Monday, July 13, 2009

Criticize THIS

The staggering opening shot of Carlos Reygadas' masterpiece, Silent Light, available on DVD September 8th.

I'll admit something - it doesn’t really bother me that the average viewer doesn’t consult the critics. It bothers a lot of film critics, but, as someone who's trying to develop into that role, it honestly doesn't bother me. It bothers me somewhat that almost no one I went to film school with considered movies that weren’t being advertised at them, and never went to a non-genre foreign film, but that’s only because they’re supposed to be interested in film itself. Too often people claim to love movies, but in reality stay very close to their comfort zone, and rarely actively seek the movies that are really worth watching. Which is why they end up complaining that “they don’t make them like they used to.” There are huge strides being made in film making, but how many people actually saw Silent Light or Youth Without Youth?

(A subject for future consideration - how many people had the opportunity? I had exactly one available night to catch a two-week run of Silent Light in Portland, OR. It never even came to Boston, a city otherwise rife with opportunity for the cinephile.)

What does bother me is the fact that, once someone has seen a movie like, say, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (or, as Jim Emerson has taken to calling it, Transformers: ROTFL) or Bruno, and has reached an opinion on it, that opinion will shield them against any sort of discussion you’d like to engage in about it. If we are to refrain from discussing religion and politics, as manners have taught us, shouldn’t we at least be allowed the cinema?

As is quite often the case, Jim Emerson gets to the bottom of it: “Critical thinking is not a value prized by our culture.”

Over the last week, I saw five films in new release: Two Lovers, Three Monkeys, The Hurt Locker, Bruno, and The Man From London (don't worry, I hit the multiplex quite a bit, too, it's just been an art house kind of week). Of those, the only one I would strongly recommend against somebody watching is Bruno, which, incidentally, just hit #1 at the box office last weekend (I felt okay knowing I paid for The Hurt Locker and snuck into Bruno). By the next night, I was in an apartment full of people who had seen Bruno, and I tried to point out the many ways in which it totally failed as a film (a totally uninteresting central character, a plot connected by only the thinnest of threads, a general feeling that most of what we were seeing was a lie). I was met with the typical response when it comes to criticizing a comedy: “Well, I laughed.” That may be the case, but it saddens me more than a little bit that the be-all and end-all of considering comedies is whether or not it makes us laugh. While that should certainly be a factor, it can’t be everything, but because audiences allow it to be, Bruno succeeds.

This is ultimately why I feel that film and television should be taught in middle school and college. English and Lit classes try to teach people critical thought, but by and large people do not have the capacity to consider literature seriously, because it’s been decades since literature was something the average person, much less children, engaged in for entertainment. We are raised on movies and television, and if we were required to ask ourselves why something entertained, engaged, or – God forbid – honestly moved us, things like Transformers: ROTFL or Bruno wouldn’t happen. We would come up empty.

Ebert insists (in a piece well worth reading) films like these happen, and people enjoy them, because they’re not sufficiently evolved; he believes people haven’t been exposed to many truly great films, and thus settle for the spectacle in front of them. This would be similar to how, in the early days of the cinema, a theater could put just about anything onscreen and people would go in droves for the sheer amazement of simply seeing a picture move (actually, now that I say that, I wonder if we as a people have actually devolved?).

I hope he’s right. In large part, I’ve seen that in myself over the years. As I’ve seen more and more films of varying intent and quality, it takes more creatively and less spectacularly to thrill me. But on the other hand, last year saw tremendous box office success with such films as WALL-E, The Dark Knight, and Iron Man. Obviously, the box office only indicates how well the marketing team did their job, but it does show people saw these films, so they must know movies can be at least that good. And if that doesn’t teach them, what more will it take?

1 comment:

Julie said...

It would be great if film studies could be taught in schools, but then again, many schools can't afford to have even music or sports anymore, so film is gonna seem like a frivolous luxury. But some teachers sneak it into the curriculum - my badass 9th grade English teacher showed us stuff like Cinema Paradiso and Au Revoir Les Enfants (so much nudity!!) and delivered to us the immortal line: "We don't watch movies in here, we watch FILMS!"