L.A. Film Critics Reveal Appalling Vapidity. Again.


Pravity-Gravity
This is truly appalling. It seems each and every year, film critics lose all perspective on films and filmmaking. If anyone out there believes GRAVITY to be a well-written film that reveals anything beyond the most one-dimensional and least introspective narrative created for the sole purpose of offering an audience what is essentially an overlong roller-coaster ride, then you’ve probably spent far too much time watching bad film after bad film for something like GRAVITY to even be considered for an award outside of special effects.

And maybe that’s exactly what’s happened. Critics have to see SO many films — most of them not particularly daring or good — that when they sit down to watch something that even moderately engages them, they jump out of their seat with unabashed excitement and toss awards at it. And maybe the same is true for the average audience member who doesn’t even know films made outside of the Hollywood system exist.

But that excuse doesn’t keep these annual abominations from being any less embarrassing. Anyone who has followed my posts for any length of time knows that I get my knickers all in a knot come this time of year since it is as traditional as Thanksgiving and Christmas that awards and accolades be given to at least one film that simply has little-to-nothing of value to offer. At least by my personal standards. Which I realize are not necessarily anyone else’s standards. But I’m exhausted standing by and watching daring, introspective and genuinely creative films take a backseat to movies that barely scratch the surface of the human experience, no less minimize it to a series of predictable plot points and sanitized stereotypes.

GRAVITY, while quite possibly being a great thrill ride (I, to be honest, got bored after a time), offers nothing else to a movie-goer who desires an experience that extends beyond the closing credits. Now don’t misunderstand, I definitely believe there is value in escapist cinema. Not every film need challenge us to the very core of our beings… But when we award a film Best Picture Of The Year, what exactly are we saying? Are we honoring the craft of filmmaking, of storytelling, of cinema? Or are we just saying, “Yeah, that was fun.”? Because GRAVITY’s technical achievements hide an overwhelming lack of story or character. One friend wittily commented that he recommended taking Dramamine before seeing GRAVITY just for the dialogue alone! So clearly I’m not the first or only person to point out the wretchedness of this film’s script. And yet the Los Angeles Film Critics Association bestow their highest honor on this poorly written thrill ride and effects extravaganza.

And speaking of effects, I still think the effects in Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY capture a sense of outer (and inner) space more poignantly and effectively than GRAVITY managed with all its 21st century technology. There is not a single image or sequence in Cuarón’s vision and choice of compositions that hold so much as an ounce of the insight and (yes, I’m gonna say it) gravity that a single frame of Kubrick’s opus did. And that film was made 45 years ago! Yes, I know, I’ve been told we’re not supposed to compare a fun film like GRAVITY to a masterpiece like 2001, but then I must return to my original inquiry and ask what, then, are we celebrating here exactly? George Clooney playing a dashing rogue in space? I often enjoy Clooney as an actor. He’s charming and likable and smart. But in GRAVITY, he is a constant reminder that we are nowhere near outer space; we have our feet firmly grounded in a soundstage with a PR machine inches away and at the ready. There’s not a single moment when the actor, director or writers allowed this character to be even subtly human. They all seem to be far more interested in his star-power and charm than they are in the situation this character finds himself in.

Now I could go on and on about why I believe GRAVITY is a poor film whose effects and 3D experience loosely veil its vast emptiness, but the film itself doesn’t actually deserve any more time than I’ve already given it. But it’s critics and audiences who have allowed themselves to believe they are getting something rich, something wonderful, that I take vehement issue with.

Sadly, film critics these days (of the “professional” variety) are largely made up of folks from other areas of a newspaper or magazine that have been moved over to the Film Section and found themselves suddenly being asked to present themselves as film critics. There are so few out there writing who have any real knowledge of cinema or the language and history of film. They are often no more than a collection of people who maybe like movies, but they are NOT in a position to be intelligently critical of film. And in pretending to be, they diminish the artform itself by publicly celebrating its most mediocre entries en masse. And that, to put it in the simplest terms possible, makes me sad.

After writing this post, I went back to the theaters to see GRAVITY in 3D as I had only seen it in 2D at the time of this writing. If you would like to read my thoughts comparing the two experiences of the film, please go here: GRAVITY: 2D vs 3D

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L.A. Film Critics Reveal Appalling Vapidity. Again.

Eating Julie Taymor: When Artists Devour Their Own


A few weeks back, I entered into an unsettling “Facebook conversation” with a couple of screenwriter/filmmakers. Yes, I should have known better than to engage, but it was one of those moments when someone posts something that seems to require a response. You’ve probably been there yourself. You know if you say something you’re opening a can of worms, that life will be easier if you just ignore it, walk away. But you don’t. In hindsight, I now wish I’d walked away because the “conversation” that commenced left me so shaken, so depressed, almost to the point of paralysis.

Thanks to the internet and sites like Facebook, we now live in a world where everyone’s a critic; everyone has a vocal opinion (myself included) and with that the ability to actually effect the world around them. This can be in some small way, as in just among your closest friends, or in a larger sense, by adding your voice to the many already out there gaining momentum.

The particular tête-à-tête I was so shaken by started with a comment posted about artist, filmmaker, theater director Julie Taymor. Having recently been fired off –or at least asked to take a creative step back from– the much publicized musical SPIDER-MAN, Taymor’s name has been in the press quite a bit of late. Leading up to this parting of the ways between Taymor and her associates, were a number of tragic accidents during both rehearsals and performances of Taymor’s interpretation of this extraordinarily popular comic book character and the mythos surrounding it. Now I don’t intend to get into the details of what happened or didn’t happen or even point fingers as that is not what our discussion was, ultimately, about. And what I would like to examine here is less about the individuals themselves with whom I conversed, but what I see as a slippery slope of commentary that reflects a reactionary attitude that leaves little room for intelligent discourse and seems more based on emotional venting than on enhancing whatever medium is at the forefront of discussion.

With the digital medium expanding, with information (accurate or not) at everyone’s fingertips and the opinions of both “professionals” and non-professionals now appearing side-by-side, with camera and phones that can capture every moment and present it as if it were real and place it within a context that might NOT be real, and with the popularity of shows like TMZ and the non-stop media insistence that other human beings’ suffering be viewed as must-see entertainment, I find myself increasingly uneasy. In part that I may one day myself be on the receiving end of it, that I may one day find myself unwittingly drawn to it, or simply that potentially creative, insightful people and their work may be suppressed or choose to withdraw out of the fear of what I see as an increasingly hostile environment. Yes, I know, it’s part of human nature. We used to go to public lynchings and watch Gladiators fight to the death for entertainment. Sure. It’s always been here with us. But I’m afraid I find small comfort in that notion, nor do I feel that it’s much of an excuse not to be a tad more self-reflective and attempt to elicit change.

The comment posted that initially grabbed my attention was not the first negatively-tinged comment that I had seen posted about Taymor and SPIDER-MAN. What got me this time was the idea of perpetuating an environment that somehow diminishes artists and their art without the author personally knowing the artist or what the art itself really is. i.e. not having seen it or experienced it himself. And to take it one step further, the idea that what doesn’t work for one person should then be treated with disdain, contempt and commented on as if the commentator was somehow superior to the work or the artist. This is a transgression we see daily both on the internet and in print. But it’s always a little worse for me when it comes from one artist to another. This cannibalistic tendency is, in my estimation, far more dangerous than it might seem on the surface.

The posted comment was in quoting director Neil Jordan’s statement that, after having sat down with both Bono (who was doing the music for SPIDER-MAN) and Miss Taymor, Mr. Jordan (who was being considered to write the play’s book), commented that it was clear that Miss Taymor’s vision for SPIDER-MAN was “narratively incoherent.” The post was meant to be, not a slight on Mr. Jordan, but somehow proof of Miss Taymor’s unworthiness as the visionary/director behind such a project. Now, if you want to discuss the physical dangers inherent in her vision and the possible difficulties in pulling it off practically without anyone getting hurt or, worse, dying, then I’m all for that. There’s most certainly a point where, vision or no, it is not worth a human being getting hurt. However, “narrative incoherence” has no universally shared definition. There is, in all reality, no such thing. To put Julie Taymor down for wanting to tell a story that did not fit into Mr. Jordan’s idea of narrative coherence is not a bad thing. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY was termed “incoherent” by more than one critic. As was Andrei Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS. Hell, I was reading quotes recently that suggested the film INCEPTION was too difficult to follow narratively. And what of many Bergman, Fellini or Godard films? Or even the experimental narrative films of lesser-known artists like Seattle-based filmmaker Janice Findley? What might be a difficult narrative for one person to follow, may be no trouble whatsoever for someone else to follow with ease. But even if a work is created with the very notion that it should be interpreted differently by each member of the audience, it is no less valuable than a story that follows a more “traditional” narrative.

“A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.” –Stanley Kubrick

This Kubrick quote is, for me, words to live by. I do not take it to mean that all film narrative need take this approach, but it offers an awareness that this approach is, indeed, a valid one. Coming from a filmmaker whose films were often met with harsh criticism as they offered a narrative approach often quite unique to the filmmaker himself and not in keeping with the “accepted norm,” I find inspiration in the boundaries Kubrick pushed.

“[The way Kubrick] tells a story is antithetical to the way we are accustomed to receiving stories.”. –Steven Spielberg

“If you go back and look at the contemporary reactions to any Kubrick picture (except the earliest ones), you’ll see that all his films were initially misunderstood. Then, after five or ten years came the realization that 2001 or Barry Lyndon or The Shining was like nothing else before or since.” –Martin Scorsese

As someone interested in exploring narrative, structure, the over-all power of expression offered via filmmaking, I am constantly disheartened when I see other filmmakers and lovers of film close the door on particular avenues of expression via the medium. Living in Hollywood –a town I find very limited in its approach to telling stories on film– I am always relieved and excited to find a fellow compatriot, a brother (or sister) in arms, as it were, who shares my deep love and desire for open forms of expression and storytelling. So it is always difficult to come to the realization that there are very few of those people in my world. And most of the ones that ARE in my world, don’t live in Hollywood (Hmmm… do I see a pattern emerging?…).

I recently had a conversation with a Hollywood filmmaker friend with very strict guidelines as to what actually constituted a film or filmmaking. He suggested that filming two guys having a conversation over dinner would “not be filmmaking.” If I were to buy into that school of thought, I would have to take Louis Malle’s MY DINNER WITH ANDRE off my DVD shelf.

As someone who is about to embark on a project that I am aware might be “narratively challenging” for some, I find myself rather sensitive to arguments that suggest, directly or indirectly, that what I am attempting is, ultimately, invalid. It may not be the intent of the commentators, but the end result is the suggestion, and often the outright proclamation, that certain attempts are no more than the product of ego and steeped in pretension. Or worse, not real filmmaking. I will suggest that ego is an essential part of any artist willing to express themselves in a public forum. To even believe that you have something to say, something to offer that another human being may want to experience and engage in requires a certain amount of ego. For most of us, it’s a rather scary endeavor, but one worth overcoming such fears and allowing what’s inside to be seen by all. And to take a chance and know that you might fail. Or that you might succeed but no one around you may notice. And to know that quite often when your work is termed a “failure” by others, you are systematically thrown to the wolves.

Which brings us back to Julie Taymor.

It has been written that the producers of Taymor’s SPIDER-MAN were hoping for something with the visual splendor and excitement of CIRQUE DU SOLEIL. In fact, there was talk that the show, if successful, might even find permanent residence in Las Vegas, as CIRQUE has. And one has to assume that, given Mr. Jordan’s comments, Bono and others were well-aware of Miss Taymor’s vision for this piece long before it was put into production. It seems by all accounts, this was to be unlike anything before or since. Unique. Daring, Visionary. Expensive. I’m guessing (as I have not seen it but based on everything I’ve read) that it was all of those things. However, some of those things (or even all of them) aren’t seen as good qualities by some. For all we know, Taymor’s vision for SPIDER-MAN, had it worked logistically and managed to have an actual run, might have been a masterpiece of theater. Or maybe just a lot of eye-candy. But in truth, it probably would have been both, depending on who you spoke with. But like so many films and other works of art derided in their day only to become cherished works in later years, Julie Taymor’s SPIDER-MAN may have become part of our celebrated culture. Or not. We’ll never know. But what I do know is this: when someone with a vision –and Taymor certainly has vision, regardless of whether or not it adapts to your tastes– is lynched and derided in the public eye, it makes it that much harder for other artists to take chances, to risk, to fight for their vision, or even think of trying.

“If you’re not allowed to experiment anymore for fear of being considered self-indulgent or pretentious or what have you, then everyone’s going to just stick to the rules — there’s not going to be any additional ideas.” — Francis Ford Coppola

I submit that CIRQUE DU SOLEIL would be termed by many in attendance as “incoherent narrative.” Every CIRQUE DU SOLEIL show tells a story. But it does so in its own way, via its own form of expression. Now perhaps the visual feats of the show itself compensate for any confusion the audience may have about the actual “story” being told, but that does not mean the essence of the story is not taking hold. Modern dance, ballet, acrobatics, music all tell stories in unique ways that are not always comprehended in traditional terms. Or they simply take an understanding of the language of the art form in order to decipher more accurately what is being expressed. But having those tools is not necessarily a requirement. There are many ways in which we take in narrative, in which we experience storytelling. Some are more challenging than others. And some reach us in ways we don’t understand and perhaps have a violent or negative reaction to as many do to, say, the films of John Cassavetes.

One of the other writer/filmmakers who chimed in on our Facebook chat once shared his opinion with me that directors should not edit their own movies; that doing so has more to do with ego than with what is best for the story, for the film. I wrote about that exchange and why I personally, as someone who edits his own films, found it to be not only extremely closed-minded but dangerous insomuch as it applies rules to the artistic process where no rules should apply. What works for one filmmaker, writer, sculptor, painter, actor, singer, dancer, what have you, is not necessarily what works for another. Artistic expression, language, and the paths and processes we engage in on our journeys toward our finished works are not things that can be set down as rules. There is no such thing as right and wrong in this arena. To assume there is, is to limit the artists and, by default, the level of art we receive, are exposed to, moved by, provoked by, touched by. You can read my essay on that particular subject in more detail at: “How Dare You Edit Your Own Film,” And Other Creative Alienations.

This same filmmaker recently commented that SPIDER-MAN deserved better than Julie Taymor, a comment which on its own is a strange beast given that we’re talking SPIDER-MAN here and not, well, Shakespeare, which Miss Taymor has also tackled on numerous occasions to both critical acclaim and critical disdain. I personally land strongly in the former. I thought TITUS was a singular vision of Shakespeare’s words and world that stirred me. I thought it was tremendous. But there are those who are not fans of TITUS or any of Taymor’s work, who would prefer to call her “Pretentious.” Ahhhh… Now there’s that word again. Be wary, friends. Pretentious… Those same films I mentioned earlier that were termed “narratively incoherent?” Exactly. They were also coined “pretentious” by many a critic and audience member. But what would make those films or even Julie Taymor’s SPIDER-MAN pretentious? According to one screenwriter, Taymor’s involvement with SPIDER-MAN was nothing more than an “unfettered ego sidetrack thing.” He suggested that Taymor’s intention to combine the SPIDER-MAN story with “some Greek dance magic” had nothing to do with the world of SPIDER-MAN and was not only “PRETENTIOUS,” but was actually an outright rejection of the SPIDER-MAN source material with intent to imprint it with an auteur vision and therefore an insult to the artists who created the SPIDER-MAN mythos and was condescending to boot.

So let me get this straight. Wanting to take a new and different approach to the SPIDER-MAN legend is pretentious. Altering it from what it has been in the past is pretentious and condescending. I suppose the comics, the TV series, the first movie franchise, the new “re-boot” movie franchise currently in the works… There’s no room in the world for another vision of SPIDER-MAN? Really? To attempt such sacrilege is an act of pretension? Well, I suppose if you are referring to the definition of pretentious as grandiose, elaborate, extravagant, flamboyant, ornate or even overambitious. Well then I don’t have an argument. But if you are using the term in a derogatory manner to mean sophomoric, pompous, artificial, snooty, or characterized by assumption of dignity or importance, then I question how anyone, not having seen the show nor engaged with Miss Taymor herself, would know such a thing? The play may not have been any good, that possibility certainly exists, but pretentious? Probably not. What I have found is that this is a word that is not only overused as a replacement for genuine, honest criticism, but it is also quite often misused.

As for Miss Taymor’s combining of Greek mythology and the SPIDER-MAN mythos, I would not have been surprised if her interpretation might not have captured something innate, something familiar and revealing in the way in which our myths converge despite thousands of years’ separation in creation dates. I suggest reading author Vladimir Propp’s book MORPHOLOGY OF THE FOLKTALE for more connections on that concept.

As for being an unfettered ego-sidetrack thing, let’s look at Taymor’s career. It has been pointed out on many occasions by those familiar with Taymor’s work, that she has always had a deep fascination with the connection and integration of humans and animals. For the production of Carlo Gozzi’s The King Stag, Taymor designed the masks and puppets which combined a man with a stag. Taymor also designed the puppets and masks for Juan Darien, wherein a boy becomes a tiger. And then, of course, there’s The Lion King, which seamlessly integrated humans and jungle animals. Or how about The Green Bird, the off-broadway and then Broadway production about a prince trapped inside a bird? So is it so unreasonable, so outside comprehension, that Taymor would be attracted to a story about a man who becomes, essentially, part man, part spider? In her re-imagining of the tale, Peter Parker is bitten (impregnated, in a sense) by a female spider who is an offspring of Arachne, a character inspired by Greek mythology, who turns out to be the villain of the show. This is certainly not the first time Taymor has mixed stories and ideas to create a new hybrid of the two. Quite often to startling effect and rave reviews.

Another screenwriter commented that Taymor was nothing more than the establishment’s accepted version of avante garde. He suggested that most everything she does from The Lion King to Shakespeare, is nothing more than “tricked-out kitsch” and that she was, by all accounts, a “weak storyteller.” Well, here’s one account that may not be in sync with that particular line of thinking.

Jeffrey Horowitz, the founding artistic director of Theatre for a New Audience, commented upon seeing Taymor’s SPIDER-MAN:

“Once Spider-Man began… it was unlike anything I had ever seen or felt. That’s often the case with Julie’s productions. Her theatricality engages the audience’s imagination. Taymor is called a visual genius, but her imagination isn’t only visual. It’s visceral. She makes you feel what it’s like to be something or someone else.

“In Spider-Man, I couldn’t be judgmental about humans flying around a theatre in ways I wished I could. I was enchanted by the whimsy of theatrical sets which presented New York City from extraordinary multiple perspectives that I could only see if I were a bird or a super-hero. Two dimensional cinematic images were contrasted with three dimensional people and surreal masked characters. Images flipped like the pages of a comic book, but it wasn’t a literal comic book. It was like being a kid again or being awake during a dream. And, like a dream, there were parts that I couldn’t understand, but it really didn’t matter. I surrendered to this strange and fabulous circus crossed with rock and roll, myth and a comic book.”

There are forms of storytelling, not unlike the kind suggested by Stanley Kubrick in the quote I referenced earlier, that transcend traditional narrative and rely on feeling, on a mutual dream-state, on the subconscious, on those ethereal and intangible connections we have as human beings, to relay, transmit, and share with one another. There’s nothing that says you have to like it or engage in it, but there is no denying that it has its place in the world of art, be it music, poetry, sculpture, theater, dance, film, painting… What would art be without a sense of the abstract? And who is to pass judgement on the worthiness of an artistic attempt, particularly by those who have not themselves experienced that art in which they criticize?

What happens when we shout “pretentious!” in a crowded theater? Well, for one, we aid an environment that is not conducive to risk or vision; where thinking out of the box is a punishable act. It is, in many ways, artistic bullying. Now I am not suggesting that we not be critical of our art. On the contrary, I believe critique is not only welcome, but essential! But it is “how” we critique that I question.

Film director David Lean who brought us such cinematic treasures as LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, OLIVER TWIST, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, BRIEF ENCOUNTER and many, many others, praised by fellow filmmakers like Steven Speilberg, Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick, voted the 9th greatest film director of all time in the British Film Institute Sight & Sound “Directors Top Directors” poll, stopped making films for nearly fifteen years. Why?

‘I got terribly discouraged and I sort of gave it up for something like 14 years. I suppose round about ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ I got quite good notices. Then, as I went on, ‘Doctor Zhivago’ got the worst notices you could ever see. ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ was absolutely torn to shreds by the critics and I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing?’

”When you’re a movie director, the only people that you really believe are the critics. You mistrust your friends because you think they’re being nice, but there in black and white with the power of the printed word it says you stink and you have no idea of what you’re doing. I just thought I’d lost the drift somehow or other.”

Popular film critic Pauline Kael’s review of RYAN’S DAUGHTER was, though consummately written as always from a literary standpoint, nothing more than a disrespectful piece of nastiness. But of course Kael was not a fan of most of Lean’s films stating of his work “the emptiness shows in every frame.” Kael was eventually fired from McCalls by editor Robert Stein who stated, “I [fired her] months later after she kept panning every commercial movie from Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago to The Pawnbroker and A Hard Day’s Night.” It was, of course, not only Miss Kael’s right to dislike those films, it was her job to write about them. However, I submit once again, it is how we choose to go about critiquing the work of others that should be explored.

Invited to a meeting of the National Society of Film Critics in New York, Mr. Lean stated:

“It was one of the most horrible experiences I have ever had. I remember Pauline Kael meeting me at the door and leading me by the hand to the table where there were ten or twelve critics and they sat me at the head of the table and within seconds they started grilling me in the most unfriendly fashion. One of the most leading questions was, “Can you please explain how the man who directed Brief Encounter can have directed this load of shit you call Ryan’s Daughter?” It really cut me to the heart, and that was Richard Schickel.”

Luckily for us, Mr. Lean eventually returned to filmmaking and now we have the masterful A PASSAGE TO INDIA. But what did we lose in the interim? We know we never got to see Lean’s take on MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY or his adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel NOSTROMO, both projects dear to his heart. Perhaps, had critics been more “constructive” in their criticisms of Mr. Lean and his films, had they had the foresight and vision to recognize that this was not a filmmaker devoid of talent, a hack, as it were, they may have offered him “useful” criticisms that he may have taken to heart or simply accepted as a difference of opinion, and we might then have NOSTROMO and many other unmade David Lean films to experience as well.

As a counter-balance to Miss Kael’s deciphering of Mr. Lean’s work, I offer filmmaker Martin Scorcese’s take on those same “empty frames,” which one could certainly interpret as a direct response to Miss Kael’s writing:

“His images stay with me forever. But what makes them memorable isn’t necessarily their beauty. That’s just good photography. It’s the emotion behind those images that’s meant the most to me over the years. It’s the way David Lean can put feeling on film. The way he shows a whole landscape of the spirit. For me, that’s the real geography of David Lean country. And that’s why, in a David Lean movie, there’s no such thing as an empty landscape.”

When I suggested in our online conversation that we had, especially as fellow artists, some responsibility to promote an environment that allows artists to grow, take risks, be moved by their visions and, maybe most importantly, learn from their mistakes, I was met with the notion that it was not the critics’ job or responsibility to foster artistic growth. No? Well, perhaps my argument is that it should be. Or, at the very least, one should invite the question of intent. “What do I hope to gain from engaging in this criticism?” If not to foster artistic growth, then is it simply to be judgmental for judgment’s sake? Is it as a means of feeling superior? I suggest that it may be beneficial for anyone critiquing the work of another to know what they would like the end result to be.

During our discussion, the question was raised on more than one occasion that if Miss Taymor were indeed an “artist,” then why was she engaging in directing a “massive, insanely commodified venture like a broadway musical franchise.” I’m not sure why taking on a Broadway show automatically removes Taymor from having a worthwhile vision. And unless you’ve actually seen the show, you cannot, in good conscience or fairness, critique its worthiness or artistic merits. One of the screenwriters engaged in this line of thought was someone who wholly embraced and highly recommended the experience of James Cameron’s AVATAR in 3-D. Certainly this is a fair equivalent to Taymor’s SPIDER-MAN in sheer size and expense. It was, after all, the most expensive movie ever made. And despite a rather large consensus that it was somewhat lacking in the script department and followed a rather overused, if not outright tired, formula, it was still nonetheless a cinematic experience that the screenwriter I was speaking with felt was at least as important for film lovers to see in a theater as Kubrick’s 2001. And I won’t argue that he was wrong. And yes, I know many, many people who hated AVATAR and many who loved it. But had the film bombed financially, Cameron’s attempt at spending this much money on a massive, insanely commodified venture like a Hollywood movie to tell an environmentally conscious alien love story would have been tagged “pretentious” alongside its “failure” moniker. Regardless of who it touched.

All this said, one need not like an artist or their work in order to allow it the right to exist and, at the same time, have meaning for others. And I’m afraid, while I do believe that it’s every person’s right to criticize in whichever manner they choose, for whatever reasons they choose, I still believe that a certain level of responsibility is inherent. Whether or not you care about the outcome or effect of your words is another thing entirely. But know that your words can result in works of art you may have quite possibly cherished, not being created at all. We have a choice: we can be constructive in our criticism or destructive. I personally found many of the comments I heard on the subject of Miss Taymor and SPIDER-MAN to be more destructive and lacking in any real criticism of the work itself; it felt more like partaking in and quite possibly relishing the public bashing Miss Taymor was receiving. Like sharks in blood-infested water. If there’s to be growth, artistic and otherwise, a bit of self-reflection might be in order. But perhaps this knee-jerk reaction, as I see it, may have more to do with some measure of fear, or perhaps an honest misunderstanding of the process, than it does with any type of actual criticism. Accusations of pretension, incoherent narrative, or a simple, “I don’t like it” are no replacement for analytical critique any more than saying something is “stupid” or “boring.” It’s an honest and valid reaction, but it says nothing about the artist responsible for the work. It’s all about the recipient. But even if one’s criticism is limited to “stupid” or “boring,” how we present those particular criticisms makes all the difference. To simply say “That work is stupid and boring” is not the same as saying “I found that work to be stupid and boring.” Semantics? Nitpicking? I don’t think so. Words have power. How you present your thoughts has a direct effect on how they land and what their impact and repercussions are. To call a work stupid or boring is to make a sweeping declaration of what that work innately is. On the other hand, to alter that phrase to point out what your personal experience of that work is, is another thing altogether. To go under the assumption that any statement you make is naturally taken as your opinion even when it’s not stated as such is to misunderstand and diminish the power of words. Again, this may seem a small change, a slight alteration in how we present our thoughts, but I believe it has great significance in the bigger picture of creating a safe and healthy environment for artists to work and explore.

I also find myself discouraged at the level of outright “glee” I’ve witnessed on the part of some at the news of Julie Taymor’s firing and the disdain present in the notion that she, in attempting to do what she does, in being called a “visionary” or even simply having a vision, might not be, at least partially, a result of misogynistic tendencies, whether conscious or unconscious. I’m not saying that anyone who dislikes Taymor and/or her work are haters of women, but I would be remiss in my duties here if I did not at least entertain the possibility that this might, indeed, play some part. There is an extra “bite” to much of the criticism I have read and heard that seems to suggest something else under the surface. Not unlike some of the hate I’ve seen directed toward President Obama that, like it or not, suggests at least the possibility that racism might play a role in a portion of the public’s strong negative reaction, despite most everyone’s insistence that it plays absolutely no part in their actions, reactions, or decision-making.

Food for thought, certainly.

Robert Hilburn was the head music critic at the Los Angeles Times for 30 years. Something Robert managed that very few of his fellow critics managed, was that he was actually influential in the music world; he gained the trust of musicians, not by showering them with praise, but by offering them very real, constructive criticism. In my conversations with Robert, he was very clear about how uncommon it is to find music critics that seem to move beyond either blind praise or churlish, angry criticism. It was Robert’s desire that, as a music lover, he see artists grow, expand, reach their full potential. Why? Because as a lover of music, this would allow great music to potentially be created and, therefore, Robert himself would be able to partake of the joy of listening to and being moved by that very music. He wasn’t a music critic because he loved to criticize musicians, he was a music critic because he loved music! So while other critics were vicious toward an up and coming band called U2, Robert, though disappointed in many of their early albums and not afraid to express that in his reviews, often focused on what was good and promising about U2. He saw the potential of what was there and wanted to see them grow to reach that potential. But he was not afraid to criticize them.

After the release of U2’s WAR, an album he loved, Robert attended several live shows on that tour and was deeply disturbed by Bono’s dangerous physical antics, such as climbing over the balcony rail and dropping fifteen feet into the arms of  fans on the ground level. From Robert’s book CORNFLAKES WITH JOHN LENNON:

“I was troubled. In his eagerness to inspire, Bono could hurt himself and lead others to do the same thing. Indeed, two fans at the arena did follow Bono’s lead and leapt from the balcony, only this time there were no outstretched arms to greet them.”

Robert ended his review of the U2 concert by saying:

“When you have music as exciting and as purposeful as U2, you really don’t need a sideshow as well, especially a potentially dangerous one.”

The day the review appeared, Bono called Robert to say he would heed his words. That the rest of the band had been trying to stop Bono from his “antics” for a long time, but he just hadn’t listened. Until now. He informed Robert that he would not be jumping off balconies or climbing scaffolding anymore. He understood, now, that the music was enough.

So I ask again, what is to be gained in publicly calling Julie Taymor pretentious or stating that SPIDER-MAN deserves better than Julie Taymor? And what do we really know about her?

Again, Robert Hilburn’s words have relevance for me here:

“I found that I often didn’t recognize musicians I was familiar with when they were profiled in other newspapers and magazines. All too often, the writers seemed to mold the artists to fit their stories… Every great artist goes through periods when his or her image and integrity are questioned… Springsteen had been widely accused of being just “hype” when Time and Newsweek both put his photos on their covers, and [John] Lennon had to combat backlash against his “[The Beatles are] bigger than Jesus” remarks.”

I’m reminded of the public reaction to the Woody Allen scandal. It was fascinating and horrifying all at the same time. I have always been a big fan of Woody Allen’s work. And I know many people who have simply never liked him. They don’t connect with his humor, they find his intellectual ramblings boring, even distancing, and I’ve heard more than one non-fan call him downright creepy/disgusting/homely. So when it was suggested by Mia Farrow that Allen was a pedophile and had sexually assaulted their infant child (a charge he was acquitted of), it was amazing to watch how many people hopped on that bandwagon. People who knew nothing about the man, neither personally nor professionally beyond the fact that they knew they didn’t like him and maybe considered him “creepy”, found an event that fit into their pre-conceived notion of who and what he was and this accusation validated their feelings. “I knew it!” “I always said there was something wrong with that guy.” “Doesn’t surprise me at all.”

How quick we are to judge, based not on any particular reality, but on our own fears, desires, and misunderstandings.

So what of Julie Taymor? Once again I turn to the Theatre for a New Audience artistic director, Jeffrey Horowitz:

“In media reports about Spider-Man, Taymor has been described as a perfectionist out of touch with concerns of budgets or the opinions of others. The person I know is a true collaborator who enjoys and wants the contributions of others and incorporates their contributions into her ultimate vision. She is also caring, hard-working and mindful of budgets. Furthermore, what’s wrong with being a perfectionist or committed to a vision?

“It is now reported that Spider-Man is undergoing rewrites and changes without Taymor. Julie Taymor is responsible for articulating her vision, and for me — and for what seemed like most of the audience who cheered when I saw Spider-Man — her vision was thrilling.”

It is far easier to condemn someone whose work we don’t appreciate or understand, than it is to find ways to foster growth in the areas that we see potential. It seems to me that what happened here with Taymor may have fit more into what some people were feeling about her already, their preconceived notions, opinions and reactions –or their deep feelings about “the Spidey mythos” itself– than about any truth of what she was trying to do. That said, the same can be said of me. My reaction is based on the fact that I admire much (though not all) of Taymor’s work. I want to see more. And I don’t find her to be a “weak-storyteller” in the slightest. Nor do I have any love or deep connection to SPIDER-MAN or its mythology so I have no opinions to offend there. Ironically enough, I had very little interest in actually seeing SPIDER-MAN outside of Taymor’s contribution. I’m not a big fan of the music of U2 and therefore Bono doing the score is not a personal draw for me, though I understand and appreciate its commercial and popular allure. No, for me, what Taymor was bringing to the table was the ONLY thing of interest to me about the entire project. And I dare-say, what ends up remaining of her vision in the final product may be the only part of the production that shows any creativity for me beyond the simply commercial execution. But again, these are my flaws, my preconceived notions, opinions, and desires. I am not immune to any of this. But I do desire to be aware of my own limitations and the ways in which I allow them to manifest. Both internally and externally. Perhaps even what I’ve written here today will prove to be less insightful or constructive than I intend and hope it to be. Perhaps it will be seen as just more bashing. I certainly write it as much from a need to articulate my thoughts and feelings as I do a need to affect change.

In their closing comments on our Taymor thread, I was accused of stating that it was not okay for someone to dislike a particular work; that I was suggesting the disliking of a film in and of itself was a form of negative criticism. Of course, I never said nor suggested any such thing. I was also accused of stating that anyone we deem, or who deems themselves, an “artist” is automatically “worthwhile,” and should be respected and exist free from hard critical scrutiny. Again, never said it or even suggested it. But it’s a curious thing to witness and it harkens back to what I was mentioning earlier about what we bring to the table that may have more to do with our reactions than the subjects we are actually commenting on; that it is more a reflection of us, than of anything else. Though nothing I wrote suggested any of the above accusations, perhaps what was “read” as opposed to what was “written” has more to do with the fears and concerns of the reader than the intent of the writer. And the same could be said of my interpretation of their comments. Though I have re-read them all for clarification, I am not immune to the particular magnifying glass of experiences and emotions that I view the world through.

And while it would be a perfect universe if artists were made of stone and unaffected by the negative press and misguided rantings of those more interested in serving their own desires to condemn and lambaste as opposed to taking a higher road and offering real-world constructive criticism for which every party benefits, the sad truth is that it is quite daunting and frightening to go out on a limb to express oneself, to have a vision of something that is new, different, or simply unknown, unexplored, but deeply felt. Artists are, more often than not, quite fragile individuals. And while I fully grant my friends that they have every right to proclaim someone pretentious or egomaniacal or even a hack, I also offer the notion that there is another option out there. But I suppose that all depends on what we hope to feed: the art itself and the environment in which it’s created (an environment we ourselves proclaim to be a part of) or our own fragile egos.

The huge budget musical extravaganza SPIDER-MAN, for which Miss Taymor committed nine years of her life, looks like it may not have ultimately been the best avenue for her to express herself artistically, insomuch as the final result will most likely not be an accurate depiction of her vision. But not all great works are created with little money in dark basements. GONE WITH THE WIND holds a special place for many for a reason. And I am often VERY critical of big-budget Hollywood films, as anyone who knows me will attest to. Mostly because I don’t find it a conducive environment to artistic expression or one that attracts many filmmakers interested in artistic expression. But there are ALWAYS exceptions. And I have no doubt Miss Taymor has learned some very hard lessons about herself and her own needs and desires here and the environments in which they may be best able to thrive. And I, personally, look forward to seeing what she does next. Regardless of whether or not it completely works for me.

Eating Julie Taymor: When Artists Devour Their Own

Eyes Wide: In Memory Of Stanley Kubrick


It was 12 years ago today that one of the greatest filmmakers of all time died. On March 7, 1999, Stanley Kubrick, just weeks before the release of what would be his final film, went to sleep and never woke up again. I can say with absolute conviction that my approach to film, my love, passion and admiration of the art form, is a direct result of seeing Kubrick’s films at an early age. I saw 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in its initial release. I was six years old. I returned again on opening day for its re-release in 1972. For me, Kubrick understood cinema, the language of film, like few others. He lived it, breathed it, consumed it. And even more than that, he consistently pushed the boundaries of what cinema was, what it was capable of, even in the face of harsh criticism. EYES WIDE SHUT was his final masterpiece and it was, like so many Kubrick films, misunderstood in its time.

“If you go back and look at the contemporary reactions to any Kubrick picture (except the earliest ones), you’ll see that all his films were initially misunderstood. Then, after five or ten years came the realization that 2001 or Barry Lyndon or The Shining was like nothing else before or since.” –Martin Scorsese

There are those who argue that EYES WIDE SHUT is a failed film because they believe Kubrick would have re-cut it in the final weeks before its release. And he may well have. He had certainly done that previously with other films. But never in a way that dramatically altered the film’s essence. 2001 was shortened by 17 minutes (that footage was recently rediscovered). However, Kubrick claimed that he did not prefer one cut over the other.

“I didn’t believe that the trims made a critical difference. The people who like it, like it no matter what its length, and the same holds true for the people who hate it”.

I believe the same holds true for EYES. The film as it stands is, in my opinion, one of the only film masterpieces to come out of Hollywood in the last three decades. This was the work of an artist at the top of his form and not, as many in Hollywood would have you believe, the work of a man secluded and out of touch with the world. From the New World Encyclopedia:

According to his friends and family, Eyes Wide Shut was Kubrick’s personal favorite of his own films… The general consensus is that Kubrick was very happy with his final film at the time of his death.

Kubrick’s in-depth exploration of sex, relationships, marriage, fidelity, sexual fantasy and society, particularly American society and its oftentimes hypocritical notions of social morality, was beyond anything audiences had ever seen. Kubrick always felt that film should be more like music than like fiction; that it should be felt before it was understood. It seems that in not “understanding” the film, audiences and many critics dismissed the work as a failure. But it was, in fact, a work told in a language enhanced and explored by its maker. Like those who cannot put down a book by Stephen King but find it difficult to get past the first page of a book by Evelyn Waugh, the cinematic language of EYES WIDE SHUT left many bewildered and, instead of looking inward, they pointed their fingers at the film and its filmmaker. Luckily, many of Kubrick’s filmic peers recognized the mastery of his work. Steven Spielberg commented that the way in which Kubrick tells a story is antithetical to the way we are accustomed to receiving stories.” Martin Scorsese, in his introduction to Michael Ciment’s Kubrick: The Definitive Edition, observed of EYES WIDE SHUT:

“Many people were put off by the film’s unreality – the New York streets were too big, the orgy scene was a total fantasy, the action was slow and deliberate. All of this is true, and if the movie were designed to be realistic, it would be absolutely reasonable to judge these as failings. But Eyes Wide Shut is based on a Schnitzler novella called Dream Story, the story of a rift in a marriage told with the logic of a dream. And as with all dreams, you never know precisely when you’ve entered it. Everything seems real and lifelike, but different, a little exaggerated, a little off. Things appear to happen as if they were preordained, sometimes in a strange rhythm from which it’s impossible to escape. Audiences really had no preparation for a dream movie that didn’t announce itself as such, without the usual signals- hovering mists, people appearing and disappearing at will or floating off the ground. Like Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia, another film severely misunderstood in its time, Eyes Wide Shut takes a couple on a harrowing journey, at the end of which they’re left clinging to each other. Both are films of terrifying self-exposure. They both ask the question: How much trust and faith can you really place in another human being? And they both end tentatively, yet hopefully. Honestly. “Watching a Kubrick film is like gazing up at a mountaintop. You look up and wonder, how could anyone have climbed that high? There are emotional passages and images and spaces in his films that have an inexplicable power, with a magnetic force that draws you in slowly, mysteriously. [Like] the raw intimacy of the exchanges between Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut. “…[Kubrick] was unique in the sense that with each new film he redefined the medium and its possibilities. But he was more than just a technical innovator. Like all visionaries, he spoke the truth. And no matter how comfortable we think we are with the truth, it always comes as a profound shock when we’re forced to meet it face-to-face.”

Whatever reactive buttons Kubrick’s final film initially pushed in audiences, it doesn’t change the fact that time has a glorious way of allowing masterpieces to rise to the surface. I have no doubt that EYES WIDE SHUT will find its rightful place among the great, daring works of American cinema. A film made by a man who knew that he did not want to live in Hollywood, who created an idyllic life surrounded by friends, family and nature, away from the hustle and bustle of the movie-making machine and the egos and tyrants that are, to this day, drawn to it. And in his relatively simple life, Kubrick was able to explore not only himself, but those around him. No, Kubrick was not cut off from the world; he was closer to it than most any other filmmaker living and working in Hollywood today. And EYES WIDE SHUT is the final gift he gave us. Hopefully, as a society, we’ll catch up to it one day and give it the recognition it deserves.

“If Kubrick had lived to see the opening of his final film, he obviously would have been disappointed by the hostile reactions. But I’m sure that in the end he would have taken it with a grain of salt and moved on. That’s the lot of all true visionaries, who don’t see the use of working in the same vein as everyone else. Artists like Kubrick have minds expansive and dynamic enough to picture the world in motion, to comprehend not just where its been, but where it’s going._ —Martin Scorsese

Eyes Wide: In Memory Of Stanley Kubrick

Favorite & Least Favorite Films Of 2010


I try to see as much as humanly possible of the films released in the U.S. each year before posting my Favorite & Least Favorite lists. Inevitably, there are always a handful of films I just can’t get to in time so I reserve the right to add them to this list as I see them.

In the meantime, with the Oscars just hours away, I will post what I have so far. For anyone who knows me at all, you know that I have a serious love/hate relationship with Oscar and the Hollywood film industry in general. There is the fact that many of my favorite films each year receive little-to-no Oscar attention while what I consider more mediocre fare ends up praised. Then there are those films I actually think of as being downright bad that receive Oscar’s top honor (BRAVEHEART, GLADIATOR, CRASH) that just makes my heart sink even lower.

But all this said, the truth of the matter is that it’s not Oscar’s fault. It’s mine. Like so may of us, I grew up with a notion of Hollywood and the Academy Awards that was built largely on naivete. And a personal desire. As I got older and actually started working in the industry, I quickly became aware that the Oscars were not really a celebration of film as art, but film as industry. It was a self-congratulatory party. Assuming or wishing it were something more is what I do with it in my head. Oscar itself has never pretended to be anything more than an evening of entertainment. What’s changed isn’t Oscar, but me. I want an awards show that recognizes true artistry in filmmaking and awards those who further the art form; those who take the greatest risks and offer us experiences unfamiliar. And yes, once in a while, a film of that caliber receives recognition, if only as a small nod.

Perhaps the reason for my disillusionment has to do with growing up in an era of 70’s filmmaking when films like THE GODFATHER both I & II would walk away with Best Picture Oscars. When THE FRENCH CONNECTION was the action film of the day. When horror films like THE EXORCIST or comedies like ANNIE HALL were recognized. The “product” Hollywood was putting out there was extraordinary for its time or any other. But since the boom of Wall Street (the industry, not the film), Hollywood has attracted many less interested in film as art, but film as successful business enterprise. And thankfully, there have been years when non-Hollywood indie films have swept the Oscars and that has fueled my optimism.

I suppose what always gets under my skin is that I would rather be watching an awards ceremony at Cannes or Berlin than the Oscars. I want to see and hear the speeches that these filmmakers are supposed to be given an opportunity to make. And if you’re a big enough star, you’ll get to make that speech. If you’re not, you will undoubtably be cut off in mid-sentence or, worse, relegated to  a completely different night of celebration that takes place weeks in advance of the Oscars and is mentioned in a 60 second summarization by one of the evening’s hosts. But we are not privy to the details, speeches or lifetime achievement award receipts of these “less important” individuals. And why is this? Time. Time is of the essence. But what brings the whole affair down for me is that we will regretfully cut off someone’s speech, their moment to shine, their moment to express joy and gratitude, to instead make room for a bloated interpretive dance number honoring the ten Best Picture nominees or, worse, costume design. I guess I’m just the guy who is there to hear the speeches, to connect with the artists who have sacrificed and struggled and realized their dreams. That’s more important to me than Hugh Jackman showing off that he’s a great song and dance man. Save it for the Tony’s where it’s more appropriate (nothing against Mr. Jackman, mind you. I’m a fan, but everything in its place).

All this is to say that there are moments of Oscar that I love. And moments that feed directly into my most sensitive nerve regarding attitudes toward film and filmmakers that has grown increasingly further away from my perception and desire as to how I choose to engage in the medium. So I suppose my growth and the industry’s growth have not been on the same path for quite some time. And I must keep in mind, even when I was young and had dreams in my eyes of a universe where truly great films were recognized by the masses, films like the musical OLIVER! were awarded Best Picture Oscars over other films from the same year like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, FACES, ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS, none of which were even nominated for best picture!

Throw in other films from that same year like THE LION IN WINTER, THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, ROMEO AND JULIET, THE PRODUCERS, or even FUNNY GIRL. The Oscars were rarely a celebration of film as art, but film as entertainment with a nod toward artistry. Perhaps it’s a happy blending of the two. But as Mike Leigh (whose ANOTHER YEAR is among my faves of 2010) pointed out, Hollywood is just one place that makes movies on a planet where all different kinds of films are made with very differing approaches to how it can and is done. It’s something easy to forget when Oscar is seen as our grandest celebration of film. It is a very limited viewfinder that the world of film is seen and interpreted through. And so I shall try and enjoy what it IS, instead of what it is NOT. That is my mission for today. A New Year’s resolution of a sort.

On that note, here are the films from 2010 that have so far impressed me or left me cold. Everything is listed alphabetically:

BEST OF THE YEAR (SO FAR…)

127 HOURS (2010) *** ½

ANIMAL KINGDOM (2010) *** ½

ANOTHER YEAR (2010) *** ¾

BIUTIFUL (2010) *** ½

BLACK SWAN (2010) *** ½

BLUE VALENTINE (2010) *** ½

EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP (2010) *** ½

FISH TANK (2009-released in US 2010) *** ½

HIDEAWAY, THE (LE REFUGE – 2009-released in US 2010) *** ½

I AM LOVE (2010) ****

KICK –ASS (2010) *** ½

KING’S SPEECH, THE (2010) *** ½

RABBIT HOLE (2010) *** ½

RED RIDING TRILOGY (2009-released in US 2010) ****

SOMEWHERE (2010) *** ½

TANGLED (2010) *** ½

TOY STORY 3 (2010) *** ½

VALHALLA RISING (2009-released in US 2010) *** ½

WINTER’S BONE (2010) *** ½


ALSO RECOMMENDED:

CAIRO TIME (2009-released in US 2010) *** ¼

CYRUS (2010) *** ¼

GET LOW (2010) *** ¼

GHOST WRITER (2010) *** ¼

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 1 (2010) *** ¼

MESRINE PART 1: KILLER INSTINCT (2010) *** ¼

MESRINE PART 2: PUBLIC ENEMY #1 (2010) *** ¼

NEVER LET ME GO (2010) *** ¼

SOCIAL NETWORK, THE (2010) *** ¼

TEMPLE GRANDIN (TV – 2010) *** ¼

TILLMAN STORY, THE (2010) *** ¼

TRUE GRIT (2010) *** ¼


LIKED BUT DIDN’T LOVE

AMERICAN, THE (2010) ***

DESPICABLE ME (2010) ***

FIGHTER, THE (2010) ***

HEREAFTER (2010) ***

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (2010) ***

HOWL (2010) ***

INCEPTION (2010) ***

MADE IN DAGENHAM (2010) ***

MONSTERS (2010) ***

[REC] 2 (2010) ***

TOWN, THE (2010) ***


BEST OLDER FILMS SEEN FOR FIRST TIME IN 2010:

BALLAST (2008) *** ½

BIGGER THAN LIFE (1956) *** ½

CHRISTMAS TALE, A (2008) ****

CLASH BY NIGHT (1952) *** ½

CLOSE UP (1990) ****

CRIME WAVE (1954) *** ½

DAMNED UNITED (2008) ****

HUMAN DESIRE (1954) ****

IN THE LOOP (2009) *** ½

LOLA MONTES (1955) ****

MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (1937) ****

METROPOLIS (Metoroporisu – 2001) *** ½

MOTHER (2009) *** ½

NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH (1940) ****

PONYO (2008) *** ½

PORT OF CALL (1948) *** ½

PROPHET, A (2009) ****

REVANCHE (2008) *** ½

SECRET IN THEIR EYES, THE (2009) *** ½

SERAPHINE (2008) *** ½

SON, THE (aka LE FILS – 2002) *** ½

STONE TAPES, THE (1972) *** ½

SUMMER HOURS (2008) *** ½

TELL THEM ANYTHING YOU WANT: MAURICE SENDAK (2009) *** ½

TOKYO SONATA (2008) ****

WORST OF THE YEAR

ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010) **

CENTURIAN (2010) **

LEGION (2010) *

WOLFMAN, THE (2010) **

DISAPPOINTMENTS

BRIGHTON ROCK (2010) **

KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, THE (2010) ** ½

RED (2010) ** ¼

SHUTTER ISLAND (2010) ** ¼

I won’t comment on all of the above-mentioned films, but I will on a few. I AM LOVE was my favorite. Its Visconti-like stylization, melodrama and imagery just knocked me out. A thoroughly satisfying film that openly adores its Italian cinema roots.

Mike Leigh’s ANOTHER YEAR shows once again Mr. Leigh’s deep desire to create an environment in which rich, complex characters grow and thrive and reflect the beautiful, sad and joyous riches that make up the human animal.

BLACK SWAN showed us that darkness and experimentation still has a place in popular filmmaking and that sometimes taking a risk pays off handsomely.

SOMEWHERE was another offering by one of America’s few auteur young talents that insists on pushing the envelope and looking into places few dare to gaze. And she does it with her own unapologetic sensibility. Certainly a tool she harvested from both her father’s greatest artistic insights as well as his artistic missteps.

VALHALLA RISING, a visual poem embracing both the violence and beauty of the Viking era as if the viewer him/herself were on a religious quest not unlike the film’s characters.

RED RIDING TRILOGY, released theatrically here in the States early in 2010, offers three back-to-back films which are among the most powerful, dark, unsettling and viscerally effective films I’ve seen in ages.

BIUTIFUL, another masterfully bleak and beautiful film by Alejandro González Iñárritu who continues to make films that move me with their stirring images and deeply pained characters. I even loved BABEL when so many others derided it. There’s something about the world of this filmmaker that squirms deep under my skin and stays there.

And while I know I’m not alone here, I am in a minority not thinking that THE FIGHTER was a masterpiece. A solid film with terrific perfs, the script just wasn’t unique enough or daring enough to win my heart. And while Christian Bale’s performance was truly astounding, the time spent focusing on it took away, in my opinion, from time the storytellers should have spent developing our main character’s relationships (particularly with Amy Adams), which were sorely underdeveloped. On top of that, I sensed the filmmaker slightly mocking the world of his characters as if he were standing somewhere slightly above it. That, again in my opinion, will always keep an audience from truly entering the world of the film.

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT. Well, thankfully there are more than enough people out there who agree with me on this one despite the outpouring of love and attention this film has garnered. I’ve always been a fan of director Cholodenko, but this time she teamed up with a commercial comedy writer and it shows. KIDS plays out like a Nancy Meyers’ film about lesbians. On top of that, I felt the film added to America’s confusion and misconception regarding whether or not homosexuality is a choice versus something you’re born with. The level of lust with which Julianne Moore’s character is attracted to Mark Ruffalo was incredibly unrealistic to me given the character’s set up and foundation. I found it socially unfortunate but, even worse, poor storytelling. When asked in a Q&A I attended as to why she decided to have this lesbian character so lustfully sleep repeatedly with a man, Cholodenko replied that she didn’t believe the film could be made otherwise. I certainly hope she’s wrong.

I also am personally tired of straight men being portrayed as incapable of moral, social or sexual boundaries. When it comes to matters of the penis, according to films like this, we men are nothing more than infants with no self-control whatsoever. Thank god Mark Ruffalo managed to bring a humanity to that character despite ultimately being relegated to the role of fall guy and defacto villain.

And SHUTTER ISLAND made me yearn for Scorsese to return to low-budget filmmaking once again.

But I was thrilled to see Patricia Clarkson in a romantic leading role in CAIRO TIME. A sweet film that also showcases the charming talents of Alexander Siddig, a wonderful and underutilized actor.

And TOY STORY 3 which maintains the notion that no one cares more about script than the folks at Pixar.

And EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP which, like this post of mine, ponders the questions of art, commerce and pop culture versus artistic drive and meaningful exploration.

There can be no doubt that good films found their way onto American screens in 2010 whether they originated from within or outside our borders. But remember, there are hundreds of incredible, life-affirming, artistically challenging films that have never reached these shores outside of a festival screening, if that. There is a whole world of filmmaking that, compared to much of what you’ll see at the Oscars, could be considered the works of master chefs creating meals for those who yearn to taste something new, something unusual, unfamiliar, something offering an experience that can only be created through great love and understanding. Something many of us will never taste. Unless we seek it out.

Favorite & Least Favorite Films Of 2010

Doug Trumbull’s BEYOND THE INFINITE 2001 Doc


Being as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is still, lo these many years later, my all-time favorite film, nothing could thrill me more than getting a sneak peak at effects wizard Douglas Trumbull’s new documentary on the making of 2001. This looks to be, from all reports, the quintessential behind-the scenes-documentary.

The video trailer for the film is available on Trumbull’s own web site and is very exciting indeed! Just go to the site, scroll down, and click “2001:  A Space Odyssey – Documentary.”

I’m not sure if this doc will be released on its own, or whether it will be part of Warner Bros. proposed Stanley Kubrick Blu-ray Collection.  When I find out, you will, too!

Either way, I’ll be there.

Doug Trumbull’s BEYOND THE INFINITE 2001 Doc

An Old Fogey Watches The WATCHMEN. And Mourns…


poster-theatricalI must be getting old because I find myself referring back far too often to my youth and how things “used to be.” Granted, I came of age during Hollywood’s second Golden Era: the 70’s. Actually, to be more accurate, I started living and breathing cinema in the late 60’s and was exposed to first releases of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and BONNIE AND CLYDE among so many others. And for a good decade or more, films were a sight to behold. Daring and edgy while dipping ambiguously into alternate realities and tackling subjects and characters with an inner desire to strip away the outer layers and look closely at what lies beneath, all the while pushing the boundaries of the medium in a way unseen to date.

So in my old-age, I have to shake my head slightly when I hear directors like Zack Snyder hailed as “groundbreaking” and “visionary.” Now I have nothing against Zack Snyder personally, but I have yet to witness any real visionary storytelling in his films. I haven’t found any of them downright “bad”, but they have sadly left me feeling rather empty. DAWN OF THE DEAD stripped away the social commentary that made the original so damn effective. And 300 looked really cool, but was ultimately lacking in character or depth. At least for my tastes. WATCHMEN isn’t a horrible film by any stretch and there are some interesting themes and moments, but at the end of the day, I was bored through a good portion of the film and almost walked out in the first half hour. I found myself slightly more involved as the film continued, but only slightly. And as for the visuals, as with 300, the images were ultimately empty, though at times striking. These films left me with very little to hold on to after the end credits rolled. I never felt challenged or stimulated or moved. These films never got past my first layer of skin, no less into my gut.

The world of special effects these days has dulled something in film for me. When used sparingly, it can be a wonderful tool. However, when a film is allowed to ride on its effects budget alone, the results are often artistically disastrous, regardless of box office intake.

The STAR WARS prequels were vapid. Yes, even REVENGE OF THE SITH which, despite the claims of those desperate to find something of value there, was a lesson in non-storytelling. It was a wonderful display of effects devoid of performance or script.

The other side of the coin could be, say, the recent Swedish vampire flick LET THE RIGHT ONE IN which used its effects sparingly with the result being that each effect was a part of the story and therefore had far more impact than if the film were an effects extravaganza, as the American version would have been (or will probably be).

418px-straw_dogs_movie_posterAnd then there are films like STRAW DOGS which I had the pleasure of watching again recently. You know, when all is said and done, STRAW DOGS is a film that could only get made today as an indie. If that. Very few locations, a handful of great actors, a challenging script and theme, and a director with something to say and the talent to say it. It is the powerful and incredible editing in STRAW DOGS that is its greatest “effect.” So you won’t see ANYTHING like STRAW DOGS worming its way through the Hollywood system today. No, not without having its guts removed piece by piece until any trace of humanity, artistry and/or meaning had been thoroughly stripped from it. Sorry to be such a sad sack, but it’s the truth. And, sadly, even the indie world is filled with filmmakers yearning to walk away from the creative goldmine that is indie filmmaking, to pass into the ranks of Hollywood star directors. Just like so many visionary foreign filmmakers who come to Hollywood and never make another film of vision or substance. I take my hat off to the Pedro Almodovars of the world who recognize the glory of their current situations and turn away from the siren’s call of Hollywoodland.

So it was that when I read Kyle Smith‘s review of WATCHMEN in the New York Post, my head shook uncontrollably with despair:

Director Zack Snyder’s cerebral, scintillating follow-up to “300” seems, to even a weary filmgoer’s eye, as fresh and magnificent in sound and vision as “2001” must have seemed in 1968, yet in its eagerness to argue with itself, it resembles “A Clockwork Orange. Like those Stanley Kubrick films – it is also in part a parody of “Dr. Strangelove” – it transforms each moment into a tableau with great, uncompromising concentration. The effect is an almost airless gloom, but the film is also exhilarating in breadth and depth.” 

Really? Comparing Snyder to Kubrick? REALLY? Luckily, my loneliness and horror can be eased by comments like Kenneth Turan‘s in the Los Angeles Times:

Despite being prematurely canonized by the film’s publicity apparatus, Snyder stands revealed here as more of a beginner than a visionary in his uncertain approach to making an on-screen world come alive. 

Now I know my comments here will be met with some hostility from the fans of the above-mentioned films, but like I said, I’m just some old fogey complaining about how things were when I was younger. “Back in the day,” as they say.

So I’ll just shut up and go back to my little home theater to take in another viewing of THE CONVERSATION or MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER or POINT BLANK. And maybe I’ll follow those up with some antiquated old-timer fair like BLACK NARCISSUS or THE BIG PARADE. You know, films that were made before the visionaries came along.

An Old Fogey Watches The WATCHMEN. And Mourns…

HOW THE WEST WAS SMILEBOXED


Taking a small break from the horrors of current American politics, I want to share a bit of fun news about Warner Bros’. new Blu-Ray release of the classic Cinerama film HOW THE WEST WAS WON. While never one of my favorite films, it certainly has its moments and the John Ford directed sequence is a real standout. But regardless of how you feel about the film, viewing it projected in Cinerama is a completely different experience than seeing it in any other format. It’s also an opportunity available only in a few select places in the world. This is due to the Cinerama process itself, which I will now attempt to quickly explain. 

Premiering in 1952 with THIS IS CINERAMA, Cinerama employed three different projectors running simultaneously to create a “wide screen experience” unlike anything seen before. The image was projected on a 146-degree curved screen and the sound pumped through 7 different speakers to add to the feeling of total immersion. In order to do this, the film itself was shot with three different cameras running simultaneously and pointed at slightly different angles. When shown on a Cinerama screen, the alternate angles of each image when placed side-by-side created the illusion of actually being there in the action. 

Sadly, however, the process was incredibly expensive and yielded only a handful of films. For a few years after its demise, some films still carried the Cinerama label (IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY among them), but these were not shot using the three camera process. 

So what happens when you take a true Cinerama film and try and show it on DVD or video? Well, for one, the seams separating each individual image are clearly visible. And worse than that, when not projected on a curved screen, the image appears to “warp” at the sides. Until recently, this was the only way to view these films at home. But thanks to a new process giddily titled “Smileboxing“, Cinerama films can now be seen properly at home. No, it’s not nearly the same as witnessing the process in a true Cinerama theater (I’ve seen it and it IS remarkable), but this gives you a damn good idea what it might be like. Smileboxing is a relatively simple idea: take the sides of the image and distort them to give the illusion that they ARE being projected on a curved screen. In other words, create the curve on a flat surface. The other thing? Try and remove all traces of separation between film strips. While this last part is apparently not perfect (you can still see the seams if you look closely), it is an astounding improvement over any home video version to date. 

Here’s an image from HOW THE WEST WAS WON shown in both simple letterbox and then in Smilebox:

And just to give you an even better idea of the grandeur of Cinerama and the clarity of the process, here’s a smileboxed frame from SEARCH FOR PARADISE:

The only catch? The Smileboxed version of HOW THE WEST WAS WON is only available on Blu-Ray disc. So if you were looking for that great excuse to upgrade your DVD player, that excuse has just arrived. 

Enjoy.

HOW THE WEST WAS SMILEBOXED