Notable film and media links--August 5, 2009

---The disturbing truth underlying Popeye.

---Jonathan Rosenbaum gets fed up with worrying about spoilers:

"The weird metaphysical implication of spoilers is that moviegoers and readers who fret about them want to regain their innocence, perhaps maybe even their infancy, and experience everything as if it were absolutely fresh. From this standpoint, we shouldn’t even know what films we’re going to see in advance, or who stars in them, or who directed them, or what they’re about, or perhaps even where they’re playing. Just so we can experience the bliss of being taken there by benevolent parents."

---The Architects' Journal's "Top 10 comic book cities" (with thanks to Boing Boing).

---The Film Doctor's instant trailer reactions: The Other Man (Liam Neeson searches for his wife instead of his daughter), The Open Road (looks uncommonly bad. Jeff Bridges (?!?!?)), GoodTimesKid (weirdly compelling), The Killing Room (bleh), Good Hair (intriguing), I Sell the Dead (overkill).

---For Interview, Jack Nicholson interviews January Jones of Mad Men:

"While Don wears the idea of his own character as an allegory for the fallacies and facades of mid-century America as easily (and well) as he does his suits, Betty negotiates it all like she’s being slowly submerged in a bath of scalding hot water, constantly trying to hold back the screams. Even in his worst moments, Don somehow manages to keep up the old movie-star vibe and look stylishly askew. But real life, like Betty, is more often strange and messy. Her alabaster skin, icy blue eyes, and set-and-sprayed blond hair betray a sort of inner conflict that’s quietly escalated into a kindemotional mushroom cloud. She has ideas—about how people should act and how life should be—that are clearly not her own, and yet she’s always judging, judging, judging. But the main difference between Don and Betty is that she really believes in it all—her perfect-looking family, her suburban life, the overarching values of the world in which she lives—and the way she slowly breaks down as she watches everything get pulled apart, degraded, and even destroyed is what hints at the existence of some sort of living, beating heart at the core of the show. And then, in the moments when Betty snaps, like at the end of the first season, when she shoots her neighbor’s homing pigeon or gives themixed-up 9-year-old son of the neighborhood divorcée a lock of her hair, or during thesecond season, when she accuses Don of having an affair and wanders around the house in a cocktail dress for two days, or when she’s told by a man at a riding club to whom she’s attracted that she looks sad and responds, `My people are Nordic.' . . . Well, those are the reasons to watch Mad Men."

---Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard's seventh impressive conversation, this time about Michael Mann.

---Tony Dayoub of Cinema Viewfinder will host a Brian De Palma Blog-A-Thon on September 7-16. De Palma's ouevre includes Carlito's Way, Casualties of War, Body Double, and The Untouchables.

---T.S. of Screen Savour takes on the films of Buster Keaton:

"Keaton — born Joseph Francis, he earned the nickname `Buster' performing as a young man with his vaudevillian family, known for being able to `take a buster' in the way he could fall — plays this expectations game in his comedy. In the best of Keaton's films, things rarely turn out the way we expect they will. It is not simply that he will fall, flee, or fly, but it is what awaits him at the end of that momentarily airborne journey. This works because Keaton's is also a comedy of space, of expertly constructing and implementing set-pieces down to the millimeter so that everything goes according to plan. That plan, of course, is for everything not to go according to plan for the character on screen. When Keaton jumps from one building to another, for example, there is a good chance that Keaton-the-character has drastically underestimated the distance and fails in a gloriously funny fashion; Keaton-the-director, who performed all of his stunts, knows exactly the degree to which he will fail and has it worked out perfectly. In an important way this is different from standard slapstick. David Thomson notes that most silent comedies `did little more than film the comedian's act,' which usually included some sort of slapstick or physical humor; but Keaton's films are elaborate works of art built with the camera in mind — in other words, films, not mere performances. Chaplin, who also made films and avoided simply performing an act, often fell as well, but in a way that tried to defy gravity. Keaton fell in a way that worked with gravity; his world is occupied with physical objects that have real weight and often real consequences."

---The importance of buying food.

---Andrew Sullivan celebrates Hypernova, Iranian indie-rock.

---The perils of fame: Trent Reznor explains why he had to get off of Twitter.

---Daniel Getahun considers the blogging aspects of Julie & Julia.

---Lastly, for The New York Times, Michael Pollan meditates on our curious culinary habits in relation to Julie & Julia:

"But here’s what I don’t get: How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves? For the rise of Julia Child as a figure of cultural consequence — along with Alice Waters and Mario Batali and Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse and whoever is crowned the next Food Network star — has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking."


Jason Bellamy said…
Good stuff. On spoilers, I know I've argued this before (I might have even created a blog post around it, can't remember), but I do have some problems with Rosenbaum's take, which is echoed by many critics. He writes:

"The whole concept of spoilers invariably privileges plot over style and form ... It also privileges fiction over nonfiction."

and then later ...

"One thing that drives me around the bend about spoilers is that it’s impossible to function as a critic if one can’t describe anything in a movie or a book in advance. So if I’m expected to write a review of something, am I also expected not to analyze it?"

Those are good arguments to a degree, but ...

Rosenbaum ignores that his Critics Shouldn't Bother With Spoilers argument "privileges," to use his term, critics over the common movie fan. In other words, critics, privy to advanced screenings, get the option of seeing a movie untarnished by expectation. They get to be surprised. The average movie fan doesn't have that option under Rosenbaum's rule.

Now the obvious comeback is: If people want to go in with fresh eyes, why read a review beforehand? I agree. I don't (except in the instances when I plan to skip a movie and then reviews talk me into seeing it). Heck, I shut my eyes during trailers, lest I know all the shots by heart before the movie ever reaches theaters.

If the argument is that all movie writing should be "criticism" and not "reviews," I agree with that too. Of course if critics want that, then they could also ditch the often extensive plot recap that routinely fills up at least a third (often two thirds) of their precious column inches, couldn't they? After all, Rosenbaum is arguing that the plot doesn't matter all that much, right? OK, so don't even talk about it. (An exaggeration, but you know what I mean.)

Meantime, for as long as newspaper editors box critics into writing "reviews" (rather than "analysis") and demand plot synopses with the idea that critics are guiding people to movies and not enhancing their understanding of movies after the fact, well, there's a very simple solution:

Just type "spoiler warning." Seriously. How hard is it to do that? Throw it up front. Let readers know that, yes, secrets will be revealed, so don't bother reading if you don't want to know. By typing those words, readers are given the courtesy to not have things "spoiled" and critics are liberated to reveal however much they want.

Problem solved.
Joel Bocko said…
Rosenbaum has a point about the effect on a critic's writing. It's better to be able to discuss everything. But he's wrong in getting so cranky about spoilers themselves.

To act as if knowing crucial plot points is the same as knowing the director or star is frankly absurd, and he has to know that. And then this:

"The whole concept of spoilers invariably privileges plot over style and form ... It also privileges fiction over nonfiction."

There goes Rosenbaum with his morally loaded language again. Really, he can get incredibly self-righteous; sometimes by his lights liking a certain movie or approaching cinema a certain way is akin to joining the KKK or burning down the rainforest...

Spoiler warnings "privileges" fiction over nonfiction? What, are we supposed to have affirmative action for the latter? I know Godard said that a tracking shot is a moral issue (and I love him for it) but this is taking the idea of formalism = moralism a bit far, methinks...

It seems to me that spoilers matter in certain cases more than others. In the cases where they do matter, it's because the film is designed in such a way that the plot IS the most important element, that a great deal of pleasure DOES come from discovering the plot's twists and turns for yourself. In such cases, it's a no-brainer that audiences will enjoy the film more if they don't have a critic spoil it for them.
Joel Bocko said…
I wrote the last comment before reading the whole piece. I stand by it, but I do have to say Rosenbaum comes off as more reasonable in full context. Which is to say that the object of his frustration is legitimate: the constrictions of concerns about spoilers.

But his either/or formulation is all wrong. There are degrees to everything and it's not as if you have to discuss either everything or nothing about a movie.

In the long run, spoilers will not ruin a movie but they will inevitably siphon off some of the enjoyment. I love Psycho despite I knew everything about its twists and turns going in, but I still wish I could see it with fresh eyes, just to feel that genuine shock. Vertigo, which I knew nothing about going in, DID shock me and I treasure that first viewing more than my Psycho initiation; what's more I prefer the former film. Though there are plenty of other reasons for that, I think the fact that it was such a thrilling mystery plays a part.

There's something to be said for turning yourself over completely to a movie, as a fresh, unpredictable experience. It's not the only way to enjoy art, and it may not even be the best way. But it is unique and exciting and once tarnished it can never be achieved again. And Rosenbaum's rant gives short shrift to that important point.
Jason and Movieman,

Much thanks for your carefully considered comments. I included Rosenbaum's post because I could sympathize with his exasperation. Ideally, the reviewer would like to tie in any thoughts on any aspect of a movie. Often movies gain much of their meaning as they accumulate themes and end in a way that brings them all together, and when one is writing a review, one wants to do whatever one likes, and it crimps one's style to think of the reader who just wants to know if he or she should see the movie. So Rosenbaum speaks to that side of reviewing. I am often surprised when proofreaders of my reviews say "You can't write about that. That's a spoiler." This happened recently with my review of Funny People, so I added in a spoiler alert just as Jason recommended.

On the other hand, I get highly annoyed with friends who blurt out anything about a contemporary release (usually from Rotten Tomatoes) before I get to see a film. It seems like most movies exist under a cloud of critical reactions that can slant one's appreciation of the film. And spoilers play a role in that reduction of any chance for an original response.

So, I found Rosenbaum's ideas to be humorous, and seductive in their way. Thinking of one's audience is such a nuisance. Literary critics and writers who focus on classic movies don't have to worry about such niceties.
Joel Bocko said…
I find Rosenbaum quite frustrating at times but I'm glad he's there. Though sometimes I find his erudition and authority masks an almost obtuse narrowness (as with this and his pot essay) sometimes he's enthrallingly on-target where no one else is...even when I (somewhat) disagree with him. For example, I read part of an essay he wrote dismantling Twin Peaks and while I love that show I think his recognition of the mainstreaming of Lynch's subversion and the apoliticism-veering-right-wing-nature of the filmmaker's brand of surrealism is right on the money (where we more or less part ways is in seeing this as a necessarily bad thing).
I should read more of Rosenbaum's work. Here's a quote from John Simon's On Film: Criticism 1982-2001 that fits in some with this discussion:

"One thing that distinguishes a work of art from mere entertainment is that you can give away its ending without doing damage. It hardly matters whether you know how King Lear comes out: plot is the least important thing about it, and the surprise is only in the magnificence with which the work strikes you anew, every time. So let me give Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors the benefit of the doubt and call it art, which absolves me from discretion concerning its plot (which, indeed, has holes in it)."
Jason Bellamy said…
FilmDr: I like that passage. But, gosh, he could have come up with a better example than King Lear; penned in an era when no one expected suspense. A better example might have been, say, Psycho, which is compelling even if you've seen the shower scene before you get to the movie proper. Of course, I still wish I could have seen Psycho with its ultimate shock value intact. And I bet Hitch wishes I could, too. Just saying.
Joel Bocko said…
Yes, I agree with Jason's second point and disagree with Simon's. SOME works of art, perhaps even CERTAIN KINDS of art work just as well whether or not you know the ending - indeed, perhaps even more so. But right now, I'm reading David Copperfield and am reminded that one of the pleasures of Dickens is discovering his world bit by bit and letting the narrative detours take you where they will.

It would still be a great read if I knew the whole story ahead of time, but some of that joy of discovery would be lost. Granted, it's tricky, because the narrator alludes to the fate of his mother and his little girlfriend in asides - reminding us that even as he tells us the story, he's already experienced it. However, his allusions are ambiguous (I'm very early in the book so no spoilers in response comments please!) and, if anything, create a greater sense of mystery which spoilers would destroy.

And I'm not just talking about plot twists or surprise occurrences, but also about broader changes. I'm appreciate that, reading about David's early childhood I did not know where what unique location he'd be visiting within a few chapters.

To take a movie example: one of the things I love about Sunrise is that (and I'd be remiss and hypocritical not to offer a spoiler warning here, so skip to the next paragraph if you have not seen Murnau's great film) you would never expect a story which starts out with brooding expressionist farmlands and weeping abandoned wives to be showing you a drunken pig in a nightclub an hour in. Or take a Rivette film, where everything about the movie experience is a delightful surprise, going far beyond the conventional twists and turns of fiction. All in all, in many great works, there's mystery on the horizon, which is a wonderful feeling.

So, finally then, I'd say that Simon's statement is too sweeping. A great work of art will not be destroyed by spoilers, but one's experience with it may be diminished.
Jason Bellamy said…
Just to bring us back to my first rant: Though I agree with the idea that art holds up even if you know what's ahead, what irks me about Rosenbaum's 'I will spoil and like it' argument is that critics would get to see art with virgin eyes and the average moviegoer wouldn't.

Of course if newspapers wanted their critics to criticize and not review, movie fans would know never to read a review beforehand if they cared about spoilers. But by that design, papers would be putting out a product that people would have to save and read for another day, which isn't practical.
Joel Bocko said…
While we're on the subject of Rosenbaum, you guys should check out this thread, in which Rosenbaum is discussed & criticized, and then he intercedes to defend a 15-year-old review:

Anyway, it kind of highlights what I find fascinating and frustrating about the critic; his arrogance and confusing standards, yet also the forcefulness with which he express himself and especially the unique, often very refreshing, arguments he makes. I'll take him as he is, thank you very much (though I'll continue to criticize him too).

As for Scorsese's film, I like it more than Rosenbaum but I'm glad the critic strays from the standard line that the film is such a departure for Marty when, in fact, it's far more rapidly-paced and flashy than most period pieces. True, he brings this up in a negative light, but still...
Thanks, Movieman,

I just got around to checking out the Rosenbaum review of The Age of Innocence and the thread. Knowing the film well, I was impressed with Rosenbaum's review, even though I didn't always agree with it, and I found the charge of class prejudice overblown. Scorsese's version of The Age of Innocence has held up better for me than, say, Casino or The Last Temptation of Christ, and I've learned to appreciate his use of detail in regards to the dishes or the paintings in each scene of the movie. Rosenbaum criticizes one food scene for taking on a Gourmet magazine feel, but in Wharton's world everything cultural could be used as a kind of signs and symbols designating New York society's underlying communication of status, inclusion vs. exclusion (of Madame Olenska, for instance), and rebellion or whatever. Whereas Scorsese might have had to skip over elements of the novel, he definitely acknowledges that key semiotics at work in the novel, and that's what makes the book an enduring work of art. Everyone communicated indirectly in that world, and Wharton uses an anthropologist's lens to show how the tribe could bind together behind May to get rid of a threat like Olenska if they wished.

To put Scorsese's film in context, check out Pfeiffer's more recent Cheri, something of Stephen Frear's reply to Innocence, including a very similar ending, but Cheri is a wretched wanna-be movie in comparison. I couldn't bring myself to review it. Everything that is sharp and passionate about Innocence becomes pointless in the context of Collette's rather jaded tale, and Pfeiffer seems wasted. Frears' interests seem elsewhere.
Joel Bocko said…
Compelling response, FilmDr. You've made me want to not only re-view Age of Innocence, but also read the book and perhaps even see the Frears movie.

Mind you, I won't do any of these things (at least not any time soon) but you've made me want to, which is something!
Here's the key quote of the novel The Age of Innocence:

"In reality, they lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs."
Joel Bocko said…
Semiotics here we come...
Joel Bocko said…
(P.S. I actually forgot which thread this was in relation to for a moment, as the quote could apply equally to this:
Joel Bocko said…
(This is what I get for attempting to take time off from blogging - even a few days, no less: looks like you already discovered that particular blog post.)

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