Friday, March 22, 2013

Film History, Bro

This is just some warm-up rambling to get the writerly neurons firing for my day's real work: feel free to disregard. On the topic of film history and film criticism ... here's one way to do it:

"But the idea of what a movie is didn’t really happen until about 1975.  Jaws is sort of the first movie.  And not just because it’s the first blockbuster. (We could go on and on about whether that ruined everything or whatever, but who cares.)  Jaws is sort of the first movie because it’s one of the first times a movie feels like a movie, like where things are happening and you care about them and it’s executed in an interesting and effective way.  The only two examples of this before 1975 are 12 Angry Men and Inherit the Wind, with Citizen Kane as an honorable mention.  Everything else before ‘75 pretty much sucks."

The author of those lines seems unwilling really to entertain what, to me, appears an obvious notion: this is an argument about nostalgia, his nostalgia, and his own personal configuration of what "a real movie" is. People like this invariably have very narrow ideas about what film/movies/cinema should be, and thank the gods the world is a more complex and pluralist place than their own imaginations.

I've seen plenty of movies "where things are happening and you care about them and it’s executed in an interesting and effective way" from before 1975. No need to dwell on this, however, as people who think like the author are not likely to have their minds changed by me; nor will I learn a single thing from them.

But allow me to make a mischievous connection, which is that a similar kind of narrowminded nostalgia sometimes haunts a classical cinephilia wherein the constitution of an interesting mise-en-scene becomes the sine qua non of good cinema. It is what makes it possible to smirk and say that The Tree of Life is a mess (or perhaps that Redacted isn't even worth considering because it's self-evidently unpolished), but that the late films of someone like Herbert Ross evince a beautiful and underrated classical sensibility. There is a satisfying provocation one can get with this attitude; I know well the little thrill you get when you shock an "art film" person by saying, meaning, and knowing that you are willing to back-up an opinion that some piece of Hollywood genre termite art is vastly superior to a disjointedly modernist masterpiece. "You think those obvious, sub-Godardian editing strategies can hold a candle to the subtle beauties of Irving Lerner's composition in space? Well you've got another thing coming ..."

Yet cinema also should surprise us in some ways, and not always in ways that we expect. That sounds redundant, but unfortunately it isn't - because some people are quite insistent about the terms on which they're willing to let themselves be surprised.

Ultimately, however, I would get very lonely if I were resigned to watching forever only a string of blockbuster movie-movies, or even if all I ever had to watch was films made in classical Hollywood continuity style. (The latter would last me much longer, of course.) So "the movies" (like Greg DeLiso wants them to be) or the worlds of contained mise-en-scene would sooner or later bore me into submission. I need experiences like Kentucker Audley's or Giuseppe Andrew's, like the Raoul Walsh pre-Codes, like the less-loved work of Zulawski, like the material of John or James Whitney, like Travis Wilkerson's An Injury to One, like Carmelo Bene's, like Jarman's, like Nina Menkes', like late Godard, like Kluge, like Andy Sidaris' goofily violent and sexist T&A-fests, like the Cinema of Transgression (even though I truthfully don't like it), like Chytilova's, like Zazie dans le metro (and so much Malle) but also A Thousand Clowns (a film I would have dismissed haughtily, aged 20), things that cause me to reconsider things and in the process make something new, deep, or simple ... I need all these things and more still that I don't even know because I want the cinema to match, reflect, expand, and condense the whole wide world.


Anonymous said...

1) Who is the author of those comments?

2) Walking out of a screening of Colossal Youth I heard a young film student say, "That wasn't enough of a movie for me." I felt very good about myself until I remembered that at his age I lost the chance at friendship (no regrets) for arguing earnestly and passionately that Saving Private Ryan was better than The Thin Red Line.

3) Great post.

4) Saving Private Ryan was better than The Thin Red Line.

ZC said...

The author is Greg DeLiso (

Disagree about TRL/SPR, but I remember feeling pretty alone about this (aside from validation from online opinions) in my own world back in '98-'99.

Joel Bocko said...

This whole so-bad-it's-viral thing is developing a new wrinkle as the writer apparently claims (or others at the site are claiming for him) that it's a kind of performance art, and not to be taken seriously. Although I'm not then really sure what it's supposed to be "taken" as, since from what I've read (excerpts only, so far), it reads less like either earnest opinion-expressing or straight satire than some kind of weird, very of-the-moment combination of the two, funny hat on, funny hat off, etc.

As for the '98 war films, can I split the difference and make the corny statement that I like them both in different ways?

Joel Bocko said...

Or no, apparently he is serious. My head hurts.

ZC said...

I could understand a performance art or satire defense in theory, but it definitely didn't read that way: not enough distance from the filmschoolbro hegemony, too much heavy breathing to make ... what point exactly?

Unknown said...

I couldn't help but be reminded of the opening of Jean Renoir's autobiography, "Everything that moves on the screen is cinema. I often hear people say: 'A very interesting film, no doubt, but not cinema.' I don't know why the use of pictures that move should be restricted to traditional melodrama or farcical comedy."

I recall reading an interview with Tarkovsky where he said he thought all of cinema was a sort of preamble to mid-century techniques of sound, color, widescreen, narrative art house film making, which struck me as odd. That was the sort of the pedagogical approach that my film school tried to instill in all of us, that everything in film was linear build up to now: real movies or whatever.

anyway, I really enjoyed this post.

ZC said...

Thanks Andrew. Yeah, I don't really have a lot of empathy for strict or reductionist approaches to cinema - whether they come from a high art end, or a low/populist standpoint, or something else. Doesn't mean that good critical reflections can't come from these positions, mind you. But it's not me, at least not these days. When I was younger I had something closer to an essentialist view, but even then this was being constantly challenged by my own tastes & pleasures.

You've read Brakhage's funny thing about meeting Tarkovsky before, perhaps?

Jon Hastings said...

I love the almost Armondian arbitrariness of "12 Angry Men" and "Inherit the Wind" (not the least because both those movies struck me, when I was younger, as being particularly stagey and stodgy). Agree with you re: avoiding reductionist approaches, though I must admit I have a lot more sympathy for a die hard auteurist POV or a die hard avant-garde approach or some Camperian combination than for the kind of b.s. this fellow is peddling, if only because the auteurists/a.g.-ists are going against the grain in some way. That is, I get the polemical reason for a "strong" mise-en-scene-is-everything argument, even if I'm not (at this point in my life) going to join the Dave Kehr Commenters on the barricade.