Snobs - Pt. 1: John Geilgud as Hobson in ARTHUR (1981)
Earlier this month, a few days before TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON opened, a (somewhat) popular online film critic posted an article with the big ALL UP IN 'YO FACE! byline: “WHY I WON’T REVIEW TRANSFORMERS 3”. Hmmm? First red flag right there - the title obviously indicating he’s about to go on a tear about a “certain kind” of big budget Hollywood excess filmmaking. Okay, that’s his prerogative. And yeah, there is a trend within the industry wherein the tail ends up wagging the dog, and the “type” of film takes over from the film itself. Y’know, where you end up getting the “Special Effects Film” instead of a good film which happens to have special effects.
I’ve decided not to mention said critic’s name because, after reading his “article” I didn’t want to give the self-absorbed little jackanapes the attention he was obviously attempting to muster. Who knows, maybe he had a few Bacardi & Cokes or something before sitting down at the keyboard. Never the best thing. If you want you can Google it and read it for yourself. Anyway, before you get that look on your face, No! I’m not gonna turn this into a screed extolling the "artistic merits" of TRANSFORMERS director Michael Bay. I mean, yeah, to say the guy is excessive is an understatement in the extreme. Remember that hilarious ROBOT CHICKEN skit a couple of years back? - “EXPLOOOOSIONS!!! A MICHAEL BAY FILM!". Well, it was funny because it was kinda true, right? Okay, not "kinda". That shit was true through and through up the yin-yang. That doesn't necessarily however make him deserving of the comments this guy was hurling at him and his work. Lemme explain. I think you'll see it makes sense after I do.
Yeah, Michael Bay's brand of filmmaking takes a little getting used to. And it can at times be a cinematic pain in the ass and migraine to the skull. Raised and reared on more idea, narrative and character-driven science fiction and adventure films (Michael Crichton’s WESTWORLD, Ray Harryhausen’s JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, Spielberg’s RAIDERS and hell, even DIE-HARD is more centered around the John McClane character than it’s boffo razzle-dazzle pyro-technics, … all those films being childhood faves of mine), when I first saw two of Bay’s earlier films - BAD BOYS and THE ROCK - I seriously considered walking out during their opening five minutes.
Those swooping camera moves, etc. just felt to me a little more like “Look Ma, I’m finally directing!” and less like anything to do with ANY thing plot-wise. At any rate I ended up NOT walking out on either of them, and ended up enjoying both. Can’t say the same for ARMAGEDDON or PEARL HARBOR. Don’t dig those at all. THE ISLAND however, great stuff. A genre film propelled by (hey, get this!) ideas, concepts, narrative and character. Anyway, not to get sidetracked. I just had to stress that yes, I get it. I understand why and how Bay’s brand of filmmaking can induce the none too uncommon response of a headache or two, not to mention a few rolled eyes.
Snobs - Pt. 2: Thurston and Lovey snob it up on GILLIGAN'S ISLAND
But there’s a big difference between not liking something … or even a certain kind of something … and being offensive about it; offensive to not only the subject at hand, but also to your readers in general. If you want to be a snob, by all means, as Hugh Hefner once said, “If it feels good, do it“. But you can do it in a GILLIGAN‘S ISLAND “Thurston & Lovey“ kind of way without slapping someone across the face.
The offensive snob, you see, doesn’t just dislike something (and it’s everyone’s right to dislike what they choose), they dislike something, all it represents, and they toss into the bin marked “tasteless”, “common” and “unlearned” anyone who tends to disagree. When this critic went on to use words like “excrescence” (to define Bay’s excess) and phrases like “My life’s too short for this bulls**t …”, and remember, all this without having even seen the film he was raging about (and critics often attend free press screenings, so it’s not like he paid $12 bucks then felt ripped off) … . Well, things devolved quickly into what felt like less an article and more a self-aggrandizing piece of nose-upturned arrogance.
Personally I have a problem with this kind of arrogance. I realize filmmaking isn’t brain surgery or the cure for cancer. But it is an art form, and one I love. Sergio Leone once said, “I was born in the theater … almost”, and I’ve always felt the same way. As a child, film was my first window into the greater world outside my neighborhood. My first glimpse into other cultures and philosophies other than my own, as well as my introduction into other art forms.
Soundtracks spurred an interest in all kinds of music - jazz, classical, folk, world beat, etc. Costume and Production Design (as well as a short stint at The Art Institute of Philadelphia) helped me understand how you can send “loud and clear” subconscious messages (and yes, I realize that’s an oxymoron) via deft execution of those disciplines. As I later became friends with photographers, actors and other writers, we’d bat about, bandy and debate how those and other disciplines either worked or didn’t in certain films. In a nutshell I fell in love.
Which is not to say you just love EVERYthing. Hardly! Back "in the day" when HBO was pretty much the only movie network available, they were AMC, TCM, Bravo, ESPN, Ovation and The Documentary Channel all rolled into one. This was serious film school baby, as early in the day you could watch and analyze MOONRAKER or CLASH OF THE TITANS, then later (if you took a nap earlier and if your parents were out) sit up late and dissect the films of Vittorio De Sica or Lina Wertmuller. But only so late as HBO ceased transmission around midnight or 1:AM back then.
At any rate, during this time I came to love Truffaut (as well as Kurosawa and Robert Altman) and feel that Wertmuller (while amazingly the first of only four women ever nominated for a Best Director Oscar - the others: Sofia Coppola, Jane Campion and Kathyrn Bigelow) was a bit too arrogantly condescending for my tastes… an opinion which still raises the ire of cineastes friends. And what the hell, while we're pissing people off, I’m not necessarily the biggest fan of James Cameron’s TITANIC either. Love his attention to historical detail but feel the film comes up terribly short in the character department.
Characters just need to have faults to overcome, and Jack & Rose are still too damned perfect for their own good. For my money the estranged couple of Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in Cameron’s THE ABYSS are much more three-dimensional and realistic. I dunno, maybe they just remind me more of people I grew up with and can relate to. Whatever. Also always felt THE USUAL SUSPECTS, while witty and clever, was never nearly as clever as it believed itself to be. Anyway, you get the idea. While not liking EVERYthing, one can find things to appreciate in everything. Oh yeah, one more nifty tidbit. I promise you‘ll dig this.
Snobs - Pt. 3: Randolph & Mortimer take snobbery to the bank in TRADING PLACES
Years ago, while working at a popular city video store, every Monday I and a co-worker named Sloane would have what we called “Bad Movie Night”, where she and I would scour the shelves for what absolutely HAD to be the worse film ever made. We’re talkin’ grade “Z” fare here.
The store had something like twenty-odd screens throughout the building. And neighborhood folk would often stop by (a couple’a sheets to the wind after having a few drinks at the bar across the street) in order to partake in our local MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000-like festivities. What was consistently surprising however was how often (Jeez! 60% of the time) we’d be fifteen or twenty minutes into the film, when either Sloane or myself would say, “Hey, this is actually kinda cool. Take it out and put something else in. I’m taking this one home tonight”. How else could a person come to love 1987’s HELLO MARY LOU: PROM NIGHT 2. It’s famous line, spoken by the film‘s evil-possessed heroine “Craig-y’s soooo cool!” would follow me around for years. So, all this to say - a love of the medium. A love of the ART FORM.
And film, regardless of it’s now often commercial considerations (even in the independent world), is an art form; one which incorporates every other art form. So from my POV, when a “know-it-all” snob comes along, offensively and blinding trashing everything in his or her path (especially before even seeing something) I wonder how sincere their love of the medium really is, and whether they should be a critic to begin with.
Snobs - Pt.4: Winona Ryder falls in (then out) with the ultimate social critics - the HEATHERS (1988)
Admittedly I’ve never really been fond of most film critics in general. Far too many tend to set themselves above the audience for (and to) whom they’re supposedly writing. Throughout history every great art form has always had a very “blue collar common-man” point of identification … even origin. Whether it was pre-historical man telling camp fire stories and drawing images on cave walls, Shakespeare filling his socio-politically aware plays with enough sex and violence to hold the interest of a drunken audience, or even the New Testament of the Bible being written in Koine Greek (the more “common language of the people”) as opposed to Classical Greek.
"Old School" cinema critic / educator Leonard Maltin
later comic books, graffiti, the pop art movement of the 1960s, and
even hip hop, would continue this tradition. In the 1950s even
something as “unimportant” as a science fiction movie would become that
era’s most accurate social barometer with films like INVASION OF THE
BODY SNATCHERS and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL making Cold War and
religious comments politicians of the day wouldn‘t dare.
Once upon a time those who called themselves critics actually imparted information in their reviews. Somewhere in there you’d have a behind-the-scenes tidbit or two; some kind of insight into how the film got made and why certain things ended up as they did, or as they didn’t but should have. The Special Features sections of DVDs and the internet eventually rendered that journalistic need obsolete, and many reviewers then seemed to become more interested in the turning of a witty phrase, to be remembered or re-quoted, than in the intelligent dissecting, deconstruction and analyzing of a film’s merits and/or weaknesses.
Snobs - Pt. 5: ... "Ummmm?"
There are a few “old schoolers” out there who still do the classic “deconstruction to analyze“ thing. Leonard Maltin is one of the best. So is Elvis Mitchell. Then again those guys are actual film historians too. And even though I don’t always agree with Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers, The New York Times’ A.O. Scott, and didn't always see eye-to-eye with Pauline Kael or some others, I certainly respect and admire their love of the medium to the degree that they won’t just hurl stones at what they dislike; but will / would back up their statements while at the same time attempting to inform.
So it is possible to disagree (with a film or with a person) but also to respect and seek to understand. This lack of artistic respect isn’t limited to critics either. The attitude’s been spreading among film fans and even other filmmakers. Hop into the “Way Back Machine” with me (that's an "over 30" reference; if you don't get it you need to maybe watch more vintage cartoons late night on Boomerang).
Around the time DVDs took off (the mid 1990s), the medium, combined with the already burgeoning home video rental explosion, created a need for more films. This helped the always struggling independent film world gain more solid footing as consumers were understandably a little more willing to take a chance watching an “obscure little movie” at home for a couple of bucks than they might be willing to do in a theater. Festivals like Sundance and Telluride grew. And the launching of networks like IFC and the Sundance Channel (originally founded by Showtime, Universal and Robert Redford, but since purchased by Cablevision), combined with the creation of lighter and less-expensive more consumer-friendly cameras, to elevate many film students and amateur movie makers to the level of modern day auteurs.
As with any great “Force” however, the movement had it‘s “Dark Side (sorry, couldn’t resist). More and more you began to see big stars appearing in small independent releases, which was awesome as it helped these films get made. But you’d also see some of ‘em appear at independent festivals, and you’d watch slack jawed as they shamelessly big time dissed big studio films in general, often ironically (and hypocritically) right after they’d just appeared in one and been paid a million bucks to do so.
Director Wolfgang Peterson
In the film industry version of the schoolyard games “pile on” and “kill the man with the ball” some young independent directors (not all of them technically versed or proficiently trained either) jumped into the fray. I don’t remember his name, I’m sorry (hey, I told you this would be a little more "fast and loose"). But around this time I watched an IFC interview with a filmmaker who casually (and to me insultingly) cited director Wolfgang Peterson (who had just released OUTBREAK-1995) as an example of the “cookie-cutter Hollywood director with no individual sense of style or voice”. To this bit of snobbery I angrily yelled at the TV screen, “Yo Dude! Back up! You obviously don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, and you really need to expand your limited education beyond the three or four years of film history you think you do know”. But then again ignorance (an absence, misunderstanding or lack of information) has always been a primary building block of snobbery.
Peterson's claustrophobic DAS BOOT (1981)
Not to turn this into Film 101, but to those not familiar with the “auteur theory” of filmmaking, here’s a quick “Reader’s Digest-like” synopsis of the concept. If you’d like a slightly more detailed (and very well executed) one page breakdown, check out Au-Cinema’s "Thematic Criticism and Auteurism".
In a nutshell the “auteur (or ‘author’) theory” proposes that in the same way the personality, voice and world view of a writer can’t help but be imprinted within the “DNA” of a novel, such is the case with the film of a director, especially when the director turns their attention to genre material (mystery, sci fi, horror, romance, comedy, etc.) as the “cloak” of said genre allows their “voice” a little more latitude whereas a more “serious” film (such as documentary or fact based narrative) would not. Hitchcock’s thrillers, John Ford’s westerns, John Huston’s noir mysteries, Truffaut’s coming of age tales, Spielberg’s science fiction films and John Milius’ military themed adventures are all sighted as examples of this.
Peterson's claustrophobic AIR FORCE ONE (1997)
Now, forgetting for a moment the simple technical fact that filmmakers have been ripping off the claustrophobic "verite'" style of Peterson's DAS BOOT - 1981, for the last 30 years (Cameron's THE ABYSS and TITANIC, the STAR TREK films, U-571 and many others including Peterson's own AIR FORCE ONE - '97), upon close thematic examination of his other works (THE NEVERENDING STORY - ’84, ENEMY MINE - ’85, SHATTERED - ‘91, IN THE LINE OF FIRE - ’93, THE PERFECT STORM - 2000, TROY - ’04, and POSEIDON - ’06) one sees a consistent ideological thread extolling the importance of the individual rising above a structured status quo imposed by either a politcal/military force or by fate itself.
The U-Boat crew of DAS BOOT surviving (and then not) against all odds, the harassed child Bastian (Barrett Oliver) in THE NEVERENDING STORY altering the plot of the already written book by becoming a part of it, the fishing boat crew of THE PERFECT STORM defying mother nature, Achilles defying the gods in TROY, and so on. In OUTBREAK, Peterson’s childhood recollections of growing up on the German / Dutch border during Nazi occupied WW2, would find their most obvious ventilation since DAS BOOT.
Peterson's psychologically / politically claustrophobic OUTBREAK (1995)
When the hazmat-suited U.S. military forces move into the fictitious town of Cedar Creek, California to contain the spread of an Ebola-like virus, their carting off of civilians to a “quarantine center” (and eventual death) is a disturbingly close analogy to Hitler’s Final Solution and it’s concentration camps, as well as to America's (while perhaps less lethal, just as illegal) internment of it's own citizens of Japanese ancestry during WWII.
In the Washington, D.C. based sequence where a group of politicians debate “neutralizing” Cedar Creek with a massive weapon, and argue the temporary suspension of Constitutional rights “for the good of the entire populace” it is an eerie foreshadow of the argument which would arise after the 9/11 attacks and attendant controversy over the Patriot Act. Granted, at the time of OUTBREAK’s release, 9/11 had not yet occurred. But the same argument had occurred in many countries prior … including Peterson’s own Germany many years before. Now, I'm not gonna make excuses for Peterson's POSEIDON, which came years later. It was technically magnificent if a little narratively slack. But for the most part, had the young “quick on the verbal draw” independent filmmaker that day on IFC been a little more aware of his filmic history, chances are he never would have made such a sweepingly general and ultimately snobbish remark.
Oh, and by the way, I eventually did see TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON, … and I dug it. It’s not perfect. It’s ungodly long (over two and a half hours). But that’s not a TRANSFORMERS fault as much as it is a fault of current “Summer Event Movie” film making in general. Michael Bay tends to shoot every single woman in his movies (even the extras in the background) as if they’re in a Victoria’s Secret commercial (which as I guy I personally don’t mind too much, hey - sue me), and some of the film’s early humor is a little forced, as if struggling to recapture some of the wit of the first film.
But it’s story is clever (love the way it re-writes the historical reasons for the Cold War space race with the Soviets), it’s got the greatest cameo in the history of films (interestingly half the audience didn’t seem to realize who the person was), and contains the all-time best filmed skydiving sequence ever. And movies like MOONRAKER, POINT BREAK and DROP ZONE have set the bar pretty high. All in all it was a good time. It won’t change the course of cinema. And it won’t lead a trend towards more character based, seriously themed movie-making. But that’s okay. I never expected it to do so.
In today’s mega-movie-event-blockbuster climate, it’s sad that everyone expects, even demands, that every film not only hit home runs every time up at bat, but do so with the bases loaded. Part of the blame certainly falls on the studios and film makers who create this kind of grand expectation with super budgets and $100 million ad campaigns. I do sort of miss the days (and forgive me for sounding like a fogie) where a film was allowed to be clever without having the responsibility of changing the medium forever. Where a good plot, characters and execution allowed the film to maybe hit a double, then steal a base and “leg it out” into home. This summer’s SUPER 8 was a wonderful throw-back to that kind of film making.
In the meantime let’s try (and I know it’s tough sometimes) to put the snobbery thing off to the side whenever possible. Allow yourself the pleasure of actually enjoying an evening at the movies, without feeling the need to justify your choice Monday morning to co-workers. What you like and don’t like (and why) is your business, not their’s.
There’s always SOMEthing to enjoy in such an all-encompassing medium.
Then again, that's just my opinion.
CEJ - July 2011