Thursday, February 16, 2006

Movies and the imagination

"I don't feel enjoyment watching films that evoke passivity. If you need that kind of comfort, I don't understand why you wouldn't go to a spa."
- Chan-wook Park

There are at least a couple of movies I still have to see before I'd be comfortable saying what I thought the best movie of 2005 was. If pressed for the best one I saw, I suspect I'd pick A History of Violence by David Cronenberg.

The movies I'd most like to 2005 to be remembered for, however, I have no trouble answering Sin City and MirrorMask.

Both of these movies are sumptuous and wonderful. They both push the edges of what movies can accomplish in a number of obvious ways and a number of less obvious ways.

On the obvious front, they both are highly imaginative and use a logic of the mind rather than a logic of the physical world. Both demonstrate compelling uses for CGI beyond creating photorealistic, or at least attempted photorealistic, objects and landscapes that have become the standard in filmmaking in recent years.

On the less obvious front, both movies eschew the standard pacing, story and acting conventions that have become so entrenched in American cinema that it not only discourages creativity, innovation and experimentation, but makes them seem awkward, jarring and wrong, especially to the casual viewer, but often to all of us. So, we call them "bad" or "weird" or "silly" or "pretentious".

I've used the word "pretentious" as a pejorative many times myself. In my mind, it describes that kind of art where the creator lacks for substance and puts forth a lot of meaningless but obvious smoke and mirrors to create the illusion of a meaning. I've been rethinking that in recent months, however.

From Pretentiousness is Good for You by Tim Lucas:
In this day and age, "pretentious" has become an ugly word to most people, like "liberal." And yet, if one looks up this adjective in the dictionary, one finds it related to synonyms which are largely positive: challenging, demanding, elaborate, energetic, exacting, formidable, grandiose, impressive, industrious, aspiring, visionary. (We've become a much better society since "pretentious" and "liberal" became dirty words, haven't we?)

From Epiphany by Poppy Z. Brite:
I think I've heard the work of every horror or horror-related author I've ever admired described as "pretentious" at one time or another, but the word never made sense to me. What was the author supposed to be pretending? Now it all comes clear: it's shorthand for a writer rising above his or her assigned station, which, if you write horror, is presumably the station where the short bus stops.

Sin City is a movie that aspires not only to recreate the look of old film noir movies, but the way they look in our minds, colored, adjusted and boosted with nostalgia and imagination. MirrorMask is a movie that purposely and openly unfolds like a dream, not because it is without substance (the most common unfavorable take) but because the meaning is in the unfolding itself. Both offer more to the attentive viewer than the casual observer. Both offer further richness from multiple viewing to such an extent that they almost demand it.

I recently had a friend observe how much differently she viewed Switchblade Sisters this last week, after having been exposed to so many more "exploitation" movies since her first viewing. Before, being more acclimatized to the movie "standard", her reaction had been to see it more humorous and outside the movie and laughing at the situations, but now felt much more basic empathy for the characters. I'm sure that to some minds, the fact that she naturally took the material more seriously now is a kind of descent in taste, but I can't agree.

I think it's the exact same pattern of expectations that we all lazily cling to that makes everything that deviates from that seem undesirable and somehow less than the established standard. We know the five standard sitcom jokes, why should we be walked into more challenging kinds of comedy? We know slickly produced records on hit radio, why should we listen to grating garage rock or challenging jazz music?

Middle-of-the-road Hollywood movies don't ask you to think or feel, so when other movies do we call them "pretentious" or "manipulative", despite the basic fact that those are the most basic things that art is supposed to do to us... do for us.

Rob Zombie's been widely quoted for saying "Art's not supposed to be safe" to Bill Moseley on the set of The Devil's Rejects. I'm not sure I'm willing to call either of his films especially challenging or dangerous at this point. I think they're too married to the comforting familiar - a kind of modern fairy tale grotesque familiar, but quite familiar nonetheless - to consider a step outside, but I'm pleased that he is aspiring to challenge the audience.

Mind you, I'm not hoping for a world where how much CGI you can fill your movie with is the highest aspiration... that way lies Van Helsing. This would be an excellent time to bring things back to Cronenberg, an amazing director and right near the top of my list of cinematic artists I admire most and would like to emulate.

Cronenberg knows that a story like A History of Violence needs to be played out with very real and honest performances, the kind that remind of how people in our world would act if faced with this situation. He knew the same was true to sell the fantastic concept of The Fly. But then he knew that Videodrome needed some heightening of the acting style and dramatic style and that Naked Lunch needed to lead us off the deep end, with purposefully stylized performances surrounded by fantastic and surreal elements all around them.

One specific acting style, one specific plot-focused character line, one specific set of expectations. These are symptomatic of what is turning us all into the comfortable drones predicted by Aldous Huxley's Brave New World or more accurately described in Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman.

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