Monday, June 30, 2008

How Movies Age

The other day I woke up to a startling realization: I was considerably less annoyed that No Country For Old Men won the Best Picture Oscar than I was just a couple of months ago. Of course, such a statement would lead someone to make a number of incorrect assumptions. Those would be:

1. That I originally hated No Country For Old Men (I actually gave it three and a half stars and it made my runners-up list for the best films of 2007)

2. That I’m admitting I was somehow “wrong” about the film (there’s no such thing as being “right” or “wrong” about a movie. It’s a subjective opinion).

3. That I’m “giving in” to popular opinion on the film and letting it influence my opinion.

I suppose it’s a testament to just how well that movie was received critically that my mostly positive, almost four-star review of it could be misconstrued as being negative. I was having a conversation with a friend a little over a month ago about the film and they happened to be among the many who thought it was hands down the best of the year. Despite our mutual respect for one another’s opinions on film and other matters, I braced myself for a little squabble.

He knew I liked the film but was also one of those viewers who felt “cheated” and let down by the ending. Much to my surprise, he said he could see where I was coming from and rather than argue he just asked me to read this Chicago Sun Times letter to the editor. He said it was from a guy writing how the film basically changed his outlook on not just how he views, but life in general. I thought, “What a load of crap, the guy who wrote it is probably some old man” But I checked it out anyway.
I figured the author would have some heavy lifting to do in explaining how this well-made but mostly sterile and emotionally empty exercise touched him in any meaningful way. When I was done reading what was not only a beautifully written piece, but a passionate cinematic deconstruction of a film that clearly meant a lot to this man I was left pretty much speechless. Whether or not every piece of his analysis of the picture was exactly on point was irrelevant. Only the Coen Brothers could answer that, and judging from their Oscar acceptance speech, you probably wouldn’t get a lot out of them.

I was just impressed the film could even be analyzed so deeply because I never saw that much there. The letter just couldn’t leave my mind so I decided to give the film another watch, which would be my third. I have to say it was by far the best viewing which isn’t a huge surprise since the second was just really to prove to myself I was right in thinking it was overrated.

I still think There Will Be Blood is better and more deserving of the Best Picture Oscar but the gap isn’t nearly as wide now than it was a couple of months ago. If I were to review No Country For Old Men again now I wouldn’t go as hard on it for the ending. I still say it’s overrated and didn’t move me enough emotionally, but I can now at least understand why many would disagree. I definitely don’t expect any kind of pat on the back for revisiting or re-evaluating my opinion of a film but sometimes I think it sure would be nice to not be ridiculed for it.

You’d be shocked how many people are insulted if my opinion of a film evolves in any way over time for whatever reason. I’m willing to see any movie (even one I didn’t particularly care for) twice or more if it means there’s even the slightest chance I’ll take anything out of it I didn’t get the viewing before. So is my opinion “influenced?” I damn sure hope it is. When my mind closes and I’m not willing to hear alternate viewpoints on a film or consider new possibilities when I re-watch them then I may as well hang it up.
My recent re-evaluation of that film got me thinking about a much larger, directly related issue that’s been on my mind a lot lately: How movies age. As months and years go by perceptions of certain films tend to change and evolve and it can happen due to any number of factors. In my case, with the nauseating Oscar hype behind me, I was able to step back and consider a new viewpoint on the film and go in with a more level head. Now more than ever in this DVD age, multiple viewings play a huge role in our perceptions of films over time. No Country For Old Men is a meager example since it was released only last year but that my opinion of it is significantly higher now than it was months ago probably bodes well for its long-term future (at least in my eyes). Still, it’s too early.

When I reviewed There Will Be Blood I remarked that it’s more than likely to show up on the next American Film Institute List of the 100 Greatest Films. But I could be completely wrong. In a couple of years everyone could be going around referring to it as “that milkshake movie starring that guy with the funny voice.” I know, highly unlikely, but stranger things have happened. I always used to think all-time lists like theirs and those of Sight & Sound Magazine (both of which are updated every 10 years) showed a clear bias toward much older titles. They do, but part of me can’t blame them since it seems a lot of time and distance is required to properly judge a film’s place in history. But sorry, I still say it’s kind of ridiculous to claim that no film since 1941 has been better than Citizen Kane.

Whenever I assign a film with a star rating I’m doing it with a pencil since the very notion of star ratings is ridiculous in itself. It’s just a false attempt to hand out quantitative verdicts to something that’s anything but objective or quantitative. I try my best not to adjust a rating after I’ve given it because that just gives the whole system more credence than it deserves but it has happened on a few occasions. With most of my reviews there’s no need to look back but if there is a change in my opinion I’d far prefer to review the film again or express it in pieces like this rather than just adding or subtracting a star.

Lately, I’ve found myself in the strange position of defending 2006’s Miami Vice. I say strange because I bashed it very hard in my review but now when I talk with people about it I have problems naming anything I didn’t like. I've even caught myself calling it the "most beautifully shot movie of 2006" and complaining that Gong Li was overlooked for a Best Supporting Actress nomination. All this for a film I gave 2 stars to. Stuff like this doesn't happen often with me but it does happen. Maybe the proliferation of far worse big screen TV show adaptations has softened my stance or it could be it’s just one of those movies that needs to linger in the mind for a while (highly unusual for an action film).
Looking back I can now respect that Michael Mann didn’t treat the material as a joke and was serious about putting a real cinematic spin on the elements from his show. Did it all work? Of course not, but at least the project had artistic ambitions of some sort. Even if you think he failed, he at least did so with dignity, making the right creative decisions. It isn’t The Dukes of Hazzard or Bewitched. I’ve yet to re-watch it but it sure feels like I have because the movie's been playing in a continuous loop in my mind since. There's little doubt that when I do eventually re-watch it it'll look a whole lot better to me than it did the first time.

In the midst of all the internet controversy surrounding M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening I read many critics and viewers reminiscing about better days in the writer/director’s career and all the potential that’s been wasted. They were reminded of the one time he was able to deliver a true masterpiece bursting with originality and creative energy. Except they weren't talking about The Sixth Sense. They were referring to Unbreakable, Shyamalan’s 2000 follow-up that flopped at the box office.

To say the film’s reception was lukewarm when it was released would be a massive understatement. Now it’s looked at as one our most original comic book movies and everyone’s begging for a sequel. So before Shyamalan goes back to Philly and hangs his head he can at least console himself with the fact that time has reversed Unbreakable’s failure and now it’s as respected as he’d hoped. I always thought I was the only person alive who liked the film so it's great to see it has so many fans.

This happens a lot with “cult classics,” which critics in general have always been awful at predicting. Of course they would be because the movies aren’t made for them. In this case critics really need serious from audiences because movie fans see something in those films that they can’t. Critics can sometimes get too close and become too caught up in objectively analyzing their script, direction and performances.
The cult classics slip through a little space in between those elements and connect with their intended audience in a special way. 90’s era cult teen films like Empire Records and Can’t Hardly Wait are good examples of this. Neither boast great performances or a brilliant script and flopped in every way when they first came out. But the critics couldn’t see what a relatively small segment of the moviegoing population could and what a few extra years would reveal: That both films nailed that time period and age group down perfectly.

Anyone that age or who grew during that period could relate to the characters and each were made with so much heart and sincerity that you couldn’t help but feel an attachment. It probably helped the nostalgia factor that some of the actors from those films went on to become big stars. The same can be said for the similarly themed teen comedies, Fast Times At Ridgemont High and 10 Things I Hate About You, both of which later gained a sizable cult following.

When you consider the number of movies released every year from all the studios the cult classic club is actually very small and exclusive. I know if I were a filmmaker and my picture won an Academy Award I’d be incredibly honored, but if I ever made a movie that became a cult classic you'd probably have to scrape me off the floor.

To have your movie acknowledged in critical circles is nice but there's something really special about knowing you skipped that step and headed straight to the average moviegoer's soul. It’s one thing to win an Oscar, but it’s another to have fans throwing conventions for your film once a year. There’s a reason you don’t see lines stretching for blocks with people dressed as Gandhi or Forrest Gump. They’re dressed as The Dude. Some movies are made for critics and others are made for fans. Really special ones are made for both.


JD said...

I really love how you are honest to go back and re-evaluate your opinions.
I always thought you wrote a fair and balanced review of No Country For Old Men, but as much as I like that film, I love THere Will Be Blood much better and really could care less if AFI puts it on their best films list because that really means nothing to me.

I too like Michael Mann's Miami Vice-- it grows on me. It did not blow me away in the theater, but the more I think about, the more I like it. And Gong Li-- come on-- there is no one like her!!

Yet, the cult classics are the ones I keep going back to-- Repo Man, Strange Brew, Straight To Hell, Stranger Than Paradise, Walker-- yeah, more Alex Cox than anything else.
Excellent essay, my friend.

JD said...

This was a brilliant essay.

I hate the star ratings or giving any sort of grade to a film.
I don't roll like that.