Tag Archives: art film

Slow Motion

As long as art cinema exists, people will get pissed off about it. The vast majority of movies may be cozy and predictable, but even if a small handful are slightly challenging, audience members will take personal offense to them. This phenomenon manifests itself in annoying new ways each year—remember the Tree of Life walk-outs and Drive lawsuit of 2011?—and now, thanks to McSweeney’s writer Rodney Uhler and Variety film editor Josh Dickey, I have another pair of examples to pore over.

The first is Uhler’s “A Filmgoer Tries to Feign Interest in Art House Cinema.” It’s typical McSweeney’s: an internal/external monologue, mildly funny, kinda reminiscent of early Woody Allen. My favorite part is toward the end, as the speaker remarks of a cineaste friend, “He’s still going. Unbelievable. He’s quoting the New Yorker review.” As someone who might quote New Yorker reviews myself on occasion, I admit that I’ve been skewered. It’s dead-on. But whenever the piece touches on this hypothetical art film itself, it descends into the realm of stereotype. It’s as if Uhler has only heard of art cinema via broad, SNL-style parodies.

Hell, this thing could double as a catalog of popular misconceptions. Behold:

  • “Wait, where are they now?” Right from the start, we have this suggestion of victimhood—of the incomprehensible art film out to get its unsuspecting viewer. As if disorientation was a blunt instrument filmmakers wield to cow their viewers.
  • “[A]ll the reviews said it was amazing but half the time I have no idea what’s going on.” Of course critics are in on it too. One big conspiracy to make the in-crowd feel smart! And don’t forget the fuck-you-David-Lynch implication that “amazing” is incompatible with “I have no idea what’s going on.”
  • “Sometimes I just want to see someone blow something up and then hug a puppy.” Movies, it seems, fall into two big categories: “smart” and “dumb.” No overlap, no in-between, just a bunch of hostile art films vs. explosion-and-puppy blockbusters that people actually go to see.
  • “Hopefully I can just agree with everything he says until the topic changes.” I guess you can watch art films, but they’re just too willfully opaque for you to apply your critical thinking skills. They’re like giant, hours-long Magic Eye pictures, and only self-anointed cinephiles can make heads or tails of them.

Obviously Uhler’s exaggerating for comic effect, but I see the underlying sentiments all over the Internet. It’s this vision of art films as homogeneous, inaccessible, intended to either alienate audience members or validate their egos. Instead of, say, similar to “mainstream” movies in their use of character, narrative, and spectacle, but (to varying degrees) more elliptical and formally distinctive.

In the McSweeney’s piece, those false notions are wrapped in satire and delivered by a fictional speaker. Dickey, however, chose to trumpet his ignorance as overtly as possible on Twitter:

[tweet https://twitter.com/Variety_JLD/status/262238989736636416]

This was written specifically in response to the financial failure of Cloud Atlas. But Dickey didn’t say “Cloud Atlas shouldn’t have been three hours.” He said “A 3-hr movie is NOT ACCEPTABLE.” And later reaffirmed that he meant it as an absolute. “Filmmakers need to deliver tighter movies,” he explained. “They can and they should and they won’t b/c they’re precious.” Someone pointed out that masterpieces like Jeanne Dielman and Sátántangó would lose impact at <3 hours; Dickey curtly replied, “It loses ALL of its impact on me as I simply will not sit through it at that length.”

I don’t really give a fuck what run time is too long for this guy or any other individual viewer. Again, it’s the underlying sentiment of Dickey’s dogma, which is shared by Uhler’s “filmgoer,” that draws my ire: “Hey, movies, would you mind all being the same? Would you mind shifting a little toward to the middle, so you can better suit my idea of what a movie should be?” Have these people never seen a theater marquee? Do they not understand that most new releases fall into a narrow spectrum (formulaic, digestible, disposable) and that the exceptions are easy to avoid?

I watch movies so I can experience the world through someone else’s eyes. Sometimes that experience frustrates me. But often enough, it’s sublime. Maybe it takes three hours. (Or four, or more.) Maybe I have no idea what’s going on. That’s the risk I take; the investment I’m making. Often enough, the time and confusion pay off. I just can’t imagine imposing these aesthetic and intellectual limitations on myself. I’d never get the privilege of seeing anything truly new. If movies are going to show me the same thing every time, why bother watching them in the first place?


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Tricks and Treats

It’s Halloween! The one day of the year when everyone concedes that candy and horror movies are the best things in life. Therefore, I give you some thoughts on what I’ve been watching lately…

The Paranormal Activity movies (2009-) fascinate me. They’re yet another annual horror franchise, low on ideas and high on jump scares. But since they’re shot in the “found footage” style that’s been so in vogue lately (blame 2007’s one-two punch of [REC] and Cloverfield), the PA movies actually look and sound a lot like austere art cinema. The long takes, the static camera, the ongoing obsession with documenting the mundane, the lack of non-diegetic music… they’re like Michael Haneke if he fast-forwarded through all the “boring parts.” They’re formalist horror, fixated on mise-en-scène but devoid of any real acting or dialogue. Does that make them perversely experimental, or just cynical and hollow? Maybe both.

Universal’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) is catnip for a Bela Lugosi aficionado like me. You’ve got the “man of science” angst that afflicts Lugosi’s Dr. Mirakle; the vanilla hero (Poe’s detective Dupin) who hunts the mad doctor; and of course the hero’s girlfriend, with whom Lugosi develops an intense erotic obsession. All the typical tropes that crop up in Our Favorite Hungarian’s movies. As usual, Lugosi—hamming it up with a unibrow and jack o’ lantern smile—steals the show, although he does have competition from Karl Freund’s silken cinematography and some surprisingly florid dialogue. (Sample line: “Think of what all those walls are hiding! Broken hopes, bodies, hearts. Absent dreams, starvation, madness. Crimes of the streets; tragedies of the river.”)

The titular landmass in Isle of the Dead (1945) is a liminal space, constructed from shadow and illusion. There, modernity wrestles with superstition for the soul of General Pherides, played with brittle gravitas by Boris Karloff. Although directed by Mark Robson, Isle of the Dead was produced and co-written by Val Lewton, meaning it’s one of his wartime horror movies—and as such, it shares much with his earlier films, like Cat People and The Ghost Ship (the latter also Robson-directed). Evil is again represented as nebulous and invisible; fear as the genesis of fascism; and statues as omnipresent totems. Furthermore, all three are suffused with noir atmosphere and homoeroticism. Perhaps my favorite technique specific to Isle of the Dead is its repetition: of the words “No one may leave” and “vorvolaka”; of water drip-drip-dripping on a prematurely sealed coffin. Such a stark and haunting film.

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Recommended reading

By Andreas

This is officially my Anxiety Summer, as it’s the first time in my life that I have to worry about unemployment, paying rent, and buying food. Adulthood FTW! (That glamorous logo you see above was designed by Miles of The Daily Robot.) But thankfully, there’s more to my summer ’11 than just hunger and creative stagnancy. I’ve also been reading lots of sharp, funny, and insightful film writing online…

First of all, we have David Bordwell, the guy who wrote the book on movies. He’s one of my heroes, as well as one of the best, clearest film writers out there. So it stands to reason that he’d add a very valuable two cents to that whole “cultural vegetables” discussion I talked about a few weeks back. His piece “Good and good for you” is essential reading, addressing trends in filmmaking and reception that have led viewers like Dan Kois to give up on austere art films. Bordwell writes:

Why shouldn’t people follow Kois in giving up their vegetables? No reason, except that they’re missing some worthwhile cinematic experiences.

Then he illustrates that contention with visual examples from Ozu, Béla Tarr, and more. This is why he’s awesome. It’s a fine defense of movies that may be resolutely unconventional or inaccessible, but great nonetheless—movies that I’m dying to see more of. Not just as “aspirational viewing,” as Kois calls it, but because these movies are pleasurable, if in a different and difficult way.

If any movie I watch this summer can give me a pleasure matching the end of Stalker, the color palette of Floating Weeds, or the entirety of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, I will be all the happier for it.

It’s hard to follow up David Bordwell, but I got a dual pleasure from these two reviews of Cars 2: “It’s a CAR-TASTROPHE” by Alex of Film Forager and another review by Bryce Wilson of Things That Don’t Suck. Alex, covering both films, ponders the inconsistencies and bizarre logic of the Cars universe; Bryce points out the many appealing qualities of Cars 2 that make its Larry the Cable Guy-centric writing that much more tragic. I haven’t seen a second of either Cars movie, but I enjoyed every word of these reviews.

Finally, Jeffrey Sconce of Ludic Despair gives us the “Zookeeper Checklist.” Genius. You owe it to yourself to read it.


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One Hour Mark: Blowup

Understanding Antonioni has always been difficult for me. So maybe I can get some insights into his style by pondering this image from 1:00:00 into his 1966 masterpiece Blowup. As in most Antonioni films, the plot is incidental: an unnamed photographer (David Hemmings) goes about his life – spending the night with bums, buying a propeller, aggressively shooting models, etc. During a jaunt in the park with his camera, he snaps several photos of a couple enjoying themselves. However, the images he captures contain more than initially meets the eye. What, exactly, do they contain? It’s never made clear. Possibly a corpse, possibly nothing, and in the end the photographer metaphorically contents himself with illusions. [Ashley reminds me that, on the more literal side, he does go and see the corpse in the park. But soon after, it’s gone, and the questions resurface.]

This may all sound extremely self-referential, since it’s a film about the nature of images, and it is. As Wikipedia puts it, Antonioni was an “Italian modernist film director,” and you pretty much have to understand his work within the context of cinematic modernism. In his films, characters aren’t just uncertain of what the truth is; they’re also unsure whether there is truth in the first place. (And the kinds of truth he addresses are manifold: aesthetic, epistemological, social, religious, moral, sexual, etc.) For example, in his first real hit, L’avventura (1960), a woman goes missing on an island. Her family and friends look for her, can’t find her, and eventually give up. Her best friend and boyfriend have an affair out of nothing so much as uncertainty.

That’s the sort of structure Antonioni’s movies have. The surface questions most movies would go after – where’s the woman? Why is there a dead body? – are abandoned because answering them, Antonioni seems to say, won’t really solve anything. The real questions are much harder, and the films get at them not through dialogue or narrative but visual style. With that in mind, let’s turn to this image from Blowup, which is actually the photographer about to blow up an image. He’s just had an encounter with the woman from the photos (Vanessa Redgrave), who wanted the negatives, and now he’s driven to look closer at the photo’s he’s taken. This little action says so much when framed within the wider film.

The title, after all, is Blowup. It’s a curious phrase, especially since it can refer to an explosion or to the creation of something larger. There’s also an implication that, since the film is superficially a mystery, blowing up a photo is a method for reaching a deeper truth. Photographs are supposedly objective reproductions of the physical world, so to look closer is to gain new insight into the world itself. To solve the mystery. (Cf. Bazin’s “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.”) But scene after scene, Antonioni undermines all of these assumptions, throwing the photographer out into a modern wasteland of subjectivity.

A lot of the photographer’s artistic hubris is present in this particular image. He thinks that with his technology and his grid, he can master and map out reality. But Antonioni shows that reality is much more slippery than he thought. Ironically, with the way he’s framed here, the photographer himself is one who’s been mapped out. In a film that frequently equates the photographer’s camera with sexual power, this is possibly an indication that now he’s the one who’s been fucked. I’m still not sure how highly I personally regard Antonioni’s work, especially since it’s full of unlikeable, emotionally distant characters. But he was definitely a master at incorporating his ideas into every frame of his films, both in form and content.

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