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Links I Like: June 29, 2011

I had meant to do this feature every week or so, but with film festivals and other commitments, I haven’t had very much time to read other sites or gather good links. That being the case, some of these are several weeks old and you may have already read them. But in case you haven’t, I still think they’re worth taking a look at.

The Cultural Vegetables Debate – Dan Kois, A.O. Scott, Manohla Dargis, Jim Emerson, Glenn Kenny, AND MORE

It all started with this article in the New York Times Magazine, when Dan Kois admitted that he has a tough time watching certain critically-acclaimed movies (especially slow-moving ones like Solaris or Meek’s Cutoff) and terming them “cultural vegetables.” Fellow NYT critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis responded with “In Defense of the Slow and Boring”, arguing that slow and boring isn’t necessarily bad, and what’s more, often mainstream films like The Hangover Part II are far more boring than arthouse slow cinema like Meek’s Cutoff. Soon, other critics and bloggers put in their two cents as well, including Glenn Kenny, Jim Emerson, Richard Brody, Matt Singer, Bilge Elibri, Vadim Rizov, etc. Andrew O’Hehir’s article in Salon may summarize things the best. Then Kois, Scott, and Dargis all got together for a follow-up article. And now Glenn Kenny is tired of the whole thing. In a way, it’s gotten blown out of proportion from Kois’s original personal and sincere article, but the various points brought up by various authors are all very interesting and enlightening, to one degree or another, in a culture where both critics and laypeople can feel marginalized by the other.

Comment on “No Comment” – Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at Mubi

The last frame of Jean-Luc Godard’s lastest film is the text “No Comment,” which many have interpreted as Godard’s sort-of playful, sort-of standoffish way of deflecting criticism, a way of tossing a bunch of seemingly nonsensical images up on screen for 90 minutes and then refusing to respond to questions or criticisms of them. Vishnevetsky argues that instead, Godard is declining authorial control, inviting the audience to participate in making meaning of his film. In short, it’s not a dismissal, but a deferral, and rather than being standoffish and closed, the ending slide is open and welcoming. This fits with how I see Godard’s early films, as well as his tendency to make films about the death of cinema as well as the death of language.

10 Best Michelle Williams Performances – Kevyn Knox at Anomalous Material

I see I’m not alone in my belief that Michelle Williams is possibly the best Hollywood actress of our generation, and Kevyn Knox has gathered together a slew of performances that prove it. I’m ashamed to admit that I have only seen a handful of these – looks like I’ve got a lot more Williams to discover, which is a wonderful thing.

Academics vs. Critics: Never the Twain Shall Meet? – David Bordwell in Film Comment

Bordwell outlines the somewhat tense relationship between what he terms “cinephile critics” and academics – the difference between someone like Andrew Sarris, who popularized the auteur theory in the United States and had a deep understanding of film history and art that showed through his weekly reviews and columns at the Village Voice (and later the New York Observer), and someone like Christian Metz, who used linguistic theory to probe how audiences process visual narratives. It’s a line that I’ve struggled to understand myself, as I have just enough academic in me to want to sometimes use esoteric theory or historical minutiae when thinking about film, but I also identify strongly with the Sarris-style cinephile critic. Bordwell actually argues that the twain can and should meet, noting the different purposes each type of criticism is for and how the two can be complementary.

Blu-ray Consumer Guide, June 2011 – Glenn Kenny at Some Came Running

Kenny runs through an amazingly long list of Blu-ray releases, with a paragraph on each talking a little bit about the film and whether it’s worthwhile, but mostly about this particular blu-ray release and what it does or does not bring to the table. It’s a daunting post even to read; I pale at the amount of work (both writing and viewing all the discs) that must’ve gone into it, but the recommendations or warnings are very welcome. Discs discussed include: A.I., All the President’s Men, early Antonioni, The Black Pirate, Blow Out, The Comancheros, Diabolique, Great Dictator, Kes, Lolita, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Flower, Senso, Some Like It Hot, El Topo, Topsy Turvy, and a lot more. A lot of Criterions, but that’s fine with me!

Kiss Me Deadly: The Thriller of Tomorrow – J. Hoberman at Criterion Current

Kiss Me Deadly just came out on Criterion DVD and Blu-ray, and J. Hoberman looks at the film in its historical context – especially the way it uses and modifies Mickey Spillane’s basically amoral “hero” Mike Hammer as a comment on modern society, and the relationship the film and its director Robert Aldrich had with the McCarthyism running rampant at the time of its release. The film is a great one on a straight crime noir level; I’m looking forward to rewatching with more of a historical context in mind.

“It’s Just a Bit of Fun”: Why Defensive Fans Are Bad News for Movies – Helen O’Hara at Empire Online

Whenver a Hollywood blockbuster comes out and film critics lambast it, there’s always a chorus of “but it’s just supposed to be fun, stop bashing it” from commenters and fans of Hollywood blockbusters. The latest round is in relation to Transformers: The Dark of the Moon, and Empire Online put up this piece in response to the comments they’ve been receiving on their review of the film. O’Hara makes a lot of great points, and so do several of the commenters on this post, about critics responding to blockbusters, and how it’s okay to want more from blockbusters – not necessarily that they be Citizen Kane, that would be silly, but that they aspire to the greatness of blockbusters like Back to the Future or The Terminator, which had good scripts, storytelling, and acting, and were also a whole lot of fun. As O’Hara puts it, why wouldn’t you want “a film that has giant robots but is also a good film?” (her emphasis) Amen.

Initial Reaction: The Tree of Life – Kevin J. Olsen at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies

Although Kevin put up a full review a few days after this initial post, I love this stream-of-consciousness approach to Tree of Life. The film itself follows an associative logic rather than a linear narrative logic, and as Kevin points out, it’s difficult to talk about such an unconventional film in a conventional writing style. I think this bulleted list of things the film made him think about and associations it drove him to make is possibly the best way to talk about Tree of Life.

Misreading the Tomatometer – Jim Emerson at scanners::blog

It’s something I’ve said time and time again, but Emerson explains quite well how the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer works – that 75% Fresh means 75% of critics gave it a positive review (that is, somewhere between 5 and 10 on a ten point ranking scale), not that all critics gave it a 7.5 out of 10. You could theoretically have a movie that’s 100% Fresh because every critic gave it a 6 out of 10 – that’s an extreme and unlikely example, but the system is highly imprecise. He also goes into the difficulties of assigning a positive/negative score to mixed reviews that don’t use a star or numeral ranking system. There are good ways to use Rotten Tomatoes (like as a portal to actually read a bunch of reviews), and the Tomatometer score isn’t always a bad indicator of general critical climate, but it needs to be understood properly to be very useful.

links-i-like

Links I Like: June 6, 2011

I‘m starting to get back in the swing of reading other blogs again (I know, I’m a bad blog citizen), and wanted to start sharing some of my favorite things I’m reading – mostly film blogs, naturally, but if I find something in other areas that I think is particularly noteworthy I’ll probably give it a shout-out, too. Like this week, there’s one on gaming that I thought was pretty good. I’m gonna try to get some variety in there, but don’t be surprised if you see some of the same people popping up over and over. What can I say, some people just give good blog. So anyway, go check out these posts and bloggers and leave them some comment love if you like what you see!

Note: Photos and videos I particularly like may show up in my Tumblr rather than here, or at least earlier than here. The newest Tumblr entry is always showing at the bottom of my home page, but the rest is always there, waiting.

A prayer beneath the Tree of Life – Roger Ebert

A post on Roger Ebert’s personal blog rather than a review, this reverie on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life points out the film’s prayer-like attributes and discusses the very personal ways the film touched Ebert, and explores how well the film evokes one’s own memories. I don’t even have memories of growing up in the 1950s, and yet Malick’s film allows me the same “memories,” or similar ones – not as real as Ebert’s, of course, but nonetheless true. This is the power of Malick’s film.

Review: The Tree of Life – Jake at Not Just Movies

A more indepth look at The Tree of Life, and a review that said most of what I think without me having to formulate words (which I’m not sure I can do yet). I find most intriguing the effect that the film is having on non-religious people (which both Ebert and Jake are), because it’s not very different from the effect it had on me, in terms of being able to evoke a deep spirituality and even religiosity without actually having any dogmatic particulars at all. Jake compares it to a wordless piece of music, like Bach’s Mass in B minor, a comparison which makes an awful lot of sense.

Opening Shots: The New World – David Nicol at scanners::blog

From the most recent Malick to the first Malick I personally saw. Jim Emerson has started up (or revived, to be more accurate) a series on his always-excellent scanners::blog analyzing opening scenes of movies, and invited others to submit their own analyses. This one from Dr. David Nicol gets a surprising amount of depth out of the very simple water-reflection shot that opens The New World.

Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme Seeks to End Language – Landon Palmer at Film School Rejects

With Godard’s latest opus coming out in theatres this month, we’re getting another rash of reviews, both positive and negative. Landon Palmer hits the nail on the head, I think, and in an eminently readable way.

George Stevens’ Giant, in One Scene – The Self-Styled Siren

The Siren provides a close reading on the diner fight scene Giant, which she convincingly argues incapsulates the whole of the film in its treatment of anti-Mexican bigotry and of main character Bick Benedict’s changing attitude toward it that comes to head in this scene. It’s been a long time since I saw Giant, and I wasn’t a huge fan, but this piece definitely makes me want to go give it another look. She also includes the YouTube clip of the scene.

Thumbnail Reviews: Douglas Fairbanks in 1916 – The Mythical Monkey Writes About the Movies

The Mythical Monkey has been going through the 1910s, providing tons of invaluable and well-presented information about the first decade of feature-length filmmaking. This post has short reviews of almost all of the dozen movies Douglas Fairbanks was in during 1916. I consider it a remarkable achievement to even see all these films (it’s also somewhat remarkable that only one is lost), and I’ve definitely added a couple to my list to check out if Cinefamily ever plays them.

Alignment, Allegiance, and Murder – David Bordwell

Bordwell takes a bit of time to introduce concepts of narrative point of view and character identification, which he recasts (following Murray Smith) as alignment and allegiance, then does a close reading with an abundance of screencaps of a scene from Fritz Lang’s House by the River, showing how the audience’s alignment and allegiance are subtly shifted from one character to another throughout the course of one scene, merely by how Lang sets up the shots and blocking. A great example of formalist criticism, showing how important composition is, even though we rarely realize it consciously while watching films.

The Forgotten: Negative Space/Capability/Attitude – David Cairns at Mubi

David watches Von Morgens Bis Mitternacht (From Morn to Midnight), a 1920 German Expressionist film that, judging by the screencaps, is pretty much the most extreme German Expressionist film I’ve ever seen. He also watched it without subtitles, yielding musings on “negative capability,” or the ability to enjoy things without fully understanding them. For that thought and for the glorious screencaps, I share this post.

What Adults Want From Games – Matthew Keast at GamesRadar

As the average age of gamers is now solidly in the mid-30s, I kind of wonder why so many games still seem steeped in immaturity and adolescent fantasies, and so does Matthew Keast. Well, he’s got a bunch of things that he’d like to see more of (or less of) as an adult gamer, and I agree with almost all of them, from better age controls for online play to more games based on story and character instead of violence and titillation. Several commenters on his piece pointed out that they are under 18 (thus not adult according to his criteria for the post) and agree with him, suggesting that the kinds of experiences he’s calling for are desired by even more of the population. Game developers, please listen!

Inception

Multiple Possibilities at One Time

A few weeks ago I was talking about Christopher Nolan’s Inception with a friend who had just seen it (this is a common occurrence – kudos again to Mr. Nolan for making a blockbuster film that is so imminently discussable and compels people to want to think about it and talk about it after seeing it). I haven’t seen it since opening weekend in theatres, so in some ways I’m not as well-equipped to discuss the question of the ending and what it means for the reality or non-reality of the rest of the film as those who have seen it more recently or more often, but even from the first time I saw it I found the question of “which parts were a dream” and “whose dream was it” and “is he still in a dream” interesting not because I enjoyed trying to figure out the answer, like a puzzle, but because I think the film invites multiple interpretations that are all supportable. Close reading the film, studying each frame, etc. to try to figure out what really happened is far less intriguing to me than the multiple possibilities the film seems to allow.

I was trying to explain this to my friend, that I thought it was less interesting and perhaps not worth it to try to answer those questions, but in the discussion I almost inadvertently allowed that yeah, there probably was one real answer, though we couldn’t really know what it was, because the film is so well constructed for ambiguity that at least three or four interpretations are supportable. I want to take that back, maybe not for Inception, because Inception is also constructed as a puzzle film and Nolan is enough of a left-brain filmmaker that a determinable answer isn’t out of the question, but for film in general.

I ran across the two-paragraph quote below on Jim Emerson’s excellent scanners::blog, always a great source for in-depth film criticism, talking about the recent Abbas Kiarostami film Certified Copy. For context (and this description has spoilers, but the film doesn’t depend on its secret), the film is about an author, James, who wrote an art criticism book. While on a promotional tour in Italy, he meets Elle, a woman who has read the book and wants to discuss it, but doesn’t totally agree with him. They meet to talk, start getting to know each other, and then suddenly in the middle of the film start acting like they’ve been married for several years. The film never reveals whether they’re really strangers or really married, and Emerson suggests that trying to figure out whether they are or not is not useful. The comments to his post have people both adamantly sure they are strangers and adamantly sure they are married. I prefer Emerson’s stance – focusing on the facts of their particular relationship distracts from focusing on the truths of relationships and art that the film is really about (my full review is here). Here’s the relevant quote:

So, I’ll just chime in here to say that I think these are both good answers to the wrong question. Or, one that isn’t worth answering definitively, because it offers only binary options, and the movie requires that you hold multiple possibilities in your head at the same time. What you see is what happens in the movie. There is no “reality” apart from what is there. (Mr. Scorsese, please: “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.”) You don’t look at Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and say: “Well, that dinner party is real, but when they’re walking down the road it’s a fantasy.” You don’t look at That Obscure Object of Desire and say, “The scenes with Carole Bouquet are the real ones, and the scenes with Ángela Molina are imaginary.” Where would that get you? You would be denying the essential movieness of the experience.

Sicinsky has his reasons, well-argued, for his point of view, but I think he’s closer to the mark when he cites Bordwell and says that the events depicted in the movie just don’t rigorously correspond to what we experience as viewers watching the movie. Look at James’s entrance: Late for his own lecture, he enters from the rear of the room and is immediately stopped by a woman and a boy, for whom he stops to sign a copy of his book — until the host asks people to hold off until afterwards. That woman is Elle and the boy is her son. How do we square that with the moment in the trattoria when James grills Elle (both of them adopting new, amped-up, soap-operatic acting styles) about the road accident she almost had when she dozed off at the wheel while their son was in the back seat? Well, we don’t. How can we? Why should we? They are married and not married, strangers and intimates. What’s unknown — that is, what is deliberately left out of the movie — is as important as what’s known. Perhaps, like Billy Pilgrim, these characters have come unstuck in time, or have slipped into multiple alternate universes (Glenn Kenny said the movie “can be seen as the first great science-fiction film of the year”).

The point is that cinema is what is on the screen. If it’s not on the screen, if it’s not ensconced in that frame, it doesn’t exist. You can conjecture, you can guess, you can infer, but in a very real way, especially in films that so carefully construct what they do and don’t reveal, you’re conjecturing about something that doesn’t exist in the film – not simply something that isn’t definitely knowable, but something that is not there. Film is not life; it creates its own frame of reference. It’s still fun to talk about what might be outside the frame, and some films are more amenable to such conjecture than others (for instance, many people conjecture that Sammy Jankis in Nolan’s Memento is, in fact, Leonard, and that conjecture, while probably not provable, is certainly believable and adds a layer of meaning to the film). Maybe Inception is one of these. But I find it more interesting to “hold multiple possibilities in your head at the same time,” even about Inception. The film may mean different things depending on which interpretation you choose – why can’t it mean ALL those things? That seems much deeper and richer to me than having to choose one and disregard the others when Nolan has done such a careful job of making multiple interpretations plausible. Is he just throwing red herrings at us, when he has one single interpretation and meaning in mind? Maybe. But I feel no call to match my mind to his. I think it’s great that his film has made me and so many other people think. But I have no desire to reduce those thoughts to a single “answer,” nor debate which answer is the best.

Bookmarks for February 14th through April 14th