Wednesday, September 24, 2014

How to Read a Movie

Courtesy of Nils Axen
“It’s ironic that a critic trying to establish simple ‘objective’ rules as a guide for critics who he thinks aren’t gifted enough to use taste and intelligence, ends up — where, actually, he began — with a theory based on mystical insight.”
I quote Pauline Kael to remind myself how ridiculous a column like this is. In 1963, the New Yorker film critic took on her contemporary Andrew Sarris, whose auteur theory, she claimed, reduced criticism to a game of ready-made formulas and minutiae (i.e., “Because Howard Hawks directed this, it, by default, has value and speaks to and with his other works, inspirations, obsessions, etc.”). Kael valued her visceral response to a film over any post-viewing theoretical posturing, be it astute or not.
It is wrong to praise a film that leaves you cold just because it has neat camerawork or you find in it some interesting commentary. A good movie involves you in its stakes and in its world — even a stark, “cold” movie like Caché does such a thing. I don’t think there is one movie I’d call a masterpiece that does not, at least, bring me close to tears (Okay: Hot Fuzz is an exception). Writing about a masterpiece is so tough because to attempt to translate its effect — not its story, images or sounds, but the whole package — into words is to butcher it. Most of the time, the secret to appreciating great art is to let it be its own witness.
But, by virtue of the bell curve, most movies we watch are not masterpieces. That sacred, silent response to Vertigo gets real tiresome if applied to all the movies. And the “Well, that sucked!” response does us little good, either, as easy and satisfying as it is to say. If we hope to be discerning consumers and reasonable thinkers, we can start by bringing to movies high, nuanced standards of evaluation (“That was good/bad because…”) and analysis (“That said [insert theme here] by…”).
There is no one way to go about this. But I know my way, so how about I list it, as if it’s fact:

  1. Story is not enough. The tighter and more decisive a protagonist’s arc, the less I take it seriously. Not many agree with me, and it’s an especially contentious position to take in this golden age of “quality TV,” or serialized narrative. Perhaps I’m suspicious of the possibility of true heroism, or else bored by it. Whatever the reason, I find most meticulously plotted movies to gloss over human qualities like doubt, fear and contemplation. A story needs to halt for quietude to set in, and that pause can be jolting when it arrives. The rapid-fire Grand Budapest Hotel defines itself in its plotless moments, like when Zero dutifully recites Gustave’s poetry at dinner or when a key light switches on by the dinner table to illuminate old Zero’s crying face. A film’s worldview can click through such a throwaway gesture.
  2. Cherish movement. In the end, a director’s most basic job is to make a film look interesting. Sometimes, he accomplishes this by wringing a manic energy from his actors, as Mike Leigh does, or she coasts her camera over objects and bodies in a sensuous way, as in the case of Claire Denis. We are watching “moving pictures,” so there better be movement within and across frames. Movement can take its time, as it does in the little-seen 2010 western Meek’s Cutoff, where protracted dissolves morph landscapes, people and colors to hypnotizing effect. Action movies and art films alike should flow from one image to the next; if that flow breaks, it should betray a twist in the story or, better yet, a character’s psychology, not sloppy filmmaking.
  3. Have fun with colors. Color cinematography may appear more “real” than black-and-white, but there is no reason filmmakers, at least fiction ones, should feel obligated to capturing doors, walls and jackets as they actually look. Two of this year’s finest thrillers, Non-Stop and A Most Wanted Man, set their moods and tell their stories through colors alone: The former’s ocean blue airplane cabin speaks to modern slickness yet brings out the disparate colors of the passengers’ skin, which fits its critique, while the latter film color codes its settings (stifling office quarters are fluorescent yellow and streets are melancholy blue) to match the perspective of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s protagonist. When a movie with the resources fails to toy with its palette, like the new Captain America, it is a letdown indeed.

I have more items in mind (“Good movies don’t need to be P.C.”; “Sometimes, ambiguity is just bullshit”; “Anything with Dwayne Johnson is automatically great”) but I sense I am running out of space. It must be reiterated that the most important evidence of a film’s quality comes from the gut. While these parameters provide a loose system for evincing one’s enthusiasm or disapproval, they still kowtow to that initial response. It can be disheartening to know that words will always fail to do justice to the most transcendent experience, but at least most of the movies out there aren’t so perfect, and therefore leave us with plenty to quarrel about.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

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