AN EMPIRE OF ONE

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Posts Tagged ‘david bordwell

Raggin’ on Rosebud

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I happen to think the How Green [Was My Valley] is one of the very greatest American films. Probably no Best Picture winner in the history of the Oscars has been a more fitting recipient of that award. Why lump it in with Shakespeare in Love?! (I think you know what’s coming.)…

I’m going to be heretical and say that How Green [Was My Valley] deserved to win over Kane [for 1941’s Best Picture Oscar]….

For years Kane has been sitting atop many lists of the greatest films of all times, including polls of professional film critics. The notion that Kane really is the greatest film of all time has become so engrained that people seem seldom to question it. Back when that idea arose, critics were unaware of the films of Yasujiro Ozu, probably the world’s greatest film director to date. Play Time was for years ignored and only recently has begun to be recognized for the masterpiece it is. With the rise of film restoration in the 1970s and the spread of film festivals and retrospectives, we now know vastly more about world cinema than we did before. Yet Kane has settled into its top slot for many people, including entertainment journalists. I can think of many films I would rank above Kane. (Source.)

That’s not me saying that; it’s film critic Kristin Thompson writing on the blog she shares with her husband, David Bordwell, Observations on film art and FILM ART. For those who are familiar with her and Bordwell’s writings, the opinion expressed above is not unfamiliar. They’ve been dissing Kane while promoting the likes of Ozu and Play Time for as long as I’ve been reading their books. However, is it really true that “the notion that Kane really is the greatest film of all time has become so engrained that people seem seldom to question it?” Of all the people that I know, and all the people that I’ve known, I can think of no one who sincerely thinks or thought that Citizen Kane was “the greatest film of all time.” (It’s currently #39 on the IMDB list.) And I went to film school. If hardly anyone likes Citizen Kane that much, why do we have this notion that nearly everyone thinks it’s the best? The answer, of course, is obvious: it’s topped the once a decade Sight & Sound poll since 1962. But if we look closer at those polls, we might come away with a different notion.

The stats for the last poll, published in 2002, are available online. In fact, the magazine did two polls, one for critics; one for film directors. Of the 145 critics lists posted, 46 of them include Citizen Kane. In other words, just 31% of those polled mentioned Kane. Of the 108 film director lists posted, 42 mention Kane. That’s 39%. Last time I checked, neither 31% nor 39% constituted a majority. A majority of critics, 69%, and a majority of film directors, 61%, disagree that Kane is the best, but unable to agree on a single best film.

So later this year when Sight & Sound most likely will be publishing the results of its 2012 poll and Citizen Kane most likely once again tops the list, we should realize that Thompson, despite presenting herself as some kind of maverick in dissing Kane, will actually be part of the large majority that will disagree with Kane‘s rank. Perhaps we should come up with a phrase describing this phenomenon whereby a minority’s selection is promoted as if it’s the pick of the majority. Why not call it the “Tyranny of the Minority?”

For what it’s worth, I happen to be in the minority.

UPDATE 8/1/12

Sight & Sound‘s 2012 poll results have been published. Vertigo tops the list with an even lower percentage of the total than Kane did in 2002 (31%; 46/145 for Kane in 2002 vs 22.5%; 91/846) for Vertigo in 2012. )Once again, hardly a consensus (most common comment will be: “Vertigo is not the greatest film. Not even close.”), and the trend is towards not greater, but less consensus. If the trend continues, in the near future the difference in votes separating the top and bottom films will be next to nil. But this is lost on most. All they see is a headline saying that film critics have voted for Vertigo as the greatest film of all time. One blogger reacted by writing, “the majority of critics are backing a new horse.” Sorry. 22.5% may be a plurality, but it is far from a majority when more than 75% disagree.

The essay by Ian Christie, on the poll results, begins with “And the loser is – Citizen Kane. After 50 years at the top of the Sight & Sound poll, Orson Welles’s debut film has been convincingly ousted by Alfred Hitchcock’s 45th feature Vertigo – and by a whopping 34 votes, compared with the mere five that separated them a decade ago.”

This ignores something that a lot of people seem to be ignoring: due to a change in definition of who should be polled, the number of participants increased substantially from 2002 to 2012: 145 to 846. This itself makes comparing the new poll with previous polls problematic. In any case, comparing the margin of victory in terms of absolute number of votes would make sense only if the total number of votes was the same. This was not the case. What is true is that Kane beat Vertigo in 2002 by 5 votes, which was 5/145 or 3%. Vertigo‘s 34 vote margin equals 34/846 or 4%, which, of course, is only a slightly wider margin than #3%.

Of course, it’s obvious that some poll participants did not take the task very seriously. For example, does Ken Hollings really think Plan 9 from Outer Space belongs on a list with Metropolis and 2001, two of his other picks? More likely he was being willfully perverse, as were many others. Who knows what the results would have been if such perversity had been left out of the list gathering?

Some have criticized the poll from the opposite POV. When they see films such as Man With a Movie Camera, Passion of Joan of Arc, and Sunrise place in the top 10, they suspect fraud at the polls. That is, they don’t believe the voters voted with their hearts. Rather, they voted the way they felt they should vote. Who could truly love a movie such as these three dusty, out dated silent movies? The proof they cite is the dearth of references to any of these films during their daily journey.

I’m tempted to dismiss this thinking as idiotic. For one, it ignores the fact that only 11% voted for Sunrise, and only 8% for the other two. It sounds like little more than the view of someone who cannot understand that different people like different things. Like my son, who is upset when his parents do not share his enthusiasms, which include Green Lantern and Tron.

But let’s take this view seriously. Should people who like these movies be talking about them all the time? Even some of the time? My ten  favorite films include six of the titles in the top 10. I count both Man With a Movie Camera and Joan of Arc among my favorites. But if I were to talk about them all the time, I would wake up one day to find myself alone with myself. Talking about your favorite anything too much is a sure way to label yourself a bore. The same holds for blog or essay writers. No one wants to hear someone talk about the same things over and over.

However, it’s wrong to think that people don’t talk about these films. There have been whole books written about most of the films people seem to have the most doubts about. For example, here are two about Man With a Movie Camera, Constructivism in Film – A Cinematic Analysis: The Man with the Movie Camera by Vlada Petrić and The Man With the Movie Camera: The Film Companion by Graham Roberts. There’s too much out there for anyone to know everything, but it’s ultimately if the curiosity is there, you will find it. If it isn’t, you won’t.

But there’s an even greater reason why we don’t talk much about our favorites. In fact, there are many people who never even bother to come up with a list of their favorites. Why? Because we’re more concerned with the latest and greatest. What are the new releases? Our society, our economy, is based on the new. Most sales are made on new stuff, not yesterday’s models. Remakes almost always receive more notice than reissues.

I need to reiterate what I started with: the Sight & Sound poll is not based on a consensus. The low percentage of votes received by the top rated films is a guarantee that the majority of responses will be along the lines of, “They must be crazy! Those are not even close to my list of greatest films.” Given this fact, that the list is the result of minority opinion, the responses which question the validity of the list are 100% predictable. I wonder if the list is not a bit subversive, given its emphasis on older movies in a society which is based on the idea of progress, that is, the newest product is always better than the older product. This applies to movies just as much as anything else. It’s also true that most movie lovers do not think of these films when they think of movies. They are too concerned with the newer films than to bother watching old, creaky, often black and white movies from the inferior past. This is why this list is so interesting. It completely undermines the belief that we are always doing things better today than yesterday. It may even be depressing for some, especially those who work in the industry. Do they wake in the middle of the night wondering if their work has any value whatsoever beyond their paychecks?

Additional thoughts:

1. Despite Welles (aka The Kenosha Kid, at least in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow) famously saying “I prefer the old masters; by which I mean: John Ford, John Ford and John Ford,”  which Thompson cites in her post, Welles’ list of top 10 favorite films that he submitted for the first Sight & Sound poll in 1952 only includes Ford’s Stagecoach, which Welles said he watched dozens of times in preparation for Kane:

#1 City Lights (directed by Charles Chaplin)
#2 Greed (directed by Erich von Stroheim)
#3 Intolerance (directed by D. W. Griffith)
#4 Nanook of the North (directed by Robert Flaherty)
#5 Shoe Shine (directed by Vittorio De Sica)
#6 Battleship Potemkin (directed by Sergei Eisenstein)
#7 La Femme du Boulanger (directed by Marcel Pagnol)
#8 Grand Illusion (directed by Jean Renoir)
#9 Stagecoach (directed by John Ford)
#10  Our Daily Bread (directed by King Vidor)

2. Speaking of David Bordwell, here’s are some quotes about his critical approach from Daniel Frampton’s Filmosophy:

But for Bordwell, the ultimate self-conscious narration (sometimes serving up hardly any story) is “parametric” narration: style-centered, permutational, poetic. …These kinds of films are open rich texts, with mutliple layers of signifiers which almost resist interpretation – and for Bordwell the concept of parametric narration allows us to acknowledge the rich nature of these films. That is, by understanding the genre of parametric narration Bordwell believes we can better appreciate these kinds of film – but in analyzing typical art-cinema or parametric narratives Bordwell only seems to want to rationalize them. Radical cinema is reduced to principles, systems, all towards trying to bring articstic cinema into the rational fold of classic cinema. Again Bordwell classifies according to a diversion from the norm. Parametric also means “not just metric,” not classically simple, just more than simple! How low-impact can you get, how…boring …. (my emphasis; Filmosophy pages 104-5)

Cognitivists would say that a filmgoer’s principal pleasure is derived from problem-solving, from the nerdy “interest” they have in working out the film. The filmgoer’s main emotional engagement with narrative film is that of “interest;” we are simply in a state of “action readiness” towards the stimuli of film. Yet reading Bordwell making sense of La Guerre est finie is quite strange, in that he seems set on reducing Resnais’ film to literality; working it out in order to gain relief from its willful strangeness (and perhaps win a prize for solving the film). (p. 108)

[Bordwell’s] resistance to interpretation in Narration in the Fiction Film is not just a holding back in order to theorize more clearly, but indicates a lack to the system he sets out. Working out a genre of parametric narratives does little for our experience and interpretation of film. We may “understand” these kinds of films better — understand their structures and modes — but this is a limited and limiting kind of “understanding.” Bordwell’s clarifying ambitions dull these films. They become puzzles to be set straight, mazes to be spoiled by leading you through them: problems to be solved. (p. 109)

This begs the question: are films redundant once we have “understood” them? Why would we want to go back? Are films really puzzles to be solved? As [Robert] Stam [in Film Theory] observes: “Why do we go to films? Is it to make inferences and test hypotheses?” … It seems obvious that we do not always go to the cinema simply to “work out” what is going on in the film. (p. 109)

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Written by pronountrouble2

March 6, 2012 at 7:09 pm

Bad Movies?

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Affection for the detritus of the media takes many forms. After watching too many campus simpletons (both students and profs) laugh mockingly at Fritz Lang and John Woo movies, I’m opposed to condescension. I suspect Camp in its disdainful form. I don’t like people demonstrating their sense of superiority to the trash their parents and grandparents enjoyed. Knowingness leaves you with nothing. —David Bordwell

I couldn’t agree more with David Bordwell (I wrote about some of my own encounters with unappreciative audiences here, although you probably should not read it if you fall into that category.)

A lot of us possess a need to feel superior to somebody else, and some of us need to feel superior to everyone else. Much of our humor comes down to us laughing at someone else because we feel superior to them. Currently popular, Ayn Rand’s philosophy is based on the idea that some people are just better than others. The need to be superior even finds expression in The Incredibles: “When everyone is special, no one is special.”

This is humor at the service of the status quo, but it’s nothing new. It’s easy to imagine aristocrats assembled in the salon laughing till it hurts as they tell jokes at the expense of their servants. It works the other way as well, with servants telling each other jokes in which their masters appear foolish and stupid. Some of the most popular comedies in ancient Roman were about slaves who bested their masters. These jokes tell us that despite actual circumstances, we are the superior ones.

So it’s no surprise when many of us, most of whom have not even attempted to make a film, find it so easy to laugh at certain kinds of movies, that which we call “bad.” Of course, we don’t always all agree on whether a movie is bad. I remember watching the Douglas Sirk directed version of Magnificent Obsession at MOMA during a Sirk retrospective. Half the audience was laughing, but the other half was yelling at them, through their tears, to shut up. This half of the audience took the film 100% seriously, seeing nothing funny about it.

But what exactly are we laughing at when we laugh at a film that was not made for our laughter? A post on She Blogged by Night about, what else?, Plan Nine from Outer Space, provides some examples. The blogger asks what can be done to “fix” the movie, for it definitely needs fixing, as we all know. What, exactly, needs fixing? Here’s her list:

  1. Casting: Lugosi’s double doesn’t even look like him.
  2. Set dressing: That shower curtain in the cockpit? Belongs in a shower!
  3. Writing:  Needed an editor to cut, cut cut.
  4. Editing: Was there any?
  5. Special effects: Hubcaps as UFO’s. Gimme a break!
  6. Acting: Don’t get me started!
  7. Etc. Let’s just leave it at that and go back to laughing at poor, inept Ed Wood, Jr.

So that’s She Blogged By Night’s take on Plan 9. What’s the common element of these all too familiar complaints? Judging the film according to the standards of Hollywood film studio verisimilitude. If a set is supposed to be a cockpit, it damn well better look like the real thing. If a hubcap is supposed to be a UFO, we better not see the string it’s dangling from. It’s not enough that we know what it’s supposed to represent. It’s necessary that it look the part 100%. It should look so real that we are not reminded that we’re actually watching a film until the credits roll. It’s hard to believe that in Japan a form of puppet theater developed in which no attempt is made to hide the people manipulating the puppets, let alone make everything look real. In fact, according to Noël Burch in To the Distant Observer (download the book in pdf form here), even Japanese film has a tradition in which the filmmakers do not aim for maximum realism or naturalism. But that’s Japan. Hollywood’s where the real filmmaking action is, right?

So, who benefits from this approach. Certainly not the guy down the street who dreams of being a filmmaker. If an audience expects the film to look “real,” it’s going to cost more. Heaven forbid that you do what Ed Wood did and skimp on production value. Therefore, you’d better have money, lots of money. In fact, you’d better have even more than lots. In short, it’s this attitude, of constantly demanding greater and greater verisimilitude, that makes it next to impossible to compete with companies that do have lots of money, namely the Hollywood film studios.

Meanwhile, the ones who are truly laughing are the people who are lucky enough to run the Hollywood studios. They are laughing all the way to the bank. Sure, they have to spend more, a lot more, but they’ve killed off their most of their competition. They have long since conditioned most of their audiences to laugh at movies that don’t have Hollywood’s kind of verisimilitude. But it was not always this way. People did not always laugh at Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession the way I saw them do at MOMA. The fact that the standards of Hollywood verisimilitude are always changing means that future audiences will never be able to look back at the films of yesteryear with the same eyes as those films’ contemporary audiences.

Many of the earliest films used painted sets and no one thought to apologize for it, and audiences did not think to laugh at it. For example, the original audiences for Georges Méliès’ Voyage À Travers L’Imposible did not rush to the boxoffice to demand their money back after watching this train wreck:

My suggestion for anyone who feels that Plan Nine from Outer Space needs to be “fixed” is this: the easiest way to fix this film, or any other film that does not measure up to the standards of Hollywood verisimilitude, is to imagine that the film begins with a message similar to this:

Remember when you were kids and you would make-believe that you were cowboys and robbers? You used nothing but sticks for horses. Filmmaking is only make-believe, folks.  What difference does it make if you spend a million dollars or one dollar, as long as you get that it’s supposed to be a friggin’ plane cockpit?

We had a ton of fun making this film and I hope you have fun watching it.

Whatever happened to our sense of play?

Written by pronountrouble2

November 13, 2011 at 8:51 pm

My Favorite Film Books

Movie Made America by Robert Sklar

Cinema of Wong Kar Wai

The title is the same as a 1953 Herman and Katnip cartoon

Of course, there are always more books to add to my library. My want list is here.