So, living in LA and with the end of the year fast approaching, there's been an inundation of "Best Movie of the Year" and "A Triumph!" critical nonsense praise being slapped on a whole slew of last minute contenders. Don't get me wrong, I get it from an advertising point of view, but it's got me thinking about how praise is handed out so easily like 2 buck tequila shots.
At the moment the film that's riding the critical praise crest like a surfer on Maui's north shore is NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (how do you like that for mixed metaphors?). Hailed as a return of the golden boys, critics and film-goers have been quick to call this the Coen brothers best film since BLOOD SIMPLE. "The most searing film I've seen this year!" exclaims one reviewer. Needless to say, I had to go find out. Having read the book when it first came out in hardback, I was already a fan. Could it be made into a film? Sure, films are different creatures than books; something was bound to get lost in the translation, but perhaps something else could be discovered and gained.
To be sure, the film has some amazing moments in it. I was riveted by the opening of the film and the tense confrontation at the Texas/Mexico border hotel. But, lets be honest here, there are some boring parts in the film. Parts that the pacing seems off on. There are accents that slip and moments of SFX that seem to be comedic in their explicitness and obvious CGI employment.
Now, hold on a second. Put your pitchforks down; this is one man's opinion, here. But that's the point I'm making: oh so many critics out there are so hungry to praise at least a handful of artistically 'safe' movies -- movies that are regarded by the critical establishment as having arrived with artistic merit -- that it is as if their collected wishes are trying to will these films into becoming classics. Example? David Cronenberg's lackluster EASTERN PROMISES for one. (Great Howard Shore score, btw...)
Here's another example from earlier in the year: KNOCKED UP. This film arrived in the theaters all wrapped up with critical praise: a riotous and heartwarming comedy, "believe the hype!" one review states, "Knocked Up is one of the funniest films of 2007!"
Wow! So with praise like that how could I not take my wife to it? Only, the film isn't that funny. It's not a comedy, it's a weak drama with no mystery (Like, duh, is the fuck-up stoner loser ever going to get his act together and marry the the woman he knocked up and become a man? Seriously, did you ever have any doubt?) What's mildly amusing about the film is Seth Rogan's moron stoner friends making jokes about looking like Robin Williams knuckles. But that, my friends, does not make a comedy.
"So what, Rucka, are you getting at?" You ask.
Simply, how will we view these films in 30 years or in 50 years. Are celebrated classics of yester-year really all that much better? Or are we more forgiving?
One of my favorite films of all time is Akira Kurosawa's SEVEN SAMURAI. I'm floored by the power of its filmmaking and the efficiency and scope of its storytelling.
But, here's the thing: I also know that when I watch it I'm more forgiving of the occasionally overly affected performance (that borders on melodrama), the periodic moment of technical error and the brilliant yet somehow less than subtle score (certainly by our modern standards-- although Hans Zimmer would be a poor comparison) that underlines the films emotional through-lines. I am willing to offer this film these exceptions and heap praise on it since I understand that the film is over 50 years old and has survived still intact, as a piece of powerful filmmaking.
This ability to -- or action of -- qualifying the films I watch goes a long way to explaining why many people poo-poo new films while simultaneously praising crappy films of yesterday. Quentin Tarrantino has made a side business of doing this peaking with the bloated GRINDHOUSE double feature replete with faux vintage exploitation trailers.
While watching a recently purchased used LaserDisc of Jack Hill's seminal (see? There I did it myself!) chick exploitation flick SWITCHBLADE SISTERS that Tarrantino's now defunct Miramax sub-label Rolling Thunder Pictures released back in '97 I was struck by how, well, bad the filmmaking is, but how much I loved it. There's a flavor to the film and a kind of anarchism to it that permeates it-- a funky, free jazz quality, if you will. But here I am watching it in a post-modern context, trying to explain to my wife why this is such a badass film. Seriously, I wonder whether I would've really liked it back in the early seventies?
This carries over to my much loved Japanese SUKEBAN / ONNA BANCHO flicks. It carries over to cheapie TOEI YAKUZA program pictures-- one of which I have a poster of over the desk where I write this. What is the line between good and bad and what we can qualify as being better than it actually is? And then, of course, is the important question of: does it really matter as long as we really like it?
For the record, the movie from this year that I hope gets the forgiving old film treatment is David Fincher's ZODIAC. I have a feeling that many people have already forgotten that it came out in 2007 and that in the mad rush up to the Oscar ® nominations, it will be left out in the cold behind 3:10 TO YUMA and IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH, but I believe that it is one of the films that will stand up to the test of time. Serious filmmaking went into this film, with strong performances, and a puzzle box screenplay-- but what does it matter in the end?
Part of what makes this year-end mad rush to critical praise so bizarre is that it's a way for critics to plant a flag on a movie and say, "Been there, done that. If it weren't for me, this film would've been forgotten."
So I leave you with this, keep in mind all of those amazing quotes that tell you to go see a movie, doesn't necessarily make it a good film. Group think is intoxicating. Furthermore, leave the advertising driven critical praise to the studios: they're only interested in the bottom line. Let's see which of these films, warts and all, becomes a classic.
Finally, for a film that you should see in theater-- because it will become the stuff of cult phenomenon and it is a piece of what I can only describe as 'outsider art' -- SOUTHLAND TALES. No shit. It's unbelievable that it got made in the first place.