Saturday, October 1, 2016

Horror Film Class Required Movie List

A still from Frankenstein's beautifully shot opening sequence. 

I usually don't blog about academic or teaching-related subjects but I've been blogging about my love of the horror film for some time now. elucidating its roots in German Expressionism, exploring its defining classics, profiling its greatest monster movies, extolling its immortal masterpieces, calling attention to its best recent iterations, effusing about its Gothic incarnations, and even having fun reviewing some of its mid-range entries. So it seems timely and interesting to jot down the list of films I plan to screen in the horror film class I'm teaching this coming spring, with some brief commentary about my inclusions (and exclusions).* Here goes:

The Phantom of the Opera (1925, dir. Rupert Julian). While there is a large body of silent horror cinema I would have liked to include, in the end I narrowed it down to this one towering, influential classic. Would I have liked to show at least one German Expressionist film like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922), or The Golem (1920)? Yes, for sure.

I even seriously considered showing Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr (1932), which, despite its oddball, art-film tendencies, is one of the most unnerving and uncanny horror films I can think of. (It is also one of two films -- the other one is The Student of Prague [1913] -- which would most help me teach the concepts in Sigmund Freud's famous essay "The Uncanny," an early required reading selection.)**

Yet in the end I went with Phantom, for two reasons: (1) It is familiar and easy to follow on the story level, anticipating as it does so many of the monster movies that get made in its wake, and (2) Lon Chaney, its amazing star. With all due respect to German stars Max Schreck and Conrad Veidt, Chaney gets my nod for the most important and talented horror film actor of the silent cinema. He more or less sets the standard for what a truly terrifying yet sympathetic monster should be, paving the way for stars like Boris Karloff . . .

Frankenstein (1931, dir. James Whale) and Dracula (1931, dir. Tod Browning). Of these two, I think Frankenstein is the better movie -- it's pretty much the best of the early Universal horror films -- but I could not imagine a syllabus without both. Hell, without Nosferatu in the mix, the Tod Browning / Bela Lugosi Dracula is one of only two bona fide vampire movies I've got!

Cat People (1942, dir. Jacques Tourneur) is a low-budget masterpiece produced by the legendary Val Lewton and directed by noir / horror master Jacques Tourneur (Out of the PastNight of the Demon). I love the psychosexual dynamics of this film -- it makes the connection between sexuality, ethnicity, and horror quite clear. An exotic (and exoticized / fetishized / animalized) foreign woman (Simone Simon) believes that if she is ever sexually intimate with a man, she will turn into a cat and kill her would-be lover. Nevertheless she falls in love with and marries an over-confident, too-rational American man (Kent Smith) who doubts the reality of her ominous beliefs. Insane erotic-horrific antics ensue.

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, dir. Jack Arnold) is my 1950s creature feature selection. As with Cat People, I chose Creature mainly for its unnerving psychosexual and gender(-ed) dynamics. Although I am personally more partial to 1950s entries Gojira and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, there is something tonally and visually special about Creature from the Black Lagoon. The underwater photography sequences in particular are haunting, spooky, and magical -- they get to the heart of the creepy sexuality that drives the whole film. Interspecies lust and sexual terror set in a primeval jungle = thematically rich horror film fun.

Dracula (a.k.a. Horror of Dracula, 1958, dir. Terence Fisher). Great Britain's Hammer Film Productions is such an interesting studio, a scrappy little operation that accomplished much on the strength of tight scripts, economically cheap yet aesthetically bold set design, consistent direction, and the prodigious star talents of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Hammer Films reimagined many key Gothic and horror film staples -- Frankenstein's monster, Count Dracula, the Mummy -- for the late 1950s and 1960s and beyond.

Specifically, Hammer's version of Dracula lends the vampire tale a lurid, feverish edge via full color cinematography and simmering sexuality. It is, simply put, a really fun Gothic horror film. Plus it can be used to discuss remakes and adaptations: after F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) and the 1931 Browning/Lugosi Dracula, the Hammer version is probably the next most influential (and best) filmic iteration of Bram Stoker's novel.

I couldn't eliminate either Peeping Tom (1960, dir. Michael Powell) or Psycho (1960, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) from the course's required viewing list, so I am making my students watch both of these landmark thrillers over the course of one week (two class meetings).

Obviously, Psycho is the more well-known, canonical choice, a truly great film that every cinema lover should see -- more than once. Although there are certain Hitchcock films (Strangers on a TrainThe Birds) I like equally to Psycho and some (Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo) I like even better, Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece clearly holds a well-deserved place at the forefront of his impressive oeuvre. Psycho is also traditionally viewed as an important precursor to the rise of the slasher film in the 1970s.

But Peeping Tom is fucking amazing and I could not imagine leaving it off of this course's film list. So it stays too.

This Psycho - Peeping Tom split decision exemplifies what I call "the Godfather conundrum." A few years back when I was designing a course on 1970s Hollywood cinema, I really wanted to show the students Francis Ford Coppola's overlooked masterwork The Conversation (1974). I also knew that they needed to see The Godfather, because the idea of a 1970s Hollywood cinema class without The Godfather is absurd. And while maybe a third to a half of the students came into the class having seen The Godfather before, the remainder hadn't, so I felt I had to ensure that everybody saw the historically more significant film that time around. And due to The Godfather's extraordinary length, I didn't feel right asking the students to watch both Coppola pictures in one week. But for this horror class I'm doubling down on Psycho and the less-seen yet holistically better Peeping Tom.

Night of the Living Dead (1968, dir. George A. Romero). This is not only one of my all-time favorite horror movies, it is without a doubt the single most important and influential horror movie of the 1960s. More than any other film, Romero and company's Night of the Living Dead is responsible for raising the acceptable level of onscreen gore, bringing on the nihilism, and showing a whole generation of North American horror auteurs what could be done on a low budget.

As low-budget maestro John Carpenter says of Night of the Living Dead in a 2002 interview, "Everybody who made a low-budget film has been influenced by that movie, every person. Each and every one of us. We’d be lying if we said we weren’t."†

Suspiria (1977, dir. Dario Argento). Really, my whole syllabus is too English-language-o-centric, and omitting influential works by German Expressionists like F.W. Murnau, New Japanese Horror auteurs like Kurosawa Kiyoshi, and even recent "New French Extremity" mind-benders like High Tension and Martyrs really disappoints me. But in the end I chose to favor the North American horror film tradition, so as to foreground interpretive issues (like gender and sexuality) over a more historical account noting lines of directorial influence, etc.

Yet at no point could I ever imagine a horror film class that omitted Dario Argento, the Italian director whose work, along with Mario Bava's, exerted enormous influence on the post-1960s horror movie.†† The only difficult decision was "which film?" In the end I went with Suspiria because, while something like Deep Red speaks more directly to the development of the English-language slasher, Suspiria is more creepy and interesting and supernatural and Gothic. Its stands out from the pack. And its provocatively ambiguous use of point-of-view camera is unsurpassed in global horror cinema.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, dir. Tobe Hooper). I've already written about how the original Texas Chain Saw is my favorite movie, ever. So let me confine my comments here to the film's role in my class: as a representative of the "slasher" subgenre.

Many critics and film historians contend that Psycho set the basic template for the slasher film, though the work of the Italian giallo directors is probably even more directly germane to the development of this popular subgenre. I like Texas Chain Saw because, along with Black Christmas (dir. Bob Clark), it essentially launched the North American slasher film proper in 1974. So I am focusing on the origins here, rather than the commercial heyday, which comes later, at the very end of the 1970s and the first several years of the '80s.

Yes, screening Chain Saw means I'm not showing other classic slashers like Black Christmas, The Hills Have Eyes (1977, dir. Wes Craven), Halloween (1978, dir. John Carpenter), Friday the 13th (1980, dir. Sean S. Cunningham), Prom Night (1980, dir. Paul Lynch), Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981, dir. Steve Miner), or A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, dir. Wes Craven). So many great movies, so little time . . .

The Fly's Seth Brundle sez: "Help me, I'm masticating!"
Videodrome's Max Renn sez: "Long live the new flesh, muthafucka!"

Videodrome (1983, dir. David Cronenberg) is included because Cronenberg is the most inventive and original North American horror director and his work all but defines what it means to do "body horror." I have on-again off-again considered screening his remake of The Fly (1986) instead, but there is going to be a Cronenberg film and it will be hard to pry me away from Videodrome.

I have been occasionally conflicted about this choice. Videodrome is one of my personal favorite films, period. In the context of my class, I really love its depiction of how violence and eroticism get easily combined and tangled up with each other. Plus the whole premise of the in-movie "Videodrome" show (or signal, ee hee hee) is brilliant -- sexuality as (technologically induced) virus, a theme Cronenberg has been mulling over since his early short films in 1969.

Yet I have a feeling that my students might enjoy The Fly more. Videodrome is like a fervent, macabre manifesto whereas The Fly is more polished and plot-driven.‡ In The Fly, the passion is there but it is sublimated into the love affair between Seth (Jeff Goldblum) and Veronica (Geena Davis). Videodrome assaults its viewer with fourth-wall-breaking scenes of grotesque yet metaphorical sexviolence -- and shows us its depraved dystopia though the eyes of Max Renn (James Woods), a misogynistic, perverted, profiteering scumbag.

Alternatively, The Fly presents us with the slow, horrifying bodily disintegration of a basically decent if overreaching man. The horror consists of seeing him lose his humanity and become a vile insect-monster. The Fly's production values are much higher, and the plot way less twisty and ambiguous, than Videodrome's. While Videodrome may actually be the more cerebral (that is, thematically opaque) of the two, it nevertheless possesses a dark, nihilistic psychosexual streak that makes it more horrifying, if a bit puzzling and confusing as well. (I think I just talked myself back into sticking with Videodrome.)

Ringu (1998, dir. Hideo Nakata) and The Blair Witch Project (1999, dir. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez) show that 1999 was a big year for horror. That year, Ringu started a global craze for New Japanese Horror films and consequently, despite the high quality of The Ring (2002) itself, spawned a ton of dull-assed English-language remakes of said films. Meanwhile, Blair Witch made a squillion dollars as a result of its canny, viral internet marketing craze and launched the found-footage subgenre that thrives to the present day.

Ginger Snaps (2000, dir. John Fawcett) is just a great teen horror movie, comedically and postmodernistically self-aware (like Scream etc.) but more interesting in part because of its focus on female sexuality. Brian De Palma's Carrie (1976) would be another strong contender with which to explore this theme, but Ginger Snaps is more contemporary and clever and hip. A solid, intelligent, entertainingly gory horror movie.

The excellent The Babadook (2014, dir. Jennifer Kent) is a personal favorite of mine and should pair well with the previous week's Ginger Snaps, dealing as they both do with issues of coming of age and family melodrama. I like that both films tell female-centered stories. The Babadook is my course's only female-directed film.

Horror often vilifies mothers and maternity by making them monstrous: most mothers who appear in horror movies (like Mrs. Bates and Mrs. Voorhees) are evil to the core. The Babadook reverses that trend, giving us a heroic, brave, determined mother who nevertheless must come to terms with her (family's) dark side. The Babadook fuses horror with melodrama to achieve something really special and interesting and cathartic. A must-see.

The Cabin in the Woods (2012, dir. Drew Goddard). This is not a personal favorite though I've enjoyed it both times I've seen it. It's my example of a postmodern hybrid horror-comedy thing -- that is, a "horror film" in quotes. Also, in large part due to the vigorous cult of Joss Whedon fandom, there has been much recent critical ink spilled on the film, some of which I will use to my advantage in teaching the film to students. It's a fun movie with which to conclude the semester.

Films I most regret leaving out:

  • Gojira (1954, dir. Ishiro Honda). Though I wrestled mightily between this and King Kong for my representative of a "classic" monster movie, I was leaning pretty heavily toward Gojira when a colleague helped me see that Creature from the Black Lagoon would be the best "creature feature" I could show. Creature speaks to U.S. imperialism and sexual repression from the inside, whereas Gojira grapples with nuclear-age guilt and trauma from the point of view of its real-world victims (the Japanese). Creature also pairs better with Val Lewton's Cat People in representing Golden Age monster movies. Sorry Gojira!
  • Alien (1979, dir. Ridley Scott), a truly great monster movie that, like Gojira, I had to cut for space reasons. Alien is well-executed on every level and stands as one of the best horror / science fiction movies ever made. Furthermore, this is a film I want to expose more students to because I want to weaken or debunk the myth that James Cameron's Aliens is superior to -- or even quite as good as -- its influential predecessor. Alien is much written about in film criticism so I have good analytical essays on it. But I ran out of room, so no Alien.
  • The Witch (2015, dir. Robert Eggers). I love this movie, perhaps too passionately and somewhat irrationally. And while screening it could open up interesting discussions about horror film fandom and historical verisimilitude, its main plotline is too similar to Ginger Snaps to warrant its inclusion. (Cue sad trombone.)
  • The Thing from Another World (1951, dir. Christian Nyby) and The Thing (1982, dir. John Carpenter). Fuck yeah! Need I even explain why showing these back-to-back in the same week would be cool? Let me add that I am a big John Carpenter fan and it is disappointing not to have Halloween or especially The Thing on this syllabus. 
  • Eyes Without a Face (1959, dir. Georges Franju). After Gojira, this is the exclusion that pains me the most personally. As an instructor, I would say that my omission of any German Expressionist films or more J-Horror films or even Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street is more egregious, but as a fan, the absence of Franju's chilling masterpiece really hurts. I just love this movie a lot and it images stick with me and haunt me like few films' do. 
  • The Shining (1980, dir. Stanley Kubrick). Regular readers know that I am a major Kubrick fiend, and while in the early 2000s I considered The Shining to be one of the master director's lesser works, I am currently of the opinion that the Stephen King adaptation stands as one of Kubrick's best, most enduring efforts. It is also the absolutely perfect film for teaching about the cinematic Gothic (described here). But alas, I will instead ask Cat People, Suspiria, and both Draculas to perform that function in a course too crowded to incorporate The Shining or other great Gothic outings like The Innocents or Crimson Peak.   
  • Something -- anything -- by director Wes Craven. Sadly, his early shockers Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes got bumped by Texas Chain Saw for slasher week, Scream was superseded by The Cabin in the Woods for postmodern "horror" week, Freddy Kreuger just got fucked over, and even The People Under the Stairs, which works well (alongside the brilliant Candyman) for teaching about horror movies that explicitly depict racial conflict, got nixed for space reasons. I am so sorry Mr. Craven! 
Candyman sez: "What about me, you white devil?"

Count Orlok sez: "What about me, you dummkopf??"

* This is a list (and a course syllabus) I have labored over mightily. It has been difficult for me to winnow down the film choices to fit a roughly fourteen-week semester. Ultimately, there are seventeen required-viewing films included -- I couldn't even trim this thing down to my usual one film per week.
** So deep runs my love for Vampyr and so convinced am I that it makes the perfect companion-piece to Freud's "The Uncanny" that in all the early versions of my horror film class outline, Vampyr figured as the first film. But then last spring I had dinner with film studies colleague Dr. Sid Rosenzweig, who asked me if I was starting off my class with Phantom of the Opera. Once he said it aloud, it seemed startlingly obvious to me that Phantom was indeed the best film with which to launch the course. Thanks Sid!
† From "Interview with John Carpenter and Austin Stoker" videorecorded at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, 25 Jan. 2002. Available as a special feature on the Assault on Precinct 13 "New Special Edition" DVD (Image Entertainment, 2003).
†† Jason Zinoman discusses Bava's and Argento's work and importance in his enthusiastic and informative book Shock Value (Penguin, 2011) pp. 35, 38, 123.
Videodrome is among my top four or five Cronenberg films alongside Shivers, The Brood, Dead Ringers, and Crash.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Double Review: The Blob (1958) and The Wolf Man (1941)

Young "Steven" McQueen plays protagonist Steve in The Blob

I am a self-proclaimed horror movie fan. As a devotee of the genre, I love its towering canonical classics (the 1930s Universal horror films, GojiraNight of the Living Dead, John Carpenter's The Thing), its overlooked but easy to defend hidden gems (MartinThe Descent, Candyman), and even its schlocky fringe entries (Haxan, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Mountain of the Cannibal God) on the border between horror and comedy.

Of course I don't love every horror film I watch (e.g., most of the recent remakes of 1970s classics), and there are horror films I deliberately avoid (e.g., Human Centipede).

But I really enjoyed The Blob. I was aware of it, of course, but never got around to seeing it until a couple weekends ago -- as part of the Criterion Collection, it streams on Hulu Plus. It is a fun, well-constructed monster movie combined with a teen exploitation melodrama. It is infused with 1950s Cold War paranoia (the titular Blob is red after all) and sublimated teen sexuality. The movie maintains a fast clip and uses its studio-set mise-en-scene evocatively.

Check out the spooky meat locker!

A very young "Steven" McQueen plays protagonist Steve, a morally upstanding "good kid" who nevertheless pals around with his small town's group of resident juvenile delinquents. While out on a date with his girlfriend Jane (Aneta Corseaut), Steve sees a strange object drop out of the night sky and rushes to investigate. The object is a small meteorite containing the titular blob -- before Steve arrives, a local farmer finds the meteorite and gets attacked by the slimy, gelatinous entity.

Despite its predictable plot and some hamfisted B-movie acting, The Blob's built-in schlockiness saves it, as do its cool, visceral blob effects. The two go hand-in hand. For example, I laughed more than I got scared during the scene when Steve sees the doctor being attacked by the blob through the window. But that's okay: The Blob is a film that needn't be scary to be pleasurable. In some ways, the film does credit to fans of the monster movie genre by faithfully honoring its conventions and keeping the pace brisk.

God help me, the first time I saw this well-made scene I laughed at poor Dr. Hallen's violent death. 

McQueen is a treat to watch, as is Earl Rowe as Lieutenant Dave, the one cop on the local police force who takes Steve seriously and believes his claims about the monster before anyone else (besides Jane) does.

The Blob may not be a first-ranker as far as monster movies go -- it is no King Kong or Gojira or Them! nor does it have the frightening, paranoid power of Don Siegel's brilliant Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). But it is great fun for its unintentionally campy performances and its cleverly executed (if cheap-looking) effects. The Blob is scrappy, low-budget, schlock-horror cinema at its finest.

Sadly, Universal's The Wolf Man does not hold up quite so well, in part because it is tonally darker, taking itself more seriously than The Blob does. The Wolf Man is hard to laugh at yet isn't as scary or compelling as its studio cousins Dracula, Frankenstein (both 1931), or The Mummy (1932). In the end, despite my general love and admiration for the 1930s Universal horror film cycle, I enjoyed Universal's The Wolf Man quite a bit less than I do those other Universal films or The Blob.

Lon Chaney Jr. is The Wolf Man's star and its weakest link. Unfortunately for him and Universal Studios, leaving the "Jr." off of his screen credit does not grant him the substantial talent and acting chops of his late father.  

The Wolf Man's major problems boil down to its combination of

(1) Predictable, boilerplate plot elements you can see coming from miles away,

and, even more devastating,

(2) The lackluster lead performance of Lon Chaney, Jr. as Larry / The Wolf Man.

It is easiest to talk about these two elements together.

In the opening shot of The Wolf Man, an encyclopedia entry on lycanthropy mentions Talbot Castle as a site of ongoing werewolf occurrences, then seconds later Larry shows up at -- you guessed it -- Talbot Castle. Badly written expository dialogue between Larry and his father (Claude Rains) follows.

It's not that I expect innovative plotting in horror genre fare like this -- it's just that if the plot and dialogue are going to be so canned, then the film needs either really good actors (like, say, Rains, who plays Larry's father Sir John Talbot) or terribly bad or stiff ones so you can laugh at them.* Chaney Jr. is just good enough to be mediocre but not bad enough to be hilarious. He's not colossally bad, especially when playing the Wolf Man, i. e., Larry in werewolf form. But as Larry, he comes off as the kind of one-dimensional, good-ol' American gladhander we usually see Chaney's Wolf Man costar Ralph Bellamy play in films like His Girl Friday or Rock Hudson play knowingly and parodically in Pillow Talk. One has the feeling that Chaney Jr. is not in on the joke here. Rather, his limited acting chops make his Larry unintentionally buffoonish.

To take a contrasting example, Bela Lugosi surely lacks range as an actor -- his portentious mugging as The Wolf Man's gypsy fortune-teller Bela is essentially the same schtick he used to play Count Dracula in 1931 -- but at least he works quite well in the (small) role he is given.

The same cannot be said of Chaney, Jr., who is simply not up to the task of carrying a genre film like this on his hulking shoulders. I should be able to feel more pathos for Larry as the terrible, supernatural disease of lycanthropy afflicts him -- instead, I root for the boring townspeople who want him dead. He comes off especially flat next to nuanced performers like Rains and Maria Ouspenskaya, who plays the gypsy woman Maleva and who steals every scene she's in.

Remember how I mentioned Universal's Frankenstein and The Mummy earlier? The main point of connection between those two films is star Boris Karloff, a world-class film actor who brings that special something -- screen presence, gravitas, charisma -- to every role he plays. Sure, one could argue that Frankenstein, at least, has a slightly better script than most of the Universal films that followed it, and that it benefits from the "freshness factor," being only the second film of the Universal horror cycle after Dracula. Furthermore, both Frankenstein and The Mummy also benefit from the abilities and inventiveness of their respective directors, James Whale and Karl Freund.

Yet the point I'm making here is that good stars make a big difference, especially in genre movies, where other elements are often (by design) formulaic. Even in the present day, there is a reason Tom Cruise action movies tend to perform well, and why big-budget blockbusters that eschew stars often face grim prospects. While I enjoy many of the Universal horror films of the 1930s and early '40s, the cycle's best entries are the ones with really charismatic and talented star actors: Karloff in Frankenstein and The Mummy, Karloff and Charles Laughton in The Old, Dark House (1932), and Claude Rains in The Invisible Man (1933).

So consider skipping The Wolf Man in favor of any of these other, better Universal horror films. Or watch it as an historical curiosity, as an example of what happens when a studio tries in vain to substitute one Chaney for another.

The great Boris Karloff as Imhotep in Karl Freund's The Mummy

* Rains also plays the title role in Universal's excellent The Invisible Man (1933), the nurturing psychiatrist who brings Bette Davis out of her shell in Now, Voyager (1942), and of course the evil yet ultimately pathetic villain in Hitchcock's Notorious (1946).

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Review: Chimes at Midnight (1966)

Jeanne Moreau and Orson Welles in Chimes at Midnight (aka Falstaff). 

I was very fortunate to get to see Orson Welles' late-career masterpiece Chimes at Midnight (a.k.a. Falstaff) at the Dryden Theater on Saturday July 9th. This great film has been hard to see in the United States until this recently restored version started touring select cities this year. Like many of the films Welles made post-1947, copyright issues and distribution problems have kept Chimes from ever getting a Region 1 (North American) DVD release. My hope is that this recently restored Janus Films version will change that.

Critical consensus places Chimes at Midnight high in the running for one of Welles' best films -- it's considered a top-tier Welles entry alongside his debut Citizen Kane (1941), his brutally truncated follow-up The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and his brilliant film noir Touch of Evil (1958).* Calling Chimes "the story that [Welles] had to tell," Simon Callow writes that
Nothing stirred him, moved him or grieved him more, and he strove, over more than thirty years, to find the perfect form in which to tell that story, a form that could encompass both the personal and the universal. The circumstances in which he filmed were almost perversely difficult and yet for once everything, or nearly everything, worked in his favour. Heart and mind, form and content, casting and location, technology and manpower -- all meshed perfectly.** 
I agree with this assessment. Along with Kane and Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight is the Welles film that feels most complete, the most consistent and harmonious. Okay, sure, his Macbeth (1948) and The Trial (1962) are also quite consistent and unified, yet maybe not quite so impactful or heartfelt as Chimes is for me.

Despite its visual brilliance, Welles' Macbeth in particular reveals its low budget and difficult production circumstances in ways that, at times, feel claustrophobic and limiting -- for example, its over-use of vertiginous low-angle shots and extremely high-contrast lighting to make its single set feel more varied and cinematic.

Chimes, by contrast, benefits from its limited locations: the lively pub where Falstaff dwells, the barren halls of King Henry IV, the muddy battlefield, the woods where Hal tricks Falstaff. Chimes' world is only a degree or two more physically expansive than Macbeth's, but it makes all the difference. The world of Chimes is, like all of Welles' film-worlds, exaggerated and hyper-real, yet it is one of the most organic and lived-in film-worlds Welles has ever brought to the screen.

In sum, Chimes at Midnight is the most holistically satisfying and emotionally resonant Orson Welles film I've seen.

Furthermore, Falstaff is the role Welles was truly destined to play. Even more so than Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil or even Carol Reed's The Third Man, Chimes at Midnight shows off the pathos and power of Welles the actor. It is one of the few performances of Welles' in which I really believe the whole time that I am watching a character live his life onscreen, rather than watching Welles winkingly portray a character onscreen.† Falstaff is probably my favorite Welles performance, tied with The Third Man's Harry Lime and besting Charles Foster Kane and even (personal fave) Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil.

While the entire cast of Chimes (including Welles) is superb, Shakespearian stalwart John Gielgud is a complete standout here. He essentially steals every scene he is in, which is appropriate given that he plays the King. He is also one of the few characters in the film who delivers his Shakespearian dialogue in a measured, formal way -- this allows his speeches to really land, because the viewer can comprehend and take in everything he says. Callow says that "Gielgud inhabits the part with a seething inner energy, extraordinary emotional intensity and a flawless command of the King's volatility; it was -- of all people -- Lee Strasberg who said that when he saw Gielgud acting, he heard Shakespeare think" (One Man Band p. 384).

The brilliant John Gielgud as King Henry IV. 

Perhaps it goes without saying that one should have at least a passing interest in Shakespeare to really enjoy and absorb what makes Chimes at Midnight so great. Welles and most of his cast, Gielgud excepted, tend to speak their lines quickly and naturalistically, so some of the intricacies of the language can be hard to catch, especially on a first viewing. Yet that hardly matters. As with much Shakespeare, one can let the words wash over oneself and simply enjoy the rhythm and the poetry of the lines, deriving the meaning from the context, which isn't hard to do.

Chimes' real draw is its brilliant shooting and blocking and use of settings, perhaps particularly in its knockout battle sequence, which must be seen to be believed. This is Welles in top form, and no small detail goes unnoticed. In Chimes -- a film Welles completed to his satisfaction -- each shot lends something important and resonant to the whole.

The steam cloud emitting from this man's helmet is one of the best visual gags 
in Chimes at Midnight

Callow concludes that the process of filming Chimes brought out the very best in Welles, justifying his inspired, seat-of-the-pants directorial methods. As Callow writes,
This is what Welles adored: the gallant, the democratic, the all-in-it together, the romantic way, which he had tried to create in the theatre (with sometimes inspired results) and hoped to be able to bring to film-making, a medium which, because of the large sums of money involved, almost immediately lost its playfulness, its innocence. The idea of innocence is at the heart of Chimes at Midnight, and innocence is what Welles was trying to restore to the process of making movies. For that to happen, everyone had to go along with it, willingly endorsing his assumption of the role of the crazy captain of a mad enterprise. (One Man Band p, 389) 
This is precisely what happened on the set of Chimes: nearly everyone, by all accounts, embraced the process, putting Welles at ease and turning the finished film into something vibrant, alive, and special.
With his strong musical instinct, Welles rearranges the [original Shakespeare] text into an endlessly varying pattern of ensembles, arias, duets, trios and quartets, which form a through-composed whole. It is also quintessentially filmic, never still, ever-moving, breathing, changing direction. (One Man Band p. 384)
Indeed. If you have an interest in (or at least a tolerance of) Shakespeare and/or any interest at all in Orson Welles, you simply must see Chimes at Midnight.

Bonus Afterthought: The very day after I saw Chimes at the Dryden, my girlfriend and I headed north to the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario to see Breath of Kings, a six-hour, two-part theatrical adaptation of four Shakespeare history plays: Richard II, Part One of Henry IV, Part Two of Henry IV, and Henry V. These are the same plays that form the basis for Welles' Chimes, so it was quite a head trip to see two very different versions of similar source material in the space of twenty four hours. The two halves of Breath of Kings -- which we saw in one day, with supper in between -- were really superb.

Seeing these plays abridged and smooshed all together in this form made me realize what an imperialist dickhead Shakespeare's Henry V is. It also lent credence to Callow's claim that
Henry IV is, line for line and scene for scene, is one of the greatest of Shakepearian roles, but it is rarely attempted by a great actor because the King disappears from the play for long sections of the action; this is to be regretted (p. 384)
As performed by lead actor (and Breath of Kings script adapter) Graham Abbey, the Stratford Festival production lives up to Callow's expectation of greatness. In Breath of Kings, the initially heroic, subsequently conflicted, and ultimately morose Henry IV is much more interesting and complex than the brave, wide-eyed Henry V. Maybe, as Welles' film seems to argue, Hal is only interesting when he's slumming it with Falstaff.

In the end, seeing these two so similar yet so different versions of the Henry IV plays was an enormous treat and was very interesting. My memory of Chimes was quite fresh as I watched similar scenes played in front of me on the Stratford stage.†† Comparisons arose. For example, I liked Welles's version of the eulogizing of Falstaff much better than the play's, but I liked Breath of Kings' physicalizing of King Henry IV's wounds -- Chimes' Gielgud seems physically frail but Breath of Kings' Graham Abbey used double-canes and, by the end, could barely walk. He crawls painfully to his litter and is carried offstage to die. Great stuff!

* I have a hard time watching Ambersons -- it is a film in which, for me, the "could have beens" haunt the extant text too much. Oddly, I don't have that problem with the similarly butchered The Lady From Shanghai (1947), whose original soundtrack was replaced with a schmaltzy love theme over Welles' objections and whose climactic funhouse sequence was severely shortened by the studio. Maybe it's because it is a film noir that the weird shifts in tone and extremely repetitious love theme work okay for me in this case.
** Callow, One Man Band (Jonathan Cape, 2015) p. 379.
† There is, of course, much ribald winking and tomfoolery in Chimes, attributable to Falstaff and friends. But none of it feels like Welles peeking through and commenting on the character while he's playing him. In Chimes, for once, he just is the character he's playing.
†† For aficionados, Breath of Kings was performed in the round, a new innovation this year at the Stratford Festival's Tom Patterson Theater.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Carter's Top 39 Films (June 2016)

Here is an off-the-cuff list of my thirty nine "favorite" movies at present. Check out my "this is a gut feeling thing, not a critically thought-out thing" caveat the first time I did this, and see also my lists from August 2014 and November 2015 if you give a crap.

There's a new rule this time: to put a film on this list, I have to have watched it within the last two years.

Here goes:

Gas Food Lodging (1992)
Lovely and Amazing (2001)
Alien (1979)
The Terminator (1984)
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Blade Runner (1982)
Peeping Tom (1960)
The TV Set (2006)
Duel (1971)
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Escape from New York (1981)
The Room (2003)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
The Brood (1979)
Heat (1995)
12 Angry Men (1957)
Shampoo (1975)
Nashville (1975)
Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Barry Lyndon (1975)
The Shining (1980)
Cure (1997)
The Witch (2015)
Das Boot (1981)
Leviathan (2015)
Far From the Madding Crowd (2015)
Throne of Blood (1957)
The Third Man (1949)
Memories of Murder (2003)
Prometheus (2012)
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Fargo (1996)
A Serious Man (2009)
Terri (2011)
Nosferatu (1979)
The Thin Blue Line (1988)

Some comments:

The Third Man is on the list this time because it is the best fuckin' 1940s film noir there is (and if not this, then Double Indemnity). I have always loved The Third Man. It has my favorite tone of any film noir or practically any film, absurdly whimsical yet pervasively melancholic -- and deadly serious when it needs to be. Its use of setting is unparalleled. It has one of the best soundtracks ever. It features one of Orson Welles' best onscreen performances. It only gets better with time. Everything about it is beautiful and awesome.

Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli in Carol Reed's noir masterpiece The Third Man

The Brood is here because it's the most recent David Cronenberg film I've laid eyes on, and anything that guy does, up to and including Eastern Promises (2007), pretty much mesmerizes me. I would normally place Videodrome as my all-out favorite Cronenberg outing, but I saw The Brood at the Dryden last year and it really blew me away. So creepy!

I substituted Das Boot for Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960), since I realized it's probably been over two years since I saw the latter. I saw Das Boot more recently and Wolfgang Petersen's anti-war masterpiece, a perennial favorite, has been on my mind a lot lately.

Similarly, I traded Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut for Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure, for the same reason -- I haven't seen Eyes recently, but I watched Cure earlier this year.

The most important new addition is Tommy Wiseau's schlock masterpiece The Room, which I had the good fortune to re-watch with an exuberant group of friends last weekend. I made an important plot-related realization during this latest viewing: the drug dealer Chris-R (Dan Janjigian) is essentially there to deliver the gun to Johnny. The gun Johnny confiscates from Chris-R during the rooftop scene is the same one he uses to rather dramatic effect in the film's final sequence.

Which is to say, The Room's "what kind of drugs?" subplot is in the film not just at random, but exists to serve a higher plot function. Sure, Chris-R is apparently sent to jail (as Denny claims during his rooftop confrontation with Lisa and Claudette) without the San Francisco Police ever investigating Denny's involvement in his drug dealings. Nor do the cops ever come looking for that gun. But these "plot holes" are rather minor when compared to the film's need to explain how the naive Johnny gets access to a handgun, wouldn't you say?

A few movies that should be on the list but aren't because I stopped at thirty nine this time include Vampyr (1932), King Kong (1933)The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), and probably Crimson Peak (2015).

"Why is this happening to me?"

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Periodizing the Blockbuster Era

The above diagram schematizes some of the factors influencing the transition from the Hollywood Renaissance period (1967-1980) to the early decades of the Blockbuster Era (1975-present).

In the middle part of the chart (with the "synergy" arrow), I draw a boundary at about 1981, walling off the Hollywood Renaissance from the Blockbuster Era. Going solely by the content, tone, and look of the films, it's easy to impose that gap, with Raging Bull (1980) the last barbaric yawp of the European-influenced Hollywood Renaissance period and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) the herald of the big-budget Blockbuster Era.*

You can even see the difference between these cultural and industrial moments -- Renaissance and Blockbuster -- in the two (successful) Spielberg films that straddle the turn of the decade. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), for all its third-act spectacle, is a film of the Hollywood Renaissance, or as close as Spielberg ever gets to directing one barring The Sugarland Express (1974). Close Encounters is an auteurist passion project for Spielberg, based on one of the few screenplays (outside of Sugarland and Poltergeist) he ever wrote himself. It features French New Wave icon Francois Truffaut performing in the movie, his presence a direct nod to Renaissance-era auteurism. More surprisingly for Spielberg, Close Encounters ends ambivalently: an emotionally unbalanced man abandons his earthbound family to fly away with aliens.

And then there's Raiders of the Lost Ark, a tightly episodic, sequel-spawning, consciously "calculated" action blockbuster.

However, at the infrastructural level, and as the short line at the bottom of my chart indicates, the transition between Renaissance and Blockbuster starts well before 1980. Disney is already lucratively synergizing their various product lines (live-action films, animated films, TV shows, theme parks, toys, etc.) by the 1950s, and TransAmerica buys United Artists in 1967. Disney and UA are the corporate harbingers of the post-1970s era of multinational corporate takeovers, corporate mergers, and the dominance of the synergistic business model built around "tentpole" summer blockbusters.

Film historian and political economist Thomas Schatz claims that 1974-5 represents the "peak and, as it turned out, the waning" of the Hollywood Renaissance period, its last hurrah consisting of films like NashvilleNight MovesChinatown, and The Conversation.** Indeed, film historians Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell tell us that the multinational corporate takeover of the major studios was more or less complete by 1982, at which point "all the Majors except 20th Century Fox had become wings of diversified conglomerates" like Gulf + Western, MCA, and Coca-Cola.†

Popeye Doyle sez: "We better enjoy this Hollywood Renaissance thing while we can, Cloudy -- it ain't gonna last."

Yes, certain artsy, downbeat, auterist films continue to be made into the late 1970s and early 1980s: The Deer Hunter, Coming Home (both 1978), Apocalypse Now, Being There (both 1979), Raging Bull, Reds (1981), and even First Blood (1982).

But despite all these promising late entries, there's no denying the implications of 1975's Jaws, "a social, industrial, and cultural phenomenon of the first order, a cinematic idea and cultural commodity whose time had come" (Schatz p. 26). Jaws is extremely well-made entertainment by super-genius director Steven Spielberg -- it's a totally badass movie, even according to Mark Kermode. Furthermore, it establishes the broad template for all subsequent blockbusters via its postmodern genre-mixology:
Jaws was essentially an action film and a thriller, though it effectively melded various genres and story types. It tapped into the monster movie tradition with a revenge-of-nature subtext (like King Kong, The Birds, et. al.), and in the film's latter stages the shark begins to take on supernatural, even Satanic, qualities a la Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist. And, given the fact that the initial victims are women and children, Jaws also had ties to the high-gore "slasher" film, which had been given considerable impetus a year earlier by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. (Schatz p. 25)
Genre-wise, then, the post-1975 blockbuster is nearly always an action-adventure film, even when hybridized with or superficially "skinned" to resemble another genre. Usually set "in the romantic past or in an inhospitable place in the present," the action-adventure typically features "a propensity for spectacular physical action, a narrative structure involving fights, chases and explosions, and in addition to the deployment of state-of-the-art special effects, an emphasis in performance on athletic feats and stunts." As Steve Neale, quoting Michael Nerlich, writes:
the ideology of adventure in its modern sense -- its association with the active seeking out of such events -- was developed in conjunction firstly with the medieval cult of the courtly knight, secondly with merchant adventuring (and state-sponsored piracy) in the early modern period, and thirdly with the spread of empire during the course of the nineteenth century. Hence its links with colonialism, imperialism and racism, as well as with traditional ideals of masculinity, run very deep.††
By defaulting to action-adventure pastiche, rather than artfully revising or reworking specific genres like many Renaissance films do, and by "recalibrating the profit potential of the Hollywood hit" to new, astronomical levels, Jaws and Star Wars toll the death knell of the auteurist Renaissance. Schatz writes that "the promise of Jaws was confirmed by Star Wars" -- its "emphasis on plot over character" solidifies the still-dominant action-blockbuster template (Schatz 24, 31, 29).

In 1981, Lucas and Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark confirms the successful formula and sets the tone for the biggest hits of the coming decade:

Top Grossing Movies of the 1980s (adjusted for inflation) according to Box Office Mojo
1. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
2. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
3. Return of the Jedi (1983)
4. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
5. Ghostbusters (1984)
6. Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
7. Batman (1989)
8. Back to the Future (1985)
9. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
10. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
My favorite sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981's highest grosser and the film that sets the template for the summer blockbuster. 

Quoting Richard Schickel, Schatz notes that blockbusters from this point forward all belong to one of two "metacategories," either the comedy (e.g., Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters) or the action film (e.g., all the other films on the above list). Schatz describes Star Wars in particular as the key proto-"high concept" summer blockbuster. For him, Star Wars exemplifies the tension between story and spectacle that characterizes the summer popcorn movie writ large:
One the one hand, the seemingly infinite capacity for multimedia reiteration of a movie hit redefines textual boundaries, creates a dynamic commercial intertext that is more process than product, and involves the audience(s) in the creative process -- not only as multimarket consumers but also as mediators in the play of narrative signification. On the other hand, the actual movie "itself," if indeed it can be isolated and understood as such (which is questionable at best), often has been reduced and stylized to a point where, for some observers, it scarcely even qualifies as a narrative. (39)
I agree with this account and have myself written about the recent blockbuster's trend toward spectacle over narrative.

What I want to do with the rest of this post is to try to break down the Blockbuster Era (so far) into smaller constituent periods, mainly derived from the chronological sketch given by Mark Harris in his must-read 2014 piece "The Birdcage":
The revolution of George Lucas’s game-changer — in purely financial terms — was that it confirmed what the James Bond series had suggested a decade earlier: There was no ceiling on how much money the right kind of series with the right kind of potentially escalating fan obsession could take in. Over the 25 years that followed Star Wars, franchises went from being a part of the business to a big part of the business. Big, but not defining: Even as late as 1999, for instance, only four of the year’s 35 top grossers were sequels. 
That’s not where we are anymore. In 2014, franchises are not a big part of the movie business. They are not the biggest part of the movie business. They are the movie business. Period. Twelve of the year’s 14 highest grossers are, or will spawn, sequels. A successful franchise is no longer used to finance the rest of a studio’s lineup; a studio’s lineup is brands and franchises, and that’s it.
To continue where Harris leaves off, I turn to Pamela McClintock's recent piece "Hollywood's Obsession with the 'Requel'" for its succinct definition of the latest transmogrification of the blockbuster: the requel. A requel is "a movie that's both a reboot and a sequel, blending old with new in an effort to extend the life of a franchise and, in the best cases, reinvent it for a 'universe' of follow-up movies."

The most successful requel so far.

Whereas the "hard" reboot usually retells an origin story, as with Star Trek (2009) or The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), the requel, according to McClintock, is different from either the reboot or the pure remake "in that it nods to and exploits goodwill toward the past while launching a new generation of actors and stories." It is, in essence, a thinly veiled remake in which the same basic stuff, with slight new variations, happens all over again to a new generation of characters. I like to describe it as "strangely similar things happening to slightly different people."

It's appropriate that Jurassic World should lead the (successful) charge into the Requel period, since it is so transparently a remake of Jurassic Park (Lee Sabo calls it "fan-fiction story-telling"), which in 1993 was already hyper-aware of its status as a global commodity.

The most important shot in Jurassic Park: Jurassic Park's gift shop. 

To sum up: origin-story-retelling reboots include Batman Begins (2005), Star Trek (2009), and The Amazing Spider-Man (2012).

Recent "pure remakes" include King Kong (2005), Cinderella, and Pan (both 2015).

Our requels category is so far inhabited by Terminator Genisys, Jurassic World, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (all 2015), and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016).

I propose the following Periodization of the Blockbuster Era so far:

1975-85: Marking the inception of the Blockbuster Era proper with Jaws and Star Wars, these are the "Ten years that shook the industry" (J. Hoberman), the inception of the mega-blockbuster era. Schatz notes the increase in sequels and remakes from 1974 onward, writing that "From 1964 to 1968, sequels and reissues combined accounted for just under 5 percent of all Hollywood releases. From 1974 to 1978, they comprised 17.5 percent" ("New Hollywood" p. 27).

1986-99: The period of international conglomeration, worldwide release, and global synergy. The period during which Schatz's "calculated Blockbuster" -- calculated to be a major hit, produce sequels and spinoffs, and synergize with a larger product line and brand -- becomes the driving force behind the Hollywood film industry. As Thompson and Bordwell write,
The first wave of film studio acquisitions, from the 1960s through the early 1980s, had been initiated largely by conglomerates who wanted to diversify their holdings, to add a movie company to a menu of bowling alleys, parking lots, soft-drink bottling, or funeral parlors. The wave that began in the mid-1980s was more narrowly targeted, aimed at synergy -- the coordination of several compatible business lines to maximize income. (p. 664)
This period includes the Michael Eisner regime at Disney -- he's CEO 1984-2005. Eisner focuses on synergy and developing branded content, placing "special emphasis on activities and services that went beyond moviegoing or TV viewing" (T&B p. 696).

1989 is a key year, the starting point for the "dark" and "adult" interpretation of Batman on film. As Eileen Meehan documents, a dark interpretation of Batman was test-marketed beforehand by the release of Frank Miller's comic The Dark Knight Returns into mainstream bookstores.‡

Neale notes that in the 1990s Hollywood "conglomeration and synergy tended to accelerate on a national and international scale, as some of the mini-majors disappeared and as others were absorbed by the majors, and as the costs of making blockbusters and routine features alike continued to rise" (p. 230).

This period sees the wholesale onset of computer generated imagery (CGI) with pioneering effects-driven blockbuster films The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), and of course Jurassic Park (1993).

Jurassic Park (1993) is perhaps the key film of this period -- a landmark in computer-generated effects, synergistic product lines, and global release strategies (Thompson and Bordwell p. 697).

Michael Keaton in 1989's Batman, another key film of the 1986-99 period.  

2000-14: I am tempted to call this the "Pointlessly Serious Superhero Movie" period. Fox's X-Men franchise launches eponymously in 2000, setting the general tone for the period. Disney's Marvel Cinematic Universe, which starts with Iron Man in 2008, goes a bit lighter in tone than X-Men, whereas Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy (2005-12) and Zack Snyder's Watchmen (2009), Man of Steel (2013), and Batman v Superman all go darker and more pretentious.

Speaking of Nolan and Snyder, Kevin Tsujihara becomes Time Warner's chairman/CEO in 2013 and announces a slate of ten Warner Bros. movies based on DC Comics characters to be released between 2016 and 2020. Of Tsujihara, Harris writes:
He has never produced a movie; in fact, he is the first studio head to rise in the ranks purely through brand extension and ancillary divisions, and brand extension is what he’s all about. Besides the DC announcement, his big accomplishments have been to nail down those three additional Rowling movies to add to the studio’s portfolio of eight, and to turn one Lego movie into four.
Tsujihara's counterpart at Universal is Jeff Shell, who becomes CEO in 2013 and about whom Variety's Peter Bart and Claudia Eller write that "Shell’s background and management style is strictly corporate and solidly Comcast." Significantly, Shell rises through the corporate ranks on the television side. Writing in 2014, Mark Harris suggests that by making seven- and ten-year plans for interlocking franchises a la Disney's Marvel Cinematic Universe, contemporary movie franchises replicate formulas that have been honed to perfection on and by television:
TV looms large over this new movie lineup. How could it not? TV is everything. TV is how people see movies; TV is where people want to watch movies, on demand and on their own terms; TV is what Twitter wants to talk about. Most of all, TV knows how to keep people coming back, which is its job, every day and every week, and is a quality that, above all others, the people who finance movies would dearly love to poach.
2015: The Requel period begins. In addition to the McClintock piece referenced above, see also Adam Sternbergh's recent essay on the studio as auteur and the "Marvel movie" as prototypical blockbuster. Analyzing directorial duo Joe and Anthony Russo's successful run of MCU films, Sternbergh writes:
As TV becomes more cinematic in its execution (multiple locations, expensive FX), and films become more TV-like in their storytelling (single chapters in an ongoing story), the decision to employ TV directors on Marvel films starts to make sense. Which is why directors like the Russos — talented, proficient, flexible, and instinctually collaborative — are perfectly suited to flourish.
If the release of Jaws marks the beginning of the Blockbuster Era, then it's been forty-one years since then. We are over forty headlong years into this Era, it is barreling along, we are just beginning the Requel period, and there's no end in sight. We don't even really know what we're in for yet. As Harris concludes,
What we are witnessing is not stability but transition — the evolutionary moment of overlap in Hollywood when the old way and the new way transiently coexist. Ten years from now, the old way will be gone. The new way will simply be the way.
The way of the endless requel and its mutant spawn.

Hi, I'm Mark Harris. I'm so goddamned smart about movies and a fine writer, too. Carter is quite impressed with me.

* You'll notice that I call the Hollywood Renaissance a period and the Blockbuster Era an era. That's because the former is a short transitional period bridging the stretch between the decline of the Studio Era (and it is surely in decline by the 1950s) and the rise of the Blockbuster Era. The Hollywood Renaissance years constitute the tail end of a longer period that begins circa 1948 when the Paramount Decree critically alters the makeup of the Golden Age Studio System. Thomas Schatz describes the 1947-60 period in the later chapters of his The Genius of the System (Pantheon Books, 1988).
** Schatz, "The New Hollywood," in Movie Blockbusters, Ed. Julian Stringer (Routledge 2003),  p. 27.
† Thompson and Bordwell, Film History: An Introduction (Third Edition, McGraw-Hill, 2009) p. 664.
†† Neale, Genre and Hollywood (Routledge, 2005) pp. 49, 46, 51.
‡ Meehan, "Holy Commodity Fetish, Batman!" in The Many Lives of the Batman (Ed. Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio, Routledge 1991) p. 53.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Film Reviews Are Subjective


Assigning numbers to creative works, even factory assembled ones like movies, is stupid. Reviews of cultural products like movies should be subjective and qualitative. They should tell you stuff ABOUT the movie, not try to force a meaningless number on it.

This is the main reason why I despise and refuse to use or endorse the Rotten Tomatoes website or its ridiculous Tomatometer.* The Tomatometer is a big-picture aggregator of reviews, which is not the same as an individual review assigning a numerical score. But it still attaches numbers (and its too-broad "Fresh" and "Rotten" labels) to something that (in my view) cannot be quantified -- not without losing its nuance and hence its utility.

Numerical ratings have no place in reviews of individual movies. As Gamasutra's video game reviewer Katherine Cross writes:
What may be an 8.5 to me is very different from what merits an 8.5 to another critic. And what’s worth marking down three tenths of a point? Is my site’s 6.75 different from another’s? What is the difference between a 9.0 soundtrack and a 9.5? Critics give scores on the basis of rubrics provided by their publications, often as not, but even there the score is still the product of a gut reaction; it is a melange of values, emphasis, and personal judgement. It can never be objective.
Yes, exactly that. We might as well embrace our fandoms and biases and just admit that film criticism is a subjective art. There is no point in pretend-quantifying the process.

I've been recently pondering an illustrative case. Reading fellow film blogger Sal Alonci's review of Captain America: Civil War, I noticed the superlatives he uses to describe what is, for him, a genre-pushing, evolutionary superhero movie:
"with Captain America: Civil War, Marvel Studios has once again redefined the superhero genre"

"Putting it simply, Captain America: Civil War is one of the smartest and best superhero films ever made"
I totally get where he is coming from -- this sounds like fandom and I definitely have my fandoms.** I love the excitement of Alonci's review. Furthermore, there are legitimate interpretive angles that a true fan with background knowledge of the comics can bring to bear on a genre film like this, as Alonci does in his sharp overview of the Marvel Universe films so far.

Darth Vader sez: "I am your father!" NOBODY fuckin' knew if THAT was true 
ahead of seeing Return of the Jedi in 1983.

Similarly, The Mary Sue's Christy Admiraal points out that foreknowledge often enhances a fan's viewing experience: "Knowing the identity of a previously unseen character can make it much more exciting when they finally make an entrance, and knowing what’s coming next before it happens can feel like keeping a secret; the informed viewer and the creators are in on it, while the general public will have to wait and see what happens." Alonci clearly possesses this kind of knowledge so his experience of the MCU movies is heightened relative to mine.

There is a lot of subjective fandom in Alonci's Civil War review, especially in passages like: "It's my favorite movie of the year so far, and will probably be my favorite movie of the whole summer." I mean, Alonci isn't hiding anything here. He is admirably up-front about his status as a fan: "I've already seen it three times and I'm going to see it again soon."

What this exemplifies is that ALL of us who write film criticism do so subjectively, at least in part because we are fans of the medium (and of specific genres, films, directors, stars, periods, etc.). This is as it should be. For while there are technical and numerical things we can learn about a movie -- its all-time grosses, for example, or its average shot length -- holistic film criticism is always colored by the history, tastes, predilections, hatreds, and fandoms of the individual reviewer.

For example, I have no interest in, and no intention of seeing, Captain America: Civil War. I never even really considered seeing it, but if I had, that consideration would've ended once I saw this review, in which Mike -- Mike! -- finally says (around the 26:28 mark) that "I got tired of all the punching. I think I'm done with superhero movies. It's no longer exciting to me. It's just punching."

Mike sez: "I think I'm done with superhero movies. It's no longer exciting to me. It's just punching." This is an example of a reviewer's film tastes changing over time. 

I felt like Mike does now a whole MCU Phase ago -- I quit after the first Avengers (2012). So for me, the whole MCU phenomenon is a thing happening to other people -- albeit LOTS of other people, if worldwide grosses are any indicator.

I keep my finger vaguely on the MCU's pulse, reading review articles and the like, and based on what I've read and heard, I may yet watch Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) one of these days. But as I have written before, I am not all that "on board" with the Marvel films in general. I am a superhero movie burnout case.

What, then, do we make of my recent defense of Escape from New York (1981)? Escape is a dystopian, science-fiction-y action film whose dark tone and "all-time icy badass" protagonist, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), make it an obvious cinematic precursor to the post-2000 superhero film. So why do I defend Snake Plissken yet show such callous lack of interest in Steve Rodgers and Bucky Barnes as they enjoy their moment of massive worldwide fame?

Part of it is the passage of time and the transmogrification of my film tastes. In the 1980s, I was a big action-movie fan. Action films (including James Bond) and Star Wars-esque science-fantasy were my go-to genres in those early years. That and comedy.

Nowadays I can hardly be bothered to write seriously about a superhero film or a Transformers film because I just don't care all that much about them. My tastes have grown up and changed, and if I pen anything as gushy as Alonci's Civil War review, it's going to be about something a bit less mainstream like Belle or Snowpiercer or Mad Max: Fury Road.

It is now the superhero fans' moment in the sun, and I do not begrudge them it, even if I have reservations about the dangerous cultural messages geek-centered power-fantasy films typically convey to their target audience. I am not alone in this concern. But hey, there is a time and a place for fantasy, and I grew up on Snake Plissken and James Bond movies and I turned out okay.

In any case I better get used to it. Disney has Marvel movies planned out until 2020. Those super-profitable motherfuckers aren't going anywhere.

Meanwhile, in my own musty corner of the blogosphere, I pen defenses of science-fiction movies nobody else likeslow-budget 1970s horror films, and offbeat directors of whom most people have never heard. Long live fandom.

Werner Herzog sez: "Go for the ecstatic truth, man."

UPDATE 8/5/2016:'s Matthew Dessem agrees with my view, opening his smart piece saying that "If your opinion about a work of art can be expressed as a number, it’s not a very interesting opinion." He contends that "there’s little value in assigning a number to how much we liked [movies]. The interesting questions are 'Why?' and 'How?,' not 'How much?'"
There’s nothing wrong with the question “Should I see this movie?,” and criticism can definitely help answer it. But the right way to find an answer is to consult one or two critics whose taste you trust, not a thousand critics you don’t know.
My sentiments exactly -- well said Mr. Dessem.

* As Kevin P. Sullivan reminds us, the Tomatometer "doesn’t measure film’s quality in the eyes of critics" but is rather "a record of critical agreement." Possibly so, though the value of even that aspect of the Rotten Tomatoes site has been called into question by Film School Rejects' Landon Palmer: "the numbers featured on Rotten Tomatoes provide some notion of a critical response ('critical consensus,' by comparison, is something that can only be argued, not tabulated) conveniently devoid of substance and content. Thus, Rotten Tomatoes can serve a purpose as an initial point of access, but never as a substitute for criticism itself." 
** Even beyond my love of Bond, rekindled embers of my ancient Star Wars fandom surely account for some of my warmth toward The Force Awakens.