Saturday, 22 May 2010

How I Wound Up As A Film Surgeon

Father issues are at base of it all, on top of which is my frustration at failing to attain even a modicum of the recognition and success that some of the filmmakers I enjoyed demolishing had attained. And of course, the very drive to attain such success (getting world’s attention) was itself sourced in those father issues.

But all that is rather rudimentary, and a bit simplistic. It’s true that if I had succeeded as a scriptwriter/filmmaker in Hollywood, I wouldn't ever have written The Blood Poets. But on the other hand, I began writing film criticism before, or simultaneous with, writing film scripts (at about 14). In fact, some of the first “reviews” I wrote were imaginary ones of the films I would some day make (I recall one called Houses in Motion, starring Robert De Niro and Jessica Lange, the title taken from the Talking Heads song). . . . So the two drives co-existed from the start, which indicates that it wasn't frustration that led me to write the film books, but merely a natural alternative mode of expression that pertained to the same area, that of movies.

What actually inspired Blood Poets was re-reading Pauline Kael for the umpteenth time and thinking, “I wish I could do that.” The penny then dropped: "Hey, I could!" By that time (late 20s), I was less into movies, watching or making them, than I was into reading about them, and as already stated, I had more passion for Kael and her writings than I did for most, if not all, filmmakers. She was closer to a kindred spirit, let's say, than any filmmaker, presumably (in part) because I was more of a writer than a visual artist.

One of the things that most impressed me about Kael was how she could influence my own feelings about a movie. Films I liked I would grow cool towards after reading her totally demolishing them; films she admired I would give a second look. (Ironically, she was less persuasive in this direction, and rarely did one of her reviews change my mind about a movie I didn’t care for, while it was frequent occurrence for the reverse to happen.) Kael saw through the contrivances and conceits of filmmakers, and the gullibility of audiences, and exposed the hypocrisy and dishonesty at their core. Her influence was especially profound on me because I discovered her while I was still a teenager, so with movies that I would have grown out of/seen through eventually, she accelerated that process. (A good example would be Midnight Express, a film I loved at 14, so that I must have been disappointed by her trashing it at the time. Yet by the time I wrote about the film for Blood Poets, I found myself trashing it also, albeit in my own voice ~ because she had been right, it did suck as a movie!)

Yet underneath all this, my desire to write film criticism, and specifically to demolish films that were highly regarded and bring the filmmakers down to size, really pertained to a need to validate my reality.

It was pointed out to me recently that, since the filmmakers I criticized rarely read my criticism, it wasn't having any effect on the quality of filmmaking per se. This is probably accurate, and now that I think about it, the target of my vitriol was always less the filmmaker than the audience , who, by buying into such crap, were endorsing it and keeping the crapola machine running. If a talented filmmaker made a poor movie and was critically drubbed for it, I had no interest in mucking in. Why kick them while they are down? My target was always films that were crap but which audiences embraced as wonderful works of art, that won awards for their filmmakers despite being some of their worst work, films such as Wild at Heart, Silence of the Lambs, Barton Fink, Match Point. I wanted to show how, when a filmmaker gets praised for his worst work, he is likely to lose sight of his own gifts and never recover. Beyond that, I wanted, needed, to “set the record straight,” if possible, by persuading audiences who had let themselves be fooled into thinking a work had merit (just because it won awards) that it clearly didn’t.

(On the other hand, like Kael, I often went out of my way to praise, and even overpraise, works of merit that were being ignored, such as United States of Leland, some of Keith Gordon’s films, Hottest State, and so forth.)

Reality validation.

To this day, it disturbs me if I get the impression that only I can recognize something that isn't right. Recently, I watched Bad Lieutenant with Nic Cage. Halfway through, Cage begins to distort his voice and assume a very broad, almost cartoonish accent. I kept asking my wife if she’d noticed. It baffled me that he would do this deliberately, it was so obvious to me, and I became mildly anxious that maybe I was the only one who noticed it. Did the director even spot it? Why did he allow Cage to do it? (My wife did notice it, at least when I pointed it out, but she put it down to the character’s exhaustion.) Something like this might even cause me me to go online and do a Google search, just to make sure that other people spotted it. I find it unsettling, to say the least, if something very obvious to me, something that seems incongruous, isn't being commented upon.

As a child, there is one thing that was very obvious to me that others didn’t see: my brother’s bullying. There must have been countless other things also that I saw that weren't commented upon, even if they were obvious to all (my mother's madness, for example). I suspect that this is what’s behind my emotional need to validate my own perceptions about movies: if I can see, clearly, that a movie sucks, for example, it upsets me when people are talking about it like it’s something wonderful. This is especially the case when they are people close to me. One of the most uncomfortable social situations for me is if someone I respect brings up a movie which I hate, and starts praising it. (A recent example was In Bruges, a really mediocre movie that lots of intelligent people seemed to enjoy.)

Consider the following, an argument of my former self:

Dan Brown is a great author.

Opinion, or error of judgment?

Dostoyevsky is a great author.

Opinion, or statement of fact?

To my way of perceiving, neither of the above statements are opinions. One is a fact, while the other is an error. Most people here (at least if they have read the authors in question) will surely agree, intellectually at least, even if they have an emotional resistance to this position and perceive it as “tyrannical.” They might then argue (intellectually) that it is all relative, or whathaveyou (define “great,” etc, etc).

OK. Now try these ones:

Stanley Kubrick is a great director.

Opinion or statement of fact?

Stanley Kubrick is overrated.

Opinion or statement of fact?

Eyes Wide Shut is an underrated movie.

Opinion or statement of fact?

Eyes Wide Shut is a pile of horse manure.

Opinion or statement of fact?

As some of you know by now, I would consider the second statements to be statements of fact, the first ones to be mere opinions.

If given the time, I, or my former self, could show you why, whatever greatness is on display in some of his movies, and however much you may like his work, Kubrick certainly is overrated. I could also describe to you the sociological, and even conspiratorial factors (a culture that worships intellect, for example) that contribute to Kubrick’s false canonization, and the way the psychology of previous investment obliges Kubrick-devotees to defend a work of such shocking ineptitude as Eyes Wide Shut: in order to maintain their structure of beliefs around its maker.

The question is, however: why the Hell would I bother? Why would I care enough to try and change people’s minds about Kubrick, or anything else?

The answer is two-fold, like everything. First there are the patterns mentioned above, which cause me to feel threatened when my own perception of what-is isn’t being supported by other people’s perceptions.

This creates a rift. Keith is one of my closest associates; the fact that he adores Kubrick doesn’t come between us, as such, but that’s only because we don’t spend much time talking about Kubrick. In my mind, it is still there. I think, "Keith is great, but he does love Kubrick. Damn. That’s a real shame. I really need to do something about that."

Now, is that entirely because I want Keith to validate my perception of reality, and to be as much like me as possible?

Or is it also because I know that he has been hoodwinked, and want him to see something that he is unable to see?

When Kael exposed the dishonesty of a movie I liked, she also exposed my own complicity with that dishonesty. It was disillusioning, even painful, and sometimes infuriating; but it was also liberating. After all, I had “lost” an emotional attachment to a movie I’d liked, yes. She had "ruined" it for me. But then, I’d also found a more honest, accurate perception, one that allowed me to see that the attachment I’d forged wasn’t worth having. It was basically a lie.

So then, my desire to criticize movies and filmmakers and “set the record straight,” wasn’t just an emotional need to validate my perception of reality. It was also an impersonal drive to get to the truth, and to bring the truth to others, by exposing their own distortions to them.

In other words, just what I do at SWEDA!

1 comment:

  1. Jason, I've only just seen this, my apologies! Thank you so much for writing this, it's very honest and raw. Did it feel cathartic?!

    I really wanted to see Bad Lieutenant as Cage seems to be on the up once again after choosing a bit with his film choices as of late.

    Hope you're well, must catch up soon.