April 29, 2008


Full review upcoming, but after watching it again late last night, I peeked at Roger Ebert's review and was brought up short, as I am about 30% of the time with the Rog's reviews the last ten years or so, with one paragraph that contains two factual errors.

The leaning high-rise contains Beth (Odette Yustman), who Rob feels duty-bound to rescue from her 49th-floor apartment near Central Park. The others all come along on this foolhardy mission (not explained: how after walking all the way to Columbus Circle they have the energy to climb 49 flights of stairs, Lily in her high heels). Part of their uptown journey is by subway, without the benefit of trains. They're informed by a helpful soldier that the last rescue helicopter leaving Central Park will have "wheels up at oh-six-hundred," begging the question of how many helicopters it would take to rescue the population of Manhattan.

She's on the 39th floor, see, and Lily's walking with her high heels in her hand. Also, this is a pretty major league spoiler. More on that later. The tone of the review is generally snarky which, obviously, I endorse whole-heartedly - yet when you're writing this kind of review, I feel pretty safe in saying, you'd better be pretty nailed down on your facts.

And I'm not talking about casual errors; I'm talking about Ebert making mistakes about what he remembers of the film and then making a wisecrack about it. Two of them. But he's misremembered, see? And mocking something for something that it hasn't done is really a problem - it's a bad thing for the film because the film's only rebuttal is itself and, presumably, if you read Ebert, you might not give it the chance (Ebert's review of The Rules of Attraction was so factually inaccurate, in fact - at least before it was revised without asterisk in the archive - that I'm medium-convinced that it single-handedly doomed the picture upon release). And it's a bad thing for Ebert because it obliterates his credibility. By extension, right, if Ebert is the voice of film criticism in the modern era it obliterates the credibility of this whole mess as a profession engaged in by serious professionals. Listen - again - it's not a tiny factual error, it's a serious, big-ass, dumb-ass error. And he does it twice.

Let me revise, too, my stance on spoilers not mattering the least - spoilers matter when they're just tossed out there to fill up column inches. Ebert's review gives the specs on the monster, on one particularly nasty surprise of its biology that I liked quite a lot, on what happens to the "narrator", on what happens to all the characters, on and on - and he does so not to set-up his analysis but to just, you know, tell you what happens. That's irritating. I get it, now. Let's say that spoilers are bad when they're just used to spoil for lack of anything better to talk about.

I'm pissed. And I'm disappointed. What kind of moron must I be for it still to be possible for me to be disappointed with this dude? I got a few emails after Ansen revealed his buy-out blaming "me" (I'm presuming the collective me of Internet-based crix) for his demise. Well, man, I blame Ebert. Then again, if "we're" responsible for this kind of garbage going the way of the dodo then: guilty, and thank you.

April 13, 2008

The Trench

Brief thoughts on a Sabbath night:

I don’t really understand – and don’t really like, and certainly don’t respect – anyone who doesn’t think that No Country For Old Men is a great film. I feel badly for people who don’t like Tarantino; worse for people who don’t seem to understand Malick or Nagisa or Kim Ki-Duk; but I’m sympathetic that there are opposing viewpoints, y’know. See – the basis for this critical debasement is the dangerous idea that there are no absolutes in the liberal arts. It’s what’s made it all such a fucking mess, it’s arguably what’s caused Nathan Lee over at the NY Post and David Ansen at Newsweek to lose their positions (everyone else is next save St. Ebert) recently, this democratization of opinion. Everyone has one. Like an asshole. Get it? The irony of it is that you make any kind of consideration a matter of “well, everyone’s entitled to their opinion” and suddenly nobody needs yours.

By making this thing of ours accessible to a wide, wider, widest audience; my colleagues have politicked themselves out of a job and, before long, out of an entire frickin’ profession. I met David Ansen once – we sat on a panel together at the Vail Film Festival talking about, primarily, the state of modern film criticism (Godfrey Cheshire moderated – he having lost his job a long time ago) – and he struck me as a smart, moral, well-versed critic: a film-lover who’d given a good deal of thought to what was happening at newspapers and magazines. Now, about two years later, he’s taken a buyout offered him and from what I understand, will close out the end of the year before another major outlet, his, closes for good to film criticism.

So the thesis is this: that allowing for people to disagree about the quality of No Country For Old Men is symptomatic of why there’s a dearth of good criticism in the United States. I remember in this Milton seminar I had back in the day that someone piped up that they didn’t think that Milton was very good and, y’know, I have this to say to that. Shut the fuck up. You’re allowed not to like Milton, you’re not allowed to opine that Milton was inept and, more to the point, no one’s asking. At a certain level, with certain films, it’s not about good or bad, it has to be about how and why. You can hate Hitchcock – you can’t say that he didn’t make his handful of masterpieces.

Criticism without knowledge is a zero sum game. Everyone’s an asshole who does it.

There are absolutes in the liberal arts. There are things that are absolutely black and white. Find your place of gray within that or find yourself keeping company with that idiot couple behind you in the theater that wishes the Coens’ had given Chigurgh a backstory.

Lots of frustrations otherwise in the trenches these days – difficult anniversaries and just when I’m getting back in the saddle for the first time in what feels like a couple of years, the whole clan comes down with some kind of flu that sends my two-year-old to the emergency room for an IV. Missing a lot of screenings as a consequence; here’s hoping karma hangs on a pendulum.

Working now on a series with the Denver Public Library on classic westerns and a series with Gilpin County on dystopias (I’ll finally get to lecture on Planet of the Apes; timely for the passing of Heston); hoping to get a major writing project off the ground as well covering the films of Val Lewton. Gearing up for a career retrospective of a favorite director ‘round these parts as his latest film is poised to hit the home video shelves (it never made it here theatrically) – and still waiting on a few of the big arthouse pics to have their cup of coffee in the Mile High City. The only solace to me being out of the game this season so far is that this season traditionally sucks; all the more so for backwaters like this one in a time for the profession when I don’t actually know but one or two of my colleagues anymore when I get out to screenings. Who knew that seven years makes you a senior critic?

Been thinking a lot on two topics lately in the quiet hours: the best instrumental scores; and the best movie posters in terms of provocation, implication, and/or artistry…

A couple of picks for score just in the last decade or so? Clint Mansell gets a couple of nods for his work with Darren Aronofsky: The Fountain and Requiem for a Dream (with Kronos Quartet). I love Alexandre Desplat’s work on Birth, Jonny Greenwood’s on There Will Be Blood, Jon Brion’s on Punch-Drunk Love. My fave all time? David Shire’s piano rags on The Conversation. Yours?

Also – been haunted of late by this poster for the first of Lynch's two late-Hitchcock identity shrines:

Talk back.

April 07, 2008

Saturday Morning Nihilism

I hope I haven't sent anyone into Nicolas Cage withdrawal lately. Rest assured that I'm going to see the series through--I've just been awfully busy these past few weeks (presently finishing up a piece about the execrable "Bionic Woman" for the mothersite), and a few major points in a discussion about The Rock have to be rearranged now that I've finally gotten my hands on the Criterion edition with the attendant commentary featuring Cage himself.

Anyway, on to less pressing matters. I've been trying to wrap my brain around this live performance of "Duck Hunt" from Anime Boston 2008 that's been making the rounds on YouTube:

If you owned the old "Super Mario Bros."/"Duck Hunt" NES cartridge back in the day, I think it's impossible not to succumb to a smirking nostalgic twinge when that music blasts through the auditorium and that dog jumps into the grass. Now, I'm not particularly versed in anime, but I've watched enough Cartoon Network to recognize the characters contained herein; the general tone of the sketch and the reactions from the crowd teeter uncomfortably between laughter at basic recognition and cheering with base satisfaction when notoriously obnoxious characters are shot. It opens up a line of discussion concerning one's personal sense of sophistication: the testosterone-laced "Dragon Ball Z" seems to be a target of ire for its repetitive nature (and, I suspect, for coloring perceptions of anime as childish nonsense in the eyes of nonbelievers), but what can you say about a commentary on the perceived puerility/immaturity of certain properties when the basic argument boils down to "I wish that I could shoot the fictional characters who annoy me so they'll shut up"?

What bothers me most about this sketch, however, is how these jokes build up to the final rimshot, a full return to "Duck Hunt" that ultimately serves to emphasize the uselessness of the whole thing. Any comprehensive parody of the game is obligated to shoot the dog, the genesis of that joke being that everyone who has played this golden oldie for more than five minutes has attempted to do so. It's also the intrinsic problem with this exercise, and invites the question: we already know everything there is to offer here, so why we are even talking about "Duck Hunt" at all? I think there's something to be said about giving voice to a video game player's frustrations (find the time to sit down and watch Super Profane Mario Bros., which is actually kind of brilliant for its presentation of the fruitless search for internal logic
), but coupled with the anime non-references, I daresay there's something actively dangerous about this sketch and how it doesn't bother to challenge how you feel about anything. It's something somehow better and worse than the "Family Guy" ethos--it doesn't just feed into an empty sense of nostalgia, but attempts to regurgitate the very experience of "Duck Hunt," the very idea of being an anime fan, for your approval, by conforming them to the desires and opinions that you're supposed to have.

However, once again I'm forced to throw the spotlight onto my own dubious tastes, because I've recently discovered the phenomenon known as YouTube Poop: videos haphazardly edited together from various found-footage sources into a loud, annoying mess, sometimes lyrical but more often incomprehensible. Saturday morning cartoons from the early '90s are a popular target ("Super Mario World," "Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog," "Dexter's Laboratory") along with viral video standards ("Chocolate Rain," Chris Crocker) and clips from Philips' disastrous CD-i games based on the "Legend of Zelda" and "Super Mario Bros." series.
The moments closest to coherence usually arrive in the form of very obvious pseudo-jokes about sex and shit; the bottom line is that they're childish, but more often than not I laugh myself blue when I see one.

Here are a few typical examples. Part of the "appeal" of these videos lies in randomly mucking with the volume as well, so I strongly suggest you practice caution in watching them so that you don't blow out your ears and/or speakers.

To wit: a lot of screaming, slow motion and fast-forwarding at random, scenes rendered as infinite loops, and bits of dialogue bleeped out to sound like curse words. So what's the difference? Don't these videos constitute the same form of generic hostility to be found in that "Duck Hunt" video--stuck in a state of nostalgic arrested development, obsessing over the flaws in something that you don't even like, conforming entertainment to an objective standard, and repeating the same ancient jokes ad nauseam? (How old is that "SNL" Butabi brothers sketch, anyway? Fifteen years?) Perhaps so, but somehow these videos are a lot more confrontational about your responsibility as a (non-)discriminating viewer, placing themselves on precisely the same level of entertainment as the targets of parody.
It doesn't matter that YouTube Poops don't make sense--all the better for it, really, since you're probably not patrolling YouTube looking for anything substantial. Why, exactly, are you still watching the same shit that you watched more than a decade ago as a child? The only point behind YouTube Poop seems to be that we freely ingested a lot of crap when we were children, that we freely ingest a lot of crap now, and the unstoppable advent of YouTube has more or less offered all of us the opportunity to wallow in that same crap with a conscious disregard for quality control. They're nihilistic, generally hopeless in an Idiocracy kind of way, and not something that I can really agree with, all things considered--but I can't help but laugh at the defiant absurdity of it all, even in the face of copyright.

So I ask you: is nostalgia an inherently worthless venture? At what point does snarking at "bad" media become self-destructive? How much can/must comedy rely on the familiar in order to be successful? Did Superhero Movie somehow contain a few jokes that were actually funny?