Tuesday, July 1, 2008

How Movies Age (Part II)

The world changes and so does our culture, thus making it inevitable that a lot of movies will just stay stuck in their time period and age poorly, unable to keep up with the changing milieu. The cinematic landscape is always evolving and this is the argument I often use for defending Stanley Kubrick as the greatest director who ever lived. Every single one of his movies not only ageless, they seem to gain in importance and resonance with each passing year.

Even 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut, widely regarded as his weakest film, has picked up steam recently and now it’s actually not considered blasphemous to mention it alongside his other masterpieces. The same can now also be said for 1987’s Full Metal Jacket, previously considered another one of his weaker efforts but recently gaining in acceptance.

It’s hard to determine to what degree aesthetic choices, thematic elements or some other factors influence how a movie ages over time. For example, Roger Ebert thinks 1967’s The Graduate is a dated film. He cites the movie’s themes, not its visual style as an example. In his review he seemed almost insulted that we’re asked to cheer for the main character’s selfish actions throughout the story, chalking it up to the overriding idiocy of the time period in which it was made.

I can kind of see where he’s coming from but for me that just makes the film more goofy and endearing. It dates it, but not in a bad way. I think The Graduate is one of those that have to be looked at as a “time capsule movie,” and as that, it will never let you down no matter how many years pass. Its intentions are too good hearted and it’s executed far too well for time to do any serious damage to it. And there’s also the music, which has helped it considerably.
The surest way to guarantee your movie will age poorly seems to be to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. Maybe No Country For Old Men doesn’t look like such a bad choice to me because of the many terrible Best Picture selections the Academy has made in the past. In their defense, they don’t have a crystal ball telling them how these choices will look down the road but it’s still tough to justify Rocky winning out over Network, Taxi Driver and All The President’s Men, Kramer vs. Kramer beating Apocalypse Now, or Saving Private Ryan losing to Shakespeare in Love.

I’m one of the few who thinks that Rocky has aged terribly, but also would argue it wasn’t really all that good to begin with. I know many who would want to go a few rounds with me in the ring for saying that. It does have its fans. As the years go on I feel less and less sorry that Citizen Kane lost Best Picture because it has since received an honor far greater. Though it’s worth noting it took years for that to happen.

Then there’s the recent intriguing case surrounding 2005’s winner Crash. Like many, when I first saw the film I was blown away. Then about a week later I hardly remembered a single thing about it outside of Sandra Bullock’s supporting performance, and that probably had more to do with it being such a thrilling departure rather than her work actually being brilliant.

Now it’s difficult for me to look back on the film without laughing because it’s essentially a contrived, turgid melodrama with characters being thrown into racially volatile situations by writer/director Paul Haggis. Why couldn’t I see that then? Probably because the excellent (although at times overwrought) performances did a good enough job covering it up. Plus, the more movies I see, the worse (and sometimes the better) the ones I saw before start to look.
In my defense, audiences and the Academy were blinded as well because the other nominee that year, Brokeback Mountain, was being shoved down our throats by the media. You couldn’t turn on a late night talk show without hearing a “Brokeback” joke and it was a foregone conclusion that movie would win the big prize. People were sick of it and no one likes a frontrunner so they rallied behind Crash, a message movie that made everyone feel comfortable. It may have appeared at the time to be a brazen, risky choice to make for Best Picture, but in actuality it was just dumb and spiteful.

Time has revealed Crash to be a heavy-handed TV movie about racism, while Brokeback Mountain wasn’t just a movie about gays, which was what everyone was effectively fooled into believing by the media. All Crash’s victory helped prove is that Academy voters are apparently more comfortable with racism than homosexuality. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone now who thinks the right movie won that year and the recent Heath Ledger tragedy has only added fuel to that fire. Crash looks dated as ever…and it’s only a few years old! That said, I'm not a huge fan of either film and had they decided to not give out a Best Picture Oscar for 2005 you wouldn't have heard any complaints from me. That's how weak a year I thought it was.

Interestingly, I also feel a lot less enthusiastic than I initially did about Million Dollar Baby’s 2004 win, which leads me to believe any film wth Haggis’ name on it just might have the expiration date of milk. So maybe the producers of The Best Picture nominees should sit in the Kodak Theater with their fingers crossed that their movie isn’t announced as the winner because it may end up having a longer shelf life if it loses. That’s good news for There Will Be Blood.

When I compiled my list of the best films of 2007 joked with people that they should wait a year or two then I’ll give them my real choices. Theres' some truth to that though. I actually had an easier time picking my ten favorite films of all-time because those choices had years of mileage behind them and my opinions on them were long established. Even with some of those though, my feelings are constantly evolving as I watch them repeatedly.

A couple of weeks ago the American Film Institute aired a television special celebrating the 10 best films in 10 different genres. Besides failing to acknowledge that “Horror” and “Musicals” are indeed genres, their perception of what constitutes one is pretty warped. To give you an idea where their minds are at, before the show I downloaded their ballot and discovered Legally Blonde was one of the nominees for the “Courtroom Drama” genre (what?)

These lists were done only so the AFI could flaunt the choices they already made when they named the 100 best films last year and throw some newer viewers a bone by including just a couple of recent choices. Everyone knows very few movies from the past twenty years stand a chance with them. I will give them credit for doing a great job in the “Science Fiction” category though and at least all their lists featured films of quality and merit.

That’s more than I can say for Entertainment Weekly’s embarrassing list of 100 “New Classics” in movies (Titanic at #3?) over the past 25 years. I know a list like this is completely subjective but it would have been nice if they didn’t just simply rank the films by counting their box office grosses and the number of gold statues they won. I can’t argue with their number one choice (Pulp Fiction) on merit, but I can argue they only put it in that spot because it was popular. The rest of their lists prove it.
They also ranked television shows (The X-Files at #4?) and albums (Green Day’s American Idiot at #6?). The magazine insists these lists were meant to spark debate but it doesn’t because no one would disagree that most of their selections are awful. It instead encourages eye rolling and disbelief at their views of what entertainment has aged well and I’m not just saying that because I don’t agree with many of the choices. I like to think everyone ignores lists like this but part of me believes we do pay attention to them and the media subconsciously effects how we perceive certain films are aging. After all, I like reading lists as much as everyone else, no matter how inaccurate I think they may be.

If we look at the movies we must also consider the actors’ future legacies that will inevitably be tied to them. Who will be the next Grant, Bogart or Stewart? Their choices determine their place in film history. Icons like Redford, Newman, Pacino and DeNiro have already secured their legacies, even if the latter two have recently put them in serious jeopardy by becoming parodies of themselves.

Everyone keeps heralding George Clooney as "The Last Great Movie Star” but his only important cinematic contribution came just last year with Michael Clayton. Most everything else he’s done has ranged from good to very good, or in some cases, just plain garbage. None of those categories qualify an actor for legendary status.Can you really picture anyone watching Ocean’s 11, Syriana or Confessions of a Dangerous Mind 20 years from now? More movies like Michael Clayton and he may get there, but it’s a long shot.

The best bet is, shockingly, Tom Cruise, the only actor who seems to know he's running a marathon not a sprint. I predict years from now no one will remember the couch jumping, Katie Holmes or the Scientology but rather that he gave memorable, criminally underrated performances in a wide variety of different roles under many brilliant directors.

They’ll remember Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July, Jerry Maguire, Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia. If you go back to the very beginning even his fluffy rookie movies like Top Gun, Cocktail and Risky Business were iconic roles. One hand washes the other since his presence in those films have caused them to age considerably better than they otherwise would have. I won’t say he hasn’t stepped wrong a few times but even those missteps served a purpose.

His latest film, Lions For Lambs may have flopped, but his performance was one of the best parts of it and he got a rub by starring alongside acting legends Redford and Streep. The guy isn’t stupid. As much as it pains me to admit it, he’s maybe the only actor who’s done everything and has done it exceptionally well in a wide variety of genres. He may or may not be off his rocker but when it comes to his career he doesn’t mess around. His upcoming role as a one-eyed Nazi in Valkyrie is generating bad buzz and even some giggles but if anyone through just sheer determination can make it work he can. History has proven it. He definitely isn’t the most talented but he may end up being remembered the best.
Lately, Brad Pitt seems to have taken a page out of Cruise’s book and has been going in a similar direction. This could be because actors like Cruise and Pitt are so well known as movie stars they have to work that much harder to gain ground with their film choices. They’ve done a good job picking up the slack. This year Pitt may have been robbed of a Best actor nod for The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford but if this winter’s The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button is as good as its trailer suggests that oversight could be rectified, further benefiting his legacy. Of the newer generation of actors, Christian Bale is already starting to rack up enough great performances in wildly different and challenging roles to begin to compete with them.

As for the actresses, the field is narrower but that’s because for whatever discriminatory reason they’re given far fewer opportunities to carry movies than their male counterparts. If I had to pick I’d say Meryl Streep’s place in history is all but a lock and Cate Blanchett is one of the safest bets around. I think there's an overlooked actress who will eventually be remembered best of all when the final score is tallied but I’m saving that controversial theory for another date and place. How these actors are viewed will undoubtedly heavily influence how their films age over time.

So how will the movies of today be judged 25, 50 or 100 years from now? There’s no way to tell but we can speculate. My gut tells me that as far as directors go David Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson are the only two are currently making films that seem to be gaining ground quickly. Too few years have passed to accurately determine how much but they’re getting there and both are relatively young and should have their best work ahead of them. A scary thought. Wes Anderson and the Coen Brothers’ work also seems to be holding up very well also. But really, who knows? Ask me in a week or two about this and it’s possible I’ll have to take it all back. All of this is full of subjectivity and speculation... but that's what makes it so much fun.


JD said...

Kubrick is one of the greats. I knew I adored you for a reason.
Full Metal Jacket is a classic in my book-- I know I hate that word.

I agree with you about the whole AFI list crap and the EW list-- we devoted a show to that and those lists just make me gag a lot.
I like where you are coming from with a great deal of this. I don't mind dated films at all.
I do think Pitt has been doing daring work since Twelve Monkeys, even if he took some missteps after that. Cruise is the only good thing about Lions For Lambs. I think his best role is Collateral and than Magnolia. Playing against type can do wonders for you.

Clooney-- Out Of Sight and Three Kings I would have to add to his resume of great roles and Syrianna may hold up better than you think.

About 2005-- It was a great year, but you would not know it from the best picture nominees. It was a great summer for films and a great fall as far as I was concerned.
There just seemed to be a lot of goodness that year. I thought 2007 was damn good too.

The most important films, books, albums, paintings are the ones that hold up to us. The ones that mean something to us every time we interact with them.

There is nothing as dishonest as calling something a classic or liking something you really don't in the first place. Great essay!!

jeremythecritic said...

Full Metal Jacket has really grown on me over time. All of Kubrick's films seem to grow on me over time and I loved them all to begin with.

The EW list in particular was a huge joke. What's worse is I thought they actually did a better job with the film list than the music and TV ones. Those were actually worse, if that's even possible.

I think Cruise and Pitt's work will hold up really well over time. I need to watch Syrianna again. I couldn't get into it the first time.

Yeah they did a terrible job with the nominees for '05. Very uninspired selections. The year was better than those picks indicated I'll say that.

Don't you love that word-"Classic" lol. We all know what we like and don't. Our own lists are most important.

Thanks a lot!

Jon Medina: Illegitimate Son of Lester Bangs said...

Awesome piece, Jeremy. I agree with so much of what you have written here. I will probably be watching Ocean's Eleven 20 years from now, but I'm a weirdo like that. You know how I feel about Cruise, I think. He has been in so many movies that I love. There is no greater testament than that.