The New York Times recently revived a monthly Q & A column with co-chief film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis. Whatever you think of their answers, they are definitely picking some good questions. The first question this weekend is about the unavailability of decent art cinema in the reader’s home town multiplex; basically a diatribe on how bad studio films have gotten.
The studios have always made filler and junk, but the quality of run-of-the- mill movies at least had a base competency; if nothing else they were well lighted, shot and recorded, which isn’t always the case now.
Dargis hits the nail on the head with the problem of major studio films these days. Once upon a time they were competent exercises in film language. That’s just not the case anymore.
The news that Hollywood defeatists (“There’s nothing good to see at the movies; it’s all kid stuff”) hate to hear is that they are to blame for the current slate at the multiplex. A.O. Scott offers the medicine:
So here’s what you can do: go see Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” when it opens Friday. You may not like it or “get” it, but it is in every way the opposite of the stale, tedious, market-tested drivel you so rightly complain about.
Dubious use of quotation marks aside (if you can watch a film, you can “get” it) his point is simple: put your money where you mouth is; your ass where the seats are. Hollywood follows the money. Now that they know they can make more money off of a cheaper film and that there are filmmakers willing to put their name on a cobbled together rushed-to-screen blockbuster (I’m looking at you, Chris Weitz) they’re going to keep doing it until audiences start demanding a higher class of cinema.
Next up is an even more fascinating question (I may need to break this off into its own post some other time). Here it is in full:
Q. Why do all other art forms laud repetition and exploration of themes but movies disdain and dismiss them? Monet and his water lilies. Calder and his mobiles. Dale Chihuly’s instantly recognized work. The new season presents the same operas and musical compositions it did in the old season. And we’re celebrating Mark Twain this year because he was Mark Twain. But in movies it’s a (pejorative) remake, not a (positive) revival.
This question is on my mind whenever I think of the work of Woody Allen or Steven Spielberg. When you look at their bodies of work, or even experience them over the course of a lifetime, you begin to see the threads they are pulling at, trying to perfect. This repetition of form, in my opinion, enhances the work.
A better example, perhaps, would be Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who has been going back to his steam-punk well on almost every outing. His latest Micmacs hearkens back to his collaboration with Marc Caro on Delicatessen, but it is still a film that is able to stand on its own. There is no question that it is a Jeunet work; it’s what you signed up for even if it feels more iterative than fresh and new. The same goes for the work of Tim Burton or Baz Luhrmann. It’s not a negative that you can recognize their work from a mile away, but a sign of their mark, their indelible stamp.
The following question is so-so, regarding what films critics would consider a primer to begin work in the field of film writing. The final question is about watching films on mobile phones and other devices, whether or not it is considered an acceptable format. I have become a proponent of this kind of viewing, though not for everything. To test my mobile mettle, a few years back I loaded The Searchers on my iPhone and watched it across five or so subway rides. The experience was different from watching it on my television or in a packed movie-house, but so what?
It’s hard to explain. Watching a film while clutching a device is a more active experience than sitting on a couch while it plays on the television. If you go limp, you run the risk of dropping your device. I’m much more likely to pass out watching a film on my couch than I am on the subway, so is it so bad that I take my media with me? I have no illusions about it; I am fully aware the experience doesn’t compare to going to the movies.
Perhaps the fear is that the coming generation of gadget addicts will prefer watching films on smaller screens. Hollywood still commands astounding box office revenues, so someone is going to the movies. Based on the first inquisitor in the New York Times’ column, it’s probably not older, more sophisticated audiences that shell out barrels of cash on opening weekend, it’s the same generation that is supposedly becoming obsessed with mobile viewing.
I would say that the next generation simply consumes more media than any before it. They want to wrap themselves up in bits, keeping a film on hand at all times to stave off boredom. How could that be bad for the cinema? (A loaded question; let’s revisit it soon.)