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As Above, So Below

It's that rare found-footage film with a strong premise, a memorably eccentric style, and plenty of energy to burn. It's also poorly conceived, and hard…

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The Last of Robin Hood

A title as good as "The Last of Robin Hood" deserves a better movie. In fact, it deserves a good movie.

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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Monsieur Hire

Patrice Leconte's "Monsieur Hire" is a tragedy about loneliness and erotomania, told about two solitary people who have nothing else in common. It involves a…

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Thought experiment: Are some movies better if you don't see them?

It's a question to ponder -- especially when they're Andy Warhol movies (whether or not Andy Warhol actually had anything to do with them besides putting his name on them). Consider this story from Reid Rosefelt at My Life as a Blog:

... I was a huge fan of Warhol's films, despite the fact that I had never seen a single one. Most, if not all of the films had been withdrawn from circulation, or very rarely shown, certainly not in Madison. That didn't stop me. I read everything I could about them, and I was totally fascinated.

Spotting Warhol standing at an appetizer table, plastic cup in one hand and plate in the other, during a late-1970s party in New York, RR worked up the nerve to approach the artist. It went something like this:

"Excuse me, Mr. Warhol, may I ask you a question?"

Warhol looked at me with his trademark languid affectlessness--a pose or really him?-- the ultimate in coolness. He didn't say anything.

"I've read all about your films, but I can't see them."

"Oh..." he said.

"Are they in distribution somewhere? Do you have any plans to bring them out?

"Not really."

"You really should. A lot of people want to see them and they can't."

"Isn't it better that way?"

And with that, Warhol was gone, leaving young Reid to stew over what the Great Artist could possibly have meant. That it was OK for him to keep his work to himself when they are so historically significant? That the films were better thought about than actually experienced? That the concepts were more important than the art objects themselves? What about a movie like "Empire," an eight-hour stationary shot of the Empire State Building (shot at 24 frames per second but screened at 16 fps, thus making it longer) -- a film that was said to be almost "impossible to watch," but that nevertheless deserved to be studied by scholars?

Or "Sleep" -- five hours and 20 minutes of a man sleeping? Or "Blow Job," a mere half-hour shot of a man's face while something goes down below the bottom of the frame? "Would it be like a low-rent Dreyer movie or would it be banal?" RR remembers wondering. "Warhol was refusing to let me see a movie where I wouldn't see anything."

(Read the whole [brief] post here.)

So, as I say above, I'm posting this as a thought experiment. (Sometimes I throw out ideas to consider and certain people read between the wrong lines and assume I'm really arguing one way or another, but I promise you in this case that I am not proposing we should all stop watching movies and just talk about them instead. If I were, I would come right out and say so.)

Warhol, of course, is famous for his conceptual art. Yes, the idea of painting Campbell's Soup cans and putting Brillo boxes in galleries was conceptually inspired -- but he (or his minions) had to actually do it (and put his name on it) in order to realize the concept, to actually give it form and shape. Likewise, it's one thing to think about pointing a camera at the Empire State Building for an interminable length of time, but if you don't actually do it, if somewhere the evidence that you did do it does not exist (even if nobody could see it, or would realistically want to), then the concept (or the joke -- I use the terms interchangeably here, meaning no disrespect to the art) kind of falls flat.

Then again, what if we could apply it to all those wannabe blockbuster movies (with no artistic pretensions whatsoever) that too often play like pitch meetings reduced to sped-up PowerPoint presentations? Remember the late 1980s and 1990s, when every studio action picture (starring Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Keanu Reeves or whoever) was "Die Hard on a _____"? How about "3-D CGI Ferngully on Another Planet"? That is precisely the level of artistic inspiration and imagination that goes into the financing, making and marketing of many (most?) movies -- and I include DIY "indies" and foreign language features, too.

On the other hand, if (as I insist) moves are largely about what you experience when you watch them, then isn't the experience itself -- no matter how tedious or unpleasant -- worth at least something? (Think "Funny Games," "Irreversible," anything involving Tyler Perry or Kevin Smith...) Or is that like saying you actually have to jump off a bridge in order to know what it's like to jump off a bridge? Which you do, but what if you don't want to? Still, doesn't the bridge have to actually exist in order for you to imagine what it would be like to jump off of it -- sort of like the way the Campbell's Soup cans have to exist in order to be fully appreciated? Is reading or thinking about or imagining a movie concept another kind of valuable experience, whether or not you've actually seen the movie itself? And if the movie doesn't exist, but is only hypothetical, then what happens to free will? How can you choose to not see it if that's the only option?

Perhaps this takes us back to Godard's "Masculin-Feminin":

We'd often go to the movies. We'd shiver as the screen lit up. More often we'd be disappointed. The images flickered. Marilyn Monroe looked terribly old. It saddened us. It wasn't the film we had dreamed, the film we all carried in our hearts, the film we wanted to make and, secretly, wanted to live....

I'm not sure where this is going (except 'round in circles), but I wanted to put it out there...

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