Saturday, February 26, 2011

What does it mean for a movie to be experimental and daring?

This Oscar season has something for everybody. Those who prefer The King's Speech will be happy to see it win; many of those who prefer The Social Network are the kind of people who would secretly much rather complain about the wrong movie winning than getting to see the right movie win. The King's Speech is exactly the kind of movie that fits into this narrative: it's a middlebrow period piece filled with actors with British accents giving warm and whimsical performances. You couldn't invent a better movie for justifying complaints about Oscar bait.

It's bogus; the Oscars haven't rewarded that kind of movie for years. Nowadays Oscar bait involves an Indiewood imprint of a major studio, stories about a remorseless sociopath, minimalist scores, and bad lighting. And The Social Network is no kind of challenging avant garde.

Personally, I think the situation is ripe for some True Grit upsets.

I do want to say something about this piece in Salon from Andrew O'Hehir and Matt Zoller Seitz, in its discussion of Black Swan. I liked Black Swan quite a bit, but I think what Zoller Seitz is saying is quite wrong. Say Zoller Seitz:
More! More! More films like this! I would rather see 10 more movies as "imperfect" as "Black Swan" than sit through "The King's Speech" again, and if I had my way, this movie would win best picture, if only to smack the entire industry across the face and say, "Look at this wild, personal movie. Marvel at it. It makes no rational sense. It is expressionist nightmare madness. It came straight from the filmmaker's gut. It's as mysterious and personal as a dream.  And it made a ton of money! Audiences responded! Not everything has to be conventional. Take some risks, for God's sake!"
Here, Zoller Seitz is embracing the "ambitious failure" kind of movie of which I am an unabashed fan. But Zoller Seitz is totally wrong to call Black Swan daring or risky. That's not a swipe. I appreciate many challenging and experimental movies, but I don't think those qualities are necessary for a movie to be great. Black Swan was, to me, the spiritual sibling of Machete: so unabashed and so unconcerned by its potential for goofiness that it becomes a really joyous experience. It's quite good, funny, moving, and at times incredibly beautiful. It sucks that this is going to sound like I'm slighting it. But Black Swan is nothing like risky. In fact, it's hard to imagine a movie that is at once less conventional but safer in its unconventionality.

To illustrate what I mean, let's consider it in relief with a movie that I am a fierce partisan for and which was actually risky: Richard Kelly's Southland Tales. A critical and commercial failure, Kelly's follow up to the critical darling Donnie Darko is now sort of a cautionary tale about unchecked ambition. But I love it, as deeply flawed as it is. And I think it says something about the real nature of daring in movies: risky movies are movies that take risks that don't flatter critics, which is not something that can be said for Black Swan.

Where Black Swan is populated by achingly hip ingenues, Southland Tales is filled with past-their-prime celebrities like Cheri O'Teri and Jon Lovitz. Black Swan's unconventional structural elements ultimately easily digestible and crowd pleasing; Southland Tales requires patience, effort, and long periods of misunderstanding. The symbolic elements of Black Swan are large-bore and obvious, inviting easy explication; those of Southland Tales are buried within its Byzantine, deliberately absurd complexity. Black Swan features the timeless orchestral music of ballet; Southland Tales is scored by Moby. In other words, at every moment when an artistic choice was made that represents a risk, the risk taken by Black Swan was in fact the choice that was most likely to flatter the aesthetic of people who meticulously curate their opinions on art and pop culture. Black Swan is a fine movie, but it's one perfectly crafted to be enjoyed by-- well, by people like Andrew O'Hehir and Matt Zoller Seitz. (And, evidently, me!)

In her review of Southland Tales, Manohla Dargis compared it to No Country for Old Men, saying  in language remarkably similar to Zoller Seitz
I would rather watch a young filmmaker like Mr. Kelly reach beyond the obvious, push past his and the audience’s comfort zones, than follow the example of the Coens and elegantly art-direct yet one more murder for your viewing pleasure and mine. Certainly “Southland Tales” has more ideas, visual and intellectual, in a single scene than most American independent films have in their entirety, though that perhaps goes without saying.
Consider the differences here: when Dargis  compares a little-loved, little-fought for movie like Southland Tales to perhaps the critical darling of the year (and the eventual Best Picture winner), she is saying something that is sure to be controversial to other critics. No Country for Old Men was one of those "fastidiously polished" films that Dargis comments on at a time when such movies were like catnip to critics. It was made by the Coen Brothers, two of the most rapturously reviewed critical favorites in recent history. It was a movie that at once excited audiences with its genre conventions and tugged at the experimental with its long philosophical digressions. In other words, it was the kind of movie that critics love to protect.

No such thing can be said for Zoller Seitz's target. As I've said, The King's Speech is a movie seemingly designed to reject the preferences of hip young critics. There's no skin in the game to compare it unfavorably to Black Swan. And the fact that this is true gives the lie to Zoller Seitz's contention that the movie is some sort of crazy risk-taking venture. Yes, perhaps in the eyes of the great American multiplex, it's risky. For winning plaudits in the pages of publications like Salon, it's as sure of a thing as a thing can be.

Like I said, there's no insult to the move in that. And it's no insult to Zoller Seitz's preference; aside from his absurd self-indulgence that we'll be talking about "Black Swan movies" twenty years from now (if we're talking about Black Swan movies next Oscar season, I'll be surprised), I have nothing but respect for his admiration. But in advancing a critical agenda that favors risk and personal weirdness in movies by citing a movie that is so meticulously crafted for an aesthetic just like his, he fails to see that a truly risky movie risks rejecting not just the general audience, but himself.


Fernando said...

Personally, I'm saddened that Winter's Bone doesn't get more critical respect, since I think it was a rather daring film in various ways.

ovaut said...

Freddie, what did you make of The Fountain?

Freddie said...

The Fountain is a really good example of where my own pretensions run aground-- that's a movie that's a bit too much of a mess for me. I admire it, but I don't like it. I'll admit, and should be more upfront about admitting, that to some degree it's all just a matter of which tastes are being flattered and in what portions. Perhaps I'm being too much of a man from nowhere here.

Anonymous said...

While I agree that Black Swan is not particularly edgy and is filled with things that make it easily appealing to both critics and a general audience, I have a hard time seeing Southland Tales as an example of riskiness. I suppose the issue is that I don't really think Richard Kelly grasps that he's taking risks at all; he completely lacks the knowledge of what it means to play it safe and the self-awareness to do so. Is the Moby-score a risk, or is it instead something that Kelly thinks makes his movie appear hip? Is the patience required by the viewer for so many parts of the movie an intentional result of the filmaker's desire to challenge her, or is it simply the outcome of burying large portions of the plot in a separate series of comic books? I suppose having such a mixed-media approach could fairly be called risky in and of itself, but if the books are meant to be read in conjunction with or prior to the movie, then I'm less likely to credit Kelly for creating the sense of disorientation during the film. I think Southland Tales is a glorious mess, but I don't think Kelly was ever purposefully attempting to eschew what appeals to critics.

paul h. said...

Wow, how did you like Southland Tales? I'm a huge Richard Kelly fan, and went to see it in the theater ... that was not absurdist symbolism at all, it was all really painfully obvious symbolism, delivered in badly-written dialogue by a host of mediocre actors. I felt like he was going for David Lynch and failing in every conceivable way. I remember thinking, "well, I respect him for following his vision, but that movie was fucking terrible"

individualfrog said...

I haven't seen most of the nominees, but it's hard to imagine that there are any better than Toy Story 3. What a drag that they invented the Best Animated category to prevent their winning Best Picture.

Petey said...

"Black Swan was, to me, the spiritual sibling of Machete"

Yup. Both great exploitation flicks.

Aronofsky, like Rodriguez, is a top-notch handler of low-rent material.

"The Fountain is a really good example of where my own pretensions run aground-- that's a movie that's a bit too much of a mess for me. I admire it, but I don't like it"

The Fountain is indeed problematic.

My personal theory is that's the one movie of his where Aronofsky took his own schtick seriously.

Or put another way, that was a movie of Aronofsky dreaming of being something other than top-notch handler of low-rent material...


Personally, I'd have picked Film Socialisme, as this year's Best Picture®, but that's just because I'd enjoy watching Godard edit together the phone book.

Freddie said...

Hey, it's still a Best Picture nominee!

Paul, yeah, I'm a sucker for it. Really enjoy it. Just my taste I guess.

Anonymous, that's an interesting question-- maybe I'm investing too much in the idea of artistic risk, although in my defense, if I am, so are Zoller Seitz and Dargis.

Petey said...

"I think Southland Tales is a glorious mess, but I don't think Kelly was ever purposefully attempting to eschew what appeals to critics."


Kelly knew full well that Southland Tales was a free shot. Given the success of his previous movie, he could afford to make the movie he wanted to make, and not have to worry about finding an audience or pleasing critics. He knew the movie could flop via every external metric, and he'd still get to be a director afterwards.

It's the same kind of thing Paul Thomas Anderson did with Magnolia.

matthew christman said...

Robert Rodriguez can conceive a low-rent, audacious entertainment like nobody's business, but he sadly doesn't have the directing chops to pull it off. I'm continually frustrated by the fact that he ends almost all of his adult-oriented action films with a huge shoot-out, and he just doesn't have the skills to make them coherent or engaging.

Anonymous said...

Dan Zukovic's "DARK ARC", a bizarre modern noir dark comedy called "Absolutely brilliant...truly and completely different..." in Film Threat, was recently released on DVD through Vanguard Cinema(, and is currently
debuting on Cable Video On Demand. The film had it's World Premiere at the Montreal Festival, and it's US Premiere at the Cinequest Film Festival. Featuring Sarah Strange ("White Noise"), Kurt Max Runte ("X-Men", "Battlestar Gallactica",) and Dan Zukovic (director and star of the cult comedy "The Last Big Thing"). Featuring the glam/punk tunes "Dark Fruition", "Ire and Angst" and "F.ByronFitzBaudelaire", and a dark orchestral score by Neil Burnett.


***** (Five stars) "Absolutely brilliant...truly and completely different...something you've never tasted
before..." Film Threat
"A black comedy about a very strange love triangle" Seattle Times
"Consistently stunning images...a bizarre blend of art, sex, and opium, "Dark Arc" plays like a candy-coloured
version of David Lynch. " IFC News
"Sarah Strange is as decadent as Angelina Jolie thinks she is...Don't see this movie sober!" Metroactive Movies
"Equal parts film noir intrigue, pop culture send-up, brain teaser and visual feast. " American Cinematheque