Saturday, July 6, 2013

I Don't Care What You Like

I am not certain what common traits I share with other movie lovers. But when it comes to film, and even outside of cinema, I am a compulsive list maker. I enjoy putting together lists of quality of content, ranking and re-ranking items based on my feelings, collective societal worth, and even simply for the sake of someone else. Magazines usually exploit the fact that most people share this attribute in some way, which is why Entertainment Weekly recently caused waves with an issue dedicated to “The 100 Greatest Films Ever Made,” while also featuring several sub-lists that further complicate the lead headline. As a person, I know that EW is piffle, and a list like this from a collective as opposed to an individual is always going to be compromised and, in a way, fairly useless. As a compulsive list-maker, I cannot resist.

Because lists are lists, my opinions and disputes are insignificant, and I often celebrate these sorts of things because of what shows up at a certain ranking instead of what doesn’t. I was surprised, but not entirely that moved, by how Sight & Sound’s pick for greatest film, “Vertigo,” only ranked 38th, below two other Hitchcock films (“Psycho” and “North By Northwest,” not coincidentally the most conventionally entertaining Hitch offerings). I was tickled to see Robert Altman’s “Nashville” in the top ten, just as I was confused by how “Mean Streets” (#7) is quite definitely considered the best from Martin Scorsese (“Taxi Driver” is at #42). There are the typical thesis-worthy ideas about dates and eras, like how the last 22 years have not produced any great horror, despite relaxed standards, and worries about xenophobia, given that the top fifteen is made up of English-language films only. This is Entertainment Weekly, a pop publication geared towards people who buy magazines because “Twilight” is on the cover; maybe we should just be congratulating them for even mentioning “Tokyo Story” and “Titicut Follies.”

What I can’t get past is the out-of-the-blue ranking of “Toy Story” at #22. And part of my feeling is an inherent, sometimes irrational bias I have against animation. Part of it is also that “Toy Story,” a picture made for children with an appropriately sanitized morality, ranks fifty four spots ahead of “Lawrence Of Arabia,” among other films. I am not bothered (though I do disagree with) “Bambi” being ranked at #14. But “Toy Story” just doesn’t jibe with me, and I think it has to do with EW’s staff preserving what they (and others) like as opposed to what they think is significant.

“Toy Story” is, for that type of picture, an amusing animated comedy with a lot of wit and heart, with a streamlined screenplay that works far better than you’d think coming from the tinkerers at Pixar. It’s a delight even amidst the usual fare produced by Pixar, a fairly consistent studio in terms of imagination and storytelling, and the three “Toy Story” pictures differ little in terms of quality, with fans of each all having respectable stances. Moreover, animation boomed in the early nineties, but watching “Toy Story” all these years later, you understand why adults began going to these films in droves even without children. The dialogue is smart, the characterizations and voicework are top-notch, and the laughs are plenty and satisfying.

It’s unfortunate, then, to acknowledge that films like “Toy Story” begin at a handicap. Disney assisted Pixar in funding “Toy Story” because the story was sharp and the characters endearing, and the involvement of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen certainly helped. But they also pushed it for the same reason “Star Wars” turned George Lucas from a millionaire to a billionaire: toys. The basic idea of “Toy Story” promotes to children the value of materialist objects in a capitalist society because they might seriously have lives outside of your eyeline. This was an angle the “Toy Story” films pursued and even embraced, with moments taking place in department stores, nods to brand cross-pollination (Buzz Lightyear was seen as a multi-platform sensation - which he eventually, conveniently became), and the overriding idea that one must never let go of their childhood possessions, and maybe even buy more.  
The overriding sentiment of all three films was that lanky cowboy Woody (Hanks) was an outdated toy who feared being put out to pasture, replaced by the shiny new Lightyear spaceman. The first film turned this into a non-dilemma, allowing Woody and Buzz to coexist because the more toys the better, right? The second film, which featured the involvement of Mattel after they refused to allow Barbie to appear in the original, emphasizes that Woody is a legacy toy, and that the trace elements of nostalgia in his backstory have worth in a capitalist market. It’s probably the best of the three, with its rejection of a collector’s mindset, though it also embraces a brand friendliness that the first film didn’t share, and ends in an exhausting blockbuster finale self-consciously attempting to top the first picture without the balletic chaos Brad Bird brought to his two superior Pixar offerings, “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille.”

The third film, where some of the same jokes began to show a bit of staleness, may be the most craven of the trilogy, emphasizing how the materialistic value of these toys can and should be passed on to a next generation. Not only does it begin with an action movie re-contextualization of these walking gizmos, but it (contradictorily?) closes with a near-adult male instructing a little girl to play with his toys with an arcane series of rules and regulations she must follow (which actually makes a depressing character sense in the film, but is fairly indelicate in theory). It humanizes the toys in ways that seem almost perverse, doing so for the sake of good storytelling while ignoring the fact that this is bringing emotion to commodities, objects, corporate mascots with no actual inner lives. This is further emphasized by the film’s avalanche of brands: not only are Buzz and Woody not in-film creations but actual worldwide household names by now, but they are surrounded by toys of every type and era in this picture. The effect is a lot like going to an actual toy store and simply letting your eyes trace the aisles.

To like these films is understandable, and to praise their strengths makes more than enough sense. But to peddle them as great art is disingenuous of EW, for many reasons. The most obvious is that there are outside forces beyond the film at play, which makes sense given that EW is likely addressing certain amounts of baggage: that “The Godfather” (#2) was a tremendously influential film, that “It’s A Wonderful Life” (#6) is still a broadcast TV holiday staple, and that even people who haven’t seen “Midnight Cowboy” (#59) know they’re paying homage by slapping cars and screaming, “I’m walkin’ heah!”

Placing “Toy Story” so high on this list is likely an acknowledgement of the film’s influence on modern culture, bringing CGI-animation to life as a viable artform and bringing adults into the theaters to watch it. Other studios attempted what Pixar began, but it took years to match the standard of “Toy Story,” and most are still trying. I also suspect these conversations about “significance” are peppered by the fact that the movie is just so enjoyable to an entire generation of audiences and critics, some of whom have now introduced the mythology to their children given the fifteen year gap between the first and third films. It’s a favorite, why can’t it also be the best?

But the “CGI” revolution has yet to accommodate adults: even when movies like “Avatar” feel more “animated” like “Toy Story,” the technology is still in service of juvenile ideas and concepts. Bringing adults into the theaters isn’t much of a virtue anymore: if anything, adults need to stop watching these films. There’s probably an adult at the movie theaters now rejecting “Despicable Me 2” because it’s too “childish,” before settling in for similar kiddie fare in “Iron Man 3” or “The Lone Ranger.” Adults sure started showing up for “Toy Story”; now, they won’t even leave, to the point where Oscar-winning directors like Danny Boyle have to publicly complain about the “Pixar-ification” of modern cinema.

But one has to only focus on the values to discern the worth of something like “Toy Story.” The jejune response to questions regarding what the “Toy Story” movies are about can be boiled down to “friendship” (and some might say “mortality” as far as the third film, which makes me wince). But that tends to ignore that “Toy Story” is its own massive industry onto itself, and as pushed by Disney, the films exist not only to push its own merchandise but also to move units for other companies. Does it mean anything to humanize these characters when it also means the whole three-film affair is a massive advertisement, geared straight towards children and their weak-kneed parents? That seems far more likely to be the legacy of these films, but it doesn’t seem to matter as long as some of us “like” them, right? What is “best” if not “an attempt to find value beyond our own biases, prejudices and interests”? How can we consider one artform one of the “best” among millions of others if it’s one of the biggest attempts to satisfy multiple corporate interests? Or are we just talking about what tickles our fancy?

Of course, I’m not that much different than those who ignore the problematic nature of these kids’ films simply because it “floats their boat.” Several halfway-thru-the-year retrospectives have hit the net, discussing the best films of the year, and the one title that keeps popping up is another trilogy-closer “Before Midnight.” Following up on “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” the film follows Celine and Jesse (Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke), as they struggle with the crucial realities of being together long after the flirtation has ended, when the storybook romance gave way to the inevitable compromises needed to keep it all together. If you’ve seen the first two, you’ve seen this. If not, you probably have no interest.

Richard Linklater’s film is honest and true. The arguments buzz with the razor of real life: the fact that couples use hard realities to harm each other in conversation, the idea that there’s restlessness in happiness, eventually our partners begin to see the “cute” ways in which we avoid conflict, etc.. The European setting allows for several sun-kissed locations and dreamy pathways to walk, and the final sequence feels like an all-timer, a moment when the past, present and future of cinematic history collapse on each other, our two lovers stuck in the middle. Of course, my problem is this: what if you don’t much like Celine or Jesse?

I’ve struggled with this through all three movies, which is nothing if not an argument for the consistency of vision from Linklater and his two collaborators. Celine and Jesse’s post-grad dissertations masked as conversation in the first film made me think they were insufferable, over-caffeinated liberal brats that have never worked a single day in their lives. The second film revealed that nothing has changed with age, and I found tiresome the exercise of two adults dilly-dallying around the impropriety of cheating (Jesse was married, I believe) during the actual impropriety of their flirting, ignoring the elephant in the room that was their obvious physical attraction increasing over the years. Moreover, they kept paying lip service to other ideas, but were clearly intoxicated with talking about themselves. I had zero interest in revisiting this couple, Celine with her over-dramatic victim complex and Jesse with his bullshit tortured-writer schtick (Hawke, an actor I like, unfortunately seems like he’s playing himself).

I had recently hit an impasse with the lack of restraint in modern cinema, where realistic merry-go-round arguments could take up entire chunks of screentime that they wouldn’t in the pre-indie days. When you had Clark Gable or even Diane Keaton, you could have characters go at each other, cut each other down to size with a nasty remark, and then leave the scene. Even in conversational films like “Carnal Knowledge,” each barb has a specific design and purpose, and when the scene ends it makes sense organically and artistically.

Contemporary indie cinema seems to lean towards realism as far as couple confrontations, so movies like the recent, unsung “What Maisie Knew” nonetheless gets bogged down in two adults tossing nasty barbs at each other through multiple rooms. The cutting insults still reappear, but they’re between conversational lulls and beats, and then only exacerbate matters until someone screams, “Fuck you!” and slams a door. Just because a filmmaker can capture the realities of a grotesque yelling match doesn’t mean we need to experience it. Thank god these movies aren’t in 3D.

The second half of “Before Midnight” features such an argument, even worse considering it involves a writer (Jesse) and someone who self-describes as an artist (Celine) and they are equally passionate and eager to out-smart each other. Neither backs down, and there are at least a couple of moments where one of them exits (Thank God!), only to reappear for unfinished business and/or the last word (Dammit!). From a certain perspective, these clashes are interesting and they advance the characters’ relationship (though there is really no story to advance). But, nakedly, you’re watching two people be mean to each other, and you are trapped, silently sitting in front of two people yell and bicker. Movie prices in New York City are around $12-$14. I can visit my parents and see this for free.

Unfortunately, I find myself unable to divorce my lack of pleasure derived from this film from my aesthetic appreciation of its meaning and worth. The picture furthers no hateful agenda, it features fully-realized characters, it is truthful about emotions and relationships, and it’s lovely to look at. Hawke and Delpy are wonderful performers and Linklater fully understands how to use their physicality: there is a moment when scruffy, disheveled Jesse is lying in bed alone as Celine mocks him for what he wears, clothing so insignificant that it seems as if the skinny Hawke is melting into the fabric. While on the other side of the room, Celine is arguing while changing, and when she removes her shirt, her breasts hang maternally, full and asexual, which, accompanied by her full-bodied anger, made her seem heartbreakingly vulnerable when matched against her paramour. Is it great? I can’t tell. Maybe. But I don’t like it.

Of course, who cares what I like? The best way of shutting down conversation is telling someone what you like. It’s not relevant because the things we like reflect our personal biases, they flatter us, and therefore, in a crude way, they’re what gets us off. When someone tells me they liked a film with no further analysis, it’s as if they’re showing me a photo of the last image they saw while masturbating. It’s none of my business what turns you on, who you voted for, or which God(s) hears(s) your prayers. If you want to share this information, that’s fine, you’re sharing a part of who you are. But, by and large, I don’t care what you like. I want to know what you think is significant. The fact that I did not enjoy “Before Midnight” means nothing to anyone. The fact that I talk about it… well, that might matter a bit more. If you have an opinion on it, I’d love to know as well. If you just tell me you liked or disliked it, then we have nothing to discuss, correct? You can’t debate someone on what their favorite ice cream is. You can only be happy they like something.

Last year, I saw an unusual film that apparently got a sizable release in the states though few saw it, and those who did likely chalked it up to a bad drug trip. The film was “Branded,” most certainly one of the most insane movies of the last few years, a picture that makes “Southland Tales” look as straightforward as “The Rundown.” In this Russian production, which is populated by English-speaking actors, a young ad exec somehow marked by the gods at an early age spearheads a dangerous reality show stunt that gets a woman killed. Retreating off-the-grid, he fulfills a prophecy of bathing in the ashes of a magical red cow in order to give him a second sight. Not only does this reveal to him that the woman’s death was planned by his bosses all along, but it gives him the ability to see the powerful, corruptive influence of corporate power in major cities, with a unique twist: He visualizes them as massive CGI versions of company logos, climbing over skyscrapers like video game monsters.

“Branded” actually becomes a bit more unhinged as it goes along, with our hero now launching a purposely destructive ad campaign for a fast food company that drives entire industries into the ground, leading to him ruling over a totalitarian state where advertising is essentially outlawed. Amusingly, “Branded” presents this as a heroic victory and not a terrifying new world order, though it maintains the film’s shadowy cobalt blue color scheme and extreme devotion to humorlessness. Is it a conventionally “good” movie? I really can’t say. I can tell you that it was like no other film I had ever seen before, and surely like no picture I am sure to watch ever again. I’m certainly glad that it exists. And that seems more important than whether I enjoyed this movie or not, doesn’t it?

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