Sunday, March 28, 2010

Kevin Smith, Auteurism, and the Mass Culture Debate

The following post is informed by nostalgia and media theory.

A new episode in the mass culture debate happened last week, involving Kevin Smith.

Smith, aka "Silent Bob," is an independent film icon from the 1990s, and could be accurately described as something along the lines of a "raunch auteur." His breakthrough flick, Clerks, which he made for less than $30,000 by maxing out his credit cards, is a case of the cinematic American dream in action. And throughout the 90s, he sketched his own self-contained universe, a New Jersey suburb filled with aimless, hyper-articulate post-adolescents who have nothing better to do with their time and energy than debate Star Wars. At their best—and they're often inconsistent—his 90s films alternately show sensitive insight (Chasing Amy), on-target satire (Dogma), and strong character-based comedy (Clerks). (Mallrats, though a critical flop, is the perfect movie for a middle schooler to watch when his parents aren't around.) As many have noted, including Smith himself, he isn't particularly remarkable when it comes to directing. But that never really mattered, since he wrote some of the wittiest comic dialogue in 1990s America film.

This decade, though, has seen Smith become more of a Hollywood hitman. When I saw the trailer for Zack and Miri Make a Porno, which he wrote and directed, and which was a pretty solid raunch comedy, what surprised me was that the trailer didn't mention him or his past work at all. Compare that with Dogma, which positioned itself as "from the creators of Clerks and Chasing Amy." (As far as credits go, Smith, I believe, likes to emphasize group collaboration over the whole auteurist claim of individual authorship—which I actually find very admirable.)

The transformation seemed complete when I saw the trailer to his latest flick, Cop Out, a film in which, sigh, a comically irresponsible black dude and a comically stern white dude team up to fight crime. Not only did it look like a formula star vehicle, it wasn't even his script. It looked like a sign that his identity was being subsumed by Hollywood formula, and nothing I heard since did anything to change that impression.

But all of that was just a prelude. As Anne Thompson notes at indieWIRE, Kevin Smith caused something of a stir recently (an internet stir) by insulting the critics who panned Cop Out--which was, as Thompson points out, his highest gross to date.

Smith's post is a long one, touching on the righteous (the ridiculousness of rabid hating, the mellow enjoyment of simple pleasure) before going into his take on critics, complete with a long, incredibly detailed politically incorrect metaphor. Take a deep breath. His accumlated posts, which came in response to fan question about film theory, are as follows:
@coked_up_jesus “I gotta say that every day I hate film theory & film students & critics more & more. Where is the fun in movies?” Sir sometimes, it’s important to turn off the chatter. Film fandom’s become a nasty bloodsport where cartoonishly rooting for failure gets the hit count up on the ol’ brand-new blog. And if a schmuck like me pays you some attention, score! MORE EYES, MEANS MORE ADVERT $. But when you pull your eye away from the microscope, you can see that shit you’re studying so closely is, in reality, tiny as fuck. You wanna enjoy movies again? Stop reading about them & just go to the movies. It’s improved film/movie appreciation immensely for me.

Seriously: so many critics lined-up to pull a sad & embarrassing train on #CopOut like it was JenniferJasonLeigh in LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN. Watching them beat the shit out of it was sad. Like, it’s called #CopOut; that sound like a very ambitious title to you? You REALLY wanna shit in the mouth of a flick that so OBVIOUSLY strived for nothing more than laughs. Was it called “Schindler’s Cop Out”? Writing a nasty eview for #CopOut is akin to bullying a retarded kid who was getting a couple chuckles from the normies by singing AFTERNOON DELIGHT.

Suddenly, bully-dudes are doing the bad impression of him, using the “retart” voice. The crowd shifts uncomfortably. And you may impress a couple of low IQ-ers who’re like “Yeah, man! Way to destroy that singing retart!” But, really? All you’ve done is make fun of something that wasn’t doing you any harm and wanted only to give some cats a some fun laughs. It was just ridiculous to watch. That was it for me. Realized whole system’s upside down: so we let a bunch of people see it for free & they shit all over it? Meanwhile, people who’d REALLY like to see the flick for free are made to pay? Bullshit: from now on, any flick I’m ever involved with, I conduct critics screenings thusly: you wanna see it early to review it? Fine: pay like you would if you saw it next week. Like, why am I giving an arbitrary 500 people power over what I do at all, let alone for free? Next flick, I’d rather pick 500 randoms from Twitter feed & let THEM see it for free in advance, then post THEIR opinions, good AND bad. Same difference. Why’s their opinion more valid? It’s a backwards system. People are free to talk shit about ANY of my flicks, so long as they paid to see it. Fuck this AnimalFarm bullshit.

I find this to be a very interesting entry in the basic mass culture debate—which is also, for that matter, the root of a great many internet arguments: populism ("don't overthink, just enjoy") versus intellectualism ("this is mediocre").

And I think there are, to this issue, a great many nuances.

On the one hand, I think that movies should be fun--or rather, that there should always be a place for fun movies. But I'll never buy the argument, which I see over and over again, that critics don't like fun films.

A brief detour to Rotten Tomatoes shows that recent blockbuster hits like Iron Man and Star Trek got rave reviews—to pick a gender-flipped example, Julie & Julia got strong critical notices as well. (Or, to pick something older, Singin' in the Rain continually tops lists of the greatest films of all time, and I defy anyone to find a happier, more bubbly movie). I think critics do like "movies," they just like them to bring something to the table. Entertainment is a good thing--not the only thing, but a good thing--but most bad movies don't qualify as entertainment by the pure fact that they don't entertain. At best, they only qualify as distraction.

Of course, one man's entertainment is another man's distraction, and having times when you can turn your mind off can be a great privilege. But I don't think people should be discouraged from reading or thinking about the media they consume. And if extremely low ambition is the producer's defense, I'm not sure that's an argument worth winning.

I'm reminded of a quote by Ebert, who is hardly an intellectual elitist (no one can be and give Vin Diesel's xXx three-and-a-half stars at the same time). Ebert wrote--in a discussion of the most unapologetically intellectual director in film history, Jean-Luc Godard--that we live in a time when the mainstream audience expects to be "congratulated for its narrow tastes, and catered to." The use of "narrow" rather than "bad" is key. And I agree: currently, the idea of intellect in the public arena is too often seen as something to be sneered at.

Snobbery is its own problem, and it should be avoided. After all, it occurred to me that I watch movies by Jean-Luc Godard for the same essential reason that someone else watches, say, Cop Out: it's what we like to do during our spare time to keep ourselves busy and make us contented. But I can't get on board with Smith here. I think people should be encouraged to poke around, to read up on films, to look into what makes all these ostensibly-great movies so great instead of just uncritically accepting the latest execution of a formula. And in the meantime, I hope we see more movies from the creators of Clerks and Chasing Amy.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

One German company's battle against narrative exhaustion

Last summer, Paul Schrader--a film scholar, the screenwriter of Raging Bull, and a bona fide member of the cinematic old-guard--wrote an op-ed for The Guardian called "Beyond the Silver Screen." If you haven't seen it, it's worth checking out in its (short) entirety.

But basically, he says that in a world already drowning in media, audiences suffer from "narrative exhaustion." We know the formulas, we've seen it all before. And so, to engage and maintain interest, entertainment shifts: becoming, among other things, more "reality"-based (with reality in quotes) and more participatory. In closing, he speaks of cinema in the past tense as a medium on its own way out:

Movies were the artform of the 20th century. The traditional concept of movies, a projected image in a dark room of viewers, feels increasingly old. I don't know what the future of audio-visual entertainment will be, but I don't think it will be what we used to call movies.

This seems melancholy. I certainly hope the traditional concept of movies never goes completely, though as a member of the new-guard who has the greatest respect for the old-guard, the sense I get in the brave new world is not melancholy, but rather a tentative enthusiasm for new directions and possibilities.

Which is why I found this article from Gizmodo interesting. It's about an interactive system that sounds pretty experimental, and that a company in Germany has used to spice up the genre with perhaps the most ruthlessly repeated formula: horror.

Essentially, The Last Call is the "first interactive horror movie." At the start of the screening, everyone in the audience provides their phone numbers, which get lodged in a computer. During the movie, the frantic heroine (chased by whatever) dials a number in her cell phone, and the companies computer dials an audience number at random. That audience member then answers and engages with the movie: the heroine will ask which may she should go, what should she do, and the viewer can tell her. Observe their trailer, which does a lot to play up the new angles that Schrader was talking about:




I think this sounds like a very interesting experience in a number of ways--aside from the fact that it requires a narrative logic where the main character is relying on life-or-death advice from a stranger over the phone. At the very least, it represents an even more explicit embrace of horror as a genre that people use for a kind of offbeat, somewhat campy party experience. Not to mention the genre where people most like to shout at the screen.

But there are a few things I have to wonder about it. Just in theory, I wonder if this makes the audience more engaged in the characters' lives, or less. That is, does it keep you at arms length from the story, making it even more clear that the images on screen are playthings? (And of course, the choices are few and random and would all presumably have to lead to a certain running time). As far as narratives are concerned, giving random advice to a character seems far more suited to gimmickry than investment--though horror is a genre that does just fine with gimmicks.

On a logistical level, I'm curious how it works. I imagine it could be interesting to the viewer who gets randomly called, but less so to everyone else. Or the rest of the audience would want to get involved to, as they do in the video, calling out advice. Everyone in the video seems cool about it, united by a sense of solidarity (more in tune with a ride than engagement in a narrative). But theater etiquette would definitely be an X factor.

It doesn't sound like the sort of thing that could go wide and into theaters everywhere--it seems far more suited to a Star Tours style theme park attraction. It's almost certainly more of a curio than the Future, but I'm curious, and it shows the ongoing use of technology against narrative fatigue.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Baseless Predictions '09 (Why I don't expect Avatar to win)

I like the Oscars. Yes, there’s something inherently ridiculous about the glitz/glamour, and their picks often feel like a kangaroo court--subject to hype and only judging on a very conventional axis of cinematic quality. But more importantly, it’s a celebration of “movies” as an idea. As an abstract concept. As a set of shared cultural memories worthy of uncynical praise and endless, endless montages. And that’s something that I can get behind.

Plus, it’s always interesting to see the Academy's ongoing quest to get people to actually watch it, from shrinking the Best Song performances to moving the lifetime achievement awards to their own separate ceremony. For last year, they announced cryptically that the Oscar ceremony would hold "surprises" and "many, many risks" for the nominees, which I found oddly funny (though any hopes for a Streep-v.-Winslet Thunderdome match went unfulfilled). This year, they expanded the number of Best Picture nominees from 5 to 10, thus broadening the pool.

What I found refreshing about this year’s nominations, actually, was how little of it seemed annoying. Upping the Best Picture crop from 5 to 10 has allowed several interesting smaller films to have space in the spotlight. Some of my favorite films of any size this year, like A Serious Man and An Education, have gotten their due, which makes me happy even if they still have no chance of winning. And even beyond that, very little this year strikes me as egregiously overrated. (The source of my mellow contentment may be that I haven’t seen The Blind Side, whose sports clich├ęs left many critics unimpressed, and whose "nice white lady" narrative has apparently ignited a particularly redundant battle in the ongoing culture war.)

It’s traditional for a prediction breakdown of who’ll win the top prizes. Brief caveat: as far as inside scoops are concerned, I’m completely unqualified.

BEST PICTURE

Though there are 10 nominees, the word a while back was that only 5 of them were really contenders. Or rather, only 2: The Hurt Locker and Avatar. Think of it as the likable prestige picture vs. the blockbuster. My instinct was that it would be a fairly safe lock for The Hurt Locker, though I've seen analyses that predict Avatar would come out on top, for the basic reason of Avatar's record-breaking box office.

"Hollywood ♥ Money" sounds like solid conventional wisdom, but the parallel I'd draw is Star Wars. Back in 1977, Star Wars was, like Avatar, an unprecedented technological breakthrough, an unprecedented moneymaker, and a Best Picture nominee. But at the end of the day, sci-fi/fantasy blockbusters hit hardest among the younger crowd, and Academy voters are adults—and thus are far more likely to give the top prize to a movie that addresses more serious adult issues. (The winner that year was Annie Hall.) Lord of the Rings only did it on its third try, after several years running as a cultural phenomenon. I would give The Hurt Locker the edge over Avatar, since it has more of that prestige weight behind it as the first awards season success about the Iraq War.

The X factor, of course, is that one of The Hurt Locker’s producers slipped up and recently sent out an email to Academy voters asking for their support. Since such direct campaigning is against Academy rules, he essentially committed a major breach of etiquette with only a few days left before the ballots were due. (I was not familiar with the nuances of Oscar campaigning, so for me, the most visibly inappropriate part of his email was the gigantic run-on sentence.) But he’s apologized and has been officially chastised by the Academy, and whether or not it affected the vote remains to be seen. I’d still bet Hurt Locker, but at least now the ceremony has an added twist of suspense.

BEST DIRECTOR

Historically, Picture and Director walk hand in hand the vast majority of the time—though this last decade has brought plenty of exceptions. The easy tabloid subtext is that this year’s frontrunners, Avatar’s James Cameron and The Hurt Locker’s Kathryn Bigelow, used to be married. My bet is Kathryn Bigelow, not only because I want her to win, but also because the Academy has already given James Cameron an Oscar for making the biggest movie ever and would have to really be in the mood to do it again.

The other key factor, which can’t be ignored, is that a Kathryn Bigelow victory would be historic: she could very well become the first woman in the 82-year history of the Oscars to win Best Director. Only four women, including her, have ever been nominated. Her win would be interesting in a number of ways, not least of which is that she makes films in a stereotypically male genre: “high-octane” action (The Hurt Locker doesn’t even have a central female character). Depending on who you ask, this is either a good or a bad thing, symbolizing alternately that a) women can do anything men can do, or b) women have to be one of the boys to succeed. Regardless, The Hurt Locker is incredibly well-directed, and there’s a very real chance that the first woman to win Best Director will be the auteur behind Point Break, the ultimate Keanu Reeves action/surf/buddy flick (apologies to Sofia Coppola).

BEST ACTOR

This race is an almost certain lock for Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, which slightly bothers me. It’s not that I don’t think Jeff Bridges deserves an Oscar—he does, and has for a while now. It’s what it says about award season.

Jeff Bridges' character in Crazy Heart, who spends most of the time being charming and nostalgically wasted, bears a not-ignorable resemblance to Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski—a comparison that the film actively invites with an in-joke early on. So he’s essentially playing a country singer variation on the Dude, with a few melodramatic staples mixed in: calling his long-lost son, losing and then regaining the love of a good woman, and dropping homespun wisdom about getting by. (I believe he refers to his beat-up car as “ole Bessie” at one point, though it’s possible that I was so caught up in folksy homilies that my memory added that detail). Placing Jeff Bridges front and center and letting him go, Crazy Heart is as much a Best Actor reel as it is a movie (ask me about my problems with the narrative). So it's dramatic, but in such a conventional way that it almost feels contrived. And it kind of bothers me that that’s an Oscar lock when a role like the Dude—whose heroic passivity in a land of ambition made him a more interesting character and, in an odd way, a more authentic one—only got nominated for a Satellite Award.

But who else would it be? George Clooney as a suave but cynical charmer? Morgan Freeman as an unimpeachable beacon of inspiration? (Both of whom have won before.) Jeremy Renner is too new, and Colin Firth hasn’t had the awards season momentum. Jeff Bridges has the veteran-who’s-owed-one cred, and he’s been winning all the pre-Oscar awards accordingly. And though I wasn’t particularly crazy about the movie itself, Bridges is wonderful in it—he pretty much carries the movie by himself. And when he wins, it’ll be overdue.

Still, I’d love to have seen more off the beaten path performances, like Souleymane Sy Savane in Goodbye Solo, at least get a moment in the spotlight with a nomination.

BEST ACTRESS

Since this category seems pretty much like a lock as well, I feel like I might as well make a digression.

Best Actress is generally the category I find the least interesting, and it’s not because I don’t see interesting leading lady performances. It’s more about the Academy’s tendency towards very conventional movie star roles.

In 2008, my favorite actress of the year was Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky, who was her character so completely and so engagingly that if I ever met her in real life and she was somebody else, I’d be surprised. Despite winning the Golden Globe, she wasn’t even nominated for the Oscar.

The conventional movie star performance, nominated instead, would be exemplified by Angelina Jolie in Changeling: a major star slightly deglamourizing herself, putting on period costume, and forcefully emoting lines like “I want my son back!” Which is well and good and compelling enough to watch, but you never forget that you’re watching a movie star and not a character. In other words, the Academy won’t give Kate Winslet an Oscar for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where the slightest flicker is a character note (and the slightest smile can break your heart), but they will give Kate Winslet an Oscar for The Reader, where she puts on period costume and old-person makeup and fiercely intones, “I learned to read.”

Maybe that’s why deep down this year, I’m rooting for either Carey Mulligan in An Education or Gabourey Sibide in Precious: because I can more easily see them as character rather than star.

The lock this year is Sandra Bullock.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR & ACTRESS

The Supporting category I find almost always more interesting, at least in terms of the roles. Here's a category for villains and comics and oddities, unburdened by the need to have a conventional Best Actor/Actress arc. But wow, pretty much all the acting contests are locks this year. The winners will be Mo’Nique for Precious and Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds (making Best Supporting Actor the annual award for Villain of the Year for the third year running). Anything else would be a big upset.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

The screenplay awards may in fact be my favorite category of the year each year, just because they’re the place that small, outsider films have the best chance of getting attention. And to that effect, I’m glad that In the Loop gets a presence. But on to the winners.

I bet Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner's script for Up in the Air will (deservedly) take this one. Reitman is 3 for 3 at the moment for popular/acclaimed movies. He’s an insider who’s been nominated before, and the Academy clearly likes his film. I’d be surprised if it were anyone else.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

If this is indeed a Hurt Locker year, it could very well pick up the Original Screenplay award as well, which would slightly bother me, since it’s not so much a writer’s movie as a director’s movie. But then, the screenwriter Mark Boal has personal experience going for him, since he wrote it inspired by time spent as an embedded journalist. And it’s been on a screenwriting award roll, picking up at both the Writer’s Guild of America awards and the BAFTAs. However, Quentin Tarantino’s script for Inglourious Basterds was deemed WGA-ineligible, so at the Oscars, The Hurt Locker’s WGA edge might very well give way to a Tarantino victory. I predict it will.

So that’s it for my main predictions for the 2009 awards. Tomorrow I'll be posting running commentary on the Awards show.

And in the event that you haven't seen it yet, check out the trailer for every Oscar movie ever. Get excited.