Tuesday, May 10, 2005

At The Movies

I am a music connoisseur. I research it, read about it, write about it, critique it, love it, slam it and above all listen to it. I cannot say the same for film. In fact, I'm somewhat of a movie idiot. All those phenomenal movies you've seen - you know, the ones that really etch themselves indelibly into the fabric of society and leave marks on your soul? Haven't seen 'em - er, actually maybe I have, but chances are their importance and magnitude escaped me. It's pathetic.

This was never more apparent then when I was in college. I went to Emerson, a small school in downtown Boston with majors that focus towards media, mass communication and "the arts." I often look back on those halcyon days with a certain wistfulness - I had a great time there and learned a ton to boot. But the school definitely attracted a certain kind of student - and the vast majority of them majored in film. You know the type - bleached skin, black wardrobe, clove cigarette smoking, sullen individuals who'd been wronged - all carrying themselves with the imprimatur of arthouse film knowledge. I, on the other hand, was a lowly radio major with a minor in creative writing (although you'd never know), who had long hair, dressed like a grunge icon, smoked Camel Lights, and coughed and spat a lot. But many of the previously mentioned film majors were my friends and they would often gasp (literally) at my lack of knowledge.

"You haven't seen Reservoir Dogs? Jesus, man... where have you been?"

"'Hey - so I was watching the new film from Kryszlwsykfghghdsyfsv Grghlikjsdmirtsky the other day and..'

'I'm sorry... who?'

'Don't tell me you've never heard of Grghlikjsdmirtsky! The man DEFINED existentialist minimalism through his work with camera angles, lighting and waterfowl. Haven't you ever seen 'Dot'?"

Most of the conversations were like that - and I had to plead ignorance every time. Not so anymore, however. Now I have Netflix.... a phenomenal online movie rental service which I'm sure you've all heard of, and would do well to join if you like movies. Over the past year, I've been making it a point to rent the movies that everyone else has seen and I haven't, but should have. They don't necessarily have to have been artsy-fartsy or Oscar winners... just well-known films that people often talk about. I figure this way I'll at least have a point of reference at party discussions and don't have to lie about having seen them. (Incidentally - the current Netflix movie I'm watching (or will soon watch) is on the sidebar to the right - and no, I don't count Harry Potter as a 'must see' film. It IS fun however, and that particular one down there is pretty dark.) So - when I get the time I'll throw a new one in: Casablanca, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Godfather, The Godfather II, Top Gun, Apocalypse Now, Blazing Saddles, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Music Man (There's gonna be trouble.... right here in River City!!), Seven Samurai, etc...

You know what? They all suck.

Alright - I'm kidding, but I've come to the conclusion that much of what makes great films great escapes me. Not to say that I'm above it all - in fact, exactly the opposite. I'm probably too stupid to get it. My friend Joseph isn't. A fellow Emersonian, and film major (but not at all like I described above - very much the exception) he tries his best to help me understand when I ask. Often his answer is something like, "You have to look at the film in the time that it was released. It was truly revolutionary. The director had done things no one else had ever done before." Well - fine... except that I don't watch films looking for an appreciative history lesson. I like a good story - and knowing that a director in 1958 was one of the first to use a particular camera angle isn't going to make me enjoy the story any more. You could say the same thing for music. Elvis Presley & Chuck Berry paved the way for much of today's Rock n' Roll... they were absolutely pioneers. MUST I like them for that reason, though? Hell no. In fact, I would argue a great many people who claim to love Elvis and Chuck Berry do so because they're afraid NOT to. Don't want to look like a fool in the eyes of your peers, you know. I happen not to like Elvis all that much. Some of his songs are OK and I understand that without him there would be no U2, Beatles, Led Zeppelin, etc... but just because he's first doesn't mean he's best. Other people took what he did and did it better. **Any holes you want to rip in this clearly flawed argument can begin right here ------------> **

Example? (Forgive me, Joseph. I'm about to commit blasphemy - as if I hadn't already with the Elvis comments.) Citizen Kane. What on Earth is it about this film that makes it so critics won't stop putting it at the top of their all time movie lists? Most people saw a film that was completely revolutionary. I saw a muddled, overly-long story about some guy who won't shutup about a sled. Still - realizing that I was the problem here, and not the film, I tried to find some help via the Internet. I found this from a reviewer on the Netflix site:

"It might be helpful for one to find some primer material on film appreciation so one can be a better interpreter and analyzer of a movie's themes, style, and intentions, so one would not likely reject a film simply because it is unfamiliar. A great film is usually the work of a master who trusted the intelligence of the viewers, who must do their part in seeing the movie the way it is intended to be seen. After watching CITIZEN KANE, ask yourself this: why is the story told completely out of sequence? It is to show the disorderly, checkered nature of a man's life. Why is the pace so quick early in the film? To show the man's meteoric rise to power. Why is it slower later? To show his long, languishing fall from grace. Why does the photography often juxtapose bright light and dark shadows? It is to allude to the duality of optimism and goodness versus despair and darkness that is the nature of the story. Why does Charlie applaud all by himself during Susan's opera? Because, in a way, he is congratulating himself. But later why does he pan Susan's performance? Because deep inside he has a bit of self-loathing. Again, duality. My point is, this is why some viewers are such film lovers, and some are not. Because putting your thoughts into what is behind every shot, every line, every cut, every nuance, every subtext, every overtone, undertone, insinuation, implication...is what movie-watching is all about. Those who are willing to invest the effort will be rewarded (while watching good movies, that is) and those who aren't will not."

I understand this - really, I do. But I just don't 'get it.' I've never been able to. Everytime I try to put my thoughts into what's behind "every shot, every line, every cut" I can never trust my own judgment. Usually I miss it because it's too subtle or I'm just numb to what's going on. Besides when I do think "I've gotten it", I usually find out I was wrong 99% of the time anyway.


Does any of this matter? I don't know. We all watch films for different reasons. I happen to like it when the director lets his story be a story and any metaphor used is simple enough for my undeveloped mind to appreciate. Books? Music? I'm golden. With film, I just happen to be riding the short bus. I won't avoid films for this reason however... I will keep renting the classics and the 'influentials' and try to develop my mind and tastes toward an appreciation of all good works. Will I succeed? I guess you guys can be the judge when you read my future reviews. In the meantime, however I'm thankful for Roger Ebert.

Oh yeah - my favorite film of all-time? Trainspotting. You know one of the main reasons why? Because it had a KICK-ASS soundtrack. Toodles.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post - My rule of thumb: if a film resonates with the viewer, its a good film. That said, I liked the quote from your friend. He seems nothing less than brilliant.

10:36 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

Oh - I don't know. Smart guy and all, but he has his faults.

10:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You hit this blog right on the head!!! A movie is great if you watch it every time it is on (I love cable...I have seen all my favorite movies at least 3 times).

It's like books. Do you think Walt Whitman really gave a shit about today's society?

9:22 PM  

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