Or: This IS my beautiful life! How did I get here?
The deaths of Andrew Sarris and Bill Sweeney on the same day last week got me to ruminating about my own life with movies and what drew me to them so strongly from an early age. Yes, there's that innate childhood desire to escape into new worlds (see "Moonrise Kingdom), and to create them, too (I started writing stories and shooting live-action and animated movies with my dad's wind-up 8mm Kodak Brownie before I was in my teens). But I think I've always known, too, that movies are like dreams, less about escapism or distraction than about getting closer to an understanding of the relationship between your inner self and the world. Tom Noonan said: "I think life generally is a distraction and that going to a movie is a way to get back, not go away." To me, the best movies have always been more real than real. Life, John Lennon sang, is what happens while you're making other plans; art gets to the core of what it means to be alive.
I've had many life-and-death (and near-death) experiences in waking life that were no more vividly real, memorable, ecstatic, traumatic, or profoundly and indelibly affecting* than certain (sometimes recurring) dreams or, oh, "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Sherlock Jr.," "Sansho Dayu," "Chinatown," "Nashville," "Kings of the Road," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "The Searchers," "Only Angels Have Wings," "The Magnificent Ambersons," "Vertigo," "Un Chien Andalou," "No Country for Old Men" -- and those are just a few of the titles that popped into my head as I was typing this sentence. (And yet it's still such a young medium -- only a little more than a century old.) There are familiar places that exist only in my dreams, that I remember from dream to dream, and I revisit them often. Movies are those kinds of places, too.
Revisiting Dwight Macdonald's famous essay, "Masscult & Midcult," and other ideas old and new -- continued from "When 'I get it!' means 'I don't get it!' and vice-versa."
"It seems to me that nearly the whole Anglo-Saxon race, especially of course in America have lost the power to be individuals. They have become social insects like bees and ants. They are lost to humanity, and the great question for the future is whether that will spread or will be repulsed by the people who still exist..." -- Roger Fry (1866-1930), from a letter quoted "Roger Fry," a biography written by Virginia Woolf(1940); also quoted by Dwight Macdonald in "Masscult & Midcult"
A while ago I added to the epigraphs in the upper right corner of this page a quotation from writer-actor-director Tom Noonan that echoed something I had long felt to be true, but had never articulated: "I don't think you go to a play to forget, or to a movie to be distracted. I think life generally is a distraction and that going to a movie is a way to get back, not go away." I don't feel that way very often anymore; gone are the days, when I was first discovering the richness of the still very young art of film, when I might see several masterpieces in a week, or even a day -- in classes, film series, rep houses, art houses, mainstream cinemas or on TV. But I was inclined to feel that movies,the art form of my time (and literature, music, art of all kinds), brought me closer to my own life by focusing my attention on what it means to be alive. Like millions of others, I found the only religion in which I could whole-heartedly believe in movie theaters, libraries, bookstores, and concert venues.¹
In "Masscult & Midcult" (1962), published when "Citizen Kane" was as old as "GoodFellas" and "Miller's Crossing" are today, Dwight Macdonald contends that art (movies included) no longer seeks engagement with an audience, but is content to serve as another opiate of the masses: "The production line grinds out a uniform product whose humble aim is not even entertainment, but merely distraction."
"I don't think you go to a play to forget, or to a movie to be distracted. I think life generally is a distraction and that going to a movie is a way to get back, not go away." -- writer/director/actor Tom Noonan (see epigraphs at right)
The whole reason I keep at this blog is because it gives me the freedom to write about whatever I want and not have to write about anything I don't. And it lets me communicate with Viewers Like You. After many years on what we used to call the "review treadmill" of unidirectional daily and weekly newspaper movie reviewing (with tight deadlines and/or tight space restrictions), this is a luxurious change of pace for me. I can freely obsess over minutiae in obscure (or mainstream) films, new and old, if it strikes my fancy. And I have the liberty to virtually ignore things I don't care about that are being obsessively covered elsewhere ("Twilight," Lindsay Lohan's jail time, Harry Potter, Comic-Con, Oscars, box-office). Then again, if some pop-culture phenomenon piques my curiosity (say, a new movie by James Cameron or Christopher Nolan, or The Return of 3-D), I may just find myself compelled to say something about it. Then we can examine it, look at it from different angles, and bandy it about.
But in the more than five years since I started writing Scanners as a separate editorial offshoot (an annex, really) of RogerEbert.com, I've never sought to give equal coverage to all kinds of motion pictures. This is a blog about looking critically at movies -- based on my ideas of film criticism (of which I have many after doing it for so long) and my kinds of movies, and positive and negative examples that serve to illuminate both. That's all.
"Synecdoche, New York" is the best film of the decade. It intends no less than to evoke the strategies we use to live our lives. After beginning my first viewing in confusion, I began to glimpse its purpose and by the end was eager to see it again, then once again, and I am not finished. Charlie Kaufman understands how I live my life, and I suppose his own, and I suspect most of us. Faced with the bewildering demands of time, space, emotion, morality, lust, greed, hope, dreams, dreads and faiths, we build compartments in our minds. It is a way of seeming sane.
The mind is a concern in all his screenplays, but in "Synecdoche" (2008), his first film as a director, he makes it his subject, and what huge ambition that demonstrates. He's like a
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Tina Mabry's "Mississippi Damned," an independent American production, won the Gold Hugo as the best film in the 2009 Chicago International Film Festival, and added Gold Plaques for best supporting actress (Jossie Thacker) and best screenplay (Mabry). It tells the harrowing story of three black children growing up in rural Mississippi in circumstances of violence and addiction. The film's trailer and an interview with Mabry are linked at the bottom.
Kylee Russell in "Mississippi Damned"
The winner of the Audience Award, announced Friday, was "Precious" (see below). The wins came over a crowed field of competitors from all over the world, many of them with much larger budgets. The other big winner at the Pump Room of the Ambassador East awards ceremony Saturday evening was by veteran master Marco Bellocchio of Italy, who won the Silver Hugo as best director for "Vincere," the story of Mussolini's younger brother. Giovanna Mezzogiorno and Filippo Timi won Silver Hugos as best actress and actor, and Daniele Cipri won a Gold Plaque for best cinematography.
My MSN Movies gallery feature article about Great Movie Underdogs (i.e., dogs whose proper names are not in the titles), is live. And, after the jump, the answers to last week's movie dog quiz -- and a couple of delicious bonus treats.
Regarding great movie doggerel doggies:
My dog Edith does not much like dog movies. At least I don't think she does. Whenever a canine appears on our 55-inch HDTV screen, or any of the surround speakers, she lunges, barking, growling, whining and emitting other noises that sound like a wounded vacuum or a gargling siren.
If Edith were a bit less excitable and territorial, if she were better able to maintain a critical distance, she would appreciate how many fine screen performances have been given by members of her species, if not of her particular mixed-breed-of-color. [...]
Q. You said the final image of "The Assassination of Jessie James" was a Credit Cookie of the last shot of "The Great Train Robbery," with the cowboy firing his gun at the audience. That gave me an idea for a post-credits final image for "Charlie Wilson's War." As the film implies at the end, the aid to Afghanistan had an eventual blow-back, helping fuel the creation of our enemy Al-Qaeda. How about an Afghan fighter firing rockets at Russian planes, then turning his weapon on the camera and firing right at the audience. Rhys Southan, Richardson, Texas
Q. My take on the new Jabba the Hut scene in the refurbished "Star Wars" is, how come Jabba is so short? Did he double or triple his size in the next six years? 'Splain that one to me please, Mr. Ans. Man. Eating too many froglets? All Huts do that? What? (Don Howard, San Jose, CA).