In a year of highly-hyped movies that were supposed to be great – that by all accounts should have been great – Looper is an anomaly, a comparatively small-budget (at $30 million) high-concept sci-fi that was almost under-marketed and that landed with a soft bang last weekend to universal praise and decent box office. It’s been drawing frequent comparisons to Inception, and with good reason: differences in scale aside, we’re not used to our action movies being intellectually challenging, and both films tackle mind-bending subject matter with similarly mind-bending directorial deftness. Just as notably, they’re both original creations in a world where the familiar is king.
Or, The AFI List Project, #38: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
About a year ago, I read an article in the New York Times in which the writer was discussing his reaction to Schindler’s List. Unfortunately, the name of the writer and the exact content of his article have been lost to my memory, but the salient point was that he remembered not liking the film even though his wife assured him that he had. On a second viewing, he discovered the source of the debate: in fact, he had enjoyed the majority of the film, only to be disappointed in the closing act.
I say all this because watching The Treasure of the Sierra Madre has raised to me far more clearly the question of just how important the right ending is for crafting a good film. A frequent criticism that I find myself making, and that readers of the blog have almost certainly seen, is that the ending isn’t ‘consistent’ or that the film ‘falls apart in the third act.’ What I mean by that is that the film in question doesn’t stay true to the situation that it has created, and that in so doing the movie fails to accomplish what it has set out to do. Watching The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, however, I find myself presented with two questions about this view of narrative consistency. First, to what degree is it simply code for not liking the way that the director and producer chose to end their film? And second, how much should the ending matter in our overall assessment of a film, or any narrative medium?
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, if you don’t know, is a movie about a desperate American in Mexico (Humphrey Bogart) who decides to pitch in with two others and go prospecting for gold. Though the title makes it sound like it’s going to be an adventure story, the film, directed by the legendary John Huston, ends up being a nuanced psychological study of the effects of the promise of riches on Bogart’s increasingly unstable antihero Frank Dobbs, and asking questions about risk, death, luck, and trust along the way. Yet the ending seems to overreach, suddenly lunging for an overwrought irony rather than letting the chips fall as it seems that they should. The damage this ending does to an overall impression of the film is lessened by the reaction of the principals, but even so one is left with the feeling that Huston was trying to force his tale into producing an unjustified moral.
Moving away from the question of whether or not the ending fit, how much does unease with film’s ending justify a negative reaction to the film as a whole? For a plot-driven film, I think that it’s arguable that all of the film’s credibility rests on its conclusion. Try to imagine Shakespeare in Love with a happy ending: wouldn’t that have robbed the film of all of its narrative power? Well, one may say, the movie would have been just as witty and fun, and then we wouldn’t have felt sad at the end. Once one starts trying to imagine exactly how a happy ending would have been accomplished, though, I think the conceptual reaction that one might have liked it more loses some of its clarity, since there would have needed to be some significant twisting to get the plot to yield such an ending. The final result of that twisting could have only resulted in a cheapening of the film’s emotional impact. The power of the movie, after all, comes from the clash between Will and Viola’s desperate love and the realities of Viola’s social position. If (‘surprise!’) these turn out to be compatible in the end, then why have we just spent two hours being made to see how impossible the whole situation is?
Shakespeare In Love may be an extreme example, since changing from ending with the lovers’ inevitable separation to an ending in which they can be together would have been such a radical shift. Changing the nature of the ending would have altered the entire meaning of the film. In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, by contrast, the ironic conclusion doesn’t radically transform the movie’s meaning, as it’s the resolution of the last hanging plot point after its protagonist’s journey has already ended; it’s more a coda than a climax. Nonetheless, it’s a sour note to end on, seeing what has been a terrific, nuanced film suddenly shift gears to present us with a contrived irony — especially since an almost identical effect could have been achieved in a number of less obviously false ways.
That said, it’s also the case that we’re more willing to forgive certain films this fault than others: barring the possibility of there being a year-end heavyweight that I haven’t seen yet, Drive is almost certainly the best movie of 2011, yet it falls from sublimity to mild incoherence in its final forty minutes. Similarly, Inception leaves off with a maddeningly ambiguous shot that divided audiences. I hated the ending, but I still thought that it was one of last year’s best movies. So why am I willing to forgive these films the same fault that drives me crazy about movies like Avatar and almost everything directed by Martin Scorsese?
Without going too far in depth about the particularities of those films, I think the answer lies in the more fundamental question of narrative honesty. Truly bad films are dishonest from beginning to end. Their endings may not be inconsistent, but only because those the deck has been doctored so that such an ending can come about: the ending of Avatar is cheap and dishonest, but only because the rest of the film has been, too. More troubling are those cases where the ending seems at odds with what has preceded it, as is the case with Minority Report, wherein an edgy, excellent sci-fi thriller inexplicably devolves into cliché in the last twenty minutes. Even taking the good with the bad, though, one has to acknowledge these as failures. The endings of Drive and Inception, on the other hand, were weak in comparison with the rest of those films, but they didn’t betray their respective projects.
In a sense, the answer seems to be that the importance of the ending has to do with its scale: how important is the ending to the meaning of the film? Even if it’s unsatisfying, does it work? There’s a story, probably apocryphal, about Mike Nichol’s responding to criticisms of the ending of The Graduate by saying that he wasn’t sure if it was a good ending or a bad ending, but that he knew it to be the right ending. For some films, the best they can manage is the ‘right’ ending, even if it isn’t a good one; there are cases where, for whatever reason, it’s the only ending possible. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre doesn’t fit into this category — its ending is neither right nor good — but its effect on the meaning of the film is marginal enough that it can be forgiven. In such a case, a poor ending is something to note and criticize, but not something that should ruin an otherwise good film. It’s when the ending fundamentally changes and cheapens a film’s intellectual and narrative cohesion that it should have a significant impact on our opinion of that film.
I’m writing this post because I love to debate about the relative quality of works of art, the characteristics that comprise good and bad art, and – yes – the semantic distinctions between words that we like to use a lot. (My favorite example: When is it appropriate to use ‘douchebaggery’ as opposed to ‘douchebagginess’? Such questions inspired spirited debates in my college dorm room. The answer is at the bottom of this post.) I often make the distinction between ‘good’ art and ‘great’ art, as well as ‘bad’ art, and this distinction between great and very good is a source of a lot of angst for a lot of people. Is Atonement a ‘great’ book – or merely a very good one? Similarly, we sometimes rebel against movies that have been anointed great by critics but which seem to us to be boring or overwrought or just blah.
Accordingly, I thought I’d put down some of my thoughts on how we can properly rate works of art, particularly with reference to movies, both because that’s what I know the most about and because it’s the main subject of this blog, anyways.
The central question at issue in this debate usually has to do with who has the authority to say whether art is good or bad. This issue is particularly apparent right now, with the Academy Awards rapidly approaching. Especially in recent years, the Oscars have tended to favor smaller ‘prestige pictures’ that don’t find nearly as large an audience as the major blockbusters, movies like A Beautiful Mind taking precedence over movies like The Fellowship of the Ring. Indeed, it was precisely the omission of The Dark Knight from the ’09 nominees that led the Academy to change the format of the Best Picture category. This kind of preferential viewing leads to public outcries of elitism on the part of members of the Academy, the idea being that the people who choose these prestige pictures are out of step with the general culture.
That may be true, but it doesn’t make the accusation any less silly: after all, the goal of the show is to honor the best movie, not the most popular one, and it’s a personal pet peeve that people so often try to argue that popularity determines quality – if that were the case, McDonald’s would be the best cuisine on earth.
Still, it gets at a more concrete complaint, which is that many of these prestige pictures are, to put it delicately, an acquired taste, focused more on experimentation and subversion than on storytelling. “How can you tell me this was the best movie that was released this year,” the question would go, “if I can’t tell what the hell is going on?” This can be modified only very slightly and be applied to almost any form of narrative art. I’ve been told time after time that Finnegan’s Wake is one of the great masterpieces of the English language, but – honestly – I have no interest whatsoever in reading it (this coming from a person who read, and enjoyed, Gravity’s Rainbow in its entirety, snobbish though it may be to express it in those terms). Why should I be willing to consider FW a great work of literature if it’s so deliberately difficult to understand that I have such a complete and utter disinterest in opening it?
That isn’t to deny the brilliance of FW—or, to reorient to film, of a movie like Mulholland Drive. I’m sure that for people who know a lot about literature, and in particular about Joyce, and understand everything that he does in the novel, it makes perfect sense. The problem is that, when a book or movie raises itself to that level of complexity, it effectively renders itself irrelevant, because it’s lost an ingredient central to its status as a work of fiction: its ability to tell a good story.
We can, therefore, distill this concern into our first criterion: For a work of art to be considered great, it must be able to be appreciated for itself. That is to say: We have to be able to enjoy – or at least appreciate – the work of art without reference to outside material. In the case of a movie, book, or play, this means that it has to have a good story; in the case of a photograph or a painting, it must give us pleasure to look at outside of our knowledge of the subject. (There are some obvious limitations on this rule when thought about philosophically: isn’t all art somehow in reference to our existence as human beings? Don’t all works of narrative to some degree draw on our familiarity with ingrained cultural biases like moral values and extant concepts of structure? What about even the prerequisite that we understand the language? All valid counterarguments that I’m nonetheless not going to deal with here.)
This isn’t enough, though, because it’s far too wide and because it seems like there are plenty of stories that are really good but which don’t leave any sort of impression, which we dismiss as being somehow lacking, or which simply fade from view after enough time. A perfect example of this is the Harry Potter franchise. Outside of the die-hard Potter lovers who get lightning tattoos on their foreheads and play Quidditch, most people will acknowledge that they’ve read the Potter books because they’re fantastic stories, but will refuse to grant them the status of ‘great literature.’ This isn’t because of some generalized elitism. It’s because the simplicity of the Potter books – the same characteristic that makes them so charming – also ensures that they can’t hold up under scrutiny.
Based on this, I would assert a second rule: that for a work of art to be great, it has to go deeper than the surface. It’s not enough for a novel or a film to tell a great story, or for a photo or a painting to be pretty. There needs to be more than that: the work of art needs to hold up under scrutiny; when we ask questions of it, it has to be able to respond.
Even as I write that I feel like it’s not conveying the point that I want to make, and clichés like ‘there has to be something going on under the surface’ don’t adequately express the point, either. So let me offer an example instead. Readers of this blog will be aware that I chose Inception as the fifth-best movie of 2010, though of my five picks it was far and away the one that reached the widest audience. Why was it only number five, then? Because, though it’s extremely well-made and extremely entertaining, there’s not a whole lot of substance to it. It doesn’t tell us anything about people, and you’ll never have an argument about it that goes beyond trying to understand the structure of the plot (which I must concede is an extremely academically interesting topic). The Hangover is another great example of this. It’s one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a long time; it’s very, very good, and probably should have been a Best Picture nominee last year, especially with this new 10-nominated-films anarchy. But it isn’t great: it’s all about the story and nothing more.
It’s the combination of these two factors – the combination of immediate appeal with what we may loosely term artistic brilliance – that separates the great from the very good. Very good works of art may have a lot of one and little of the other, or some but not much of each. Great works of art, on the other hand, have both. This is why Shakespeare is our greatest author but John Webster is rarely performed; why The Godfather is a great film but The Departed is only very good; what separates Thomas Struth from Tina Barney.
And if you don’t agree… well, send me an e-mail and let’s have an argument.
Next time I post on aesthetics I’ll talk more about what art should do in general and less about semantic distinctions. On which note, the answer to my semantic question: ‘douchebaggery’ refers to an act characteristic of a douchebag (ie, ‘What douchebaggery did Joe get up to this time?’) while ‘douchebagginess’ refers to the quality of being a douchebag (ie, ‘Hank’s essential douchebagginess was the major reason that Greta hated him’). Am I right or am I right?
Gentleman of the Day:
I just read Mark Harris’s article over at GQ on the state of the American film industry and it seems like a good place to start on topic that I’ve had in mind for a while but haven’t quite figured out how to tackle.
For those who don’t want to take the time to read the full article, Harris essentially reviews the current state of the American film industry and points out (not for the first time) the fact that the industry seems increasingly inimical to new, original work:
‘With that in mind, let’s look ahead to what’s on the menu for this year: four adaptations of comic books. One prequel to an adaptation of a comic book. One sequel to a sequel to a movie based on a toy. One sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a movie based on an amusement-park ride. One prequel to a remake. Two sequels to cartoons. One sequel to a comedy. An adaptation of a children’s book. An adaptation of a Saturday-morning cartoon. One sequel with a 4 in the title. Two sequels with a 5 in the title. One sequel that, if it were inclined to use numbers, would have to have a 7 1/2 in the title.’
All this, as Harris points out, despite the phenomenal success of Inception, the year’s fourth top-grossing movie internationally and an entirely original story, not based on a comic book, novel, story, or another film. In fact, Harris argues, Inception has been consistently marginalized at the studio level as an anomaly, to be heralded and lauded but not to be imitated.
This is, from one point of view, extremely puzzling, for two reasons that are immediately obvious. First, when we look just at the case of Inception, that movie successfully demonstrated the power of cinema in the cultural imagination. Toy Story 3, Alice in Wonderland, and the newest Harry Potter movie all earned more money than Inception, but – as I touched on in my post on Psycho – no movie quite became the sort of pervasive cultural artifact that Inception was. It was a movie that you had to have seen and be able to talk about to successfully take part in cultural discourse. As such, it provided a template for how movies could still be relevant within American culture as a whole, rather than simple commercial objects – something which nonetheless would seem to be attractive to studios seeking to bolster their commercial success.
Inception was not the only movie to do this successfully in the last two years, however. Another entirely original film, which has incidentally become the highest-grossing movie of all time, similarly was able to forge itself into a cultural artifact and entered the communal consciousness. I am speaking, of course, of Avatar, which – whatever my personal feelings may be – was an original story, in the sense that it had no base material, and which similarly captured people’s imaginations.
Retroactively iterating this examination over the course of history, this genuine appreciation for original material – much of it admittedly high-concept – is clearly something that has characterized cinema for decades. Indeed, the careers of Cameron, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas would in themselves seem to be ample evidence that there is a genuine and underserved taste for original material. Cameron created the Terminator franchise and Avatar; Spielberg E.T. and Saving Private Ryan; Lucas, the grand master, originated both Star Wars and Indiana Jones, two of the most significant cultural monuments of the 20th century. If we expand our scope out of the confines of entirely original work to include movies like Nolan’s The Dark Knight or, to use a much earlier example, Spielberg’s Jaws, we can extend this conclusion to say that, generally, audiences are enthusiastic about excellent, intelligent, well-crafted movies that tell an interesting story.
Why, then, are studios so eager to dismiss Inception’s success? Why is there no apparent effort to create a product to meet this apparently unfulfilled need?
Okay, I admit – that’s a straw-man question. Sure, film is art, but more than any other art form it’s also a business. The amount of money it takes to put together a film makes it a necessarily commercial enterprise. Sequels, films based on comic books, and many adaptations of novels rely on existing franchises with existing followers – that is to say, the brand already exists. Even if the fan base of a franchise like Fantastic Four is relatively small, the brand is present in the popular mind: we have some familiarity with the source material and we sort of know what we’re getting. Original material, on the other hand, has to build interest from scratch, making it that much more difficult to attract an audience. Studios invest billions every year in sequels and adaptations of familiar source material (be they comic books, toys, children’s novels, or theme park rides) because the formula works. Other than Inception, the six highest-grossing films of 2010 were this sort of work, and only one (Alice in Wonderland) wasn’t a sequel.
We have, then, the following unfortunate situation: there is an appetite for excellent, original work, but it’s a much safer investment to pursue projects that are familiar to an audience, which have built-in brand recognition, which have already-developed plotlines and characters, and – crucially – which don’t need to be good to make money, and which are therefore much easier to make.
Is there any solution to this problem? (Indeed, one may ask, to what degree is this actually a problem?) The best answer that I can think of is counterintuitive, because it suggests that studio practices are the solution, not the problem.
What I mean by this is that, when it comes to original work, there is a fundamental branding problem. The solution to that is to make the brand of the studio bigger than the brand of the movie or any of its constituent parts. The closest analogue is to think of what HBO is to television: despite some mediocre work (Hung, anyone?), the channel consistently puts out an excellent product. You know that tagline, ‘It’s not TV, it’s HBO?’ It’s a testament to HBO’s success that that tagline means something real.
Admittedly, it’s easier for a channel like HBO to gamble on something new because it, too, has its own franchises, in the form of the recurring seasons of its successful shows. A single disaster, coming at the wrong price and at the wrong time, can cripple a studio, as happened to United Artists after the flop of Heaven’s Gate in 1980. That being so, it might be that this approach to branding can’t work beyond the small-scale prestige subsidiaries that all the majors have, like Fox Searchlight or Sony Pictures Classics. Nor have prestige-oriented independent production companies like The Film Department been particularly successful in building a name for themselves.
Still, the fact that it hasn’t worked yet doesn’t mean that it can’t work, and it seems like a studio that was able to tap into the popular appetite for original material would be positioning itself for long-term success. So, film-loving entrepreneurs… this might be your chance.
In my last post, I gave my picks for the top five films of 2010. These were, from ‘worst’ to first: Inception, Black Swan, True Grit, The King’s Speech, and The Social Network.
As a disclaimer, there are a number of films that I haven’t gotten to that have been getting a lot of press – 127 Hours, The Ghost Writer, Hereafter, almost any foreign film. Still, I’ve done better than last year. I’d guess that I’ll turn out to have seen seven of the ten Best Picture nominees when the Oscar lists are announced. (For the record, with three days ‘til the announcement: I have my top five plus The Fighter, The Kids are All Right, 127 Hours, Toy Story 3, and…? What? I’ll go with Hereafter on the basis of the Academy’s love affair with Clint Eastwood. You heard it here first.)
So, how did I end up with these five films in this order?
Let’s start with the movies that didn’t make the list. There were a number of releases in ’10 that I liked a lot but were obvious non-starters, like Hot Tub Time Machine (a movie with such a ludicrous premise that, as my friend Nelson put it, ‘it couldn’t possibly have been made if the script hadn’t been great’) and Iron Man 2 (great performance from Downey Jr.; ScarJo in form-fitting black leather an obvious draw; pure popcorn and nothing else).
Then there were ‘The Contenders,’ movies that have been critically acclaimed and are likely multiple-Oscar nominees. The two that I’ve seen that are obviously in this category are The Fighter and The Kids are All Right.
The Fighter, a boxing movie featuring great performances from Christian Bale and Melissa Leo and competent ones from Mark Wahlberg (getting way too much positive press, by the way) and Amy Adams, seems to be a favorite of a lot of critics. Part of this perception on my part might be because I’m from Boston and anything set in Massachusetts tends to get absurd accolades from the Boston press. Regardless, The Fighter left me cold because it wanted to have it both ways: it wanted to be a typical sports movie, complete with rousing ending, at the same time that it wanted to be Serious. There was too much going on, and Wahlberg’s was the least compelling character in the movie. Maybe that was the main problem: Wahlberg’s Mickey had a very clear set of desires from beginning to end – essentially, being a good boxer and doing right by his family. The movie allowed him to have both of those things, even though from the beginning they were set up as being fundamentally at odds. And the resolution, when it came, was given to Mickey rather than being caused by him; there was no noticeable change in who he was or how he behaved. That’s one of the most frustrating things that can happen in a story. (This is, fundamentally, the same problem that I had with Avatar). Also, the decision to film the boxing scenes as if they were being shown on CRT screens was gimmicky and unnecessary.
As for The Kids are All Right—well, kudos to Julianne Moore for finally making a movie in which I didn’t hate her (she’s #2 on my list of 5 Least Favorite Actresses, missing out on the top spot only because of the depths of my contempt for Helen Hunt). This one was well-acted all around, and it made me think about things in a way that most movies don’t achieve. Still, it’s a small movie with small ambitions, it’s not very interesting visually, and it all wrapped up a little too easily.
I need to think more about that one, actually, because I’m having a hard time explaining exactly what I found unsatisfactory about it. Regardless, it wasn’t in the same league as my top five. So, here’s a brief account for each:
5. Inception — probably the most obvious indicator of this movie’s quality is that it is, like The Dark Knight, eminently rewatchable. I saw it twice in theaters and then watched it the first day it was available On Demand; if I was trolling for a movie right now and saw that I could watch it, it would be at the top of my list immediately. Tightly acted; highly original; the plot hangs together.
Also like The Dark Knight, Inception is, on an absolute scale, overrated – they’re numbers 10 and 7 on IMDb’s Top 250 at the moment, for some perspective, and that sort of praise can’t be justified. Still, the reason that they’re so highly rated is precisely why Inception had to be in my top 5, and why The Dark Knight should have been a Best Picture nominee in ’09: both combine popular, surface-level appeal with quality filmmaking and serious, intelligent stories that go far deeper than most high-grossing films. Admittedly, Inception went off the rails with the Marion Cotillard storyline, and in a lot of ways it’s more style than substance. But any time that a movie is this innovative, this well put-together, this well-structured, it has to be in consideration for being one of the top movies of the year.
4. Black Swan – to be honest, I still haven’t figured out if Black Swan is good or not. My biggest consideration for how good movies are is whether or not their plots are internally consistent – you could call it a ‘ring of truth’ test. For that reason, I’m always suspicious of movies by Darren Aronofsky, because he’s indisputably a hugely talented director whose virtuosity can get in the way of that judgment. Requiem for a Dream is, to me, the prototype of a movie that really isn’t very good but that, because it’s so well put together and emotionally devastating, tricks you into thinking that it is. Black Swan is gripping, bombastic, and thoroughly enjoyable – but I still haven’t decided if it’s actually good. That said, the fact that I’m still thinking about it, and that it has so many interesting aspects to it – that it’s open to so many avenues of interpretation – has me leaning towards thinking that it’s pretty all right.
3. True Grit – the first Coen Brothers movie that I found myself enjoying as well as appreciating. It’s well directed and well acted – all three principals are great, including the surprising Hailee Steinfeld – and the visuals are gorgeous. Still, it’s all plot and it’s painted in broad strokes, which gives it a lack of complexity that is refreshing at the same time that it’s limiting.
2. The King’s Speech – the Anglophile in me desperately wanted to end up with this movie on top, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. In some ways, it’s a mirror image of True Grit: consistent, excellent acting, excellent directing; less beautiful, but then it would be difficult to make the London fog as beautiful as the vistas of the Old West. The King’s Speech was, to me, a prototypical Serious Oscar Contender: built to be appreciated and respected rather than loved.
That isn’t to say that it isn’t enjoyable. I had a good (if not great) time watching the movie, and it manages to produce a number of light-hearted moments throughout in spite of its weighty material. I was reminded (and perhaps was meant to be) of another product of British navel-gazing, 2006’s The Queen. The King’s Speech isn’t quite as good as that film, but they share the same fundamental flaw, of being limited to a very specific world of exception and not quite being able to break out of it. Both films do an excellent job of making their central characters sympathetic, but they’re not relatable, because they cannot be. Oddly, this is both what is attractive about these movies as well as their great limitation. People are fascinated by the idea of a state of exception; that’s what makes monarchs marketable. At the same time, that exception makes such characters objects of interest that are in some way alienated from us. I don’t think that The King’s Speech quite transcended that alienation.
1. The Social Network – the best movie of 2010, if only on the merits: I don’t think it was ‘the best’ in any major category (neither the best acting, nor the best directing, nor the best cinematography, etc), but it was good, even very good, in all of them. This was a movie that I was deeply skeptical about at first, and I don’t think I was the only one. Fundamentally, though, it didn’t need to be about Facebook, and it wasn’t; it was a present-day morality tale, and every aspect of the plot worked. Credit Eisenberg, I think, for being the lynchpin of it all: he nailed the part and made everything that happened make sense.
Above all, though, The Social Network succeeded better than any other film this year in being a good story while also being About Something, which meant that in the absence of anything really mind-blowing it sort of had to win. Also, it was about Harvard. There’s really not much else to say.
Oscar nominations coming out on Tuesday, so next week I’ll try to give some perspective on that.