Recently I’ve been enjoying a film criticism site called Phrontpage to death. Quirky fun stuff. I’ll be linking to several articles over the next few days. Click more for colorful quotes and my random thoughts.
European vs. American film sensibility. Americans on What Being a European Snob is like:
Funnily, Europeans seem to never get enough of these soft sex movies. At first, they make offensive remarks about American culture, but after a while, they start enjoying it. Most of the time, they watch movies from America in big empty theatres where it is forbidden to eat popcorn or talk to your neighbors. Then they try to do it as they see it done in the movies, see that it doesn?t work, and then go to a Woody Allen film to forget the pain.
Europeans on what Being a American Snob is like
Upon completion of the film, the parents of a young debutante feast and revel nightly and con mucho gusto as they await the final step in the coming-of-age process: the screening of the film in America (or, if the picture goes directly to video, which is usually the case, the first rental). But over the years, this final rite has become increasingly difficult to perform on account of a saturated market. American consumers are saying “Stop! We have a limited demand for this sort of product.”
Michael D. Gose on Beyond Thumbs Up or Down: analyzes the different criteria for estimating a film’s worth. He cites 6 levels of enjoyment/appreciation, and this taxonomy is helpful and elucidating (although it reminds me of Hapax Legomenon’s statement that art serves several functions, not one). He writes:
Films that are much like films you have seen before, or about subjects you are familiar with, offer the joy of recognition. Such films are often reassuring and reaffirming, if slightly predictable and sometimes boring. The vast majority of Hollywood?s product falls into this category because the economic standard is based on the most conservative and ?safe? speculations, which is why most of what you see is just an update of what you?ve already seen. Stock characters, clich?d situations, and predictable endings aren?t there because no one wants to produce an original film, but because the business-end of the Hollywood production equation stipulates that if it worked once it will work again, provided you add the topic-du-jour, setting-of-the-week, and actor-of-the-month. Comparisons are the key. Nuances become important; whether they are in the details of the soundtrack, plot twists, themes, or familiar faces in new settings.
When the film is outside your own cinematic or real experience, the joy it can bring is most likely in the surprise; the challenge is to integrate the new material into your perspective. The contrasts between your own experience and the film tend to point toward the most significant observations, pro and con, about such films.
The point about surprise recalls E.M. Forster’s maxim that characters should surprise in a convincing way. The idea of expectations needs to be examined more closely. TV shows offer conventional expectations and the “threat of sameness” and yet no one will blame a Marx Brothers film for not simply rehashing the same plot over and over (just as no one will fault Mozart’s music for sounding the same). Gose isn’t knocking art that confounds/surprises/exposes us to new perspectives, but his preference is clear; he implies that Hollywood is catering to expectations rather than simply meeting it and that commercial concerns are what keeps filmmakers from inventing new kinds of films.
But even in these repeating episodes, we see an awful lot going on. Looking at the most shallow shows (Friends, Cheers, etc), we see how despite the formulaic nature of plots, each variation is in fact providing an opportunity to expose a new facet of one (or more) of the characters. I remember my shock when viewing an early Ross-Rachel episode of Friends I watched an earlier episode out of sequence. It totally blew me away and made me reevaluate the implications of the later episodes. Characters are responding and growing (though not so much as a result of narrative excellence, but simply because the sheer number of episodes provides more opportunities for growth and exposition. TV produces a different kind of profundity when we can trace motifs of a character throughout several books or seasons of TV episodes. Perhaps what I am saying is that characters matter more than stories or even more than technique. Find the dullest, ugliest and most vulgar negative character and trace his life for 60 years in some artistic creation, and you can produce not only a compelling character portrait, but also some universal truths about how people grow, how lives change, how sympathy will flower almost anywhere.