random moments in film criticism #3

I finally got my copy of When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade, the first collection of Dave Kehr’s writing from his years as the head film critic at the Chicago Reader.  I couldn’t be happier, although I’m sure if someone told me that an intact print of Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons had been discovered in a steamer trunk in Peru or that the latest Dario Argento movie was actually pretty good, that would make my day as well.  But there’s something about reading great criticism that’s… well, it opens the pores and scrubs out the cobwebs of the mind.  It sharpens you up to see and think in new ways, to engage with not only movies (or books or whatever) with a fresh insight, but to deal with the world outside of the frame in a renewed manner.  It’s not simply about finding out if the critic liked or disliked a movie.  It’s about understanding how the critic engaged with it and if you as a reader and watcher can engage with the work on your own terms.  A great critic doesn’t shut down the argument; they keep it evolving and widen participation.

I know how we physically engage with movies is drastically changing, as is the very definition of what a movie is nowadays, or at least it seems to be.  Film criticism has significantly changed with it.  Note that I don’t think it’s getting worse or better necessarily.  It’s just changed and evolved into something different.  As print movie journalism has dwarfed in recent years, quite alarmingly so, movie blogs catering to all persuasions have flourished as well, like weeds sprouting in the concrete fissures of an abandoned parking lot.  I think that aspects of the change, for instance the proliferation of well-informed and well-written blogs by amateurs and pros alike, is great.  What’s not so fantastic is the disintegration of intelligent movie criticism that is aimed at a large audience that was regularly found in magazines and newspapers in the 1970s or even in the 1980s, the decade when I first started reading film criticism.  It’s all niche-driven now, like most things.  As Kehr points out in his introduction, there is academic writing on one side and mainstream writing on the other and the two rarely if ever meet in the middle.  That’s a shame.  I’m not even going to touch upon the overflow of so-called fanboy blogs, which seem from afar to be nothing more than extensions of studio marketing divisions.  But plenty of movie reviewers on mainstream sites and in print publications also seem to be uncritical minions for p.r. departments.  The ability to talk to a wide audience about complex ideas intelligently though without obfuscating meaning with distracting jargon seems like a rare talent.

Which is why Kehr’s book is worth picking up and should make anyone happy who still cares about the cinematic medium and good writing.  Reading his 1978 review for Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, a film I know well, made me want to put down the book and immediately pop the Blu-ray on.  Almost, I say, because then that would have required me to stop reading… no way was I going to do that.  Kehr’s examination of how the film utilizes Old Testament myths for its own narrative purposes is far more enlightening, but the following passage nevertheless evokes clear, resonant images in my mind.

“Days of Heaven is a uniquely palpable film: the breath of the wind, the texture of the grain, light snow melting on a woman’s hair—we see, we hear, but somehow, we touch, too.  Nester Almendros’s prickly-sharp cinematography (the film was made in 70mm, but, unfortunately, is playing Chicago in only 35mm) finds its match in the crispness and subtlety of the Dolby sound.  Crickets sing, a windmill hums, and the image is opened up.  One of the most moving moments in the film occurs as the farmer (Sam Shepard) rolls a blade of wheat between his fingers, testing its ripeness.  The chaff crinkles off, and the farmer blows it away with a light, delicate breath.  In that second, the screen dissolves: not simply sound and image, the film becomes touch, taste, and smell.”

I guess I know what I’m re-watching later this evening.  After I finish the book, of course.

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random moments in film criticism #2

“The pure horror movie would be that in which the forces of evil succeeded in taking over, the one they would themselves direct: pure, and therefore unrealizable.  Carmilla, the gorgeous undead girl (invented by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu) who infiltrated bourgeois households in Blood and Roses and The Vampire Lovers, was the advance agent for a New Order, but you would never get to see what sort of a world that would be.  There would never be The Last Man on Earth II, detailing what happened on virus-ridden Earth in the aftermath of Sidney Salkow’s unforgettably downbeat 1964 production, after there was no one left except vampires.  The inheritors, in such a scenario, would propose a ravenous alternative dispensation, in which the lords of chaos in their unrestrained domesticity could give themselves over to a voracity without end.”

The evocative passage above was by the writer/critic/editor Geoffrey O’Brien and taken from his superb, impressionistic analysis of movies and memory, The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the 20th Century, originally published in 1993.  It’s not a traditional critical examination at all, but it’s brilliantly written and contains many insights that keep me going back to it all these years later.  Reading the above paragraph immediately reminded me of the movie below.

The video clip is taken from the experimental movie Begotten, directed by E. Elias Merhige, from 1991.  It’s not really a horror movie, although it contains plenty of macabre imagery and feels unwholesome in that way only the best horror movies can exude.  It looks and feels as if it had been unearthed from ancient soil and screened as a sacrament to unnameable gods.  It feels like something they would screen for themselves for a night of entertainment, when their bellies were too bloated to continue their ritualistic sacrifices.

random moments in film criticism #1

The Getaway is an utter bore.  A failure as drama, as film, as entertainment.  It is morally corrupt, artistically arid, conceptually outdated and in sum as thoroughly unredeemable a piece of shit as has been released this year, and the horror and wonder of it, is that it came from such massive talents.”

The above quote is from the always outspoken Harlan Ellison, writing in the January 19, 1973 edition of The Staff about Sam Peckinpah’s 1972 crime movie The Getaway, starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw.  The review is collected in the book Harlan Ellison’s Watching.  As good a quote as any to inaugurate this new blog feature.

Below is a scene from the movie, giving you a little taste of what Bloody Sam did best.  If you haven’t seen it before and plan to, you may want to back off.  Plot lines are resolved and not everyone makes it out alive.  Good scene.

ADDITION:

I think you could argue that Ellison is the godfather of the kind of belligerent, smartypants writing that blankets the internet nowadays.  The sort of hostile over-the-top typing that is frequently mistaken for having an opinion.  The big difference is that Ellison could write and he was informed about his opinions.  He harangued the reader, but it came loaded with just as much brains as brawn.  Most of the time.