Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Giving Cinephilia a Bad Name, Part Two

Sam Juliano cannot contain himself:

Allan Fish has now officially launched the ‘Mother’ of all film lists, a project that is as remarkable in its audacity as it is in sheer comprehensiveness. Allan is arguably the most authoritative film connoisseur online (or anywhere for that matter) and this list is far more than a labor of love, but written proof that this eccentric, outspoken and utterly brilliant Brit has travelled further than his peers in terms of scope and discernment. The project is merely a prelude for the intended publication of his long-awaited film book, and encompasses the posting of the 3,000 greatest films ever made, with 600 a day through Thursday of this week. The endeavor was urged upon Allan from early last year, and he has complied with approximation, even while admitting the arbitrary nature of such a listing was stifling. Still as a resource, there isn’t a better and more valuable film list available anywhere. And that revelation is perhaps Allan’s most untouchable claim to prominence in the film world. Bravo, Allan!

Oh, I give up. What point is there in denouncing the follies of your times when the objects of your complaints not only fail to respond cogently to your criticisms, but really haven't got the foggiest idea what you are talking about? It's as if we were raised on different planets. Admittedly, this Fish list is a minor folly in the big picture, but I am a minor writer; it represents a perfect target for my pipsqueak outrage -- I'll leave the bigger subjects for masters of outrage such as James Howard Kunstler, Camille Paglia, and Niall Ferguson (to pick a diverse bunch). But no matter how small the target, its (psychological) defenses can still be surprisingly impenetrable. So there is probably no particular ground to be gained by enumerating these facts:

1. It's just a list, and a mish-mash of a list at that. Given a few days lead time, I could put together an approximation of this list myself, without having seen the films. No one would know the difference. Once you come up with the names of 3,000 films that have had some acclaim -- a few hours work on the IMDB and other sites -- the order of the items beyond the first 200 or so is of scant significance. You could throw darts. And I hope that is what Mr. Fish did, because the thought of him wasting hours of his life on contemplating "Should Jacques Rivette's Duelle be #2,467 or #2,468?" is rather depressing.

2. It is not a list of "the 3,000 greatest films ever made," nor even an approach to a consensus about such -- how could it be, if it merely represents one fanatic's taste at a single moment in his viewing history? The notion that this enterprise could be "authoritative" or "comprehensive" is daft. The Sight and Sound decade polls are interesting because they represent a cross-section of established critics and directors with enormously different agendas. I am sorry, Allan, but like me, you are just some guy. Nice try at getting your buds to claim greater significance for you, but believe me, that gambit has been tried many times before in cinephilia, both online and off.

3. If the "arbtrary nature" of making such a list was "stifling," why take it on? I perceive this bit of lame excuse-making as the only visible attempt to counter any of my objections, but the fact is that Mr. Fish, like others I could name, is so deep in his OCD-fueled list-making hell that he not only repeatedly foists his lists on the world, he turns them into damned countdowns. Oh my God, what will Allan's number one movie of all time be? This will be definitive! Actually, it's rather less definitive than a countdown of Paris Hilton's bed partners, which is at least a bounded class that only she can comment on.

4. Stop with the adjective pile-on already, Sam -- eccentric, remarkable, audacious, comprehensive, brilliant, outspoken, authoritative, "further than his peers in scope and discernment," revelation, untouchable, "merely a prelude," valuable, prominent, "far more than a labor of love." We get it! You're killing me here! It is the most amazing list ever -- I bow before its staggering listiness. Now will you please go away?

5. It is odd, since criticism is their thing, that many cinephiles deal very poorly with criticism at the level of the enterprise -- not "Was this executed well?" but the more important prior consideration, "Was this worth doing in the first place?" To them, the enterprise is somehow sacred and beyond criticism, a fact I discovered long ago when I bad-mouthed the emphasis on the making of top ten lists in a certain circle -- it was as if I had ritually murdered a puppy, you have seldom seen such a vehement repudiation (of my argument, my motivation, my character, the works). My friend Robert Kennedy, who truly is adding to our knowledge of film at his Cranes Are Flying website and blog, has rightly pointed out that it does no purported critic any good -- not a Pauline Kael, not an Andrew Sarris, not a Mike D'Angelo, not an Allan Fish -- to be surrounded by yes-men. It is very telling that, in the Wonders in the Dark comments, Sam Juliano said he stomped on me "to spare Allan that kind of unfair attack" -- as if any questioning of the concept of the list was utterly beyond the pale. Fill in your own "They can dish it out, but they can't take it" comment about many online film critics; you won't be far off.

6. It makes me sad to conclude that cinephilia makes some people stupid(er). But it does seem to. This is not a phenomenon unique to this obsession, I hasten to add -- sports fanatics are frequently completely la-la -- but by some logic I cannot get to the bottom of, it is worse for certain enthusiasms than others. As an obsessive myself, I live close to the edge, and perhaps for that reason I sometimes react with an especially pronounced horror to people who I think have gone over the edge. It is not a future I want for myself. Anyone who reads my critiques as being a kind of self-checking mechanism is approaching the heart of the matter. As Hermann Hesse wisely wrote, "If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn't part of ourselves doesn't disturb us."

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Giving Cinephilia a Bad Name

Warning: bad-tempered fit of spleen ahead.

A dimwit named Allan Fish at the occasionally useful filmblog Wonders in the Dark has decided to grace humanity with an un-annotated list of his top 3,000 films, just the titles, countries, release years, and directors, in order, counting backward from 3,000 to 1. I could not resist taking a potshot at this, in the form of a comment which may or may not get published at the blog. If it doesn't, I get that; I'm not fond of insults, either, and I've moderated some comments of that type out of existence here. However, I will archive my reaction at my own blog, because I truly want to record my objections to such an exercise:

Well, since you said you need to have your head examined…you do understand that this is exceedingly childish, right? That this is the sort of thing that gives cinephilia a bad name? That the dedicated study of movies needs fewer people such as yourself, who would undertake such a cockamamie project, and more who are past the adolescent, High Fidelity-esque “art-house fanboy” stage? You do know all this, right?

Am I being as childish as Mr. Fish? Quite possibly, and without a doubt I am also being unkind. But this sort of intensive, labor-heavy trivialization of something that matters a great deal, the history of film, will never sit well with me, at least not coming from someone over the age of 20. And a top 3,000...yikes. Come back, all my prior betes noires; none of you can begin to compete with this. Fish has out-fished you.

POSTSCRIPT: In the interest of cultural sanitation, I'm not linking to the list; it's easily found. But here is a representative sample of ten films:

2965 Michael Clayton (US 2007…Tony Gilroy)
2964 Ormen (Sweden 1966…Hans Abramson)
2963 The Assassin (Italy 1961…Elio Petri)
2962 Cutting it Short (Czechoslovakia 1980…Jiri Menzel)
2961 An American Werewolf in London (US/UK 1981…John Landis)
2960 Troy: director’s cut (US 2004/2007…Wolfgang Petersen)
2959 Hamlet (UK-TV 2009…Gregory Doran)
2958 My Sister, My Love (Sweden 1966…Vilgot Sjöman)
2957 Let George Do It (UK 1940…Marcel Varnel)
2956 Never Let Me Go (UK 2010…Mark Romanek)

What could this possibly mean? That Mr. Fish has diverse tastes, that he has seen a lot of obscurities, that he neither privileges nor dismisses Hollywood movies? Welcome to the club(s). That Troy is ever so slightly better than An American Werewolf in London in the cosmic scheme of things? If the order of these ten films were scrambled, or they were placed elsewhere in Mr. Fish's 3,000, or he removed them all and replaced them with roughly equivalent titles not currently in the list, would that add to the sum of the world's knowledge? It wouldn't even add to our knowledge of Mr. Fish.

UPDATE: Did I not understand, Sam Juliano of Wonders in the Dark huffed, that Allan Fish was one of the most acclaimed film bloggers and that he has seen "over 8,000 films in his life"? I'll assume that Mr. Fish is not an old man, so if he has seen 8,000 films in his life, he has done very little else; he has not actually lived a life, and what he has to say about the films in question is highly unlikely to be of much interest. Of course, in the case of this list, he isn't saying anything.

Mr. Fish himself picked up the volume theme. "How many of this 3,000 have you seen? Once you have seen them all, and the several thousand that missed out, then you can come back here and start insulting me...Now go get an education!" You know, Mr. Fish, it is quite possible to get a more balanced education than watching 8,000 movies. That you and Mr. Juliano are all worked up over the numbers merely underlines my point about the fanboy mentality. Someone could have seen no prior films and still have more pertinent to say about Citizen Kane than a cinemaniac.

I suffer from OCD myself, I recognize the symptoms, but with assistance I have learned when OCD is simply not relevant. The assessment of art is one of those occasions. Mr. Fish, psychological help is available!

Friday, May 6, 2011

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

Enjoyable, but ultimately disappointing. I like Joseph Gordon-Levitt very much, and the concept and (by and large) the execution of the time-shuttling structure are fine. But much of the content feels too cutesy to me. Robert Kennedy correctly notes the cop-out of the ending in his review:

After spending the entire film deconstructing the typical Hollywood love story, basically reprogramming the audience’s expectations by refusing to allow the couple to succeed, something only hinted at in the disappearing memory play and disoriented editing structure of Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry’s ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004), but here does the director lose his nerve and retreat back to a safe and formulaic ending, something that could just as easily have been chosen by an audience poll, as it lacks the refreshing originality of the rest of the film.


I think the retreat to formula starts earlier than that, actually. The appealingly unreal version of Los Angeles feels a lot like Woody Allen's appealingly unreal versions of New York (Gordon-Levitt = Edward Norton in Everyone Says I Love You), and the greeting-card company setting is all too obviously a movie writer's TV-sitcom-mediated idea of a "workplace." Tom Hansen's best buddies are standard-issue guy-comedy characters. Zooey Deschanel's Summer is in a long line of kooky (to greater or lesser extent) romcom girls. The big musical number looks to be a crib from the method of the Allen film and the (superior) television series Eli Stone, which premiered seven months before filming for (500) Days of Summer began. Tom's corporate breakdown has been done a thousand times. The voiceover narration is, as Robert Kennedy again correctly notes, weirdly stentorian, without offering any reason for being so; by contrast, the rather similar narration in the unknown (and also superior) Canadian indie One Week, with Joshua Jackson, pays off very cleverly indeed in the end.

Despite my sympathy for Gordon-Levitt's Tom Hansen, I couldn't work up any feeling of wistful lost romance because Deschanel's Summer Finn seems calculatingly sadistic from the get-go (or is it just that Tom is remembering her that way? Not clear). It is one thing to acknowledge in your heart of hearts that romance is always contingent and often fleeting; quite another to remind your current squeeze of that unpleasant truth at every possible opportunity. 500 days of that would be way too many.