Worst best or best worst?

Death+in+Venice

An article in todays’ Guardian by Tim Lott seeks to question the quality of some of cinema’s sacred cows, dissing DEATH IN VENICE, JULES ET JIM, THE SEARCHERS, LA DOLCE VITA and SCHINDLER’S LIST, with secondary side-swipes at Kieslowski’s THREE COLOURS trilogy, SOLARIS, GREED (Lott appears to have seen a ten-hour cut of this, the lucky fellow), LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS, LA REGLE DE JEU, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and ON THE WATERFRONT.

Making the highly original point that one man’s meat is another man’s poison, Lott basically fails in a potentially interesting task, maybe because he hasn’t enough space to consider even one of these films in the space it deserves, but partly because he squanders the space with profligate cheap shots and non-points. Saying “DEATH IN VENICE’s beautiful cinematography doesn’t make it a great film” does not really address the many ways in which it could still be a great film, and nobody to my knowledge ever claimed it was a great film just because it was well photographed anyway. Straw man argument, how are you?

It all gets to be pretty much like Leslie Halliwell’s reviews — a guide to the personal prejudices of Tim Lott that’s perhaps quite useful to the friends and family of Tim Lott, but perhaps less so to Guardian readers. So films are dismissed as “campy” (the Visconti) or “melodramatic” (the Laughton) or “French” (Carne), as if that were enough to stop them being great. If we can’t have camp, melodrama or Frenchness, one suspects we’re on the way to a rather dreary list of alternative great films. And so we are.

Lott champions THE PAWNBROKER, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, KOYAANISQATSI (“one of the most original movies of the last thirty years”), SOUTH PACIFIC and THE RAPTURE. I’m with him on some of his other choices, but these aren’t films I’m in a hurry to see again. They’re not terrible, you understand, but I’m not sure there’s even much you can say about them.

It’s an amusing and well enough written piece, but not only does it not demonstrate that any of these films might not deserve their reputation, which would be pretty hard to do, it doesn’t really address why they do have their reputations. Part of the problem is I can agree with many of Lott’s criticisms, without feeling that they particularly matter in the case of the films he’s on about. In the comments section you can read everyone else getting in on the act, and very unedifying it is too — opinion really is the least interesting aspect of criticism, and sadly it’s come to dominate. Pieces like this foster the entirely false belief that simply saying “THE GODFATHER? Overrated,” counts as a statement worthy of anybody’s attention.

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46 Responses to “Worst best or best worst?”

  1. Do you know why nowadays I prefer to read about films in blogs than in newspapers?

    Reason number one is that newspaper critics seems to me, act either by what is dictated by the higher priests of the critical world (i.e., blind followers of what Cahiers says) or what is dictated by the majors (i.e. boring blockbusters getting rave reviews).

    Reason number two: the new breed of cynical reviewers for whom nothing’s sacred, and particularly classic films. Their style is often provocative and as delicately subtle as Terminator’s methods to prick someone nose.

    OK, OK… everybody’s got his own personal taste, and nothing should be sacred, but, honest, dismissing “The Searchers” and then vindicate “Blair Witch project in the very last paragraph? At least the vindicators of the careers of Ed Wood or Jesús Franco are AWARE of the hopelessness of their cause (which makes it sort of endearing)

    But really…“Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter has moments of melodrama that would not shame an episode of Scooby-Doo”

    WHERE’S MY BAZOOKA??!!

  2. A lot of his objections just stem from an unwillingness to appreciate the stranger aspects of some great films. One reason I’d say Night of the Hunter outclasses the likes of Blair Witch is that it has complexities and tonal shifts that are a little tricky, bits you’re not going to be sure about (Was that meant to be funny? Why is it scary?). Qualities I do sometimes find in Ed Wood (but really only wrt Glen or Glenda) and some Jess Franco as well.

    The Scooby Doo thing isn’t even a good analogy, since last time I looked it wasn’t melodrama.

    Print journalists will sometimes say that blogs are unedited and therefor prone to indulgence and sloppiness, but pieces like this do offer a counter-argument: freed to write about whatever we want, bloggers are perhaps more apt to really engage with the subject. At least sometimes.

  3. Arthur S. Says:

    You get similar pieces a lot of the time. I read an op-ed piece on the NYPost that Raging Bull is overrated simply because the character is unlikable and the film doesn’t give any explanation for his irrational behaviour nor justify why the audience should identify with him. This was last year.

    Personally, I don’t like DEATH IN VENICE and I think it’s a bore of a film. The reason is that like much of Late Visconti it suffers from pomp and self-indulgence missing the intellect and the keen eye for humanity that is present in say, SENSO, but missing in this film. It is however a clearly personal film. And I only like the first two hours of LA DOLCE VITA and find the final portions a let down. But of course that doesn’t mean I don’t think people shouldn’t see them and form their opinions on the matter.

  4. Arthur S. Says:

    I’ve read the entire piece…Les Enfants du Paradis, I do agree with, though obviously I can’t share it with the voice of a demagogue like this guy obviously is. The francophile critics who call LA REGLE DU JEU the greatest film ever made include Robert Altman, Paul Schrader and Satyajit Ray. Alongside of course Bernardo Bertolucci and Wim Wenders.

    As for Jules et Jim, this guy missed whole sets of issues vis-a-vis the film. And actually dares to pretend that it’s not clear if it’s Jules or Jim that dies when it’s screamingly obvious who does survive and why that makes the desolation of the final scene so terrible. And in no way is South Pacific better than Singin’ in the Rain. He should be packed to Siberia for this blasphemy.

  5. I find that my relationship with films and books changes over time. I have never acquired a taste for the films of Howard Hawks, for example. I’m not a big fan of NIght of the Hunter. I dislike Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. I would disagree with Tim Lott about Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis. I think it is great and lovely film.
    Long live idiosyncrasy

  6. It’s a worthwhile thing to celebrate the quirks of taste that mean one person’s favourite film might seem tiresome to another. When dealing with outsize masterpieces, I think a bit of humility is probably worth preserving, though. I’m glad Lott found the piece cathartic, but I question whether it’ll help anyone else.

    Personally, I’ve never enjoyed La Dolce Vita as much as Eight and a Half or many other Fellinis. But saying that doesn’t really do much. On the one hand, I want people to be free to form their own opinions about even the great masterpieces, on the other, it’s not a bad idea to start off assuming that films with this kind of reputation probably have some value, and looking very hard to see if you can find and relate to it.

  7. There is an interview with Tim Lott here:
    http://www.granta.com/Online-Only/Interview-Tim-Lott

  8. The interview illuminates a potential problem with literary people approaching film: sometimes they don’t take it seriously. Lott is obviously a gifted and interesting writer with plenty to say about the medium which interests him. As far as film goes, he’s at best a hobbyist.

    This isn’t to say that novelists, playwrights and poets should be barred from writing on or for the cinema, far from it. But there are identifiable pitfalls.

  9. he’s got some nerve to describe journalism as a tuppenny ha’penny job and then submit articles that are entirely worthless

    i hate him

  10. The piece is smug garden variety anti-intellectualism. And it’s author deserves the back of my hand.

    And yours.

  11. Anyone who cites David Mamet as a cultural authority is the lowest of the low.

    There is no excuse for that.

  12. “The past is gone. It’s always gone.”

    No it’s not. The man’s a moron.

  13. Glenn Kenny has a go at some similar cow-bashing here: http://www.theauteurs.com/notebook/posts/844

    I don’t even think Lott is anti-intellectual per se, but he’s like Clive James: resistant to treating films with the same respect he’d accord literature. You can be high-brow in your relations with one medium and tediously middle-brow in your relations to another. Frustratingly, he brushes up against some interesting points about the merits and faults of canons, but he doesn’t pursue any of them.

  14. I really can’t abide this sort of thing. “I just didn’t like it,” and “I thought it was boring,” does not constitute a serious critique.

    Back in the day serious filmgoers had lengthy intellectually substantial discussions about Bergman, Antonioni, et. al. If one were to say for example prefer Persona to L’Avventura this would be argued on a considerable complex basis that in noway rejected the less-preferred film out of hand.

    In today’s Tarantino-infected climate it’s all sneering and “smart” remarks.

  15. Arthur S. Says:

    Clive James is worse because some people seem to take him seriously. That guy hasn’t read anything on auteurism beyond what Pauline Kael has said. And for all his dislike for it, it goes without saying that ZABRISKIE POINT is better than anything he will ever be capable of.

    With me taking film as seriously as literature never came up. The reason was that film was the first thing I ever took seriously, something that was a past time which I realized fulfilled me on a deeper level than what I thought it would be, so I started reading film writings seriously and because of the many names dropped therein and the fact that many of my favourite film-makers were avid book readers and quoters, I started taking literature seriously. I also started taking music seriously and eclectically. And of course history of art and painting and photography.

    England still seems stuck on the literary side of course.

  16. Well, our literary people are. And many of the others are at the Tarantino level. At least QT has his enthusiasms, from Godard to Fuller, even if he can’t articulate that much about them. Still, Joe Dante was rather enthusiastic about Inglourious Basterds, praising it as “a film about movies” with some rather interesting talk.

    Just had a thought: maybe we should start a film club here. Pick a movie that’s generally available, announcing it a week in advance, then I’ll write something and everybody can weigh in. Might be a more sorta organized form of blogging. I still get a kick out of writing about obscurities, but this could also be an excuse for me to catch up on some of the major classics I’ve neglected. There are MANY.

  17. Arthur S. Says:

    Okay…

    How about, let’s say, The Devil and Daniel Webster. I just saw that for the first time two weeks ago and it is a stunning film. Walter Huston is the best Devil ever, Herrmann’s music is fantastic and it’s one of Christopher Lee’s favourite films. Actually I always thought this blog was a film club of sorts…making it official kind of takes the fun out. When we did Borzage week, I was running through my stack of films keeping up with what was going on.

    I’d like to see Inglourious Basterds myself.

    I got to read Armond White’s piece through that Glenn Kenny link of yours, take a look at this closer….

    ————————————-
    Made in U.S.A. and 2 or 3 Things have more in common with the visual wit of Michael Bay’s Transformers 2. It is Godard’s bold example that taught Bay to love sound and image. All these films share a visual language and a way of seeing the world that is rooted in an artistic use of technology. What a triple bill.
    ————————————–

    When people were putting QT and JLG in the same sentence, they thought it was going too far…now you have a guy comparing a piece of shit like the Transformers film to two radical political 60s masterpieces…what will they think of next?

  18. OK, you’re on. Here’s a list of possible candidates —

    F For Fake
    Playtime
    The Palm Beach Story
    The Leopard
    Contempt
    Vivre sa Vie
    The Record of a Tenement Gentleman
    Hiroshima Mon Amour
    Easter Parade
    Meet Me in St. Louis
    Some Came Running
    Morocco
    The Devil is a Woman
    Le Crime de M. Lange
    Boudu Saved From Drowning
    Before the Revolution
    Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train

  19. Good ones. I have a lot of Renoir to catch up on, and I love Prevert, so I’m leaning towards M. Lange.

    I love Daniel Webster and just got the MoC DVD. I have a treasured old vinyl recording of the soundtrack which I sometimes play as an accompaniment to appropriate (and sometimes inappropriate) silent movies. Would like to write something about it too.

    I’ll make a final decision and announce on Monday, for posting the following week. We’ll see if it gets a good response. Meanwhile, it’d be great to have even more suggestions.

  20. I wouldn’t blame Tarantino for sneery philistine film writing – one thing I like about QT is he’s capable of enthusing about the avant-garde in the same breath as talking up the films of Jack Hill or whoever. Whether the influence of Godard on his films goes beyond the cosmetic or not (JLG certainly discounts any influence at all), you can be sure he’s seen the movies. I doubt very much that Michael Bay watches any films at all other than the ones he makes himself, and those of his acolytes. The idea of him being influenced by Godard is either pure stupidity or just a tease.

  21. I’ve certainly never come across any reference to Bay’s appreciation of Godard before, and to suggest any actual RESEMBLANCE between the artists’ use of sound and image is pretty insane. You can, kind of, see the effect on QT of JLG, at least when QT points it out. I don’t think the engagement goes very deep, but the appreciation is sincere.

    And in terms of public persona, Tarantino is actually pretty benign compared to the obnoxiousness projected by Bay.

  22. It’s sad to see the decline of journalistic standards but hardly surprising if you’ve read Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News. It’s all filler and half-formed opinion pieces. This pub-rant is the lead story at the moment on The Guardian online:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/jul/25/pelham-123-computing-movies

    but this one beggars belief:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/jul/25/tim-dowling-weekend-column

    The quality of writing and debate on this blog put the arts pages on most newspapers’ websites to shame.

  23. I read the computer one and didn’t mind it as much as Lott’s piece. Smacks of the kind of thing where the writer has been (a) assigned the thing and realized it’s not interesting at all and tried to jolly it by or (b) come up with the thing in desperation to try and have something to say about the latest Tony Scott debacle. I felt some sympathy.

    The advantage of being a blogger is nobody forces me to write about stuff I’m not interested in. The disadvantages: nobody edits me, proof-reads me or pays me.

  24. Tarantino himself is less of a problem than Tarantinoism : Smug Fanboy culture with its disdain for thought on any level whatsoever.

  25. I don’t think Lott’s piece is informed by his background in “literature” (which in itself is a bit too loaded) but I do think it’s a lazy piece which trades on a typically commodified “literary” identity. Readers are supposed to sit up and take notice: “Oh, look, Tim Lott has something interesting to say about cinema” eh, except he doesn’t. As someone who has watched cinema criticism debased, devalued, and turned into something increasingly puerile over the past twenty years, it doesn’t surprise me that this kind of shallow nonsense is allowed on the pages of a “quality” newspaper.

    Which brings me to the subject of this blog, which is intelligent, informed, inquiring, and enthusiastic. All qualities which will ensure that Mr David Cairns work will never see the light of day in the pages of a newspaper. There are editors the world over probably terrified by the idea that readers could handle such material.

    Keep up the good work.

  26. It would be lovely to think that my brilliance will render me a pariah, but I hope to prove you wrong at some point! If DVD sleeve notes are a step in the right direction I have made some progress recently. On the other hand, BFI publishing has stopped responding to my emails…

    Harry Knowles is probably more the poster-boy for smug fanboy culture than Tarantino. I think there’s a place for it (the internet) but it’s disturbing how prevalent it’s become.

    Newspaper articles on film seem to get structured around bogus “topics,” whereas good writing is far more likely to come from addressing either a film or a filmmaker, it seems to me, allowing the ideas to flow from that. Lit crit rarely indulges in this kind of themed malarkey.

    (Friend of Shadowplay) Anne Billson manages to find interesting points to make each week, John Patterson does it some of the time, but meanwhile they have David Thomson writing about Will Ferrell and poor Philip French doing lists of best movie boar hunts/boat repairs/window cleaners.

    I don’t want to make this a print vs blog thing, because there’s good and bad in both.

  27. Another suggestion for a film club type of discussion would be viewing lesser known films. For example, Four in the Morning, directed by Anthony Simmons and a good British drama from the 1960s.

  28. Yes, we should do some less famous films, and I’d like to see that one (very early Judi Dench) but we should pick films available to people in America as well, which I doubt that is. I don’t know if people are going to rush out and buy the films on Amazon, but they should have the opportunity to do so.

  29. A very funny film from the sixties, and available to watch on YouTube, is Bryan Forbes’ The Wrong Box. It’s based on the Robert Louis Stevenson story.

  30. I had a summer job as a movie theater usher at Cinema I and II on Third in New York when The Wrong Box premiered. As I result I saw it something like 60 times. It’s very entertaining, captures the spirit of Edward Gorey from time to time and Peter Cook abd Dudley Moore have a great cameo in it.

  31. I like Ralph Richardson’s bore and Peter Sellers’ inebriated doctor (with a thousand cats) too. Oh, and Wilfred Lawson at his most raddled.

    Stevenson’s original story, although completely different, is pretty outrageous and fun.

    But you know, I don’t really want to do a film club that involves YouTube! I’d rather promote DVD sales, or even illegal downloading. Anything where the movie can be seen in hi-fi form.

  32. Y’know, maybe I’ll go for The Devil and Daniel Webster after all — it’s available from Masters of Cinema in the UK, Criterion in the US, and YouTube everywhere but China. There are still lots of people who haven’t seen it, i love the film, and Fiona is fairly obsessed with it.

    I looked into M Lange’s availability and it looks like some people are going to find that one hard to get.

  33. Arthur S. Says:

    Another film suggestion…a popular public classic…

    DEAD OF NIGHT by Ealing Studios.

  34. The suggestions seem to be either American or French movies…what about Fukasaku,Suzuki,Mizoguchi,Kobayashi,Masumura,Honda,…??

  35. Arthur S. Says:

    Well it was about canonical classics that are widely available so that automatically means limiting oneself to the Occident.

    That said, definitely Masumura’s phenomenal RED ANGEL

  36. Red Angel is extraordinary and well worth discussing. And there are several Suzukis and Kobayashis etc available in both the States and UK. If this thing is a success we can get around to them too.

    Love Dead of Night to bits. I just acquired some obscure Cavalcanti as well — it’d be nice to watch a film by each of the directors in that one, leading up to the thing itself.

  37. I live in Brazil and I used to buy this “Asian stuff’ online from American sellers(mainly ebay).Unfortunately,it became too expensive(specially the P&P) thus I started downloading them(via emule;u can download about 30 Mizoguchi movies on emule) as these movies,90% of them at least,are not available here(neither to buy nor to rent).
    Right now,I´m ‘discovering’ Ishirô Honda(Kurosawa was a big fan).His ‘Gojira'(the original Godzilla) is just fantastic.

  38. I can’t find The Devil and Daniel Webster on YouTube.

  39. Unless this is some kind of Irish thing — we can’t see your songs, you can’t see our movies?

  40. Think about it David, it’s listed on YouTube as All That Money Can Buy.

  41. True. Although I still found it by typing “Daniel Webster.”

    Anyhow, I hope nobody watches the whole thing on YouTube, it deserves to be bought.

  42. Does the MoC DVD have the extra contained in the Criterion package? There are some snippets from the original shooting of the film where they show these solarized flashes of Scratch’s face. Fascinating, much like the flashes of the demon shown in THE EXORCIST.

  43. Damnit, I was gonna make that comparison. Still, I will anyway. And yes, the MoC has the same thing. We should restrain ourselves from discussing it further until next week. But we could compare notes about other Dieterles of interest.

  44. Whoops. Sorreee…

  45. Maybe I’ll watch Hunchback again — it’s also cut by Robert Wise and has some of the same surprise rhythms.

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