I've ever come across, and it isn't close).

I knew then that anyone could be a blogger, but for whatever reason I wasn't immediately struck with the feeling that I needed to be one of them. I was already writing about movies, for myself and some friends, but I wouldn't create a blog for another few years. What I did do, though, from that moment on, was read movie blogs voraciously and comment at them frequently. And here's the thing: at the time I assumed every other movie enthusiast did the same.

I was wrong. However much traffic Scanners got then, however much traffic it gets now, it's less than what I would have guessed, less than what it deserves. Sadly, I'm sure the same is true of and, and any other site that would serve as a gateway to endless amounts of thoughtful criticism to anyone who wanted to consume it. As Simon implied, often we 1-percenters wind up writing for each other, and even though I know from experience that there's an engaged audience beyond our 1 percent, I also know that it's only a sliver of the massive pie of available "movie fans."

I don't say this to be a downer but out of a need to report the facts as I see them, because like Steven - like all of you, I'm sure - I would love for the mass audience to be the tree house.

So how does that happen? Two ways, I think.

The first is to spread the good word, which can't mean just preaching on the corner, screaming our views over the din of everyday distractions in the hopes that someone will come along and accept our gospel without skepticism. It must also include listening, dialogue, consideration and openness. At its best, cinema is the purest all-faith church you could hope to find. We don't need to agree about what moves us; we just need to share in the glory that cinema provides. And as the 1 percenters we need to set an example for what cinephilia should be, even when we might not have the influence to singlehandedly create change, as Sheila did with her Iranian blogathon, or as Jim does when he spends multiple posts burrowing into one of his annual obsessions. In this area, thankfully, we can make a difference.

Alas, the other thing needed to bring the mass audience to the tree house is a steady diet of great cinema, and all we can do here is pray. Last week I was clicking around on YouTube and stumbled upon a Comic-Con panel from a few years back in which Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez were asked by an aspiring filmmaker if it was still possible to break into the industry the way they did, essentially operating on the outside of the Hollywood system until all of a sudden they were power players within it. Tarantino thought for a moment and then provided this advice: "Make Reservoir Dogs."

"I'm not even being a smartass," QT continued. "That was a fucking kickass movie, alright. You make a goddamn kickass movie and you can take it all over the fucking planet earth. Not America. Not fucking Los Angeles. Not New York. The planet fucking earth. And everyone will know it."

It was an arrogant and self-serving answer, but it was accurate, too, and the same logic applies here, because no matter how much advocacy we provide, no matter how much passion we exude, no matter if we wear our cinephilia as boldly as Tim Tebow wears his Christianity, the bottom line is that if we want the masses to be moved we need movies to move the masses. On the side, we can champion. We can articulate. We can encourage. But for passion for cinema to be deep and pure, it has to be inspired by what's on the screen. Period.

So, at last, what moved me in 2011?

Many things. Over two viewings, I fell hard for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which certainly feels like the most flawless of 2011's great movies - smartly written, thoughtfully shot, brilliantly acted and thick with atmosphere. I also got swept up by the audaciousness of Drive, the gripping paranoia of Take Shelter, the sweetness of Beginners and the vivid exteriors of the under-the-radar Blackthorn. The best two documentaries I saw this year were Senna and Catching Hell (the latter on TV, although it had a theatrical premiere at some point). And Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 took a franchise that I never really cared for and made me care enough to watch the finale twice.

And then there was Warrior. I haven't seen Margaret (so far as I can tell, it never came to D.C.), but with due respect to the truly flawless performances in Tinker Tailor, all I can say is that if Warrior isn't your pick for the most outstanding performance by a cast it can only mean you haven't seen it, which wouldn't be much of a surprise because the mixed martial arts flick lasted in theaters just a bit longer than I'd last in the octagon against Brock Lesnar.

In recent months, Nick Nolte has earned some supporting actor buzz for his portrayal of the estranged alcoholic father of two MMA fighters, and deservedly so: I think it's the best performance he's ever given. But the other actors are just as incredible: Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as Tommy and Brendan, the brothers who share an ability to fight and not much else; Jennifer Morrison as Brendan's concerned but always caring wife; and Frank Grillo as Brendan's supportive coach.

In my review I called Warrior the Heat of fight movies, in large part because like Michael Mann's 1995 crime classic Warrior takes everything familiar about its genre and does it better, and also because it's "simultaneously mythic and realistic, stylized and uncomplicated, violent and romantic, epic and intimate." But what lingers are the performances, which in a movie not afraid to be predictable somehow manage to avoid cliche at every turn.

Of course, the movie that moved me most was Malick's The Tree of Life.

That orgasmic moment I mentioned in my first post? It happened around 3:07 pm ET on Saturday, May 28. (I told you we're the 1 percent!) I was at Manhattan's Sunshine Cinema, having made the pilgrimage from Washington, DC, for the movie's opening weekend, meeting my uncle Ric, who came from Cape Cod, and rallying at the theater with Boone (who'd managed to see The Tree of Life at a media screening with Sheila) and Odie Henderson (who was seeing it for the first time).

The cinematic moment that provided my overcome response is a few minutes into the famous (and, for some, infamous) creation sequence, which begins with Jessica Chastain's mother character whispering to God in the aftermath of her son's death, asking "Where were you?" After a short series of gaseous images, the screen goes black momentarily and then a spindle of light appears, diagonal at first and then turning perfectly vertical as "Lacrimosa" crescendos fervently in the background.

What is it, that spindle? Like the obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey, there's no definitive answer, but in short I believe it to be the miracle of life, the igniter, the mover, which some would say means it's God. Whatever it is, it's the thing that comes before the Big Bang. It's the match the lights the fuse for the explosion of life.

That life includes Jim's dinosaurs, and what do I think that scene means? Well, just like I think the entire creation sequence is meant to answer the mother's question by suggesting that God, or just life itself and all its inherent creation and destruction, was everywhere all along, all the way back to the beginning of time, I think the dinosaur sequence is meant to suggest that the nature/grace dichotomy that's explored in the film can be traced back to earth's earliest creatures.

That's a little on-the-nose for me, and, as Sheila suggested, it's unconvincing besides. And like Jim, I think the final 20-or-so minutes of The Tree of Life are "an embarrassment of cliches," and each time I've seen the movie I've had to cringe my away through them.

But, oh, that moment in the creation sequence! That truly awesome moment!

That's why we go to the movies.


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.


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Richard Bellamy said...

Yes, you are right! We go to the movies ever hopeful for a totally awesome moment! One of those moments was in The Tree of Life as you describe. Uncle Ric was there.

Sometimes that totally awesome moment comes in unexpected places, so I keep searching for those awesome moments and I see just about everything.

I ALMOST saw Warrior at the movies when it came out, and then the chance was gone. I saw it recently on Comcast and there were definitely awesome moments there. I loved it and, yes, as you say, the acting is great. Nolte gives a grand performance and Tom Hardy - is he emerging as the new Brando? Right after watching Warrior I had to watch Inception just to watch Hardy. "Don't be silly."

Joel Bocko said...

Great post - and I agree completely. In fact, before you got there, I was thinking "I've got to say this in my follow-up comment" - and then you got there.

There are a couple points to make about Tarantino's quote: one, I don't think the structure exists for somebody to do what he did in 1992. Hollywood is not looking for young, new voices. Yes, Reservoir Dogs was an "indie" but it had major stars (well, famous actors anyway), major exposure, and other benefits going for it, resulting from Tarantino being plugged in to the film industry. two, though it goes without saying, I'll say it anyway - for someone to create Reservoir Dogs today, it will have to be completely different from Reservoir Dogs. The Tarantino model had so many imitators throughout the 90s into the 00s, that people lost sight of what really made the film a breakthrough: its originality (or rather, like Star Wars, its original synthesis and re-contextualization of influences). The Tarantino model is more or less gone now, but we have the (Wes) Anderson model, and other mindsets - the minimalist influences of the Dardennes in the art realm - which seem to be trapping young and/or independent filmmakers. Drop 'em, and turn inward and to cinema's past for inspiration. I hope the next youth/independent film movement to emerge coalesces not around a certain style or sensibility but rather an operating model and a certain spirit. Think the French New Wave - Demy, Resnais, Truffaut, Godard were all wildly different filmmakers. What they had in common was a certain spirit (postwar cinephilia born from the glut of Hollywood movies after WWII and then the emergence of documentary and narrative film movements and growth of national cinemas across Europe & Japan - it was just the right time) and a certain model which took them outside the conventional confines of the film industry. But their unity was their diversity and, to a certain extent, their position as both outsiders and innovators - in very different ways.

(continued below)

Joel Bocko said...


And your points on bloggers are right-on. For the most part, bloggers speak to other bloggers not by will (I think many write accessibly for the average reader, although many don't) but by necessity. It's something that troubled me for a while and I found myself moving back and forth between different approaches - trying to write for a general reader, trying to write for myself, trying to write for specialists. Ultimately, I've concluded - as you have - that the best way to bring the 1% to the 99% is subject.

When I think about what makes me click on a link on my blogroll it isn't the author - there are people who write wonderfully whom I seldom visit - it's the subject of the post. Sad to say (because exposure to the new and unfamiliar should be a turn-on though admittedly I've got a full plate in terms of films on my to-see list) but true.

For me personally, the appealing subject is classic films I've seen and found interesting or haven't seen but am curious about. For the average viewer/reader of course it tends to be newer films (I'm a hermit when it comes to contemporary cinema, so I'm way out of the loop there). But most newer films that draw attention are major releases, and they get plenty of press elsewhere. Few ordinary filmgoers are going to seek out a blogger's opinion of, say, 21 Jump Street (saw the ad yesterday during a football game).

When did Cahiers du cinema reach its maximum exposure? It had influence through the 50s, but it was really only when Godard/Truffaut etc began making films, which found international audiences, that people turned back to their work as critics and ideas like auteurism began to carry widespread influence. Likewise, I suspect that independent films which are different and receive some degree of exposure will, if they are tied to websites or blogs which in turn are part of a larger community of bloggers - and if bloggers are the first out of the gate to talk about these movies, catching the mainstream media by surprise, you will see an explosion of interest in the blogosphere.

Of course, to a certain extent the analogy is faulty because there are SO MANY blogs - the audience is always by necessity going to be fragmented and scattered, not that that's a bad thing. But I think you'd see a growth (or rather diminishment) in the 99% non-blog-readers if there was more to write about, contemporaneously anyway.

Also, there's another broader point about cinema: it's going through a tough period right now in terms of public interest. Most of my friends use Netflix for TV rather than movies, and films are seen as a "night-out" event, mildly enjoyed and quickly forgotten, while it's television series that give people characters they care about and stories they are invested in. Something obviously needs to change here and the rumble you hear in the distance comes from the fact that this has been a golden age for OLDER movies - Netflix, You Tube, torrents, the blogosphere, DVDs, streaming videos, the digital revolution, the Criterion Collection: all have led to a much wider (and perhaps bigger, perhaps not, though the potential's there) field for cinephiles to play in.

Throughout cinema history, a deeper interest and excitement about the past (along with a frustration with the future and new avenues for opportunity opening up) have led to new movements and new eras in film. I feel we may be on the cusp of something like that, now. I'm not sure how many bloggers harbor filmmaking ambitions (I know I do) but I think it might be a good time to start putting them to practice, to the extent possible.

Again, great stuff here. There are some really excellent ideas and conversations being bandied about in this Tree House...

Sheila O'Malley said...

God, how did I miss WARRIOR? Rectifying that immediately.

Jason Bellamy said...

Hokahey: Even within The Tree of Life that awesome moment comes in a rather unexpected place, now that I think about it. But it's there!

Joel: Crap, man, so much I'd like to respond to, but I'll be selective and try to be brief:

- I think your take on QT is right on. The part that makes his response obnoxious is that he doesn't recognize that he had some established talent in his movie. It wasn't all him. (Of course, he sure made the best of his opportunity.)

- In terms of what I read, I suppose I'm driven by a combination of topic and author. There are a few critics who I trust enough to give anything they write at least a quick peek. Other times, I'm drawn by the topic. Although Google Reader makes it easy for me to keep up with dozens of blogs, for the casual movie fan it must feel daunting to jump around from one critic to another (although Metacritic solves that), which is why I assume many stick with just one, not seeing the point in reading more than one review of the same film.

- That's a great point about the popularity of TV, and I'm sure that's had two effects: 1) Made it difficult for audiences to sit through something more than an hour long without a commercial break (or without multitasking, as-in checking Facebook, etc.); 2) Made it more about "something to do" (just being out) than "something to see" (wanting to watch the movie).

Again, great thoughts. Thanks much for reading.

Joel Bocko said...

I do think Tarantino has a good point - it's the story and style that carried RD more than the stars, and he knocked the ball out of the park while other newbie filmmakers tend to try & just get on base (understandably). Just that anyone hoping to take his advice has to remember they can't really follow in his footsteps. (That said, I'm actually not a huge fan of Reservoir Dogs; I like Pulp Fiction much more.)

As for TV, I feel like viewers actually have MORE patience for good TV shows now than they do for good movies. Less about the commercials (a lot of the hits shows are on premium cable, and even the ones that aren't tend to be heavily Netflixed) than perhaps the serial effect. It's almost like they have too much patience, and aren't as reeled in by movies because they can't tune in week after week (or disc after disc/stream after stream). With the improvement in quality of story, style, and character for TV series, beginning with The Sopranos, the conventions for investing in characters or worlds seems to have become more drawn-out. Just a theory, anyway.

Jason Bellamy said...

Sheila: I almost wrote about it in the post, but so few people have seen Warrior that I didn't want to spoil it ...

There's a moment with a cellphone that made me think of you the first time I saw it. It's a small moment and a hugely powerful moment at the same time. You'll know it when you see it, and you'll love every little nuance of it. (Of course, there are several moments like that in the movie.)

Jason Bellamy said...

Joel: Less about the commercials ... than perhaps the serial effect. It's almost like they have too much patience ...

I think the serial effect has got to have something to do with it. But "too much patience"? Sorry. Can't go there. Way too many theater experiences that prove otherwise.

I think the time commitment really has something to do with it. I love movies and even long movies, but I've noticed this myself: I'm much more likely to burn through three 1-hour episodes of something like Deadwood back-to-back-to-back than I am to watch a three-hour movie. Those 1-hour episodes are just commitment enough, but not too much. And of course so many serials have quasi-cliffhanger endings near each episode to make you salivate for the next one, whereas a movie might save its biggest moment for its final 20 minutes, and then ... it's over (there are oodles of exceptions to that, of course).

Bottom line: I think anything over 1-hour probably feels as if it demands attention, and that probably frightens some people away. Or maybe it doesn't and they truly can't concentrate beyond 1-hour without having a climax (pun intended).

Joel Bocko said...

That's a good point - even watched in succession, each episode has a self-contained rising structure that only lasts for about an hour. About the theater audiences though, what I mean to suggest is not an across-the-board patience but that TV shows (for whatever reason) trigger a higher level of involvement/appreciation in the average viewer than a movie. Maybe its the serial/short-form structure thing or the higher investment in characters; I'm not sure but I feel like people go to movie theaters for the spectacle and stay home for the dramatic involvement - just a hunch though, other than anecdotal evidence & conjecture, I don't have too much to back it up.

I will say though that I only saw a couple movies in the theater this year and one of them, Tree of Life, was one of the worst audiences I've ever seen. Not in terms of actively jeering the movie or anything, but it was constant texting and even talking aloud, seats creaked (it was an older theater) non-stop, and people were getting up and walking around all the time. Humorously enough, the theater (and this is a theater that generally plays art films to begin with) had a "warning" at the front desk describing the creation-of-the-universe scenes and the general structure and style of the movie. Guess they had a lot of requests for refunds...

Ed Howard said...

More interesting conversation here, Jason and everyone else. Like Joel, I feel pretty detached from the current cinema - most of the 2012 movies I saw were specifically for conversations with you, Jason - and I share the frustration that so much discussion, in the blogosphere as well as in more conventional outlets, is focused on the new, and that so much of the new is not really worthy of much discussion. I've always thought that the signal strength of a blog, as opposed to a "pro" publication, is the freedom from deadlines and the endless cycle of new films, the freedom to write about whatever old, obscure, forgotten, classic, or whatever film that isn't just the newest thing in theaters. There's a lot of that going on in the blogosphere, of course, but by and large it doesn't seem to be what gets the most attention. Which makes sense - it's much easier to get people to read about something that's new and thus already on their radar through advertising and current word of mouth.

Interesting thoughts about TV here, too. I've lately found myself binging through some recentish acclaimed shows (Mad Men, The Wire, Louie) via Netflix and DVD, and it's great stuff. The best modern cable dramas definitely have a level of character and long-term plotting and thematic development that just isn't possible in a 2-hour movie. But I think the horrible theater audience that Joel mentions is also a part of it: home-viewing through Netflix and the Internet has made watching visual media a much less focused affair, and I think a lot of people now take their home-viewing habits of watching TV while looking at a computer and/or phone at the same time into the theater. And of course that just indicates a generally less attentive, less thoughtful approach to cinema and TV in general.

Jason Bellamy said...

Maybe its the serial/short-form structure thing or the higher investment in characters; I'm not sure but I feel like people go to movie theaters for the spectacle and stay home for the dramatic involvement - just a hunch though, other than anecdotal evidence & conjecture, I don't have too much to back it up.

Gosh, I hope they don't "stay home for the dramatic involvement," although that would explain why so many non-blockbusters fail to draw crowds. (In fairness, in most parts of the country, audiences have very limited exposure to non-blockbusters.) But the investment in character has to be a huge factor. In addition to that quick climax of most TV serial conclusions, obviously each episode begins with the viewer already invested and up-to-speed.

As many people who follow me on Twitter know, I had a lot of problems with Showtime's Homeland, but one of the reasons I kept watching it was that, well, it's just another hour, and I already know the story, and I'm just kind of curious to see where it goes. That's not exactly a ringing endorsement. But it explains why TV can be hard to "put down," if you will.