Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Greatest Films of Me Time

The years drag by between this special August day. We can recite by heart the rankings last time around, but we hear a potential contender has a chance to topple the king. This time, the two will go face-to-face. The moment of truth has arrived. Spectators across the world open a new Internet tab and … check Twitter? Well, yes. This is not the Olympics and the contestants are not Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte. This is cinema as filtered through the British Film Institute’s decennial Sight & Sound Poll and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is set to seize the throne from Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane as the de facto “Greatest Film of All Time.” And it did, as revealed by Sight & Sound’s Twitter account on August 1.

This is how it goes: Every ten years, the magazine Sight & Sound polls an exclusive list of critics, historians, theorists, distributors, exhibitors and other legit types on their picks for the ‘Top 10’ films. There were 846 voters in total (my employer at distributor Milestone Films was one of them) and they do not fall for the politics or marketing campaigns that plague the Oscars. The poll is, as Roger Ebert summarizes, “the only one most serious movie people take seriously.

So, the displacement of Citizen Kane from “Greatest Ever” status — which it held for five decades — in favor of Vertigo means sacred ground has been plowed, tilled and declared sacred anew. But not really, of course. There is no official “greatest” film, just as there is no greatest song, painting or aleatory cut-up poem. The best these academics can do is talk amongst and with themselves to decide which groundbreaking film broke more ground than that other groundbreaking film, or which artistic feature packed more beautiful art than that other artistic feature. It is quite silly and arbitrary when viewed from afar.

Considering that we witness every action and absorb every expression through our own eyes, it is impossible to divorce emotion from judgment, lest we become readymade Sight & Sound clones declaring their final list as fact. I think it would be irresponsible as a critic to hold a select few titles above all else just because they introduced this technique or inspired that director. Intuition, recognized through emotional response, should rule the sorting of great art. A masterpiece should strike an initial impression of awe, love, fear or even downright resentment, only for a closer read to enhance or reverse these feelings. The worst offense is causing no offense.

I both criticize and defend the Sight & Sound Poll. It settled on some truly wonderful films, like Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, ranked at number three. I finally saw it because of its placement. The poll is more a glorified list of movies to watch for budding cinephiles than any stone tablet of truth. You would be a fool to take any of it for granted. I personally disagree with some of their choices, namely Vertigo as the number one pick. It is a haunting, dense work, one worth exploring in one of the many film courses you can take here at Cornell. But it is also a cold and distant study of obsession and creation, telling the story of a man who struggles and fails to craft the perfect woman from a memory at odds with her very flawed reality. No wonder it is the critics’ favorite; it tells their story. The Rules of the Game, number four on the list, survives today as a fascinating and witty portrait of pre-war bourgeois ideals, though I question anyone it touched on a personal level. Same goes with The Battleship Potemkin and much of Jean-Luc Godard’s work; they innovated the art form but should be remembered most for the more engaging fare they inspired.

This is all my opinion, of course, and that is the point. The logical fallacy the horrid Rotten Tomatoes community always shrieks — “You did not like Classic A so your opinion is invalid” — only elevates my respect for the targeted critic (often Dave Kehr or Armond White). There is no perfect movie, and we should revisit these monuments and check if their architecture really is sound. Admiration for art should come from within, not egged on by external pressures.

The line between “favorite” and “best” in these circumstances really is thin, if not existent. “Guilty pleasures” are a whole other thing — Rush Hour 2 would not be caught within a million miles of my Sight & Sound list, though I still deign to watch it with a smile. But for someone who has watched dozens if not hundreds or thousands of quality films, why reiterate the standards when you have the rare moment to reflect and think yourself? Think back to the moments that took your breath away and raised the hairs up on the back of your neck.

For me, those are HAL’s “Daisy” from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Ride of the Valkyries in Apocalypse Now, Susan’s opera in Citizen Kane, Marge’s “It’s a beautiful day” speech from Fargo, the father’s visit in La Dolce Vita, the final frames of City Lights, the duster attack from North by Northwest, the U.S.S. Indianapolis story in Jaws, “La Marseillaise” from Casablanca and the Creation from The Tree of Life. There are some unimaginative picks as well as some disagreeable ones. But the list is mine, me, myself.

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Tony Scott: Action Architect

The sad and untimely death of Tony Scott, a director who continually raised the bar for blockbusters since the early 1980s, will confuse his fans for years and those closest to him for even longer. The New York Times reported that Scott jumped from the Vincent Thomas Bridge over Los Angeles Harbor at about 12:30 local time Sunday afternoon. Authorities have found a suicide note and all signs point to such a conclusion.
I did not know the man but those who did, colleagues like director Duncan Jones (Source Code) and actor David Krumholtz (Numb3rs), took to Twitter and described him as a “warm,” “lovely” and “rambunctious cinematic spirit.” Tony Scott’s death saddens those of us who enjoyed his prolific output of quality entertainment. Stranger yet, his final choice stands at odds with the optimistic energy consistent throughout his work.
His older brother, Ridley, claims icon status for cinematic heavies like Alien, Gladiator and Blade Runner. Tony’s filmography commanded less critical acclaim but reeled in equal if not, by some measurements, greater commercial success. Top Gun, his biggest hit, ruled 1986, cementing Tom Cruise as an official movie star and spawning an immortal quote — “I feel the need … the need for speed!” — scrawled on vintage T-shirts and the most successful racing video game franchise in the world. The phrase “crowd-pleasing blockbuster” that we now bestow upon witty and slickly choreographed summer fare like The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man was in large part defined by Scott’s work.
Many obituaries yesterday started with ‘Top Gun Director’ in the headline, which makes sense since it made the most money of Scott’s films and occupies a [rather large] spot on the ’80s pop culture tapestry. College-age observers (very likely you) have little connection with Top Gun, Scott’s other Tom Cruise flick, Days of Thunder, The Last Boy Scout or even Beverly Hills Cop II. Most of us can recall his kinetic output since the late ’90s, with Brad Pitt in Spy Game, Keira Knightley in Domino and Will Smith in Enemy of the State. Denzel Washington was clearly Scott’s go-to actor; the pair honed a formula with Washington as the conflicted but always sympathetic lead against Scott’s stunning set pieces and steady firepower. See Crimson Tide, Man on Fire, Deja Vu, Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and Unstoppable. They told thrilling stories with human characters and boasted Hollywood’s greatest action scenes.
True Romance will likely solidify as Scott’s most memorable accomplishment. While one of his least profitable movies, the 1993 crime film is constantly revisited because of its script, written by a young Quentin Tarantino, hot off the heels of Reservoir Dogs. I watched it for the first time this summer and was struck by how Scott molded the violent screenplay with a genuine sincerity absent from Tarantino’s darkly ironic films. There are two famous bedroom brawls — one, a fistfight between Patricia Arquette and James Gandolfini, and, two, a full-scale shootout between basically the entire cast. They each cut shot-after-shot with that effortless logic natural to Scott while affectively reflecting on all the human carnage. Shots of colleagues, friends and lovers bleeding next to each other — whether physically so or effectively through cross-cutting — punctuate the destruction and convey a tinge of loss that adds a third dimension to the zany bloodfest. It is not a stretch to think of Scott as a romantic; he threw his many characters into such extreme circumstances and always ended on a happy note, as if to assure us no evil can vanquish good.
So the necessity to reflect on his life, at this time and under these circumstances, shocks me still. Suicide is the most personal decision one can make, so no one will ever know the extent of torment that drove him to that bridge. Why would we want to, anyway? Scott already won the respect of his colleagues and millions of moviegoers. It is safe to consider Tony Scott one of the great masters of his craft; the others who come to mind are Steven Spielberg (Indiana Jones), James Cameron (Terminator), John McTiernan (Die Hard) and John Woo (Face/Off). They create entertainment with the intent of pleasing the audience. Clarity of subject and technical precision rule every shot. And, for Scott at least, there was a heart beating beneath it all.

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.