Friday, April 11, 2008

Movies and First Impressions

I took part again this year in the 48 Hour Film Project with the great Team Playomatic.

Our genre was Detective/Cop and we made a funny noir spoof, complete with voice over lines like: "I'd been played like a used accordian with no keys."

Watching the films at the screening, I tried to keep in mind some things from Clive James' review of American Movie Critics (A Library of America Anthology.)

In our appreciation of the arts, does a theory give us more to think about, or less? To me, the answer looks like less, but it could be that I just don't like it when a critic's hulking voice gets in the way of the projector beam and tries to convince me that what I am looking at makes its real sense only as part of a bigger pattern of thought, that pattern being available from the critic's mind at the price of decoding his prose.

For as long as the sonar-riddled soundtrack of The Hunt for Red
October has me mouthing the word ''ping'' while I keep reaching for the popcorn, I don't want to hear that what I'm seeing is an example of anything, or a step to anywhere, or a characteristic statement by anyone. What I'm seeing is a whole thing on its own. The real question is why none of it saps my willingness to be involved, not even Sean Connery's shtrangely shibilant Shcottish ackshent as the commander of a Shoviet shubmarine, not even that spliced-in footage of the same old Grumman F9F Panther that has been crashing into the aircraft carrier's deck since the Korean War.

On the other hand, no prodigies of acting by Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut, climaxed by his partial success in acting himself tall, convinced me for a minute that Stanley Kubrick, when he made his bravely investigative capital work about the human sexual imagination, had the slightest clue what he was doing. In my nonhumble ticket purchaser's opinion, the great Stanley K., as Terry Southern called him, was, when he made Eyes Wide Shut, finally and irretrievably out to lunch. Does this discrepancy of reaction on my part mean that the frivolous movie was serious, and the serious movie frivolous? Only, you might say, if first impressions are everything.

But in the movies they are. Or, to put it less drastically, in the movies there are no later impressions without a first impression, because you will have stopped watching.

Clive James claims that if you do a close reading of the anthology, the idea of the auteur theory is gradually and damningly revealed as "bogus." The auteur theory, James seems to be saying, cannot stand up the empirical evidence that "compromises" in filmmaking often resulted in better films by the great artists. "That, however, was a tale too complicated to tell for those commentators who wanted to get into business as deep thinkers. The likelihood that to think deep meant to think less didn't strike any of them until their critical mass movement had worn itself out."

For some critics, James points out, ranging far and wide in long essays often resulted in criticism that was farther away from the actual film, and, possibly, an elevation of films that were farther away from life:

There have been plenty of editors who didn't get it. The legendary William Shawn of The New Yorker never grasped that he was giving Pauline Kael too much room for her own good.

Although Kael knew comparatively little about how movies got made,
she was unbeatable at taking off from what she had seen. But beyond that, she would take off from what she had written, and there was a new theory every two weeks. A lot of her theories had to do with loves and hates. She thought Robert Altman was a genius. He can certainly make a movie, but if it hasn't got a script, then he makes Prêt-Ã-Porter. That's one of the most salutary lessons of this book: what makes the movie isn't just who directed it, or who's in it, it's how it relates to the real world.

That principle really starts to matter when it comes to movies that profess to understand history, and thus to affect the future. Several quite good critics in various parts of the world knew there was something seriously wrong with Steven Spielberg's Munich, but they didn't know how to take it down. If they could have put the lessons of
this book together, they would have found out how. Munich might have survived being directed by someone who knows about nothing except movies. But it was also written by people who don’t know half enough about politics. That was why the crucial meeting of Golda Meir's cabinet went for nothing. The movie could have got by with its John Woo-style gunfight face-offs, but without an articulate laying out of the arguments it was a waste of effort.

Similarly, if you know too much about the movies but not enough about the world, you won't be able to see that Downfall is dangerously sentimental. Realistic in every observable detail, it is

nevertheless a fantasy to the roots, because the pretty girl who plays the secretary looks shocked when Hitler inveighs against the Jews. It comes as a surprise to her.

Well, it couldn't have; but to know why that is so, you have to have read a few books. No matter how many movies you have seen, they won't give you the truth of the matter, because it can't be shown as action.


Ian Thal said...

[It]was also written by people who don’t know half enough about politics.

In this, Clive James gets at what is so wrong about so much "political" art-- so rarely is political art created in a way that exposes the nuances of the issues it attempts to tackle-- in part because the artists themselves haven't done the homework.

This isn't a call for artists not to have a political opinion, or for artists to be "balanced" (whatever that really means) but to engage the political sphere in a manner more sophisticated than a bumpersticker, television pundant, or the typical Op-ed columnist.

I suppose this is a peeve of mine.

Thomas Garvey said...

Are we suprised that someone who not only liked The Hunt for Red October but also mouthed the word "ping" throughout it was dumbfounded by Eyes Wide Shut? No, we are not surprised.