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January 23, 2003

I Am a Bad Film Buff

Friedrich --

I just got back home from a screening of a new Korean picture, a bland pictorial semi-epic biopic about a 19th century painter. (Plot spoilers: he grew up poor, liked booze and sex, lived through some hard times, and died.) That makes, I'm pretty sure, the fourth Korean movie I've seen. Three were pictorial, epic, and bland -- calendar-art movies that left me thinking, Why would anyone want to import that? The fourth was a scrappy, handheld, road-trip bad-boy movie about a couple on the lam who like s&m sex. Thwack! That one I could see importing, but it wasn't really very sexy.

Nonetheless, there's a bit of heat and buzz around the Korean cinema these days. Well, another significant development in film-buff-land that's about to pass me by. Four tries is enough; I'm cutting the Korean cinema loose.

Dismaying to realize how many such exciting film-buff trends haven't excited me. Am I jaundiced? Stuck in the '70s? Just old? So many Film Comment/Film Quarterly-type movements have left me cold. African movies? I saw a half-a-dozen, and dimly recall that one of them was a bit better than the other five. The Iranian cinema? Kiarostami's something, provided you're in the mood for a something that's slow, ponderous and intellectual. ("Nobel-prize filmmaking" is what The Wife calls it.) Even the Chinese movies, a vogue that lasted for years, did nothing for me. Raise that Boring Red Lantern: I didn't see a one that I enjoyed, not that I was exactly a habitue of the theaters showing those films.

But maybe I'm not completely hopeless as a film buff. I did finally become a fan of one new Asian filmmaker -- Edward Yang, whose movies "A Confucian Confusion" and "Yi Yi" I really love. Of course, he's not Chinese, not really. He's Taiwanese and, if I remember right, he went to Stanford. And I'm not sure anyone set him up as part of some "movement." So maybe he doesn't qualify, and maybe I'm not redeemed.

How are your film-buff credentials these days?



posted by Michael at January 23, 2003


I think dismissing an entire national cinema based on just four films is, if you'll pardon me saying so, slightly presumptuous. Still, movements of this sort are shit. They're only useful in that, once you know a given filmmaker, they may lead you to similar or related filmmakers (e.g. knowing about the French New Wave of the 1960s might lead you from Godard to Truffaut to Malle to Chabrol, knowing about the New German Cinema of the 1970s might lead you from Fassbinder to Wenders to Schlöndorff to Herzog, etc). But usually critical trends based on national cinemas are useless.

Posted by: James Russell on January 24, 2003 5:41 AM

Shame, shame on you, Michael. I mean, here I am counting on you to keep up with all the latest wrinkles in the arts, and you go and drop the ball. Now I've got to feel bad about missing the latest "art" flick.

Actually, the biggest obstacle to my omnivorously devouring world cinema is the other people who go to art cinema. There's a kind of virtuous, self-congratulatory feeling they give off, like they are members of some cultural elite. For me, nothing is more poisonous to my appreciation of movies. I am reminded of the cartoon about a couple in bed, in which one of them explains that sex is only dirty "if you're doing it right." At its best, I find art cinema to be an experience closely allied with (if anyone besides us is old enough to remember it) covertly sneaking into a porno flick. My ideal movie-going environment has always been to go to a multiplex in a working-class part of town and see a late night action movie with a crowd of restless teenaged boys, only three of whom have managed to snag dates. This is the way I saw the two Mortal Kombat movies, which, in case you missed them, were quite worthwhile, as well as The Matrix.

As a middle-aging man, I do all sorts of virtuous stuff for my health: I certainly don't need to watch movies in a crowd keeping up with world cinema in that spirit, too.

Does this make me a perpetual adolescent where movie-going is concerned? Gee, I hope so.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 24, 2003 11:26 AM

Hey James, You're of course right that it would be presumptuous to dismiss an entire national cinema on the basis of seeing four movies. As for me, I'm just a tired old film buff crapping out on the latest film-buff fad, that's all. Interesting reflections on the utility or non-utility of identifying movements by nationality. I tend to (possibly rather thoughtlessly) accept this kind of categorization -- whatever its drawbacks, it seems useful, and makes (if nothing else) for easy communication with other film buffs. What are your misgivings about it?

FvB -- Absolutely true that foreign-film-going has become awfully virtuous in last few decades. You feel like a good multiculturalist all too often when you're at the arthouse -- a feeling I have no desire to spend money and free time in the pursuit of. Foreign films used to mean sex, art, gals with great names like Elke and Brigitte, characters who smoked, slept with each other and probably didn't bathe too often, imagery that wasn't overlit and cheery. It all seemed so grownup (or so I hoped), and all made me feel so uptight and American (in a wonderfully self-torturing way), kind of like going to a topless beach and trying to pretend that it's cool, it's fine. These days, it's too damn much like paying attention to Benetton ads. Fine, sure, so what.

Let's bring back the dirt. Or maybe take James's suggestion and not categorize movies by nationality, but something else instead. I propose a new category: the "adult art cinema." Hmm, not explicit enough, and too easy to sneak worthy movies under that rubric. Hmmm. Any thoughts here?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 24, 2003 12:10 PM

Rather than adult art cinema--which sounds terribly responsible--how about the no-pieties art cinema, the naughty art cinema, the irresponsible art cinema, the cynical art cinema, the gratuitous art cinema (that one would incorporate both gratuitous violence and nudity, in my world.) I want cinema that has the same subversive elements as a scene in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." One gunslinger has spent months tracking down Eli Wallach, finally cornering him in the bath, where he pauses to gloat over his helpless prey...gloating so long, however, that Eli guns him down with a weapon concealed in the soapsuds. Rising like a hairy, middle-aged Venus from the foam, Eli looks down on his vanquished opponent and mutters: "If you're going to shoot, shoot, don't talk." This scene is brutal, cynical, misanthropic, you name it, but it is also funny. I want cinema that turns ordinary expectations on their heads. I want Nietzschean cheerfullness in dealing with the most serious questions. Jeeze, am I asking too much?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 24, 2003 2:35 PM

Oooh, "gratuitous art cinema" -- that'll do just fine. makes me hope for (even expect) gratuitous everything -- cinema, art, nudity, comedy, drama. Even -- I don't know how or why -- makes me not expect gratuitous virtuosness. Well done!

Saw a few movies that might suit you, come to think of it. A terrifically talented young Spanish film-buff director who obviously loves spaghetti westerns and comic books named Alex de la Iglesia. (Almodovar discovered him, I think, and sponsored his first movie.) He's made about six movies, I've seen two (one of them a kind of parody of a spaghetti western), but only one that I know of can be seen on video in America. But it's pretty hot and funny: "Perdita Durango." Bad-ass criminals on the run, but with a hell-for-leather, wild-ass quality you don't see much of these days. Stars Rosie Perez (great!) and that guy who starred in "Before Night Falls" (also great). Far-out violence and sex -- midnight-movie bliss, in other words. Voodoo, sexualized Mexican resentment of blonde American kids, and many other goodies. It's rent-able here and there. I hear tell that some of the video versions of it have been bowdlerized, so you're taking your chances. But what the heck, huh? I loved it. I wonder how much of it would remain in an R-rated version, though.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 24, 2003 2:52 PM

I hope it is not just age that makes me feel that there are not many directors whose next film is an event to be anxiously awaited. Miyazaki is probably it for me. Altman, Lynch, Almodovar, Scorcese etc are much too inconsistent. I'm sure that hindsight makes directorial careers seem more consistent. (NB: The Southener is probably more highly regarded now than at any point in its history.) But it really does seem that masters would get into 6-10 year periods where they'd string together masterpieces.

Posted by: M. Scott Anderson on January 24, 2003 11:20 PM

Hi Scott -- What a good question: which directors' new films do I still look forward to? Hmm. I'm certainly with you on Almodovar and Scorsese -- the batting averge has gotten awfully low. Lynch usually includes a good sex scene or two, even if he makes me pay for it with an hour and a half of mannered tedium. Altman and De Palma I'm eternally hopeful about, but that's more me than them these days.

Linklater? Kinda sorta. I do look forward to the next Edward Yang and Chris Marker. I'm not a John Woo fan. Hmmm. I'm trying to come up with younger filmmakers who interest me, and I'm not doing a good job of it. Well, the guy I mentioned above, Alex de la Iglesia, is wildly talented. I'd hurry to see a new film by him, not that anyone's planning on importing one. I seem to be alone in this, but I loved "Unfaithful," and I wonder if Adrian Lyne (whose work I've never cared for otherwise) has made some kind of breakthrough.

How do you guys feel about David Fincher? I couldn't really care less about his movies, but he's very talented, and in a way that seems to mean something to younger audiences, for whatever that's worth. Hmmmm again. This is mortifying. There should be more current directors who interest me. I really am letting my film-buff credentials yellow. These days, I think I look forward more to what some favorite actresses are up to. Oh, I do like the Wachowski brothers, and though I'm apprehensive about the Matrix sequels, I'll certainly go see them.

Couldn't care less about P.T. Anderson. Never could get very excited about Tarantino. I like Robert Rodriguez, but it's not like I'm dying to see what he does next. I am eager to see that new Gaspar Noe film with Monica Bellucci, but for her, not him. I'll see anything with Virginie Ledoyen in it, though I've managed to miss "8 Women" so far.

Hey, I'm a big Catherine Breillat fan -- there's a director whose next film I enjoy anticipating! Claire Denis, the French director, is super-talented, but I don't exactly hustle to the theater when a picture of hers comes along. Andrew Fleming -- I like his movies. Do you know them? "Threesome" and "The Craft" -- he seems to like to do teenpix and to sneak some sophisticated stuff into them. I see he's got something coming out soon with Michael Douglas and Albert Brooks. The trailer doesn't look promising.

But maybe it really is the actresses that keep me going to occasional new theatrical movies. As far as the art of moviemaking goes, I'm happy checking out the web videos people make. Some of them are pretty beautiful and far-out.

How about you guys? Lists of directors you still hold out hopes for, please.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 24, 2003 11:46 PM

Interesting reflections on the utility or non-utility of identifying movements by nationality. I tend to (possibly rather thoughtlessly) accept this kind of categorization -- whatever its drawbacks, it seems useful, and makes (if nothing else) for easy communication with other film buffs. What are your misgivings about it?

Well, it strikes me as kind of meaningless, or if not meaningless then at least vague. Say you have a statement, "I like Italian cinema". What does that mean? The person likes the Italian Neorealists? The gialli of the 1960s and 70s? The zombie / cannibal films of Messrs Fulci, Deodato, Margheriti? A national cinema tends to cover a multitude of sins, whereas the term movement suggests to me something reasonably compact and definable and focused. On the other hand, saying something like "I like musicals" or "I like westerns" isn't problematic, since "musical" is a more easily describable and understandable quantity than "Italian film". So hopefully that explains it, though the possibility that I may just be talking out my arse should never be entirely discounted.

How about you guys? Lists of directors you still hold out hopes for, please.

Odd, but when you put me on the spot like that I can't really think of many/any. Though I do know that I can live without ever seeing anything by Jim Jarmusch again. Spike Jonze's third film will be interesting to see, will he try and outdo himself again or will he deliberately cut back like Tarantino did with Jackie Brown after all the structural jollies of Pulp Fiction. Tarantino I was quite fond of, and I only hope for his sake he hasn't squandered the goodwill he used to have by taking so long to do his fourth film. Fincher, well, I liked Seven and Fight Club immensely. Panic Room was a bit of a dog, though; 80 years earlier, D.W. Griffith would've disposed of that story in 20 minutes at most. I don't really like David Lynch's films, but then I go in expecting barely-comprehensible bullshit and that's what I get, so no point complaining. Woo I've had to give up on; Face/Off has been the only highlight of his Hollywood years, and he's apparently renounced violence now too. As for Catherine Breillat, on the evidence of Romance, if she decided she'd had enough of filmmaking and retired to a nunnery, I for one would not weep.

the gratuitous art cinema (that one would incorporate both gratuitous violence and nudity, in my world.)

Isn't that what we have Peter Greenaway for? :)

Posted by: James Russell on January 25, 2003 6:40 AM

I can't believe no one's mentioned Spielberg!

Posted by: Felix on January 25, 2003 11:42 AM

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