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What I Like, and Don’t

* My tastes are complex and unpredictable. I diverge with a lot of critics and buffs about as often as I agree with them. I abhor artistic pretension and pandering formula equally. The best films strike an almost indefinable balance. The auteur theory — indeed, virtually all film theory — is largely nonsense. I agree in this with the outcast film scholar, Barry Salt (see Film Style and Technology), whose revolutionary idea is to actually look at what’s really in the films and how they are made and not read into them all manner of hooey. I may love one Godard or Antonioni or Resnais or Tarkovsky and hate the next one — it just depends. And I find little of value in the likes of Breillat, Haneke, Kiarostami, Angelopoulos, Rivette or Denis. Their films resonate with me as much as Michael Bay’s, which is to say, hardly at all. Within the unwieldy four-hour running time of Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating resides a supreme two-hour masterwork. As it stands, I can’t abide it. Alas, I’m not one entranced by the 8-hour slog of Bela Tarr’s Satantango (so far I’ve managed to only get a quarter of the way through); and the more people who write how it and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman elicit great drama from small incident the less I believe it. To paraphrase something Roger Ebert once wrote, their works inspire reviews that are more interesting than what is actually onscreen. A fatal mistake many film students make is confusing filmmakers with intellectuals, or believing that only intellectuals can make great film art. Great film artists are just as likely to be showmen. My favorite director, bar none, is Luis Bunuel, a true individual with a unique sense of humor; an artist who manages to explore his fetishes in a way that not merely shocks but delights and elicits wonder — a skill too many filmmakers only wish they could muster. I tend to be a classicist and humanist (I like Pabst, Welles, Griffith, Kurosawa, Hawks, Renoir, Lubitsch, Fellini, Bergman, and so on. I think documentarian Frederick Wiseman is the greatest living filmmaker, FYI). I’m largely unsympathetic to cinematic ennui and to directors who play hostile, distancing and life-negating games with the audience — having had to suffer through too much of that stuff when life is too short and precious. They are supposed to be motion pictures, after all, and the more they resemble still lifes that more I want to run outside and play in the sun — but there are numerous exceptions to this that I cherish, including Antonioni’s Red Desert and L’avventura and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror and Derek Jarman’s Blue (which is nothing but a blue screen with voiceover) and many others that you will find on this, a truly eclectic and — I believe — intelligently selected list. I don’t consider myself a Philistine, but a healthy skeptic, and I sometimes feel a certain kind of cinema often gets a critical pass when it should be scrutinized just as much — moreso in fact — than the commercial mainstream cinema (which, after all, knows what it’s doing and how it does it — thus, the easy snipe of pointing out its formulaic conventions hardly constitutes profound critical observation). I know that film is just a canvas, that celluloid is an empty vessel, and what you put on it does not necessarily have to be a narrative story. What makes for good cinema is certainly rife for debate. But the fact is that humans have wanted their stories and myths re-fed to them since the says of stories round the camp fire, via whatever happens to be the medium of the moment. So, for better or worse, movies mean stories for most people; and we have to then consider the level of intelligence at work therein. Regardless, much of cinema is a con job, and it’s just as fun watching so-called intellectuals being hoodwinked as it is to see the hoi polloi uncritically lapping up its cotton candy. I don’t buy into the notion that subverting audience expectations is, in and of itself, a sign of a good movie. A filmmaker who requires an audience to pay money for the privilege of mocking or baffling it must bring a very particular kind of touch and skill to bear to offset the inherent hypocrisy. The filmmaker has to persuade me, after all, and that’s not so easily done. If I watch a five-hour Greek film full of lovely tracking shots and long takes of vast landscapes yet learn little or nothing about Greek history, culture or politics (as I am not a specialist and shouldn’t have to be one) then what has been accomplished, really? It seems the less sense a film makes the more artistically important it must be. I don’t lack a poetic soul — far from it. There many obscurantist films I love. I am not at war with abstraction; I rather like it, in fact. I can appreciate what, say, Jackson Pollock did with painting. The problem was it was a dead end for imitation, and there were tons of imitators. The same thing happened in 20th century classical musical composition, for which there is virtually no audience — and who can blame them for staying away? People need melody. As in painting and music, there are a lot of copycat dead-enders in the cinema. If you look carefully at my list you will see I adore a high percentage of “difficult” films; I thrive on complexity and originality and also love films that do something fresh with well-worn genre conventions. I just won’t alter my opinion to suit cineaste cliques. If a movie bores me or is a would-be emperor without clothes, I say so. I think it’s a grave mistake for anyone who truly wants to understand the medium and its cultural, sociological and economic connections to limit oneself only to rarefied arthouse films while ignoring popular examples of the Hollywood product (a quite high percentage of which, surprisingly, are neither idiotic nor thoughtless). I can “Hollywood bash” with the best of them, but often it can go too far. It’s essential to blend the popular and the obscure. This is something I’ve learned with living, after years of turning up my nose at things perceived as artistically compromised. Such is the righteous folly of youth; rebelliousness begets its own limiting dogmas. Scholars or critics such as Ray Carney or Jonathan Rosenbaum, for instance, have many provocative and valid things to say about film art and its contexts — much of which I love to bat around in the noggin — but in the end I find them as limiting and dogmatic as the things they criticize. At the end of the day when selecting what to put in the video device — presented with a choice between Howard Hawks’  Twentieth Century or whichever version of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games is at hand — I barely need a millisecond’s pause in deciding. One I love; the other I do out of a sense of duty and grit my teeth. To be a cineaste is akin to being a member of a religion or cult; dogmas emerge that keep many of the members silent for fear of being ridiculed or cast out. Since I’m already an outcast, this matters not — and this list lays it all bare. I have nothing to hide. I likes what I likes and I don’t what I don’t. Truth be told, I think I would be perfectly happy to watch nothing but Hollywood films made from 1930 to 1955 for the rest of my life (even being fully aware of their limitations). That’s where my heart really is.

3 Comments so far
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I like this. While from your list of hated directors I haven’t seen much (or indeed from any list you would make, because I’ve only been a film buff for a little over a year and am more than twice younger than you), I understand your sensibility about interesting films (though I didn’t like L’avventura much) and melody in music perfectly (for example I hate Stravinsky).
I also agree that ‘artful’ movies deserve just as much if not more scrutiny than mainstream stuff.

Comment by 1

Thanks for your note. The more I read my little rant/essay, or whatever it is, the more I want to add clarifications to it. i can’t seem to let it go. I do want my viewing lists to be seen as “valid”, or some such, and want it made clear that I enjoy a very wide variety of stuff. For instance, looking at the experimental cinema, I think Stan Brakhage was occasionally capable of films of great beauty, such as “Window Water Baby Moving” and “Mothlight” and a few others, but most of what I’ve seen of him strikes me as inept. I don’t understand the admiration for “Dog Star Man” at all, for instance. When a filmmaker has to endlessly explain what his film is about, mythologically speaking, the more I believe he or she really doesn’t know what he or she is doing. I think over time you may get to like things that baffle or fail to engage you now. I’ve been at this thing for 40 years, and I’ve gone back to many things that alienated me at first that later blew me away on second viewing. Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game” is one good example. The first time I saw it I was too young to understand what it was saying about the operating principles of the world. But reaching middle age it hits home. Viewing it again a decade ago I was ready to declare it the greatest film ever made. By the way, I love most of Stravinsky. He’s actually kind of fun; but most of what came after him is usually problemmatic for me. Having said all this, believe me, I am a VERY hard critic of mainstream movies. I reject a huge number of them. I’m always looking for something special and different. Aren’t we all?

Comment by gravymovie

It’s funny because I actually find Haneke’s films very easy to watch. I have no problem getting into his movies at all. Whereas with some of the ones you mention like Antonioni’s L’avventura I couldn’t make it past 20 minutes. I guess it is like you say. People like what they like.

Comment by Howie

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