Monday, October 29, 2007

Don't be that guy (or girl)

Warning: sermon ahead ...

A lot of people liked Unforgiven or Once Upon a Time in the West much more than Stagecoach or My Darling Clementine. That's cool -- as much as I love Clementine, I'd probably pick those two over it as well. But a lot of people listed this as one of the reasons they preferred the revisionist Westerns to the classics: they were in color.

This is not cool.

Now, your taste is your taste, and obviously, you're entitled to like or not like whatever you want. But I implore you to judge films not by how old they are or if they're in black and white or color, but by how well they do their job. For example, Citizen Kane is utterly unthinkable in color. Remember all that low-key lighting with pockets of deep shadows? If Orson Welles and his cinematographer Gregg Toland photographed those scenes in color they would've completely altered that effect. So am I saying black-and-white is superior to color? Of course not. If Citizen Kane were photographed in color (and yes, color film stock was around in 1941, though it was much more expensive than black and white), Welles and Toland would've made different choices regarding their lighting, and who knows, they could've come up with images every bit as stunning. To dislike Citizen Kane because you thought that the photography was over-the-top, distracting, show-offy, etc., is a valid argument. But people who say they dislike Citizen Kane because it's in black and white say a lot more about themselves than they do about the film.

It's a form of reverse snobbery, if you will -- how would you feel if I said old movies were inherently superior to movies of today? You'd say I was a jackass, and you'd be right -- like any art form, most of what gets produced during any era of cinematic history is going to be disposable, including the '30s and '40s, the golden age of Hollywood.

Anyway, I came across the following in The Onion A.V. Club, the arts and entertainment section of our nation's finest satrical newspaper. They have this feature called "Ask the A.V. Club," where readers write in to have their questions answered by the A.V. Club staff. Please read it, paying special attention to the last paragraph, and feel free to leave your comments below. I will now dismount my soapbox.

Not Hooked On Classics

I am a huge movie fan, having seen pretty much all the greats from the '70s on. However, I felt my knowledge was lacking from having not seen many of the consensus greats from the '60s on back. Working from several top-100 lists by reviewers I like, I began watching these oldies, and found they weren't so great. I found The Big Sleep to be a huge letdown, with Bogey's hammy line readings and an uninspired story. I understand why Citizen Kane is considered great, but I had to hear the commentary to really appreciate it. It is not until the French New Wave of the '60s that I find films I really dig. I wonder: Do these old films seem mediocre because I'm seeing them after witnessing the films they inspired? Was acting in the '40s and '50s not real enough? Am I the only one who thinks that these films, while great at the time, should be looked at as historical sources of modern cinema and not placed above far superior modern films?

Brian P. Adams

A mortified Noel Murray replies:

First off, when you refer to "far superior modern films," you do realize that you're talking about a matter of taste, right? There's very little that's quantitative about evaluating movies. For example, naturalistic acting is just fine, but it's far from the only effective mode, even in 2007. Christopher Walken is about as natural as high fructose corn syrup, but when he's on the screen, it's hard to look away from him—even in bad movies. Similarly, no one kind of storytelling is superior to another. In fact, sometimes "storytelling" is the last thing on a filmmaker's mind. Just read interviews with the late Robert Altman, who considered his films' stories secondary to their record of human behavior. Or hold a séance and consult with the creators of The Big Sleep, who were more interested in rat-a-tat dialogue and abstracted tough-guy posturing than in revealing who killed who and why.

It's not that the classics are unassailable, by any means. They can be problematic thematically, too clunky in the staging, and, yes, the acting can be distractingly broad. But when seen in the context of the other films from their era, the reasons why they're considered great—and not just "great for the '30s"—become plainer. Once you get used to some of the snags of older movies, from the accidental racism to the fakey studio "exteriors," you can focus on other things, like the odd charisma of stars like Humphrey Bogart, the intense clarity of the images, and the complex revelations about human nature.

What you don't want to do is become one of those willfully ignorant movie buffs who becomes convinced that film art has been perfected in the last 10 years or so, and that everything that came before was just a trial run, not worth studying in and of itself. That's such a shallow, arrogant, wasteful way to approach art. It's basically saying, "Since I only want to see what's familiar and immediately enjoyable to me, yet I still want to think of myself as a person of taste and intelligence, I have to find some way to assert that the things I already like are the best, and the things I don't want to deal with are inferior." Brian, you seem smart and well-meaning… please, don't be that guy.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Final word on the Western

I think I mentioned this article in Time awhile back, but I wanted to highlight a few excerpts that I think are relevant to our study of the Western. First, here's James Mangold, who directed the new 3:10 to Yuma:

"There's an assumption in Hollywood that the western is a homeless genre," says Mangold, "that it doesn't have a built-in audience. The adults who might want to go don't go to the movies, and the young ones are locked into the superhero world." Mangold also sees "a Hollywood bias against the America between New York and L.A. The movie industry is basically built serving 14-year-old males, and they aren't interested in rural America."

Along those same lines, here's another excerpt about how audiences today don't seem to relate to the Western:

Then there's the problem of tempo. Other modern movies move at warp speed, but the cowboy hero is a man with a slow hand. As Christopher Frayling, author of biographies of Eastwood and Leone, notes, "You can speed up spaceships and
cars, but you can't speed up horses." A director also has a tough time making
the old new--and the western is 19th century. "Americans don't like the past," says Andrew Dominik, the New Zealand-born writer-director of Jesse James. "They're O.K. with future and the present, but they can't remember anything before 1980." They see the western as a historical costume drama--Merchant Ivory in chaps.

So what do you think? Do you think people your age are "locked into the superhero world?" Do Americans really not like the past? Leave your comments below.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

What you've been writing about

Here's a nice mix-tape of your recent blog activity: Jack wonders what makes the Western so American; Anniessa has 5 reasons why she thinks hookers make such popular subjects for movies; Ryan makes a convincing case for Stagecoach and Snakes on a Plane being peas in a pod (oh yeah; and he also has a German rap video he made, plus details of his forthcoming musical about dogfighting QB Michael Vick); Caitlin has an insightful review of a Steven Spielberg movie I've yet to see, The Color Purple; and Jessica points out some interesting things about Citizen Kane's narrative style that I haven't seen anyone else talk about. Kudos to you guys.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Due Tuesday -- Journal #3

Here's a link to Roger Ebert's viewer's companion to Citizen Kane that can work as a mini-model for you in figuring out what to write about for your behind-the-scenes journal. For example, the "Deep Focus" and "Optical Illusions" sections in Ebert's commentary pertain to photography, "Visible Ceilings," "Matte Drawings" and others to set design, "The Brothel Scene" to script writing, and so on. Much has been written about who deserves credit for the script, and the fallout for Welles because of the poor reception of the film. Why do I mention all this? Because your job for this assignment is to find similar nuggets of info for the film you watch that can help you understand and appreciate the film a bit more.

Don't forget to cite your source by saying something like, "According to Roger Ebert's Viewer's Companion to Citizen Kane," and make sure to link to any online sources you use. It's a good idea to use excerpts from these sources, too, and not just because they increase your word count. Oh, and turn in your page of notes on the film in class, too. Good luck!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Due Thursday -- blog post on first Western

In case you don't have your blog assignment sheet handy, here are some ideas for writing thoughtful posts. Make your post on the first Western we watched in class 2-3 paragraphs long:

o Discuss/analyze an important scene
o Expand on a discussion question from class, whether from a film or a reading
o Make a connection to the real world/current events
o Discuss/analyze an aspect of cinematic style important to the film
o Discuss/analyze a topic or theme important to the film
o Relate it to another film, either from class or personal viewing
o Discuss ideas for future viewing inspired by film

Your comments (at least 3) are due Monday -- they'll always be due two days after the initial post. I realize now I didn't give you very good guidelines for commenting -- I'd like you guys to move away from the whole agree/disagree thing, which basically ends up being a lot of backslapping and telling each other how great you are. Now I don't have anything against positivity, but in addition to praise I'd like you to add more of your own ideas. What did this post make you think of that you can add to the discussion, instead of just repeat it? If someone leaves you a thoughtful comment, respond to it on their blog. Look at this link for a good example of commenting from our blogs, and this one to see what happens on other film blogs. In both, you'll see a bit of conversation developing. That's what we're after here -- conversation.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Due Thursday -- blog post on Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane is the culmination of our introductory unit on the language of film -- Kane is significant, in part, because of the way it synthesized stylistic techniques like no other previous film in the sound era.

For your blog post on this film, choose one of the following elements of film -- narration, mise-en-scene, cinematography (let's include photography here), editing, or sound -- and analyze how Orson Welles and his collaborators used it in Citizen Kane. For example, for mise-en-scene, you could talk about the low-key lighting and how it helped establish certain character traits. If you need help getting started, refer to your notes packet to look at all the techniques again. And hey, there's always Wikipedia! Make sure to check the external links at the bottom, and obviously (I hope) cite your sources if you use them.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Ebert on Citizen Kane

Here are a few excerpts from Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" essay on Citizen Kane, focusing on the meaning of "Rosebud" and a sequence we analyzed in class. Read it and see it how compares with your experience of the film [text in green highlighted by me]:

Rosebud is the emblem of the security, hope and innocence of childhood, which a man can spend his life seeking to regain. It is the green light at the end of Gatsby's pier; the leopard atop Kilimanjaro, seeking nobody knows what; the bone tossed into the air in ``2001.'' It is that yearning after transience that adults learn to suppress. ``Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn't get, or something he lost,'' says Thompson, the reporter assigned to the puzzle of Kane's dying word. ``Anyway, it wouldn't have explained anything.'' True, it explains nothing, but it is remarkably satisfactory as a demonstration that nothing can be explained ...

``Citizen Kane'' knows the sled is not the answer. It explains what Rosebud is, but not what Rosebud means. The film's construction shows how our lives, after we are gone, survive only in the memories of others, and those memories butt up against the walls we erect and the roles we play. There is the Kane who made shadow figures with his fingers, and the Kane who hated the traction trust; the Kane who chose his mistress over his marriage and political career, the Kane who entertained millions, the Kane who died alone.

There is a master image in ``Citizen Kane'' you might easily miss. The tycoon has overextended himself and is losing control of his empire. After he signs the papers of his surrender, he turns and walks into the back of the shot. Deep focus allows Welles to play a trick of perspective. Behind Kane on the wall is a window that seems to be of average size. But as he walks toward it, we see it is further away and much higher than we thought. Eventually he stands beneath its lower sill, shrunken and diminished. Then as he walks toward us, his stature grows again. A man always seems the same size to himself, because he does not stand where we stand to look at him.