Last year, I was able to move 4 films and one massive anthology television series from the Shelf of Shame to my Vault of Victory. It was a good initiative, but I think I can improve on the model for myself.
12 supposedly great films. One year. One film a month. It’s called SHELF OF SHAME XTREME, people.
EDIT (04/15): I swapped Wild Strawberries and Bicycle Thieves due to Criterion’s announcement that the former will see a blu-ray release in June.
Post-Viewing Update (January 28): I managed to squeeze in my first SoS title right at the end of the month. I watched David Lean’s snow-bound answer to 1962′s sandy LAWRENCE OF ARABIA on a fantastic blu-ray, with the sound turned all the way up. As expected, the film is a visual and aural marvel, although the romance between Yuri (Omar Sharif) and Lara (Julie Christie) didn’t quite hit for me. It’s hard not to compare the sweeping romance of ZHIVAGO to the big scale action of LAWRENCE, but they are wholly different movies. ZHIVAGO deserves its place as a classic, and it’s final moment is a masterwork in narrative pay-off. Interestingly enough, this film’s cultural impact was made clear in a conversation I had with my parents when I mentioned that I was watching it. As soon as I said the title, my dad started whistling Maurice Jarre’s iconic theme, and my mom revealed that it was the first movie she ever got to see in a movie theater. It’s wonderful to discover, for the first time, a cinematic gem that crosses generations.
Post-Viewing Update (February 28): That’s right, I squeezed another cinematic classic in at the very last minute out of obligation. You can ridicule me or you can admit to yourself that you’ve done the same thing before. My biggest embarrassment is that I put it off in favor of watching episodes of BREAKING BAD, which is a great TV show… and yet, the greatest TV show going still pales in comparison to great cinema. Yes, PATHS OF GLORY is unmistakably great cinema. Stanley Kubrick’s camera movement is suitably Wellesian, Kirk Douglas’ performance is perfectly heroic and iconic, and the screenplay stages things in such a grand and universal way that we often forget about the specificity of the situation at the core of the story. Aside from some of the most influential tracking shots of all time, the film shows off an incredibly efficient battle scene, using dolly and zoom lenses to connect wide group shots to character-focused close-ups in a way that must have influenced Zack Snyder’s speed ramped zooms in (the far inferior) 300. Of course, it takes more than fancy camera work to make a great film, and what soars here is the characterization. Two quick examples: PATHS OF GLORY features bookend scenes showcasing a pair of wonderfully written villain characters whose motivations are clear, understandable, and monstrous. Finally, the unexpected performance of Timothy Carey, who really functions as the heart of the film, was absolutely stirring and emotional without losing its context or leading the film into sentimentality. His desperation and hopelessness must have been a clear influence on the Coen Brothers and John Turturro for Bernie’s famous death march in MILLER’S CROSSING.
Post-Viewing Update (March 23): Wow. I’ll freely admit that it took me a good while to get into the groove of this, the most famous and well-regarded film of Yasujiro Ozu’s prolific career. For a Westerner like myself, the film grammar of non-Kurosawa Japanese cinema from this era is unnerving. Ozu moves his camera maybe once in TOKYO STORY, and his characters are often framed in similar planes, giving up depth to describe setting rather than character. He connects people to places, and then cuts freely within those places to denote movement or relationship dynamics. Of course, the timidity of his grammar is perfectly matched by the stone cold facades put upon by his protagonists; this is a post-WWII Japan in which desperate grasps at normalcy bury the emotions we so easily and sloppily express in our own modern culture. Ozu’s long-suffering parents, not wanting to disturb the lives of their busy and distracted adult children, take lethal pangs of loneliness and regret on their ever-smiling chins. This is truly a masterpiece of empathy and tragic warmth. Watch it and let it simmer.
Post-Viewing Update (April 29): Well, they can’t all be home runs, I suppose. BEN-HUR has been the biggest surprise of this year’s Shelf of Shame so far. I was really expecting to be enthralled by this highly regarded legend of epic Hollywood filmmaking, but in the end, I was merely impressed. When it comes to pacing, dialogue, plotting, and performance, there’s really nothing here that rises above “high” Biblical tales like THE ROBE or even “low” pepla like ROMULUS AND REMUS. Where BEN-HUR really soars, however, is in its staggering spectacle and incredible stunt-work, essentially isolated to the truly magnificent Chariot Race sequence. It doesn’t take much more than a brief glance at Wikipedia to see that the true star of the film is stuntman Yakima Canutt. Overall, I’m glad I finally caught up with BEN-HUR, but more than anything I’m shocked at how much THE SIMPSONS has shaped my perception of this film. Constantly waiting for the line uttered in this scene from “A Star is Burns”, I was eventually disappointed to never hear Charlton Heston utter to Jesus, as if to C. Montgomery Burns, “Truly… you are the King of Kings.”
Post-Viewing Update (May 18): I’m no stranger to Billy Wilder’s work. I spent a few months in college watching as much of the Austro-American’s films as possible, and it’s hard to be a film nerd long without stumbling across his legendary collaboration with screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond. I’m very happy to say that SOME LIKE IT HOT easily joins the ranks of the great Wilders, right up there with SUNSET BOULEVARD, ACE IN THE HOLE, and the masterful and overlooked ONE, TWO, THREE. I wasn’t expecting the film to be such an effective gangster movie, which was a pleasant surprise, but that isn’t to say the comedy somehow pales in comparison. Tony Curtis is a revelation here, and Jack Lemmon does not disappoint. In reading more about the film, I was surprised to find out about the problems caused by Marilyn Monroe, considering the great work of hers that ends up on screen. I’ve always been suspicious of AFI’s number one ranking of this film on its 100 Years… 100 Laughs list, but as fellow Nerds Graham Flanagan and Matt Scalici assured me, SOME LIKE IT HOT is a legitimate all-timer.
WILD STRAWBERRIES (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
BICYCLE THIEVES (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)
Post-Viewing Update (June 19): After studying Italian Neo-Realism via ROME, OPEN CITY in college, I never felt much of a desire to return to the genre. Yes, I find the sociopolitical context of the movement fascinating, but the stories themselves have never really appealed to me much. I’m a fan of the more expressionistic Fellini years, and in terms of counter-culture cinema, the French and American New Waves are certainly more my cup of tea. That said, the textbook example of Italian Neo-Realism is undeniably a great film, with or without its cultural and temporal placement. The deft way Vittorio De Sica uses film grammar is something I wasn’t expecting, as he employs camera movement and mise-en-scene quite gracefully to underline emotion: Whether it’s a tracking shot late in the film following young Bruno eye-line as he discovers a hard truth about his father, or the proliferation of bicycles in the fore- and backgrounds of scenes in which our desperate lead character, Antonio, is overwhelmed by what he cannot possess, the film is a masterclass in tying film craft to character empathy.
Post-Viewing Update (July 25): Wow. One of the great tragedies of the millennial culture wars is that it’s rare that we get a piece of art that’s both angry and understanding. Here is a film that is ultra-specific in its region and culture, but universal in its voice. The heart beat of DO THE RIGHT THING thumps to the same rhythm as today’s American cultural frustrations: The anger, the tension, the defensiveness, the victimization, and the alienation. It’s all there in a film that’s over 20 years old. What’s even more phenomenal is that in the midst of all this complex thematic work, we get a fantastic ensemble character drama. No two characters exist in Spike Lee’s film without bumping into one another at one point or another, and by the time that happens, the audience is completely prepared to understand each character’s perspective. It really is a marvel of a screenplay in construction, a tour de force of both comic and tragic performances, and a visually arresting and vibrant work of directorial flare.
WILD STRAWBERRIES (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
Post-Viewing Update (August 22): It’s getting really hard to think of new things to say about all these obviously great movies. A few of the dream sequences had the existential horror of HOUR OF THE WOLF or THE SEVENTH SEAL, and yet the scenes of young people living and loving were as breezy as a Truffaut film. I think that’s what keeps me coming back to Bergman. Despite his reputation as a morose brooder, his films always show off a wit that I forget, and every scene is built like a well-constructed short film. There are very few wasted moments in Ingmar Bergman films. Like I said, there’s not much to say other than “Yes, I agree with everyone that’s ever seen WILD STRAWBERRIES in that this film is an absolute masterstroke.”
Post-Viewing Update (September 29): This is one of the few titles from this year’s SoS that I watched with my wife, and boy was that a great choice. I didn’t expect this to be such an effective romantic comedy, but that’s exactly what it is at its height. The film does feel especially constructed to be the height of 90′s indie film glory, what with the participation of the Weinsteins, Lawrence Bender, Kevin Smith, and Gus Van Sant, but it succeeds despite a level of calculated 90′s smugness. Robin Williams is absolutely fantastic, and while the part of Will Hunting isn’t all that compelling, you can see a dynamite actor in the making when Matt Damon is onscreen.
Post-Viewing Update (October 19): This was the year’s obligatory horror pick, which I also decided to make a David Cronenberg film. I’ve not seen a ton of Cronenberg – and I’m honestly afraid of tackling much of his filmography. This was a great title for a wuss like me, as the film is clearly influenced by comic books (and has just as clearly influenced comic book movies, especially Bryan Singer’s X-MEN), and is very pulpy and plot-heavy. That said, SCANNERS doesn’t seem to me to be an essential classic of the sci-fi horror genre, but it’s a very fun, slick piece with a dynamite ending.
Post-Viewing Update (November 29): Probably the most high-profile film by Alfred Hitchcock that I had yet to see, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN is a pretty embarrassing blind spot for any average movie buff. However, this is one of those rare cases where coming to a well-regarded classic with fresh eyes might help me digest the film with a bit of measured consideration. If you combine a stellar Dimitri Tiomkin score, a fantastic Robert Walker performance, and some exquisitely staged Hitchock-ian sequences of suspense, you have the makings of a wonderful ride. However, it’s hard to hold up this film’s stop-and-start momentum and straightforward story against the lean mechanics of REAR WINDOW and THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS or the shocking subversion of VERTIGO and PSYCHO. This is Hitchock in his prime, for sure, and an absolute must-see, but it’s a more humble and lyrical entry than I was expecting.
I will check back in monthly to make sure I’m on track! Until then, keep it XTREEEEEEEME.
The last time I probably felt truly terrified at a movie was — well, OK, probably last weekend when I saw Alfonso Cuaron’s GRAVITY. Particularly, his use of silence in space, how you the viewer can only hear what the characters do inside their helmets. Therefore, like those poor astronauts, you cannot hear as millions of chunks of space debris travels hundreds of miles per hour while you can’t do jack squat about it.
Prior to that, it’s hard to recall any recent release that’s either made me jump or even worry a little. It’s my own fault. Years of watching horror, thrillers, suspense and general uneasy content has left me kind of numb to their powers. Instead of shielding my eyes or gasping out loud, I can’t help but laugh at anything meant to genuinely scare. It’s not a knock on the scarers — in fact, it’s a compliment. These are supposed to be thrill-rides, right? If they merit any audible response, they’ve done their jobs.
But films that manage to pull and real “scares” out of my tend to escape the traditional horror genre. Jump scares only go so far. I need something that makes me think about for hours or days, a sense of dread I can’t and won’t escape soon. Horror, the kind that tends to take itself (too) seriously, hasn’t really accomplished that, with the exception of one or two titles.
As Halloween fast approaches, I sit back for my annual horror marathon of so-called classics I’ve yet to see. I just finished Adrian Lyne’s would-be mind-eff JACOB’S LADDER, which was said to have an all-timer twist ending (a prospect I attempted to avoid and forget), and I walked away thinking it was just OK. I’ve got John Landis’ AN AMERICAN WERWOLF IN LONDON, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN and a handful of movies via Netflix Instant I’m ready to knock out leading up to Oct. 31.
Below are my five favorite “horror” films of the last five years. Some fall into the traditional horror genre, while others would be considered suspense, or even straight dramas in some cases. But they achieve what typical horror movies do not. They scare me. They’re unpredictable. I literally have no idea what’s happening or what will happen in these movies as they play. I hope you’ll indulge me.
My favorite film of 2011 still holds up after countless repeat viewings on HBO. Some would argue this works more as a disaster movie given the realistic nature and government slant, but how can you look at some of the corpses director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, along with their fictional epidemic, leave behind and not toss this one into the horror genre? One particular autopsy of an A-list star and the final image of one of the character’s youngest children who succumbs to the virus — those are disturbing, lasting images that left me breathless in my seat. Not to mention the chaos in the streets when a cure seems unlikely, Matt Damon’s immune father protecting his vulnerable daughter from savages and survivors. In one of his final directorial efforts, Soderbergh took a shot at horror, and as he typically did, he put on a clinic.
DRAG ME TO HELL (2009)
Sam Raimi doing what Sam Raimi does best, which is making SPIDER-MAN movies. But let’s keep things positive, shall we? Raimi established himself a horror/comedy master with his latter two films in his EVIL DEAD trilogy. Then he disappeared into La-La Land, cranking out so-so studio efforts and Sony’s first SPIDER-MAN mega-trilogy. He finally reached the surface to take a breath and made his first horror flick in years, and the results tell you he needed to get that mug out of his system and how. Alison Lohman stars as a banker who denies a gypsy a loan and must figure out a remedy to rid herself of an awful curse in the wake of her supposed wrongdoing. Earlier I said jump scares tend not to get the job done, but Raimi’s here are brilliant timed and come when you absolutely least expect them. Also, you have a totally original fable with Loony Toon-level action gags, creepy atmosphere and wonderfully disgusting set pieces and makeup designs. It was glad to have Raimi back for a minute.
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008)
Perhaps most importantly, our intro to Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, as skilled an auteur as any working today (also responsible for 2011′s TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY), this film breathes a way others don’t, allowing for pacing and strong character development. Here you find young bullied Oscar, who finds a companion and perhaps more in the seemingly same-aged Eli, who it turns out has a thirst for more than a new friendship. What stands out about LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is not only that pace and decidedly creepy mood it sets from the opening minutes, but the scale in which Alfredson and his crew shoot it. This rather small story feels larger than it is thanks to brilliant compositions and even lighting. And the finale in the pool is all it’s cracked up to be, too. Watch out, bullies.
SHUTTER ISLAND (2010)
This one feels like Martin Scorsese doing a Stephen King adaptation. Instead, it’s Marty’s spin on Dennis LeHane’s novel starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a U.S. Marshal on the hunt for an escaped inmate at a hospital for the criminally insane. Stepping way out of his comfort zone, Scorsese establishes a mood even ardent fans cannot claim they expected from the guy who brought us GOODFELLAS and RAGING BULL (though you could make a case for TAXI DRIVER, I suppose). His patented use of music, here mostly frightening classical numbers from the likes of Penderecki and Ligeti, fits right in as things almost immediately begin to go awry as DiCaprio’s war vet Teddy begins to slip while on the job in the least ideal conditions imaginable. His encounters with the inmates and hospital staff (namely Max Von Sydow and Ben Kingsley) make for eerily memorable moments, but his car ride with Ted Levine’s prison warden features a fascinating monologue about violence. Once you’ve seen it and go back for another round, it’s even chillier.
BLACK SWAN (2010)
With PI, we knew Darren Aronofsky could give the viewer an uneasy feeling, but you simply never relax during this often melodramatic raw nerve of a story involving a meek ballerina (Natalie Portman in an Oscar-winning role) who wins the lead role in Swan Lake and begins to lose her mind obsessing over the perfection required to nail the performance. Portman’s unnerving work along with the director’s handheld camera help to create an unusual sensory experience that won’t even let you bite your nails (see the movie). How Aronofsky creates suspense and dread in the competitive world of New York City ballet is impressive, though I’m sure real participants would tell you it can get pretty scary. The director toys with the audience, testing the boundaries of reality and fantasy as Portman’s poor girl’s obsession spins out of control until the impeccably filmed final performance.
- I am not in the movie industry. I’m a rinky-dink DIY filmmaker in Alabama. I understand that the nature of this post assumes a greater understanding of film industry practices than I have.
- That said, all of these points are scalable. I plan on on making sure my upcoming film projects have these qualities as well.
- Spoiler-wise, the post below should be fairly clean.
1. GRAVITY is a really good movie.
First things first: Forget all the hype about technological innovations and special effects wizardry, GRAVITY is simply a really good movie by any remotely objective qualitative standards. Its structure is sound, its narrative is perfectly clear, the performances are strong and consistent, and the images are well composed. These basic qualities are missing from a wide range of mainstream American movies. Also, speaking subjectively – and this will become clear shortly – GRAVITY is much more than a really good movie. It’s a great movie, potentially an all-time classic.
2. GRAVITY challenges cultural stereotypes.
Director Alfonso Cuarón has been empowering female protagonists since his 1991 feature debut, LOVE IN THE TIME OF HYSTERIA, all the way up to his last film before GRAVITY. In CHILDREN OF MEN, the life-giving and life-sustaining nature of feminity is made divine. In GRAVITY, he teams with Sandra Bullock to create a female hero that is not defined by her boyfriend, her job, or her children. Here, the square-jawed American male is a competent, confident leader, but this isn’t his story. He’s merely a resource for our hero to fight for her own survival, for her own reasons, and yet she’s not painted in a predatory or overly aggressive light. It’d be typical for the lead role in a giant Hollywood “hero’s journey” to be written as a nebbish male, so it is almost revolutionary that Ryan Stone was written as a strong woman with a lost sense of purpose.
3. GRAVITY has a great producer.
David Heyman produced every HARRY POTTER film and allowed JK Rowling to have a consistent authorial hand in the billion-dollar movie franchise spawned from her books. GRAVITY is Heyman’s first producing gig since the POTTER series ended in 2011, and it’s wonderful to see a guy that must have ridiculous amounts of clout in Hollywood take the care to lead an auteurist project to completion. In the traditional studio system, every executive within touching distance of GRAVITY would need to put their fingerprints on it to boast influence in the case of success or innocence in the case of failure. In Heyman’s world, the producer does what the best ones do: He keeps the director within reasonable boundaries and provides the director with the easiest possible path to completion.
4. GRAVITY was created by a localized community.
Here’s a $100M movie written by a man and his son, filmed in London and Arizona, with special effects created by the London-based studio Framestore. It’s so rare for such a large, expensive film production to be creator-driven and processed by a close-knit group of people. Cuarón even has an editing credit, which is rare in any film more expensive than $1M or so. It seems that the team behind GRAVITY kept quite an indie film mentality while making their movie.
5. GRAVITY cost a relatively small amount of money.
To me, $110,000,000 is a very large number. However, in terms of big-budget films with Oscar-winning actors and cutting edge special effects, that number is shockingly small. For comparison, AVATAR cost an estimated $425M. TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON cost $195M. INCEPTION cost $170M. THE AVENGERS cost $220M. PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME cost $200M. Yes, GRAVITY’s runtime is leaner than all of those, but perhaps that’s part of the key to success in thriftiness. In a landscape of over-long, over-budgeted projects with little care and little heart, here’s a film that breaks new ground without breaking budget records.
6. GRAVITY has correctly prioritized special effects.
According to Alfonso Cuarón, GRAVITY was not aiming to break any molds. He and his son, Jonas Cuarón, had constructed a screenplay that dictated its characters spend the majority of their time in weightlessness, and it wasn’t until production began that they realized that wouldn’t be possible to film with “conventional techniques”. Like the spaceships of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEEY, the extinct animals of JURASSIC PARK, and the big bang of THE TREE OF LIFE, the special effect creations of GRAVITY were dictated by a challenge inherent to the story being told in the film.
7. GRAVITY was released patiently.
This movie was near the top of my 2012 list of most anticipated films. We’ve been hearing rumors about Alfonso Cuarón’s follow-up to CHILDREN OF MEN for years, and yet it seemed like GRAVITY was never locked into a release date. Now, it boasts the biggest October opening of any movie ever. Many of our big budget spectacles are given a release date before they’re given a title, with zero regard to how a production schedule will impact a film’s quality.
8. GRAVITY is humble.
This is a point brought up in the most recent episode of the Broken Projector podcast. It’s no doubt that, technologically, GRAVITY is a game-changer. Industry leaders and critical voices are all agreed on that, and yet the filmmakers aren’t advertising that. They answer technological questions when presented with them, but everyone from Alfonso Cuarón to Sandra Bullock is focusing on the sincerity of the narrative at the film’s core. To them, they went to work and made a film. They changed the game by playing the game to the best of their abilities.
Daniel Thron is a writer-director living in Los Angeles. To pay rent, however, he works in visual effects for film as a matte painter, and his work can be seen in OBLIVION, REAL STEEL, and David Fincher’s ZODIAC. You can find his extremely tense and effective zombie short film SPOILER here. I read Daniel’s thoughts on the coming television landscape on Facebook the other day and asked him if I could post his thoughts here. He was kind enough to oblige. This is a fairly raw, off-the-cuff post, but I think it’s a really astute perspective on the ever-evolving relationship between television and cinema. Read and comment below!
I want television to become this visionary new art that everyone seems to believe it is, but it ain’t there yet, and we are only slowing the process down by overpraising what’s out there now.
There is no difference, in terms of tools and talent, between film and TV — they made by writers, directors, actors, editors, with cameras, lights, and bags of sand. But even though TV has has been around for enough time for it to be seriously compared to film, the list of great works in the medium is depressingly small, and none reach the emotional or artistic heights of even the lower-echelon film classics. Breaking Bad is an excellent show — one of the best ever made — but I would be surprised if anyone were truly moved to tears at any point in the series; certainly not in the strangely uninventive finale. Everyone has a movie that’s made them cry, and that happens in 90 minutes. 50-plus hours of Walter White — great acting, fine writing –yet the finale to his story made barely a dent in me, emotionally.
Even if you loved the finale episode, I can’t imagine all but the fringiest outliers in the audience being so affected as to sob — something that happens with relative frequency in movie theaters. And I’m willing to bet the same is true for The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood — any great show we can list. I’m sure anyone that’s reading this can come up with maybe one or two examples in their entire history of TV watching — but I’m just as sure that they can come up with at least 10 movies that do the same for them, and the compiled list would represent a huge range of films, not the same 3 over and over.
Why is this? I don’t think it’s because of a lack of talent — the Wire is brilliant, the scene in the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad where Walter calls his wife is as well written as anything in the past ten years of film.
I think, instead, it is the demands of TV itself. The pipeline that must be followed to create and produce any given show hobbles the drama automatically, at every turn in the process.
First there is there is the false perception that knowing more about a character makes you feel more for them. This is the same thinking that produced an ‘explanation’ for the Force in Star Wars. Facts aren’t drama, and in reality, the more that pile up, the more muddy and randomized characterization can get. Towards the middle of Breaking Bad, I started wondering ‘why the hell is Skyler in this show?’ They only occasionally seemed to know what to do with her, and ultimately, her story comes to nothing. Same with the son. They are important to Walt’s story, sure, but do they deserve there own? So, in the end, much of this was simply filler. Does this happen in great film? Do we need to see Chris Sarandon’s home life before Al Pacino robs the bank in Dog Day Afternoon?
We think we do, but we don’t. The best critique I’ve read of this problem is Jonathan Letham’s essay “Godfather IV” , which ends with him hoping that he’ll find out one day “who baked the canolli?”
Movies can be profoundly affecting because they have something to say, and if they say it well, it hits you. The point of TV isn’t to say something, though, it is to keep talking. The reason for this is entirely monetary — you want to keep the vaudeville act going as long as possible so that people buy more beer in the back of the hall. There is no doubt in my mind that a two hour version of the Breaking Bad story executed with the same workmanship would be a far superior experience — because they would be forced to get to the point, not keep tapdancing.
And this would be true for a ten hour film version. Or a 20 hour film version. Two hours is a little kinder to my bladder’s needs, but there are plenty of examples of very long, very beautiful films. The key is that their stories are meant to be seen uninterrupted — they cast a spell on you, your mind is in the story — and as long as that spell isn’t broken, it will give you the emotional epiphany you are looking for. But not only are TV shows broken up into advertising-friendly chunks, which jar you back into the real world every ten minutes, deflating the emotional experience — but the episodic structure of modern TV narrative makes it almost impossible to have any emotional buildup at all.
Audiences are in love with the idea of following stories that continue from one episode to the next — which is wonderful — but the fact that they are broken into hour-long installments completely arrests the emotional force of the story. And worse, any given episode is made up of 50% filler or plots that aren’t related to the emotional experience of that hour.
For example, one of my favorite shows, Homicide: Life on the Street, has a stellar episode where a man (Vincent D’Onofrio) is trapped between a subway train and the platform. Everyone knows that when the train is lifted, the man will die, and the story follows Andre Brougher’s attempt to talk him through this. Powerful stuff. When I saw it again recently, I was shocked that half of it was dedicated to scenes with background characters’ unrelated problems that I had utterly forgotten about, and in fact were bored by. I may have been interested in those stories when I was watching it, but in terms of sitting down to experience something, they simply get in the way. If D’Onofrio’s story had been the single subject of the episode, and there were no commercials — that might have hit me in the gut. But there’s a reason I didn’t cry, powerful as the writing and performance was: I was constantly being distracted. The stoy could never add up.
What’s particularly irritating is that we have kept this writing style/format even when we don’t need to. Why is Netflix’ excellent House of Cards broken up into hourlong episodes when most people watch it straight through on a Saturday? Why introduce an emotional speedbump into an experience when I have a pause button i can hit whenever i need?
Long films, like Lawrence of Arabia for example, had intermissions for two reasons — 1) okay fine, you can go pee, and 2) this is actually two films. The first half doesn’t break arbitrarily at the hour and half mark, it stops when that story is done — they have a full statement to make first, then you can hit the head. But even during the intermission, the music remained playing in the theater to keep you in the emotional mindset, so when you returned to your seat, the film hadn’t lost important ground with you. They wanted you to still be, at least partially, in Lawrence’s world. TV does it’s best to mimic this, but most shows are stuffed with an enormous amount of material that simply has nothing to do with the primary emotional story, and it makes really feeling things past the point of novelty a tricky proposition.
This isn’t the only way that TV limits how you tell a story — for all its leaps in production quality, has essentially remained what it was when it started — radio with pictures. It is rare when something actually happens. Almost every show, even the very best ones, are made up of scenes that essentially go like this: someone is in a room, someone else comes in, and they talk about something that happened. Then they talk about what they will do about it. The actual doing part rarely comes up. Why? Because doing things, in terms of movie making, generally more expensive. So keep ‘em chatting.
This makes for a lot of snappy dialogue, and maybe some good acting moments, but stuff like this has no dramatic purpose, as Hemingway would put it, it’s mistaking motion for action.
And by action I don’t necessarily mean physical action. In Glengarry Glen Ross, the actions are the words themselves — they are the weapons that the characters attack with, and the camera treats the whole thing like a knife fight. They aren’t talking about hurting each other, they are hurting each other. Characters taking action is what it means to be cinematic. It doesn’t mean ‘really wide angles’ or ‘watching things in a theater.’
Because there is nothing magical about being in a movie theater. I prefer it, it’s cool to me, but it’s not essential towards me investing in a film — I’ve seen many great films for the first time on a television set, and it didn’t keep me from crying. These same incredibly talented people that make Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, on and on — their ability to make me cry is being hindered by one thing, and one thing only: pipeline. The demands of how TV is made ruin drama. It can be fun, clever, fascinating, exciting, and sad — all to a point.
So when people declare that film is dead, and “TV is the new cinema,” I have to ask we put the breaks on. This is the identical mistake to film nerds rhapsodizing about how going to the theater like there’s some intangible specialness that can’t be replicated on the small screen. That is nonsense. I do agree that TV — especially now — can do things far better than film — the duration of the experience allows for byzantine, savory plots, deep worlds, and (when done well) richly detailed characters that are difficult to squeeze into two hours.
So I mean to say that TV could be as great as any great film — there is nothing to stop it. But in reality, because of the way we make and watch it, TV is currently more rigid and limiting in storytelling than any film format. There is virtually no variety in subject matter, structure, or execution. The pipeline of TV all but forbids experimentation in visuals, form or story structure. Shows have their own visual character, sure, and sometimes, like Breaking Bad, they incorporate some artful flourishes. But can you imagine Breathless the show? What about Picnic at Hanging Rock? Shawshank Redemption? Jaws?
Well, we should start imagining these.
The reason they sound ridiculous is because the way we think of TV is so radically limited, so hemmed in by an ancient, outdated pipeline, that all we can think of is how these things would be terrible if you tried to make a ‘show’ out of them. So instead, we get yet another story about a middle aged criminal and his/her family problems.
My argument is not hey you kids get off my lawn. It’s this: stop thinking we are at the top of this art form, simply because it’s better than it was. Television is ten thousand times better than in previous decades, yes, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking that we’ve reached the level of Sid and Nancy, Three Days of the Condor, Tootsie, Young Frankenstein, Unforgiven, Blade Runner, Anchorman, Amelie, Heat, The Third Man, Blue, Once Upon a Time in New York, The Haunting, Don’t Look Now, 2001, Duck Soup, Elephant, Pulp Fiction, The Woman in the Dunes, Bicycle Thieves, The Conformist, The Big Lebowski, Wings of Desire….et damn cetera –
– and (I’m looking at you, film nerds) we shouldn’t kid ourselves, that it will always be this way. The fact that I’ve never seen anything that is anywhere near as good as Close Encounters on TV doesn’t mean that it’s in any way impossible. In fact it’s obviously possible, because as far as I know, Close Encounters was made with cameras and actors.
But we’ll only get there if we are honest with ourselves on both sides. Breaking Bad, as awesome as it is (and it is) — never made me cry. So next time guys, the goal should be this: figure out how to to do that. Weed out the weaknesses of TV as it is, bring in the incredible range of things that film does well, and forget film’s former limitations.
In short, we need to set ourselves free from thinking of things as TV or film, and make use of the best of both. I want my novelistic character driven dense family dramas, absolutely — i just don’t want that to be the only game in town. I want a Netflixian universe where there I can sit down and watch a twelve hour film with no dialogue. Or an hour-long one-off comedy that I quote for the rest of my life. Variety. Emotion. Art. I want TV to be as broad ranging as film is, and more so — and it’s all perfectly possible if we finally break how we think about it, both as filmmakers and as audience members. It is all one art form with a million facets.
Damn, this rant is long enough it should have been a show.
Matt and Francesca Scalici return with another episode of Cinematrimony. This time, Matt and Francesca discuss Edgar Wright’s genre-bending sci-fi/action/adult relationship comedy The World’s End. How does the film compare to Wright’s previous collaborations with leading men Simon Pegg and Nick Frost? Does the ambitious film manage to pull all of its various elements together into a cohesive blend or does it turn into a big mess? Matt and Francesca discuss this and more in this episode of Cinematrimony.
My post-Labor Day tradition continues, as though I didn’t have time to go over any other Summer movie seasons this year, I did want to take a look back at the ups and downs of 2013′s Summer movies.
Quick Reminder of the 7 Summer Movie Memories Protocol: These movies are picked to represent their Summer movie season as a whole, even if I’ve not seen them, although theatrical viewings do carry more weight as personal experiences. I picked them based on my memory of the Summer, a very subjective criteria to be sure.
1.) April 26th – MUD
It’s rare that I see a film that reminds me of my childhood, seeing as my childhood was pretty boring and suburban, but MUD will certainly remind any child of the South of summers spent riding bikes through the woods, looking for trouble. There’s a lot of river life texture in Jeff Nichols’ latest, but it’s also full of story… Maybe even too much story. Nevertheless, MUD is a film I have to count as a summer movie even if it’s a late April cheat. No other movie has reminded me more of my own personal summertimes spent outside of the movie theater.
2.) May 3rd – IRON MAN 3
The year’s biggest money-maker seemed like a sure-fire hit with anyone that loved THE AVENGERS as much as I did, but something about the latest Marvel movie fell flat for me. Perhaps it’s the film’s interest in making us laugh rather than making us think. Perhaps it’s the torrid love affair that Robert Downey, Jr. has embroiled himself in with Marvel and the filmgoing public. Perhaps it’s the scent of condescension that Shane Black brings to the table. I’m not sure, but despite not liking a handful of moments, the film did what it set out to do, and features at least one excellent action sequence and some very genuine laughs.
3.) June 21st – WORLD WAR Z
WORLD WAR Z would have been the perfect poster child for the relationship between this year’s crop of summer movies and the online movie fan community, had it not been so darn enjoyable. We had heard a lot about a highly publicized troubled production, and it seemed inevitable that this would turn out to be a slapdash piece of hackery attempting to cash in on the zombie trend. However, it’s clear that there aren’t any hacks involved with WORLD WAR Z… But that’s not to say there’s not a slapdash quality to the film. It’s narratively ragged and rambling, but the experience stands. Brad Pitt continues his streak of not being attached to any objectively bad films; he seems to have enough control over his productions to not let them hit theaters in horrible shape, and that’s very admirable.
4.) June 22nd – THE LONE RANGER
Alas, all of the weight of the negative expectations for WORLD WAR Z were destined to land on the shoulders of Jerry Bruckheimer. THE LONE RANGER was the perfect storm of online movie nerd vitriol: An over-saturated star, an inflated budget, a producer known for gloss, and an arguably dated and boring character. The problem is, none of those things made for a bad movie. In fact, THE LONE RANGER is one of the breeziest and most enjoyable films of the summer, with great and consistent characterization, a few serious things to say about Westward Expansion, and an absolutely masterful climactic action sequence.
5.) July 12th – PACIFIC RIM
There’s not a movie from this past summer that’s been more fun to turn over in my head than Guillermo del Toro’s latest. At first glance, PACIFIC RIM is a shallow CGI spectacle with stock characters and shallow dialogue. However, the slightest inspection yields a wealth of revelation, as the film reveals a brilliant structure, a very emotional arc, and seemingly limitless imagination. Here’s a wonderful boy’s adventure about finding a soulmate in the least likely of your fellow human beings.
6.) July 26th – THE WOLVERINE
The best superhero movie of the summer… Who would have ever thought? The X-franchise and 20th Century Fox haven’t been reliable sources for quality superhero action in a number of years, but it seems all they needed was a little desperation. After being in development hell for several years, this film had to get made for the good of Fox’s licensing rights and Hugh Jackman’s sustained star image. All it took to succeed was some script polishing, a focused and limited scope, and a sharp craftsman of a director. Instead of attempting to ape THE DARK KNIGHT or THE AVENGERS, director James Mangold made a simple, character-driven action movie that happens to feature one of Marvel’s top three most popular characters.
7.) August 23 – THE WORLD’S END
The common denominator in all the conversations I’ve had with friends about THE WORLD’S END has been this question: When was the last time that you were genuinely surprised by a turn made in a film you saw in the theater? Whether it’s the kick-off to the second act, or the epilogue in the third, there’s definitely at least one element in Edgar Wright’s newest film that you won’t see coming. I’ll wager that the twists and turns of THE WORLD’S END are effective not for their novelty, but because we as viewers are paying far more attention to the characters in the story, rather than the construct containing them.
Top-Grossing, as of 09/06: IRON MAN 3 ($408,883,156)
Favorite Action Sequence: The Battle of Hong Kong, PACIFIC RIM
Favorite Score: Hans Zimmer, MAN OF STEEL
Favorite Visual Effects: STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS
Favorite Performance: Simon Pegg, THE WORLD’S END
Favorite Film: PACIFIC RIM
Quick note: I didn’t include MAN OF STEEL or STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS because I recently covered my thoughts on both in a Flixticuffs entry. There are plenty of other films that I saw that I could have included (EPIC, ELYSIUM, BLUE JASMINE), and a few that I wish I had seen (MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, THE CONJURING), but I feel like I got a good enough sampling of the summer to have an overall opinion. At this point, nothing stands out the way that INCEPTION or TREE OF LIFE or THE DARK KNIGHT RISES or THE AVENGERS stood out in the past few summers, but there was plenty to enjoy, even amongst the financial disappointments. Despite really liking several of the summer’s biggest films, I’m anxious to see what will come of what might be seen as a failed season by industry terms. Perhaps we’ll get more modestly budgeted thrillers, or merely fewer blockbusters with even bigger budgets.
I’m excited to spend more time in the theater during the rest of 2013, as there are some really incredible-looking films headed our way.
Be sure to check out all the new, great stuff over at the Film Nerds main page. We have a new edition of the Film Club, there’s a new Cinematrimony on BLUE JASMINE, and if you head over to Aspect Radio, Corey and Ben are back on the horse and putting out some great film discussion.
Also, check out my newest short film, FRANKENSTEIN’S MASTER, which took up a lot of my movie-watching time earlier this summer.
Welcome to the club! Today we’re continuing our monthly feature on FilmNerds.com called the FilmNerds Film Club.
Think of it as a book club, only with movies. Each month, one member of the FilmNerds crew will select a film that the rest of the crew will be required to watch. Then we’ll all meet and discuss in a podcast, letting all our varied opinions fly.
For our third episode, Ben Flanagan chose John Frankenheimer’s 1962 film The Birdman of Alcatraz. Listen as Graham, Ben Stark, Matt Scalici, Ben Flanagan and Craig Hamilton discuss the film and their impressions of it in the podcast below.
And if you’d like to follow along with the FilmNerds Film Club, you can join us next month for Episode 3 when we’ll be discussing Christopher Nolan’s FOLLOWING.
Matt and Francesca Scalici return with another episode of Cinematrimony. This time, Matt and Francesca discuss Woody Allen’s San Francisco-set drama Blue Jasmine starring Cate Blanchett and Alec Baldwin. Does Blanchett’s performance live up to the early Oscar hype? Where does Allen’s latest effort rank among his other female-driven dramas? Does this film have the potential to be another mainstream success for Allen? Matt and Francesca discuss this and more in this episode of Cinematrimony.
Matt and Francesca Scalici return with another episode of Cinematrimony. This time, Matt and Francesca discuss Neil Blomkamp’s sci-fi/action thriller Elysium starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster and Charlto Copley. Does the South African director’s follow up to Best Picture nominee District 9 deliver the same kind of social commentary-tinged action? Is Copley’s performance over-the-top or one of the year’s best? Matt and Francesca discuss this and more in this episode of Cinematrimony.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to interview acting legend Dan Aykroyd. While our main focus was the 30th anniversary of “Trading Places,” I veered into the far-nerdier territory of Aykroyd’s seldom-discussed working relationship with Steven Spielberg.
Spielberg gave Aykroyd his first role in a major motion picture in 1979 with his World War II Comedy Spectacle “1941.” For me, “1941″ was an especially hot topic because the Film Nerds crew recently discussed the much-maligned film in detail for the Film Nerds Film Club Podcast. Check it out here if you haven’t already.
This led to some intriguing revelations about the backstories behind Spielberg’s cameo in “The Blues Brothers,” as well as Aykroyd’s appearances in two of Spielberg’s subsequent productions.
Aykroyd also offers insights on why director John Landis doesn’t work as often, as well as a compelling prediction about who he thinks will become the next major comedy star.