October 21, 2005

The Hanging Munchkin Redux

Seriously, is nothing sacred?

A featurette on Warner's upcoming Three-Disc Collector's Edition of The Wizard of Oz finds the techies behind the film's new digital restoration risking neck injury to fellate themselves for a job well done, and while I have to admit that the scrubbed-penny look of the transfer is suitably impressive, I'm left scratching my head as to how these would-be art forgers can in good conscience toss out watchwords like "fidelity" and "organic" in describing their painstaking efforts after having corrupted what might very well be the key image of the film.

I'm not an obsessive fan of The Wizard of Oz like some, maybe because once you ask yourself why the Wicked Witch of the West keeps saying "I'll get you my pretty!" to a stock-still Dorothy in lieu of actually, y'know, getting Dorothy, you've eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, so to speak. But the bloom will never be completely off the film (just as it will never be off Blade Runner despite the allegory-deflating issue of why Deckard doesn't just stake out Tyrell's place and wait for the replicants to show up), and one of my favourite eureka moments from childhood was when I figured out exactly where The Wizard of Oz makes its impossible transition from b&w (they hadn't yet restored the prologue to its intended sepia in those days) to colour. Now this shot of Dorothy opening the door of her house to a Technicolor Oz-scape--which I've always imagined inspired the indelible beginning of John Ford's The Searchers--has been altered so that it actually is what it seems and not something that relies on the generosity of the subconscious: instead of starting out in colour before Dorothy even opens the door (something we barely notice because the house's interior is a shade of brown and Dorothy is almost in silhouette), the shot has been desaturated in-computer, the colour seeping back in as Oz comes into view. For one thing, it looks like the kind of effect you could create by adjusting the tint on your television; for another, the timing is off: the contrast between Kansas and Oz shouldn't dawn on you, it should smack you upside the head.

Given that a Warner VP claims within the aforementioned featurette that today's viewers are distracted by mono and thus need their old films to be remixed in 5.1 (a practice I find mostly inoffensive so long as the original soundtrack remains on board, as it does here--albeit under "special features"), no surprise that some shmo couldn't resist trying to perfect this famous sleight-of-hand. But aside from the ominous rhetorical question of "what next?", I think it's important that we not blame on "today's viewers" in the same knee-jerk fashion for these acts of sacrilege, because you have to be conditioned to hate the old school, no?


Alex Jackson said...

Great, now I won't feel bad about not making the upgrade.

The 2000 DVD release of Wizard of Oz is pretty special as is. First DVD that I ever owned and one of my favorites.

Alex Jackson said...

Different subject, but I see it necessary to bash Ebert anew. Anybody notice that Roger Ebert has given Capote, North Country, and Good Night and Good Luck all four stars? I'm officially converted. The man is batshit insane and his praise has become meaningless.

As an entertainment writer, he's still pretty good. Which is probably why he doesn't annoy me as much as Stephanie Zacharek who is a real critic, albeit a real middlebrow one that writes for an audience of affluent, educated liberals.

I have to say that Ebert's are fun reviews to read and I'll be sure to see all three of those movies as soon as I have the opportunity. They're all very "buzz-worthy". Whether they are any good is another question entire, but they all look worth seeing and talking about.

But he's really overextended his praise. He's reminds of one of the off-screen grade school teachers in "The Incredibles" who constantly find new ways to celebrate mediocrity.

Dave Gibson said...

Each Friday I consult the usual suspects for the latest film reviews—finishing with Ebert’s site where he inevitably diverges from the pack by over praising mediocre Oscar bait while going far too easy on middling weekly fare. I’m reminded of the Simpsons episode where Homer becomes the local food critic: “This gets my lowest rating ever---seven thumbs up.” Forget about stars and thumbs—Ebert genuinely seems to think all of these movies are great. He still writes with tired competence—but, I don’t consider him a critic anymore—he’s unequivocally entered the realm of: “Paid Film Enthusiast” much like the guy who used to run my local video store, a nice fellow who labeled every film: “Tremendous!”.

RE: Wizard of OZ: EXXREME WICKED Edition ….Perhaps it’s a natural side effect from not having the quid to spend on expensive entertainment systems—but, I will never understand the consumer interest in “Souped Up” versions of classic films. As a card-carrying movie geek, I’m also rarely interested in most “Extras” either (working on “Chinatown” WAS a pleasure!)—so, maybe I’m missing why “Star Wars” is infinitely better without the matte lines or “The Wizard of Oz” needs a touch-up. It’s easier to forget that for all of its practical benefits—video is inherently a bastardization of any film. I have more DVD’s than is probably healthy—but, I still remind myself that none of them were created for an audience of one half-awake (or fully awake) dude lolling on the couch—I saw “Nashville” on the big screen for the first time a couple years ago and, despite previous multiple video viewings I had to concede that I’d never truly seen it before--- I’d rather wait another year for my local rep cinema to show it than to watch the DVD again. Of course without video, I never would have seen “The Magnificent Ambersons” or “My Tutor” so, you can see the bind I’m in.

Walter_Chaw said...

You have the definitive take on Ebert from a couple threads back - deserves resurrection here:

"As for those “thumbs”, sometimes I wonder if Ebert doesn’t regret those nasty little marketing gimmicks—watching an educated, grown man wax philosophical on the meanings of half-thumbs, big thumbs and enthusiastic thumbs is a little disturbing. "

Didn't mean to be evangelical on the whole thing, but glad you're on the team. Again, I wanna' disclaim that I owe Ebert a ton just getting me interested in the possibility of this as a career of all things - but he's not what he was and, like Welles and his sad/scathing/eloquent reposte to a comment on his weight, it seems something that he can only shed now, at his age, with great difficulty unlike our rudeness in even pointing it out.

For me, though, it's disappointment and not disdain - though the line between the two begins to fade. He hurts the medium, he hurts the art and practice of criticism, and in a lot of ways, I feel like everytime he champions the underserving, he hurts me personally. Irrational, I know.

By the way, everytime Dave mentions My Tutor I start sniffing the air like a panther (a fat panther) in heat.

Walter_Chaw said...

Travesty about Wizard of Oz by the way. Have to say that I have no childhood attachment to the film - too scared to watch it when I was really little, too cool to watch it when I was sorta little, too stupid to watch it in high school. I feel like I actually watched it over the course of decades - snips and snatches here and there and then overheard and then with the Dark Side of the Moon as the soundtrack, tripped out on some pharmaceutical cocktail in college before heading off the puke-stenched campus planetarium for Laser Floyd. Ah, art appreciation. Wiz of Oz was for me a gestalt patchwork experience.

The first time I sat down to watch it, start to finish, was probably as recently as 2000 with that DVD release. I liked how much it "opened" up my appreciation for Apocalypse Now's structure. It's since become one of my touchstones in speaking engagements when people complain about something being obscure ("But it's the same psychic structure as WoO!") or want to commiserate about the state of modern film ("Yep, the WoO malady: no brain, no heart, no courage.").

Agree with Dave that film is still the way to see film. There've been studies of brainwave patterns of people watching a projected image versus a broadcast one. One is active/engaged, the other simulates sleep patterns. No kidding.

Bill C said...

Y'know, I'm actually musing a piece comparing The Wizard of Oz, Wild at Heart, and The Muppet Movie--just waiting for the latter's remastered DVD. (Due out in exactly one month's time.) Thing is, the movie is a definitive modern myth; I mentioned Blade Runner completely incidentally in this posting, but even it falls into the WoO paradigm, with (ahem) Batty, Pris, and Leon seeking answers from Tyrell. (Does this make Deckard Dorothy? I dunno if it's that flexible.) You look at the dozens of remakes of The Three Musketeers over the years and even they hew closer to Baum than to Dumas.

Walter_Chaw said...

Exactamundo, Bill. WoO is seminal western myth - all the more so because its archetypes appearing in other works are no doubt the products of independent genesis. A study of WoO, Wild at Heart and The Muppet Movie (talk about an underestimated film - melancholia, thy name was Jimmy H.) would be just what the doctor ordered. "The Rainbow Connection" still makes me cry.

Even much of the inaction that you mention in these films (the WW not just "getting" Dorothy or Deckard not staking out Tyrell) falls out for me along the lines of nightmare logic. All of Apocalypse Now reads that way for me, anyway. It's why I like Svankmajer's Alice so much, incidentally, in that what's lost in these seriomythic quest stories so often is that sense that nothing about it makes sense - and yet it remains the "straightest" most direct route towards dissecting the human ineffable. Something very ennobling about WoO in that it makes me feel less lonesome in the unraveling of it. (Most films, you deconstruct them in a satisfactory manner and you're made to feel like a leper.)

Just finished conducting an interview with Noah Baumbach for The Squid and the Whale. Fantastic flick - no hint of the verging-now-on-hateful Wes Anderson snark and home to a wondrous ending. Also saw 3 Extremes. Wow.

To be fair and for the record on Ebert this week and then me:

Capote (4/4 - 2/4)
North Country (4/4 - 1/4)
Stay (3.5/4 - 1.5/4)
Good Night, And Good Luck (4/4 - 2.5/4)
Doom (1/4 - 0.5/4)
Dreamer (3/4 - 1/4)

So Ebert liked all but one, and I liked one just a little bit. I don't know what to say about that - but if he's consistent one way, maybe I'm consistent in the other. Glass houses and all that - maybe I'm as blinkered as Ebert is - I don't have any perspective on it and, more, wonder if a lot of my bitterness towards him is the same as the people who write me hate mail is towards me. "How could you" offered as a plaintive cry. It's a tough question.

Scott said...

I'm wondering if the disconnect many feel with Ebert is more generational than we might suspect. I'm not saying that because Ebert is over sixty he's 'out of touch'; I am saying that life shifts us in different directions, and perhaps Ebert -- after operations, the death of Siskel, etc. -- is at a point where he appreciates the small treasures found in a film and magnifies them to fill his whole field of vision. One would like to think that critical distance would endure, but who knows? Perhaps as he ages he brings a lighter touch to what he sees; he loves film for what it is and what it can do. This is just speculation, of course, and any criticism of HIS criticism is justified. But I wonder. I wonder if he simply is finding himself more aligned with the 'common moviegoer', appreciating a film for what IS there, rather for what's NOT there. We get sentimental as we get older, I think, and Ebert's lovefests of recent years may, in fact, be not the sign of anything lost but a contentment with life that shows in his craft, in his willigness to enjoy film on a more populist level than in the past.

It reminds me of a quote that Van Sant said said recently regarding GOOD WILL HUNTING and FINDING FORRESTER -- that he wanted to see if there was a way to make a film for 'everybody'.Meaning,we are all obssessed with the auteur theory, but there must be way to bring cinema back to its egalitarian roots, to create something for the masses that is not pandering and not obsessed with the director's own ego. There's something to what Van Sant was saying -- a notion that cinema can be inclusive beyond the director's own internal obsessions.

And it goes back to Ebert: to whom does the critic serve, himself or the public? Whom does the filmmaker serve, his own intentions or the audience's needs?

Walter_Chaw said...

Here's something from Walter Murch:

"The danger of present-day cinema is that it can suffocate its subjects by its very ability to represent them. It doesn't possess the built-in escape valves of ambiguity that painting, music, literature, radio drama, and black and white film automatically have, simply by virtue of their sensory incompleteness - an incompleteness that engages the imagination of the viewer as compensation for what is only evoked by the artist."

The artist, the critic - they should only ever serve the medium.

The surest way to earn my ire is by making a film that hates film (American Splendor) or being a critic that hates movies enough to not expect them to be great (take your pick): no matter the subject material, no matter the ease or the difficulty of the production. Criticism is an art in and of itself - not saying that my stuff is art, just that it tries to be - it's unique to that which it criticizes. The critical process is distinct from the "creative" one - but one can be complimentary to the other. People don't argue that when it comes to painting or dance or theater or architecture - but they sure as hell struggle with film.

Scott said...

'The artist, the critic -- they should only ever seve the medium.'

A great way to put it, Walter. How to 'serve' that medium truthfully and honorably, there lies the rub. One man's honor is another man's hackery.

Another thought: At a certain point, when it comes to criticism, you end up basically arguing against someone's taste in film. Period. Ebert and Rosenbaum and A.O.Scott can all write elegant, articulate pieces that do expand what criticism can and should be -- but I still end up disagreeing with them completely. I appreciate their prose, while disagreeing with their taste. That seems to me unique to criticism -- I can admire how the practitioner utilizes the medium (prose) and object completely to the message (the opinion).

Chad Evan said...

Everyone keeps pointing out that Ebert is a good prose stylists despite his critical cataracts, and I have to say that I just don't see it. In the past, sure; but lately, I'd bet that if you took his name off the reviews they wouldn't attract any attention at all. As for as I'm concerned he's fallen to the level of Berardinelli: pedestrian, heavy on plot summary and fatally boring.

Scott said...

I agree that his writing is not as sharp or as tight, recently. Point well taken. Occasionally, though, he can still inject himself into his pieces in a way that is alternatively heartful or amusing. (To me, anyways...)

Siskel once pointed out that he felt Ebert was much more a columnist while he (Siskel) was the reporter, and I would agree. Ebert still does op-ed pieces for other sections of the paper, and his is a style that is open and accesible.

I think, too, related to the above point, that we sometimes forget that film critics have different audiences, and who that critic is writing to determines the content and style -- to a certain extent. Ebert is appealing to the 'mainstream' readers of his newspaper, readers who are not necessarily hardcore film addicts; Rosenbaum and Hoberman and Armond White and (dare I say it) Mr.Chaw are writing for a much more specific audience that is composed of amateur (and professional) cineastes.
This does not excuse what others may perceive as a decline in critical taste and quality, but it may explain why certain critics cannot get into the cinematic sideroads that would lend their reviews a greater weight and authenticity to those who live and breathe the silver screen.

Walter_Chaw said...

This is true, but writers in a paper's sports section don't have to "dumb down" their columns for the "common man", do they? Fact is that in this chicken/egg scenario, major daily newspapers are no longer hiring "critics", they're hiring "entertainment writers." This is word for word a "thanks, but no thanks" email I got when I was up for the Denver Post position a few years ago. "Sorry, we like your work and admire what you've accomplished in a short time. But we're not looking for film critics, we're looking for entertainment writers." It's an email that I've printed out and had framed - it's hanging over my computer in my office, right in between my posters for The Conversation and Night Moves. When you hire entertainment writers to write your film reviews - what you get are vanilla consumer reportage that all emulate the bland prose style of an Ebert, for instance - his success has become the only yardstick for popular film criticism - and as he declines, he's dragging the whole shebang down with him.

Back to the sports section: there's never a question about elitism when they talk about auteurism (the Joe Gibbs defense, the flavor of a Mariucci team, the character of a Shanahan-run offense, and so on), never a problem with taking offense at subpar performances or being deeply offended by a lack of effort or funds misspent. In fact, sports writing (which pays, roughly speaking, about three times what film writing pays) and sports talk radio and sports magazines are among the most fervently disseminated, aggressively advertiser-pursued products in the United States. A lot of it has to do with the gambling aspect, of course, especially with the NFL - but you read what people are writing and it's insular, complex, and requires a certain level of knowledge. It's written for people who are conversant with sports and it doesn't require, require that the references be carefully-explained, that the terminology by Catholic, none of that bullshit that applies to apologies for bad film "criticism."

What you say, Scott, is dead on, but to me it's not something to shrug and accept with fatalism but rather to point to with horror. Why is film criticism so democratic when writing about uber-menchen, fucking strapping on a helmet to assault another genetic freak, not? Again - don't misread what I'm saying - I love pro and college sports and go to the sports page before the entertainment section as a rule(even in the New York Times) - but it doesn't track with me that film critics should pander to their imagined audiences. Again - the only responsibility they should have is to the medium. I don't know how the medium is best served by giving 72% of every single film you review 3 stars or better.

I'm not saying that I'm better than Ebert and Shalit and Travers and all the other guys making roughly a billion times what I'm making (tell you the truth, I'm always about ten days away from homelessness and welfare) - I'm just saying I'm just poor enough right now to have the luxury to be righteous.

Which tells me that they might know something about how precarious their position is that I don't. And that Scott, you might be right, absolutely, but it doesn't make it right. More - it's not even consistent within one paper. How frustrating is that?

Scott said...

Well-argued, Walter.

The comparison you make with the sports section is particularly apt, especially regarding the fact that most writers assume that their writers know as much as, if not more than, they themselves do. And I've always found that most sports-writing is written at a level that is more articulate and insightful than that found in the entertainment sections.

Perhaps the problem is that most 'ordinary' people don't know what film criticism actually IS. Meaning, they think that film 'reviews' equals film 'criticism'; 'I liked it or I didn't like it' being all that they need to know. My family always says that 'Well, the critics said that it was good'. 'Good' being the only barometer of what a good film critic (or review, or analysis, or whatever) can and should be. Teaching over here in Cambodia, I've tried to explain to students what a 'film critic' is, as there is certainly no such thing in Cambodia; they're barely making films at all over here, and the ones that are made are shitty ghost stories that are poorly constructed, shot, edited. (It's Cambodia -- whaddaya want, right?) Point is, explaining what a critic does, what they are supposed to do, was more difficult than I anticipated. Maybe I don't know myself.

People are not conditioned to think of cinema itself as something that can have an intellectual counterpoint in prose. I guess sports fans don't think that way either, but I would argue that good film writing and good sports writing are two different breeds. Good sports writing, in my book, inevitably centres around the people who play the game -- who they are, why they do it, their fuck-ups and their redemption. Film writing is about, well, FILM -- what it does, and why, and what it all means. This is not an easy to thing to write and it is not an easy thing to read; it takes education, time, space, and a certain confidence in oneself and one's own opinions. Most people will never get to (or perhaps WANT to) get to that level.

Is that a sign (or sigh) of resignment on my part? Perhaps. But I think the value of what you're doing does not lie in the masses who will appreciate (or the paycheck that results, by the sounds of it.) The value is that one individual reader, ONE, will read something you write and think: "Huh. That's interesting." Can we ask for more than that from life? To touch another person that way? Do we WANT to ask for anything more than that? Perhaps the culture can't be saved, no, butindividual minds can always be expanded, and the pleasure that such reading affords can be given BY you TO someone else. Only one person. What's going on inside of your head will somehow have escaped and trigged something inside of their head.

In my mind, that's a hell of a lot of power to have, mass distribution be damned. (Even if, you know, it pays a bit better.)

Good discussion -- I appreciate the forum and your responses.

Scott said...

Oops -- the first sentence should read that "...most writers assume that their READERS should..."

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

Regarding Ebert, I don't know what you guys are talking about. Champagnes are popping in my house just for the fact that he didn't give "Dreamer" a 4 star. I read the same Gus VanSant interview a few days ago, and his point that he made "good will hunting" for the masses, like artists used to do in 19th century, sounds like an easy cop out. especially after the fact that he had said in an interview that he was able to make the last three reductivist fare because of financial freedom he got from earlier films. don't get me wrong, i love the guy, i saw elephant for fifth time last night coincidentally and i think it's a masterpeice. perfectly balanced.

p.s. just saw "brown bunny" too last night. fucking loved it. i don't know what those other stupid assholes were talking about. not a big fan of star ratings but 3 1/2 stars. I would've given it 4 if gallo wouldn't have acted in it. his performance was pitch perfect.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

just wanna add, i usually try and stay away from denoting "sell-out" tags to artists and didn't mean to imply it in vanSant's case either, but something about his BS justification irked me. I would've much preffered if he would've said "i had to do it to put food on table"

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

or "I was curious how things worked in hollywood".

Carl Walker said...

This Friday, after scanning Walter's ratings (havne't had time to read the reviews in detail yet), I came to the conclusion that this was simply not a good weekend to go to the theaters. My point is, I'm not sure Ebert ever wants his readers to think that. It may be pandering, but then again I wonder if he doesn't feel a bit of loyalty to the medium, not the true kind that you were referring to Walter, but that kind of championing the medium that takes the form of defending it against everything else (it started with television but it's not just that anymore). Ebert wants me to think that it's always (or at least, usually) a good weekend to go to the theaters, basically. But I might be wrong.

As far as movies and sports, it is taken for granted that sports are insular (I sure don't understand most of them) but movies are supposed to be for everyone. I'm tempted to say that, since there are still so many "average" people who hate critics even as wimpy as they are and love the movies that they hate, newspapers should just bring in some critics like Walter anyway since those "average" people are lost to begin with. Yet of course there are the middlebrow people, the prestige/Oscar movie lovers who probably do lean on Ebert & Co. the hardest. Or they are those people who, getting back to the earlier point, are going to the theaters this weekend anyway and so they want to know what will be the closest to good on a relative scale. So, unfortunately, these editors probably do know what they are doing, to the detriment of all us film elitists.

Jack_Sommersby said...

Given that a Warner VP claims within the aforementioned featurette that today's viewers are distracted by mono and thus need their old films to be remixed in 5.1 (a practice I find mostly inoffensive so long as the original soundtrack remains on board, as it does here--albeit under "special features")

Actually, if I've seen the film enough times in Mono, then I prefer to hear it in Mono even on DVD. I'd seen The Terminator I don't know how many times on VHS and LaserDisc, and when the special edition with the 5.1 came out, I was distracted by the mix and switched back to Mono, which I'm glad was an option the DVD afforded me.

Bill C said...

Too true, Jack. I think you and I even spoke about that back when the Terminator DVD came out. Didn't mind that remix too much because the mono track had long been ditched on VHS by the time I got around to buying a copy in favour of awful reprocessed stereo, albeit awful reprocessed stereo that still had all the original sound effects. The worst remix I've maybe ever heard is on the Special Edition of Mary Poppins, which makes it sound like Michael Bay's Mary Poppins. Luckily that DVD, too, includes a monaural listening option.

Walter_Chaw said...

Feel like I was a little oblique with the Murch quote up there - meant to comment on Bill's observations about the new Wizard of Oz release. Another Murch story - he inserted discrete noises of a thunderstorm in a few of the all-white scenes in THX-1138 with the knowledge that as film degrades, lines and "chucks" would appear more obviously against a white background and so, in anticipation of that inevitable decay, inserted storm noises to integrate it into the film's audio/visual logic. Of course with the new "Director's" fucked with edition of THX 1138, all that's moot.

tmhoover said...

I would go further than to say that most pre-5.1 movies don't need the upgrade: I would say that most current movies don't need it, either. Aside from the big obnoxous blockbuster hoo-has, the mixes of most movies are remarkably uncomplicated- especially when we're talking about some Woody Allenish gabfest with minimal sound effects. I do review them, and often positively, on the basis of whether they're nominally creative in interpreting their delicate sounds of nothing. But really, who are we kidding? It's rather strange that an entire industry has cropped up trying to sell us an aural experience none of us really needed, and though I'm one who dutifully took the plunge I now find myself wondering why I'm DTS capable when 98% of the movies I rent are off-the-A-list enough to be incapable of spelling "Dolby".

Back on the subject of Gus Van Sant and Good Will Hunting: I don't care what his motives for making it were. All I know is that it was a) completely terrible, and b) easily repeatable by anyone. Rob Reiner or Chris Columbus could have easily made GWH; only one person could have made "My Own Private Idaho", and "Idaho's" are in short enough supply as it is. Let the experiment die, Gus, and just give us the weird shit that's the reason God put you on this earth.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...


Alex Jackson said...

It seemed to me that Van Sant was hella bored making Good Will Hunting. He dedicated it to William S. Burroughs and credited Harmony Korine (he still worships the goofball long after Larry Clark has distanced himself from him) as the "jail consultant". Painfully obvious grasps at trying to make the picture his own. That had nothing to do with anything.

Chad Evan said...

If Van Sant wanted to experiment with a populist movie or whatever then I guess one was acceptable, but did it really need to be followed up with the awful Finding Forrester. Now that was unforgiveable.