24 February 2010

"Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by, but the Red Shoes go on."

I spent last Sunday afternoon embedded in the warm cocoon of Film Forum. Before showing the restored print of Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes, they played previews of current and upcoming films, one of which was a the 40th anniversary re-release of Five Easy Pieces. It wasn't quite a natural fit. I wondered what the little girls in front of me thought about Jack Nicholson calling another man a "cracker asshole." Personally, I loved it - "cracker asshole" is one of those curse word combinations that has a natural poetic rhythm and rolls right off the tongue.

At the end of the trailer, there was a blurb accredited to Richard Schickel: "If you see nothing else this year, you must see this film." That shocked me, frankly, because I wouldn't even call it the best of the pre-Chinatown Jack Nicholsons. I would give that honor to The Last Detail. Ask yourself which one you prefer: the ennui-ridden, grown up Holden Caulfield-type, or the lifelong Navy man who enthusiastically demonstrates "yodeling in the canyon"? I know which one I'd rather have escort me to jail. After I got all worked up over the tendency for film critics to overpraise - after "brilliant" is reduced to having the same power as "mediocre," they will have to resort to "It will give you mind boners!" - I realized that the blurb was probably taken from Schickel's original 1970 review. After some research, I saw that it was, and in that year, it was praise more than merited - although looking back, let us not forget to also praise Patton, or God forbid, Kelly's Heroes.

So my longtime nemesis, Research, shot down my point and my planned way of opening with what I originally wanted to say about The Red Shoes: that though I am not given to hyperbole, the first word that comes to my mind to describe the new print is "miraculous." Released in 1948, The Red Shoes is a Technicolor wonder about a ballerina and composer who fall in love while creating a new ballet. The director is displeased and attempts to keep them apart. A simple enough story, told gorgeously and with great dancing. I imagine it looks as good as, if not better than, it did back then, and I encourage everyone to go and see it right now. I SAID NOW!

Like most external forms of stimuli, it got me a-thinkin': Did I enjoy it more because I saw it on the big screen? The obvious answer is yes, films just capture your attention better when you see them where they're meant to be seen. But I'd like to go beyond that knee jerk response and examine the issue a bit more, or maybe just waste your time. Why not? You're probably procrastinating anyway.

There are certain movies that I'll watch at home on DVD or off TCM, typically older ones, and though I will intellectually recognize why they are acclaimed, and will enjoy them on a certain level, I still have to struggle to avoid nodding off, usually around the middle section. Recently, films of this nature include Breathless (most Godard, actually), Woman in the Dunes, Au Hasard Balthazar, El Topo, and Gate of Hell. I'll be sitting there thinking "That's a nice shot" or "Oh, cool character moment," and then I will blink and feel like I've been asleep for hours, even though it was a snooze lasting a split second. I slap myself, adjust my position, sit awkwardly, rewind a bit, check the clock, and try to focus. This occurs several times. Toward the end I will break through and rally and, sometimes, make an emotional connection with what's happening onscreen. When the movie is over, I worry that our wacky modern life is killing my attention span, although to tell the truth, I've been pulling this sort of thing since college. I end up telling myself that I will enjoy it more whenever I watch it a second time and will be able to appreciate it beyond the turns of the plot. This conveniently ignores the reality of my likely not watching them a second time, at least not anytime soon, what with the massive backlog of movies I have yet to catch up on, plus all the movies I know I love waiting for me to view them again and again and again.

Again, on a certain level I enjoy these movies, and yet they don't manage to engage me enough to keep me awake the whole way through. When pondering why this happens, I come up with theories about my personal preferences that fall to pieces when examined. For example, I'll think, "Gee, maybe I'm just a story person; if I'm not caught up in a interesting plot, I drift away." But this doesn't explain my love of Amarcord, Fellini's slice of life movie that examines an Italian town over the course of a year in the 1930s. Or other character/life-focused films like My Neighbor Totoro, Taxi Driver, American Splendor, The Kid Stays in the Picture, or the Grand Daddy of them all, Citizen Kane. So then I think, "Well, maybe I'm a character person, then." This leaves out films I love with admittedly one-dimensional or stock characters I might hate in other contexts, works like Once Upon a Time in the West, Dead Alive, Hard Boiled, The General, and City Lights (really, most action flicks and comedies).

What does this have to do with The Red Shoes? I began to ponder whether it would have been one of the films I nodded off during had I watched it at home, or whether the secret ingredient to being thoroughly drawn into these films is the theater-going experience, the chance to be able to focus exclusively on the movie without outside distractions like mewling cats, honking horns, and groaning neighbors. (This is not taking into consideration the distractions of your fellow audience members, of course, but at Film Forum they were generally a quiet, well-behaved lot; there was nary a glowing cell phone screen during it or The White Ribbon, which I saw after.) BUT, once again, there have been plenty of films I was completely enthralled by while watching for the first time in the safety of my apartment: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death (which has possibly the greatest opening sequence ever), The Burmese Harp, and Children of Paradise. (Although, to be even more elemental about it, Moira Shearer had amazing gams I would have enjoyed equally on the big screen and small.)

My current theory is "Gee, maybe I need to be emotionally invested somehow." But what is that "somehow"? Most of the time we think of it as, again, liking or identifying with the characters. But I think it goes deeper than that. Great filmmaking, or, perhaps more accurately, filmmaking that speaks to us on a personal level, can move us emotionally. Even filmmakers who are normally thought of as cold and austere toward their characters, like Kubrick, the Coen Brothers, and Haneke, can get me wrapped up in their worlds and viewpoints through their sheer artistry and move me, story and characters be damned. At the same time, someone thought of as a warmer, more spiritual filmmaker, like Bresson, can leave me feeling nothing. I can clinically say "I understand why people love it," but I can't quite feel that way myself.

Ultimately, I suppose it comes down to something as simple as this: Some people dig some things, some people dig others; such is the way of art. And yet we allow this to mire us in redundant, meaningless arguments. Look at the way Richard Schickel (speak of the devil) recently bashed Robert Altman's work in an essay that basically boiled down to "I don't like the way he did things." The current fad of ripping into Scorsese contains a lot of that, as does this piece by Jeffrey Wells (which the Self-Styled Siren kicks in the nuts). While simultaneously pondering at this and digging into the reasons for our reactions, we need to respect, or at least understand, why certain people like things we can't get behind. We don't have to abandon criticism, or never tear apart something we hate or find offensive, but we have to have reasons that go beyond "Fuck long shots, that shit is wack." We have to be able to build up our own houses without tearing down those of our neighbors.

I suppose that doesn't start flame wars and get page views, though. Hell, I should join the game to get more peepers. How's this for a start?: Andrei Tarkovsky was a navel-gazing ass face who could turn a five minute blowjob from Marilyn Monroe into an agonizingly boring three hour experience full of mind numbing tripe. What do you have to say about that, Solaris lovers?

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