February 10, 2010

Sundance Debriefing

My coverage ended Monday with my capsule of Skateland. I want to share just a few thoughts before I put this to bed.

When people go to a film festival like this what exactly are they hoping to see? As I mentioned before, the least exciting films (Obselidia, Smash His Camera) tend to be the hardest to get into.

When I saw Memories of Overdevelopment the theater was only half-full and a few people left. After the show was over, someone who left asked me how I could have stayed through that "horrible film." She explained that it was pornographic and anti-American. Pornographic? OK. But anti-American? Since when is that offensive? I'm always intrigued when I hear that something is anti-American. I suppose it's because I see America as being so pervasive that I can't readily conceptualize of a culture that actively rejects identifiably American traits. Like, if you're not American, at least a little bit, then what are you?

Yes iconoclasm isn't necessarily a positive thing, but I guess that's the point of the movie. The fascination is in the way it legitimately devalues a core American principle-- our freedom of expression, and finds it wanting when compared to the Communist propaganda of Cuba which at least had a purpose. Memories of Overdevelopment isn't a fun movie, but for most of us it's going to be a challenging one. We don't go to it to confirm what we already know. What was she hoping to see?

When people ask me what the best film I saw was, I reluctantly tell them about I Am Love. The experience that I most value is when you don't really know if a film is good or not. That if it's bad then it's bad in a way that you aren't entirely accustomed to. I don't know what would be worse, if people ended up loving I Am Love (Jonathan Romney of The Independent in London selected it as the best film of 2009) or if they ended up hating it, like the audience I watched it with seemed to. (The person behind me tried to disguise his repulsion with some kind of nonsense about the twinning of Vertigo.)

There's a problem when people can't recognize absurdity. 2006's Into Great Silence was recieved in solemn tones and it's going to go down as the kind of movie that everybody knows they should see, but won't. But if you're not receptive to the absurdity of it all, if you can't look at the thing from a 45% angle and see a laughably pretentious piece of shit, then you aren't truly experiencing it. What's the point of watching a masterpiece that you are already convinced is going to be a masterpiece? Shouldn't there be some kind of cynicism for it to work itself against?

But it's just as much a problem when people can't appreciate absurdity. When they equate everything that produces a powerful but crude visceral reaction or alienates them or makes them feel uncomfortable with "bad." Precious was a case where I wasn't sure if what I was seeing was good or bad. I knew that I hadn't seen a film quite like this before, but I knew that that wasn't necessarily praise. Is one's initial response always the best response? I've probably said that it was before, but movies like Precious and I Am Love (and to a lesser extent, I guess, Memories of Overdevelopment) get me to question that. I feel like there's something kind of complicated going on here that I need to chew over and analyze after the fact. (Neither of these films are subtle, but they sure as hell are complicated.)

Does Precious reflect the experience of many blacks in the late eighties? Does it reflect the experience of incest survivors? Would black illiterate teenagers whose fathers raped them get as much from The Sweet Hereafter?

Does whispering something make it more truthful than shouting it? Does subtly illuminate the issue more so than melodrama? I guess it would be fair to ask the inverse of those questions, though I'm not sure that you can answer "no" both ways.

This gets me thinking I'm finally succumbing to O'John Landis and differentiating between good and like, though not in the way that he wants me to differentiate betweeen them. How's that for frustrating?!

"Like" is the term that's scientific and objective. We all "like" the same things, because we are all hard-wired to find pretty much all the same stuff attractive. "Like" is all about style. "Good" is the subjective term. It's about whether or not something alters, informs, or possibly substantially confirms our outlook toward the world. I suppose that would mean I would stand Precious up as a "good" movie, but I'm not sure that I like it. This doesn't help me with I Am Love however. I'm not sure if I like it, but I'm still unable to tell you if it's a "good" movie either.

Just trying that on for size.

I definitely "like" Me, Too and Skateland, though and I think they might be pretty good movies, too. They're smooth and easily digestable, but they get at something. It's possible that my definitions of "like" and "good" aren't going to work because it's difficult to "like" something that is "good". Edification might necessarily be a painful process. I'm cautious about overpraising them simply because there's not a lot of friction there, not a whole lot to gnaw on. But if they are distributed nationwide and audiences and critics end up rejecting them, then I don't know man. Rail against conventionalism too much and you lose touch with the movies.

27 comments:

Patrick said...

Well, Alex, I still can't think of many films where we would agree on, but that is an interesting thought process you describe. I'll have to digest that, but kudos for reflecting on things. And I might like your definition of like and good, though I'm not sure it's good, yet ;)

As for Walter's Lost review, I would bet money it wasn't as planned out as they pretended it to be (just like Battlestar Galactica: "and they have a plan" – yeah, right, if the plan is "react to stuff that happens").

Anyway, here's the post that, for me, exemplifies why I stopped watching the show: You uncurious motherf*ckers

Richard said...

Seemed like somewhere around the landing on 'Earth II' BSG really did lose track. All the God/Gods destiny stuff went from interesting allegory to mystical mumbo-jumbo full of empty, runaround philosophizing the likes of which I hadn't seen since Matrix II.

To be fair, watching the entire series of The Wire for the first time directly afterwards probably made BSG seem worse in retrospect, though I think it may have that effect on almost any show.

Dan said...

@Patrick: the producers say they planned the broad sweep of Lost's storyline after S1, grew frustrated with having to dripfeed and spin their wheels in S3, so then worked out an end-date with ABC, and the show has felt a lot sharper ever since.

Now in S6, it feels like answers are genuinely on the horizon (in fact, many have actually been answered already -- it's a common fallacy that Lost "doesn't answer anything"), and I've personally of the opinion it's been a fantastically imaginative, inventive and exciting TV series.

I'm disappointed Walter didn't seem to like it (as S1's still considered the best for characterisation), but it's clearly not for him. That's fine. I know plenty of people who ditched it during S2 (when the mythology started to really take shape.) I also knew people who now regret that decision, having heard that it hasn't actually collapsed in on itself as many expected. Unlike, say, "Lost-killer" Heroes.

Anonymous said...

"We all "like" the same things, because we are all hard-wired to find pretty much all the same stuff attractive. "

?????????????????????????????????

Uh, bullshit?

Alex Jackson said...

"We all "like" the same things, because we are all hard-wired to find pretty much all the same stuff attractive. "

?????????????????????????????????

Uh, bullshit?


1. People are attracted to beautiful things and being attracted to something is synonymous to liking it.

2. Our attraction to beautiful things is a byproduct of evolution. It is to aid our continued survival as a species.

3. Humans are, all jokes aside, all on the same plane evolutionarilly speaking.

Ergo: We all "like" the same things.

All three premises true enough? Is the logic then sound?

DaveA said...

2. Our attraction to beautiful things is a byproduct of evolution. It is to aid our continued survival as a species.

Oh, you've finally had the time to read that Barbara Pease book?

So you're basically saying that me and some guy from the Rennaissance would consider the same things beautiful? I would cry watching the martyrdom of Bartholomew, and he'd immediately fall for Wagner's Tristan?

O'JohnLandis said...

Our attraction to beautiful people and beautiful food and beautiful shelter is a byproduct of evolution (fitter parents, fitter offspring; fitter meals, fitter fitness; less snow). That said, not everyone gets beautiful things and people adapt. We might all be on the same plane of evolution in a "our brains are roughly the same size as each other and are capable of IQs in range blah blah blah" sense, but evolution also leads to there always being a wide gap between the dumbest and the smartest. Is it wider now than it was 50 years ago or 250 years ago? I'd say if it's not wider simpliciter, it's wider in any given population. And all of this is lovely but has nothing at all to do with art.

There is no evolutionary reason why man need desire beautiful art. In fact, there's an evolutionary reason for man to pretend to desire ugly art, if it means an ability to attract a beautiful and intelligent (if pretentious) mate. People like all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons, just as they think all sorts of things are good for all sorts of reasons. You're not going to get out of this by assuming these concepts have to be unrelated.

So what you're actually saying with this revised take on good and like is that you like films that are objectively good--art that objectively conforms to some degree with those properties that if someone held a gun to your head you'd probably admit most good films share (and of course there are deviations and exceptions). Well, duh.

And when you say a film is good, what you're really saying is that to the limits of your perceptive qualities, you wish to champion unique and challenging art that is made outside of the context of objective standards. (Not art that fails to meet objective standards, art that truly and intentionally is made outside of the context of objective standards.) And to this I say, "fine." I also wish to champion unique and challenging art made outside of the context of objective standards from time to time, but I think my standards are more strict and though I am occasionally receptive to the avant-garde, I think a film has to meet a few basic criteria in order to be considered art and not an academic exercise.

Of course I think a part of you agrees, but your reputation as an iconoclast is important to you, which is why you're so afraid of objective standards in the first place. But my goal is not to logically prove that what you champion is terrible; my goal is to prove that we're even having a conversation at all. I don't think all moving pictures on a screen are art and I don't think John Cage's 4'33" is art either. That said, I am not a classicist--though in this crowd I am.

Patrick said...

I think there's a difference between hard-wired and learned attractors. Most people are hard-wired, for example, to prefer symmetry, and the Golden Cut does represent appealing proportions. Off-hand and without thinking about it too long, I'd say that most "low brow" art is keyed to such hard-wired preferences as to speak to almost everybody.

Now, that doesn't mean we can't cherish different things, too, or even come to look down upon our own hard-wired tendencies – which leads to "yeah, Avatar looks amazing, but it's still a bad film" and arguments about 300 many people can't understand.

What speaks to me about Alex' difference between like and good is my own problem with art and/or entertainment. There are films (for example) I consider to be objectively good aren't films I enjoy overly much, even though I respect them. At the same time, other films manage to hit certain notes or preferences of mine so that in the end, while I might say that No Country for Old Men is a better film than Serenity, I vastly prefer Serenity.

And I dread watching Antichrist because I think it'll be a film where you have to really pay attention and stay focused, and at the moment (university exams) I'd much rather just watch a dumb action flick to pass my time, i.e. not be challenged. And so I watch films that, if I went by artistic merit alone, I "shouldn't" watch.

On the other hand, if I agree that artistic merit is not the only thing that counts (it isn't), then I might end up with a list like Armond White's and actually want Avatar to win Best Picture because clearly, it's the best at something.

Bill C said...

@Patrick: Dude, ANTICHRIST is not hard to watch. Well, it is, but not for any 'homework'-type reasons.

Le sigh.

JF said...

I'm not sure if it's fair to dismiss LOST based on the first season. Most of the more interesting characters don't show up until later, and the characters from the first season that have stuck around--the mostly dull Jack and Kate excepted--have moved beyond their initial, indeed rather shoddy conception. The first half of the series is an intermittently compelling slog, but the second half has been almost uninterrupted fun. Maybe that first half, with its redundant, hamfisted flashbacks and stupid (apparent) dead ends, holds it back from actual greatness. It's still something we who care about ambitious and challenging TV should be rooting for, and, this week's lame episode aside, I'm confident that it knows what it's doing.

Battlestar Galactica, which had a surprising amount of plot points in common with LOST, was a better show on an episode-by episode, scene-by-scene, line-by-line, performance-by-performance basis. It also had a much less steady grip on its own mythology, and in the latter half of the last season that came back to bite it on the ass. And the character arcs became a little muddy somewhere in that stretch of standalone episodes in Season 3 and never totally recovered.

DaveA said...

I don't really understand the love for BSG around here. Sure, it was an enjoyable show, but at the same time aggravating to watch, sometimes like a cartoon were characters starts from scratch with each episode. I mean, it's OK when you have a character with a drinking problem, but then please stick with it for at least a few episodes before magically make him sober again (it's almost like Jack Bauer's Heroin addiction in 24, which he quickly dealt with in 37 minutes). And while you could clearly see how the writers were trying to deal with grand theological themes, i.e., the emergence of monotheism, they usually drowned those in some esoteric gibberish. And don't get me started on the Starbuck storyline, the "all along the watchtower" bullshit, Commander Adama somehow refusing to clear his throat from time to time (gravitas!), or that everything on the huge Battleship Galactica happens in two hallways and six rooms...

Patrick said...

Bill: It's not? Well, then I guess I'll rely on you and cue it up this weekend. Thanks.

JF said...

@DaveA: It did hit the reset button in the second half a few too many times, but I think the characters' alcoholism was treated relatively realistically. What issues the show had when it got heavily into mysticism it mostly made up for by dealing with a bunch of other touchy subjects in smart, provocative ways. And point taken about where Starbuck's character went, but Adama Gravitas and that All Along the Watchtower bullshit were AWESOME.

Bill C said...

Just an FYI, Walter will be covering the entire "Lost" series up to the current season. So he hasn't dismissed it based on the first season--at least, not technically.

Dan said...

@Bill: Ah, that's good to hear. He'll either get a real kick from its geeky/sci-fi charms and thickening mysteries once all hat becomes more of a focus, or absolutely hate it. Either way, it'll be a fun read. :) Good to see a few more TV reviews at FFC, too. Did you ever explain why star-ratings aren't used for TV fare, btw?

Also, I always feel guilty when comments are "hijacked" about other things going on at the mothersite, so apologies to Alex. His Sundance reviews have been very good. Did you see Spike Jonze's "I'm Here"?

DaveA said...

Alex, did you have the chance to see Gaspar Noe's Enter the void? I mean, just the opening titles are already slightly overwhelming:

Enter the void

Patrick said...

Probably no stars for TV series because there are too many episodes; do you rate them seperately? How many shows really allow for being rated as a whole?

Also, I sympathize with Dave A. When the mumbo-jumbo got too bad on Galactica, I stopped watching, and from what I know about the finale, I'm glad I did.

Dan said...

@Patrick: I can understand that, but plenty of box-sets are rated with stars elsewhere online. I only really ask because sometimes I read reviews on FFC that appear to *slate* a film, but then notice the star-rating says 2.5/4.0 (which to me isn't THAT bad..), so the stars sometimes "counteracts" the written reviews in some respects...

From memory, Last House On The Left's remake got a pretty bad review, but the stars were that of a very average, serviceable movie. Which it was.

Patrick said...

Ah, so maybe reading the LOST thing and having 2 stars or whatever might mitigate your impression of the review? Got it.

Also, LOVE "Percy Jackson blah blah blah"!

Bill C said...

Basically, the thinking was that there were too many variables in reviewing a TV show, so we dropped the stars. Although I dunno--Bryant rated "The Sopranos" s1 **** in his original text, and I considered making an exception. Just another FFC idiosyncrasy that probably confuses more than it helps.

Dan said...

@Bill: Well, it's up to you guys. All I know is Avatar got a terrible review, but 2/4 stars (which surely equals an average film?) -- so I find a mental equilibrium between the two, which sometimes helps cushion a few blows :)

Alex Jackson said...

Our attraction to beautiful people and beautiful food and beautiful shelter is a byproduct of evolution (fitter parents, fitter offspring; fitter meals, fitter fitness; less snow). That said, not everyone gets beautiful things and people adapt. We might all be on the same plane of evolution in a "our brains are roughly the same size as each other and are capable of IQs in range blah blah blah" sense, but evolution also leads to there always being a wide gap between the dumbest and the smartest. Is it wider now than it was 50 years ago or 250 years ago? I'd say if it's not wider simpliciter, it's wider in any given population.

Well I, uh, am referring to the "our brains are roughly the same size as each other and are capable of IQs in the range blah blah blah" sense.

The gap between smart and dumb within the human population is too small to attribute to evolution. And it's difficult to really measure human intelligence as it is largely contingent on environment and access to education. If we were to create an IQ test, and assuming that it relied on language skills and the application of reason, I would think that it would actually show a wider gap 250 years ago than today as most everyone has access to some form of public education.

And all of this is lovely but has nothing at all to do with art.

Interesting.

There is no evolutionary reason why man need desire beautiful art.

Well, I entertain the possiblility that beautiful art better conveys a message than ugly art. That people are more likely to take notice of a realistic well-detailed depiction of a saber toothe tiger attack than a crude utilitarian one.

I think I sort of agree with you though. Except that beautiful art artificially stimulates our hard-wired evolutionary response to real-life beautiful things. The idea that a picture of a beautiful woman isn't the same as seeing a beautiful woman in person hasn't been bred out of us.

In fact, there's an evolutionary reason for man to pretend to desire ugly art, if it means an ability to attract a beautiful and intelligent (if pretentious) mate.

Aha! The implication is that people who desire ugly art are intelligent but pretentious. Which means that appreciation for ugly art has to be learned. Which implies that appreciation for beautiful art does not have to be learned. It's self-evident. Which I feel was the point I was trying to make all along.

As for the rest of the post to reiterate. Liking something means, "Is it titilating? Am I having some kind of pleasurable visceral response?" Again, this is, for the most part; standarized across the population and can be objectively explained.

Good means, "Does it alter or clarify my perspective toward the world in a meaningful way". Does a film about love help us understand love? Does a film about incest help us understand incest? Et cetera. This question is subjective in that we all have different perspectives, but is really the only one that really matters.

Of course, we can like things that aren't good and not like things that are good. But the flaw with this system that I've identified is that it might be impossible to like things that are also good. If you like something, you are sucked into it's spell and the edification ceases.

O'JohnLandis said...

There is no evolutionary reason why man need desire beautiful art. That's what I said, and I said it in direct response to:

Our attraction to beautiful things is a byproduct of evolution. It is to aid our continued survival as a species.

I certainly believe that we are hardwired to appreciate beautiful art, but I wouldn't credit evolution--except in an "evolution helped us get eyes and ears and brains" sense. But even if evolution has to be the reason for the sake of argument, there is no need to appreciate beautiful art--nothing that aids our continued survival as a species. And if you get an unearned "Aha!" I'll take one too. If you can agree with the premise that people are capable of pretending to appreciate ugly art in order to appear smarter, it puts anyone who appreciates ugly art under close scrutiny and places the burden of proof on them. Because no one pretends to like beautiful art.

(You think the intelligence gap was larger 250 years ago and I'd disagree. I'd certainly disagree that as many people 250 years ago intentionally avoided knowing things.)

I don't know what possible justification there could be for your definition of a good film. Maybe a good textbook or a good lecture teaches you something (and certainly a film might share properties with lectures or textbooks) but to suggest that in order for a film to be good it has to teach or clarify something? Well that betrays a lack of understanding--not of what good means, but what film means.

You previously thought Plan 9 was good because you liked it. I assume you'd now say it's not good. But that one's easy. How about Pulp Fiction? Is it good? And then there's 2001--it would seem to qualify for good, but would it have been on your list if you didn't like it? Once you finish untangling yourself from this position, let me know how a symphony can be good, if indeed it can.

Todd said...

Like most aspects of the human experience, our attraction to beautiful art is indeed a byproduct of evolution, though it certainly isn't an aid to our survival as a species. Other traits that do impact our biological fitness -- most importantly, our propensity to classify information -- also compel us to appreciate art.

Nicholas Humphrey explains it more eloquently than I ever could; I highly recommend checking out his article "The illusion of beauty", available here: http://cogprints.org/1771/

Alex Jackson said...

Thanks for that link. Some stuff in there I'll need to read into more. I don't have enough time as I should to engage in this discussion.

Anyway:

I don't know what possible justification there could be for your definition of a good film. Maybe a good textbook or a good lecture teaches you something (and certainly a film might share properties with lectures or textbooks) but to suggest that in order for a film to be good it has to teach or clarify something? Well that betrays a lack of understanding--not of what good means, but what film means.

Then I'm not particularly interested in film as you define it. Or at least, I can't find very much sustenance in it. Yes, film has to be like a lecture or a textbook. It needs to teach you something or clarify something. I prefer Lars Von Trier to Stanley Kramer, but I mean there you go.

When a film, or work of art, exists purely for its own sake then I get frustrated. You're a human being right? You have an interest in political, theological, or ethical issues? If a film isn't engaging your interest in these subjects then is it doing its job?

Bringing up 2001 was interesting in that that is nearly a work of "pure art". And when compared to stuff like Plan 9 From Outer Space or Pulp Fiction, which are montage films where our reaction is contingent on how it re-organizes other film images and conventions, I would be forced to admit that 2001 is more likable than it is good. That it is more a visceral experience than an actual dialogue like Plan 9 or Pulp Fiction.

And that too drastically redefines what we usually mean by like and good. So yeah, I think I'm ultimately wrong in dividing them that way.

I'm trying to say that aesthetic quality is not nearly as important as how the film changes our perspective toward the subject matter or how the film comes to define us.

The Voice said...

Walter chimes into this discussion with his three-star review of The Wolfman on the main page. "It's a howl!"

corym said...

Hey, can we talk about Scorsese yet? Or will there be another thread for that?