Let the Sunshine In
The film’s confidence comes in part from the acceptance of the things that can’t be known.
"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.
So, disclosure: I have a preference for certain kinds of movies (comedy, horror, thrillers, mysteries, science-fiction...) and I usually find auteurist visions more compelling than assembly-line products. Which is like saying I prefer food that expresses a chef's particular taste over Old Country Buffet, but there you go.
Not to knock studio movies. After all, the Hollywood "Dream Factory" has been responsible for many of the greatest movies ever made (read "The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era" by Thomas Schatz, or "The Hollywood Studios: House Style in the Golden Age of the Movies"). Sure, American movies have generally been entertainment products built for mass-consumption, more often impressive feats of organization than inspiration -- but just about every movie is a mixture of both (except for the ones that don't appear to have been organized at all).
I'm always perplexed when people say I'm too hard popular movies, but I understand what they mean when they say it, which is: "You don't love/like this particular movie the way I do -- and lots of other people, too -- and that makes me feel bad." Fair enough. (So, shoot me! I have standards! I'm not entertained by much of what's sold as "entertainment" -- whether it's most sitcoms, most reality shows, most cop shows, most pop music, or most movies! NOTE: Please be aware that I'm saying this in a playful, self-mocking way...)
I don't care -- and most of the time I have no way of knowing -- whether a movie is going to be "popular" when I see it, but that's never affected what I see on the screen, and (as I've said a gazillion times) whether somebody "likes" or "doesn't like" a movie has got to be the least interesting thing they have to say about it. (It's might tell you something about the person with the opinion, but not the movie -- and that's fine; it's just got nothing to do with film criticism.) Well, opinion should be the least interesting thing to talk about, or there's nothing to talk about. We can just assign movies our own number-ratings or letter grades and leave it at that.
So, anyway, I always think: "But I do, too, like popular movies!" And to prove it, I looked up the most popular movies of all time to see how many of them I really treasure. Quite a few, as it turns out -- if you're talking about actual popularity (number of people who've seen them) rather than revenue (amount of money taken in). I've seen all 30 titles in Box-office Mojo's list of All-Time Top Domestic Grosses (Adjusted for Ticket Price Inflation), and all but three of the top 50 (those are all sequels: "Shrek 2," "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" -- though I saw part of it on a plane -- and "The Bells of St. Mary's," the 1945 Leo McCary follow-up to the smash "Going My Way," starring Bing Crosby, Ingrid Bergman and Barry Fitzgerald).
Of these, the ones I can really get excited about are: "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," "Jaws," "101 Dalmatians" (1961 -- the first movie I ever saw, when I was three), "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," (creepy!), "The Empire Strikes Back," "The Graduate" (it's "flawed," but it's really funny), and "The Godfather" (made great only by "The Godfather, Part II"). Others that are pretty darned enjoyable, if not necessarily art, include: "Gone With the Wind," "Star Wars," "Return of the Jedi," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Ben-Hur," "Forrest Gump," "Mary Poppins," "Thunderball," "The Jungle Book," "Sleeping Beauty"...
BUT -- and this made me laugh -- of the worldwide top 30 gross-revenue-generators (most of which are from only the last 20 years, when ticket prices were much higher), I've seen only nine: "Avatar," "Titanic," "The Dark Knight," "Star Wars -- Episode I: The Phantom Menace," "Jurassic Park," "Spider-Man," "Independence Day," "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," and "Spider-Man 2." And of those, I only really liked the last two on the list, but only really disliked "The Phantom Menace." All of the ones I haven't seen are, interestingly, targeted primarily (though not exclusively) at children.*
What I realized was that I just haven't seen (or wanted to see) many of the recent kiddie franchise sequels -- or, to be more specific, any of the "Harry Potter," "Lord of the Rings" or "Transformers" movies. I'm not necessarily avoiding them, I just have not found myself in the mood where I say: "Of all the movies I could watch right now, I want to see this one." So, I can't say I wouldn't like them if I saw them; I'm just saying there always seem to be other things I'd rather see. And of all the unseen movies mentioned in the last three paragraphs, "The Bells of St. Mary's" is probably the one I'm most curious about.
Now, I take all of this very seriously. I do not see movies as an escape from everyday life, but as a way to get closer to it. (See the marvelous quote from Tom Noonan, above.) I know that's not what everybody expects to get from movies, but it's the way I look at them and that's always going to be reflected on this blog. There are lots of places to read about and discuss entertainment on the web. I've got my own way of looking at things, and I don't expect to appeal to the broadest possible audience.
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* The worldwide top-grossers I haven't seen (based on gross revenue, not actual number of tickets sold): "LOTR: Return of the King," "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," "Alice in Wonderland" (2010), "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," "HP and the Order of the Phoenix," "HP and the Half-Blood Prince," "LOTR: The Two Towers," "Shrek 2," "HP and the Goblet of Fire," "Spider-Man 3," "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs," "HP and the Chamber of Secrets," "LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring," "Finding Nemo" (I saw the first part of it but, I'm embarrassed to admit, I got too upset for the dad when Nemo got lost and I turned it off), "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith," "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," "HP and the Prisoner of Azkaban," "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," "The Lion King" (though I've watched parts of it with kids who explained it to me).
P.S. If you haven't perused my bio at the top of the page to find out my background, here were my choices for best (and kinda favorite) movies of all time in the last Sight & Sound critics' poll (2002):
Chinatown (Polanski) Citizen Kane (Welles) The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Buñuel) Kings of the Road (Wenders) The Magnificent Ambersons (Welles) Nashville (Altman) Sherlock Jr. (Keaton) Sunrise (Murnau) 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick) Vertigo (Hitchcock)
And here's a list of all-time favorite films from a 1997 Lieblingsfilme poll:
"Nashville" (Altman, 1975) "Chinatown" (Polanski, 1974) "Vertigo" (Hitchcock, 1958) "Sherlock, Jr." (Keaton, 1924) "Our Hospitality" (Keaton, Blystone, 1923) "Steamboat Bill, Jr." (Keaton, Reisner, 1928) "Citizen Kane" (Welles, 1941) "Only Angels Have Wings" (Hawks, 1939) "North by Northwest" (Hitchcock, 1959) "Rio Bravo" (Hawks, 1959) "Double Indemnity" (Wilder, 1944) "La dolce vita" (Fellini, 1960) "Barry Lyndon" (Kubick, 1975) "2001: A Space Odyssey" (Kubrick, 1968) "Trouble in Paradise" (Lubitsch, 1932) "Holiday" (Cukor, 1938) "Animal Crackers" (Heerman, 1930) "Sunrise" (Murnau, 1927) "Miller's Crossing" (Coen, 1990) "Letter from an Unknown Woman" (Ophuls, 1948) "Sansho Dayu" / "Sansho the Bailiff" (Mizoguchi, 1954) "Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie" / "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" (Buñuel, 1972) "Monty Python's Life of Brian" (T. Jones, 1979) "Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes" / "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (Herzog, 1972) "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (Spielberg, 1977) "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" (Peckinpah, 1973) "Dazed and Confused" (Linklater, 1993) "Boogie Nights" (Anderson, 1997) "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" (T.L. Jones, 2005) "Stop Making Sense" (J. Demme, 1984)
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