Monday, April 28, 2008

A Few More Observations on Cinema Criticism

The list of individual movies designated as of the highest quality by some major serious publication that I have been accumulating has now gotten large enough to reveal some distinct trends that I find surprising enough to think worth comment:

1. 50s-60s Japanese Samurai pictures receive the critics' top ratings in especially high proportions. This I have noted before, but it hardly hurts to reiterate. While I do recognize that these movies are usually remarkable productions, I confess I find the general drift, tone, what have you of a lot of them to be rather similar. The circumstance that they receive such uniformly stellar praise and ratings makes me wonder how much even the top Western critics are getting into these films either. There is also I find a somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere about many of the films of this genre that makes it hard to fall in love with them. The Samurai trilogy, which is my favorite movie of the type, is a notable exception to this sense of being stifled. My feeling about Kurosawa is similar to the feeling I have for a lot of things at my particular age of life. One knows he is in the presence of Greatness of some kind--and I hold that there are many varieties of kinds of it, it is necessary that there should be--but such a Greatness as is obviously informing someone else's perception of life rather than one's own.

As a side note, I don't really "get" most celebrated Hollywood westerns either. The mythic overtones, the essential qualities of violence and the American character that are revealed, and so on, yes, yes, I know; it is more that I am underwhelmed with the results of most of them as artistic productions. This is especially curious as this is one of the main genres of American art that is taken seriously by foreign intellectuals. Germans who hold almost all American artistic efforts, even jazz (perhaps especially jazz) in contempt have been known to declare certain Western movies works of real genius. My impression is that the appeal lies in the stripped-down, primitive display of human character, emotion, strength, weakness, etc, that the form allows, which I suppose is difficult for people living in highly culturally complex societies to tap into in their own art; it having been however the great achievement of civilization, I thought, where it has been achieved to some degree, to have moved beyond this, I think I would like to feel a stronger sense of connection with this progression than I get from most Western movies. The other day I saw Unforgiven, the much-acclaimed 1992 Clint Eastwood movie that swept the awards the year it came out, was named one of the AFI's top 100 movies of all time, seems to been generally accepted as a masterpiece, etc, for the first time. While it was competently made, and diverting enough that I wanted to see what happened at the end and so forth, I didn't think its statements, if that is what to call them, be them on violence or authority or manhood, or whatever, were particularly forceful. I was not feeling the purpose or urgency that propelled the effort, and carried so many others along with it. Since the movie has been so widely praised, I even tried listening to the commentary on the DVD (which I never do except on Indie films where the commentary mainly serves to give one the illusion he is hanging out with a cool Generation X person--sometimes people--bursting with attitude, pop culture references, and complicated sexual histories, which is kind of a fantasy for me) for some insight from a noted critic, but it was weak. The only good movie commentary I have come across on a DVD so far by the way, where I actually learned a lot about the movie that was well worth knowing, was for Les Enfants du Paradis.

2. British movies are represented far out of proportion both to those of other major filmmaking nations and their standard reputation. This surprised me the most, since I had never gotten the sense that Britain was considered to have achieved any great level of genius in the cinema. It is true that a large proportion of the works credited to her on my list are literary adaptations: Olivier's Shakespeare films, Lean's Dickens pictures, etc, the adaptations of Shaw starring Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard, A Man For All Seasons, etc. The early Hitchcock movies count as British, and then you throw in some of Noel Coward's films, especially the WWII classics, and a few Kitchen Sink favorites, and all of a sudden you have a pretty formidable U.K. presence on the list. Except for Hitchcock, and perhaps some aspects of the kitchen sink films, most of these movies don't seem to be regarded as crucially innovative or as belonging to important movements a la the nouvelle vague or Italian neo-realism, which if nothing else illustrates that a superior work of literature, competently interpreted, is difficult to find much fault with. Also I suspect that, as I am mostly going from American critics, that there is a very significant though largely unconscious bias which exalts British acting, the British manner of direction, indeed the whole (to us) very formidable British theater tradition, which is as far as I can see the primary component being brought to most of these films.
3. Hollywood films of the 1945-65 period are frequently rated higher than one would expect. I say this because, at least in my experience, I feel the standard narrative is that the 1950s and 1960s, up to the release of things like The Graduate and Easy Rider, constituted a dark period of mediocrity and stagnation in the American cinema, the loss of cultural centrality (and audiences) to television, a preference for insipid musicals and overwrought epics and melodramas, and so on. While it is true that the bad and stupid movies of this era have a very distinct, complacent and uninteresting sort of badness and stupidity, which combination happened to be particularly offensive to the generation of '68 which has had such a large say in all areas of Western public opinion since that time, at the level of the classic individual film there are acknowledged to be far more from this era than any other one. This is partly of course because it covers the period of most current critics' impressionable youth; and also as such, and because it is perceived to be an era of excessive personal conformity and conservatism, it provides the kinds of societal standards and norms against which just about everything is measured, positively or negatively. The ten year period with the most classic movies, according to my research so far (actually nine-year period; there was a three-way tie among various ten year periods, so within these I checked out nine-year rates) was from 1946-1954, with half of the films listed being American. It is again curious how many of these designated movies are adaptations from drama or literature, though unlike in Britain it was almost all contemporary: The Killers (Hemingway), A Streetcar Named Desire, The Caine Mutiny (somewhat forgotten now, but considered a major book in its day), Long Day's Journey Into Night, To Kill a Mockingbird, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? This period, like all periods, had its peculiar energies, energies that seem to us, who have not the same energies, something different again, and perhaps more satsfying, or more appalling, from what those living at the time perceived. I think generally there is a tendency among us to find a lot of the energies of the '46-'54 period pleasing because we desire to have a great many of them again--usually not consciously, I will add--but seem to feel we have lost the sense of them altogether.

4. The Great Euro-Auteurs of the same period, particularly the French and Italians, seem to be underrepresented among the very top scores. I consider the postwar European cinema up to about 1970 to be one of the highest states that the form has achieved, along with the remarkable French movies of the 30s, and some of the greatest of the silent films, so it is interesting that the critics seem to have a higher criteria when rating individual movies out of this pool. The New York Times runs an adoring story on some uncompromising, difficult, brilliant European director past or present just about every week who makes the typical American intellectual, let alone filmmaker, look like a plodding philistine; I think the critics take the bait and knock half a star off just to demonstrate to old Jean Luc and Franz that they indeed understood their movie, but thought the vision could perhaps have been a little tighter.

5. Disney movies are uniformly overrated. I have children so I have seen a lot of Disney movies over the last couple of years, most of which are rated the full four or five stars in just about every movie guide. The only Disney movie I would even consider giving 5 stars to is Pinocchio; it has good songs, some parts that are legitimately disturbing in a semi-serious way, and some very good and ingenious stuff done with the animation. Snow White is prettily drawn but the story is actually rather boring. When I was seven or eight I saw The Song of the South in the theater and I remember liking it (I had a crush on the little blond girl in it) but the depiction of Uncle Remus is apparently so offensive that it has never been released on VCR or DVD. Everything after 1990, Aladdin and The Lion King all of that, are flat-out horrible. I remember reading once about a deeply depressed man who sat alone in his rented hotel room night after night and watched the Lion King while he wept. I just want it on the record, I am not as bad off as that guy. Of course the plot of every Disney movie is exactly the same: my four year can break it down for you. We meet the hero in his natural setting; suddenly the villian intrudes upon this setting, throwing down the big challenge to the hero; we are feeling down so the hero's biggest helper, who is girl movies is a fairy and in boy movies doubles as comic relief, comes to reassure us; there is a second confrontation with the villian where he gets the better of the hero and it looks like the game is up; at this point his trusty friends, though they can't perform his task, do bear him up. Perhaps it is time for the big musical number, followed by some soul-searching and self-realization for the hero, who is now ready for the Big Fight at the End as the children call it. This is then repeated with all variations of nationalities and animal kingdoms.

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