Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
You're invited to climb up the ladder and into the Movie Tree House with Dennis Cozzalio, Sheila O'Malley, Jason Bellamy and me to talk about... guess what? Movies! All kinds of movies, from the ones we saw in 2010 (and are still catching up with) to the beginnings of the medium to the future. Dennis is our host at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, and we've just finished our first round. Yes, we know that the format is basically the same as the Slate Movie Club, but ours is in a tree! And we want you to join the discussion.
We all come at movies from slightly different perspectives, which is what makes it interesting. I love what Sheila says about Annette Bening's eyewear in "The Kids Are All Right":
I told Jason in a comments thread on his site, that Annette Bening's "glasses behavior" in that film is worthy of an entire thesis paper. Her business with her glasses is so subtle, so character-driven, that you might not even notice it, or you might take it for granted, but there is some great great acting going on there. Bening's adjusting of her glasses, her freedom with that prop, her specificity in using those glasses was some of the best acting done this year.
Thinking about the state of movies (and movie criticism), Jason observed:
If we hope to see cinematically illiterate viewers become enlightened about the way a film's compositions, camera movements and cuts, etc., inform its text or subtext - or, heck, if we just want average viewers to realize that there is subtext - then more literate viewers must strive to remain equally open minded, recognizing that cinema isn't unilingual. A follow shot in one movie doesn't need to mean the same thing as a follow shot in another movie, for example. I'm not arguing against leveraging experience. I'm arguing against creating de facto rules for what a dissolve means, what the effect of a long take is, what the effect of un-steadycam is (beyond nausea), and so on. I'm arguing in favor of allowing cinematic language to evolve, sometimes quickly, sometimes radically, sometimes from film to film. [...]
As the past year has unfolded I've cringed at the possibility that in 2011 - still so early in what will be a long life for cinema - we might have already cemented our opinions of what cinematic greatness looks like, and thus doomed ourselves to frequent disappointment.
I quite agree that it would be terrible if people took such a narrow approach (or, god forbid, read my intent that way), and I elaborate in my response.
How that came up was, Dennis started us off by quoting Matt Zoller Seitz at the most recent Slate Movie Club:
One of the reasons mainstream movies are so generally mediocre to awful is because the ability of the average viewer to read images is only slightly better than their ability to read text. And the system likes it that way; it's much easier to crank out variations on cheeseburgers than to challenge moviegoers' aesthetic palates and expand their range of acceptable cuisine. But viewers won't give a damn about the aesthetic, political, and social components of filmgoing if we don't open the door of personal response--emotion, minus the whithers and wherefores and qualifiers, the wearily above-it-all routine--to lead them to a consideration of films outside their comfort zones.
To which Dennis responded with his own shot analysis from "The King's Speech," noting how it
tends to reinforce the feelings of isolation and despair being felt by Bertie (soon to be King George IV) by means as simple as purposefully imbalanced placement of solitary figures in the frame. And my guess is that most people who see and enjoy "The King's Speech," to name but only one example, don't experience it as anything other than fairly straightforward visually, which I think is perfectly understandable and not necessarily incorrect in the whole.
I fully appreciate Dennis's point. My contention (as you know if you've visited Scanners with any regularity) is that the way a film affects us emotionally is inseparable from what is presented in the frame -- not just an actor's performance, but the colors, the use of light and dark, the composition, the movement of the camera, etc. Or, as Sheila recently wrote at her place: " 'Kwik Stop'  does not re-invent the wheel, but it is more important how you tell a story than what story you want to tell." Rat own. It's all in the "how." (As Roger Ebert always says, a movie is not about what it is about, it's about how it is about it.)
P.S. I just read something that will keep me from going to sleep tonight because it was so thrillingly written: Jason's description of a moment from the Coens' "True Grit" (2010):
For example, the high point of "True Grit"... is the transition from LaBoeuf's rescue of Mattie on the hilltop to the showdown between Rooster and Lucky Ned (and three of Lucky Ned's gang) on the valley floor. Thanks to John Wayne and Henry Hathaway's 1969 version of Charles Portis' novel, the "Fill your hand!" scene is the stuff of classic cinema, and so how do the Coens take us to it? Not with an abrupt cut, but instead with a crane shot - the camera rising above LaBoeuf and Mattie, who turn to look down on the meadow below them much like Siskel and Ebert used to turn from their spot in the balcony to look at the theater screen on At the Movies. It's as if the Coens are saying, "Yes, here's the signature scene that you've been waiting for, and we can't wait to sit back and watch it, too."
Damn, that's beautiful -- and exactly what it felt like to me! So join us for more fun and fascinating stuff. We'll be there all week!
P.S. Yesterday, we had a little side discussion (on Facebook) that I am taking the liberty of cutting and pasting below. But don't delay -- get over to the Movie Tree House, pronto!
Dennis Cozzalio Sheila's first contribution will be up in about an hour or so, and it's a good 'un! Yesterday at 9:07am · Like Unlike
Jim Emerson I like it, too! Yesterday at 12:36pm · Like Unlike
Sheila O'Malley Jim, I am always amazed at what a hard time some of your readers give you. Either about your taste or that you dare to analyze WHY something works/doesn't work. Seems like an odd pet peeve for someone visiting the site of a film critic! ...
Have more to say - but busy busy day!See More Yesterday at 1:32pm · Like Unlike
Dennis Cozzalio It is a very curious phenomenon, one which Jason will touch on later today too. But really, if you're not interested in a personal, perhaps idiosyncratic analysis of a movie that examines why and how it does what it does, why are you really a site like Scanners in the first place? Yesterday at 1:42pm · Like Unlike
Sheila O'Malley And the laying-out of why a shot works, why it doesn't - as Jim does so amazingly (his Dark Knight stuff was incredible) - whether or not you agree, how about you make your case like a rational human being and express why you think it DOES work? I remember Jim encouraging people in the comments to do so - and only one or two were able to do it. One dude in particular, defended something Jim had criticized in such a specific way - like: that's the way to talk about this stuff. Also, it's actually FUNNER that way. Yesterday at 1:44pm · Like Unlike
Dennis Cozzalio Yep, it sure is. Without it, you've got Monty Python's Argument Clinic. But actual intellectual engagement is kinda scary-- might get exposed for not knowing what the hell I'm talking about! Or I might have to concede a point or two on a position about which I am ABSOLUTELY CONVINCED is the case! I'm having these trepidations right now as I prepare to post my own contribution! :) Yesterday at 1:53pm · Like Unlike
Sheila O'Malley Also - I think people also have a hard time saying, "You know what? I just loved it." People seem very defensive about what they like/do not like. not everyone - but those types definitely do. They are looking for validation - but why l...ook for validation in something that you love? I don't care what anyone says, I love GI Jane. I could read every bad review that came out, and whatever, I will still love that movie. Shrug.
I see its flaws (what the hell is HAPPENING in that last scene in Libya?) but I just enjoy the damn thing. I also don't subscribe to the "guilty pleasure" thing. My pleasure in GI Jane is not guilty at all. I just love to watch it. It's fun.
I don't mean to sound too simplistic, but there is such a thing as over-thinking something. As being too damn serious about something that is, after all, one step away from roaming bands of puppets and acrobats in the Renaissance. Just say you liked it, and don't FREAK OUT because someone else didn't. Why be so defensive?
It's very strange, but I'm pretty immune to it.See More Yesterday at 2:01pm · Like Unlike
Sheila O'Malley And then there are the, "IT'S JUST A MOVIE, JUST ENJOY IT" people. I've run into them too. I remember saying I didn't feel the zombies looked real enough in I Am Legend - I just didn't find them scary and a couple people commented like I ...was ruining their fun. "God, stop over-anlayzing ..."
I realize I may sound like I am saying two contradictory things but I am really not. I suppose it has to do with the tone of the discourse, as usual. I love to read articulate defenses of movies I despised. I LOVE IT. I love to read take-downs of movies I adore, if the writer is good, that is. Thoughtful criticism is not about agreement - it's about, you know, THINKING about things.See More Yesterday at 2:07pm · Like Unlike
Dennis Cozzalio Precisely. "It's just a movie" is so diminutive. If what goes on in a movie is so beneath discussion, wouldn't it be just as fascinating to sit and stare at a lava lamp for two hours? You're right, too, that validation is the big prize. And... I'm just as guilty of this as anyone-- it feels good when someone who you know is smart happens to have a similar reaction to a movie and then writes about it in a way that attempts to translate that excitement to her/his readership. But when this doesn't happen-- see SPEED RACER-- the thing is not to go about trashing everyone who disagrees but take a look at what they're saying, consider it, see if it makes any sense compared to your own reaction, and then be happy with the way the movie makes sense to you. People shouldn't have to agree with you in order for you to enjoy something. I know I have a wagonload of "Whatever-- I liked it" movies, and though they may not be perfect, I'm perfectly aware of that and have probably determined that perfection might even turn it into a movie I wouldn't love as well or deeply.
"Guilty pleasure" is a marketing hook. As something that can actually apply to the way one responds to a movie or a film or a piece of writing, why bother feeling guilty over something to which your initial response (and all the others too) may be the furthest thing from analytical or rational? To hell with guilt over a movie. Life really is just too damn short for that.See More Yesterday at 2:16pm · Like Unlike
Sheila O'Malley Oh man, that whole Speed Racer thing was so fascinating!! I seem to recall some of the conversations on your site about it. It was like you had said you enjoyed boiling puppies in oil. Yesterday at 2:20pm · Like Unlike
Dennis Cozzalio I never denied that! Yesterday at 2:25pm · Like Unlike
Dennis Cozzalio But really, I had spent the previous two days having the awareness of universally bad reviews seep into my consciousness to the point where I really couldn't conceive going in that the movie would be anything but a hootfest. So the genuine excitement I felt watching it ended up being one of the biggest surprises I've ever had seeing a movie. As a matter of fact, one of my most vocal opponents on it was Jim, and you see what kind of a wedge the movie has driven between us. :) Yesterday at 2:28pm · Like Unlike
Jim Emerson I like the lava lamp analogy -- I think I used it once, too. Just blobs of color in motion. I remember I saw "Speed Racer" at one of those radio-station promotional screenings to which publicists also invite critics. I thought it was just... about the most cynical, merchandising-fueled, incoherent thing I'd ever seen -- yet Dennis found it charming and innocent. We just looked at it in entirely different ways. I was bothered that the movie's race sequences lacked a sense of momentum and velocity -- I couldn't figure out who was who or where anyone was in relationship to anyone else, and I didn't enjoy that -- but maybe it was a silly objection, given that the original cartoon was known for not exactly conveying a feeling of speed, either. Anyway, it proved to be an enlightening back-and-forth -- a real chance to re-imagine seeing a movie through someone else's eyes...
Hey, we should be putting this stuff up in the Tree House! I've already started writing back to Sheila and Jason...See More Yesterday at 3:19pm · Like Unlike
Dennis Cozzalio I'm not above pilfering from this string. I've gotta get my two cents in tonight! Back to the lava lamp! Yesterday at 3:31pm · Like Unlike
Jim Emerson Sheila: I'm thinking of maybe making Scanners 100% Nolan-Free -- "No Christopher Nolan -- All The Time!" It's mostly the most rabid Nolan fans who don't know how to construct arguments based on the films themselves. Even if I liked one of his future films as much as I liked "Following" or "Memento," it wouldn't be good enough for them! Yesterday at 4:48pm · Like Unlike
Sheila O'Malley // a real chance to re-imagine seeing a movie through someone else's eyes... //
Jim, that's the real joy of reading other people's responses, isn't it. Whether you like a movie or no.
I know - we gotta get over there and start talking in ou...r treehouse. It's ominously quiet!See More Yesterday at 4:48pm · Like Unlike
Sheila O'Malley Oh Jim don't let them stop you!!! If you like deconstructing him, then they can just deal, or go elsewhere. I think those Nolan posts provide so much. Of course if it's getting you down to have people FREAKING OUT all the time I get that... too. I used to write about politics. I knew I had to stop when I started writing FOR those who disagreed with me. It was so not fun.
And yes, I've noticed that with Nolan fans myself, at least the ones who frequent the sites I frequent.See More Yesterday at 4:50pm · Like Unlike
Jim Emerson One of the Seattle critics at that recent museum panel (the only one of the four of us who had "Inception" on his 10-best list) privately proposed a theory that Fincher fans and Nolan fans are diametrically opposed. (He didn't have "Social Network" on his list.) I wonder if there may be something to that. What would happen if you put a bunch of Fincher fans and a bunch of Nolan fans in the same room? Fight Club? Yesterday at 4:56pm · Like Unlike
Dennis Cozzalio But in a spinning hotel hallway. Yesterday at 5:05pm · Like Unlike
Dennis Cozzalio How do we transplant this conversation into the comments thread underneath one of your posts? Yesterday at 5:06pm · Like Unlike
Sheila O'Malley Maybe we should just cut and paste and admit that that is what we are doing. Since it's all out on the Internet anyway. I'll start. I won't tell if you won't tell. I'll start with my first comment in this thread and I'll put it under Jim's post. Capiche? Yesterday at 5:07pm · Like Unlike
Dennis Cozzalio Capiche. And leave the cannoli. Yesterday at 5:09pm · Like Unlike
Sheila O'Malley Okay, I just did it. Yesterday at 5:09pm · Like Unlike
Dennis Cozzalio I'm next! Yesterday at 5:10pm · Like Unlike
Sheila O'Malley Feel free to cut and paste at will. We're being totally transparent here. Yesterday at 5:10pm · Like Unlike
Sheila O'Malley I am still concerned that no one is commenting on mine because they aren't reading past Liar Liar. Yesterday at 5:11pm · Like Unlike
Dennis Cozzalio Bwah! Nonsense! If you want to just throw all of your stuff up there, I can post the comments in correct order. Yesterday at 5:13pm · Like Unlike
Sheila O'Malley I think your site thinks I'm spamming you now. Hold, please. Yesterday at 5:16pm · Like Unlike
Sheila O'Malley There may be a double comment. Do not judge. Your site seems angry at me now. Yesterday at 5:16pm · Like Unlike
Dennis Cozzalio Ignore it. It does that when it sees long comments. It's there and posted. Yesterday at 5:17pm · Like Unlike
Sheila O'Malley kay. Yesterday at 5:18pm · Like Unlike
Dennis Cozzalio This is kinda fun! Yesterday at 5:19pm · Like Unlike
Hey, Jason -- are you on Facebook?
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
A look at the entire "Alien" franchise, and a reappraisal of its unloved installments.