Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Nothing to see here, folks.

If you're not Denni, please ignore this post.

However, if you are Denni, you know what to do.


Monday, November 24, 2008

Art and politics make for curious bedfellows

Renowned documentarian Frederick Wiseman once said that if he could summarize the point of view one of his films in 25 words or less, then he shouldn’t make it. Wiseman, whose influential Titicut Follies was initially banned for its devastating depiction of a Massachusetts mental hospital, seems to have been lost in a swarm of emotional grandstanding and simplistic motivation.

"Too many filmmakers try to shove that extra little message in there that most critics tend to eat up," says San Francisco-based film critic Jeffrey M. Anderson. "The films end up offering nothing of personality."

In 1980, filmmaker Ross McElwee set out to shoot a documentary about General William Tecumseh Sherman’s ruthlessly destructive “march to the sea,” in which he and his troops stormed through Georgia in the summer of 1864. The resulting film, entitled Sherman’s March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love In the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation was less about the march itself than it was about McElwee conquering his own personal demons as he recorded his run-ins with various friends, family members and former paramours.

“Artists are always better when they’re in opposition to something."

Sherman’s March represented a landmark in politically driven films due to the intensely personal treatment of its themes. Now, like Wiseman’s pledge of complexity, the rage and passion seem to be gone, replaced by bigger budgets and empty exercises in ego.

“They’re all about preaching and soapboxing and hardly any of them have anything original to say,” said Anderson, regarding the influx of Iraq-focused films like Lions for Lambs, Stop-Loss and Body of Lies, among others. “Filmmakers like [Body of Lies director] Ridley Scott keep making movies they think they should be making rather than movies they want to make.”

So why have so many “topical” films been rejected by critics and audiences alike in recent years?

“People don’t want to confront the harsh reality of the situation,” said Peter Howell, film critic for The Toronto Star. “In the case of Iraq War films, people recognize it was terribly handled, the results are not what they hoped for, and to go spend money to see that same message being told to them is not the least bit enticing.” However, political documentaries have tended to fare better than fiction films, most notably those of Michael Moore, who cites Sherman’s March as the reason he made his groundbreaking Roger & Me. Howell attributes the relative fruitfulness of Moore’s films to their presentation.

“Fahrenheit 9/11 was essentially a comedy,” he said. “Michael Moore is much more a satirist than he is a documentarian. The bottom line of his films is always entertainment.”

Political art comes from rage and dissent, said Howell. “Artists are always better when they’re in opposition to something. In the case of Canada, however, because we are so dependent on some kind of government subsidy and so indebted to America’s market and its product, we’re much more dependent on handouts of any kind.”

Howell cites Bill C-10 as evidence of this, when the Conservative government attempted to stick a clause onto a tax proposal that would have given them the ability to deny art grants based on the “appropriateness” of the content.

“Stephen Harper finally wised up and realized it’s a non-starter,” he said. “That was a costly example of trying to sneak something through the back door that they couldn’t get through the front door. It’s not very often that you can make a government back down anywhere, but Canada’s arts community did.”

Success essentially comes down to the audience’s perception of the product. “People are very much in a depressed state,” Howell said. “The news has been so unrelentingly horrible for such a long time. That’s why people have been so excited about the election of Barack Obama. He represents a ray of hope over a dark horizon.”

The question arises: if rage makes for great art, can hope do the same?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Nothing Personal: Film Critic Jeffrey M. Anderson

Jeffrey M. Anderson’s website bills itself as “movie reviews for the thoughtful and passionate.” Hearing him talk about his feverish love for cinema, it’s hard to disagree.

“Even today, when I go to a theater, I sit down, and the lights dim, I think ‘this could be the greatest film I’ve ever seen,’” he says.

Anderson has been a professional film critic for over ten years, and has written for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Oakland Tribune, cinematical.com, and was Staff Critic for the San Francisco Examiner from 2000 through 2003. He now freelances and runs combustiblecelluloid.com.

Anderson credits his first film as Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, a feat he shares with acclaimed filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. “I remember being a little kid, seeing it on T.V., and it really hit me,” he says. “I’ve seen it many times since then, and I still can’t help but love it. It’s very nostalgic for me.”

As someone who gets paid to write about film, Anderson is often asked if he’s less able to enjoy films since he analyzes them so thoroughly. Not true, he says. “Being able to appreciate movies on a deeper level helps you to understand them more. What I really like is to pull out the depths of a film, and I’ve often found that almost any movie has something worthwhile in it.”

However, there’s something to be said about the other perspective as well. “If you go in there knowing nothing about movies, you’re more apt to enjoy something like Transformers, which just infuriated me,” he says, laughing. “But most people just loved it, had a great time, and got their money’s worth.”

“Above all else, when I go into a movie, I look for something personal, and some directorial personality,” he says. “Movies are such a collaborative medium, they’re so expensive, and they rely so much on marketing, testing, and everything else, that the human element tend to get lost. That’s what I look for most.”

Throughout his career, Anderson has interviewed hundreds of cinema’s most versatile personalities, from Mike Leigh to Errol Morris to Claire Denis, including multiple interviews filmmakers William Friedkin, John Carpenter, and David Cronenberg. “I’ve often credited Cronenberg as my favorite living filmmaker,” Anderson says, “but he’s not a guy who, in person, you get where he’s coming from.”

On the subject of speaking to artists he reveres, focus is essential. “It’s really a delicate chess game,” he says. “You go in there, and sometimes there are other reporters in the room, and the only thing they do is disrupt your flow. You have to get a good question in right away, one they haven’t been asked, otherwise they’ll launch immediately into autopilot.”

It’s important to play each situation by ear. “You never know what you’re going to get into,” Anderson says. “Sometimes I prepare for a kind-of playful interview if I think the person’s going to be playful, and you get there and they’re not being playful. You always have to adapt and be ready to try another angle.”

On the current state of film criticism, Anderson has a few key thoughts. “Every critic has their favorite directors and films they look forward to and whatnot, but most critics respond to story above all else, and even more than that, a message of some kind,” he says. “They’re completely opposed to any kind of personality.”

“A great turning point came when I started discovering the French critics,” he ads, “and how they were more interested in artistry and auteurs more than movies-of-the-moment.”

Anderson holds a special reverence for Western director Budd Boetticher, whose ingenuity and style stand in stark contrast to the impersonal methods of many of today’s filmmakers. “[Boetticher’s] films are so spare,” he says. “Every shot just counts, there’s this masterful economy at work, and nothing is overtold. So many movies today assume the audience is made up of idiots and focus on some arbitrary story.”

For him, it all comes back to that personal touch.

“You look at a filmmaker like Brian De Palma, who I like because he’s very true to his own dark impulses. He’s very personal, his movies rarely have that kind of special message that many critics look for, and he has this kind of almost vicious quality. If he disguised all that and made a cuddly film that everyone would like, that wouldn’t be very interesting. It wouldn’t be true.”

Cinematic truth. Nothin’ better than that.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Prepare for Literary Masturbation of the Highest Order

I've started and abandoned various blogs in the past, but this one will stick. I swear!

I'll mostly be talking about film, I suppose, but music, politics, and my own lamentable life will surely come up occasionally.

Check back.