Sat, 19 July 2014
Anyone who ever brings up the subject of movies know I’m a geek. I don’t just talk about how awesome a movie is, I discuss scenes, actors, photography, editing, writing and the occasional dolly grip work. I can see 2 seconds of a film and in most cases tell you what movie it is if I’ve seen it before and on occasion even if I haven’t. I watch action, sci-fi, fantasy, comedy and horror along with drama, foreign (and not just Asian), classic and even experimental. I enjoy bad movies if they’re fun, I LOVE great movies even when no one can understand why. And I’m not alone.
Film geeks, like most of geekdom, are misunderstood. We are either seen as those people who worship at the altar of Spielberg and Jackson and love anything mainstream, especially in the sci-fi/fantasy/horror genres. Or we are seen as those stuck up snobs who require their movies to be obscure and brooding. Every film must have meaning, usually on concepts of death and/or misery. And there are those who are like that and have every right to enjoy those kinds of films specifically. But most film geeks can easily enjoy both the popcorn flick AND the more serious, themed fare. We can watch classic F.W. Murnau silent films, then jump into a Peter Jackson saga. Film geeks love various entertainments.
Yet many geeks seem to dismiss classic and art house movies in a way that is rather disappointing. They expect either state-of-the-art filmmaking or a nostalgia that brings them back to the wonder of their childhoods. They refuse to look further and see a wide array of worlds that are out there. Familiarity is always the enemy of innovation and refusing to look at the past means to ignore things that might be prevalent in the present. Take Network, a film about the dumbing down of news in order to appease the masses want for distraction. Sound familiar? Or 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that not only created the template for science fiction films ever since, but has challenged audiences with its non-expository storytelling.
Geeks also need to understand that many of their favorite genres were originally art house (niche) fare, especially in the case of science fiction. Most studios found that such films and shows were only meant to indulge the fantasies of young boys (sorry ladies, they didn’t even think about you back then). Most science fiction movies were made of shoestring budgets meant only to be seen on screens targeted to that demographic (mainly the drive-in theaters). Even now, the horror genre thrives due to its constant need for innovation to create new scares on very limited resources, which is why many of Hollywood’s A-list filmmakers came from such genres.
One of the things that I have heard from self-proclaimed geeks when it comes to independent and classic film is that they don’t want to be bored by lifeless, self-important storytelling that gives absolutely no entertainment. This is a valid argument because for every good film, there are a ton of bad ones (check your local Redbox if you do not believe me). But that’s not always the case. In fact, films like Oldboy, Pulp Fiction, even 2001 required that people take a leap of faith and watch something completely original and be able to spread word of mouth to become as recognized as they were. Mainstream movies don’t need nearly as much due to the constant marketing required to get interest involved. If you’re not certain that something is for you, watch a trailer, read a synopsis, or simply find someone you trust and ask them.
Geeks, by definition, should be about discovering the new and appreciating both the good and the bad, and not just film geeks. Geekdom is and should always be about appreciating the variety that life gives. There have been over 100 years of films, some that are not as appreciated as they should because of their age. Buster Keaton’s comedy is on par if not more spectacular than Jackie Chan (fact: Chan’s inspiration comes from Keaton). Ernst Lubitsch’s comedies are some of the wittiest and sometimes sexiest films ever made. If you don’t believe me, watch Trouble in Paradise. If you thought The Thing was awesome, watch the original It Came From Outer Space. If you want something disturbing, check out Michael Hanneke’s Funny Games (not the American version). If you want to see something uplifting and genuinely happy, try My Life As A Dog or Amelie.
I started Arthouse Legends wanting to not only talk about movies that mainstream geeks might not know about, but to stir conversations about these films and others, to open minds to new possibilities and to show that these old or indie films are not simply for the snobs or the chic. That we can talk about them and love or hate these films on their merits and not what others deem them to be. If I have encouraged one person to try a new film, even one I personally don’t like, then I consider the aims of the podcast a success. I am a geek trying to talk to my fellow geeks, hoping you see that art house and classic films are as much geek as giant battling robots and space ships. They take us on a different journey, yet equally as exciting. And I hope you can join us in the conversation.
Category:Commentary -- posted at: 11:30pm CDT
Fri, 30 May 2014
The first Billy Wilder film I ever saw was Sabrina starring Audrey Hepburn, William Holden and Humphrey Bogart. It wasn’t the most eye-opening film I had seen at the time (Apocalypse Now would do that a couple of years prior), but it was one of the first that subverted my expectations and start my lifelong love of well-made romantic comedies. Sadly, this film didn’t really make much of an impression of me when concerning its director at the time. But going back to it, I realize how much care and concern that he had with those characters, how Sabrina was the light and the anchor in this film. Wilder loved his female characters as much as his males, even when some of the actresses made it very difficult for him in reality.
When I watched Sunset Boulevard for the first time, I was speechless. I was amazed by the narrative twists and turns, the performances, the setting, the direction. Billy Wilder had once again crossed my path, but this time I saw him for his accomplishment in this film. The way that Gloria Swanson’s character seemed to lure the camera to her like a moth to flame, how the framing around the card table both seemed intimate yet illuminated the star-studded cast around that table. And that final glorious shot, the one that could be argued as one of the best final shots ever filmed.
After seeing that, I had to see more. Stalag 17, The Apartment, The Lost Weekend, The Fortune Cookie. These films felt so different from one another that it nearly seemed intimidating going from one film to the other. Then I had seen a film that didn’t just hit me like a boulder, but knocked me out: Ace in the Hole. The irony is that what could be considered his finest work was the one that was least appreciated. In fact, it was long considered lost until 2005 when the Criterion Collection got their mitts on it.
So why does Billy Wilder have such a strong hold over me as a film lover? Why would I dedicate an entire month to discussing his work? If you talk to any film snob or hardcore film lover, Billy Wilder isn’t merely known, but seems to be outright mainstream. Yet you talk to any modern movie goer, this name is lost entirely on people who have never tried his work. We could debate on why older movies aren’t appreciated more, but there’s more to it. Wilder’s films weren’t simply crowd-pleasers, they were statements about modern life as he saw it, the trials by fire and the constant desire to be seen as the heroes of our own story, even when the prevailing evidence goes against that being the case. Wilder wasn’t afraid to do things differently or to play in territories that might be considered risky. His protagonists were usually misfits trying to survive fates worse than death (or at least in their own mind). As a misfit that had seen myself both as hero and villain in my own story, such complexity in characters were a breath of fresh air from white hat/black hat mentality that was prevalent during Wilder’s time and that has not yet gone away even now.
Take Ray Milland’s character in The Lost Weekend; He’s a drunk who knows that he has a serious problem but can’t seem to know how to conquer it over a horrible weekend. One of the finest and most horrific depictions of alcoholism ever filmed during a time where such topics were frowned upon by audiences and the censors. Billy Wilder, along with Milland, understood that in order to understand the plight of this character, you needed not to feel pity but to feel empathy for a character that is pathetic but also slimy.
Even in characters that he wanted to show nothing but contempt for, he was able to show glimpses of humanity. Take the Nazi officer in Stalag 17 who showed respect and straightforwardness with the Allied prisoners of his war camp, though his own feelings were clouded by loss and the pain of exile at their hands.
All of this is visible even without knowing the backstories or the rumors. Wilder’s films are transparent enough to give you enough to know how he feels without it becoming self-congratulatory or vain. In fact, the humility of his films are a trademark towards his craft, the sense that he’s not trying to pull one over on the audience, but let them into to character conflict without obfuscation. In Ace in the Hole, we know Kirk Douglas is a horrible person from the first moment we see him, but we also know he doesn’t want someone’s death on his hands and not merely for the selfish reasons. Yet Wilder doesn’t stop trying to show how horrible the character is. This is probably how he can manage to pull off beginning the film with the narrator’s dead body and still pull off the tension it does through flashback.
More people should know Billy Wilder’s work and should go down in pop culture the same way that Alfred Hitchcock or Steven Spielberg had. His accomplishments towards cinematic history are vital in ways that are as subtle as his films are. I want my contemporaries and newer generations of movie lovers to see that Wilder’s work is timeless and fascinating as any newer film coming out. That these films are as good if not more amazing than the imitators were. In short, Billy Wilder isn’t important enough for just one day, his importance requires a month.
Let #BillyWilderMonth commence.
Category:Commentary -- posted at: 6:00am CDT
Tue, 8 April 2014
This has been a post I have been writing for nearly two years, always going back and forth on whether I should finish it or not. This is a rather bold statement and one that needs a bit of clarification, and possibly it’s the one I really didn’t want to start to begin with. Yet with each week I see what passes for a new film review, and not just by the fanboy such as myself, who tries to pass their blog as a synagogue of cinema, it just keeps getting more clear how true the statement is. Film criticism is dead.
Since the dawn of commercial art, there have been those who have taken it upon themselves to become experts on the subject, usually because they have a deep affection for the subject. Film critics for the most part came from the theater where a good word could make or break a production. It’s understandable the importance of critical reviews of a show as anyone who has ever had to fork over serious cash in order to see a big production could tell you about. It was important to know that such an investment would be worth it. Film, on the other hand, has always been a relatively cheaper option. The role of the critic wasn’t so much about the investment any more as much as it became about the quality of product.
But over the last thirty years, there have been more choices in art and much of it tailor-fitted to audience demands. The “critic-proof” films started to arrive. Film critics, understanding that these films weren’t meant for any critical recognition (though they would certainly take it if given to them), started to get very snarky, or should I say more snarky than film critics already were. Adam Sandler films were reviewed with the same standard put towards an Oscar contender. And if the critic didn’t, then they would be called out for being a hack.
Should critics be preferential in the films that they chose to review? Does Tyler Perry’s work not merit the attention of critical response? Not at all, but that wasn’t ever the real problem. The problem is that critics didn’t challenge the work, instead deciding to deride the films considered beneath them as excuses to work on comedy skills. They became more interested in their credentials of authority than they were a voice that could communicate both towards the audience and the filmmakers. They would pander to one at the expense of communicating to the other. Rotten Tomatoes became a scoreboard instead of a collaboration of voices.
So I say once again that the authoritative film critic who passes judgment on a piece of art and deems it worthy or unworthy now lives in the dying embers of its last sunset. Film critics and wannabes are seen now more as mere spectacle whose opinions are little more than either affirmation or rebuttal for something they themselves will be seeing either way or have already seen. Film criticism is out. Film conversation is in. And the funny thing is that it has been in for a very long time. It was in when two Chicago film critics took to public access television and offered their thumbs. But the next step didn’t occur until the last decade when podcasting and blogging started to take over.
That’s right; the very thing that diluted the power of the film critic is in fact the very thing that is replacing it, just not in the way it was thought. Social media allowed people to talk about film in a way that was never possible before, they could share their opinions in a way that would create a conversation. Granted, many of those voices are trolls, but those who had something to say about film could find a community that could challenge their thinking, give them more to think about and raise the level of thinking in regards to art. Most film podcasts and YouTube hosts record in groups with varying opinions and thoughts on what they saw, and not just on the critical darlings either. For the first time, horror fans could provide a new look and appreciation for films not appreciated by the critical elite. Oscar-winning films could be taken apart and classics reexamined by guys with a Skype account and a recorder (like a particular podcast I just happen to host, for example).
The old guard understands this. That’s why when two esteemed critics disagreed with each other over a film, they took it to a podcast to settle the dispute. Many are starting to be actively engaged in either their comments section online or creating forums to actively engage in these discussions. Film lovers are no longer stymied by the films that they deem great as long as they can express what it is that they like about that film. I’ve seen someone give a defense to House of the Dead 2 that almost convinced me to give it a shot. Almost.
Is there a risk in all this? Absolutely. Having such an abundance of opinions available can make finding definitive experts in film study very difficult to find. Aspiring filmmakers will have various voices to listen to and very little guidance that can be taken from any of these. But on the flip side, it means that no matter what kind of artistic statement or lack thereof is presented, someone is going to say something good about it.
But in all honesty, film conversationalists need to aspire to understand the art that they are talking about, to be able to convey as clearly as they can what it is that they see and to not rush to judgment before either seeing the product or having taken time to come to a complete opinion, even if to say that you do not have an opinion on it. And it goes without saying to listen and appreciate those opinions that differ from the consensus.
I used to aspire to be a critic when I was in my 20s, to be the next Roger Ebert. But I realize now that I don’t want to be an authority in film, I just want to talk movies, share a few opinions and listen to a few million more. I don’t want to make or break a film, I just want to laugh with the bad ones, contemplate the good ones and try to find something interesting about the ones I absolutely hate. And from the looks of things, I’m not alone.
Category:Commentary -- posted at: 11:40pm CDT