February 4th, 2007

Kambei (The Seven Samurai)

Super Bowl Cleaner... football-free post for those of us who couldn't give a flying @#$% about it...

As somebody who approaches cinema critically, it is sometimes important for me to make distinctions between my own personal reaction to a film and how I think of it critically. This sometimes comes out in spoken language as, "it wasn't very good, but I liked it," or "I respected what the filmmakers were trying to do, but I didn't like it very much." I tend to find more academically valid ways of saying such things in this forum, but often I do write reviews that boil down to that very concept. Of course, everything written in this journal is done so with the filter of my particular tastes and idiosyncracies, but I try to be as fair as I can be when writing about films.

In composing a review of a film, I make the some choices, the most important being whether I think it is a film that would yield worthy discussion. Not every movie I see gets written about here. Like most other people, I like a stupid comedy. Unless it is a satire or notably offensive in some way, I'm not going to bother to write an essay about one of those (though they might show up as a movie moment). This is not a value judgement on the film itself (I count several stupid comedies, including works by the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker team, Mel Brooks and others, among my all-time favorites), but what gives me the grist for my mill tends to be dramatic in nature (hence the interest in film music).

Another consideration I have is what the film's goals were versus what it accomplished. The more ambitious a movie's intent, the more disappointing a failure is. However, sometimes that ambition in itself is worthy of regard, and sometimes that failure in and of itself is indicative of a limitation of the medium itself. When a filmmaker pushes a boundary of the art form, even if they don't succeed fully, they have nevertheless broadened the spectrum of what is possible in the idiom, which is a laudable pursuit.

Other films are not quite so visionary, of course. One of the reasons why the so-called "B" movies have been so consistently inspirational to filmmakers is because they often benefit from a very compact premise. It comes across as a 'neat little movie,' and while it may not expand the possibilities of cinema, it does exactly what it sets out to do. To be frank, many of these films can be quite stimulating when taken on their own merits. They may not be innovative, but they can very well entertain you for its running time, and possibly even be very, very repeatable... sometimes more so than a more inventive but less accessible film.

Some films accomplish things they don't set out to do. How many movies have intended to "wow" you and failed miserably, either as a result of their lousy use of the medium (lousy photography, bad special effects, incoherent editing) or bad conceptualizing (poor script, inept characterization)? Films can also serve a more dubious goal of reinforcing societal prejudices; I found what I saw of the Peter Jackson remake of King Kong to be completely reprehensible owing as to the rampant racism that is completely out of place in a modern film, but it was of such an institutionalized manner that I wonder how many people that saw the film noticed it.

That leads us to another aspect of a film that I think about, which is what type of emotional reaction am I having to it and why. While I attempt to be as balanced and rational as I possibly can be, I am still a human being with a point of view and my own experiences that will color my perception. I try to be as self-aware of these things as possible, and take them into account when I discuss a movie. This usually has is more apparent in the negative... that is to say if a film is turning me off for some reason, I'm much more likely to be aware of why - see the above reference to King Kong - than if a movie is pressing positive buttons in me.

In the case of the latter, I will see the film more than once; I just saw Children of Men again last night with Russ because of how brilliant I found it on many different levels... despite the fact that I knew it would put me through the emotional ringer (and it did; in some ways it was even worse the second time around because I knew some of what would be happening afterwards). I felt that there were so many aspects of the film that were to be appreciated that I wanted to understand it better. It was a difficult experience, to be sure, but a worthwhile one because of what I was able to learn from it. I grok the film on a level I didn't before. Part of this is the influence of my first viewing of the film, and that I had changed somewhat since, as well as having been changed by the film in some way.

Emotions are fluid, and sometimes the first impression a film gives you isn't what you end up with later. This is one of the reasons why you'll see that I sometimes write follow-ups to reviews or essays. In the case of Million Dollar Baby I completely reversed my opinion from my initial lukewarm response to some very positive reflections after the film had some time to kick around in my head). People change over time, and while the film tends to stay the same (save for damage, "unrated director's cut" or the pan and scan transfers) a person's perception doesn't.

That films are not just about the emotions generated by the film itself, but can also be the objects of emotion as well. We all have favorite movies, ones that take on a comfortable familiarity. The watching of these films can be considered akin to visiting an old friend, and on many of occasions I discuss aspects of a film futher after I watch it again. I have linked to no less than three separate essays about Alien, one a review on the "director's cut" version, one a piece on the film's genres and the last just a few thoughts I had after one viewing. I also had written a piece on Rear Window after the remaster came out on DVD, which was followed much later by a further discussion when I saw the film at the Ziegfield (this review & essay list makes these references so easy to do)... the point being that my perspective over time changes, and so when I see a film again, I will sometimes have a different take on the material.

Recent conversations with several friends have caused me to realize exactly how much I do enjoy writing about cinema. This used to be something of an academic pursuit, but in that context it was usually externally motivated; I had an assignment, so I would write a paper. I might have enjoyed writing it (and I usually did), but I nevertheless wasn't writing it for myself. My introduction to LiveJournal by waystone coincided with my return to school, and as a result, aspects of it developed along academic lines. However, when I look at the body of work I have generated since I began it, and the sort of "I can't wait to write about this" reaction I have to some films, makes me wonder if it isn't a skill worth pursuing elsewhere as well.