Thursday, 8 July 2010

Interview With A Casual Moviegoer

On the 4th July 2010 I, Michael Ewins, conducted an interview with casual moviegoer Jason Birbas, to understand his views on films and the film industry. The idea of the interview was to get a grasp on what a member of the public wants from a film and their knowledge and opinion of the workings of an industry. This is what he had to say...

ME: Okay, lets start on familiar ground. You've quoted The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994) as your favorite film. What is it about that particular film that raises it above all others?
JB: Essentially the characters and the situation they're in. You may think "oh really, you don't say" but the situation appealed to my sense of black comedy and the characters seemed to bring the film to life in a way that went beyond genre (not black comedy of course) and into a real struggle. It's not that I could relate to the characters, I just really sympathised with them. I think the narration by (Morgan) Freeman helped but even that wouldn't have as much effect if the feeling of desperation in Dufresne (Tim Robbins) didn't come out as the film went on. It's the only film where i've really wanted the hero to succeed in a serious way (Antichrist was not serious).
ME: One of the most interesting things about The Shawshank Redemption is the fact that it flopped on release (it didn't even earn back its $35 million budget) and now it's one of the most popular films of all time, and No.1 on IMDB's Top 250 movies. As a casual moviegoer what do you think is the deciding factor in what an audience member sees (star? genre? based on a familiar product?)
JB: Ultimately everyone is different with different circumstances that affect them at different times, but on the whole it has to be something that makes them enjoy themselves. Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994) did that so it would have stolen audiences from everywhere. People don't watch films to think, they watch them to have fun (due to whatever reason, the end is the same). So really it could be genre with a certain star that appeals to big themes depending on the country. With America i'd say Forrest Gump fit the bill.
ME: The Shawshank Redemption is also one of two movies to make you cry. The other, rather unconventionally, is Transformers 2: Revenge Of The Fallen (Michael Bay, 2009). Talk us through that experience - what emotionally engaged you enough in this critically panned robots flick, to cause a physical reaction?
Before I say anything it must be stated that I had one pint of Beck's before I went into the screen. However, emotional music always gets to me, just like the opera song in Shawshank. As Michael Bay is good at this kind of thing he pretty much got me. (editors note: Michael Bay isn't good at anything; praise should be attributed to original score composer Steve Jablonsky). I would also say due to the fact that i'm not really sporting a critical mindset when I watch a film I am more able to connect with the characters whether they be CGI or otherwise (in fact I genuinely think I liked the robots more). So when Optimus Prime died I just felt a tear welling in my eye. I didn't break down and start sobbing but tears fell down my cheeks. It was also the way he died; as in he might just survive and then all hope is lost. Again, the way the sword comes out of his chest - you just know it's over.
ME: Many critics look down upon films that cause a viewer to undergo a physical reaction (comedy, horror, melodrama) but these seem to be most popular with audiences. Why do you think there is such a divide between what the critics and audiences respond to, and do you think people really listen to critics in todays world?
JB: I've always thought that's because they are poles to each other. People watch films because they want to have fun or because they are interested due to an advertising campaign. Critics see films because they are a art form and they take pleasure out of dissecting what it is and what specific parts mean etc. On the whole critics aren't widely acknowledged but Mark Kermode has a large following and people are influenced by what he says so i'd say he was the odd one out. But even then only to people who have a stronger interest in film than most. The average Joe will not really subscribe to people like Kermode so on the whole i'd say a resounding NO, and that's unlikely to change.
ME: Horror, comedy, drama, musical, western, sci-fi - cinema is a broad medium that spans countries and decades. What is your favorite film genre, your favorite films within that genre, and why?
JB: Genre would have to be comedy. This is really because I (like most people) love to laugh. I'm also a black comedy fan as I was born with a boundless imagination that favoured the warped side of things. It's very much a part of my whole outlook on life as a whole. Favorite films from that genre would be Very Bad Things (Peter Berg, 1998) and Heathers (Michael Lehmann, 1989). Forgetting the fact that both films star Christian Slater they just take standard events (one last night with the lads before a man is married and a girl going through the social teenage pressures of high school), and blow them out of the water whilst not losing complete control of the plot and giving it a 'fairly' reasonable and quite funny ending. There is a third film from none of the above genres that stayed with me, it was called King Rat (Bryan Forbes, 1965) and I remember watching about 90 minutes of it. It was set in a Japanese POW camp where a US and a British soldier become friends. It just seemed to stick with me, its simple comic touches and intricate characters built a plot that interested me.
ME: I think it would be fair to say that mainstream audiences want films that are 'easy' as opposed to something 'challenging'. Do you think there could be a meeting point between popular entertainments and a more cerebral art, and would audiences accept it?
JB: Yes, i'm with you there. It would need to be something that people like at surface value and something that holds a powerful message. The obvious example is The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) but these are few and far between. Audiences can't be made to accept films, I think it all depends on the current circumstance of modern society and what certain events resonate with the population of these societies.
ME: On countless occasions you've said to me that the cinema industry is "about money". Do you think this has always been an existent problem, directly affecting the quality of the products that are in multiplexes, or has a decrease in audience demand over the years resulted in studios taking cash-happy advantage?
JB: Bit of both. The rise of DVD would have something to do with it I imagine. I think in western culture money is more dominant. I'm not the most educated on Asian cinema but i'd say the money factor was a lot less over there than here. In terms of affecting products I think there's definitely a sense of opportunism that certain trends and events that create films that have certain stars that will simply take big money.
ME: Lets discuss a filmmaker we both know well; Quentin Tarantino. There seems to be a clear divide between people in the Jackie Brown (1997) and Death Proof (2007) camps, for reasons of artistic integrity. What do you think audiences respond to in his films, and why is he so loved and loathed in equal measure?
JB: He's always been someone you either love or hate. I am on the former myself. I'd say it's because Jackie Brown had a decent plot which took audiences along a journey whereas Death Proof is about a psychopathic ex-stuntman who likes to kill women in the most bizarre of circumstances. In terms of getting that cult-like audience reaction it has to be the style which he writes. Making very clear points with such complex wit has to be a winner in my books.
ME: After Jackie Brown flopped Tarantino returned to a more accessible popcorn entertainment in Kill Bill (2003/2004), which I also think marks a significant step down in his writing and directing skill. Do you think he sold out, or do these films hold equal importance to his body of work? If the latter, why?
JB: I loved the Kill Bill films however there is a clear difference to what came before. Sold out is the wrong word. It's more of a subtle change with the same writing. The only difference is that the story is much more cliched and action packed. As for comparing them to his older films, they're just as good. Characters like Pai Mei (Chia Hui Liu) and the two people in the restaurant with the General, and the snake scene - these are still showing that Tarantino magic that you just don't get anywhere else.
ME: I recently made you watch Antichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009) which falls into the cerebral/art department. What did you think of the film (good/bad), and how did you feel about the more 'graphic' scenes?
JB: I loved that film. Willem Dafoe was brilliant as was his counterpart (Charlotte Gainsbourg). It was an intricate blend of cinematic wonder backed up by two rock solid and emotional performances. In short the film was nothing short of a masterful experience. Of course when I began to watch it I felt the pretentious factor was ranging on the moronically high but it calmed down when the graphic scenes came into play. These were pretty graphic indeed and as a man I shuddered many a time.
ME: Do you think that sort of film has a place in mainstream cinema, alongside Prince Of Persia (Mike Newell, 2010) and Sex And The City 2 (Michael Patrick King, 2010)?
JB: No and yes. No because it would be sidelined to films like The Unborn (David S. Goyer, 2009) and other B movie trash due to the way audiences would interpret the film. And yes because it is one thousand million times more superior to Prince Of Persia and Sex And The City 2.
ME: The 'mainstream' audiences we discussed earlier generally stay away from anything too contemplative or 'difficult'. Personally would you take a more active interest in cinema if it stimulated you intellectually, or you could study a directors body of work? Does cinema history hold any interest to you whatsoever?
JB: In terms of cinema history being interesting to me the answer is a very big no. As would be studying a directors body of work in detail. I could watch all of a directors films but as for sitting down and thinking about them, I could only do that in the company of friends and even then it would be an intense experience which would tire me out very quickly. However it has to be said people would benefit from films that were more stimulating than films which simply demand utter submission to a screen for 96 minutes. However I doubt this will be happening anytime soon.
ME: Take a look at this clip from Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5PAdQ5anhZE. Do you find it surprising that such a visionary piece of cinema existed as early as the 1920s and that the effects look so good (perhaps even better than the CGI today)? Would you be interested in watching the film?
JB: It looked brilliant. I guess the way we've used effects over the years may be a bit wasteful and mind numbing. I'd be interested in seeing it though I have a feeling the whole film contains no dialogue whatsoever so it may take a little more convincing.
ME: Film can, of course, also be seen as a historical document, especially of Britain (This Is England, Shane Meadows, 2006), (Of Time And The City, Terence Davies, 2008). Do you think cinema is an important medium in this regard, as a time-capsule?
JB: Yes, absolutely. I mean just imagine what people will think of the noughties when they see Wanted (Timur Bekmambetov, 2008). However the masterpieces do tend to shape a picture of what went on in certain eras and film is important in that respect. I think it can serve as a collective reflection on certain parts of history that can make people think whether or not mankind got it right or not.
ME: Among the 'classics' such as It's A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) and Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976) how many have you seen? Do you have any desire to watch any of them?
JB: I've seen a bit of The Godfather and I own 2001 on DVD but haven't seen it yet. I have no real open desire to see any of these films but I am sure that if I did I would be very entertained and intellectually stimulated at the same time. The Shawshank Redemption was a classic in my eyes and I would happily watch that film again.
ME: Personally what would make you take a more 'active' interest in cinema and learn about waves such as German Expressionism/ Weimar, The French New Wave, The Movie Brats? Do you think you'd be more inclined to watch these films if someone lent them to you, and would you be more active in film discussion if you had seen these classic/artistic films?
JB: Not really, I would happily delve into them for a short while only to retreat to my own interests. As for any long haul analysis of cinema i'll have to take a rain check i'm afraid. However in terms of a little bit more discussion into certain things, I would be open to that.
ME: Finally, what turns you away from a film? What elements would decide for you that a film is not worth seeing, or would not be enjoyable to you?
JB: I must say not that much can put me off a film. Unless it's a mundane film set in a suburb in America where nothing happens. If you take one of my favorite films, Taken (Pierre Morel, 2008) then the opposite of that is something i'd hate to see. I don't mean any film that hasn't got a gun. But a film without determination with characters that have real urges and real goals. A film with action isn't necessarily violent but passionate. In short something that engages me. In other words anything with emotive music. So to answer your question (to turn me off) ultimately it would have to be something like a non-speaking foreign film about everyday crap like parking tickets and arguing who left the bedroom door open...

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