Film Archive for June, 2010

Film as Art vs Film as Entertainment

Just read this excellent interview with critic and cinephile Olaf Möller (thanks to Ray Pride for linking to it, and for always digging out the most interesting and obscure bits out of the vast array of information clogging the internet).
Whether you love his opinions or hate them, Möller’s knowledge, the way he thinks and writes about film, should humble anyone seeking to call himself a film critic. A quote about the “death of the film criticism” from the interview:
“As long as there’s art, there’s a need to make sense of it. As long as we’re talking about a bourgeois culture like the one we — nominally — live in right here and now. It’s that simple. Mind: “Make sense of it” is something quite different from having an opinion on it, however well-phrased that might be. Everybody has an opinion, but it’s the critic who can argue his, make it his contribution to society’s daily work on the common good.”
I’m going to have to make more of an effort to hunt down some of the films and directors Möller writes about for Film Comment and Cinemascope, if for no other reason than to broaden the depth of my knowledge about filmmakers who are out of the scope of even many of the more elite festivals. I read interviews like this, read Möller’s writings generally, and it makes me question (in a good way, mind you) everything I think I know and love about cinema. I happen to like a good many of the filmmakers Möller derides, but when I read him I think, “Ah, you may think you like these films, that this or that filmmaker truly aspires to ‘art,’ but if you saw what these other filmmakers he talks about are actually doing, would you still think that? Or would it make you question everything you think you know and believe in?”
Reading stuff like this makes me long to move to Europe for a few years and just immerse myself in hitting all the Euro fests and soaking in films from so many filmmakers I haven’t even heard of, much less have any knowledge of. We tend to be so mainstream-centric around here, even those of us who regularly attend fests like Sundance and Toronto and Telluride and Cannes.
Even going to the excellent Scarecrow Video here in Seattle overwhelms and humbles me … there are so many films I have yet to see, and ever fewer years left in which to see them all, and never enough time between mothering my brood and working to ever hope to catch up. It reminds me of when I was about 10 or so, really getting into books seriously, and standing in the public library looking at all the books on the shelves and realizing that even if I read at least a book a day every day for the rest of my life, I could never read them all.
I feel that way about film now … there is so much out there from directors I know of and want to see, and so much more from directors I don’t know enough about, and I feel like I will never catch up with everything I want to learn and know, much less ever get to the point where I’m truly writing at the level at which I’d like to write.
None of which is to say that I think you have to write about obscure, artsy films to be a “real” film critic; there is a place for more mainstream critics who write about more mainstream film, and I certainly wouldn’t argue that folks like A.O. Scott, or J. Hoberman, or Roger Ebert, or many, many more colleagues out there, aren’t all doing useful work that contributes to culture overall in reviewing those films. There is a place for writing about the mainstream for the mainstream, and there is a place for writing about the obscure for those who seek to understand art on a different level than the entertainment of the masses that Hollywood, for the most part, generates.
I write about mainstream films out of Hollywood, and I’m fortunate as well to be able to write about some less mainstream films that I see at Sundance, Seattle and Toronto, and for that I count myself truly blessed, but I still hunger, always, for more, more, more. And as for being able to spend my time watching and writing only about the kind of obscure, interesting, fascinating films that truly aspire to be art rather than just entertain? Probably someday I’ll be lying on my deathbed thinking, man, I wish I’d had time and the place in life to get to all that.


The Invisible Writer

Just read this very interesting piece by Reid Rosefelt on his career of writing press books — you know, those production notes we all get at screenings that tell us everything about a film. Rosefelt notes in his piece that when he ran into J. Hoberman at a screening recently, the latter commented that he had no idea anyone actually wrote those things. To be honest, neither did I — or rather, obviously I knew that someone wrote them, but I guess I assumed that was a task usually farmed off on some poor unpaid intern working overtime for a publicist.
Rosefelt’s piece got me thinking about how there are a lot of jobs that people do in which the person performing the task is largely invisible to the consumer of the output. I used to work in project management in the tech industry, and I felt that way a lot back then, that me and everyone on our team would work our asses off to meet insane deadlines for disposable websites that were obsolete almost from the moment they went live.
We pushed them out, they lived briefly with no one outside the team knowing or caring who the people were who brought them to life at the expense of countless hours eating meals hunched over a desk, working late away from family, friends, outside life, and then we killed them as soon as the next big project was ready. It was soul-sucking work that paid very, very well, but when I quit to move to Seattle and took some time off to raise babies, I didn’t want to get back into it. Rosefelt seems to have a much better attitude toward the disposable and invisible nature of his work writing pressbooks: He gets paid to watch movies, to talk to the creative people behind them, and, very often, to completely make up the things these creative people supposedly say about their own work. So, cool.
I know the same can be said of the nature of just about any job, including the job we do in writing about movies. We watch a movie, we work hard to craft a review that articulates our thoughts, we read the emails or comments from people who think we’re stupid, and we move on to the next one, and the next one, and the next one. During a fest like Sundance or Toronto, especially, it’s a constantly hungry machine waiting to be fed by the next thing on your to do list to write about.
But if you love movies, and you love writing, then getting paid to write about them — even if what your writing is pressbooks — is a hell of a sweet gig.

Review: Toy Story 3

SPOILER WARNING: This review contains some spoilers. You have been duly warned.
Toy Story 3 hits all the right emotional notes, and the storyline both complements and completes the curve set in motion when Toy Story stole our hearts way back in 1995. Critics have been over the moon for this latest (last?) installment in the Toy Story series, and with good reason. Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, voicing Woody and Buzz Lightyear, respectively, never had better roles to play than these animated best pals, and the rest of the cast, both old familiar characters and a few new faces, supports them nicely.
And yet, I can’t help but think that the couple of negative reviews I’ve read of Toy Story 3 have some valid points to make; they’re points, in fact, that popped into my head even as I was watching the film, try though I might to brush them aside like annoying flies buzzing around my pie at a picnic. The question is, do a few flies spoil the overall experience of a delightful picnic on a sunny afternoon? Nah, not for me.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon