Thursday, 8 July 2010

Interview With A Film Critic

In response to my interview last week, casual moviegoer Jason Birbas has accepted my proposal of a reverse interview. Here I tackle his questions on why I love film and my thoughts on directors and the industry...

JB: Okay. So lets just start off nice and light by talking about cinema that you enjoy. In recent times you cited Magnolia (P.T. Anderson, 1999) as one of your favorite films. What makes this film stand out above all others?
ME: Firstly a correction. I have stated that I think Magnolia is the greatest film of all time and I've said that since I first saw it five years ago. And as for why? Film is a directors medium. Anderson is a brilliant storyteller and I think Magnolia would be the best film of all time even on a technical level. The music, the editing, the photography... it creates an incredible mood and atmosphere and I think the mastery behind the camera is stunning. But it also works on a much more intimate, emotional level. Every character, even if I don't relate to them, I feel for them. Every time I re-watch the film it's like meeting up with old friends still in the same dislocated pit of despair and I want them to get better. It's such a complete vision and just overpoweringly emotional, filled with great scene after great scene. The ending has me in floods of tears.

JB: One of the things I felt about Magnolia was that if a standard audience that was used to seeing your standard family film blockbuster saw this, they would very much not enjoy themselves. Is this true in your eyes? What are your thoughts on the matter?
I think it's very untrue and I would argue that you're projecting your negative response to the film onto a presupposed audience, which is always unwise. I think as a three hour melodrama it would be tough to adjust to but people need variety. What better break from family friendly spectacle than a gritty, emotional character piece? It's all about investment. If you don't invest in Magnolia you won't like it. It doesn't matter about colour or religion or background; film is universal. I think Magnolia is a work of art and no matter what you're used to or where you're from if you invest in this story you have the possibility of being rewarded. It's an incredibly affecting piece of work.

JB: What are the films that really get to you? Shed a tear or two maybe? What are these films and why did they make you react in that way?
ME: Well obviously Magnolia. I think the last scene is a beautiful moment; the joining between two lonely and broken souls who need each other so desperately. It's a confession of love in a film that has been unrelentingly bleak and every time it makes me cry and gives me hope. The films of Lars von Trier make me cry often. The Idiots (1998) and Dancer In The Dark (2000) especially. To say why would be to spoil moments in those films but I felt strongly for the characters and their circumstances. The Idiots actually made me sad for days, it took a while to get over. The ending of Let The Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008) lifts my heart. I wept like a child at the swimming pool scene. I don't shed a tear for Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995) because it's not that kind of film, but it's my second favorite film of all time and it fills my heart with joy and sadness equally. The feeling of innocence, love and hope and uncertainty in that conclusion (and equally in the sequel Before Sunset, 2004) is incredible.

JB: There has always been a divide to what the critics think and what audiences feel when they watch a film. Do you think this is because of a different mindset or because of the circumstances of the two audience types?
ME: It probably is down to mindset but this is hard to answer. A critic still enjoys a film, they still experience it because they are an audience member. It's just that they have a more detailed knowledge and point of reference to back up their opinion. So this is always acting subconsciously (or consciously) when looking at the mise-en-scene etc. I've never known how not to watch a film that way, so I can't speak for the public. But I find it hard to believe a mainstream audience member doesn't notice differing quality of direction or coherency in a film, or doesn't feel offended by certain morals that are present in 'light' entertainments or even artistic works.

JB: There are many types of film genre. What are your favorites and why?
ME: I think science fiction and westerns are extremely interesting as they can work in both an entertainment and artistic sense, as well as being existential and elegiac respectively, which are interesting themes to present technically and emotionally. They're both very accessible and popular genres for exactly that reason. Most people can kick back to Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) or Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969) and those are great films. But the genres also pivot off into fascinating dimensions such as The Ninth Configuration (William Peter Blatty, 1981) and The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007). Action is also lots of fun to kick back to, when it's done well. Horror is also a big one for me, I love being scared by a film and taken into the dark depths. This is a hard question to answer as a critic because i've seen amazing films from every genre. Magnolia is a drama so how can I not say that? A character study will always appeal to me. The genre I like least is comedy but there are films in that genre that I think are masterpieces.

JB: I think it's more obvious that audiences today would like something more action packed or glamorous compared to say an arthouse film that inspires thought and creativity. How do you think the film industry needs to overcome this problem? Or rather do you think they plan on correcting this 'mishap' at all?
ME: I don't think they plan on fixing anything as long as the films they distribute widely are popular. If something makes money Hollywood assumes people like it, so they make another one. And people keep going to see it because it's there and they don't have the time to look outside of the listings for their local multiplex. They have lives to live. Most people want to go to the cinema after work or at the weekend to have a good time and invest into something, so it has to be easy. If you make the art easy, if you put it in the cinemas there's a 50/50 chance that people will give it a try. And if that makes money we'll get more of that. Hollywood just needs to be more adventurous. America makes great films like they always have, it's just that they get released for three days in an underground theatre because Transformers 2 (Michael Bay, 2009) is on general release. And it's as simple as that.

JB: Lets see what you make of certain directors. John Woo has made several masterpieces in both the western and eastern markets of film. Which would you say are the best and why?
ME: The only difference between his Eastern and Western work is tone. There are stinkers and masterpieces in both. The Eastern work is slightly more stylised and cheesy, but they are also products of their time. The Killer (1989) is his best Eastern film. It may be very silly and has no continuity but the action is relentless and brilliantly directed. His worst work in this market is the early musicals he directed, which he really didn't want to be making; subsequently the direction is uninspired. As far as his Western work goes Paycheck (2003) is rubbish and Broken Arrow (1996) is formulaic but fun. Face/Off (1997) could make a claim for the greatest action movie of all time; it's absurd, sure. But the character relationships and psychological aspects are great, the performances are spot-on and the action is just exhilarating. But his best film is M:I-2 (2000) which is his cheesiest and silliest piece of work, but for that reason I adore it. Everything from Tom Cruise's hair to the Hans Zimmer score and the gunfights is pure popcorn pleasure. There are very few films I can re-watch as often as that one.

JB: How about a star this time. Tom Cruise. A man that's been in many films with many themes. What are your favorite scenes that this actor has performed in and how do you think his style has changed over the years of his A-List Hollywood career?
ME: He's managed to balance the action movies and intense dramas perfectly. You have to ignore his personal life as it has nothing to do with his art and he excels as an actor. I've already expressed love for Magnolia and M:I-2 and they show the full extent of his range. Magnolia is an ensemble drama but Cruise stands out because his intensity and the qualities of his character are at odds with his grinning star image. The scene where his character, Frank Mackey, is sat at his fathers bedside and begins to break down, equally saddened and resentful, is some of the best acting i've ever seen. M:I-2 is a more physical performance and in this area he succeeds as well. It's hard to determine what makes somebody a convincing action hero but Cruise has done it time and time again. His style hasn't changed that much, he's just learnt to challenge himself in a variety of roles. You could argue that Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999) is more accomplished than War Of The Worlds (Steven Spielberg, 2005) but he brings the same dedication to every role. That smile may have won over many people but it's the steely glare that got him accolades and an OSCAR nomination as an actor. Basically he has it all.

JB: We've recently watched Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001). What was it like watching a film that had a non-linear storyline with a very surreal body compared to your standard family film i.e. the latest Harry Potter.
ME: Watching a film with a non-linear storyline is always interesting, when used effectively. Lynch delves into dream worlds and fantasies and he blurs realities so it's perfect. For me it's an instantly engaging experience because it just demands more attention. Fundamentally the difference is that one is a work of art and one is a mainstream product. I really like the Harry Potter films, they have great production values, talented directors, a great British cast and it feels like a really coherent vision with passion behind it. As franchises go I think they've just got better and better. But it's aimed at the kids. There's simply no point straying into surrealism and non-linear narrative in that kind of movie. It works for what it is but it's a throwaway product. Mulholland Drive is something to take with you. It's layered and endlessly fascinating. No matter how much effort goes into a Harry Potter production it won't be a David Lynch film.

JB: Do you think this film could have been marketed better during its day so that it was brought to mainstream audiences? Possibly giving them a better insight into what film can do?
ME: I think Mulholland Drive is an excellent film for mainstream audiences to watch because it has elements of noir, mystery and romance, also referencing popular films like Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950). It's surreal and complicated but it has a familiar point of access and you can market that quite easily. Ultimately I think David Lynch films are easy to promote, just put all the genre convention into the trailer and you'll lure in an unsuspecting crowd. Again, it's all about investment. Unless you don't give a film like Mulholland Drive a chance from the start and instantly write it off as pretentious you can't help but be drawn into it. No matter the product I think people like to talk about films after they've seen them and Lynch knows how to provoke discussion.

JB: Lets pan outwards now. Cinema as a whole can have many uses. It can portray a simple moral or argument. Or it can comment on an entire era and society. What makes you so passionate about cinema? What keeps you watching films and not drifting on to new pastimes?
ME: It would be too easy to say a fascination with the moving image, but that's what it comes down to. The composition of a piece of cinema, the way a story unfolds is just endlessly interesting and exciting to me. Every film is a new experience, it'll take you somewhere new and because of the range of cinema; genre, country, decade - the possibilities are endless. I think it has a lot to do with retaining a sense of wonder too. I opened myself up to films when I was young, I didn't go out very much and every day held a new story. There is something almost childlike about cinema fanaticism. Watching an auteurs body of work is a treat for all the senses. It's visual, aural, it gets the brain working and the heart pumping. Take Alfred Hitchcock for example, and Psycho (1960). I think that's the best example of storytelling in cinema history, nothing unfolds the way that film does. And it has all you could want. Complex story, interesting characters with psychological depth, mystery, horror, excitement. It's perfectly made too, as with most of Hitchcock's films. The shower scene is a great example of what cinema can do - it's when a master storyteller turns his tale on its head in a powerful moment of sex and violence, perfectly directed, edited and scored. And most of the themes in that moment and many of his stylistic flourishes, reoccur in his body of work. The way cinema explores dreams, space, history, fantasy, relationships, crime, sexuality, religion, nature, addiction, music, architecture, violence... nothing else compels me in the same way. Cinema makes me laugh, cry, jump out of my seat and think hard about issues and themes not just in the past, not just in the present but also in the future. The depth of cinema is profound beyond all other art forms. The beautiful scenery of Manon Des Sources (Claude Berri, 1986), the wit of Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979), the pure thrill of Evil Dead II (Sam Raimi, 1987). I owe my life to cinema. It's the most important thing in the world and I say that with absolute sincerity.

JB: Think about what we discussed about audiences being passive and watch this: (Clash Of The Titans, Louis Leterrier, 2010, trailer). Perhaps do the more emotive, provocative films have an impossible task in trying to get the audiences attention and non-passive time when they have films like this to go up against?
ME: Hard, but not impossible. When I look at the trailer for Clash Of The Titans I see what everybody else sees - an action-packed piece of popcorn entertainment. And it's a pretty good trailer in terms of representation of its product so I understand why people would want to kick back to that on a Friday night. But they, as well as I, must know that it's just popcorn entertainment. We have to remember that not everyone who sees these movies which make millions of dollars actually like them. I'm sure many people leave the cinema wanting more. The problem is that the cinemas which screen blockbusters like this one only show trailers for the next big blockbuster so people simply aren't aware of the diversity they could have. The two big releases this week are Predators (Nimrod Antal, 2010) and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (David Slade, 2010) and they'll be filling multiplexes all over the country. But there are also films like Frownland (Ronald Bronstein, 2007), Leaving (Catherine Corsini, 2009) and London River (Rachid Bouchareb, 2009) finally getting releases over here, the latter of which I think is an important film for audiences to see. But they'll never hear of it until they stumble across it on television in four years. If the task is impossible it's only because of Hollywood marketing. If you advertise these films in the cinema, if you play these films in the cinema, audiences will embrace the ability to choose.

JB: Now watch this one: (The Last Airbender, M. Night Shyamalan, 2010, trailer). Perhaps certain film studios have become so confident in their money making schemes that the actual products they are releasing to the public no longer fit the bill. Would you agree?
ME: Yes and no. Yes because you're talking about blockbuster season and as long as a movie has a target audience or a demographic that Hollywood can aim at, they'll release the movie. No because the quality of the product is down to the people making the film. Unless something is literally so bad it's unwatchable I think Hollywood will meet its release dates - it's bad publicity if they don't and the movie has a bigger chance of flopping. In this case it's an M. Night Shyamalan film so the chances of a masterpiece are slim nowadays. But it has an audience. And on the other hand there are movies like Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) and Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010) being released this summer which have got some of the best reviews of the year and they look brilliant. And it's because they're being made by a visionary filmmaker and an animation studio with five OSCARS behind them. Filmmakers believe in quality; Hollywood believes in quantity.

JB: Last one: (Taken, Pierre Morel, 2008, trailer). We have often disagreed on how good this film is. But could it not be said that a simple message of the power of love between family is all that needs to be portrayed in a film to get a point across? And the more flamboyant the way this message is put across can only reinforce the message and make it stronger to its audience? Surely that's a satisfactory role for cinema that has the passive audience but at the same time that moral value?
ME: Sure, but you're assuming that Taken has all that when it doesn't. Any message the film was trying to make (and i'm not sure it has one) is lost in the fact that Taken is such a stupid and racist production. These moral values of an audience you talk about should be able to pick up on that. There are many films about the love between family, many of them dramas, some of them action films, but none that spring to mind involve killing every cliched sex trafficker in Europe (which seems to be what their non-specific population consists of). It's not a satisfactory role for cinema, as long as you're packaging it in this kind of product. Taken is the most basic level of a long-established genre and it says nothing interesting about its central theme - the love of a father for his daughter. I don't think anyone left Taken with a sense of accomplishment or a stronger sense of values.

JB: So overall what puts you off a film? The story? The themes? The messages and feelings it tries to promote? (if there are any!)
ME: As a cinema fanatic and critic i'll watch pretty much anything but you get to a point where you know certain things will hold nothing of value for you. Catherine Breillat is the most horrid, stupid hack of a filmmaker and i've seen five of her films. She's made quite a few more but at this point I know they'd do nothing but make me angry so I avoid them. Same goes for these football hooligan films starring Danny Dyer etc. Because those films are really stupid and lacking in morals. A lack of morals will always turn me off a film; if something is racist or sexist for no reason other than being that way. This Is England (Shane Meadows, 2006) has a lot of racist content and themes but it's making a point about them and it's a very affecting drama and a fascinating time capsule for our country. Context will always be the deciding factor for me I think; the context in which a theme or idea is displayed. I also don't like films that preach to me, that can be annoying. But I think it's important to have an open mind and embrace as much of the medium as you can. Because cinema is a very special thing and the stories it holds are endless...

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