Sunday, March 20, 2016

On the Eye of the Beholder

As I was thinking about the Oscars these past couple months, it lead me down the rabbit hole of nostalgia. It's a subject that should be on the minds of many since it impossible to escape the glaring light of it in today's popular culture. (If having to wrap my brain around the words "Fuller House" means I get hours of undiluted David Lynch next year, maybe it's worth it?) But as I scratched my head over how the Oscars appeared to be scratching a nostalgic itch with Spotlight, it lead me to wondering how much our favorite movies of the past influence our tastes today.

For the vast majority of us, Hollywood played some sort of role in shaping the way we look at movies and what constitutes our likes and dislikes. These are the movies we are most exposed to at a young age before more exotic fare might be piped in from the open-minded sources we encounter as we grow up. And our high school and college years are so formative that I challenge you to show me a film fanatic who watched a new movie after they turned 30 and determine that to be their favorite film of all time. Such choices are made during the impressionable years of one's late teens and twenties, a prime nostalgia time.

Everybody knows first impressions are important. You could even break down some of your favorite movies simply by the impact and impression they made on you when you first watched them. A lot of this has to do with timing. Nowadays, the shock and awe of touchstone movies like Bonnie and Clyde or Pink Flamingoes can greatly depend on when someone sees them during their own filmic upbringing. It's sad but inevitable to see them lose some of their initial impact and for folks to require some Film 101 style contextualization if they don't catch them at just the right time.

This happens with some of the best and most cherished movies, since the ones that have the most impact and leave the biggest impressions are the ones that get carbon copied for years afterwards, diluting the very elements that made it special to begin with. Like many people my age, seeing Pulp Fiction at a theater in 1994 as an18 year-old was like freebasing uncut cinema - which is to say: it left quite an impression. 20 years later, my biased eyes think it still holds up but I have little doubt someone watching it for the first time today will get the same kick.

Now, I know sentimentality and nostalgia aren't exactly the same thing, but I have long carried the movie Flirting around as a sentimental favorite of mine. Like most of my favorite movies, Flirting happened to get watched at just the right time and, perhaps by no coincidence, the movie itself is steeped in nostalgia. I saw it on TV when I was 16 or 17 and it hit me as one of the most honest depictions of teenage awkwardness I'd ever seen. It made me wonder why there weren't more movies like this - a feeling I took with me to film school and still hold on to today.

These are the kinds of movies that add up to define us, our tastes and our reactions to the movies we see today - the movies that drove us to keep digging and wanting to see more. And no two people, even if they are the same age and received the same education and had similar life experiences are going to end up with the same taste in movies. Which means neither person is going to be any more right or wrong when it comes to appreciating what a movie has to offer.

I feel lucky that I was able to get an early exposure to a wide variety of films growing up and that my parents were pretty early adopters of the VCR. Most parents would probably wag their finger at letting a 13 year old kid watch a mix that included lots of David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, John Landis and repeat viewings of Evil Dead 2. My childhood and adolescence wasn't the best, but I do have some rose-colored nostalgia for sitting around with the family, watching The French Connection or Raising Arizona. For all of the various issues my parents had, and perhaps passed on to me, at least I got an all-inclusive love for movies out of the bargain.

As I inch ever closer to 40 years of age, I really do get the feeling that most of what defines my tastes in movies is pretty well cemented. They're not completely done evolving but I no longer have the omnivorous desires I once had and my patience for bad movies - be they ironically bad, so-bad-they're-good or simply dispassionate, boringly bad - is shrinking more and more every year. It used to be that I would watch multiple movies per day, but nowadays I average about three over the course of a week.

And this is where good film criticism comes in. I understand someone in their 20s who holds little regard for some pretentious, high falutin critic's opinion. Godspeed, since that person should go right ahead and devour anything they're inclined to regardless of what some critic says, that's what your 20s are for and bad movies go a long way to educate and help hone tastes and perspective. But that kind of stamina rarely lasts. Chances are, 20 years down the road that person is going to check in with the handful of critics they've come to rely on in order to decide what movies they're going to invest their time in.

In my experience, you'll never find a critic you will always agree with. (If you find someone you agree with 100% of the time then you might be reading this from a cult's shared computer - which is to say: you're probably highly impressionable and easily convinced.) Everyone who writes a review is going through the process of filtering a movie through a lifetime of experiences, influences, considerations and holding it up to whatever other comedy, drama, thriller, horror, or psychedelic freak-out the movie deserves comparison to. If the end result comes close to your own perspective even 50% of the time, that's a critic you might consider holding on to.

Realistically, no two people are going to see the same movie the same way. In fact, most people will bring a lot of internal and external static with them when they see a movie - and the choice of movie they make will often reflect their current disposition. Sometimes you feel like a comedy, sometimes you feel like an 8 hour Bela Tarr movie. But the lucky/unlucky professional film critic often doesn't have the benefit of picking and choosing which movie they get to review based on how rosy or bitterly nihilistic they may be feeling that day - but that's why they're professionals.

And that's why movies are magical. You can enter a movie theater, check your baggage at the box office and get caught up in someone else's story. I knew a guy at film school who, among other reasons, loved movies because he could enjoy two stress-free hours with his ex-wife and their kids. Whatever they were watching at the time probably rated a little higher in his perspective because when the lights dimmed and the movie started he could put the rest of his life on pause.

I think it's part of the professional critic's job to try and view a movie with clear eyes, separate from whatever else may be going on in their lives. I'm sure each and every one might have struggled with this at some point. But, despite what internet commenters might think, it's not part of the critic's job to remove themselves, their beliefs, personality or experiences. If a critic is a bleeding heart liberal or a stodgy conservative, that's the eyes they're seeing the movie with and that's what should be reflected in their opinion.

Maybe I'm stating some obvious points here, but everywhere you look (again, thanks/damn-you internet) people reading movie reviews are acting like they expect some dispassionate, personality-free review to simply describe the movie and tell them whether it is good or bad - like an opinion could simply be determined by a movie-watching robot that is programmed to determine craft, acting and intentions. Actually, a good review can spark epiphanies, debate, reevaluations, and, if your mind is open enough, the ability to see consider a movie through a outside perspective. This last example is what seems to get people really confused - yet, offering an honest, informed, unique and well-written perspective on a movie is exactly what good criticism is all about.

For those looking simply for thorough accounts of a movie's plot and some version of an unbiased opinion I suggest waiting for the wikipedia page to get up to snuff or sticking to IMDb. But more than that, I suggest taking a movie review for what it is - one person's opinion, not a threat to anyone's sensibilities. Hopefully a critic has the sense to clearly write why and how they came to their opinion so that hopefully, with a little thought on their part, the reader can understand where they're coming from. And again, there's a good chance it won't be the exact same place other people are coming from - but that's the nature of the beast.

I believe there is very little that is or should be considered universally accepted opinions regarding what makes a good movie. I think there's a certain level of craft we can probably agree on, and some ideas about what constitutes good acting and writing - but even these ideas aren't unassailable. All it takes is the right kind of movie to come along and people will be redefining these things once again. This is one of the many reasons I love movies, it's grown, morphed, mutated and continues to do so - and it would be really, really sad if there were some sort of universally accepted notions of what a filmmaker should or shouldn't do when they go about creating.

Anyone who is a fan of movies should understand this. The people who make movies, write about movies, or just sit around watching them in their spare time - everyone has their own sensibility, perspective and tastes. It can be a deeply personal thing because these things gets formed over a long period of time, starting when we're young. This is probably why, when we disagree about movies, we can get super emotional and defensive. It's like an personal attack on everything we stand for and all that we've been through, those very things that have created our tastes and perspective - the stuff that we hold dear, the nostalgic parts of our lives that made us who we are today.

At the risk of over extending my time on RFC this week, I want to give one more example. I can't pinpoint first time I saw Brazil, I must have been around 12 or 13, but it was one of those movies that made me feel like my mind was expanding while I was watching it. This vast, fully realized world was put in front of me and it seemed like anything could have happened by the time the movie ended. I was fully transfixed.

Fast forward 20 years and I now look at the impression Brazil had on me as the reason why I am more lenient and forgiving when it comes to ambitiously messy films. I'll watch a movie like Southland Tales and I'll easily be able to look past the scattershot storytelling to admire the gonzo, go-for-broke ambition it took to create its bizarro, original universe. So, if I were to write about the movie, I'd make sure to add that, nope, it ain't for everyone. I'll tell the reader the kind of glasses I'm wearing, the perspective that caused me to appreciate a weird and flawed movie and that they might want to pop on this pair if they're interested in watching it.

When it comes to talking or writing about movies, no one is right or wrong. It's all in the eye of the beholder. Nobody's going to show up with an answer sheet and start handing out gold stars. The only way you can mess it up is to come to it with a bad attitude, taking aim to rain on people's parades and, generally speaking, be a dick. Whether or not someone else's perspective matches yours doesn't add or detract value from either party. If you're thoughtful about it, and you express yourself that way, then chances are you'll get respect. And that's about the best we can hope for anyway.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Mr. Freedom

Director: William Klein
Viewed from: The Balcony (International House Philadelphia)

Is Donald Trump really Mr. Freedom (John Abbey), a comic-book live-action superhero entrusted to "save" the French from the Red Menace of China and Russia in 1969? Take away about forty years, put him in the gym for a few months, squint, and just maybe...

No, not really, but the America currently supporting Trump is the America parodied in the film Mr. Freedom, a wild, gonzo avant la lettre, art-house trip of a provocation that lands all the right blows, if only a few decades in advance of their target. What likely looked to 1969 audiences as an art troupe run amok with occasional slapdash and unsophisticated politics now looks like a dead-on satire of American ignorance and obsession with sex, violence, and the repression of women and non-white men. Those in 1969 had good reason to oppose a number of both foreign and domestic policies, but at least the Americans who supported policies in Vietnam and America did so because they believed in the goodness and decency of their leaders. It's hard to believe that anything so noble is motivating Trump backers today.

Jonathan Rosenbaum in 1991 called Mr. Freedom "conceivably the most anti-American movie ever made," and I'm not sure what it means in 2016 then to champion its relevance. Maybe I don't want to know. But here is the case:

Mr. Freedom (seen above) is the alter-ego of a "Sheriff", who we only see briefly in police attire. His first job, however, is to spread freedom to African-Americans, and so we seem him (amidst the backdrop of screeching sirens) burst into a party, jump on the table of a black family, and demand they embrace American freedom or suffer the consequences. Firing two pistols, he manages only to wound one African-American man who protests his authority.

The repression of internal threats seemingly assured, Mr. Freedom is sent to France by a shadowy figure named...Dr. Freedom (a creepy Donald Pleasance, letting loose a monster far scarier than Michael Myers). The job is simple: avenge the death of France's own great superhero - Captain Formidable - and save the French from two competing monsters: Moujik Man and Red Chinaman, both played in absurd costumes needed to be seen to be believed (lots of great stills can be found here). There is also Super Frenchman, probably one of the most delightful characters I've seen, surrounded by hilarious little henchman (left) who must have been a joy to design. If nothing else, this is a brilliant use of an artist sensibility in film; a lot of work went into making what looks like a very cheap film.

The plot from here devolves into a brutally violent war whereby American aggression ultimately undermines not only the French, but Mr. Freedom himself. An obvious parable of Vietnam and Cold War hysterics, it seems equally apt for the Age of Terror and the American adventurism of the 2000s. Though most of the violence is rendered in comic and absurd fashion, there is at least one scene - a kind of violence training that for some reason recalled Anthony Quinn's gladiator combat scenes from Barabbas - where the actors "practice" rapes and murders and the response moves from comic to disturbing. There is also a guy who when I saw him, about thirty minutes in, I thought to myself "hey, he kinda looks like the guy who played Serge Gainsbourg in that movie," This guy turns out to be none other than Serge Gainsbourg, who not only stars as one of the French leaders of freedom but also contributed to the score.

Against the backdrop of this is a constant echoing of "freedom," a word repeated so often in the film that it looses all meaning (and by this I mean like 15 minutes in). Like maybe hearing that America will be "great again." Backers of Mr. Freedom are even offered limited time shares and branded "Freedom" gear (see Freedom Spray at right) to garner their support. All that's needed is complete submission to authority and a willingness to commit murder and rape. And although Mr. Freedom is all bombast and excitement, it turns out his outward aggression and bullying are actual reflections of his own deep insecurities. When not insulting others, he's easily wounded and petulant.

Still not convinced that Klein knew someone like Trump was coming (it can be argued, also, that Ronald Regan actually makes a better Mr. Freedom). The Donald may talk about limited intervention now, but does anyone really doubt that he wouldn't direct the country to war on even the slightest pretense if he thought it would boost his standing?

Of course, the idea that America would let itself be run by a fool is not new. Sinclair Lewis gave us Buzz Windrip in It Can't Happen Here (1935) and David Foster Wallace's Johnny Gentle showed how easily America might be captured by a celebrity politician. But there's nothing quite like seeing the rally posted below to understand how it's possible for one of the two major parties to possibly elect a self-aggrandizing fool. (Incidentally, the montage beginning at about 4:48 says more in a few minutes about the triumph of American "civilization" over nature than ten slogs through The Revenant).

Here it must be said that if the clip didn't resonate, it may be because you watched it by yourself. And most people who have seen Mr. Freedom I'm guessing have seen it on video. And I can understand those who might critique its absurdist plot or unrelenting satire; parts of the movie (especially Moujik Man) are damn near impossible to hear or understand, and there is little in the way of actual drama to keep a viewer invested. But with a group, man is this stuff fun to see. The International House, just a few blocks from the University of Pennsylvania and the People's Republic of West Philadelphia, included a very raucous audience happy to see their own frustrations with the country presented in such a clear-sighted manner.

In many ways, for many people (not the least those not white and not men and not hetero-normative) America does often seem like a big bullying bastard dressed in sporting gear who laughs away his violence and repression. Mr. Freedom is the very dark side of Alec Baldwin's Jack Donaghy, a big rich white man who just wants to play golf and be left alone. It's not just that today Americans make mistakes in foreign and domestic policy - perhaps a plausible argument for the policies of the 1960s - it's that the decisions are not being made by serious people but by hypocritical caricatures. Those who dismissed Mr. Freedom in 1970 as "epically mindless" might have had good reason to do so in an era when people in the Senate were nice to each other and even the biggest bad guys had long careers in public service and operated publicly within the bounds of good taste and decorum. No one I'm sure could have envisioned an outwardly aggressive thrice-married real estate mogul with a crazy haircut and numerous public tawdry affairs as a statesmen.

But William Klein might have had a sense that all that seeming seriousness of politics was a cover for the basic hypocrisy of an American leadership who really did want to simply shout freedom so they could watch sports, ogle women (if not outright rape them or buy them), commit violence against those who cannot protect themselves, and make a steady profit off of it to boot. As Paul Krugman pointed out, Trump's cons are really just poorly spun cons that have been in place for years (and many would say since the country's inception). And if you truly believe that this is all there is to America, that Mr. Freedom is America, then you really are anti-American (and should be!).

But satire is not reality, and for everyone who might show up at a Mr. Freedom rally, there are dozens who would condemn it. If there is a fault in Klein's work, it is that while he does show a Trumplike figure in Mr. Freedom, he doesn't bother to show the multitudes who would oppose him. While there was a Vietnam prosecuted by Americans, there were also Americans who worked to end it, and all but a small minority today view it a blemish on American history. As long as there are people still laughing and resisting this kind of stuff, Klein might need to be reminded, there is also an opposition to the America of Mr. Freedom. We'll find out if there really is in a few months time.

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Oscars Part II: Death to Nostalgia

Last week, before the latest Academy Awards ceremony, I vented some of my frustrations with Academy's long history of handing out statues to mediocre movies. It's a tradition that has left many people to consider the Oscars irrelevant and boring and it's one that has perhaps inevitably led to the hashtag #oscarssowhite. But despite this venting, I was still holding out hope that there might be some signs of life this year - that maybe the controversy leading up to this year's ceremony would light a fire under the voters. Hell, I knew the chances of Mad Max: Fury Road winning best picture were slim to none but it was my horse in the race and we all hold a vast capacity for self-delusion.

But if there's a third guarantee, after death and taxes, it's that the Oscar's will let you down. It seems as if the almighty powers of nostalgia are just too great. Which is why I question whether it's even worth getting mildly disgruntled about.

Unfortunately I'm stuck with a love for movies and Mad Max is one of the only Hollywood movies to come around in recent memory that got me excited about the medium and all its potentials. It made me giddy about movies again by tapping into all the reasons I fell in love with movies in the first place: the wild creativity, a sense of wonder and amazement at seeing someone manifesting their dreams - it is audacious.

Now I know everyone didn't fall in love with movies for these reasons and this is by no means the only reason I love movies. And I also know that we can't help which movie it was that left that some important imprint on us, what we may consider an ideal movie or perhaps a Best Picture.

Notice how visually interesting a movie about the newspaper business can be?

You can't knock anyone who might look at the great film All the President's Men, see a kind of picture that should be made more often, and therefore cast a vote for Spotlight. But here's where a movie like Spotlight (and The Revenant for that matter) differs from Mad Max: it simply excels at being a type of movie. It doesn't have any ambitions beyond telling its story effectively, which it does entirely through a good script and solid performances by its actors.

Yes, Mad Max: Fury Road excels at being an action movie but it also creates and immerses you in a wholly unique and thoroughly realized world filled with subversive and thought-provoking themes. It does this by expertly using every single facet of the filmmaking toolkit and what you end up with isn't just good storytelling but also an ambitious technological marvel that pushes the boundaries of the medium forward.

You can make an argument for The Revenant getting close to this level of filmmaking but at its core it comes up far shorter in the story department. There's nothing new or memorable in a tale of a man keeping himself alive to exact revenge. In reading interviews with Tom Hardy where he talked about his perspective on his character, it's easy to think of the flip-side to The Revenant as being a much more interesting movie. We've seen far fewer movies follow and try to get inside the head of the doomed target of revenge. As it is, the only interesting thing about the movie is its cinematography, technological wizardry and the crazy story behind the making of the movie.

So why did Spotlight win Best Picture? Did Mad Max and The Revenant split the vote? Or does it come down to nostalgia?

The Oscars are more often than not steeped in nostalgia. These events often have a theme that will enable the ceremony to look back and honor past glories and contain more than one touching montage-style highlight reel. And this is largely unavoidable since movies are inherently suited to evoke and take advantage of the immense powers of nostalgia.

No one is immune to these powers. It's easy to be like Max from Kicking and Screaming and be despairingly nostalgic for conversations you had yesterday. And it's even easier to let nostalgia blind you when it comes to judging the quality of a movie.

So, in a way it makes perfect sense the most nostalgic movie nominated for Best Picture would win. The Oscars often honor non-threatening movies and what's more comforting than Spotlight? The movie could easily be mistaken for being made at any point in the last 30 years, if it weren't for some passing references to the internet.

I made this point last week, but Spotlight makes it even more obvious: When it comes to the Best Picture, the Oscar's aren't interested in change, forward thinking or making advancements in filmmaking. Perhaps the members save that kind of thinking for the technical awards and it doesn't even enter into the criteria for Best Picture. But, man, is it dispiriting.

I get excited when I hear people like William Friedkin and David Byrne talking about not having a nostalgic bone in their body. Maybe these two guys aren't the most relevant people in popular culture nowadays but at least they continue to move forward. They know nostalgia is a creative killer. The worst thing any industry or art form can do is nurture thoughts about how better things used to be back in the good old days.

Yes, nostalgia is an unavoidable part of human nature but so is being unimaginative and unoriginal - which is what nostalgia can lead to in any art form unless you're extremely clever about it. What we can try to do is fight these tendencies as best we can. Certainly, we can also try to award movies that fight these tendencies and represent imaginative and original voices.

Spotlight isn't a bad movie, but its win is bad for movies just as Leo's win is perhaps bad for acting. You can hope that wining an Oscar for Best Picture might increase attention for the need of good investigative journalism and change in how the Catholic church operates. But the irony is that it will likely have very little effect because when movies like Spotlight win Best Picture, the honor just keeps losing its value.