November 28, 2008

Bond Upon the Brain!

It's funny, you know--I finally got around to seeing (or, maybe, worked up the courage to see) Synecdoche, New York and, to be expected, it just kicked my ass all over the place. The typical rounds of self-doubt and serious introspection followed, but in the end I'm still thinking about James Bond.

Of course, it probably doesn't help my state of mind that 1967's five-director pile-up Casino Royale should be the first film I see after Synecdoche, New York. How's this for a mindfuck: seven characters carrying the title of James Bond, 007; Ursula Andress as Vesper Lynd; Orson Welles playing Le Chiffre as a jolly magician; the testicle torture replaced with a face-eating acid trip co-starring Peter O'Toole; and Woody Allen. The most I can take from this two-hour-long non sequitur is that the denizens of Swinging London already knew how fucked up they were and, moreover, didn't care. How about putting Casino Royale on a double bill with Blowup? If anything, they're self-aware enough to prove that the era didn't need a dick-filled haranguing from Austin Powers. (Even when he was relevant, was Mike Myers ever relevant?) In fact, let's just go nuts and stick Synecdoche at the end of that and make a triple bill about the follies of unfiltered creativity. Now there's an interesting haranguing, considering the ineffable passage of time in Kaufman's opus is roughly analogous to the time that has already passed since 1967. All three of these films share love-hate relationships with beautiful women that go unrealized until it's too late--and how can you not link Caden Cotard to Thomas' eternally-distracted quest to find the body that may have never existed?

For all of its proselytizing bullshit and seizure-inducing action sequences, I
liked Quantum of Solace--liked what it was saying about the responsibility to protect the masses, placed in direct opposition with the desire to simply kill the people who cause trouble. But beyond that, I fell in love with the spectacle that surrounded it: I loved the title, I loved the poster, and although "Another Way to Die" was pretty horrible, I've watched the title sequence on YouTube a few more times than I'd care to admit--if only to hear those first few notes, which really did represent the throwback at which the filmmakers were grasping before it all went south. From the moment I saw Quantum's ludicrous single-letter lapel pins, I fucking wanted one. I'm not immune to the iconography, and frankly, I don't want to be. I just don't want to be shackled to it--I was genuinely surprised that Quantum of Solace's olive branch to the die-hards wasn't enough to please many of them. Why is the gun barrel sequence at the end of the movie? Why is it so fast? The reasons are obvious, but the infallible tradition outweighs such revelations. Needless to say, I'm worried about Bond 23.

But who am I, and what are my intentions? I should probably mention at this point that it was Bond who lured me into cinema. I can still remember the first time I saw Pierce Brosnan walk through the gun barrel sequence on the big screen, after about a hundred iterations passed through my VCR: the moment, I think, when I realized how different the movies were from any other form of entertainment. I knew that the movies were larger than life from the moment I first laid eyes on them, but it wasn't until that little white orb shot across the theater that I understood that fact. For all of my intellectual desire to see popular culture turned on its ear, how often do I strive to relive that moment of clarity through safe, familiar images? More than ten years later, on top of all the ideas that it forced me to confront about my life and the people in it, Synecdoche, New York reminded me that I still have a lot of preconceived notions about how art should intertwine with my life. So Casino Royale '67 brings up an interesting thought: is it really such a weird, obtuse film, or am I merely put off by a property that would dare take something so famously formulized and mold it into something that is, indeed, entirely without formula or even the most rudimentary sense of logic?

So with all of that in mind, I took the opportunity to revisit another icon of my early cinematic education: "Mystery Science Theater 3000"--or, at least, its modern incarnation, RiffTrax; more specifically, Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy's take on Casino Royale '06. I've been somewhat back and forth on how I feel about this brand of entertainment as an adult, but after sitting down and listening to this track (and a few episodes of the old show, for good measure), I wasn't outright offended by the very fact of it. It's just that these guys are... not really all that funny.

I mean, I have no qualms about ripping on A View to a Kill, as my college chums and I did on many-a drunken night. We all loved Bond movies, but from the moment Roger Moore lets loose with his first protracted moan of impending pain--out of, like, five--you're through taking the movie seriously. (Unsurprisingly, we rarely bothered to finish the film.) And forget the fact that they're turning their cannons toward a great film--I'm even on board to make fun of Casino Royale, considering that you should be willing to skewer your own sacred cows every now and then to keep your sensibilities in check. But there's something fundamentally wrong about being spoonfed by such a secondhand source, isn't there? Doubtful that I would have the same cinematic curiosity if it hadn't been for "Mystery Science Theater 3000"--which in all likelihood served as my introduction to Japanese cinema and, yep, the mod '60s, too. I laughed at the awful jokes thrown out by the hosts because it's all I knew. But there comes a point when you've seen enough movies on your own and you have to know more. Context, personal boundaries. "MST3K" and RiffTrax are indiscriminate and oppressive in their simpleminded snark: there's no real feeling of camaraderie between Murphy and Nelson, who are so carefully scripted as to make the exercise moot. They're not funny, and they're not defiant. They simply are.

Sure, I'll find it superficially impressive that you can find appropriate moments to name-check both François Mitterrand and Heike Kagero from SNES classic "Super Punch-Out!!"--but the people who would get those references should be too old for this shit anyway. Who, exactly, are you trying to please by simultaneously decrying Casino Royale as being too silly while berating it for not kowtowing to each convention of the Bond series? There's something a little pathetic about trying to please everyone at all times, and it's ridiculous to try and pretend that it still has merit when you're ten years out of the gate. Genuine subversion is a lot easier to swallow when you realize that art isn't about everything that you want. I like to think that I'm learning that. At any rate, I still love James Bond, and I'll always get a little quake from the gun barrel sequence--but I'm not thinking about it when Sean Connery retrieves his money clip from a mad assassin with infinite disdain; when Roger Moore empties his Walther into a defeated billionaire's midsection; when Daniel Craig cradles a betrayed friend in his arms before tossing him in a dumpster. It's an introduction into this world of cinema, not its alpha and omega, and I've already had my turn--so who am I to cling to it like a jealous ex?


Anonymous said...

A great post but also wanted to express how much I'm enjoying 007 Thursdays, Ian. They have become a weekly highlight for me.

Walter_Chaw said...

Ian - wanna' ditto your shoutout for the poster for the new Bond. It's fucking awesome: dead sexy and in medias in a way that the film never was for me. Genuinely - one of the best posters of the year.

Be curious to hear what other candidates for that title might be?


rachel said...

Some of my favorites:

Trouble the Water
Synecdoche New York
The Pleasure of Being Robbed (God, I wish that font were less deadly)
Man on Wire
My Blueberry Nights
The Bank Job

One thing I can't decide is which film had the best series of posters. I'm thinking it was either Cloverfield (one, two, three) or Teeth (one, two, three). Man, that's a toughie.

Bill C said...

Partial to the posters for W., BURN AFTER READING, and, um, this poster for "The Sarah Connor Chronicles" (a show I'm growing fonder of every week; Garrett Dillahunt as a cyborg? Fuck yeah).

rachel said...

Fun fact about that SCC poster, Bill: its photographer, Jill Greenberg, was recently mired in controversy for her unflatteringly manipulated photos of John McCain.

Jefferson said...

Dillahunt elevates everything he touches -- including Deadwood, in two different roles over the series' course.

Berandor said...

Wow. That was the same guy? Thanks for the heads-up, Jefferson. I never noticed that. And yes, those two were eminently memorable portrayals, even in a show like Deadwood.

Bill C said...

Just watched THE DARK KNIGHT on Blu-ray. Full review Monday, but if anyone's curious, the aspect ratio alternates between 2.40:1 and 1.78:1 to accommodate the IMAX footage (which looks appreciably better than the 35mm bulk). Incredible audio; the mix sounded a lot less muddy than it did at my IMAX venue.

theoldboy said...

From Bryant Frazer's Postal review:

"assembled with all the cognitive élan of a slow 15-year-old virgin working out his idea of the Best Movie Ever in a darkened bedroom on the second floor of his parents' house"

Ahem. It was called The Super-Duper-Uber-Mega Movie and I take umbrage at my former self being called "slow."

Berandor said...

A propos of RiffTrax: are there serious commentaries around to download? I saw a few nice video essays on YouTube, but is there anything remotely scholarly for the audiomarket? It seems like a great opportunity, but the ones I found tended to be either riffs or fan-commentary pointing out story background, nitpicks and such stuff. I'd like to have a more hands-on experience of analysing/interpreting film.

A propos of nothing: what's up with Ebert? First he does a great (but admittedly easy target) blog post on disappearing movie critics and reducing such criticism to 500 words max, and now the awesome (but admittedly easy-target) review of Expelled? That text shows Ebert knows his stuff. I'm impressed.

And the blogger password for this comment is: folly. Fitting.

Bill C said...

Wow. Yeah, Ebert's always been a good armchair theologist, but that's quite possibly the best thing he's written in a decade.

Bill C said...

Just to nip the inevitable in the bud: no, no Friday theatrical reviews this week. The only thing really opening anyway is FROST/NIXON. Since I've seen it, lemme just say that Langella's great, but it's a truly hacky piece of work--Opie at his most reductive.

Berandor said...

Mind if I ask a procedural question? If you sit down to watch a movie you're going to review, do you simply sit down and watch it like any other viewer? Do you have a notepad you're scribbling in when you notice something peculiar? Or do you make a point of doing both, e.g. watching some movies more than once, first as a "normal viewer" and then with a more analytical outlook?

Jefferson said...

I've seen a lot of those light-up pens go scribble-scribble at screenings.

Walter_Chaw said...

Light up pens are horrible inventions. Rude. Uncouth. You can tell the rank amateurs, the tourists, the Philistines by them. It's their only positive function.

I used to bring a pad with me - I'd fill one a year. Did it for the first three years. Stopped doing it the last four or so - seemed to me that I couldn't read what I was writing in any case and never referred to it either in the first place. All the ancillary info you need about the film seems to be online now anyway.

I like these procedural questions.

Berandor said...

So, how important do you think film analysis is in a review?

I just restarted my website (after a long hiatus), and in my reviews, I want to go further than "great camerawork" and say why it's great or what's great about it. Not just hollow phrases.

So in watching "Zodiac" last night for my first review, I for example noted how during the scene where the killer (who may or may not be Zodiac) pretend-fixes a car tire, the driver's baby begins to wail, and how that sound alone drives the tension up.

Now, I didn't use that in the review, but if I had wanted to comment on sound design and so on, I could have used that example. I'm not sure I would have remembered it, however, if I hadn't written it down (which was okay, because I was sitting in my living room and not in a dark theatre).

Are scenes that I notice when I watch a film not that important if I forget them afterwards, or do I need to train my memory to keep those scenes alive, or rush out of the theatre to immediately note those moments on a napkin? Or are those specific examples useless for a general review, anyway, and more stuff for closer analysis in a different venue?

Alex Jackson said...

I tend to be a little ambivalent to film analysis as I'm more interested in what values are embodied by the work and analysis is only useful to support a film as an ethical or aesthetic argument.

But yeah, for pete's sake there aren't any rules when writing reviews, particularly on the Internet. Don't feel obligated to keep close analysis out of your review. This isn't a daily paper and you don't have to keep it under 500 words.

rachel said...

Alex, re: your Go-Getter review:

Gotta call foul on that 600 word preamble of yours. On one hand, you describe the film-watching habits of yourself and approximately no other creature on Earth. On the other, you fail to tell us why you watch films in the first place. Without that admission, the writing seems rather pointless, except as a conveyor of at least a couple of statements which I don’t believe make any sense.

-- Greatness is a relative concept. A great film is merely a film which is better than most other films. A film's greatness decreases every time another superior film is released. That most new films are not superior to the canon does not contradict the fact that the canon is a beach that is always in the process of being washed away, its sand deposited elsewhere. To dedicate yourself to the canon of any moment (that is, to pine Fukuyama-like for the End of Film History) is to admit a preference for drowning over acknowledging that sand is not concrete. Put the kettle on: many "great" films will be mediocre soon enough. Yes, even those hand-picked by Ed Gonzalez.

-- "It's sort of the height of arrogance to believe you have something to express that hasn't already been expressed by somebody else better and more eloquently." The filmed image is one century old. The written word is fifty centuries old. As a writer your first priority should be to avoid reminding people of your medium’s irrelevancy, unless that reminder is contained within your statement of retirement. The fact is, compared to a writer, even the stupidest filmmaker has got rather brilliant odds of saying something (pun!) novel.

In any case, I absolutely refuse to see the end of all film production until Emo Phillips stars in the David Lynch biopic. Hey, we’re all waiting on something.

Bill C said...

I really want Alex to respond (fight! fight!), so not to sidetrack things, but Ebert's Top 20 of 2008 is now online; and while I think Roger's in peak form as a writer, I must perform the following public service:

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE *sucks*. If it wins the Best Picture award it's ludicrously being groomed for, it will devalue that trophy almost more than CRASH did.

Do Not Believe the Hype.

That is all.

O'JohnLandis said...

I thought I'd give Alex a chance to respond to Rachel, so I won't bother him yet.

(Let's just say for now that his Go-Getter piece bothered me in many of the usual ways his stuff bothers me. But Bill, if you're interested in a fight about Alex's work to keep things interesting around here, surely you're subject to some of the criticism for publishing it.)

Instead, I'd like to respond to Rachel's criticism:

Rachel is smart and clever, but her "greatness" paragraph is absolute bullshit. Great does not imply greatest. "Out of these 500 films, I've listed the 500 greatest," is logically incoherent. "Every film ever made is great," is perfectly coherent, however unlikely. There is only one requirement for "great" to make sense when describing a film: there has to be some possibility that a film might not be great. If you can recognize the possibility of flaws, it doesn't matter if films actually exhibit those flaws for the concepts of great and good and poor and pig shit to make sense.

So whatever greatness is, it's not relative, unless you're straining "relative" to simply mean "hard to prove." If you say something is great, that's an objective statement, or at least an attempt at one. If it's ever reasonable to say it's great, it always will be great. And it's hard to argue against objectivity in aesthetics if you're claiming that greatness is constantly being remeasured. How do you measure something that's subjective? How do you measure something that doesn't exist?

Bill C said...

Criticize me all you like, John; I would never deny my role in publishing Alex's piece and have always held myself self-flagellatingly accountable for the site's content. But do you want me to consider myself the de facto author of the piece and defend it as such?

For the record, I was kinda being facetious. But I think Rachel brought up some good points and didn't want to seem like I was cockblocking her with my SLUMDOG aside. And yes, I do enjoy a good debate, if nothing else as a reminder that this shit isn't written--or read--in a vacuum.

rachel said...


Thanks for not cockblocking me.


You can call bullshit on that paragraph, but I’d argue that we just worked on something helpful together. When film is discussed, we have asserted there’s at least two definitions of greatness: the first, which I laid out, and the second which you have outlined. Understanding that these two definitions exist does a lot to lay bare the dysfunction inherent to following an infant medium. Specifically, it could help explain why I typically meet two sorts of film people: those who can make themselves a little excited about upcoming releases and are also fond of compiling Top 10 lists; and those whose lists of films are not regulated by quotas, and who are harder pressed to be curious about any film released after a particular year. You might say that after this year they stopped running after the train.

The first definition of greatness is relative and results in a finite number of examples. The second is immutable and results in a potentially infinite number of examples. For those committed to the second definition, once the concept of infinity catches up with them, it’s natural to wish the film industry would just quit it. Of course, that a person might react so speaks to film history’s alluring brevity. I can’t imagine a lot of lit majors waking up, shocked and disappointed to that they won’t be able to read all books.

Top 10 lists are statements of greatness where greatness appears to be employed in the first definition. A film on a Top 10 list needn’t be great in any objective sense, just good enough compared to other films to get onto the thing. I bring them up because Filmfreakcentral puts out a Top 10 list every year. I imagine the writers could, if they wanted, put together a list of just the films that year they thought were immutably great, which every year would differ in number. Top 10 lists implicitly endorse greatness as a relative concept. At least, I can’t think of what other purpose they would serve.

It should be said that Alex’s review seems unable to decide which definition of greatness is meant. To express satisfaction for all the movies so far made would seem to endorse greatness as immutable. However, he also says that a film shouldn’t have been made because Godard did it better. And he recommends watching films from lists that are again, of mostly arbitrary length, where films prove they are great by competing for spots.

Perhaps it is easiest to say that there is greatness in an objective sense, and there is greatness in the sense in which it ever tends to be uttered: that is, in the relative, unreasonable, absolute bullshit, sense.

Bill C said...

As an aside, Rachel, I have a proposition for you if you want to e-mail me sometime (

Alex Jackson said...


I'm unsure what exactly to say and it's not because you're right and I'm wrong, but because this has gotten so convoluted.

I'll offer two modest talking points in rebuttal.

1. Great is relative to the not-great, but not quite so much to the "also great". Is Marie Antoinette better than Terminator 2? Is Terminator 2 better than The Manchurian Candidate? Is The Manchurian Candidate better than Marie Antoinette? I don't know and any answer that I come up would be one that I wouldn't be very interested in strongly defending. I think once you reach the level of great, distinctions between the selected become rather minuite.

But are any of those three films better than Zack and Miri, Max Payne, or Twilight? Yes! They all are. I say that with no hesitation whatsoever.

I can appreciate your beach metaphor, but I think the idea that "great" films well become mediocre once superior ones come along is a fallacy. Canons are always changing, but they are usually still drawing from the very cream of the crop.

2. Great is a personal and subjective judgment. To me it means nothing more than "I want that movie on DVD so I'll be able to watch it whenever I want". Or at least that's a good index. In the review I said, "It isn't great art, it doesn't evoke an especially strong or complex emotional reaction, and it doesn't ask any difficult questions". Which of course, suggests that great art should be trying to do something like that, but those kind of things should be expected to differ from person to person.

But anyway, saying that Great is subjective would mean that I can't rely on film canons, right? Well, you're right. Film canons reguarly include films I don't like and exclude ones that I do.

But I would still maintain that it's better to rely on film canons than be cast completely off into the wilderness. I do see great films every year, but I think that there is more gold to be found in sorting through any of the lists I mentioned than the New Releases shelf at Blockbuster. Do you disagree?

Jefferson said...

Bill: Apropos of a mention you made of Murnau's Sunrise some time back, I'm sure you've seen that it's out on DVD now.

Anonymous said...

I think the second paragraph in the Venture Bros. review is misplaced.

Bill C said...

I'll let Ian be the final arbiter, but I don't think it is; certainly hasn't been touched since it first went live.

O'JohnLandis said...

Rachel, you got caught using a lazy defintion of great and are bending over backwards to come up with ludicrous justifications for it. Forget Alex--he's not smart enough to know better--but your definition of greatness is as awkward and childish as the material that prompted its creation. Great is little more than what's great to you right now? I hope you don't die, lest a generation of film lovers try to get by without great films.

Apart from the fact that it makes me sad and frustrated and people might want me to be sad and frustrated, the idea that there are so many definitions of great--that aesthetic criticism lies battered and near death at the feet of a generation of petulant infants--is wholly wrong and harmful to everyone. Your Top 10 examples are evasive: a Top 10 is certainly relative, you're still confusing great with greatest, and a yearly Top 10 is usually worded with "best" as opposed to "greatest" to avoid this counterfeit confusion, which if it even existed, would also be evasive.

Your assumption that your second definition of great would lead to people hoping for the end of filmmaking is weird and alien, so I'm hoping that it's Alex's fault for bringing up that line of thought. In any event, I've never heard of anyone from either camp hoping for the end of filmmaking.

People using the first definition could be just as fatigued by infinity since they have to see everything that's released every year in order to determine what's great (when greatness is as much about what ELSE exists as it is about what might itself be great). And if lovers of great literature can deal with the fact that they won't be able to read every great novel, why can't lovers of great cinema do the same thing?

Alex's confusion proves very little.

Alex Jackson said...

Forget Alex--he's not smart enough to know better--

Ouch! You're hella mean John Landis.

Whenever we get into these kind of discussions, John keeps saying that there is some kind of objective standard for accessing quality, but as far as I know he has never defined this objective standard concretely enough so we can definitively determine which films are great and which are not.

John Landis, is Birth of a Nation a great film? Star Wars? Un Chien Andalou? In The Company of Men? The House Bunny?

Is this sort of thing obvious to those who scored highly on the Stanford-Binet and only confusing to us 'tards?

So far, simple consensus is the only remotely scientific form of greatness I am willing to acknowledge. And even then, if there isn't something in popular culture that fails to resonate with you, I think you're either insincere or soulless.

Alex Jackson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rachel said...

Nice vim, John. Let me put it this way.

In 1910 a man who was 5’10’’ was taller than average; by 1980 that was the average height. In the future it will probably be on the short side. You would say that if it were reasonable to call that man tall in 1910 that it should be reasonable to call him tall forever, because of some as-yet-unmentioned inalienable quality that the 5’10’’ man possesses. (Perhaps you define male tallness as whatever is above 5’4’’. Legitimate!) When I say he was tall back then but is no longer tall you say I’m confusing the terms “tall” and “tallest.” He is not the tallest now, but he is still tall, and will remain that way. Tallness is objective, period.

Alex would call the man tall if he were taller than Alex. However, Alex wouldn’t understand that anybody might be taller than 5’10’’, because that does not describe himself. As a consequence he might say that anybody who thinks they can look down at a 5’10’’ guy is nuts.

You say it is good that I don’t die because then there would be no tall people. I’m not sure what you are talking about. You say that Top 10 lists aren’t about who’s tall at all; it’s about who is far up! (How dare I confuse the concepts.) You say that it is wrong and harmful to have more than one definition of “tall” (“greater height than average”; “greater height than 5’4’’”; “greater height than Alex”). You don’t provide any evidence of the harm this has caused. I begin to suspect you are bit of a semantic bigot. For my own sake, I don’t care how many ways to use a word there are, as long as people make clear about how they’re using it and don’t jump from one meaning to another. Mostly because I don’t feel like accusing Scott Thompson of homophobia. You know?

But my acknowledgement of different definitions doesn't mean I'm somehow not interested in seeing tall people, or that I'm helping to cause people to shrink. I just know that there are ideas about what constitutes tallness now, and that they are going to change, because so do people.

rachel said...


Berandor said...

Is your link to a nonexistant post some kind of postmodern critique? ;-)

And the linked video is defnitely not great, no matter the definition of greatness.

Your analogy to bodily height fails. When I was a kid, 120 minutes meant a *long* movie, now even stupid comedies may run that long, it's more or less standard. That's because the notion of "long" or "tall" includes a comparison to a standard, to what is not so.

Greatness, however, is to me something independent of other, not-great things. It is entirely possible, imo, to only have great movies if every movie really achieved that height. Just as it's possible to have not a single great film in the whole history of cinema. In both cases you would still have better and worse films, though.

However, I will admit that notions of greatness can change depending on the experience of the viewer, inasmuch as greatness is a matter of personal opinion. That means that one may believe a film is great and be wrong, or believe it is not great and be wrong.

But if you can be wrong about greatness, then that must be some variable independent of the viewer, i.e. not subject to subjectivity. Contrary to what I thought when I was ten, "Knight Rider" was not a great TV show.

On the other hand, after writing all this, I tried to come up with a definition of greatness and ended up with the following: "A film that uses the idiosyncracies and restrictions of the medium to the fullest in order to say something about the human condition in a way that does not denigrate either its message nor its viewers" which sounds a little like bullshit to me. Also, I first had the notion of a great film daring to to do something new, which would of course be no longer new after it's been done.

Hm. I don't know, really, but I'll post this nonetheless, just in case it helps someone else.

Berandor said...

By the way, the Bond reviews are great! ;-)

Die Another Day will always be in my mind as
a) the film that managed to have a decidedly Asian character be played by a Caucasian action without covering up the Asian roots, i.e. not even trying to hide it

b) the film that had a morose theme song, but an intriguing credit sequence promising a broken Bond, maybe even a total rebirth of the character as a result of his torture, only to squander that opportunity with a disregard that almost physically hurt me. I mean, not even a smooth comment during the final confrontation ("I've had my fill of Korean electroshocks")?

The rest was just ludicrous – wasn't that the one where Bond surfs the waves of a tsunami? Who is he, Snake Plissken? But those two things really annoyed me, instead of just amusing me. Thankfully, at least the second promise was then made good on by the Craig film(s).

Berandor said...

Final comment: Anybody else have a problem in the Theatrical Reviews A-Z menu? All films after the "American Astronaut" are in a very, very pale yellow that is nearly indistinguishable from the white background of the page.

O'JohnLandis said...

Alex, always assume that I choose my words carefully. To say that you're not smart enough to know better is not to say that you're stupid. I have accused you of lazy writing, cheap provocation, mental masturbation, and favoring the implausibly complex over the simple. That you continue to exhibit these behaviors means you either understand them, disagree, and want to continue being so uniquely wrong and mediocre or that you still don't get what it is that I'm saying. I guess there's also the possibility that you understand, agree, and don't care--that the praise of a dozen (more or less, I haven't counted) dim sycophants is more important than improving your work. With those options in mind, I have decided to treat you as a child instead of an evil force of nature. If I went the other way, that stuff would really be mean. But no, I don't think you're an idiot: just smart enough to constantly have the wrong ideas and instincts about the right subjects, and not quite smart enough to realize that if you recognized these bad habits, you might actually be good.

I've tried to give you homework before, but I don't think you ever agreed to do it. I'll try again. Review any film (even one you've reviewed before) with these restrictions:

1) You may use only four paragraphs.
2) You may not answer any questions which were never asked. This especially applies to first sentences.
3) You may not discuss film theory or history for even a moment.
4) You may use only conventional interpretations of films. One day you'll need original ideas, but you haven't earned them yet.
5) You may briefly mention, but not focus on, whether you liked the film. Restrict yourself mostly to statements about the film. Your taste will be visible through these statements, and you won't be beating us over the head with it all the time.
6) Try, nevertheless, to make it flow like poetry. You must censor your instincts but you must find your rhythm.

As an act of good faith, I'll try to define an objectively great film. Of course, the point of objectivity in aesthetics is not that quality can be perfectly defined, merely that there is a fact of the matter and that this fact is the goal, however imperfect the methods. With that in mind:

1) A great film, whether manic or careful, is exceptionally edited with a rhythm that suits it.
2) A great film almost entirely contains great acting, whether it's successfully realistic or successfully expressive. The line between the two, if it can be successfully straddled, is the ideal for most types of films.
3) A great film almost entirely contains great writing, whether it's successfully realistic or successfully expressive. The line between the two, if it can be successfully straddled, is the ideal for most types of films.
4) A great film must contain great images, whether they're simply beautiful, striking in composition, try despite limited means to be attractive, are occasionally ugly for the purpose of contrast, or everything is slightly off to establish a setting. An entire film of ugly images can't be great, and at this point in film history, digital cameras are only capable of ugly images. Therefore, a great film must have been shot on film. If you think you have a counterexample, or perhaps an argument against the idea that a great film must at least try to look as attractive as possible, ask yourself whether your argument for ugly images couldn't just as easily be made in favor of films being shot with most of the view obstructed. You can convey a bleak world without an ugly image, and pretending otherwise is intellectual insecurity.
5) A great film doesn't need to have a great score, but it must not have a terrible score. Ditto art direction.
6) A great film must have "moments." I've previously defined moments as "points in the film where you are both engaged in the visceral, voyeuristic audio-visual experience of the movie AND noticing something about the movie as art. This can be an intellectual understanding of an interesting storytelling structure, a creative plot twist, a perceptive character trait, or some allegorical resonance. But the important thing is that the movie is, at least for a few moments, working at least two parts of your brain at once. Mulholland Dr. isn’t exactly straightforward from a storytelling perspective, but in that audition scene, you are THERE and you’re learning about the world and the character."

So that's six characteristics of great films and I believe that's enough for a definition. Could I have chosen four or twenty? Not really, though your results may vary. But you have my word that I didn't reverse engineer the list.

And Star Wars is the closest to greatness of the films you mentioned. Remember though, you can dislike a great film without something being wrong with you.

O'JohnLandis said...

Berandor, the linked video is the second attempt at the broken link.

I actually hadn't read Rachel's response or any of your stuff when I wrote the post to Alex. That'll teach me to start something at 2am and finish it at 9am.

Back to misery...

DaveA said...

So the following movies can't be great since they were shot on DV:

Inland Empire
Collateral, Miami Vice (partly)
Dogville, Manderlay
Silent Hill

Just to name a few. And I liked them so much...

I could add Trier's Dancer in the Dark and the Kingdom series, which were shot on PAL Video, but that's analogue, so maybe that doesn't count? I'm not sure. What about movies that were cut digitally?

Berandor said...

Hm. I think your definition of greatness is a small cheat, because partly a great film is defined by
great acting
great writing
great images,
which makes it read like circular logic to me, or to be more exact just a subdivision of a great whole into great parts, without really giving any more meaning. How do I, as a viwer, detect "great acting" or "great images"? What makes writing "great"? And how do you decide on whether a film a great writing or just very good writing and a director with a good enough instinct to ignore the script when necessary?

I admit I also struggled with the notion of "I know a great film when I see it", also known as the pornographic definition.

Also, can you have a "flawed masterwork", i.e. a great movie despite not succeeding in all your points? Maybe a supporting character that just jars? Or is your "greatness" really the narrow ideal where films need to come as close to perfection as possible to even be considered? By which I mean, your definition reads like a very narrow one as opposed to a broad one. Is that correct?

Berandor said...

DaveA: I think O'John would agree with me that you can definitely like non-great movies (School of Rock!), just as you can dislike great ones.

Of course, I disagree with the digital camera thing, because that too narrowly defines the electable period for great films to be one where the technical process allows for images one (or O'John) considers great. That's also why I have that "restrictions" thing in my attempt at a definition. :-) So acknowledge the characteristics of digital film and make the best of it.

Be that as it may, no, Miami Vice is not a great film. Neither is Cloverfield, nor Silent Hill. And I only hated one of those and very much enjoyed the other two.

O'JohnLandis said...

Rachel, after reading your response, I'd like to retract a previous statement: I can no longer prove that you're smart.

Oh, it's not the oblivious, horrible analogy. I think you're capable of understanding the difference between even a subjective concept of greatness and the concept of tallness. "Tall" implies some inherent comparison, and up until you stretched the analogy to your death, I thought you intended it seriously. But then I realized that you don't intend anything seriously. You don't really care about whether greatness is objective or subjective. You're ecumenical and in this for the debate, because in debate you can be clever. When are you ever not clever? More on that in a moment, but smart people can take something seriously. If you can beat me, fucking beat me. Your post was an evasion.

Greatness is either a property of films independent of viewers or it's a concept in a brain and doesn't really exist. If you are the only one who has seen a film, think it's great, but then die, is it still great?

Want some evidence of the harm this confusion has caused? You linked a YouTube video. Too glib simply to call QED and leave it right there? OK, I'll continue. "It's the soulless solipsism of the democratization of criticism that really scares and saddens me, and if you think it's not a real societal problem, you're not noticing the snarky, illiterate phantoms floating around this country. You see people reverse engineering the critical process to figure out why something they like might be good for them. I see a nation of sociopaths waiting to die."

I said that a while ago. I'm more depressed now. But apart from my own problems, this is a nation of students who blame bad grades on their teachers, a nation of people suspicious of intelligence, a nation of people who vote against Obama because he's an Arab, and a nation of people who vote for Obama and Prop 8 because of Jesus. Obviously, these things have little to do with film criticism, except that this is a nation (a world? a generation?) that is proudly self-absorbed and proudly ignorant.

I love film. I'm stunned by Prop 8, but not surprised. If I were gay, I might be crusading against that instead of this. Maybe I should be anyway. But I'm here now, and in film, this aesthetic nihilism has led to a nation of professional amateur filmmakers, people who think that achieving an audience--any pair of eyes on a screen--is the only purpose of filmmaking. At least the people who were in it for the money would try to make a good film if it wasn't too inconvenient. But now it's just an infinite number of monkeys and their Panasonics. And the important thing is it's going to get worse before it gets better.

If it weren't for this aesthetic nihilism, if people thought that greatness mattered and that not everyone could achieve it, maybe there would be fewer terrible films and filmmakers out there. Too close to home?

DaveA said...

I don't consider all the above DV movies great. But I'd say they all contain great images, sometimes despite, sometimes even because they were shot digitally.

Bemis said...


If you could stop being a pedantic dick for one moment, maybe you'd find the hilarious irony of your objectivist argument being motivated by your sad-sack and, yes, self-absorbed perception of things (not to mention your circular reasoning and tendency to define a term using said term, which would get you low marks in a freshman comp course). Where you see "aesthetic nihilism," I see a liberated cinema. The upside is that anyone can make a movie; the downside is that anyone can make a movie. But it's pointless to continue with this debate as you've framed it. Also, I'm pretty sure that Alex and Rachel are smarter than you, or at least more perceptive.

O'JohnLandis said...

I should have been more careful with the entirety of my "great images" definition. (And this after claiming I choose my words carefully. Oh well.) In my defense, I've been doing a lot of writing while trying to do other things. Yes, that's a bad defense. I didn't intend the list as a starting point AND YET I won't obstinately cling to failures out of pride or ego.

I'll offer a revised version of four:

4) A great film must contain great images, whether they're simply beautiful, striking in composition, try despite limited means to be attractive, are occasionally ugly for the purpose of contrast, or everything is slightly off to establish a setting. An entire film of ugly images can't be great. Therefore, a great film must either have been shot on film or shot on video in an attempt, despite limited means, to be attractive. If you think you have a counterexample, or perhaps an argument against the idea that a great film must at least try to look as attractive as possible, ask yourself whether your argument for ugly images couldn't just as easily be made in favor of films being shot with most of the view obstructed. You can convey a bleak world without an ugly image, and pretending otherwise is intellectual insecurity.

By the way, Dogville is the only great film DaveA mentioned. Manderlay isn't bad, but every other DV film on his list is, some of them spectacularly so. The one counterexample wasn't what prompted me to change the offending passage. Neither was another counterexample: Crank. No, the problem was simple hostility. I always intended the "attempt to be attractive" provision, hence its inclusion in the original. I just couldn't help but vent my spleen at DV. Basically, I contradicted myself and knew it right away. If you could edit these things, it wouldn't have lasted a minute.

And sorry, Bemis, I won't stop being a pedantic dick. Coincidence that you agree with them and think they're smarter? Nah. (By the way, objectivism is something very different than believing in objectivity in aesthetic criticism. Ask Ayn Rand. Pedantic? Nah.) Regardless, Rachel may very well be smarter than I am. I'm daring her to prove it. I'm simply asking you to point out my circular reasoning.

And if you think you can productively define something as complex as a great film without using great--or some pointless surrogate for great--to describe any of its components, you're not going to get very far.

Still, the definition wasn't intended to be broad or narrow. It was intended to be a definition. If I failed, try not to blame greatness. I am not great.

Anonymous said...

I simply do not understand the mindset that says the greatness of any work of art is somehow something you can just be appraised the same way that a car passes inspection. Right on about "circular logic" -- I said just that the last time this stupid, stupid, stupid argument came up. Every single argument for an objective standard of greatness is going to come down to either "I liked it," "A lot of people liked it," or "People I respect liked it." You can pick out certain qualities that constitute a "great" film -- you're still going to have to defend your choice of those qualities as greatness criteria because you "like" them.

Bemis said...

I'm simply asking you to point out my circular reasoning.

Bereandor already pointed it out, it's a cheat to define "greatness" by its "great" components. Also, I Googled "define: objectivism," and I'm pretty sure I mean what I wrote. Also, I don't always agree with Alex or Rachel (and I don't agree with Rachel in this case), I just find their arguments have more depth.

Berandor said...

After thinking about it, I think this all boils down to a simple question:

Imagine the first movie ever, and the first critic ever seeing it. The critic comes out of the show and says: "This is a great movie."

A while later, he sees the second film ever, a much better attempt at using the technology. Now he says: "The first film is not great. This one is."

And the simple question: Was the critic wrong the first time, or has the concept of "greatness" changed?

I know this is probably stating the obvious, but I also thought it's a nice reduction of the argument to its basest conflict. Or maybe I'm full of shit. Or both.

Galit said...

Since I have no desire to impersonate Napoleon in Vienna, waging battle on all fronts, I'll try to just express some of my opinions, and hope it contributes to the discussion.Hopefully I'll end better than he did.

1. It has been pointed out that tallness and greatness are not two concepts that can be compared. I agree with that, and would like to add that the canon of art is potentially infinite. By accepting that Shakespeare is great, we need not deny Homer the same title.

2. The concept of greatness will inevitably change over time, despite being ideally objective.

By this I mean that, because we can validly compare two films and determine which of them is better, we must therefore be able to validly compare all films ever made and determine which of them is best.

This is why, as new films or otherwise expressions of artistic genius appear, we are obliged to juxtapose them with the existing canon, and draw reasonable conclusions. Some, such as the above mentioned Homer and Shakespeare, prove more durable than others (Alcidamas for instance, and, increasingly, Ovid).

Of course it is unreasonable to attempt to discover all existing works of art, so as to achieve an objective assessment of them, which is why we trust time or statistics (surveys like TSPDT) to do it for us.

Thus, we can compare the films that come out against those on the TSPDT 1000 (or any other list) and determine if they are better or worse. Most will compare unfavorably, but some will prove superior, and if enough people agree on a certain film's quality, we can include it in next year's list. Of course it is imperfect, but at least it's reasonable.

The only thing bothering me about such lists is that some titles are too hastily removed. As I said, the canon is potentially infinite, and we should add to it more than we take away. When "Roundelay Garden Scene" was the only film in existence, it was also the only great film. As more films are made, so is the list of greats expanded.

3. Finally, one of the things that puzzled me most in this discussion was Rachel's "I can’t imagine a lot of lit majors waking up, shocked and disappointed to that they won’t be able to read all books." I can think of quite a few disappointed lit majors.

In fact, I think since it has become a truism to say that the more books you read and absorb, the better you will write (with some notable exceptions, of course, Fitzgerald being one, Tolstoy or Bulgakov another), with the logical conclusion that if you read everything ever written, your writing will be perfect.

If we further this conclusion, we deduce that perfection in art is impossible, since no one can absorb everything ever written.

The paradox usually here drawn is of the natural necessity of man to create art which in its perfection should approximate that of Nature (art is man's attempts at transcendence) and the impossibility of achieving this perfection.Great art, therefore, exists on the border between great hubris (the belief that some great work of art can be created) and the tragic realization that it can't be.

These are just some thoughts, in no particular order, and addressed to no one in particular. I hope they help.


P.S.I don't think the definition of Objectvism Bemis googled was very accurate, at least not in the way the term was used back when it was fashionable. Pedant, however, seems to be a perfect description.I hope O'John is not offended by it.

Galit said...

As I was writing my post, Berandor said everything I wanted to, but far more elegantly and concisely. Now I feel terrible.

Alex Jackson said...

And if you think you can productively define something as complex as a great film without using great--or some pointless surrogate for great--to describe any of its components, you're not going to get very far.

"What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence". -Ludwig Wittgenstein

To be fair though, in describing what a "great movie" is John failed to describe "great" but fairly exhaustively described "movie". I can appreciate that a great movie is great in editing, acting, writing, photography, and has "moments". Oh, and it doesn't need to have a good score but it must not have a bad score.

I don't think "greatness" CAN exist in the objective sense. If I use it, I'm "misusing" it to mean something that I really like. Questions of why you like what you like are more interesting to me than accurate assessments of "greatness". Particularly if "greatness" is completely independent of liking.

I think that I tend to like things that are actually "great". I really like Star Wars. I really like Dogville. I really like Casablanca and Citizen Kane, two films that I think clearly meet John's criteria. I like films that look and feel good. That are well-shot and well-edited.

But I also have to reflect that if Star Wars is the greatest film of those that I mentioned (and I don't necessarilly feel that it is coincidental that it's also the one I like the most), then The House Bunny might very well be the second greatest (this is the film I liked the least). Then again, I'm not sure how to evaluate silent films against sound films in the area of writing and acting. Or score. I think the acting and writing in The House Bunny comes closer to the mean between "realistic" and "expressive" than it does in Birth of a Nation or Un Chien Andalou.

The problem I had with The House Bunny was really just that it was generic and dull. In terms of the filmmaking, the picture was aesthetically pleasing. I saw nothing that would cause me to reject the null hypothesis that the editor and cinematographer were well-trained professionals who could make a living doing this. I feel the same way about the actors and I know that there is a cult of critical appreciation surrounding star Anna Farris, so potentially the acting really was great.

Is the writing in The House Bunny successfully realistic? Definitely not. Successfully expressive? I don't know. Isn't everything successfully expressive? For me, that question seems to be more problematic when related to writing than acting.

Really, I disliked the Goth girl and how she justified being a "bunny" by saying she's doing a scientific study on what men find sexually attractive. And how when Farris does her demonic voice, she says that they hired the "exorcist" when in fact they would have hired the demon that the exorcist exorcises.

Outside of that, I think the film does what it sets out to do in the screenplay level. If graded on all the criteria you mentioned I think that it would score pretty much all Bs and Cs. And it would likely have a better grade point average than either Birth of a Nation or Un Chien Andalou.

The least great of the films I mentioned is, without a doubt, In the Company of Men-- a film made up entirely of ugly images and edited without rythym. And the acting and writing are down-to-earth in a petty ugly way while not necessarilly being realistic. The writing in The House Bunny is considerably less visible.

More at a later time I hope. Maybe my review after next, I'll see about working in your homework assignment.

Berandor said...

I don't think "greatness" CAN exist in the objective sense. If I use it, I'm "misusing" it to mean something that I really like. Questions of why you like what you like are more interesting to me than accurate assessments of "greatness". Particularly if "greatness" is completely independent of liking.

Which brings up an interesting tangent (to me). Does it make sense to differentiate "great" and "eminently enjoyable" (or whatever else you want to call a film you like a lot)? What's the point of declaring a movie bad but liking it nonetheless? What's the point of saying "I didn't like it, but it sure is a great film?"

And here I must disagree with myself, partly, but could it be that the differentiation between greatness and enjoyability is simply a way to hedge my bets? To criticize a canonical work without being "disrespectful" to the canon, or to state one's preferences without seeming like a douche with bad taste?

If that's so, however – and here I retake my original position –, is the critic's job simply to be a divining rod for my own taste? Are the people flocking to shit like White Chicks correct that for them, that *is* a great film?

No, art has a subjective element, which makes it so hard to judge, but it also has craftsmanship, and that can be judged, as well as how that cratsmanship transport the subjective element.

But it's difficult: Would Shakespeare's works be great if they weren't enjoyable? And enjoyable by whom? In a medium meant to entertain, shouldn't entertainment be part of the checklist for greatness?

Ryan said...

So Bill, some new reviews later tonight, yeah?

Bill C said...

@Ryan: Yep, but probably not what you were hoping for. Walt had a very good excuse for missing THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD EVEN MORE STILL, which we'll announce when the time is right.

@Berandor: Glad you enjoyed the Bond reviews. Thankfully, that was the last one (I've had about as much 007 as I can take over the past 6 weeks), at least until the next batch hits Blu-ray. And yeah, DaD was the tsunami one; the parasailing effects look even more laughable in HiDef.

Richard said...

To be fair though, in describing what a "great movie" is John failed to describe "great" but fairly exhaustively described "movie". I can appreciate that a great movie is great in editing, acting, writing, photography, and has "moments". Oh, and it doesn't need to have a good score but it must not have a bad score.

'Greatness' debate aside, I'm not sure if I even agree with John's definition of 'movie'. Aren't we being a little closed-minded by saying a movie must even HAVE acting or writing or a score or a story or anything other than 'images'?

Granted, most of our favourite movies will have all or most of these, but if we're defining things here...

jacksommersby said...

For those who haven't seen the ludicrous, intellectually-dishonest "Frost/Nixon", I kid you not -- this puerile-political poppycock is like a combination of "A Few Good Men" and "Rocky 3", I kid you not! There's even a scene with Nixon running in place before the FINAL CONFRONTATION with Frost who's let Nixon get the better of him in the 2 previous interviews.

Hope Walter kicks this one in the butt.

Berandor said...

So... kidding aside: is it a great movie?

Bill C said...

Jack's nailed it. Didn't you love the drunken phone call that leads to the obligatory training montage, where suddenly Frost doesn't need his staff of researchers--just a pot of coffee and a renewed belief in himself?

And what the fuck is with those documentary-style interview inserts? What's the context? Who's filming them? Why are the characters reflecting on something as if it happened decades ago when they still look exactly the same age?

rachel said...

I actually am fairly optimistic that I can beat you, John. Not because I am willing to say I am intelligent, but because, between the two of us, I am less likely to take a break from typing in order that I might throw myself off a roof. (If I may use suicidism in the relative sense.) In the regard that one’s chances of winning an argument are improved by living, confidence fills me.

It should be said that all this talk of people’s intelligence is silly. (I’m surprised that Bemis indulged you.) Not every discussion must also function as a dick-measuring contest. If you’d like to schedule a time and place where we might gather specifically for that purpose, I’d be glad to come, as long as it does not conflict with one of my Tupperware parties.

For what it’s worth, I continue to be clever not in an effort to further enrage and appall you so that you’ll perhaps take that final leap, though again that would be to my advantage in very narrow terms. I am clever for the same reason you are depressed: it’s my current nature. (I’d hazard that the real difference is that I am properly medicated, thank Christ.) You would tell me to take this discussion seriously. I’d contend that, as someone who has been depressed herself, it is not actually the height of seriousness to write with your dick caught in a rain cloud. That Walter writes fabulously in this fashion means less than the fact that Walter has a sense of humor, which I will always contend is the thing more conducive to serious thought than consumptive melancholia.

But: your points.

You say it’s bad that all these people (well; you call them monkeys) have Panasonics. That ties in well with Prop 8, obviously. Too much democracy. Easy to ignore why Prop 8 might have won: the fact that there are good reasons black men might have to be dedicated to traditional models of masculinity, that there are good reasons black women might have to join churches, which are conservative but also help unify a community which is regularly decimated by incarceration rates. Easy to say that these people are proudly ignorant and not say, rational, intelligent actors for whom No on Prop 8 had no outreach initiative. Easy to ignore the fact that the Obama campaign was an actual grassroots movement, that No on Prop 8 was a top-down campaign, that the former democratized movement won and the latter bureaucratic movement lost.

Easy to say, also, that students blame grades on anything but themselves. Easy to ignore the fact that it was easier to take responsibility for your grades back when the entire system was prejudiced in your favor (read much Kozol?), when you weren’t being told that there was no way you could make a living wage if you didn’t earn a college degree, when there was something resembling a social safety net. Yeah, these kids must be proud of their ignorance. They couldn’t possibly be rational, intelligent actors who have any idea what’s at stake for them, or the ways a lousy grade manifests itself.

Why is there so much bad amateur film? Film is just art. People are inspired to make art when they feel something is out of their control. Improve the economy, the criminal justice system, healthcare. Abolish sexism, racism, anti-Semitism. How shitty it is to be a teenager. That will be how you get less art.

Or, you know, whine about how bad the rabble’s art is. I’m sure that’ll work, too.

So, what is a great film?

A great film is one with quality ideas, which are stated clearly and persuasively by its ensemble of techniques. “Clearly” meaning the techniques cooperate; “persuasively” meaning they are artful. We judge the quality of the ideas by their consequences as compared to the consequences of the ideas with which they compete, as they have manifested throughout human history, to the best of our knowledge.

That’s it.

jacksommersby said...

I swear, Bill, I was thinking "Rocky 3" yet thought maybe I was being dumb, but in the VERY NEXT SCENE there was Nixon running in place! And like Rocky, after being overconfident, the "hero" has to take things seriously for the last bout. And -- gag me with a fucking spoon -- Frost, after coasting on his stardom while in the U.S., has to discover some righteous set of IDEALS, thus making him a "better" person, of course.

As for the "A Few Good Men" similarity, it all comes down to whether Nixon is going to be goaded to admitting his guilt on Watergate in front of everybody, just like Nicholson's character did in the courtroom. And that's not all -- for Kevin Bacon, as he did in "Men" and looking about the same here (crew-cut and all), is the character protective of Nixon just like he was Col. Jessup!

And, sure, Bill, Frost really crammed at the last minute with all that paperwork, though I won an easy bet with myself that right when the last interview was getting heated he was going to chuck the clipboard -- and he DID! Also, did I miss something regarding the amount Nixon was going to get paid for the interview? The final amount settled upon was $600,000, yet the check Frost wrote out was only for $200,000.

Still, I want to aver that Langella is simply extraordinary in the role, as if Nixon, well, took over his soul. Anthony Hopkins was a fine Nixon, but he didn't open himself up to the camera like Langella does. And what's amazing is how fresh the performance is being that he'd played it numerous times in the stage play.

jacksommersby said...

Two more things:

1. This was written by the same guy who wrote "The Last King of Scotland", and there the doctor-hero gave into temptation by abandoning his post in that poor village for materialistic and sinful pleasures with Amin's regime; after realizing he sold out, he then turns against Amin. Sound more than a bit like the Frost character?

2. The way it's written, I think we're supposed to think that Frost didn't challenge Nixon at first because he didn't want to put in the effort to be adversarial. But wouldn't it have been interesting if Frost found that, to his total and utter surprise, he agreed with Nixon and didn't see him as a cut-and-dried baddie? Of course, that kind of moral-workout would belong in a way, way better film.

Dave Gibson said...

All I want to know is if you are talking about “Great” meaning large or immense? Do you use it in the pejorative sense?

This is not a discussion about film, it is a dissection of language—often one of my favourite pastimes, you understand, so—I am not devaluing the exercise—not entirely anyways. In the context of film criticism, I’m wondering not about my own notions of “great” and “great films” but rather why it is so important to agree on a generic definition for a word which is inviolably buttressed to one’s particular biases and preferences; especially an adjective that does not seem to have any useful utility for writing about film. Is that what this is all about? All this Film Cricketing? Defining what is “Great” and what is not? Yeech—how boring is that?

In the context of film, the best purpose for that slippery word “great” begins and ends with those clearing house lists (or more charitably, “canon”—cough, hack, cough) ladled up come Christmastime. Want a top ten of “Great films?” Yeah, you can ask Rosenbaum or Ebert—you can also ask your Uncle Mike over turkey dinner and that guy in IT who sits by the good copier—what is a great film? As Jeff Chaucer says: “Whom given a flyinge fucke?” Film is a living, breathing, oozing, pulsating thing. Like all art, once it emerges from the synapses, viscera and colon of its creator, its primary struggle is not to gain some arbitrary appellation of “Great” or “Groovy” or “Two big, enthusiastic thumbs way the fuck up”, but rather to merely exist and engage with the world that gave it life. That AJ is OK with film ceasing to exist is about the most depressing admission I have ever read on this blog—if there is no art, then what is there? No books, no films, no paintings—‘‘cause there’s just too many doncha know.” Talk about nihilism. I mostly dig my life but that is not a world I’d want to live in. Film, will of course abide long after you and I are long gone—which suggests to me the utter fallacy of lamenting that you cannot possibly see it all or create like Godard, as if that’s a concession rather than the grand, cosmic challenge. Of course, you cannot see it all—I’m pushing forty and I have never been to Egypt, to Antarctica or seen every Preston Sturges movie—I have written for about thirty years, often for cold hard cash, but remained awed by Raymond Carver or Alice Munro—God, they’re good—why bother? Why bother? What else is there but “bothering?” Sweet melancholy it is—glorious joy it is that our time is limited—so, see what you can, write your head off and don’t anybody fucking kill themselves—you could be watching more movies or writing about them. Just don’t forget to show your work.

Btw-“Inland Empire”? Sweet. Please refute.

Bill C said...

"Of course, that kind of moral-workout would belong in a way, way better film."

Yes indeedy, Jack. In other words: not a Ron Howard film.

The clipboard is a great observation. I myself got tired of being able to predict *every single* reaction shot, not just when they would occur, but who among the gaggle would be the subject of them.

Anonymous said...

All of you need to get checked for Asperger's, as soon as possible. Seriously. This stuff has gone from fascinating to interesting to straight-up disturbing.

Berandor said...

Check me for boredom, too?

Rachel: Easy to ignore why Prop 8 might have won: the fact that there are good reasons black men might have to be dedicated to traditional models of masculinity, that there are good reasons black women might have to join churches, which are conservative but also help unify a community which is regularly decimated by incarceration rates. Easy to say that these people are proudly ignorant and not say, rational, intelligent actors for whom No on Prop 8 had no outreach initiative.

But with only 10% of the electorate being black, it's not really the black vote that changed everything. Even if blacks had voted, say, 60% against Prop 8, it would have passed. Though I'm sure the mormon church is happy to see gays turning against blacks.

Bemis said...

Sorry for indulging, Rachel, if that's what I did. It's a bad habit left over from college: if someone starts qualifying others' intelligence, an involuntary thwack upside the head ensues.

B said...

Why isn't Rachel an official FFC contributor? At least to the blog.

Berandor said...

Why isn't Rachel the next Oscars presenter?

I mean, Hugh Jackman? Really?

O'JohnLandis said...

Holy shit, she gets an apology for being told she's smarter than someone. Boy did I pick the wrong day to start a fight with a rock star.

Despite how deeply I care about the issue of an objective definition of aesthetic quality, I don't want objective greatness to be frequently discussed or defined in actual criticism. I love criticism as its own art, and I don't think incorporating this debate into the actual art will help anyone. But I also believe in intellectual honesty--or, if not honesty, at least coherence--and I think that a belief in objective aesthetic quality leads to better criticism. I also tend to think that a lack of this belief invalidates the whole process, especially when criticism is seen as the beginning of a discussion.

I knew that taking a shot at that defintion would lead to a lot of abuse, but I did so in hopes of making Alex, ultimately, better at this job. I'm stuck having to put up with him here, so there's some self-interest, but if you accept my premise, there's no reason not to hope he improves. I still stand by the definition, thinking that I explained the subset greats well enough for this purpose. But if I haven't said it enough, I'll say it again:

I think this notion of the objective quality of art is true but, by its very nature, very difficult to prove or define. Seeing how a critic deals with this problem, often in subtext, is part of what makes criticism special.

Whatever quality is, it isn't the majority opinion of the collective measurements of experts. The film's quality is determined the moment it's finished, not the moment it's screened. It's also not based on changing standards. Who can reasonably think the first film ever made was great? It's more likely that no great film has yet been made than that the first film was great. Not caring that an artform is limited doesn't mean you have to ignore the limitations. So I think my definition works for silents, though it doesn't work for experimental film and that was intentional. My definition of great includes things I don't care for, like realistic writing or acting, but I can recognize relative quality in realism and understand what can make realistic films great, despite my dislike.

If you argue against my premise of objective aesthetic quality, know what you're signing up for: no film is actually good and no film is better than any other film. If you say a film is good, you're simply expressing a psychological state--you like something or don't--and you are substituting like for other words out of pretension or simply to vary your word choice. Since liking something very clearly exists as a psychological state, every discussion of comparison and every attempt at persuasion is literally meaningless. How do you argue that someone doesn't like something she says she likes? Who would want to?

What really bothers me is that I don't think people actually disagree with me completely. I think they're simply afraid of getting stuck in an ideological stance they find distastefully old-fashioned. But I'll take one last shot at this:

If you don't believe something can be objectively bad, what are you laughing at if you enjoy Plan 9 from Outer Space?

Alex Jackson said...

If you don't believe something can be objectively bad, what are you laughing at if you enjoy Plan 9 from Outer Space?

I'm trying not to let discussions like this colour my writing, but know that I am actually intending to answer this very question in my next review: Touch of Evil. You probably aren't going to like it.

If you argue against my premise of objective aesthetic quality, know what you're signing up for: no film is actually good and no film is better than any other film. If you say a film is good, you're simply expressing a psychological state--you like something or don't--and you are substituting like for other words out of pretension or simply to vary your word choice. Since liking something very clearly exists as a psychological state, every discussion of comparison and every attempt at persuasion is literally meaningless. How do you argue that someone doesn't like something she says she likes? Who would want to?

Difficult paragraph. I'm going to need to take it line by line.

If you argue against my premise of objective aesthetic quality, know what you're signing up for: no film is actually good and no film is better than any other film.

OK, got that.

If you say a film is good, you're simply expressing a psychological state--you like something or don't--and you are substituting like for other words out of pretension or simply to vary your word choice.

It's a little more difficult than that. "Like" is a verb and "good" and "great" are adjectives. Things that I "like" are "good". Without "good", I literally do not have any other word to describe the things that I like.

Not pretension, I don't believe that anything is "actually good" and I am not seriously arguing that the things I like are objectively better than the things other people like. If I describe my opinions as absolute, this is more out of convienence.

Since liking something very clearly exists as a psychological state, every discussion of comparison and every attempt at persuasion is literally meaningless.

Well, I don't think comparison is meaningless. Films are static absolute facts and do not change. Perceptions of films are necessarilly subjective and differ from person to person. Does a person's perception of a film ever change? I think they tend to stay pretty constant. Somebody can compare two films that they have seen, question why they liked one and why they disliked the other, and come up with something meaningful.

How do you argue that someone doesn't like something she says she likes? Who would want to?

That's right you can't and you shouldn't bother. Criticism should be more about articulation than persuasion. It should be about figuring out why you responded the way you did. I think criticism should be BASED on "did I like it or not", but then the reasons behind the like or dislike should be explored and you ultimately sourced back to your core (personal) aesthetic and moral values.

Anonymous said...

Uh oh, guys, what happened to the site?

Bill C said...

Site's apparently been moved to a new server. May take a couple of days for the DNS addy to update globally.