Saturday, April 23, 2011

On Film Criticism and the Ways I Watch Films

When I see a movie, there's a part of me of course that dissects the movie, that criticizes it. But I could never be a film critic because those criticisms are for me, so that I can become a better filmmaker hopefully by understanding what worked and didn't work for other filmmakers. I don't see the point of publishing my criticisms, particularly when the chances of the filmmaker seeing them is zero to none. Why should I criticize if not to be constructive?

When I see a movie, there's a part of me of course that has a gut reaction, that likes or dislikes the films for a variety of reasons that likely aren't technical. They can turn technical quickly, though. Liking the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice because it is so pretty ends up a compliment to the art direction and the fluid cinematography. Finding Twilight hilarious when it isn't supposed to be derides a bad story, bad acting, and so on and so forth.

When I see a movie, I want to enjoy it for whatever reasons. I never go into a movie wanting to hate it. Sometimes I'll go in expecting to not find it a good movie, but that doesn't matter because I still want to be entertained, which is why I've seen all three Twilight films despite holding no love for the franchise - they entertain me even if I don't think they're good.

It does matter to me if I think a movie is good or bad, but it matters equally if I think a movie is entertaining or not. As a movie-goer, I am an expert in neither, but in constant practice of deducing both.

Which one is more important to me? Well, that depends who I am watching that movie. If I am Sarah the Aspiring Filmmaker, it probably matters more to me if the movie is well-made or not. If I am Sarah the Amateur Movie-Lover, I don't really care about any faults of Tron: Legacy because I'm enjoying the ride so much. So I'll miss them, I won't discuss them, and I won't care.

These two sides overlap, of course. There's no helping letting them get in the way of one another, but that's good, because my favorite movies - maybe not the best movies ever made, but my favorite movies - fulfill both sides.

And I will criticize movies that people will roll their eyes about and tell me that it's not a "thinking" movie or that it doesn't deserve analysis or that I should shut up and just enjoy the ride, though honestly I don't do that to the extent several people I know do. To that I say it doesn't matter what the intention of the film was, it's what I take away that matters. If I take away from Tron: Legacy that lightcycles are badass, that's fine. If I take away from The Twilight Saga: Eclipse that Bella faces a common, old choice in fantasy fiction of choosing between the fantasy and the normal world in having to choose between her suitors, that's fine too. It's a selfish cause for me, to criticize films, because it gives me more to understand, helps me become better at my craft.

So what's the point of me rampantly denouncing the Twilight series as atrocious all over the internet? Sure, I do think they are bad movies, but who the hell is it going to help for me to criticize? Sure, some people have to do it as their careers and I don't deride them for that because they tend to be higher-profile, people listen to them (I amongst them) and listen to their advice based on their criticisms of films. That's great, because that can keep me from having a movie-going experience I might have regretted. Or, perhaps, it might keep me from having a movie-going experience that I would've enjoyed just the same, though it's likely hardly a life-ending dilemma if I miss out on Sucker Punch since the reviews came back bad.

It's the role of some to do that. It's not my job. Nobody's paying me, and even if they did, I don't want to. I don't like tearing down people's work for an invisible audience.

It always comes back to Ratatouille for me any time I breach these topics. Anton Ego knows where it's at. Even "bad" art takes effort, takes time, takes skill. Somebody wanted to do this and, likely, someone wanted it to be good. I'm sure there are the cases where it's ALL marketing, but honestly, there is something to this superhero trend - superheroes are interesting, fascinating, and sure, marketable - more than just some fat cat producer-type thinking it'll be a cash cow. That's part of it, but considering the things we see that work in these big budget flicks, even they have parts that stand up and shout "I WANT THIS TO BE GOOD." Everyone's definition of good might be a little different though. Put your cynicism aside, I'm not talking about one of those definitions being "it made money" - the definition I think would be most similar to that is "those explosions were so well-done the audience loved them." And sure, it takes some work to make good explosions, let's not pretend otherwise.

Whether it's a "bad" Hollywood blockbuster or a "bad" independent production, someone wanted to do something they thought would be good/entertaining. And why should we begrudge them that? We don't have to buy the tickets to see the movie if we don't want to, and if your cynicism is right, and in this case I imagine it is, not buying movie tickets will hurt all of these productions more than some scathing reviews. Saying "this is shit" will only go so far. Word-of-mouth is still powerful. For instance, I saw a rather terrible musical production on my college campus recently. What was I going to do to make sure none of my friends suffered the unfortunate fate of wasting their time seeing it? Not writing a nasty review in the school paper - I just told them it wasn't worth their time. Obviously, they'd make up their minds in the end if they were determined to see it, but it was one of those cases where it was so truly bad, I had to tell people it wasn't worth it. But my defense wasn't "well, the art direction was bad and the sound levels were rough and the script was jumbled" even though it was all true. My defense was "it's bad. It's boring. It's not worth it." Simple and still true.

Anyway, I'm going off on about fifteen tangents right now, so I will leave it at this. I think film criticism is, at a professional level, a generally good idea. However, as an aspiring filmmaker, criticism to me is important but a subject that must be handled well. When it comes to criticism, that's where we get into the specifics, complimenting and deriding different aspects. But if you criticize my film and you don't offer any suggestions, why should I listen to you? If you could make it better, then tell me how and I'll take your advice to heart. And if you have a gut reaction, an emotional reaction, a reaction that doesn't fit nicely into a proper critique, that's probably more important to me. I don't care as much if these small factors are good - if you liked my piece, or it made you feel something, that's important to me.

One of my classmates recently said that the best thing she ever heard from our professor was that her piece was doing what she had been trying to get her piece to do.

That's a pretty awesome feeling to know you're doing it right.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Dither, Dather, Teen Lit, Blah, Blah...

on top of being a sucker for dystopian/utopian/post-apocalyptic fiction of all varieties, I think there are several good reasons why I got so addicted to The Hunger Games, I finished all three books in the past two days.


Oh hey there, Battlestar Galactica, that's right, you're all about a mythological thirteenth tribe too. The way the thirteenth tribes are handled is very different, but the set-up is similar. Twelve colonies/districts formed out of the shambles of the past. I guess maybe the First Cylon War might equate the Dark Days? But BSG's history is sort of wonky on me, I can never figure at what exact point the twelve colonies officially band together. Then, shit happens to both the colonies and the districts, which leads me to...


Maybe why I can't like Gale very much is that he reminds me of the role of Marius in some versions of Les Miserables. Funny thing is, I kinda like Marius. But Gale, not quite so much. He's okay. I just feel as if the Peeta/Katniss/Gale love triangle is too contrived. It feels so obvious to me that Katniss and Peeta are perfect for each other and the only thing ruining Katniss realizing this is President Snow being all "CONVINCE ME" and nonsense. But regardless, I love a good rebellion story. Maybe that's why I love Star Wars so much. Beneath the typical story and the well-worn science fiction turf, it IS about a rebellion. Particularly Empire Strikes Back, which I think we can all agree is the bestest.


I can get criticism over Gale, and maybe even over Peeta, though I think both are clear in their characterizations even if I think Gale's just kinda meh in general, but Katniss is obviously a well-crafted and interesting character. In many ways, it's hard not to compare her to Bella Swan, because she is, in many ways, if Bella Swan were a more fully-formed character ... and had a plot independent of romance. And was awesome. Katniss is flawed, fabulous, and interesting. She reminds me more of Harry Potter's best moments, particularly once we're on to the rebellion phases, where she's learning and planning and becoming this leader she didn't know she was, not unlike Harry turning into a leader he didn't know he was with the DA and further.


Well, maybe not Gale. But whereas the only time I can take the Edward/Bella/Jacob love triangle even slightly seriously is when I break it down into ideas, ideas that also apply to the Peeta/Katniss/Gale love triangle, but more effectively probably because everyone in the Hunger Games is more likable. Although, shockingly, depending on my mood, I could argue Jacob's more interesting to me than Gale. God, I'm sorry Gale, I feel like I'm hating on you so hard. But the idea that centers around both is the female protagonist's choices - who she could be, and who she is. Had Katniss not competed in the Hunger Games, she says it herself, she and Gale would've been right. But I knew as soon as Peeta was the only one who could help her nightmares in Catching Fire that Katniss and Gale could never work because she's not that girl anymore. However, in Twilight, it's just literal and dumb and Bella has both worlds and godihatethatseriesitsdumb. Phew. What I mean to say is that ideas or not, the characters in The Hunger Games actually interest me. The major "love triangle" characters as well as pretty much all of the minor characters. Cinna. Rue. Finnick. The way even passing characters become beloved. Darius. Boggs. I have such mixed emotions about most of the characters, but the positive ones tend to win out. And I'm glad they're mixed - instantly loving certain characters makes me wary as to why I love them. Instantly hating characters bores me.


When I asked my friend who'd finished the books recently if I'd be satisfied, she was hesitant. Because as amazing as everything is in and logical as the ending is for His Dark Materials, I can never finish those books with satisfaction. It just rips my goddamn heart, even if it's a fairly happy ending. And I think we can all agree that the ending of the Harry Potter series hardly ties up the loose ends satisfactorily enough. Let's not even get into that Epilogue. Book series frequently leave me with something to be desired in their ends. The Giver trilogy's third book was incredibly weak, IMO. Don't even get me started on how much I can't take The Last Battle (though I'm hardly a Narnia fan at large). The only one I've read that works is Lord of the Rings for obvious reasons, like, Tolkien would never write an unsatisfying ending. I'd rate Mockingjay somewhere between HDM and HP. It's more satisfying than either, but HDM is still generally better IMO. Sorry, Peeta, I may be a little in love with you, but Will Parry is my wallpaper. And I'd rather be Lyra than Katniss, even though I like them both plenty. Anyway, my point is, the books end in a place that works for me, that doesn't rub me the wrong way, though I feel as though surely there could've been more; obviously the last few chapters are a bit rushed. But it's okay.

I could've sworn I had more points relating elements of The Hunger Games to other popular culture things that have fascinated me, but I'm blanking beyond the Harry/Katniss talk and the Thirteen/Twelve Districts/Colonies. Bah, well, I'll just have to make a second installment when it comes back.

so the end point is that I really enjoyed these books.

They were all interesting, all good, fit together well, worked well enough separate (as is not uncommon in trilogies, I find, the first book works better on its own than any of the others), provided me with moments that made me sad, made me laugh, made me roll my eyes (though mostly delightedly... mostly). God now watch the movie be a hot mess. Although, not gonna lie, Josh Hutcherson seems visually perfect for Peeta. Even if I'm like "WTH Miley Cyrus' ex-boyfriend for Gale? Are you trying to make me like him LESS?"

Last note: how on hell is the movie going to get away with a PG13 rating without sacrificing the brutality that makes the books so engrossing?

okay, lengthy ramble over.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Putting on The Red Shoes

Recently, I watched The Red Shoes for the first time. Not because it was recently released, not because anybody told me I had to see it, and not for a class. I watched it in part as a responsibility as a screener for Bard Film Committee but mostly because I was intrigued. I had first heard about The Red Shoes from A Chorus Line, where the girls sing about what inspired their love for ballet. Of course, everyone had seen The Red Shoes.

But I hadn't. And I haven't seen a lot of movies, a constant reminder I need to hash out at people when they assume that, being a film major, I've seen everything, from Raging Bull to Casablanca to The Room (which I also recently finally watched) to whatever random movie you can dream up. I can guarantee, I haven't seen a lot of movies. Just browse People there have seen way more movies than I have.

Back to The Red Shoes. It is a beautiful movie, a movie I would watch again, a movie that is both inherently similar and extremely dissimilar to Black Swan, another ballet movie only the one this generation will think of more often than a 1948 masterpiece like The Red Shoes. You can tell it is older. There are no gross-out moments, the psychology present inspired by the ballet The Red Shoes for our female protagonist is very different from the psychology inspired by the ballet Swan Lake for our female protagonist in Black Swan. The people in their lives are very different.

But I didn't write this blog post to compare and contrast two very different movies that both happen to follow a similar idea of a ballet affecting a ballerina's personal and professional life so strongly.

There is a moment in The Red Shoes that I kept wanting to bring up in my Aesthetics of Gaming class yesterday that stuck with me but I could never find the right moment, particularly because we were discussing something that the medium of film just wouldn't have fit in comfortably with. We were talking about narrative and games, the debate over whether games are narrative or if they merely share elements of narrative because games are so inherently different. We have spoken in the past about game logic and we spoke today about gameplay and about what are the characteristics of games, a question we have been approaching all semester.

In any medium's logic, there are things we would take for granted or that we do not question because of the medium. There are plenty of moments like that in every film. Film is interesting, not unlike most mediums in this way though, because people do expect different things of film logic. Sometimes we expect films to make sense linearly. Sometimes we expect films to test our suspension of disbelief. It doesn't matter whether it makes sense because it is in the film and that is how the film goes along.

The moment in The Red Shoes that stuck with me is not one of those more grand special effects moments come into play, like when the waves crash onto the stage or when the newspaper turns into a person and back into a newspaper again. The moment I am thinking of is when Vicky jumps, literally, into the red shoes on the stage. It is a moment of editing that has been used for a long time and a technique to signal a sudden appearance or disappearance. It is not new, it is not revolutionary, and yet I couldn't help but think "if this were not a film, if this were a real ballet, how would she get the shoes on? Would she sit down, pull off her normal ballet shoes, and put the red ones on? Would she go into the shoemaker's shop and emerge wearing them?" It too a while before it hit me - this isn't a ballet, it has no reason to be a ballet, and the logic that would fit into a ballet or some other form of live theater does not apply to film. This is a problem when people compare film and theater too literally, because the logic is so different. We don't need to see what we see in theater - we can see something much different. Both will make sense in their homes, but if we were to see theater logic in a film or vice versa, what we would see instead would be even odder, I think. If we had seen Vicky sit down and put on the red shoes, I would have thought "oh, well, she's performing a ballet in the film so of course they need to show the ballet logic she would actually be performing." But that would not fit in with the rest of the special effects we see throughout Vicky's performance of The Red Shoes. The film chose to use film logic in a way that we would understand that this is not how a ballet would go, but this is how the film goes.

This made me think, amidst our class discussion yesterday, about the way in which different mediums interact with each other and whether viewers or players are aware of those differences, if we just accept them, or alternatively, if using one medium's logic in another medium's would not be bothersome or noticeable at all. Many elements can cross between different mediums, as our discussion of elements of narrative fitting in with games proves, but there are techniques, there are greater pictures that are specific in their way to their medium, I believe. And it is odd to think about them, and jarring to imagine them cross-pollinating.

In the end, my main point is that I would encourage further observation for moments like that. That, and I think everyone should go see The Red Shoes.