Talking Movies

June 29, 2019

On Rewatching Movies

The Atlantic recently showcased some findings from behavioural economists suggesting that we overvalue novelty and undervalue repetition, and it made me think about how I’ve been watching movies of late.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me? Do I anticipate Trump? Very well then I anticipate Trump.

I have been finding it hard, looking back to 2010 in the last few weeks, to get a handle on the contours of this decade, cinematically speaking. And I think some of that difficulty is owing to my not having rewatched as many movies as I would have done during the previous decade. This was a deliberate decision to use my time to add as many new titles to my ken as possible rather than simply rewatching what I had already seen. And that decision has been quite rewarding: I have seen more Jean-Luc Godard, Woody Allen, Orson Welles, Andrei Tarkovsky, Louis Malle, and Mia Hansen-Love films than I would’ve had I not sought them out. But it seems there is an opportunity cost: if you focus on expanding your knowledge, it comes at the cost of deepening existing knowledge.

There is a lot to be said for repetition to really soak in a film. After all a vital check on whether a film really stands up is whether it can be rewatched with profit. I saw Birdman and High-Rise twice within days and loved them both times. In the case of High-Rise I had a totally different viewing experience each time: a crowded screening in IFI 2, where Stephen Errity and I managed to miss the opening scene, brought out the comedy of the film, whereas a deserted screening in IFI 1 with Paul Fennessy brought out the visual grandeur of the film. John Healy opines that repetition, like constantly catching snippets or indeed all of Jaws on heavy rotation on a movie channel, allows you enjoy lots of little details you’d otherwise miss without seeing it so often.

Little details can create what I’ve previously dubbed ‘mental architecture’. Watching The Matrix again and again and again you find yourself responding to someone asking your name with ‘Yeah, that’s me’ and only later realise you were quoting Keanu Reeves. Clambering off the floor with a somewhat awkward grace you realise later you were approximating how Keanu Reeves got up off his knees at the end of Constantine. In neither instance were these conscious emulations, simply physical or verbal replications of an oft-seen physical action or verbal response. The joy of repetition is that which comes from knowing a movie inside out: like watching a James Bond movie with my Dad, hooting at in-jokes about Ken Adam’s inability to stop blowing the budget on working monorails, or quoting along to The Matrix Reloaded line after line en masse with friends.

Whooping up Back to the Future Day on ITV 2 with my Dad back in 2015 wouldn’t have been half as awesome if we hadn’t watched each film repeatedly together over three decades. When Dad couldn’t countenance a full film I would summon from the DVR just the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now, Donald Sutherland’s JFK monologue, the Joker’s attack on the van in The Dark Knight:

At the far left of the shelf of DVDs was a single unlabelled videocassette. Schwartz slid it out with a finger and popped it into the ancient VCR.

“What’s this?” Henry asked.

“You’ll see.”

Schwartz watched this tape alone sometimes, late at night, the way he reread certain passages of Aurelius. It restored some nameless element of his personality that threatened to slip away if he didn’t stay vigilant. (The Art of Fielding)

Repetition can allow us grasp a film from different angles, enjoy the red herrings we missed before, create personal in-jokes, and provide us with an idiosyncratic frame of reference. But it can also utterly surprise. I was experiencing the rare joy of sharing a friend’s first encounter with a classic in 2017 when I nearly gasped at Citizen Kane on the big screen. Donald Trump’s threat to Hillary Clinton during their debates that he would, if elected, appoint a special prosecutor to look into her situation, now found an incredible anticipation in Charles Foster Kane’s threat during his speech that his “first official act as governor of this state will be to appoint a special district attorney to arrange for the indictment, prosecution and conviction of Boss Jim W Gettys”. There was now a new meaning in an old text.

In the case of Citizen Kane and American politics life was imitating art, as Oscar Wilde opined happened more often than vice versa, and a piece of art that had seemed to have a stable meaning had had that meaning upended. Repetition is not old hat in a world of novelty and completist instincts. It is both a time machine, that can enable us remember the way we enjoyed a movie the first time we saw it and remember ourselves and the milieu of that experience, and a transmogrifier that reworks old movies into something we never suspected our contemporary.

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September 9, 2018

You get Hoynes/Trump!

It’s been a nostalgic blast watching The West Wing from the start on TG4 this past week. Coming at the exact moment that Bob Woodward’s new book of nasty quotes and the New York Times’ anonymous op-ed painted a picture of the workings of a very different Oval Office it led to disquieting thoughts about Presidents Bartlet, Obama and Trump.

The Ringer recently produced a list of the 100 best TV episodes since 2000. I got the impression reading that one contributor would almost rather say ‘not anti-hero’ than ‘hero’ because if they said hero that would bespeak not being the kind of world-weary sophisticate who writes for The Ringer. This excerpt is fairly characteristic of them:

I don’t disagree about the Bartlet hagiography, but to me that’s almost a charm of the show; in the world of Walter Whites and Hannah Horvaths and the sociopaths of Succession, the idea of the “good guy we’re rooting for” is almost quaint.

But… if the media, especially the unlimited digital ink allowed by the internet, spends its time praising only anti-heroes, difficult men… and the Emmys and Golden Globes go only to shows on cable about anti-heroes, difficult men… and both the media and industry generally deride when they don’t ignore shows  (usually on network, like, say NCIS) that feature principled heroes, can both media and industry (as seen at every awards show) really get up on such a moral high horse when an anti-hero, difficult man becomes the President? If Obama now says Trump is a symptom not the cause, is the media and industry not partially culpable? Did they not prepare the culture to bring forth just that?

Years ago I wrote but never posted a lengthy piece based around a reading of a segment of Obama’s Dreams From My Father and the complaints on BBC of a Hillary Clinton staffer that Obama had had an unfair advantage because pop culture had prepared the way for a black President via Morgan Freeman and Denis Haysbert but there was nobody similarly making straight a path in the wilderness for Hillary. But if Deep Impact and 24 were literally held to have given Obama an advantage then surely The West Wing must have contributed mightily too. During the dark days of Bush Jr’s inarticulate incompetence there was a President who was charming, articulate, intelligent, a university lecturer; he was fictional, but you can’t have everything; and Bush Jr was replaced by a President who was charming, articulate, intelligent, and a university lecturer.

But then after a decade of anti-heroes, difficult men, what do you know but the American public went and elected one of those cultural icons as President – the anti-hero-in-chief. Where could they have got such a weird idea?

Oh, for one of those crassly commercial network notes now! “Can you make President Trump more likeable?”

January 31, 2018

Any Other Business: Part XIII

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a thirteenth portmanteau post on television of course!

Dangerous, Handle With Care.

Very Dangerous, Do Not Handle At All.

Watching re-runs of The Avengers (in colour!) on ITV 4 over a few months before Christmas it was hard not to be struck by two things. It was better than most current TV shows, and it made the soapbox posturing of the CW’s Berlantiverse look utterly inane. The ludicrous blackmail episode, ‘You Have Just Been Murdered’, is so hilarious, as the blackmailers repeatedly mock-murder their wealthy victims and leave a calling card just to prove how easy it would be to do it for real, so pay up, was one of the best episodes I saw on TV in 2017. The sustained ninja attacks on Steed’s friend; a car almost runs him over, he is attacked with a fake katanna, and finally shot with an arrow that imprints ‘You Have Just Been Murdered… Again!” on his shirt; floored me. And there were many other episodes almost at the same level in Diana Rigg’s 25 colour episodes, and some equally wonderful in the subsequent 32 episodes with Linda Thorson. The Rigg episodes were very telling in their writing of Renaissance woman Mrs Peel: painter, sculptor, chemist, journalist, mathematician published on the subject probability as applied to Bridge, and amateur secret agent. Nobody makes any deal out of Steed’s partner being a woman, apart from a doddery Colonel back from the tropics in ‘The Hidden Tiger’; “Highly unusual to have a woman on a hunt, Steed” “Highly unusual woman, Colonel”. And Mrs Peel, expert in judo, wins most of the fights she gets into, hence her amusement in ‘The Correct Way To Kill’ when she finds two photos with handwritten annotations in the local KGB HQ. Steed is described as ‘Dangerous, Handle With Care’. She then discovers that ‘Very Dangerous, Do Not Handle At All’ refers to her. This is a fictional universe where many of the villains have women as their most ruthless lieutenants, and any daffy woman is very possibly a ruthless lieutenant hiding in plain sight by playing up to bimbo stereotypes. In ‘The Living Dead’ the village hospital is run by a woman doctor, and nobody mentions her gender; she’s just the doctor who runs the village hospital. Steed and Mrs Peel almost co-opt her as a third agent in their investigations, but Mrs Peel doesn’t make a big deal of it. It would be literally impossible for a woman to run a small-town hospital in a Berlanti show without a plethora of dialogue about it, and if she were to aid Supergirl we would get girl power dialogue about the sisterhood working together in a man’s world. It is disconcerting when a 1967 show assumes equality, entertains, and provides an indomitable heroine with a delightfully light touch, while 2017 shows talk endlessly, needlessly about equality, as if trying to convince themselves.

The Berlantiverse was once highly praised on this blog but as time has gone on it has become more and more obviously flawed. So let’s try and isolate the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Berlantiverse: The Good

Tony Zhou amusingly gutted the MCU a while ago for its complete, deliberate absence of memorable music. Their copy of a copy of a copy elevator muzak approach seems to be a determined attempt to free cinema from the Wagnerian leitmotifs that composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold had in the 1930s made the convention for scoring the fates of characters and the progress of action. As a result of Marvel’s decision no matter how many Avengers assemble there will never be any music that can announce the arrival of a single one of them. What is lost by that? Well, look at what Blake Neely was able to pull off in the Supergirl/Flash/Arrow/Legends crossover extravaganza for the final fight against the alien Dominators. When Green Arrow is shooting the Dominator the jagged Arrow theme is heard, when he is thrown off the roof the music hangs in the air with him with a sustained note on strings, only for a roar of brass to announce the arrival of Supergirl to catch him from plummeting to his death. That is what leitmotifs are for. Why Marvel would want to pass on that sort of emotional punch is a mystery.

Berlantiverse: The Bad

There are elements; such as 24’s lack of humour; that you forgive so long as the show is good. But once you stop enjoying a show you remember those flaws, and notice new ones. I never made 10 episodes of Arrow, but I was surprised the same creators brought forth the fun that was The Flash. I also watched Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl until the recent crossover. Then I ditched all three shows. My problems with Arrow I’ve outlined. The Flash became idiotically repetitive; “My name is Barry Allen, and I am the fastest man alive!” – apart from Reverse Flash, and Zoom, and Savitar…; emotionally manipulative; Barry watches his mother die again, watches his father die, gets them back sort of only to give them up, gives up Iris, how much damn angst does one character need; and eventually unwatchable despite maintaining a comic edge. Supergirl from the get-go had problems, which started to converge with the problems of Legends. Legends degenerated from a fun show in which time-travellers screwed up their mission, to a less fun show in which they took George Lucas in Love as their ur-text and applied it to Lucas, Tolkien, and Arthurian legend, to the E.T. episode where they re-did E.T. in 40 minutes with their characters, like House or CSI: NY saw writers take off a movie they saw, just with less self-awareness. Supergirl’s characters kept getting on soapboxes; Jimmy Olsen on black men not being allowed show anger, Cat Grant on being a woman leader, Kara on being a woman and a superhero; rather than having comic-book adventures. Moving network for season 2 Berlanti decided that Alex should be gay now, an abrupt character reboot handled with the grace of an Austin Powers skit. But then he doubled down by beginning season 3 with Alex and Maggie engaged. Wow, that was quick! They break up because they never had a discussion about having children before getting engaged. Berlanti’s political imperatives were trumping his aesthetic imperatives with a vengeance. Legends’s characters arrive in the 1950s with an injunction not to attract attention; so they set up Ray and Kendra as a married couple, with Sara as a nurse. Berlanti castigates Jim Crow racism and has Sara liberate a repressed nurse. This makes nonsense of the injunction not to attract attention. The way to do that would have been to have Ray and Sara play house, with Kendra as a nurse. But internal logic was starting to be damned if it got in the political way.

Berlantiverse: The Ugly

Can you tell who Don Siegel voted for in 1956 and 1972 from watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dirty Harry? Adlai Stevenson? Maybe? Richard Nixon? Maybe?? It’s not easy. Can you tell who Greg Berlanti voted for in 2016? … It seems Berlanti was traumatised by the failure of America to be with her. Now, art and politics don’t need a Jeffersonian wall of separation, but there ought be some artistic guile cast over political intent, like Arthur Miller addressing Senator McCarthy at three centuries’ remove. Berlanti has a beef with Trump. He could silently showcase heroic, adorable, and honourable minority characters like The Blacklist. [Navabi, Aram, Dembe] He does not. Instead, to stick it to Trump, he introduces to Legends the rather insufferable Zari, and reminds us repeatedly that she’s a Muslim American. He probably needs to remind us because she doesn’t wear a hijab, or have a prayer mat, nor use it 5 times a day, worry about keeping halal, or attending a mosque. Given previous complaints about American artists’ inability to take faith seriously this shouldn’t surprise, but ironically it makes Zari the kind of Muslim Trump might endorse – invisible. Berlanti could espouse meritocratic ideals like Bernie Sanders’ support for basic income. He does not. Instead Berlanti has gone down the rabbit-hole with Hillary. Her failure was due to misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia. Ignore that she was as historically awful a candidate as if the Republicans had nominated Robert A Taft in 1948, and that she called ¼ of the eligible voters “a basket of deplorables”. Pushing Hillary’s apologia is killing the Berlantiverse. It would be clumsy and obvious to try and push basic income. But it couldn’t be worse than the gender studies harangue when Helen of Troy appeared in Legends, or when The Flash had a stripper lecture her clients on her critique of the male gaze. That same episode a female supervillain was taken down by the female characters working together and Iris said “Hashtag Feminism”. This, along with insisting “We are The Flash”, is Iris’ new thing. The abandoning of all pretence of artistic guile over political intent in attacking Trump came in the recent crossover, with this interchange: “Make America White Again” “Which it never was” “Hashtag Melting Pot”. But the nadir was Nazi Arrow proudly announcing “We’ve created a meritocracy”. … … … One should not have to point out that Nazis did not believe in meritocracy, but in its exact opposite, aristocracy. It is self-evident.

If you’re looking for the brightest and the best, you get Einstein, and then, if you’re a Nazi, mutter, damn, a Jew, and issue another call for the brightest and the best, but Aryans only please. Whereas if you’re not a Nazi you say, Welcome, Mr Einstein, I hear you are a very brilliant genius. Meritocracy advances people on the basis of ability. Aristocracy advances people on the basis of bloodlines, rather than their ability.

Berlanti wasn’t being ironic, none of the superheroes protested about this calumny of meritocracy. That degradation of meritocracy, the one true guarantor of equality, shows Berlanti pursuing a political agenda that while thinking itself liberal is not. The Berlantiverse no longer entertains because so many artistic decisions are clearly suborned to a political agenda, and it troubles because that political agenda is clearly Hillary not Bernie. Meritocracy doesn’t see colour, gender, or religion. It sees ability. And it only sees ability. Attempt to attach secondary considerations to it and it is gone. You can’t grade a test on correct answers and ensuring a diversity quota.

July 19, 2017

Who cares what critics say anyway?

Uproxx.com had a much-discussed piece recently arguing that critics should not have to watch and review films like Transformers 5, because it’s bad for them to see a film they’re going to hate, dulling their palate, and not much use to anyone else either; as critics constantly carping about unstoppable cinematic behemoths gives the impression of rarified and tiresome elitism.

In that light it’s interesting to see that websitebuilder.org have an interesting new infographic

Click here for the link: https://websitebuilder.org/resources/online-reviews-infographic/

How do people make decisions on how to spend their money when they go to the cinema? It turns out that it’s not Rotten Tomatoes, the bane of many a studio executive and film director, but rather IMDb that is the most trusted source online. In fact, Rotten Tomatoes comes 5th in the ranking of importance in this infographic, behind even the late Chicago Sun-Times’ man legacy website RogerEbert.com. To wit, audiences do not care what critics on the most discussed critical aggregator say about new movies nearly as much as they care what other punters say about new movies. This is assuming IMDb’s ratings are driven mostly by punters not pundits, which is reasonable given that IMDb’s Top 250 is topped by The Shawshank Redemption, not Vertigo or Citizen Kane. This leaves film critics somewhat at a loose end…

Intriguingly Twitter meltdowns, like the official Ghostbusters account endorsing Hillary Clinton as a gesture against the imaginary patriarchy who weren’t going to its film last year, might also be even more spectacularly counter-productive than you’d think. The infographic from websitebuilder.org has it that if a retailer responds properly to a negative review on social media or online ratings site there is a 33% chance that the negative review will be deleted or changed into a positive. Or, you know, a major studio could just let someone start a Twitter war, shouting abuse at the very people they are meant to be politely asking for money, and see how that works out for the bottom line…

The takeaways must be that word of mouth is stronger than ever, but now in an online form, that critics are definitely not gatekeepers anymore, and that studios need to be very careful about how they respond to the ever proliferating trolls online for fear of digging holes even deeper.

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