Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Note on Messterpieces

Maybe it's because after you've seen too many films, convention loses its edge. Or maybe it goes back to the old French film critic's claim that the worst film by an auteur will always be more interesting than the best film by a non-auteur. But whatever the reason, lately I've become more enamored of "messterpieces."

A quick internet search tells me that the term "messterpiece," as I use it, has been used before. (The most official source I've found is IFC's Matt Singer.) But since the top search results for "messterpiece" are a Bounty ad campaign and an address in Glenview, Illinois, it seems that the term isn't in wide enough use, so it's worth outlining what it means and why such films have appeal.

A "messterpiece" is, as the name suggests, a film that would be a masterpiece if it wasn't such a mess—and you could dismiss it as a mess if it wasn't also kind of masterful. A messterpiece is often jumbled, awkward, overloaded, undercooked, and can understandably come across as an indulgence. But inside that awkward, overloaded, undercooked jumble is something of value: energy, inventiveness, distinct personality, and ideas that would be a shame to ignore. They're not perfect, but then, the people I love aren't perfect either, and I see no reason to have a double standard for films.

Messterpieces, in fact, probably aren't even "great." There is such a thing as a great and messy film—a film whose mess is part of its greatness. (Something like late 60s Godard comes to mind). No, these are films that, for what they are, could and probably should have been improved upon. If you had to judge them on a limited two-directional axis and come up with an adjective, they'd probably only be "good." But their flaws, in a way, have a certain warts-and-all appeal for the adventurous: it's almost like looking under the hood. The inspiration isn't fine-tuned, but it's inspired nonetheless. They're the misunderstood monsters of cinema.

The best example of a recent messterpiece may be the film that introduced me to the term: Richard Kelly's Southland Tales (2007).

Kelly broke onto the scene with Donnie Darko (2001), which, despite a negligible initial run, built up steam on DVD and midnight screenings to become arguably the cult film of the decade. Southland Tales was his follow-up: a gigantic sci-fi sprawl, daftly ambitious in the way that sophomore features are always rumored to be.

Essentially, Kelly combined Philip K. Dick, David Lynch, Hollywood blockbusters, comic books, B-movies, reality TV, music videos, post-9/11 paranoia, the red state.blue state divide, The Communist Manifesto, and the Book of Revelation to create a wildly campy and distinctly American vision of the apocalypse. Little good can be done trying to briefly synopsize the plot, which has to do with an amnesiac movie star, a burgeoning police state, and—why not?—a rip in the space-time continuum. The film stars Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Justin Timberlake, and Sean William Scott. This alone is enough to cause eye-rolling in certain potential viewers, until you realize the film's ironic, self-conscious wavelength—not to mention the tacit understanding that, for better or worse, America is a country defined by its shiniest, flashiest pop culture.

By most bellwethers, the film was a failure. It cost about $17 million, and in its entire worldwide run, it made *checks internet* $375,000. So unless it pulled in extraordinary home video numbers—it didn't—somebody got hosed. Critics weren't much kinder to it. On rottentomatoes, it holds steady at about 39%, with pull-quotes like "immature," "incoherent," "politically sophomoric," and, from Richard Roeper, "one of the worst cinematic train wrecks I've ever seen." (More on that in a moment).

But among the few critics who stood by it was Manohla Dargis of the New York Times, and her defense perfectly captures the appeal of "the messterpiece." Her review came at a time when the great film of the day was the Coen brothers' No Country For Old Men, and she took the opportunity to draw a parallel. Ms. Dargis writes:
American cinema is in the grip of a kind of moribund academicism, which helps explain why a fastidiously polished film like “No Country for Old Men” can receive such gushing praise from critics. “Southland Tales” isn’t as smooth and tightly tuned as “No Country,” a film I admire with few reservations. Even so, I would rather watch a young filmmaker like Mr. Kelly reach beyond the obvious, push past his and the audience’s comfort zones, than follow the example of the Coens and elegantly art-direct yet one more murder for your viewing pleasure and mine. Certainly “Southland Tales” has more ideas, visual and intellectual, in a single scene than most American independent films have in their entirety, though that perhaps goes without saying. Neither disaster nor masterpiece, “Southland Tales” again confirms that Mr. Kelly...is one of the bright lights of his filmmaking generation.
And that more or less sums up why a film so messy can be so fascinating and so worthy of attention.

Of course, messterpieces being what they are, it's not a film that I'd be comfortable giving undiluted praise. It's almost certainly more jumbled than it should be, even by Lynchian anti-logic standards. (And as the film goes on, I sense that Richard Kelly thinks repeated blowjob jokes are funnier than I do). The less said about The Box—Kelly's most recent film, which has much of the same problems and none of the virtues—the better. So on the whole, it's easy to see why Southland Tales has had a hard time finding acceptance, as in many ways, the different elements of its appeal cancel each other out.

But more importantly, it looks like nobody knew exactly what to do with it. On its theatrical release, it never made it to more than 100 theaters. The week it came out on DVD, a friend of mine recommended it, so we went from store to store searching for a copy. Circuit City had it listed in "Comedy," Best Buy had it listed in "Action," Barnes & Noble had it listed in "Sci-fi," and none of them carried it in stock. When the distributor printed up the DVD, they didn't used the blurb from the New York Times calling Kelly "one of the bright lights of his filmmaking generation." Instead, they went with a quote from Ain't It Cool News saying that "the Rock is awesome!"

Still, in all its off-kilter, junk-clogged messiness, Southland Tales fits as a minor benchmark for aughts. It captures the Bush era as a bizarre, fragmented, media-saturated nightmare that gets stranger and stranger until it collapses in on itself—and it can strike a chord for anyone who feels like current events in America are like a bizarre dream. Keep on the lookout for nice, sardonic touches, like how the opening exposition is sponsored by Gillette. Even the casting is a postmodern wink: Amy Poehler as a Marxist revolutionary, Jon Lovitz as a brutal cop, and Timberlake as the prophet of Revelation. Unpolished, frequently immature, and occasionally misfiring, yes—but often some kind of inspired.

In short, it's a film due for reevaluation. My friend Adam Cook, over at the Bronze, has already thrown his hat into the ring on this, and I would recommend checking out his article.


The critical reception for Southland Tales is worth returning to, since getting poor (or at least highly mixed) reviews seems to be the fate of messterpieces. This is even more of a shame, since such bizarre, limited-release niche films rely on critical recommendation. The reception for Southland Tales can be seen, in miniature, in this review from At the Movies, where Richard Roeper thrashes the film for 60 seconds, and the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips dives in to defend it for the next 20 before they have to cut to commercial. You can see their exchange here:

When Philips and Roeper say that they wouldn't recommend it to a "general audience", it's an interesting point to consider, if only because of what it says about the role of the critic in popular culture. For starters, I'm not entirely sure what a "general audience" is or if it it really exists—though I assume it's a group of non-cinephiles looking for a movie on a Friday night. (And who can blame them?). But giving thumbs up or down to the Hollywood entertainment of the week is one of the least important roles of a critic; far more important is the analysis and consideration of the ideas that are at work. Let's not get ahead of ourselves—Southland Tales isn't L'Avventura. But then, L'Avventura is another film I wouldn't recommend to a group of non-cinephiles looking for a movie on a Friday night, so that may not be the best bellwether. Philips's "save your bile" comment is a fitting defense for messterpieces: to me, a film that is emotionally or intellectually vapid, regardless of slickness, is far more deserving of critical skepticism.

To me, messterpieces stand most strongly as an alternative to the idea of the awards season "prestige picture", by which I mean something along the lines of, say, The Reader. These end-of-year films more strongly hit their mark: more polished, more forceful, and probably more watchable. As such, they find more acceptance from audiences and from the powers that be at awards ceremonies, and it's easy to see why. But by the time the Oscars have all been handed out, they've faded in amongst the rest. To me, a film like Southland Tales is more memorable, more interesting to discuss, and more tempting to return to than at least half the Best Picture nominees of the last decade. It's gotten to a point where I'm more interested in a personal film that's gotten polarized reviews than I am in the critically-acclaimed Oscar bait of the year.

After all, falling flat on your face—publicly, at that—has to be admired. It takes courage.

A scene from Francois Truffaut's Shoot The Piano Player (1960), which I would label as a messterpiece from an earlier era. At the time, it was dismissed by critics and by Truffaut himself, who called it simply "my second film." The infamous New York Times critic Bosley Crowther commented, and not without reason: "It looks, from where we are sitting, as though M. Truffaut went haywire in this film...as though he had so many ideas for movies outpouring in his head, so many odd slants on comedy and drama and sheer clich├ęs that he wanted to express, that he couldn't quite control his material." Today, the film has a reputation as a minor classic.

A running list of other films that I would describe as messterpiece, or otherwise "messterful":

Velvet Goldmine (1998, Todd Haynes)
Eyes Wide Shut (1999, Stanley Kubrick)
Schizopolis (1997, Steven Soderbergh)
Dodes'ka-den (1970, Akira Kurosawa)