August 24, 2005

A Rebuttal to Walter's Missive

The worst year in the last five for movies?

I'm looking at your page on Rotten Tomatoes and you have already given four stars to: The Best of Youth, Grizzly Man, Last Days, The World, Batman Begins, 3-Iron, Old Boy, Sin City, Nobody Knows, and Kontroll. That's 10.

Last year at this time it was: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kill Bill Vol.2, The Return, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azhkaban, Last Life in the Universe, Goodbye Dragon Inn, Control Room, Spider Man 2, Code 46, and Mean Creek. That's 11, though if we throw in Hero which was on your top ten for 2003 but was reviewed the day after Mean Creek, we would have 12. If this is in fact the worst year in the last five, it looks like it wasn't by that much.

Of course, there is also a list of films that you have given three and a half too: Junebug, Broken Flowers, Palindromes, Unleashed, and The Jacket. I guess what I'm saying is that I've found there to be a whole glut of good stuff coming and going through the theaters. Just last week I found myself having to choose between seeing Last Days or Saraband. (I chose Last Days.)

I think I can understand what prompts these rants of yours, but my friend, you have to put these feelings you're having in their proper context. I would hardly prefer a cinema which consistently produced something that interested me. The forming of distinct and exclusive associative groups (elitism, in some form) is certainly one of the major formative elements of movie love.

I am not yet a liscensed film critic and I pay to see movies out of my own pocket. I have then paid to see Dukes of Hazzard, Must Love Dogs, The Perfect Man, Fantastic Four, even though I didn't hate them as much as you Bewitched, The Island, and Because of Winn-Dixie; and even though I actually did hate it more than you: Robots. Yes, they were bad but no, I'm not going to let them get away by pretending that they aren't important. With the notable exception of The Island (which was just nakedly bad; a film for particularly dim Red Staters; while attacking stem cell research and by extention of abortion, and superficially attacking anti-individualist systems of oppression it also attacks, and with great fervor, free market capitalism) all these bad movies were bad because they are smug about being bad. They were movies made by assholes, for assholes, and about assholes. These are not stupid people, they know exactly what they are doing. They are nothing less but cinematic terrorists, cinematic Osama Bin Ladens intent on demystifying and degrading our noble art form.

To pretend that the people who support these movies are naive or stupid and thus safe to ignore is enabling them to continue what it is that they are doing.


Walter_Chaw said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Barry Wood said...

What is your favorite movie, Alex?

Walter_Chaw said...

Alas, skewered by statistics.

I don’t think that people who like The Island (are there any?) are particularly stupid but that Bay has finally made a film that is only as offensive as Bay’s films ever are, but left unprotected this time by his veneer of unassailably fluid cinematic chutzpah. Thereby making people who like The Island painfully predictable in their politics and tunnel vision: not naïve or stupid, but dangerously dogmatic or willfully contrarian. The naïve and stupid either didn’t go or recoiled in sudden recognition. Waking from a dream to find yourself petting a snake, as it were – the failure of the picture is that Bay’s suddenly old fashioned. We’ll see if it holds.

I’m not dismissing it, understand, so much as I’m just tired of still talking about Michael Bay. It’s like fighting over Michael Moore or Rush Limbaugh or Robert Novak – if you’re still doing it, your learning curve is flatlined – and if I’m still doing it, especially for something as flat and obvious as The Island, I’d start to sound like the boor at the cocktail party spinning the same catch-phrases and pocket analysis into eternity. I find that I have no thirst for the pursuit of the stultifyingly obvious, anymore. Who cares about The Island when it can’t even fool the actual fools: that all it really does is lose all that beautiful Dreamworks capital? Bad Boys II was worth talking about as a cultural phenomenon – but talking overmuch about the naked emperor, sliding uneasily into droops and wrinkles; is reductive, easy, and boring. Could it be cheap to take a shot at Michael Bay? I think, maybe. In my small world, I already had him on the mat by the time The Island dropped like a lead balloon.

Let’s go about this differently: Herbie: Fully Loaded, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Because of Winn-Dixie, Ice Princess, Mad Hot Ballroom, Rock School, Perfect Man, The Honeymooners, Kicking and Screaming, Dark Water, The Dukes of Hazzard – I try not to look back too much on what I’ve written (it’s painful) but I’d wager that there are at least three or four times as many movies this year that I saw and just didn’t review than at any time in the last four. I don’t have it in me to write much anymore about films that just deserve judgment. Aside from watching and placing these things into some kind of broader social patchwork, their offenses are minor and predictable and the battles for their souls are no longer ones that I have the strength nor the interest to fight. Took me almost a month before I finally reviewed that penguins flick, for Christ’s sake, I mean, what is there left to say about another subversive French bird documentary?

I wonder if the number of movies that I couldn’t get it up to write about (including entire local festivals) isn’t a better barometer of where the movies are? Of where I am. You say that you understand maybe what inspires these rants of mine, but I wonder how you could when you haven’t seen two thousand films in the last five years and written on a good percentage of them (until this year, of course) – most of which have committed the same crimes as this year’s flaccid bunch but in more florid and grotesque detail. I remember reading somewhere – maybe it was on your website – about how you’d observed the toll that being an “every-day” reviewer was taking on me and my work. I think you understood my frustration better then (predicting this little rant a full year or so before I’d felt it myself) and that, no offense intended overly, that you’re maybe grandstanding a little here because you’re chuffed at this precise moment with the possibility of movies, and particularly film criticism, to change the world. Not to borrow the phrase glibly, but I think I understand this little rant of yours, too.

But onward, there was a time that bad was really interestingly bad stuff like Napoleon Dynamite and Bringing Down the House – not stuff that’s sort of just squats there in the shadows of greater ills. Stuff like: Stealth, Skeleton Key, Steamboy, Up and Down, White Noise, XXX, Yes, Tout de Suite, Beautiful Boxer, Boogeyman, Coach Carter, Fantastic Four, Be Cool, Bad News Bears, Cinderella Man, Land of the Dead, Ladies in Lavender, Robots, Man of the House, Madagascar, Lords of Dogtown, Four Brothers, Constant Gardener, Rory O’Shea Was Here, Ring Two, Sahara, Saving Face, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Fever Pitch, Walk on Water, Hide and Seek, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, House of D, Mindhunters, Constantine, Cursed. . . on and on ad nauseum – even the genuinely loathsome stuff like Hostage, Hustle & Flow, Are We There Yet? and Racing Stripes aren’t anything that I’m that excited about hating. They’re all bad in a relatively mundane sort of way, even the genuinely evil ones – the great malignant villain for me this year might be Gunner Palace, strangely enough, knowing how I’m wired, I’m not even interested enough in Episode III (after writing about 1000 words each on Episodes I and II) to offer anything now but a wan smile and shrug.

Everything tends towards the middle, and while I think I could fake outrage, I don’t feel outraged anymore by the general feckless arrogance of movies made by people who wouldn’t even watch them themselves (the smugness you talk about). I feel. . . fatalistic? about it. Used to be that evil was Miltonic and beautiful, now it’s just mundane. That’s how it wins, says Yeats, and so Yeats was right.

What I’m saying is that whether it’s because they’re no longer original or just that they’re not themselves as inspired, Robots and Valiant aren’t as bad as Shrek 2 and Shark Tale – that Hostage is no Man on Fire, Monster-in-Law is no Meet the Fockers, Racing Stripes no New York Minute, Miss Congeniality 2 no Bridget Jones 2, Kingdom of Heaven & Alexander are no Troy, and there’s still no 2005 equivalent to toxic wonders like Napoleon Dynamite, Passion of the Christ, Fahrenheit 9/11, Paparazzi (the most obvious omission from last year’s list), Saved!, Home on the Range, Surviving Christmas, Little Black Book, Sleepover. . .

Sin City got me excited, but I do wonder about it a little in retrospect (and in watching it again a couple of times in close detail on DVD). I’m glad, in an distracted sort of way, that it did well enough to spawn a greenlight for at least one more sequel, but by the third viewing, I was starting to be more fascinated by how it managed to contain the staggering badness of Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson and Brittany Murphy by boiling them down to the base elements of their fame (show pony, amazon, and coke whore, respectively). Batman Begins is more thematically loaded than outright boffo (and I know you prefer the camp fandango of Burton’s in any event: Kirby vs. Miller, not a bad fight); Last Days is amazing, but no longer surprising as the third in a de facto trilogy; and there’s nothing yet the equal this year in terms of emotional impact (not 3-Iron or Nobody Knows or Grizzly Man, though they’re the closest) for me than last year’s Kill Bill 2, The Return, Spring, Summer…, Code 46, or Last Life in the Universe. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for me, is the best film in years and probably will continue to be past this one.

I’m not sure that I still like Mean Creek that much – maybe the first hour still and then less and less – and rather than pushing Hero into an even dozen for a snapshot of last year at this time, drop Kontroll which I screened last year into 2004. (Goodbye Dragon Inn, too, was a late 2003 view though I had no excuse to review it until Denver’s Asian Film Festival.) Not to say that I don’t hold out a lot of hope for this fall’s roster of King Kongs, Narnias, Jarheads and Harry Potters – but, so far this year, there hasn’t been a better movie than any of last year’s top 5 and by this time last year, I’d already had three of the top five pretty firmly in place. What I’m saying is that if the year ended now, the top five are already less resonant than 3/5s of last year’s top five.

Statistics, star ratings, are never more complicated than when the thing that they quantify is, after a certain level of proficiency, essentially qualitative – it’s why a lot of four-star films don’t make the top ten (and a lot of zero-star films don’t make the bottom). I wouldn’t put In the Bedroom above Mulholland Drive, Memento and The Royal Tenenbaums, but I did four years ago. I wonder if I’d even mention it in the same conversation if I wasn’t prodded?

I guess the short answer following the bloated one is that there isn’t more than one or two films, for good or for bad, that I’ve seen this year that I’d feel lighter for never having seen.

And that’s the first time in five years that, this late in August, I could say something as terrible as that.

Alex Jackson said...

Two things that you didn't review that I am curious about: the first is Mad Hot Ballroom which I deeply deeply hated and which made me extraordinarily angry. I, at least, had issues that I could have written about: namely the self-congratulatory multi-culturalism and the way that this documentary was able to make New York look exactly the same way that it does in Maid in Manhattan.

The second is Dark Water. I sort of liked the film, but what is interesting to me is that my reaction was almost purely due to the casting. Ah, Tim Roth as a slick lawyer; John C. Reilly as the superficially cuddly landlord, Pete Postlewaithe as the creepy janitor, Camryn Manheim as the earth mother kindergarten teacher; and wow, I never liked Jennifer Connelly before but she works better at this kind of part than either Naomi Watts or Juliane Moore. I liked a shot near the end that seemed to pay homage to The Shining and/or Repulsion; but you know; I found myself mostly praising the film for the casting. It was such a detached way of looking at it, like I was watching a studio genre picture from the 40s where I was expecting close to nothing and was just savoring the simplest and most primitive pleasures that it had to offer. Which I guess, I sort of was. Perhaps the deepest thing that you could say about it is that remakes of Japanese ghost stories involving killer children have finally become a bona fide Hollywood genre.

Other then that I have to admit that I totally forgot about: XXX, Are We There Yet, Man of the House, and Kicking and Screaming. I paid good money to see those also, they all sucked (although not as bad as Mad Hot Ballroom), and yes I didn't even think about them again until triggered by the titles. Allow me to briefly bore you with just a few more statistics though: XXX was rated as a 10 by 285 people on the Internet Movie Database; Are We There Yet: 252; Man of the House: 145; Kicking and Screaming: 171. I am sure that almost every movie ever released is going to have tens making up at least ten percent of its total votes. All this proves really is that somewhere, someplace, somebody identifies with and/or values these films.

They aren’t a large group and they might not even be a sincere group; but their presence nonetheless nags at me and suggests that on some level these films represent something integral to uh, the whole thing: the human experience, the American experience, the entire collective art of cinema. I know that it looks like I’m being a contrarian, but that’s really not my goal, rather I’m struggling to connect what I am seeing to what they are seeing and come up with a reason for why they are wrong.

By the by, my thoughts on “The Island” were actually developed while discussing the film with a Young Republican who named the film as one of the five greatest films he had ever seen and who listed Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” as one of his favorite books. Most of the time, I have to guess on the basis of the film what it’s defenders are getting out of it, but there I had some help.

I think that you are probably right that I can’t know what you are going through if I’m not actually there in the trenches with you. But you know, I do live in Logan which is an hour and a half to two hours from Salt Lake and I like to go the theater about twice a week. And a lot of the time, all the choices that I have available to me are bad ones. I vividly remember spending one week seeing “Catwoman” and “Ever After” simply because not much else was playing that I hadn’t already seen. From time to time, I’ve had a taste of that despair, but yeah it passes and tomorrow is another day. A movie like “Red Eye”, “Batman Begins”, “The Devil’s Rejects”, or when I get the chance “Last Days” does a great deal to rejuvenate the mind and body.

I do think that your actual quality of your work has improved since your Epinions days, but yeah, my point was that now that you’re a “salary man” you haven’t the time or opportunity to deal in the things that interest you; no more plowing through the collected works of Bernard Rose or Sam Fuller or plunging deep into “Marnie” or “Rear Window”. I would hope that your recent reviews of the Werner Herzog boxsets and your hosted screenings in Denver have helped to take the sting off and restore your faith a little. I mean, otherwise why would you do those things?

I don’t take offense to your comment of me grandstanding; in fact I’m sort of flattered by the way you put it; as if all critics once had my youthful idealism before the job turns them into bitterly cynical Walter Chaws on the way to become cheerfully cynical Roger Eberts. My attitude could certainly only be fostered by a certain degree of autonomy and discretion (things denied to the salary man by the nature of the job); as well as a certain infrequency of output. If I can stay optimistic about cinema I’m sure it’s because I have a great deal of cinematic discoveries yet ahead of me; and if I can stay optimistic about the state of film criticism, I’m sure it’s because every film, no matter how mediocre, still feels as if it can lend itself to study. So I guess that you may be right that it’s an experience gap.

By the way, I actually have no hope for Chronicles of Narnia, but have you not retained any for Terrence Malick’s “The New World”?

Ah and Barry, my favorite movie is probably Taxi Driver. With Days of Heaven, Come and See, Gummo, The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Eraserhead, Apocalypse Now, and Orson Welles' The Trial rounding out my official inordinal top ten.

Walter_Chaw said...

Yeah, Mad Hot Ballroom. I didn’t like it, but not enough to write about it with any kind of verve or insight – put it in with the penguin movie: too much anthropomorphizing and Pollyanna. And Dark Water – I love the original so was especially curious about the remake, especially given the talent attached to it, and have since watched it in the theater (quickly the dollars, which is fine by me) five times. I’m sort of mesmerized by it and I think that it has something to do with how Jennifer Connelly with her dark, almost vortex-like looks, looks like she emerged fully-formed from the wet asphalt and overcast skies; how the housing development that she finds herself in reminds me of a picture in my mind’s eye that’s developed of the Kew Gardens district where Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death as thirty-eight of her neighbors pulled up chairs in darkened windows to watch. It’s a case, Dark Water, of having missed the screening for a lecture I was giving at the Denver Public Library – catching it later, then being too flummoxed to write about it. Hopefully, I’ll get the chance when it comes to home video.

As to the ten percent of people per/flick that give anything a perfect rating at the IMDB – I’m going to bet that a good fifty percent of that ten percent are studio shills or friends of the family or people who actually worked on the picture in some capacity – and that maybe they have more than one IMDB account. I wouldn’t trust the numbers as being quite that dire is what I’m saying. That being said, I’d shave a couple more off that number for foreign-speakers who, just like I tend to be with French films, give the benefit of the doubt to bad translation. Then the contrarians, and the ironic, and the assholes playing at punk – so if that leaves a handful of non-children, non-retarded people who still like the film that much, I guess I’m comfortable with the revelation that the world is full of people that I don’t understand at all and that one day, probably, Errol Morris will get to them. I admire your humanism in trying to bridge the perception gap, but in my flabby nihilism, I’m going to wager that they’re minds are as alien and reptilian as a lizard’s and I try to resist the urge to anthropomorphize.

Just the term “Young Republican” fills me with dread. How soulless does your upbringing have to be for you to never have been compassionate of others? Who said it? I don’t remember: “If you’re not a liberal under thirty, you have no heart – if you’re not a conservative after then you have no brain.” Inflammatory and wrong, but only in degrees – and Ayn Rand, jesus, don’t get me started.

To answer your question, I’m doing a ton of public speaking and teaching lately because, exactly as you say, I need a dip in the old religion and that’s the way – and more box set projects (for Bergman and from Docurama) to come if I can ever get to the top of this backlog. This fall season is looking pretty f’in amazing, by the way, with Malick of course, but a new Cronenberg, Mirrormask, Dear Wendy, Wallace & Gromit, Shopgirl, a new Gore Verbinski, new Curtis Hanson, North Country, that first film in a Russian horror trilogy, new Neil Jordan, Syriana, Jarhead – but then, I always get excited. Makes the fall harder, of course, in the plummeting sense, not the autumnal.

JoeF said...

I'm curious as to why you gave Stealth a whole two stars. You gave it quite the (well deserved) skewering in your review.

NB: That quote is from Winston Churchill.

Walter_Chaw said...

Stealth was a piece of crap that I sort of enjoyed anyhow as opposed to other pieces of crap that I don't enjoy at all.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

I feel your pain walter. Fortunately for me i don't have to watch that garbage and can see whatever looks appealing. I rarely ever go see a hollywood film anymore unless it's like "batman begins" when someone like nolan directed it.

Hey alex jackson, our favorite film lists are fairly similar ! my favorite film are:

apocalypse now redux (all-time favorite)

rest in no-particular order

taxi driver
days of heaven
mcCabe & mrs. miller
bringing out the dead
paris, texas
aguirre, the wrath of god
mystery train
punch-drunk love

what about you walter? give us a list of films you think are your favorites.

walter said about "eternal sunshine" being one of the best in last few years. i have been compiling the list of films that i thought were my favorites in last few years. (since 2000)

punch-drunk love (Closest film to my heart)
eternal sunshine of the spotless mind
DiG! (I dig this doc alot)
3-Iron (kim ki-duk is my god!)
spring,summer, autumn, winter and spring (A spiritual experience)
All the real girls (DGG is best thing to come out in last few years)
Ratcatcher (Spectacular!)
All the pretty horses (Hghly Highly under-rated)

I agree with walter in a lot of cases, in terms of films, except for some cases. i rented last life in the universe because of walter and found it to be a pretentious peice of shit (loved chris doyle's work, he was better in in the mood for love though). to call this movie lost in translation for grownups is a travesty! also "primer" is a great film and unlike what walter said there is something to be demystified in it (even though it takes multiple viewings). very challenging story.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

And the award for most poorly phrased sentence goes to:

"I agree with walter in a lot of cases, in terms of films, except for some cases."

Walter_Chaw said...

Favorite movies - that's hard - here are some just in English, there are many, many others:

The Conversation
Dead Man
Eternal Sunshine
Taxi Driver
Mulholland Drive
Blue Velvet
Night of the Living Dead
Shadow of a Doubt
The Birds
The Train
The Long Goodbye
Godfather 1 & 2
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
. . .

in fact - I guess it's useless to do a fave's list for me, it'd be hundreds of titles long. Better, maybe to ask for faves in each genre?

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

Wow ! A big hitchcock fan. I always feel this unease while watching hitchcock movies, as if the guy is trying to manipulate me and i hate that feeling. plus his films are heavily reliant on plots which is again a turn off for me personally. but i guess i'm in the minority when it comes to hitchcock. i find it fascinating that critics genrally love hitchcock, ozu and godard more than directors do and so goes with there films. i wonder what the reason behind that is ?

overall i like your list, it's good to see dead man up there. rosenbaum has been jerkin off to it for a decade. lol. i find mystery train is a gravely overlooked film from jarmusch's ouvere.

i also expected to see one of errol morris's earlier films on your list. you seem to mention him a lot in your reviews and interviews and stuff.

i guess it is pretty hard to come up with favorite films on the spot. i like lists so i keep on making mine (all time, last few years, by year etc). so for me i have 'em ready when someone asks.

instead of doing favorite films by genre, how bout you list films by the ones that have affected you the most personally to the point that every time you think of them you feel like watching them again.i guess that's how i make my list. the films in my list are films i have seen numerous times and will probably see them for rest of my life over and over. i don't even in which genre one would classify films like taxi driver ? is it action or drama ?

it's cool conversing with you man, i've been an admirer for a while.


Walter_Chaw said...

Lists are tough - Errol Morris, of course, Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Fl and Thin Blue Line (in a new box set, released last month) are classics of the form - and we haven't even scratched the surface on foreign flicks: Hana-Bi and Yojimbo and Springtime in a Small Town and Woman in the Dunes and Aguirre Wrath of God and Woyzeck and on and on - there are the great exploitation flicks, the great horror flicks - every movie I mention brings up a dozen more I remember (and a dozen more I should). It's ultimately a zero-sum game, I think.

Hitchcock. . . I think he's probably the most influential direector in history for film historians and scholars mainly for that intentionality that you point to. That forced artificiality and self-knowledge is post-modern in the sense that when Norman Bates is peeping, he's peeping through an aperture very much like a camera's while pinning us like Eliot's butterflies, formulated to the proverbial wall. If you want to study film, you study how Hitch uses eyeglasses and shadows and forced perspectives. It's like film 101, in fact, and a partial explanation is in there somewhere for his popularity relative to your investment in motion pictures.

Finally, thank my editor Bill for this opportunity to chat - his idea for a blog, after all, and a nifty one at that.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

Firstly, I never went to film school or anything. Whatever i know and like about cinema is more or less self discovered. I'm actually an engineering student (though I'm not much into it) and am planning to shoot a short on super-16 in near future. I would probably start pre within sometime next month.

I see what you're saying about hitchcock, but again, I am not good at intellectual deconstruction of films. I just watch whatever I enjoy and to me watching a terrence malick film is so much more liberating than say hitchcock because it never feels like he is trying to impress me too much with his language or nifty little camera tricks or clever plots. I read a jarmusch interview the other day and he said he finds no intrests in clever plots because ourlives don't have plots and I guess that's how I feel about it too. But then again I haven't seen to much of hitchcock. Just vertigo, notorious, psycho, dial m for murder. Maybe I should check out more sometime.

"...pining us like Eliot's butterflies" I like that.

Alex Jackson said...

The artifice that is being discussed is what sometimes alienates me from much of Hitchcock's work. Like they are not genuinely Freudian, but are rather about being Freudian. Vertigo never did it for me. It's so... Technicolor and goofy; I just can't muster much respect for it. Haven't seen Marnie. I probably will, but I have my doubts.

No Welles films on Walter's. I'm beginning to think that I'm a bit of a Welles cultist actually. He's one of those few filmmaker's where I love pretty everything that he has done regardless of it's reputation. His films are similiarly "superficial", but much earthier and sometimes downright sloppy in an appealing way. He's sometimes sloppy because he couldn't get all the money he needed of course, but there is a degree in which sloppiness is artifice made sincere; like with the post-dubbing in "The Trial" which kind of works for that material. Chaotic in a deterministic way. Same with "Macbeth".

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

The only Welles film I've seen is obviously Citizen Kane. Let's just say... not a big fan. The amount of pretention, artifice, cleverness and glibness that I find in films made before the 60s really is a huge turn-off for me and I can't get past it. To me, Casablanca plays like a cartoon with it's clever sounding conversations that clearly sound and feel as if the writer was patting himself on the back for coming up with such clever shit. I mean... no one talks like that ! I have heard some of the most profound and life-altering shit I've ever heard in the most inarticulate way possible.