Friday, February 22, 2013

The Oscars: a cinephile's thoughts

(If you don't know what "cinephile" means and entails, then you're probably much too out of your element to be reading this posting.)

Perhaps the most appropriate response to anyone asking me what I think of this coming Sunday's Academy Awards would be, "I don't think of them."  To explain the basis for this, in full, would involve a systematized presentation best reserved for non-blog publication.  Anyway, I have some rather simple criteria for assessing the merits of a film with an eye to the long-run and history.  The first and most important is, "How likely am I to watch this film again, in the not-distant future?"  That necessarily includes a question: "Is this film useful for purposes of formulating future philosophical and cultural commentaries?"  That automatically cuts way down on the number of films that I think can stand the test of time, in this year's (or any other years') Academy Awards contest.  Another criterion, this mainly for assessing the greatness of past films, is how many times I've actually watched a film.  Having seen Taxi Driver half a dozen times or so, I'm not as likely to watch that again before I watch P.T. Anderson's The Master again (which I intend to do as soon as it comes out on Blu-Ray).  To say I've seen a movie half a dozen times or so would suggest (though not confirm) that I've familiarized myself with it enough not to need to see it again soon.  Point being, that I've seen Taxi Driver that many times and The Master so few, means an adjustment needs to be made for viewing opportunities.  I'll need more time and opportunity to tell for sure whether The Master belongs in the pantheon of great films along with Taxi Driver.

(Speaking of the motion picture pantheon: having just re-watched Michael Mann's Heat, I would place it right up there.  An effing masterpiece of plot-theme-characterization-style integration in which every major character gets more or less what's coming to her/him.  Even better, heroism is evident there.  I had seen it twice or thrice before, but it gets better with additional viewings.  Never mind the cheesy-ish '80s-ish soundtrack; actually, embrace it: it's part of the mastery.  The Pacino/De Niro coupling alone almost certainly makes it a must-see for anyone interested in movies.  I mean, like, duhhh!  [This looks promising.])

Out of the ten nominated films this year, I have seen three of them so far - Django Unchained, Lincoln, and Silver Linings Playbook.  To weed these out: I got the point of Lincoln the first time around; don't need to see it again.  (This is the case for a great many historical or bio-pics.)  Also, it's Spielberg, and I usually don't need to see a Spielberg film more than once these days (if I even see it - amazingly enough, I missed out on War of the Worlds!).  Silver Linings Playbook was good, but certainly not worthy of the Oscar-buzzy 8 nominations.  I'd see it again, but I don't know when.  Its director, David O. Russell, doesn't have a particularly distinguished film-directing career.  Among his other films, I'd be most likely to give I (Heart) Huckabees one more chance before deciding whether or not it's worth a damn.  This leaves Django, which is recycled Tarantino, which does tell me this: I could see it again before all that long, just as I've seen Basterds twice, which was just about the right fill for me (and Django is basically Basterds pt. 2).

Indeed, at an unlikely online resource for movies which carries more credibility with me than any other (and which I'd rather not reveal here, in order to help keep it as exclusive as possible), the top three movies of 2012 are Django, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Master.  I'll take the combination of these three over the three nominees that I've seen, without the slightest hesitation.  (I haven't seen the odds-on front-runner, Argo, but I will on home video; would I ever need to see it more than once?  I have my doubts....)

My approach to these things is rather director-centric, which is natural for a cinephile who accepts more or less an 'auteur' theory of filmmaking - that a film succeeds best as art (as distinguished from entertainment) when it reflects an integral directorial vision, and succeeds even better when it reflects a comprehensive or completist (or perfectionist/perfectivist) approach to the craft, which works out best in proportion to how intellectual the director is.  By that standard, the un-nominated The Master easily outdoes these other three nominated pictures, in terms of value for future cultural and philosophical commentary.  (I envision it being to the Academy's 2012 performance what 2001 is to the Academy's 1968 farce.)  If that doesn't tell you a good deal about the true value of a film (vs. what's popular among the general public or in the academy), then I don't know what does.

Anyway, who are the greatest living English-language directors, by that standard?  To get into a full explanation would, again, require a systematized treatment.  Here's the rough list, followed by key films and the approximate number of times I've watched them:

Scorsese - Taxi Driver (6+), Casino (3+), Gangs of New York (3), Goodfellas (3), Raging Bull (3), Mean Streets (2)

Coppola - Godfather (3+), G2 (3+), Apocalypse Now (3+), The Conversation (2)

Malick - Tree of Life (1), The Thin Red Line (2), The New World (2), Days of Heaven (2+), Badlands (2)

Coens - Lebowski (10+), Miller's Crossing (3+), Fargo (3+), The Man Who Wasn't There (3+), A Serious Man (2), No Country for Old Men (2; more Cormac McCarthy than Coen?)

Lynch - Eraserhead (3), Blue Velvet (2 or 3), Mulholland Dr. (4-ish), The Elephant Man (2), The Straight Story (2)

P.T. Anderson - The Master (1), Punch-Drunk Love (3), There Will Be Blood (3), Magnolia (2), Boogie Nights (2)

Woody Allen - Annie Hall (3), Manhattan (2), Crimes and Misdemeanors (2), Bullets over Broadway (2), Match Point (1), Love and Death (1)

Tarantino - Pulp Fiction (4+), Reservoir Dogs (2+), Jackie Brown (2)

Clint Eastwood - Unforgiven (2), Million Dollar Baby (1), A Perfect World (1), Gran Torino (1)

Terry Gilliam - Brazil (2, and more to come), The Fisher King (2-ish, ditto), Twelve Monkeys (2), Fear and Loathing (1; more Hunter S. Thompson than Gilliam?)

Wes Anderson - The Royal Tenenbaums (2, and more to come), Rushmore (ditto), Moonrise Kingdom (1), Life Aquatic (2)

Polanski - Chinatown (3), Repulsion (2-ish) The Tenant (2), The Pianist (1)

Ridley Scott - The Duellists (3-ish), Blade Runner (3-ish), Alien (1 or 2), Thelma & Louise (1?) Gladiator (1?), Matchstick Men (1; would see again)

Spielberg - Schindler's List (3), Saving Private Ryan (2), Empire of the Sun (1), The Color Purple (1)

Peter Weir - Picnic at Hanging Rock (3+), Dead Poets Society (2), Fearless (2), The Truman Show (2)

Nicolas Roeg - Don't Look Now (3-ish), Walkabout (2), The Man Who Fell to Earth (2)

Rob Reiner - Princess Bride (3+), Spinal Tap (2; will watch again), Stand by Me (2; more S. King than Reiner?)

Hal Hartley - Henry Fool (3+), Trust (1; will watch again), Simple Men (ditto), The Unbelievable Truth (ditto)

Alexander Payne - Election (5-ish), About Schmidt (1 so far), Sideways (ditto), The Descendants (1)

David Fincher - Fight Club (3+; more Chuck P. than Fincher?), Se7en (2 or 3)

That's twenty directors, anyway.  The likes of Christopher Nolan are marginal at best for inclusion here.

For comparison: I've seen the seven Kubrick films from Strangelove onward between 4 and 8 times apiece.

Anyway, that's what I think of this year's Oscars.  And you'll probably learn more of serious relevance about them right here than just about anywhere else you look.
"Checkmate, assholes." - Stanley Kubrick to the Academy
P.S. "Never pay any attention to what critics say. Remember, a statue has never been set up in honor of a critic." - Jean Sibelius
(take that, Ms. Kael, ya effing philistine)