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#254 June 10, 2015

Sheila writes: John Lennon kept a sketchbook throughout his life, filled with little drawings and doodles, and in 1986 Yoko Ono commissioned Oscar-winning animator John Canemaker to make them into a short film. The short film, "The John Lennon Sketchbook" hit Youtube officially on May 15 of this year. The images are accompanied by audio recordings of John and Yoko talking about their relationship, bantering and joking. It's lovely. You can watch the film below.


Into the Great Big Boring

When I was a child I was taught that it was unacceptable to call something -- a movie, a song, an activity -- "boring" because: 1) it doesn't make sense (a thing can't be boring, unless perhaps it is a drill bit; a person feels bored); and 2) it's indefensible, since the quality of "boringness" cannot be isolated or identified as an element of the thing itself; it's a feeling and it is yours).

So, saying something is "boring" is not exactly like saying something in a movie is "funny" or "moving" -- though, again, I'd prefer to place the responsibility for a response on the "feeler" rather than on the object -- because at least you can describe how something is presented or intended to be received as humorous or touching, even if you don't think it is. (Yes, there are exceptions to that, too.) I mean, a joke or a gag or an emotional situation can be objectively analyzed, but there are no agreed-upon cultural standards for evaluating "boring."¹

"Boring," I believe, is more like the word "entertaining" -- too vague to be of much use in a critical vocabulary. So, I might say I found something about a movie "tedious" or "engaging" or some other thesaurus word, but I'll attribute the emotion to myself and my taste, and even then not without a serious attempt to describe what I'm talking about, and to give at least one specific example.²

But now, "boring" is hot, at least in overheated Interwebular film criticism circles, since the publication of Dan Kois' New York Times Magazine piece called "Eating Your Cultural Vegetables," in which he says:

Festivals & Awards

"The Tree of Life" takes the Palme d'Or

The Closing Ceremony of the 64th Cannes International Film Festival took place today in the Grand Theatre Lumiere in the Festival Palais at 7:15 pm French time.

Since I had already left the festival on Friday, I was watching online as Jane Fonda slithered up to the microphone to present the Palme d'Or, looking like a


Sensitivity training: the fallacy of feelings

The "New Political Correctness," as I came to call it during the aughts (though it is neither new nor correct) is the pressure to reframe discussion by controlling language. In recent years it has come mostly from the political right ("moral clarity," "War on Christmas," "moral equivalence," "homicide bombers," "Freedom Fries," "restoring honor"...) and, I insist, is an insidious menace to society even greater than the old-school institutionalized PC that came from the left, because its motives are transparently rooted in demagoguery rather than civility and altruism.

Back in early 2007, Sarah Silverman's "Jesus Is Magic" prompted me to write this:

I've been arguing for several years now that, especially since 9/11, "political correctness" has evolved into a mostly reactionary phenomenon. The lefty PC that began as a way of showing sensitivity to minorities and those who had been discriminated against for years (women, the disabled, etc.) eventually turned into a form of monolithic, euphemistic denial of reality, where questioning was verboten and anything that could be interpreted as doubt or dissent was denounced as "fascist." Now we see the same thing coming from the right. The terminology has changed but the brainwashed thinking hasn't.


WALL-E scrunches Love Guru inVillage Voice/LA Weekly crix poll

Mike Myers' "The Love Guru" was chosen worst picture of the year in the Second Annual Ninth Annual Village Voice/LA Weekly Film Poll, in which I was but one of 81 balloteers. I may have been fortunate in that I didn't see it. Nor was I exposed to runner-up Alan Ball's "Towelhead," which was followed by a multiple tie for third-lousiest between "Burn After Reading," "Changeling," "Doubt," "Gran Torino," "Rachel Getting Married," "Step Brothers," and "Synecdoche, New York." The reason I mention this first is that most of these films (OK, not "Love Guru") were also chosen by some as among the best movies of the year, and they were directed by a few critical darlings: Joel and Ethan Coen, Clint Eastwood (twice), Jonathan Demme, Charlie Kaufman...

This year's poll favorites:

10) "Synechdoche, New York" (Charlie Kaufman, USA)

9) "Let the Right One In" (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden)

8) "Wendy and Lucy" (Kelly Reichardt, USA)

7) "Milk" (Gus Van Sant, USA)

6) "Waltz With Bashir" (Ari Folman, Israel)


Moviegoers who feel too much

View image Robert De Niro in the last shot of Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in America": How does this make you feel?

"Sometimes the best movies are the ones we make up." -- from the trailer for Michel Gondry's upcoming "Be Kind Rewind" (2008)

* * *

"This wasn't the film we'd dreamed of, this wasn't the total film that each of us had carried within himself . . . the film that we wanted to make, or, more secretly, no doubt, that we wanted to live." -- Paul (Jean-Pierre Leud) in Jean-Luc Godard's "Masculin-Feminin" (1966)

* * *

Between the idea And the reality...

Between the emotion And the response Falls the Shadow -- T.S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men" (1925)

In his review of Kent Jones' book "Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticism," David Sterritt (for 35 years the film critic of the Christian Science Monitor) poses a challenge to movie critics and filmgoers alike: Given his gift for perceptive film-critical thought, I wish Jones would now address himself to a problem that few critics (including me) have tackled with the care, energy, and resourcefulness that it demands: the predisposition of nearly all film critics to approach their subject(s) in terms that value the emotional over the intellectual and the descriptive over the intuitive. Good movies touch our feelings, of course, but that isn't the only thing that makes them good; and while Jones knows this--hence his high praise for masters of film-thought like Hou Hsiao-hsien and Abbas Kiarostami, for instance--he too falls into the commonplace pattern of privileging the feelings that good films give him, and signaling his reactions in telegraphic ways that won't mean much to people who aren't equally familiar with the film or filmmaker in question.

What's needed today is a new paradigm of readily accessible yet rigorously thoughtful prose combining theoretical analysis with intuitive ideas about cinema and the aesthetic world it creates. OK, so let's tackle it! (Prepare to comment.) Seriously.¹

When somebody says they "admire" a movie without much "liking" it (or being "moved" by it), they may be addressing, at least superficially, what Sterritt is getting at above. But how much can we, or should we, attempt to separate our emotional responses from our intellectual observations, our descriptions ("This is what happens") from our intuitions ("This is what's going on")?²

My standard joke, when somebody asks what a movie is "about," is to describe the movie in stylistic or thematic terms -- which, in all honesty, speak to me more directly and powerfully than the plot. What's "Barry Lyndon" about? Oh, it's about slow, stately zooms. Or, it's about a man who keeps trying to exert his free will only he can't because he's trapped in a Stanley Kubrick film/frame. To me, both those descriptions are just different ways of saying the same thing, and in stating them I'm only being semi-facetious.


The Golden Age of Cinemania is Now

View image I like to watch and learn.

Alas, Manohla Dargis wasn't fond, as I was, of Eric Rohmer's "Romance of Astrée and Céladon," Juan Antonio Bayona's "The Orphanage" or Ira Sachs' "Married Life" -- all of which (and more, as usual) are being repeated after their Toronto showings at the New York Film Festival.

But in her overview of the NYFF, she reminds us of the importance of film festivals -- and the word-of-mouth generated on the web -- to the viability of world cinema in the US market: [The NYFF's] willingness to go beyond its comfort and perhaps even its geographic zone feels especially urgent now because it won’t be long before the old art-house faithful start slipping away like Antonioni and Bergman. Cinemania is alive and well on the Internet, notably in blogs, where young movie nuts rant and rave and help cultivate one another’s cinematic interests. This is heartening, but film — especially the kind that distinguishes this year’s edition of the New York Film Festival — needs more than passion. It needs an audience, a paying public. If we don’t cultivate a new generation of movie lovers who get excited at the very idea of a Hou Hsiao-hsien film, we may as well hold a memorial service for foreign-language-film theatrical distribution right now.All too true. When I was in college, programming the student film series, local art-house exhibitors understood that showing foreign and specialized films (even older Hollywood movies)to students on campus for a buck-and-a-half per double bill on Friday and Saturday nights wasn't a form of competition or a threat to their ticket sales. It was a way of building an audience for them. Today, that kind of evangelism is happening right here, on the World Wide Internets. (That was the goal of the recent "Top Foreign-Language Films Poll -- to spread the word, get people started..)

I was relieved, and gratified, that so many cinephiles younger than me still cared about Bergman and Antonioni, and still had so much to say (and even more they were willing to discover) about them when they died. I wonder, in fact, if perhaps the giants (or dinosaurs) like Bergman and Antonioni matter more to people in their 20s, 30s than they still do to people of their own, or my, or Jonathan Rosenbaum's generation.

Which (by free association) reminds me of this essay by Rick Perlstein ("What's the Matter with College?") in Sunday's New York Times Magazine. You used to have to go to college to discover your first independent film, read your first forbidden book, find freaks like yourself who shared, say, a passion for Lenny Bruce. Now for even the most provincial students, the Internet, a radically more democratic and diverse culture — and those hip baby-boomer parents — take care of the problem.I'm one of those people who never wanted to stop going to college. Make that "never wanted to stop taking classes" -- because, even though it took me a while to consciously realize it, the day I stop learning (or wanting to, anyway) is the day I'm dead. I submit that the greatest classroom the world has ever known is now (literally) at your fingertips. My class schedule isn't temporally or geographically definable, but it's virtually round 'round the clock, just about wherever I am. How about you?

Festivals & Awards

So many films, so little time

I have before me a schedule of the 2007 Toronto Film Festival, which opens Thursday and runs 10 days. I have been looking at it for some time. I am paralyzed. There are so many films by important directors (not to mention important films by unknown directors), that it cannot be reduced to its highlights. The highlights alone, if run in alphabetical order, would take up all my space.


Fighting over Bergman's legacy

The Battle Over Bergman continues, and it's gone mainstream. Since Ingmar Bergman died July 30, an age-old debate about the director's place in film history has once again been rekindled, this time by Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum's incendiary contrarian piece in the New York Times. Roger Ebert responded to Rosenbaum's case against Bergman here.


Opening Shots: 'Flowers of Shanghai'

View image

From Girish Shambu, Buffalo, NY:

"Flowers of Shanghai" (1998), by Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien, has an opening shot that lasts — I kid you not — eight minutes! Jazz bassist Marcus Miller once said about James Brown’s music that no matter how small a piece of it you took, like DNA, it had the “funk in it.��? That’s how I feel about this shot: it contains, in its eight minutes, the entire film.

The camera is an observer at a table in a 19th century Shanghai brothel or “flower house,��? where several clients are playing a drinking game. Most of them are young, dressed in dark and gleaming silk robes. The only light in the shot is provided by a couple of curved lamps. (In fact, we will discover that the film will never venture outdoors.) Next to the patrons, standing, are their “flower girls.��? Every now and then, promptly but gracefully, they light opium pipes or pour wine for their clients. Like a plaintive sigh, a melancholic melody-drone accompanies the shot.