In Part 1, I described this blog’s intended place in the greater world of film criticism, and also outlined the conception of “art” and its utility that underlies my writing here
In Part 2, I discussed my sense of the essential nature of cinema, while explaining in more specific terms how film criticism and reviewing follow from that essential nature
All that I’ve said thus far is well and good; but it willfully ignores the oldest branch of cinema, a branch that continues to provide challenging and fascinating work of which virtually every cinephile remains totally ignorant. I refer to non-narrative forms: from the purely abstract and non-representationl to the experimental; from the Lumière brothers’ “actualities” to Norman McLaren work in creating art directly on celluloid, without a camera, to Godfrey Reggio’s “Qatsi” films, with literally hundreds of other stops here and there along the way, the work of all the Maya Derens and Stan Brakhages and Bruce Conners and God knows how many lesser-known names.
Conceptually, there is no reason that these works cannot be judged according to the same standards of any more “mainstream” film. Depending upon how you define “cinema”, in fact, Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes has more in common with Paul Blart: Mall Cop than with Brakhage’s Mothlight. After all, the first two were created by photographic means using celluloid running through a camera at 24 frames per second, which is not true of the latter. This may seem like a pedantic definition of “cinema”, and to be fair, it runs into some striking issues when we arrive at the modern age of digital cinematography; are we required to maintain that e.g. The Silence of the Lambs and Zodiac represent intractably different art forms, since the first was captured on photosensitive celluloid, while the second is completely digital? Obviously, according to any number of matrices – narrative elements, lighting philosophy, the emotional state created – these two works bear more similarities, by far, than either one does to Paul Blart or Mothlight.
I have gotten away from the topic at hand, which is non-narrative cinema (let us conditionally allow “cinema” as not being dependent on celluloid or the camera). Which, it should be said, is a vague if not misleading phrase: the conventional definition of “non-narrative” is any film which lacks an overt story. But “narrative” has another, altogether different meaning; a narrative, at its most bare, functional level, is a sequence of events placed in a given chronological order. Truly, a stream of abstract shapes, as we see in McLaren and Evelyn Lambert’s Begone Dull Care, can hardly be said to have a “chronology” inherent unto itself; yet the human brain is stubbornly eager to assign befores and afters to any experience (it’s partially for this reason that general relativity and quantum mechanics are so incredibly difficult to understand, even though they are well-defended scientifically; our minds are built to understand things as having a temporal order, because at the macro level in which we live and die, events tend to occur that way). Indeed, there are some experimental films whose purpose is entirely to examine and deconstruct this universal human habit of putting time constraints on non-linear streams. So even though it is theoretically foolish to describe non-narrative films in terms of their plots, we nevertheless can, and to a certain degree must, think of them in terms of their progression from beginning to end, and what emotional and intellectual effects that progression has on the viewer.
This is all as much to say, there is no reason that the analytical tools which work to explain narrative cinema cannot be satisfactorily used on non-narrative cinema as well, with the obvious exception of analyses related to plot structure.
Antagony & Ecstasy: Cinema Through the Eyes of a Lone Blogger
Now that I’ve hopefully explained clearly and thoroughly how I understand the purpose and means of cinema, it’s time for the rubber to meet the road. After all, this whole long essay is ultimately meant to explain how this blog functions. Which is to say: everything that I’ve said just now comes down to one man’s opinion. It shouldn’t need the saying, but it’s the case with any review that people who disagree will get to wondering where the fuck this arrogant schmuck gets off thinking that he has all the answers and can tell everyone else what to think.
Of course that’s not the point of reviewing, at least not as it’s practiced here. I could easily preface every single review with the sentence, “What follows is strictly the opinion of the author, who acknowledges that other people will have conflicting opinions in certain respects“. But I’d really rather not have to do that. It’s pathetic to the point of dysfunction.
Still, in case it needs to be said: I do not assume that I have all the answers, nor do I intend to “solve” any film, ever. As I’ve said, I view the purpose of any critical work as providing a certain angle from which to view a work of art; perhaps a useful one, perhaps not. But certainly, in space of 1000 words and change, no reviewer could possibly address every possible reading of every element of even the most straightforward movie. As I understand my role, it’s to discuss the aspects of a given film that interest me, and hope that the reader will be able to interpret that discussion for his or her own needs, whatever those may be. This requires an understanding of my own biases, and it is the explication of those biases which will concern the rest of this essay.
Tim Brayton: What He Likes
I am, as I’ve said here and there and all around, mostly a formalist. This interest comes from a very specific place in my life: I never set out to be a film reviewer at all, but in fact studied film with the intention of becoming a filmmaker. This is still my long-term goal, but that doesn’t matter much, except in terms of explaining that the reason I attend so much to the construction of a given motion picture is essentially pragmatic. I’m less concerned with what effect a film has than with how that effect is generated through editing, lighting, and so on, because one day I hope generate those effects myself. I study films, in other words, that I might be able to do the same some day.
That said, the reason I aim to be a film director and not a poet or a sculptor or whathaveyou, is that I really love movies. So even as my appreciation of film is partially directed by strictly utilitarian motives, it is also directed by a sincere and deep love of the art form in and of itself. The fact that my interests lie primarily in the mechanics of the film does not imply that I only watch movies with a thief’s eye, looking to see what works and what doesn’t for my own use. Like any other viewer, I still want to be moved: to laughter, to tears, to excitement, to terror. I’m just a bit more aware of why I’m laughing, crying, cheering, or screaming, than a person whose interests are not so rigorously formal would be.
Thus, we get to the nub of the thing: my taste in movies tends towards those that are conspicuously well-crafted, regardless of their thematic or storytelling content; and if I had to choice between a film with a rigorous, crackerjack plot or a film that constantly investigates its own structure, at the expense of any real narrative urgency, I’ll always favor the latter. I will also always find more love for a movie that could only ever exist as cinema, even if it is bogged-down with flaws, than a movie that is elegant and essentially perfect, that could just as easily be a novel or stageplay. Best of all, of course, are those rare works that are constantly aware of themselves as cinema, with a rich and compelling thematic layer expressed in terms that cannot be replicated outside of the medium, combining the best of all possibilities in one place. This is the realm of geniuses: Carl Theodor Dryer, Andrei Tarkovsky, Orson Welles, Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Auteur theory is a difficult beast; it can be a powerful tool but is easily abused, and I do not pretend that I have not abused it.
On the one hand, we have the question: “Is any work of art primarily valuable because of the individual who created it?”, to which the answer is obviously, and simply, no. Jane Campion has not, to date, made a film I have not enjoyed; but this does not mean that Jane Campion’s films are valuable because of their Campion-ness. If I found out tomorrow that Campion has a secret alternate identity, and she has in reality directed every film credited to the non-existent Roland Emmerich, I will not therefore suddenly decide that 10,000 BC is a brilliant work.
Nor, of course, does the fact that a work has been written and/or directed by a specific individual answer all points about it. The Coen brothers have a distinctive mentality, as strongly-expressed in all of their works as you will find in any living filmmaker’s canon; but to view their films as being entirely and utterly and irreducibly “Coenesque” is intellectually stagnant. A very significant part of what makes their films work, for example, is the cinematography; and for nearly every one of their features since 1991, the cinematographer has been Roger Deakins. The exception is 2008’s Burn After Reading, shot by Emmanuel Lubezki. This is not at all an incidental difference; that film has a visual scheme very much unlike the brothers’ other work, and to dismiss that difference is profoundly irresponsible. Compare Burn After Reading with other films shot by Lubezki, and the visual similarities are immediately obvious. Does this change the way we respond to Burn After Reading, relative to other movies directed by the Coen brothers? How could it not?
The value of auteur theory, on the other hand, is one of convenience; it is a shortcut, in effect. The Coens, by virtue of writing, directing, producing and editing virtually all of their movies, have a particularly strong hand in guiding the finished product; but we need not look at filmmakers quite so autocratic to see the point. Any director strong-willed enough to have a particular “stamp” is going to tend to direct movies that are in some ways similar to one another; and while this says nothing whatsoever about the value of the movie, it provides an easy place to begin analysis.
One can watch every Steven Spielberg film, and note that specific themes and visual tropes come up in nearly all of them; this does not make any particular Steven Spielberg film “good”, but it allows us to quickly understand that a Steven Spielberg film has a high probability of being readable in terms of X and Y, which are not terms we would be able to apply to the films of e.g. Michelangelo Antonioni. Without knowing what Spielberg’s next project will be, I can presume that the protagonist will have some kind of issue with an emotionally distant father-figure (or he will be an emotionally distant father-figure himself), there will be many shots that stress the act of looking at something else, it will seek to manipulate my emotions in favor of domesticity and small-c conservatism over radicalism. If I pretended that Spielberg’s status as the director of the film was totally unimportant, I’d have to dedicate time and energy to ferreting all of that out. Obviously, the writer of the film, the crew and cast, all dictate to no small degree the manner in which the film functions – and this is something that I will be able to pay more attention to, by having my “Spielberg film” filter in place.
Less thoughtfully, since I know that I have tended to enjoy films directed by Steven Spielberg in the past, I have a better than even chance of enjoying his next project. And if it came to be the case that I had to prioritise my film-viewing, it’s not unreasonable to favor the work of a director (or actor, or writer, or cinematographer, or costume designer) whom I typically like, over the work of a director I typically dislike.
A final note: subscribing, more or less, to auteurism, does not in any way mean that I subscribe to the auteur’s intention; it is a waste of time to wonder what the artist “meant”. The film means what it means independently of the artist’s intentions. As far as I use auteur theory, it is as a statistical tool, not as a key to unlocking all the hidden meanings of a piece. There are a few exceptions, most of which specifically involve one filmmaker consciously referencing the work of another, in which ignoring the influence of that filmmaker is being willfully blind; but absent those cases, I couldn’t possibly care less what is going on in the director’s mind at the time of filming; only what makes it onscreen is important.
Tim Brayton: What He Likes, Resumed
In the interests of time, let me resort to a laundry-list of presumptions:
-A film that is conspicuously constructed is more interesting than one that hides its construction.
-Cinema can mirror reality; it can create absolute unrealities. Neither of these are inherently more valuable than the other. What is good is that whatever universe the film occupies, it takes all pains to establish and perfect that universe for the viewer.
-It is well for a film to take the least possible amount of time to make its point.
-Aesthetic merit is completely divorced from a film’s moral perspective or its “message”. A horror film that is elegantly composed, well-acted, assembled so that it is genuinely moody and chilling, and structured in a fascinating manner is more artistically valuable than a film which passionately argues in favor of political statement I hold dear, but is clumsy and dull in the process.
-The most fertile period in cinema history is the latter half of the 1920s, when the art had matured enough that the most innovative artists were inventing new vocabularies at an alarming rate. After the coming of sound, a certain set of rules became privileged above all others, and despite periodic movements dedicated to establishing new rules, the essential language of cinema is essentially unchanged from the period just before World War II. This does not mean that movies cannot be made within those rules which are breathtakingly artistic and wonderful. However, it is generally the case that the further into cinema history we go, the less experimentation that we find in mainstream cinema.
-Related to this, Hollywood-style continuity editing, and particularly the shot-reverse shot technique, has a stranglehold on the imagination of mainstream narrative filmmakers.
-All things being equal, “cheap” styles (gangster movies, film noir, horror, etc.) are likelier to produce truly challenging works, as the filmmakers are not so beholden to pleasing the widest possible audience. The more expensive a movie is, the less likely that it will do anything truly original – a general rule, not an absolute.
-“Prestige” filmmaking, by definition, aims not for the lowest-common denominator, but for the most moderate: not mercenary enough to be honest, not brave enough to command our interest. Nothing is more contemptibly dull than a movie made solely to win awards.
Using Antagony & Ecstasy
I will conclude with a simple outline of the “rules” governing the ratings system of this blog.
First, for any newly-released film there is a binary “I found this worth my time” vs. “I found this a waste of time”, expressed by the image of the poster at the top of every review. If it is aligned to the left, I would recommend the film. If it is aligned to the right, I would not.
There is then a rating scale at the end of ever newly-released film, out of 10. This is fairly self-explanatory, but rather than thinking in terms of percentages (by which logic 7/10 would be a “C”, and anything below 5/10 an absolute failure), this is approximately the way that I mean for it to be taken:
Either an effectively flawless masterpiece, or a work so compelling in its execution and the issues it raises that its flaws are of no account. Essential viewing.
An excellent film, one I think everyone should see; there’s room for improvement here and there, but by and large, I have virtually nothing to say against it. Not essential viewing, but it leaves a lot to think about.
Really good in most respects. The flaws start to show themselves enough that they can’t be ignored, and I’d be hard-pressed to claim in earnestness that you “must” see it, but I’d urge you to do so.
Good all around. Not terribly special; either it’s ribboned with small flaws, there’s one big flaw, or nothing it does is so terrifically amazing that it got me pumped up. But I rather liked it anyway, and there’s at least a chance that I’d buy it on impulse if I saw it on sale, though I probably wouldn’t watch it very often.
The splitting point: it’s doing enough right that I probably had a decent time watching it, but I’d really drag my feet about recommending it. It’s doing good and bad things in mostly equal measure, but I tend to think more about the good things on the way out. Hardly necessary, but it’s a way to waste time.
Nothing about this film is specifically, unutterably “bad”; but nothing is good, either. If there’s one or two moments that I really liked, it would drift up to a 6; one or two that really hurt, it drifts down to a 4. I would have a very hard time explaining why I thought anybody “should” see this.
Something is wrong. One single major thing, a bunch of tiny things, but something is wrong, and there’s not much to offset it. Of all the rankings, this is the one where I’m most unhappy I spent my money on the film.
We’re starting to get into the red zone here. There are a lot of damn problems, but it’s at least possible that those problems are rather more amusing in their badness than offensive. Still, there’s officially nothing that “works” about the movie, and if one or two things do, they’re nowhere near enough.
Tipping into out-and-out incompetence. Nothing is at all right with the film, but the masochist in me starts to get pretty enthusiastic about how dreadful it all is. Or maybe it’s just so painful that I’ve convinced myself that I’m enthusiastic.
Truly offensive, odiously bad filmmaking. This is the one where I left with slack-jawed amazement that human beings smart enough to operate a camera could perpetrate… that.
0/10 A very special ranking, reserved for the most unconscionably hideous crimes against the artform of cinema. Watching this kind of movie will very possibly permanently lower the quality of your life.
To be honest, I’m not entirely delighted to use rankings; I like to think that the content of my reviews speaks for itself. But still, a convention is a convention.
However, I specifically don’t use either of those rating systems in my classic movie reviews, for those are where I’m trying to dig into the function of the movie a little more than just plain “reviewing” it; if you just have to know, though, I do assign a number and a fresh/rotten for every one of those on my Rotten Tomatoes page.
Lastly, there’s an index; it’s over to the right, under my fake picture. I have catalogued all of the reviews according to a number of more-or-less useful systems; it’s the easiest way to browse or hunt for a particular title.
So, yeah, that’s what I’m thinking about, every time I review a film. Hopefully, this has all been helpful and illuminating; if not, I at least appreciate your patience in making it all the way through. I reserve the right to be a complete hypocrite about any part of this at any time.
This essay can be read in its entirety at the Statement of Principles link on the sidebar