Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Of perfection and ambiguity

What is your favorite film?  Is it perfect?

Is it considered a masterpiece?

How flawed can a film be and still be great?               

How great can a film be with flaws?

The Tree of Life won a good amount of awards this past season.  Yet even those who admire it point out some flaws. But how big can those flaws be with a picture that stays in one’s mind like this? And if these are scenes we still want to discuss long after seeing it, how flawed were those scenes actually? Maybe they were just worth discussing.

There is a scene with a dinasaur in the film. Yes a dinasaur. And critics discuss the scene and argue over what it meant. Whats not to love about that! Who is right is irrelevant. Can anyone be right really anyway, or more right than someone else? Unless the director told us and then where is the fun in that. Even they could be wrong.

What film to you is perfect? What film are you like "how can anyone criticize this film!” I think hardly any such films exist.

There becomes a moment when we love a film and, like family and friends, even forgive some disapointments along the journey.

And like our friends and family, we must defend them flaws and all. Because no they aren’t perfect but man they sure are great. Or maybe we just get them like others don't. Those stupid others.

A film is not about what its about but how it's about it.

Every experience is different to every person. So what its about is almost just trivia.

There are only about 12 stories retold over and over anyway. So how we are shown one of those stories is the key.

Cache is a 2005 French film. It is a film that requires you to look at the screen nearly every moment. The ending just seems like a throw away scene. Like why is this even being shown? But keep looking. You are rewarded for your diligence. And that is great fun, even though nothing is tied up neatly. There is much ambiguity even still. Much to talk about on the ride home.

The most satisfied I get is when the screen goes to black and I want to sit there and think about what I just saw. Ive said it before but No Country For Old Men, left me sitting there and thinking. And I loved it for that. I wanted to hug the screen.  After seeing The Tree of Life I got caught in a torrential downpour in the parking lot and had a good 20 minutes to just sit and think about the film.  And that was one of the most enjoyable parts of the film experience.   

Interestingly enough, the one criticism I seemed to ever hear about No Country For Old Men (though it was far more often a praise) was that it was “too perfect of a film.”

There is not a shot out of place said multiple critics.  And yet a few felt this made it somehow less emotionally attached to them. Because it was “perfect.”

So which do we prefer? And is there ever truly such a thing as perfect in art. Critics have said Citizen Kane is also perfect. But what about the fact that the entire premise of the film, is based on what Kane’s last words meant; which, were heard by no one.

If a film grabs you enough, these quibbles become even less than quibbles.

Hitchcock would say that the flaws in a film are irrelevant as long as the viewer doesnt think about them until the ride home.

Ive convinced myself that the nurse did in fact hear Kane. Who are we to say she didn’t? She could have heard from outside the door right? She just had really good hearing, or maybe she had one of those cool listening devices you see advertised on late night tv. The one where you hear your new neighbors whispering compliments about you to each other

Everyone overlooks these quibbles if the grand total is large enough. Audrey Hepburn is so great and so beautiful and so captivating and to me THE quintessential movie star; and that Moon River song so iconic, we can tend to forget the extremely racist Mickey Rooney character in that same film.

Leave the continuity geeks and other such Trainspotters to have their fun feeling they spotted a flaw in something they are watching over and over to point out. Great is great. And great doesn’t have to be perfect. If every film was, even the masterpieces, what would be left to talk about?

“People complain The White Album was too long? That if it had not been a double album it would have been even better. Stop your complaining. It’s the Beatles; it’s the bloody White Album, Its brilliant."
-Paul McCartney

Everyone experienes a film differnently. Even we do with each viewing of the same film.

I would often watch a film with someone only to get giddy wih excitement at a scene that they are about to experience look over at them and see a feeling of total disinterest or disconnect.

Thinking on films I like, it is often the smaller films that seem closer to perfect. The ones that go all out on production and effects are us ually the ones more likely to fail. Of course not in the sense of failing at the box office. But in failing to resonate years later.

Once had many scenes where I was in love. But one was also one I wasn't sure about. It was when "girl" replies to "boy" when asked the question "do you love him?" She responds in her native language, that he doesnt know and both his character and you wonder what she said. But if you dare to transalate later you find out what she said.

How beautiful. And even more so by not saying it in English or having it in subtitles. We can find out in this day and age if we want.  And on some level we know. But what a smart moment that almost no mainstream romantic film would trust to try.

I come back to numerous scenes that arent spelled out to us that make the experience richer for being that way.

Sideways came out in 1999. A simple low budget film. And I remember it above all else for one scene.

A man describing wine to a woman he is crazy about, and not having any idea he is describing himself. But she does. She never says she does, but you know it.  That's good film making.

Or Say Anything, in 1986. So much to love about that film. But its just another 80s teen film right? If you think that you should watch it again.

I used to have Llyod Dobler's speech written out and posted above my desk. It resonated.

And then again we have The Tree of Life. In its way, one of the most ambitious films since 2001.  Will I still think about it years from now as I have the others previously mentioned? I cant say for sure. I think so. It's completely different. It is one of those BIG films, but that unabashedly says "Im great, try to ignore it." Its not perfect. There is too much at stake for it to be. And I respect it as much as those other perfect little films. Because sometimes greatness happens and sometimes things arent as immediatley obvious.

Some attempts are so outrageous, they must at least be admired.

But the fun part is you can sit while the credits roll and think about it. Or get caught in a gigantic rain storm and think about it some more.

"I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don't wanna know. Some things are best left unsaid. I'd like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can't be expressed in words, and it makes your heart ache because of it." 
 -Red      The Shawshank Redemption

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Ten Greatest Films Of All Time

Every ten years Sight & Sound Magazine releases their list of the Greatest Films Of All Time.  Since 1962, Citizen Kane has won this distinction.  In 2002 it only won narrowly, by 4 votes over Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

This list is the most prestigious of these such lists, in part because the magazine is so respected, in part because it is only every 10 years, and in part because distinguished directors and critics vote, not someone who just likes praising ever film ever made, like Larry King.

Of course all lists are kind of ridiculous.  But as far as lists go, Sight & Sounds Greatest Films Of All Time List would be #1 on my list of All Time Greatest Lists. 

I recently read a Roger Ebert article on this poll.  He has voted every time since 1972, and his 10 films have changed a bit over the years.  Notorious is no longer on his list, but he says it is still one of the 10 best films of all time.  There are probably at least 50, 10 best films of all time.  How do you truly choose?  The Tree of Life is on his ballot this year and yet it was not even his #1 film of 2011.  So opinions can change, and quickly.  So, as I pretend I'm a film critic here would be my ballot.  Quick, before it changes.

There is at least one choice people might find ridiculous, but hey it's my list.  Send me your own and your own reasons.

The Third Man   (Reed)  So far superior to anything else in Reed’s canon, some people still strongly believe it was really directed by Welles.  Welles would dispute this, but maybe having the famed director act in his film inspired Reed to do his best.  Welles also wrote the “Cuckoo Clock” speech.  Hey, I think that Welles guy had some talent!

Pulp Fiction   (Tarantino)  I actually think Tarantino is an underrated director, as strange as that might sound.  People seem to resent how he incorporates his favorite films into his own, as if people are never allowed to admit their influences.  But he is not borrowing anymore than say Scorsese (and probably less).  And his revenge western, his martial arts pic, his world war II buddy shoot em’ up, are always better than anyone else’s you have seen.  This is still his best work, though now barely.  A film that influenced countless others; some good, many weak; but that's not his fault.

The Thin Red Line  (Malick)  Still my favorite Malick film, and I believe his best.  Though The Tree of Life is up there as well.  And Days of Heaven is also a masterpiece worthy of this list.

No Country For Old Men  (Coens)  Its close between this and Fargo, but I have to give the nod to NCFOM.  It has so many layers to it.  And a perfect ending.

Citizen Kane  (Welles)  Is this the one I would choose to rewatch above the rest?  No.  I’ve seen it enough.  But my film history study won’t let me not acknowledge what Welles accomplished.  It influenced many films and filmmakers after, and so it deserves the reputation it has.  Actors didnt speak over each other before this film.  You never saw the entire room, floor to ceiling in a set before this film.  You never saw deep focus before this film.  You never had multiple narrators before.  Hard for a film to reinvent the wheel, but Welles and his crew did.

Tokyo Story  (Ozu)

Rashomon  (Kurosawa)  Often considered the greatest film ever to have a poor ending.  I prefer to think of how the director wanted the ending to be made.  With a dark rainy background.  But the weather would not accomodate and he did not have time or money to keep shooting.  Imagine it IS raining again as they walk off.  The rest of the film is great and groundbreaking. 

Sunrise  (Murnau)  Why does this make my list?  Because I have not seen it in 12 years and I still only have this great impression in my mind.  Maybe if I saw it again that would be ruined.

Harold and Maude  (Ashby)  Two of the most memorable characters on film.  And as strong a Ruth Gordan is, Bud Cort's performance is equal.  Dark humor and seriousness and love never blended so well.  Below is Harold filling out a questionaire for a dating service.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off  (Hughes)  It had humor and heart.  Encompasses all that was best about those John Hughes era films.

Next time you watch it, look at it from Cameron's mentally ill mind.  Imagine that Ferris is just all in his head.  The opposite of who he is, Ferris is the personality he wants to have.

Honorable Mention:   Cache, The Silence of the Lambs, Night of The Hunter, The Wild Bunch, Blazing Saddles, Psycho, Strangers On A Train, Nosferatu (Herzog), Amadeus,  Dr. Strangelove,
Say Anything, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Double Indemnity, Aguirre, The Wrath of God.