I was watching an episode of the hilarious workplace cop comedy, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the other day. A character was trying to come up with a list for that dreaded review question, What are some of your weaknesses? Naturally, she could only come up with “weaknesses” that are actually strengths, like “being too conscientious.”
But I just thought of one for me.
One of my current classes is a screenwriting course. There is little in the way of a syllabus, so I’m running the class as mostly a lab. This feels appropriate anyway, since what one needs for writing is simply time set aside for writing. This format gives us the chance to incorporate other exercises, screenings and interactions in a productively ad hoc basis. Naturally, I also give each student a one-on-one during most sessions, giving me an opportunity to critique their writing.
Thinking about the class today, I suddenly recalled that when I ask students why they chose a particular path in trying to flesh out a story, they often tell me it was in response to my notes from last week. At that point I am usually in the midst of what turns out to be a line of conflicting advice. I tend to find this a bit amusing when it happens—whether because I am a bit of a sadist or because I am cultivating an absent-minded-professor thing, I’m not sure.
What occurred to me today was to wonder whether or not my apparently giving conflicting advice from week to week is a bad thing or a good thing. On the one hand, I can see how it might exasperate the students who, to some extent, are attempting assignments just because I created them, not because they make some larger “sense” to them. On the other hand, sending them first in one direction and then in another might actually be giving them an appropriate kind of writer’s “workout.” It might lead to stories that are more complete, more grounded. Maybe?
That’s the nice thing about doing your own review, I guess.
There are many kinds of movie fans, from MCU bros to delicate cineastes, and among them we recognize a cohort enamored of movies “so bad they’re good.” Thus, Bad Movies is a cult category, one that not everyone can get into because the movies, while possibly entertaining are still, you know, bad. Life is of limited duration after all and you never know which movie will be your last. It could be Wild Strawberries. Or it could be Hard Ticket to Hawaii. So, choose wisely.
I am one of those—an enjoyer of the “bad.” My favorite podcast, The Flop House, is dedicated to this category. I own on DVD—or in some cases even blu ray or 4K disk—a number of movies that are bad, such as one of the Transformers franchise, I forget which, and movies that are so bad they’re good, like John Rad’s Dangerous Men or my new 12-film Andy Sidaris collection.
But why don’t we ever talk about the movies that are “so good they’re bad?” I believe I am a member of this cult as well, though not always. These are movies that are inarguably great that are still difficult to watch for one reason or another. For example, how many members of the modern audience, even a highly-self-selected sub-group of cinephiles, would want to sit through F.W. Murnau’s indisputably great and stunningly beautiful and innovative Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans—or, for that matter, even knows it exists? This is a Hollywood movie that even won an Academy Award.
I am not intending to bemoan the current state of film literacy, which is just one of those things. No, I mean to say that there are a number of great films—and each year, a new crop of contenders—that have, how about, a very low watchability factor. They’re boring. Even impenetrable. I will further clarify that I passionately love some of these films. Take Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror, his kaleidoscopic, autobiographical traumnovelle from 1975. I must place this high on my personal favorites list (my fantasy Sight and Sound poll list, perhaps), but I can’t pretend it’s what I put on the TV on a Saturday night, in spite of its heart-stopping beauty and perfection.
Nor do I consider boredom a dead end as a film viewer. Sometimes it is necessary, with a certain type of film, to let go of narrative expectations entirely and sometimes even what we’ve been trained to understand as a film, and just roll with it. Filmmakers as various as Chantal Akerman, James Benning, Bela Tarr, David Lynch and Gus Van Sant have made stunning masterpieces that roll along for long stretches of real time.
This “slow cinema” has the effect of driving the viewer “out of the movie” and into a strange place for a filmgoer—herself. And as such a viewer contends with the duration unspooling before her, she realizes she is contending with herself. This begins to feel foolish, so she lets go. And discovers, perhaps a long while later, that she has sunk into a strange intimacy with the characters on the screen. Their time becomes her time. This effect can be mesmerizing and incredibly “real.” But you have to go through the boredom—which is not a quality we associate with a “good” movie.
As a film teacher, when I have screenings I have to think about how to walk the line with my young-adult students. If I legitimately bore them, they’ll tune out. But if I create a situation where instead of simply boring them, a movie bores into them, I will have succeeded in showing them something.
Donald Glover having a cultural moment.
In the Coens’ first two decades of filmmaking, they created one terrific movie after another—but their gleeful playing around with genre tropes, ironic homages to film history and formal exercises, while sometimes exhilarating (viz. the Danny Boy shootout in Miller’s Crossing), tended to leave their work just shy of greatness. There was a small distance there, which critics said was created by the overly cerebral, self-satisfied filmmaking of brilliant mimics, if not quite great artists.
On the one hand, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is susceptible to many of the same charges. On the other hand, there is much that is transcendent here—a screwball goof on Preston Sturges, prisoner comedies, musicals, gangster Americana and the Old South turns out to be a near perfect cover for a brilliant meditation on and summation of the sweeping cultural shifts of the 20th Century, particularly mass media and other technology, and a sharp critique of nostalgia and national mythologies.
In these ways the film far surpasses its own limitations and shortcuts and points the way to the more personal masterpieces the Coens would create in the coming years—from No Country for Old Men, to A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis.
Subtracting a star right off the bat for the script, everything else conspires to create an often glorious retro B-movie romp. From the gorgeousity that is Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, their stylists and her Wonderbra, to the burnished sunset visuals, to the Vietnam-WW2-Lost World mashup storyline, it's a helluva lotta fun.
Gotta wonder, though, why Larson's embedded photographer isn't constantly taking pictures. Lots of possibilities there, instead of treating this gifted, Oscar-winning actress like mere arm candy for Loki. Which is not to say that she isn't stunningly perfect in shot after shot, unable to be anything less than exactly smart AND sexy at any given moment, and with perfect hair. But, girl, you should be running out of film on this crazy island, if you're this big respected photographer.
This illustrates what I mean about the script. Countless opportunities for creating character go by—for everyone—with no effort from the filmmakers in this regard; instead, we get an oddly rote Sam Jackson barking lame cliches and too many wasted supporting players.
John Goodman fares a bit better, as the nominal expedition leader, because he's John Goodman and thereby infallible. And when crazy John C. Reilly shows up as the Randy Quaid character, who's also weirdly the Tom Hanks character, there's just the right sense of the absurd.
Overall, I would much rather see this kind of movie—lovingly pop big budget B movie, but WITH A SCRIPT—than any "prestige" or "Oscar-bait" bullshit or any portentous superhero sequel. Or even than most indie films.
They say dialogue-driven movies don't play internationally as a way to paper over pure laziness when it comes to developing characters in films. But behavior doesn't require much dialogue, and it's behavior that makes characters more interesting; and interesting characters is what makes good movies great and great movies classics.
Which this Kong ain't.
Recently I finally made it to the Kubrick exhibit, about to close at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. It was a huge thrill for a giant Kubrick nerd like me.
I recently watched King Hu's wuxia masterpiece A Touch of Zen. Among much gorgeous cinematography, great performances and stunning fight choreography this particular cut really tickled me. I assume this kind of audacious jump-cutting is one of the martial arts filmmakers standard tools, but that doesn't make it any less delightful, particularly as an editor and film teacher.
DePalma's comic book Godfather is certainly entertaining, at times. Its eternal dominance of the dorm poster market speaks to its iconic status, but is it anything else? I love this director but—and this may just be over-familiarity—this movie feels toned-down compared to other DePalma films of the era. That's crazy, of course—there's nothing toned-down about this movie, except maybe the simple-mindedness of Oliver Stone's script?
Maybe that's the problem, if there is one. As a celebration of testosterone run amok, the film has legendary status. Some of the action, particularly early on—the refugee camp assassination, the coke score gone chainsawingly wrong—is masterfully directed suspense of the kind few other 80s directors could deliver. The famous shootout in the third act, on the other hand, is merely serviceable, as if DePalma ran out of energy and compensated with (admittedly glorious) excess.
But Tony Montana is not that interesting as a character. The description on the disc box said he was the most ruthless gangster ever depicted onscreen—but don't they just mean the killingest? The most wastefully, self-hatingly over-the-top? The most coked-up? He seems to do whatever is necessary for a given scene to pack the most punch, rather than anything resembling what an actual human being might do. Pacino's feral performance both helps and hurts. He does the over-the-top thing so well it masks the character's basic emptiness.
Much more interesting characters surround him, but are hardly given anything to do—Cuban-born Steven Bauer's Manny Ribera, for example. Or Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Robert Loggia. F. Murray Abraham does the most with a brief role. I wondered a lot about all of the henchman, too—a little bit of curiosity on the part of the filmmakers about any of them would have gone a long way to making this a better movie.
It is a classic of the Awesomeness Quadrant of film appreciation but, alas, not much else.
First time seeing the whole Grindhouse since I saw it in 2007, in my most entertaining theater excursion of that year. I have since seen Death Proof many times but I had never revisited Planet Terror or the fake trailers. So much fun.
It's interesting, too, the different approaches taken by Rodriguez and Tarantino here. On a double bill, the "B" movie was the second one shown; it was assumed to be the lesser effort. The opposite is true here, both from a marketing perspective and in terms of quality.
Rodriguez throws everything he can think of into his extremely gory exploitation spoof, and it's a good time. But, as with so much of his work, Planet Terror is as slipshod and overwrought as it is gleefully malign. It's a lot of fun, but weightless—three stars.
Tarantino, on the other hand, for my money, delivers one of his best films—an unpopular opinion, to be sure, but every subsequent viewing for me only confirms this view. In form, Death Proof is a car horror/serial killer-cum-rape revenge exploitation flick. Functionally, however, Tarantino delivers a Bechdel-acing, feminist thriller, full of his trademark loquacity, bravura directing and at least seven sharply differentiated women whose greatest delight is each other's friendship—five stars.
The slow-burn, talky setups to each half of Death Proof helps the film pay off tremendously, in the first section in a nauseating death by stunt car sequence and in the second section in what is arguably the greatest car chase in film history. Between Planet Terror and Death Proof a meta-argument about new-school and old-school filmmaking takes place. Terror's funny, but absurdly over-the-top effects, is contrasted with Proof's literally strapping one of its characters to the hood of a speeding muscle car (stuntwoman Zoe Bell, playing herself), while said car is repeatedly smashed by another speeding muscle car. The scene is gut-wrenching, heart-in-throat action, earned all the more because we have gotten to know Zoe Bell and understand that she's really doing the stunt.
On this viewing, though, I found myself paying even closer attention to the relationships between the women, which are as joyous, fraught and complex as any real women's friendships. Yes, the dialogue is stylized, heightened, but Tarantino's genius here lies in his creation of friendship dialects that feel exclusive, unique and authentic, even if we don't catch everything at first—because we are not in the circle yet.
In a way, it's because he is not tackling an Important Topic here that the film feels so fresh and buoyant. It's not Quentin vs. the Nazis or Quentin vs. Slavery or Quentin's ultimate statement on Hong Kong cinema. It's Quentin's Women—always his downtime subject anyway—and they are thrillingly alive.
Rewatching this after who knows how many years made me think about the usefulness, or lack thereof, of a five star rating system, such as are used widely online—on Amazon, for instance, or Letterboxd. A friend has a very specific meaning, a pretty rigorous approach, to how he uses the Letterboxd rating scale.
He allots a star for each of the following:
craft (cinematography, direction, design, etc.)
did it move me
A movie can score 0, .5 or 1 star for each category.
Me, it's more about pleasure, which is another way of saying I go with my gut. I don't hand out a lot of fifth stars but 3 1/2 stars is a very common way for me to acknowledge a mainstream film that is quite successful on its own terms.
Actually, if I use his system, I would still give Clueless 3.5 stars. But I also think that it's a movie that points out the weaknesses of the system. It's not a movie that has glorious craft (although the costuming is pretty delightful)—except inasmuch as direction helps actors deliver better performances—but it's highly competent and professional.
The performances are not uniformly great, but there's a LOT to love about a lot of them. Alicia Silverstone is darling, but Brittany Murphy, in particular, is sometimes superbly good, really kind of sneaking up on you—and there's a lot of solid supporting work, from Wallace Shawn to Dan Hedaya to Paul Rudd.
The script is very strong and sly. The film is set in the world of the teen comedy, but it is actually a comedy of manners, like its source material. This is an important point because it makes all the difference between something that could feel like a rehashing of tired movie tropes and what is a surprisingly fresh twist on a classic. Rather than date the film, which is now 20 years old, the celebrated teen argot makes it seem current, in the sense that high school slang is just as impenetrable to outsiders now as ever, and underscores the story's class concerns.
Clueless doesn't move me overmuch, apart from its being cute, and, of course, I always find pleasure in a movie that works so well. The romance—getting the guy—I actually find the least satisfying aspect of it. It feels tacked on (though required) and kind of troubling—I know Cher and Josh are not actually related, but surely their romance would be weird to everyone in their family, wouldn't it? I'd like to overlook that, because they are adorable, but I just can't.
There is a voice here—it's not exactly a personal voice, but a thoughtful, witty and benevolent voice. (It seems unlikely that there would be a special group of Amy Heckerling fans, though surely she has and deserves admirers. She is a unicorn: a successful female Hollywood director. Go ahead: name five more, if you can.)
These elements, adding up as they do to a solid Hollywood classic—and certainly a teen favorite (it still is), and a favorite of high school english teachers, too—don't a masterpiece make. But here's the thing—here's where our star system fails us. Because there is so much more of interest in Clueless than can be encompassed in this way, so much more to talk about.
From class to race, to consumerism, to a depiction of a cultural moment, to a brilliant, striking linkage to a culture two centuries removed, that of the world Jane Austen depicts in Emma (the Clueless source material, of course), to an image of "the kids in America" at the pre-dawn of the Internet Age, and Los Angeles culture, and as a case study of women's paths in Hollywood, and as a critique of the "teen comedy" film, and, of course, as a remarkably teachable text, there are many, many uses of Clueless.
So what I am wondering now is how do we talk about the way we value such works? My appreciation of the film is part nostalgia; I can easily imagine a thoroughly disinterested, even disgusted, response—surely a number of my film school friends would simply claim to hate Clueless, and I'm sure many academics would find it incomprehensible and cringeworthy. Some, not all.
But my point is that, for such a useful (and, frankly, pleasurable) text, three and a half stars does not seem reasonable—yet more stars somehow seems inaccurate.
So what do we call the kind of valuing I'm talking about? What do we talk about when we talk about Clueless?
Fucking brilliant, this.
My Twin Peaks fever building again (Season three. Has. Just. Started. Production!), I came across this craziness I never knew about. Peaks was HUGE in Japan.
This is a great reminder of the difference between great filmmaking and everything else.
As a modern parent of small children and a HUGE John Carpenter fan (in the midst of a JC binge, about which more later), this really hits the sweet spot.
Got a haircut over the weekend. At the salon was a remarkable book, created by Crew, which I think makes hair products.
Where there's man there's Crew.
Oh, believe me, I do. Sometimes twice!
At least not for white men.
Mm, yeah, that and a pair of testicles.
His eyes are telling you you're fat.
Okay, now you just gotta give me a fucking break with this shit. Jesus. Someone, somewhere wrote this. And someone approved it. Then a bunch of Hitler Youth posed for the pictures. And someone printed it and put it in my barbershop. But why? That's what I can't figure out. For the love of god, why?