12.26.2012

TOP 100 : THE CURRENT LIST AND MAGNOLIA REVIEW

"A naked fact startles a meeting of a scientific society - and whatver it has for loins is soon diapered with conventional explanations." 
                                                                -Charles Fort

   The immaculate silliness of these "internet blogs" is perhaps best personified by the indulgence of reviewing a movie that came out over a decade ago and that everyone has already seen.
   Not that I'm at all self-conscious -- pffffft! Instead, I say this as perhaps a promise that this cannot be "one of those things." This, please, cannot be that.
   Anyone involved in media - either professionally or identified as such socially - contracts a lot of scrutiny regarding their favorite movie. I've certainly never been any exception; even before my Top 100 video. I was the kid who kept a list of every movie he saw. Then in college, surrounded by highly opinionated students and professors, all with their own ideas of right and wrong, good and bad. And whatever movie you "chose" as your favorite defined you within some circles. Not that personality traits are assigned to each movie, but you knew: you knew the Clockwork Orange kid, the Blue Velvet kid, the Princess Bride kid. But that's the thing -- you don't choose it as much as it chooses you, and if you can articulate exactly what it is that you like about it, then you've learned something about yourself: you like Taxi Driver because you identify with Travis. You like Citizen Kane because you respect the AFI. You like Dirty Dancing because you want Johnny to teach you to dance, while simultaneously falling in love with you and keeping you out of corners. The same way there's no right or wrong movie to love, there's really no right or wrong reason.
   One of the first thing Jess ever asked me was, "Why is Magnolia your favorite movie?" And I answered in the same "piss-off" way I answered that question to anyone I hardly knew, whch was probably something like "I dunno. Just is. Piss off." The fact is, while that answer was always rooted in the laziness and indifference of not wanting to dig any deeper, it actually doesn't go much deeper than that. I wrote a straight- forward review of it in high school, which consisted mostly of plot synopsis and thematic analysis, and I wrote a comparative essay in college disecting the parallels between Magnolia and Short Cuts. Neither were really subjective in nature -- a problem I've always found in most art criticism. The fact is, it's easier to describe a film; generally, it allows a more verbose approach/a higher word count. Hopefully, I'm not guilty of that here, but I've never been able to describe my feelings for this film without telling the whole story.
   So rarely am I surprised by a film. My expectations are always even, and generally I see exactly what I expected, or I'm just disappointed. Every once in a while, though, I'm legitimately taken for a ride: whether it's the presentation, plot twists, or overall tone, I'm a sucker for originality. Pulp Fiction was a surprise. About Schmidt was a surprise. Bubble was a surprise, But not before or since have I been blindsided the way I was by Boogie Nights. The ideas of a sexy, tongue-in-cheek period piece was intriguing to me as a horny 15 year old movie buff, but I wasn't expecting exciting, intelligent, life-changing. I immediately sought out Hard Eight, which admittedly was a step backward, yet thereby whetting the lust for what the future could hold. And like the handful of movies that surprised me, there have only been a handful of movies that I've been excited for: Batman Returns, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Speed, Eyes Wide Shut, Traffic, Blow -- just to name a few. Some of them actually met my expectations, some of them fell just short, some of them were grave disappointments. Only one ever exceeded my hopes, and miraculously, it's when my hopes were highest.
   For months I'd heard the director of Boogie Nights was gonna have a new movie (a phrase we hear about twice a decade now.) This was before I'd had internet access - or really even knew what internet was. My outlets for movie news were Entertainment Weekly and trailers at the theater, and in the approximately 30 to 40 theater visits in the latter half of '99, I didn't see a single preview for it. Then on Thanksgiving of that year, later in the evening at my grandparents apartment, one of the younger kids popped The Spy Who Shagged Me into the VCR. The sound was all the way down, and there were multiple loud conversations going on within every room. I didn't take notice right away, but I just happened to look over at the TV to see Tom Cruise, framed in Cinemascope, speaking into the lens. I'd known he was in it, and in that millisecond, it just looked and felt right, and I wondered if this could be it. And as soon the whip cuts kicked in and I saw Phil Hoffman and Philip Baker Hall and Bill Macy and on and on, I knew this was my first taste of the new movie. I immediately leapt across the room and hit "eject." I brought the tape into the bedroom alone to watch the trailer properly, with the sound up. And as I sat upon a pile of my relatives coats, I fell victim to my own hype; I got caught up in the excitement that I alone created for myself. This wasn't like, say, Phantom Menace, where I could share the anticipation with others, or feed off the delirium of the world around me. It was personal; entirely subjective. It was the teaser trailer, which I think is just under 60 seconds, so it worked like a bullet: small, fast, and left my brains on the wall.
   Once I'd accomplished seeing the trailer, the next challenge was to actually see the movie. Not at all surprisingly, the first few painful weeks were in "limited release/select city" limbo. At that point, it was already 2000 and it was popping up on various "Best of 1999" lists. It was about the third or fourth week in when some theater I'd never been to a few towns away picked it up. It was a Hoyts Cinema Multiplex, something I'd never been to before or since. They had a giant screen and great sound; I've actually always preferred the sterile, multiplex palaces over the quaint, rundown movie houses -- if for no better reason than the quality of the presentation of the film is generally flawless. And it was. And it was good.
    It was a first showing matinee on a cold, gray Saturday in January. I left the theater dazed - punch-drunk, if you will, but that didn't mean much -- I used to leave most movies feeling that way (especially the ones I was psyched for). It was Independence Day that taught me how to kinda stand back from a highly anticipated movie and determine how I really felt about it, seperated from the initial excitement of just seeing it for the first time. So once I got home, I boldly but cautiously retyped my Top 100 (I used a typewriter in those days) to include Magnolia  at #32. Up until then, I'd always declared that I had no "favorite movie." Every iteration of the list always carried the parenthetical disclaimer: "Not in any particular oder." That was to say, I enjoyed all 100 films equally -- if ever pressed on the subject, I could knock off a Top 10 or a Top 5, but I'd consciously decided to never choose a numero uno. Maybe I really couldn't; after all, there was (and still is) at least one overwhelming flaw in any givem movie - no film is perfect: technically, or subjectively. But as I would eventually learn, that fact didn't matter -- at least, not entirely.

   Within a week or two, it started playing at a much more local theater. This allowed me to see it five more times (twice in a single day on one occasion) for a total of six theater viewings before video release. Quentin talks about how he used to view movies: the first time is just to kinda see what it's about, get the plot crap outta the way. The second time is to really see how they did it. I like that, it's been true in a lotta cases, at least for me. But in the case of Magnolia, where there really isn't much plot to "figure out," the setup is more like: see how it's made the first time, then take as many opportunities as possible to enjoy it (I skipped school on at least one occasion to get another viewing in). Starting with the second visit, I would sit in the very front row - something I've never really done (intentionally) before or since, and something that doesn't necessarily work for every movie - and I'll get more into that whenever I get around to actually reviewing this fucking thing.

   I recently read somewhere how, when Ben Affleck was a kid, he'd walk out of a movie thinking of all the ways he could make it better. I can relate to that - I'm sure a lot of us can. And while, like I said, every movie has its problems, there's a handful that I wouldn't do any differently, flaws and all. And while I was watching it the first time, it was clear that Magnolia would be one of those movies. But then there was this moment - an edit, late in the final act, that took me by surprise. Not like a Crying Game, Sixth Sense, Keyser Soze kind surprise - it was a better kinda surprise. It's the shot from inside the safe at Solomon and Solomon electronics when Bill Macy is robbing the store. He pulls out stacks of money and a fistfull of some obscured objects. Then, when he's finished, he begins to close the safe, but before the safe door actually connects, we cut away - cut back to Phil and Tom Cruise at the house. And I was left thinking, "What a waste of a logical transition." How could they not have followed through? From inside the safe, closing the door would've left us in darkness and the sound would cleverly carry over into the next scene - that's what I would've done. And I would've been wrong. Tom's scene plays out, then we cut back to the safe - back to the precise cut - and the action is completed. It's not so much that the moment is interrupted and then revisited - a lot of movies do that (this one especially). It's that the shot is picked back up only ten or twelve frames before the next cut. I let out an audible giggle, almost kind of a gasp. It startled me in a multitude of ways. Quite plainly, it was a move I'd never seen before. Also, it was pretty late in a long movie full of grand gestures and ambitious setups to pull out new tricks. But above all, it best illustrates and fulfills my feelings regarding surprise and expectation. So rarely do I expect greatness or perfection - not just from an overall movie, but to exceed that - well, it pretty much never happens. Not to say this brief moment is the reason I like the film, but it's certainly one of the most tangible instance. When taking about 2001, Woody Allen said something along the lines of, "It was the first time I realized that the artist was ahead of me." The saying goes, "You don't know what you got til it's gone. Without fear of being intangible, I'll say, you don't know what you want til you get it.

   I read every review available to me: every local newspaper and newscast, every national and international magazine, and eventually with the advantage of internet, every other American States' newspaper, cinematic dissections by college professors, interviews with everyone from P.T. to Patton Oswalt. Collectively, it accumulated what I consider to be one the more irritating and damaging phrases in art criticism: "mixed reviews." Without over-analyzing that inane concept, the idea of it is at the root of evils like Rotton Tomatoes: a juggernaut that destroyed film criticism, and maybe even negatively affecting the medium itself. I never, ever read reviews of movies I haven't seen; I don't want amateur sketches of paintings before I go to the museum. I do, however, enjoy reading reviews of movies I have seen - especially ones I like. Sometimes I learn something, or someone caught a moment that I missed. Sometimes it's a conflicting view, which is just as fun, and usually strengthens my own views, because it forces a more tempered articulation and argument, even if only in my own mind. Strange, though - while I never agreed with negative views of Magnolia, I never really agreed with the positive ones either. And maybe that's just it - I can't expect someone else to explain why I like it. No one can, with any movie. But, those negative and positive reviews are a great jumping off point to help explain what it is that I like about it.

   Never, ever have I read so much criticism regarding a film's running time. Every review, good or bad, mentioned it at least once, and always in irritatingly "clever" ways - stuff like "Anderson refuses to write second drafts," or, the dumbest one was something like, "Maybe it could have been shorter without a 60 second shot of Tom Cruise walking down a hallway." I'd always said, some movies should be 5 minues long, and some should be 18 hours long - why there's any kinda limit is incomprehensible to me. Someone who criticizes a movie for being 3 hours long is either inept in articulating what it is they actually dislike about the film, or they just hate the idea of cinema as a whole. If I'm enjoying a movie, I don't ever want it to end. So, throw that one out.

   The second most scrutinzed element of the movie was, absurdly, its genre. The words and phrases that stand out: "weepy, over-the-top, self indulgent, pretentious, melodramtic." To me, this is calling The Exorcist a bad film for being "too scary," or Caddyshack was simply "too funny." They're are not criticisms, but mere observations that lack subjective substance. Magnolia is melodrama - a genre that is a bit dated, but still viable. Ironically, the first person in line to disagree with me on this would be Paul Thomas Anderson, who, having spent the years leading up to the inception of this movie, was surrounded by cancer and death, and believed he was presenting nothing more than hyper-realism. I, the objective viewer, like anyone else, was not involved in the creative process, and I viewed it as a movie like any other. My point is, apparently, "melodrama" is a curse word; a negative review. The positive reviews - because they were positive - used words like "operatic" and "epic." Again, mere observations. Another thing Quentin once said, "Heavy Metal albums are for Heavy Metal fans." Not everything is for everyone, and not everyone likes operas or melodramas. Also, the "pretentious" thing - I defy anyone to cite any example of great art in any medium that could not be construed as pretentious. So, throw that one out.

   It's important to point out that I care very little as to how people like or dislike this movie, or any movie - that's far from the point of this. But I do find it appropriate to call attention to these, what I consider to be, flimsy points of conflict. Thus and so, the third and flimsiest observation I'm aware of was and is in reference to the film's climax. Love it, hate it, or indifferent towards it, I care not to discredit opinions. Nor am I prepared to address the varying "interpretations" people put upon it. On one end of the negative spectrum, it was brushed off as ambiguous, a deus ex machina culminated from a directionless, 3-hour weep-fest. On the other negative end, it was thought of as stupid, or overly pointed - a clumsy analogy. Those who liked it was because of that very analogy (especially various religous groups who championed the entire film as a modern parable). In any case, from anything I've read or heard directly from people's mouths, the initial reaction was always to disect the "point" of the frog sequence. I found this reaction to be maddening - especially at age 16 - because I felt as though I was taking a less cerebral approach. The similtude would be like walking out of Star Wars, and the only thing anyone could talk about was the symbolism of the Death Star blowing up. It was maddening because I was perhaps yet unable to recognize exactly what it was I wanted out of a movie, or why I even liked them in the first place. It wasn't that I couldn't "figure out" the "point" of the ending - I just wasn't consumed by "meaning" like everyone else. I thought it was a cool and clever kinda sci-fi thing to happen in a human drama story. I was startled and exhilerated by the volume and the execution of the visual effects. Put simply, I liked the way it looked and sounded -- that goes for the whole movie, or any movie I like. It's not a less cerebral approach, it's a less literary. Much like the one abstraction that was Cinema in the silent era, and the way I'm hoping it'll become again. It matters little to me what it's "about," as opposed to what it really just is. I'm sure I use this example quite often: I have no interest in Muhammad Ali, Howard Hughes, or oil prospecting in the early 20th century, yet if done to my liking, I can can become engrossed. Much in the same way that there are subjects I do find interesting, like Pearl Harbor, Studio 54, or the Son of Sam murders -- perfect examples of how great subject matter can't save a movie. And yet, in perfect contrast, a feature film depicting Laura Dern walking down dark hallways with her mouth hanging open looking frightened for 3 hours never struck me as interesting subject matter. And yet...

   Jess and I attended a screening of Magnolia a couple months ago at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, MA. It was the first time I'd seen it in at least five years, and the first I've seen it in the theater in over a decade. I can't say it was fresh - I know it like a song. I consciously tried to take a more analytical approach in viewing, maybe with the hopes of writing a concise, liner review of the movie. And to reiterate all that I've just written, that's clearly a boring approach, or it's flat-out wrong. I didn't notice anything new - the only thing that was mildly different was me. I'm older and wiser and blah blah blah, but more than that, I've seen a lotta movies since January, 2000, and I haven't seen any new movies (or old ones) that can take its place atop my list. When I was 16, I liked it because it had everything the 16-year-old me wanted in a movie: fast, fluid dollies, slow push-ins, whip cuts, extreme close-ups with shallow focus, slow film speed, 2:35. Actually, all the same stuff I still like, in addition to introducing me to more abstract elements I previously hadn't been aware of, like story structure. Pulp Fiction got a lot of attention (and ostracism) for its non-linear structure. But that gimmick is easily identifiable, while Magnolia, though perhaps the most linear movie ever made, had a much less conspicuous device, which may be why people bitch about the length. Through editing, score, and heavy-handed performances, the movie builds and builds and crescendos into nothing; the game show ends, and the movie stops and starts to build again. Anderson equated the structure to "A Day in the Life," which, when you have that in mind, seems obvious and logical as you watch it. He also said that, apart from Aimee Mann's stuff, he'd been listening to the White Album quite a bit. I never really identified any artistic correlation, but it excited me that there was a tangible link between my favorite movie and my favorite album. Then, when I saw it again recently, I was able to recognize the potential link a little bit. Apart from being grandiose in scope (and running time), it's epic in ideas. Even though every moment is packaged within the same presentation, it's all over the place, while maintaining an evident and uniformed composition. It's the movie to end all movies, the end of a century of filmmaking and a new millenium. Or, on a smaller scale, perhaps a turning point in a singular filmmaker's career. It's made by someone who enjoys making movies, but possibly a bit confined to the traditional limitations of storytelling. There are even several instances throughout the film that explicitly state that there are ideas and feelings and situations that don't function the way a movie is supposed to, simply because they're not believable. And it seems with every subsequent film, he embraces that notion more and more; he uses storylines and conflict and multidimensional characters as an excuse to shoot film. The way I see it, post-Magnolia has been a transitional phase for P.T. Anderson. Negative criticism for Boogie Nights suggested that was just "ripping off" Altman and Scorsese. Coming from that angle, the harshest thing you could say about There Will Be Blood and The Master is that he's ripping off Paul Thomas Anderson. As far as I'm concerned, he's always been an auteur, except that now there's a lot less room for argument. I anticipate (but more than that, I hope) that his best work is ahead of him - that he'll make the kind of movies that Kubrick wanted to make, and the kind of movies that Lynch and Malick try to make. In other words, the movies I wanna see.

-Paul

 1. Magnolia (1999)
2. Goodfellas (1990)
3. Pulp Fiction (1994)
4. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
5. The Conversation (1974)
6. The Insider (1999)
7. Midnight Cowboy (1969)
8. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
9. Nashville (1975)
10. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
11. Eraserhead (1978)
12. No Country for Old Men (2007)
13. The Limey (1999)
14. The Fisher King (1991)
15. Forrest Gump (1994)
16. Schindler's List (1993)
17. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
18. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
19. Back to the Future (1985)
20. Ghostbusters (1984)
21. JFK (1991)
22. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
23. The Right Stuff (1983)
24. The Graduate (1967)
25. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
26. The Godfather (1972)
27. American Graffiti (1973)
28. Boogie Nights (1998)
29. Barton Fink (1991)
30. Seven (1995)
31. ...And Justice For All (1979)
32. About Schmidt (2002)
33. Blow Out (1982)
34. Play it Again, Sam (1972)
35. Manhunter (1986)
36. Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
37. Ed Wood (1994)
38. The Exorcist (1973)
39. Dick Tracy (1990)
40. Philadelphia (1993)
41. Hard Eight (1996)
42. Midnight Run (1988)
43. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
44. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987)
45. It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
46. Easy Rider (1969)
47. INLAND EMPIRE (2006)
48. Trainspotting (1996)
49. The Deer Hunter (1978)
50. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
51. Quiz Show (1994)
52. STAR WARS Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
53. The In-Laws (1979)
54. The Age of Innocence (1993)
55. The French Connection (1971)
56. Unbreakable (2000)
57. Glory (1989)
58. The Thing (1982)
59. Short Cuts (1993)
60. The 'Burbs (1989)
61. Catch-22 (1970)
62. Sleeper (1973)
63. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
64. Raising Arizona (1987)
65. The Fog (1980)
66. Die Hard (1988)
67. Apocalypse Now Redux (2000)
68. The Wizard (1989)
69. A Civil Action (1998)
70. Jacob's Ladder (1990)
71. And the Band Played On (1993)
72. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
73. Suspiria (1977)
74. The Paper (1994)
75. I Love You to Death (1990)
76. Sneakers (1992)
77. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985)
78. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
79. Point Break (1991)
80. Titanic (1997)
81. Zodiac (2007)
82. A Serious Man (2009)
83. Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)
84. Blair Witch Project (1999)
85. Bound (1996)
86. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
87. Falling Down (1993)
88. After Hours  (1985)
89. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
90. Last of the Mohicans (1992)
91. Running Scared (1986)
92. The Devil's Rejects (2005)
93. What About Bob? (1991)
94. Cobra (1986)
95. Jaws (1975)
96. Gremlins 2:The New Batch (1990)
97. Tango and Cash (1989)
98. A History of Violence (2005)
99. Zombie (1979)
100. Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

  

12.07.2012

Collage


 31


 


12.03.2012

BENNETT PLACE: SECTION FIFTY SIX

CINETEXT -- part seventeen




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