This past week I made my brother, Douglas, watch Network for the very first time. A film which, if you’ve never seen, is about a famed news anchor and journalist who has a mental breakdown on air and becomes a televangelist who is allowed to spew his truth about this universe just because he magically got ratings. While watching this movie I had a bit of an awakening of sorts, though not to the same degree of Howard Beale.
I watched closely as my brother’s disdain for the film grew and later on he said nothing other than, “it’s just a bunch of monologues.” If it’s one thing he’s not wrong. Continue reading
Almost five years ago, probably less, when I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey I was baffled. I couldn’t comprehend not only what was going on in the film but how it managed to become this monolith in film history that people hold up as anything more than a mad man’s version of a joke on society. Like many a friend of mine have hypothesized about the likes of the Criterion Collection, and many corners of the internet as it relates to film discussion, these people must be fucking with us. Among the online film community possibly there is this undying need for one to understand art, and understanding is where a lot of the crazy happens. In order to understand something you must be able to interact with it in some logical sense, and 2001 is a film that I’ve yet to be able to interact with in such a manner.
That being said, this rewatch inspired something else — other than just this post. Now enabled with knowledge of what was coming, structure and plot-wise, I found myself more receptive to the film but still remaining lost within its world. I always used the term “washed over me” as a pejorative but this time I’m not quite sure whether that holds true. It’s actually what Kubrick’s “masterpiece” did to me and at the same time it manages to remain at the forefront of my mind begging for answers to all the questions that I’m certain many of you having seen the film have asked. It makes me wonder about this constant search for meaning in cinema. I believe I’ve almost become like Abed in Community, believing that there’s a meaning buried in this art and it must be discoverable. More to that I question whether there’s actually value in this art if my previous hypothesis is incorrect. What if there is no meaning?
Let’s start with the opposing thought. What if the value isn’t in the meaning but in the actual process of becoming lost in a film’s world. The movie that most stands out as a positive example to this thought is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. I’ve loved Magnolia from the first time I popped in a rented DVD. It mesmerized me in ways that films before hadn’t. However, I couldn’t define it in any easy terms. I would unabashedly call it the film I don’t get, but love none the less. A little over a month ago I had a conversation with fellow blogger, Courtney Small (of Cinema Axis), about the film and found the conversation diving neck deep not only into this said process but more so into Courtney’s own definition that he derived from the film. This interpretation amazed me. Not just because he had succeeded in where I had failed, but also because I still consider Magnolia as an undefinable experience of cinema. It’s the film that loses me from place to place but I love being dragged along for the ride. The fact that I love the experience gives it instantaneous value that I refuse to ignore. So does the lack of “understanding” matter at that point?
This sense of feeling lost isn’t something that’s undesired when it comes to cinematic experiences. When we talk about films like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings we talk about this same idea of becoming lost. However, these are all films that sell us on a worlds that are unreal. So unreal that we desire to lose ourselves within them. Not to call these as films that require understanding as much as they’re core value comes from true cinematic escapism.
I feel the escapism I experience in a Lord of the Rings film is not the same as I do with Magnolia; and it’s definitely not the same feeling that 2001: A Space Odyssey gave me. With 2001 my detached feeling came from not quite getting the right narrative anchor that many other films find so easily. This anchor that I’m not feeling while watching the movie is what usually leaves me uncertain of what world or character I’m really following throughout the story. The film at times will feel as though it’s uncertain of even the point that we’re leading towards. As if I’m the judge warning a lawyer that his line of questioning needs to become relevant and it never does. These are all bad things for a movie to have. However, somehow with films such as Magnolia and 2001: A Space Odyssey they are problems that become the lesser evil somewhat. Eventually there is a feel that overpowers all other logical explanations as to the value of a particular piece of art.
While we can argue for certain films not falling as easily into this ‘art’ bracket, let us ignore that section of the discussion for this moment (as every hypothesis requires restrictions). Do we need meaning? Is it just that we’re admitting that we don’t get it or can we actually begin to question the filmmaker’s product? Can we blame Kubrick for not being clear?
Moments like this is what I feel the 2013 film Museum Hours was made for. We stand watching a woman’s lecture about the works on show in the museum. She gives her unique interpretations of some very well documented paintings and we simultaneously attempt to engage her thoughts while contradicting it with theories previously accepted by society along with our own. We start to look at the art and have to decide whether the visceral reactions that the images placed on screen are more important than any hope for intellectual ideas that the film are expected to bring up.
With cinema, especially with canon like 2001, I keep feeling this curated sense where I’m supposed to get something from it all. I stare at the screen with an intensity that one would have if we were to looking at an autostereogram in the 90s. I sit there staring and watching everyone else seeing the boat only to fuel my own frustrations. Though now I’m feeling more okay with not seeing the boat. Today I’m reevaluating that my experiences and deciding on a whole new scale of film watching. Meaning is no longer the only scale by which to decide the worth of a piece of art. Films like 2001 are films that I am destined to revisit every decade with anticipation of feeling I as well as it will be different everytime and that is value in itself.
Note: There is one major Season 4 spoiler for Boardwalk Empire. Be warned.
“It’s not TV, It’s HBO” is a phrase that I’ve lived by for a long time. I remember the evenings of my teenage years watching this come up on the screen and know whether it was a film on a Saturday evening or sneaking to watch Arli$$ that I was in for something special. However, something about TV right now, and more specifically HBO, is coming to light in my mind. Their formula is getting too much for me right now.
Let me begin by saying that I’m not in anyway claiming that HBO is dead. A lot of people are believing that Netflix is reinventing the game, and while they’re busy throwing a spoke or two into HBO and every other already established media distributor and producer as it relates to home entertainment they’re not innovating in the way that I’m looking to discuss, i.e. narrative.
In my lifetime I think the two shows that have elevated HBO from what would be a place I turned to in order to see movies to something else were The Sopranos and The Wire. Both shows are ones that I wasn’t able to watch immediately. I remember distinctly watching the pilot episode of The Sopranos in 1999, which would’ve made me 13-years-old, for about five or so minutes till the point where Tony runs over a man with his car who owes him money and breaks his leg in such a way that his bone is poking out. At that very moment my father called downstairs (with him watching the show himself) to tell me to shut off the TV. The Wire was debuted in 2002, making me 15-years-old, and I was able to watch an episode or two, but there were things in it that bothered my parents and didn’t like it for a while, so we skipped the first two years. It’s only after a few seasons into these shows were the floodgates of DVDs opened and I was off to the races.
Since then HBO has produced a number of shows, to name a few: Six Feet Under, Carnivale, Deadwood, Big Love, Luck, and Game of Thrones. A lot of their programming has thrived on the work of great character actors. Many ran to Big Love in hopes of catching a great Harry Dean Stanton scene, or Deadwood for a brilliant Ian McShane moment; but in the end I’m starting to step back and look at what all of these shows have in common. All of these shows are ensemble narratives thriving on coincidence and the general ramping up of a thirteen episode season where everything is going to hit the fan at about the penultimate episode.
What brought this all to light for me is Boardwalk Empire. One of the few HBO shows which I’ve gone through so many moments of just general uncertain of how much I actually care for it. I pressed play on the pilot as it was created (in some part I believe) by Martin Scorsese (the man), and at this point four seasons in I’m uncertain as to how much, if any, involvement he still has with the project. However, if you scrubbed his name from the opening credits I’m sure many would barely guess he had anything to do with it.
At the end of the second season I promised to give up because they killed James Darmody, played by Michael Pitt (an actor I wish more people knew his name and was in bigger things), and the crazed Agent Van Alden was on the run, played by Michael Shannon. There wasn’t anything else to be enthralled in. I wasn’t the biggest fan of believing that Steve Buscemi could play a gangster that someone couldn’t just come up and shoot in the face and be done with, but it keeps happening.
In this last season they added the characters of Dr. Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) and Roy Phillips (Ron Livingston) into the mix. While Narcisse, being played wonderfully campy claiming to be Trinidadian sounding very American idea of Haitian/Jamaican, had it’s fun here and there, Roy left me confused. In previous seasons we only cared about Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol) only because she was mother to Jimmy, now dead, and was completely ancillary to any interesting or cool storylines. However, since Roy has appeared and seems to be sparking a romance with Gillian we’re forced to endure a plot line which seems in the whole has no point. Until the final episode where Roy reveals he’s a P.I. and has finally gotten Gillian to confess to the murder of some random guy from Season 3, who once again I barely cared about at the time.
These two very odd stories clue me into exactly what it is HBO does and uses to trick me into thinking I’m watching good television. They create a general mood, the look and feel of the show that works and then they flood it with so many convoluted tales in which intersection remains neatly controlled and almost irrelevant if not for the fact that we as an audience would be lost without it’s existence and asks me to believe it’s amazingness. I’m not saying that Boardwalk Empire or some others of HBO’s productions are downright bad television, but rather more clearly that they feel as if a distraction and a trick that makes me feel as though I feel an importance that isn’t really there.
What are your thoughts on HBO’s TV narrative formula? Problem/Paradise?
With December in high swing and many of you who’re probably reading this — surprise you’re reading something — residing in regions where the idea of it being cold and snowing may be a reality (bundle up you people) I’m starting to truly feel the end of year flurry of films. While I am yet to really find myself in the critic circles of award season having to send in ballots with the mail man bringing me awards goodies everyday, I do still find myself pushing myself to catch up on as many films as is physically possible before the year is out for me to dub the all important, “Favourite Film of 2013″ award that I enjoy handing out… even if Soderbergh’s yet to respond to any of my adoring fan letters. And since lowly me is into this habit I’m curious as to how the rest of you interneting/critic folks are about this?
I just posted a 3 week film watch update where I watched almost 40 films in as much time, which is insane. A lot of it was revisits, of 2013 films that I’m trying to nail down how much I love/like, and the rest were smatterings of classics, esoteric cannon and new films that I’m yet to get around to. I’m still yet to see Before Midnight or Museum Hours and am starting to fear the reality of this exercise that I do every year. That being, that I’m going to miss something. That there are going to be some glaring omissions from my best of list that I’m going to just hate having not seen when I catch up with it in the first quarter of 2014.
Before the year is out I’m hoping to see: Before Midnight, Museum Hours, The Great Beauty, Post Tenebras Lux, Computer Chess, Gimme The Loot, Cutie and The Boxer and about ten other films that I can’t think of now as I’m typing up this quick post. On an aside, go check out this End of Year Movie Streaming Cheat Sheet over on the Movie Mezzanine, I’ve seen about half of them already and if the other half are just as good then I guess they’re some good films to catch up on.
What’s on your to watch list for the next few weeks of 2013?
There’s a huge contention out there in the world who are under the belief that all films are the same. That they are manufactured stories that cannot deviate too far from a decided formula in fear of not reaching the financial goals that we hope all films will make, that sacred $100m domestic gross at the box office.
While I will not spend this post talking about how that’s wrong, that all films are the same. But rather I’m curious of one thing. Is money the reason why all films are similar?
“They are spending so much money to pull the wool over the audience’s eyes with these effects-driven movies,” he said. “It’s not like ‘Jurassic Park,’ where you saw something groundbreaking and innovative and said ‘Holy … I gotta see that. Every end-of-the-Earth movie kind of feels the same.”
Now it’s easy to understand that not all films can be groundbreaking but under the Hollywood system that exists the tone of filmmaking has always been if you want it to be big in the end all you have to do is throw money at it.
“There’s this mindset that a film costs a million dollars, there’s very little want to see, or very little return on investment on a film that small… There’s a prejudice against a film under a million”
So now we understand that the bigger budget a film is the more likely it is that it can get funded to be made. So if big budget = same movie, then all movies are the same?
I can’t find the actual quote but I remember reading once Woody Allen saying something to the effect that blockbuster filmmaking changed the business of Hollywood. That due to the fact that these big films were being made then the risk factor became larger and therefore Hollywood was less interested in the smaller budget films they had done before where they say it as such a small investment they allowed filmmakers the freedom so that the film was able to be a smaller financial risk to the studio.
So is what this is all saying is that money is the problem in Hollywood and filmmaking? For everyone out there who sits in defiance of big budget filmmaking and falls asleep in the theatre trying to give two shits about whether the good guy prevails in the end? Should we just stop heading to the multiplex at all? Where do I go for movies now?