Sunday, August 19, 2007

Lists, movies and criticism

There is a lot of interesting discussion of film criticism going on right now. In the posts and even more in the comments in posts like SILFR Forum: Critics on Critics, Scenes from the Cinematic Scorekeepers and Rica is Coming - Pinky Violence is Here!

I think we're coming to a crossroads in our examination of movies as an art form. Perhaps we've merely come to a place that we could choose to use as a crossroad. I think it's oddly reflected in the much maligned Online Film Community’s Top 100 Movies.

Traditionally, film criticism has been the purview of academics, so most of the factors have been accepted as "good" are the kinds of things that academics approve of. This has largely limited the accepted canon of great movies to things which academics approve of. More importantly, it has also ignored much of what academics explicitly disapprove of.

Mind you, some positive steps have been taken, Cahiers du cinéma made it impossible for even the most finicky critics to completely ignore film noir and westerns. Even with that advance, however, both of these genres have been, a chosen few exceptions aside, given only cursory examination in the years since.

A handful of exploitation filmmakers, Mario Bava, Roger Corman and Russ Meyer being notable examples, have made some headway into gaining a grudging respect among the respectable critical community, but again the list of their movies that have gotten a significant hearing is relatively small compared to their bodies of work.

The video and Internet revolutions have brought worlds of movies to our attention and into our homes. The potential to re-examine the thousands of forgotten movies, and entire movie genres, that have been lost or never discovered at all by critics and audiences. Perhaps, in some ways, too much potential.

And work has begun. There are any number of websites and blogs out there diligently discussing, examining and celebrating these movies, from nearly angle imaginable.

But too often all of this work is tied up in or overshadowed by the two largest spheres of Internet discussion. The first is largely just the old breed of academics with their rigid and often banal opinions, etched in stone. The second is the "Ain't It Cool" crowd. Mind you, in this instance, I don't mean a specific criticism of Harry Knowles, as he's merely a symptom of a problem that almost certainly would have existed without his specific presence.

The "Ain't It Cool" crowd, as a phenomenon, are the cinematic hedonists that stand in opposition to the puritan nature of the old breed of critics. Their philosophy seems too often to be that if the experience gave them pleasure than it's "cool" and thus worthy of celebration among the pantheon of great cinema.

Mind you, I've nothing against celebrating pure pleasures. I'm quite excited about Video Violence being near the top of my Netflix queue. There's a place for junk food cinema, just like there is for junk food. And when you finish a Quarter Pounder that particularly hits the spot, the proper response is still not to declare it among the greatest items of food ever produced. You can credit the marketing or even the design of it in terms of being easy to replicate in millions of locations and generally tasty. There's something brilliant in there somewhere, one must note, but it's not in the singular experience of consumption.

(Side note: How Teriyaki Became Seattle's Own Fast-Food Phenomenon by Jonathan Kauffman.)

Likewise, since the late '60s, Hollywood movies have been increasingly becoming a formula product, designed so that the equivalent of a minimum wage worker can make one without going too far off the spec sheet. For an interesting demonstration of a time before that became so ingrained, see Kansas City's 1973 Cinema.

If you want to convince me that one of them broke out of the Quarter Pounder zone, I expect some back up, which seems reasonable enough, but it seems to be something like their credo that fulfilling whatever expectations, however small, that they have set, is a great achievement.

Somewhere, a new standard needs to be set.

I think we're hammering away and listing movies and reinforcing both unworkable standards.

Mind you, I don't have an answer of even where to begin.

I think we've come to - long past, in fact - the point music came to when jazz could no longer be ignored. By the standards set down to judge European music, jazz indeed fails. Not to mention, the fact that it was born in juke joints where people came to drink, shake their asses and possibly even go home and have sex, all to the heavy beat.

We've come to a point where genre movies from all times and all places are judged by the same standards as were set up to judge art movies and middle-of-the-road Hollywood movies.

When it comes to judging the Pinky Violence movies discussed in the Cinebeats article or Gialli or Bollywood or any of another dozen peculiar genres, sub-genres and foreign delights that are slowly being discovered through the current revolutions, these standards fall vastly short in criticizing them, for better and for worse. They seem too often to simply miss the point altogether.

And while the two mainstream movie styles that criticism is set up to understand and criticize will occasionally croak up the cinematic equivalent of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, I become increasingly weary of it, and would frankly rather someone develop a new way of looking at it, just to make it more interesting... or perhaps to make it grow again, into something more interesting.


cinebeats said...

Thanks a lot for the shout out Neil and I really enjoyed your post. You expressed lots of things that I agree with. I think film criticism is changing due to the "cloggers" (a.k.a. blog critics) and the access we have to so many films that previous generations could only dream about. In the next few years things will probably get really interesting.

Drewbacca said...

Just to defend one last time, the OFC list was not meant to be the 100 "greatest" or "best" of all time. It was meant to be sort of a fun list of our favorite movies. NEVER was it intended to be a difinitive list.

I know you were not suggesting that is was, but I wanted to make that clear to your readers.

Though I love "Big Trouble in Little China" and voted for it to be on the list, I do not think it belongs on a 100 BEST list. But most certainly on a list of 100 movies I want with me if desserted on an island forever (much like your Quarter Pounder example).


As for film criticism, it will most likely get worse for you. e.g. - how is a kid who is born 10 (or even now) years from now supposed to be "caught up" with all the cinema of the past? It's nearly impossible unless they have no life. In which case they wouldn't be qualified to critique film anyway if they have no basis or foundation on which to judge it (art imitates life imitates art).

So the potential for a "new breed" of film criticism is very small I should think. You'll have the myspacers and the Roger Eberts and very few of us in between (I like to think that I am, but I don't very often write about past films as that doesn't generate traffic - i.e. $$).

Plus with the standard newspaper (or at least the critic sections) going bye bye, it will be increasingly difficult to see the film criticism style of the past.

Having said that, the internet is here for a reason. If one is willing to look, as you pointed out, there are oodles of pages out there devoted to a very niche audience and there is a critic out there for everyone. For me, it's Richard Roeper... just kidding.

~Andrew James

Neil Sarver said...

Kimberly, thanks, as always, for your comment. I certainly hope that's true.

Drewbacca, and just to say one more response about the list... My complaint with the list isn't that it doesn't live up to my high quality standards, but rather that it's boring! Painfully, butt-clenchingly uninteresting. And frankly, a couple of choices along the lines of Big Trouble in Little China making the list would have improved that, at least a little.

I'm more than a little annoyed about the quotation marks around the words "caught up", suggesting that I had said (or rather, written) such a thing. In fact, I didn't state that at all.

For the love of God! I watch as many movies as almost anyone I know and I feel hopelessly far from being caught up. I bet Roger Ebert, Leonard Maltin and whatever other long-time professional critics do, too.

But that's not to say I excuse, frankly anyone, but certainly people who consider their opinions on movies worthy of putting out there, from making no effort at all to see, not older movies specifically, but a variety of things, good, bad, challenging, etc.

Drewbacca said...

Agreed. Any critic that doesn't take at least some time to venture into past cinema and at least attempt to expand his or her horizons should not be critiquing film.

As for the putting "caught up" in quotes, I din't mean to insinuate that you had written that. I just used the quotes to qualify a term that can be used loosely. No one is truly caught up or as seen EVERYTHING. Still, if someone has, it's Roger Ebert. Of course he hasn't seen technically everything... but he's damn close! That guy has seen it all.

Neil Sarver said...

For the record, I did watch - and enjoyed - Video Violence, but feel the need to correct myself that it is not a Quarter Pounder. It is a burger from one of those weird dives you come across on a long road trip that sometimes turns out to be amazing, sometimes uniquely terrible and sometimes is just a Costco patty with a slice of off-brand American cheese.

The benefit of the Quarter Pounder is the knowing. Yes, it could be cold and dry and it could be surprisingly hot and flavorful, but it's not very likely to extend in any direction out of a basic quality range.

The exciting thing about going to the dive restaurant or renting Video Violence is the not knowing.

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