Monday, June 25, 2007


I hate movie directors who find success and don't care to challenge themselves afterwards. Smith, like George Lucas, realized there was more long-term monetary gain selling toys and t-shirts based on your creative property than making a lot of movies.

He commands a cult fanbase which admires him, Kevin Smith the personality, more than his films. He travels on the road to live speaking engagements and those masses gather. I attended one of them a few years ago, I'm not proud to say, and stood in a question line almost the whole time without getting to ask if he was directing the new Fletch movie.

The event was two hours of this guy getting to pretend to be a rock star after flashing in the pan with one good comedy that captured a zeitgest of it's era, "Clerks." He's been coasting that damn wave through 5 or 6 diminishing returns ever since, incapable or unwilling to develop in competence or originality! The abominable CLERKS 2 even came after Smith promised to the fanbase never use the crutch of his wacky company-named "View Askew-niverse" characters ever again.

Look at his messianiac robe-like trenchcoat and phony Lenny-Bruce-of-the-movies shtick!

He gets to tell stories about Ben Affleck to people lining up and filling auditoriums and performance halls to tell him how great he is and quote his movies at him, while he genuflects with phony humility! Like Quentin Tarantino, this guy didn't have a LIFE before movie success and he turned him himself into a CELEBRITY director who cranks out identical turds every once in a while while the initial fanbase dwindles. Kevin can't grow up and incidentally, Clerks 2 is a movie about the importance of not growing up lest you lose your friends, thus selling out / losing your roots / not keeping it real. What an overrated loser.

He also used his fame to write himself into multiple episodes of his favorite TV show as a teenager so that he could kiss one of the characters. Fan fiction can come true in the life of this nerd-king auteur!

Then there's the god damned super hero books. Under the guidance of The Weinstein Company/Miramax, Kevin Smith™ made it well known in his publicity material that he sold his Marvel comics collection to make his first film. His second film gave a featured cameo to Stan Lee, a man whose sales go up every time he appears on camera somewhere.

According to IMDB, which is Wikipedia for movie information and thus much better researched, Smith turned down offers to write and/or direct "The Hulk," "Iron Man," "Fantastic Four," "Green Latern," and "The Punisher." THE PUNISHER?!? The studios offer these adaptations freely since they'll inevitably be seen by American families and international audiences who can't speak English and are spared the awful dialogue. The fans' money is not what returns the investment.

Smith is simply a fan who made it. His movie success and well publicized love of comics was leveraged in recent years to allow him writing gigs on several Marvel Comics. I imagine his stylized hyperbole works better in comic book word balloons than live action, however badly it still may suck.

Oh, and he named his daughter Harley Quinn, after a Batman character. This guy has serious problems with a) originality and b) justifying nerd obsessions.

Like Marvel Comics and Star Wars - two things he's devoted an AWFUL lot of dialogue and screentime to - his films take place in a franchise friendly Kevin Smith "universe" that allows him to cameo, do a supporting role or star as a recurring character, all despite protestations to his fan cult that he is not an actor. And yet he's gone from being a hack to playing a computer hacker villain in Die Hard 4 and doing a supporting part in some chick flick just before that.

IMDB trivia: Kevin Smith was allowed to pick his own wardrobe for the film. Because of that, most of the clothes he wears in the movie bear his trademark number "37".

Hah, see, "37" is his "trademark number". Some movies have catch phrases, but like the films of Smith's colleague Quentin Tarantino, every other line of dialogue is meant to be quoted. You can ingratiate yourself to the fan cults by quoting their scriptures as often as possible, like the mantras of Scientologists.

Tarantino also puts himself in as many movies as possible...hey waitaminit, both these geeks were turned into Miramax cash cows in the mid-90s! That's why anyone still pretends they're relevant! Time for these golden calves to be melted. You're next, Quint!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Letters to my former professors, Part 2

In which Professor Namely J. Withheld responds. I don't know yet if I should bother to reply again, since he gladly affirms my accusation of seeing all films as political and the field of Film Studies as a political project. Relativists of priveleged societies make lousy art critics.

Hi ,

Good to hear from you. I`ll respond in more detail next week (I`m in Montreal presently), but I guess the first point I`d make is that I think all professors (like all students) have a political point of view which will influence their film selection, reading selection, teaching and lecturing, etc. I don`t believe that any Professor can lecture `neutrally`, as their beliefs frame who they are and what they do. Therefore, I think it`s more intellectually honest to say `this is where I`m coming from` than to try and cast one`s approach in òbjectivity` (which I guess is usually looked upon as neo-Liberalism).

Furthermore, I do believe that politics is not a peripheral concern to the study of film, but central to our understading of it. For better or worse, in the case of film theory courses (which `Readings..` definitely was; European is more arguable) film theory has been greatly informed by Leftist critiques, going back to the interwar years (1918-1933), if not earlier. Marxism, feminism, queer theory, gender poltics, etc. are the backbone of much of what has been produced in the field. You may feel that one ought to stick to aesthetics, or appreciating a text for its own merits (a `well-wrought urn`and all), but much
of what film studies does is draw upon paradigms from outside the discipline in order to raise questions about politics, sociology, philosophy, gender, ideology and representation.

In terms of the qualifications a Fine Arts Professor has in terms of engaging in this kind of approach, I`d reference the fact that the majority of the studies faculty have Doctorates in Social and Political Thought or Communications (which is what my Doctorate from is in) and so therefore bring political and social questions to the forefront. The debate around aesthetics and pedagogy is an old one though: should we, for instance teach `Birth of a Nation` or `Triumph of the Will`as great aesthetic texts and disregard the racism of the former and the Nazi, anti-Semitics propaganda of the latter, or, should we teach them as cautionary tales: yes, they are great aesthetic texts, but they use aesthetics to a ideologically pernicious end. Obviously, I go for door number two.

In terms of all the films in the European cinema course being pro-Communist, I was probably a bit dissmissive of your comment because (a) I didn`t think you`d seen all the films (if you have, I apologise), and (b) I fundamentally disagree
that they are all pro-Communist films (certainly, I`d have the filmmakers on my side on that one). And, Salaam Cinema was not scheduled as a retort to your point of view on Iran--I`m a busy guy and don`t have time to come up with screening ideas to respond to students who may not agree with me. I like debate in class and as I think you`d agree, don`t need to pick films to piss you off to just spark a debate; as you imply in your missive, I`m quite capable of doing that just by lecturing!

Finally, my courses, and indeed those of all the studies Professors, are not about the `nuts and bolts of film production`as you call it. My courses are about films, and aesthetics, and history, but I do look at all those things as being relevant to questions about politics, class, sociology, ideology etc. To give but one example: you mention that you want to know about film history, not politics. Well, it`s a truism that history is written by the winners; if that`sthe case, then history itself is political. To undertsand the history of anything is, at the very least implicitly, to ask political questions (and other kinds too, of course). There are some historians (often called Rankean or Positivist) that believe one can simply list the facts as they were and tell the `true`story. As you can probably guess, I see this through the framework of politics too, as even deciding what to list is an act on inclusion and exclusion (much like my screening lists), and therefore reflects a political point-of-view.

Let me think about your question(s) some more, and I will finish writing next week. In the mean time, if you want to respond to this tirade, do feel free...

Best wishes,

He mentions the first day of ("European Cinema: 1960-Present") to remind me I called his syllabus "communist propaganda." Take a look at the document back in Part 1 and tell me he doesn't think all art is ideological propaganda.

He doesn't understand the abuse of power he's making as the leader of a classroom. He justifies it to himself with RELATIVISM, the point of view that everyone's point of view is just as valid as someone else's, and all information is subject to creative omission if it interferes with your "view." Now imagine someone with that moral convolution using "The Bicycle Thief" to make another long-winded socio-political tangent as a room full of people half his age wait to regurgitate his indoctrinations without questioning his right to address them as ideologically empty vessels for his personal use.

Also note he pulls "Triumph of the Will" as an example of why he needs to teach his own version of history when teaching film, rather than "Iraq For Sale" or anything else more pertinent to the immediate present that gets shown so often. During his impassioned defense of the Iranian people, beset by irrational Western civilization, this guy didn't once mention the theocratic Iranian president publically denying the Holocaust and intending to nuke Israel, and he's lecturing me on needing to speak about anti-Semitism. The "Life of Brian" lecture, however, was a perfect opportunity to boldly decry Christian bloodlust. Hard to imagine any other, in the view of academia. He wouldn't have to make these kind of double standards if he didn't make that part of his job description.

"Marxism, feminism, queer theory, gender poltics, etc. are the backbone of much of what has been produced in the field."

Funny how that's omitted from the school brochures.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Animation Criticism

Part 1 of a series

Film criticism of animation is abysmal. The state of live action film industry is nowhere near as bad as the animated brother. Animation was born within decades of live action film, which is not much in the moving pictures medium's lifespan: about 127 years before this day, counting the earliest experiments like the photos taken of horses to win a bet. What animation and live action have in common is being stored completely still as visual electronic data or chemical exposure. By disc, cassette or machine with light bulb, the visuals are expanded in size and set forward in motion and projected, to be seen. Sound recording exists in the same formats, and a sounds may be added to picture using the same technology.

For both animation and live-action, this is merely the final step. Aside from one stage of visual form, the similarities between the two begin at post-production and are so entirely different that sloppy comparisons of quality between the two are a dead giveaway the critic knows little about either. They are two separate mediums. The atrophied state of American animation - it's birthplace and most influential industrial laboratory - is even worse than modern Hollywood's mismanagement and the foibles of its alternatives even before the internet was a factor.

The gradual retardation of the medium in the United States began sometime after the end of World War II and before the 60s were over. The animation production process created by pioneering animators was reshaped by bureaucratic corporate decision, and has long suffered a decline of quality in turn. The glory days of Disney and Warner Brothers were replaced with a compartmentalized factory model of assembly antithetical to the expression of talent and skill.

Once the components of animation were as cohesive as any high point of filmmaking. Skilled teams of brilliant dozens working as a unit under the stewardship of a director created pioneering works like the Looney Tunes which spanned the 1930s to the 1950s. This was replaced by a system which separated the components as far away as possible, even outsourcing to other factories around the world on single production.

Men like Tex Avery, Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett weren't just guys who could draw well, though that already ranks them ahead of Seth "Family Guy" McFarlane. They were DIRECTORS, as important to their medium as Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock or D.W. Griffith were at the time. Like them, their work holds up as brilliant to the present day. Disney and Hanna-Barberra's great animators remained even more obscure than the relative acclaim given to Chuck Jones over the years, because those studios stressed artist anonymity and a regimented creative process from the very beginning.

In time, the great directors of animation retired and instead of new, comparable talent, their replacement came in the form of "factory model" animation and what that model of production created between the 1960s and late 1980s. This not evidence of progress. It is evidence of the art form being trivialized, cheapened, deadened and until very recently, critically discarded. Disney's assembly line model became the standard, only minus standards of competence and the desire for innovation.

When Hanna-Barberra came to dominate television animation they would do the same on a lower budget. Though their early output had appealing design (ie, The Flintstones), this was due to artistic talent held over from the classic era and fading away fast. Soon they could only cannibalize their own past, endlessly updated "new" or "junior" versions of classic characters with "edginess" and "attitude" as Disney and Warners would.

Neither company had coporate leadership interested in competition for the delight of their audiences. They were simply the only prominent American animation houses around, and the only new product available, so they focused on pumping out subpar product for undiscriminating children. Classic animation on tv was limited to censored appearances in between blocks of programming intended to sell toys. Today it's completely gone.

Simply put, American animation began its downfall when:

1) The idea of having a director, as any live action film would have, was scrapped, and

2) The "factory" model of animation production replaced small teams of animators with assembly lines, and

3) The "factory" model replaced animators with writers as originators of content. What this means is a bit tricky and I'll elaborate on it a lot in the next post.

For fans of animation created in what can loosely be called the "classic" form of production, a spark of hope was kept alive in the 1970s by renegade director/animator Ralph Bakshi. With Canadian director/animator John Kricfalusi as his protege he developed the landmark Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures in 1987. Co-inciding with The Simpsons, Kricfalusi created Ren & Stimpy. Together they brought the director/unit model back and resuscitation of American animation. Spongebob Squarepants, Beavis and Butt-Head, Adult Swim - all can be traced back to that pivotal challenging and partial reformation of industry standards which staved off the erosion slightly longer.

This public and critical rediscovery has been extremely recent. For most people it began with two films created in the wake of Bakshi and Kricfalusi's 1987 reformation, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and The Little Mermaid (1989). On television, Tiny Toon Adventures (1990) and The Simpsons (1989) re-invigorated interest in television animation. With the exception of Roger Rabbit, all these landmarks came at the cost of quality animation and design. All indicated a schism between the public perception of animation and it's actual unique capabilities (though Roger Rabbit has the excuse of primarily being a live action film.)

The average North American, paid critic or casual movie-goer, can guess at each step of the movie-making process far more accurately than the combination of cells and ink that precedes animation. This does not guarantee a wiser evaluation of live action films, but you don't need to know the different types of camera lens to be bored by a lazily or ineptly made movie. We have reached the point in the history of animation when standards disappeared utterly, and people were not even willing to draw distinctions between good and bad animation. We are past that point, thank god, but are at only a slightly worse plateau in which "animated" television shows and films are made popular for any reasons BUT the animation itself. Yes, this includes CGI and the Pixar films.

We cannot continue to delude ourselves that the margin of difference between animation of today and yesterday is negligable, or represents "progress" in the form of CGI, or simply displays differences in taste and style of entertainment between generations of audiences. A near-total loss of standards has occurred.

So what is the criteria by which animation can be judged? Can it be applied and understood by audiences of non-animators? Of course it can, and until standards are re-introducted to the animation industry itself it is incumbent upon historians and critics of FILM to help bring them back into use. We first need to remind ourselves of what joys audiences of animation in the first half of the 20th century took for granted, and how their creation was so diametrically different than what we are unquestioningly accustomed to today.

Next: modern animation, form vs content, drawings that move vs drawings that talk

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Everything's Epic

What has Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy done to expectations of running time for fantasy films? Expanded it. Fantasy films include superhero flicks like Batman Begins, fantasy literary adaptations like Lemmony Snicket and Harry Potter, and miscellaneous corporate regurgitations like Pirates of the Carribean. Horror remakes seem immune and remain well under two hours. The last time anyone tried a horror epic length-wise was Stanley Kubrick with The Shining in 1980.

The thinking process and lack of creativity is still evident. The logical but creatively nil position taken by producers is that a product proved successful in the past can be modified and re-sold, and this is preferable to risking financial loss on new ventures. This is terrible. Movies are the most explosive combination of art and commerce ever created, perhaps second only to recorded music, and our captains of industry are not visionaries.

The pendulum has swung from the lavish inventions of the 50s (3-D, Cinemascope, Technicolor) designed to compete with the birth of television, to the compartmentalized theater experience of chain theaters in malls in cynical reaction to the birth of VCRs, now back to the need for gimmicks and changes of content: IMAX and stadium seat design in mall theaters. Even more cynically, the studios sell commercial time on the theaters they own, thick-headedly blurring the distinction between theater and home viewing a little bit more and encouraging the latter.

Is the running time of these films a gimmick? Yes. It is mere compensation for commercials and the cell phones of strangers. Theaters are losing money and expanding running times are reflect Hollywood's desperate actions even within the franchises themselves:

Lord of the Rings (2001) - 178 min / 208 min (special extended edition)
The Two Towers (2002) - 179 min / 223 min (special extended edition)
The Return of the King (2003) - 201 min / 251 min (extended edition)

A steady increase, with even-longer special extended editions filling the shelves. As far as I can tell, this was the series that opened the floodgates. I remember leaving the theater for Lord of the Rings and being sure I'd never spent so long at a chain theater offering.

I think the appeal of bloated running lengths is particularly strong for fantasy fans, since the worlds of superheroes and elves and wizards are often comprised of nothing but back stories and meticulous details of origins. There's no room for that at 90 minutes unless you're pre-planning a trilogy. Hence the leap from X-Men (2000) with 104 min, to X2: X-Men United (2003) with 133 min. The Spider-Man trilogy has had a smaller increase over three films, from 121 minutes (2002) to 127 min / USA:135 min (DVD extended cut) (2004) to 140 min (2007). Part 3 feels it's own weight by overstuffing itself with plot threads, and I doubt they'd have been included if the producers didn't feel audiences would stand for a 2.5 hour sequel. They haven't. I imagine that film is even more tedious on an IMAX screen to anyone over 14.

The Harry Potter series, which I have zero interest in, averages about 2 hours and 50 minutes per movie through 5 films beginning in 2001 and most recently this year. The first entry of the Narnia series clocked at 2 hours 23 minutes, and the next two entries probably won't be any shorter.

The extended running times have two purposes, neither of which is the betterment of movies and the movie-going experience. The first is to simply elongate the experience so that families may make a night of the occasion, when it's obviously easier to watch movies at home. With running lengths for family-oriented fare are typically between two and three hours, it's a better timekiller. The second purpose is to flatter the fans of all this adapted material, be they teenage comic book nerds or geriatric fans of C.S. Lewis.

With more running time, more details from the book can be included. This is backwards thinking. A successful movie adaptation does not adhere to the source work as closely as possible, it transforms it into what works best as a movie. It may be the case that some adaptation require a long running time, as in Lord of the Rings, but Narnia and Harry Potter nowhere near the page length, nor the depth of detail, that necessitate an epic running time.

In the case of superhero fans, there is a perverse sense of legitimacy which emanates from a superhero flick inflicting a long running length on the general public. They first felt it with Superman(1978) at 2 hours 20 minutes, and Batman(1989) at a little over 2 hours, but this was unusual at both times. Now the new Batman is 2 hours 20 minutes and the new Superman is 2 hours and 34 minutes. You wouldn't think that extra baby fat would be noticed, but when the movie is as bad as Begins or Spider-Man 3 you really tend to notice.

Ang Lee's 2003 "The Hulk," which I haven't seen, surprised everyone by also running 2 hours and 20 minutes, bearing the question "Are we supposed to hold all superheroes at equal movie length stature?" No, and every Marvel film starring the lower strata of popular characters (The Punisher, Daredevil, Fantastic Four) has either been aimed at 1.5 hours or has had 20-30 minutes chopped off the original cut to keep things under the 2 hour mark. The director's cuts are all available on dvd.

In another avenue of emotionally stunted adult obsession over juvenilia, the new Star Wars films began with a 2 hour 13 minute runtime in 1999 and climbed to 2 hours and 20 minutes in 2002 and 2005. The original trilogy began with a 2 hour movie, then ran slightly over 2 hours in the sequel The Empire Strikes Back and up to 2 hours 14 minutes in Return of the Jedi. The longest runtime of the originals is the shortest runtime of the new. I was enough of a sucker to see all three new entries at the theater these past few years, and felt the full length of every minute.

What are we to make of a trilogy like Pirates of the Caribbean, which shot from 2 hours and 23 minutes in 2003 to 2.5 hours in 2006 to 2 hours and 48 minutes in 2007? The first of them was enough for me, but a common complaint I've heard from viewers of the others is that the plot is incomprehensible and arbitrary. This doesn't surprise me, and points up the essential phoniness of all these "epic" lengths (the only real qualifier for parodied films in Epic Movie). The extra lengths are simply super size me extra-value meal options to leave you fuller. At no point should we presume this is added nutrition.

Genre movie scripts are already prone to being flimsy excuses for stringing one action sequence to another for 90 minutes. Genre movie scripts which must come up with 3 hours worth of quips and explosions for Johnny Depp to run through are stretched even thinner. Rings, Potter, Star Wars, Narnia and superhero movies may have extra source material details to spare, but the light weight of Pirates compared to it's running time only lays out bare naked the gratuitousness of "epic fantasy" movie-making.

The height of this often pretentious folly came from Peter Jackson himself, the man whose film trilogy made the trend possible. 2005's King Kong is the second replication of the svelte 1 hour 40 minute original from 1933 and runs a whopping THREE HOURS AND SEVEN MINUTES. Egotism and baby boomer aching for lost childhood run through all the aforementioned franchises but Pirates. Jackson caught a fit of these things and approached the remaking of his childhood favorite with the obscenely large scale system he'd laid in place with Rings.

To remake your favorite movie changing no major details except softening up the villain and spending a million dollars on every brick of production design, you've conceded two things: That you have nothing to bring to a new version of your favorite but a higher budget, and that your fandom authorizes you to improve upon the original. Did he think that directing several epic length movies that he could make another successful epic length film on any subject of his choosing? Yes, and he unwisely chose a film from an era that knew the economy of plot.

Sheesh, no wonder Quentin Tarantino felt it incumbent upon himself to release one shitty four hour movie in two halves over two years, and then remind the world he's a worse director than Robert Rodriguez by creating another waste of time for epic length. In each separate work he witlessly combines materials designed for brevity.

Inland Empire might be three hours, but that's okay. Appearing gratuitous is part of its charm. Since Lynch is self-distrubuting, his long-denied opportunity to have an epic length cut of a new film release has come true. I feel happy for him, seeing as he tried with a lost 4 hour cut of Dune, a lost half hour of additional footage for Blue Velvet, and a substatially longer and lost film festival cut of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Cronenberg against interpretation

From Cronenberg on Cronenberg, published by Faber & Faber (also publishers of Burton on Burton)

"You can interpret anything in the light of a particularly dogmatic stance, whether it's Freudian or Marxist or whatever. You can rigorously apply these standards to any work or person or thing or newspaper or article, and then judge the artefact as wanting or not wanting. But is that really the function or criticism? I don't think so. Why should I be beaten over the head by what was written about me in The American Nightmare. What Robin Wood says is 'these are good film-makers who are reactionary'. I don't think that's what art's about, or what criticism is about."

"Dissecting my films to look for one little thing is killing them in the process. That's what I resent. That's what special-interest groups do: cut them apart. You hope that people will respond on many levels. If one level offends them and touches a political nerve, they have to be aware that if they focus on that - one element of the film to the exclusion of everything else - they'll have a very lopsided response to the film."

The remark on Robin Wood is one of my favorites since he's a preferred authority amongst Film Studies academics to cite for Marxist purposes. Both he and Cronenberg are Canadian.