Snob Stories

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There are few things more annoying to me than an art snob. That endless debate about high and low art where the snobs turn their nose up at specific artistic endeavors – meaning the commercial kind, the childish kind or even the basic kind – in favor of what they perceive to be masterworks that have not gained mainstream acceptance. This group also doubly bridles when others often criticize their masterworks for being slow-moving, esoteric, sad, depressing, overly intellectual, confusing, distancing or, at the end of the day, just plain boring.

This argument cuts equally the other way. For there are also those who are consistently determined to leave what little bits of brains they have remaining at the door and dismiss anything on film, television, the stage or even at a museum that challenges them to spend more than a second or two pondering or, heaven forbid, processing its meaning. The adjectives this group – the anti-snob snobs — apply to their hate list usually begins with pretentious and ends with high-fallutin’.’ Translation: Anything that doesn’t immediately make me laugh or cry is beyond the ability of a reasonable person (Note: ME) to understand and enjoy and therefore is not worth my time. This, too, is snobbery, but of the mainstream kind.

Ugh. Is this movie in black and white?

Ugh. Is this movie in black and white?

Of course, neither of these forms of elitisms is to be confused with the most treacherous – the financial and/or critical version. Meaning the amount of money a creative effort makes in relation to the cost or how many experts write complimentarily and eloquently about it is the real bottom line of its value???

Uh, no.

Simply put, just because your latest favorite film has grossed a billion dollars worldwide is not tangible evidence it is great. Money is not necessarily proof of artistic talent. It is evidence of a talent for moneymaking. Similarly, a handful of rave reviews from your fellow intellectuals and/or critics who always agree with you does not prove the new piece of cinema which didn’t get theatrical or even VOD distribution but you so, so enjoyed is better than anything playing at any random multiplex anywhere in the world. Nor does it give you a pass to boast voluntary ignorance or giggle derisively when someone mentions it might be worth your time to check out a really fab new limited TELEVISION series they saw with their kids and spouse at home one Saturday afternoon while lounging on the sofa.

#goaway

#goaway

Full confession: I was a film and television critic for Variety many decades ago and used to fight these battles daily with fellow co-workers, studio executives and other critics – as well as with many in my family and friends. There is a reason why the saying, Everybody has two businesses – their business and show business has stood the test of time. People get very emotional and are very invested with what they find good and bad on the cultural landscape.

This is why comments by Variety’s chief film critic this week proclaiming his total ignorance about contemporary television – as well as an article in Filmmaker magazine that boldly declared TV IS NOT THE NEW FILM (Note: You could almost hear the writer shouting it off the page) really got my goat. Oh, and add to that writer/director Ethan Coen’s response to a question at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where along with his brother Joel he served as grand jury president, about the much-acclaimed TV series version of their hit film Fargo.

It’s not that I don’t like TV. It’s alien to me.  I haven’t watched a television show in decades. 

…..he said proudly.

Oh yes, he was just being honest. The same way Variety’s Justin Chang was truthful when he wrote about the Cinema vs. Television debate in a gee whiz sort of way:

I would have to bone up on years of neglected TV watching before I could hazard a guess — as it stands, it feels like an apples-and-oranges comparison, and one where I don’t have the clearest idea what oranges taste like.

I suppose this was better than what Mike S. Ryan proclaimed in Filmmaker.

As much as I love Breaking Bad, The Wire, Mad Men or Twin Peaks, as great and as groundbreaking as those shows were, they are still not Cinema.

Oh, why is it whenever anyone says or writes the word cinema I want to stick my tongue down their throats and get them to spit up a hairball?

Preach

Preach

The reason this has surfaced is that the upcoming Toronto Film Festival has decided to follow the lead of other film festivals all over the world and feature one of two programs this year devoted to television i.e. the pilot episodes of several new series viewers will be treated to later in the year.

The immediate reaction of critics like Chang is to sniff they were just too busy with CINEMA to watch contemporary television, even the superior kind. It seems like it’s even the inferred response of a prominent film artist like Mr. Coen, who treats the mere mention of the medium as some rare oddity from outer space he, as an earthling and non-scientist, has just not had the time or education to get familiar with.

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Frankly, I’m amazed at these reactions.

Certainly everyone has the right to sample what they choose to or have time for. We’re lucky to live in a world where there are so many possibilities of art to sample with the click of a button. But this is the same reason for any evolving artist and/or critic to try and take a little bit more time to survey the contemporary world if they want to continue to remain interesting, or even relevant.

This past week I stood in front of three different small groups of students in the first classes in the college semester where I will guide them as they formulate and execute any number of screenplays, television pilots and spec episodes of existing series. These are all smart, aware and active young people in their early twenties and it might or might not surprise you to know that the vast majority of them only very sporadically go out to the movies or watch a television series at the precise moment its network or cable outlet decides to first air it. Nor do they particularly care whether they view what they eventually watch on a big screen, laptop, iPad or smart phone. Oh sure, there are the occasional events, or motion pictures that must be seen large or viewed as early as possible. But these are rare. Like – VERY rare.

Like this...

Like this…

And studio executives take note – the two most repeated words I heard in all of our conversations about which movies and TV shows they liked and watched (Note: Yes, they all did BOTH!) were:

HULU and NETFLIX.

Unless one wants to write about or create art rooted or set solely in the past it might be nice for those at the top of their game in either of these fields to take note of some of the above. It does not mean you are betraying Renoir, Tarkovsky or Chantal Akerman. Anymore than it means you are turning your back on The Real Housewives if every now and then you decide to go to your local art house or streaming service and check in to see what Andrew Bujaski or the Dardenne brothers are up to.

As for the high vs. low art issue, I for one refuse to get into a debate over whether The Hangover is better than Breaking Bad, if the first season of True Detective had camerawork and imagery that would indeed rival the latest Terrence Malick film or if Guardians of the Galaxy was more enjoyable than any one episode of Mad Men or even The Sopranos. I mean, who really gives a shi damn???

Oh who am I kidding? The answer is ALWAYS Mad Men. #EmmyforHamm

Oh who am I kidding? The answer is ALWAYS Mad Men. #EmmyforHamm

Yes, I’d rather watch Breaking Bad on a loop for the next three years than to have to sit through another Hangover even one more time. But I have actually seen the first two (Note: Ok, not all three) Hangover films. Not to mention all of the above choices, even the last few from the brilliant Malick – a director I really have to take a rest from before I become one the very kind of lazy, non-thinkers I’ve warned my students (and all of you) not to become.

See, sometimes it’s not enough to simply be aware of your tendency toward marginalizing, judgment or limited thinking in the art world. You actually need to make an effort to get off the couch or your soapbox, or flop down onto your couch and put on the TV. You’re free not to do that. But if so, please spare us your snob stories.

 

Ying/Yang: Katniss and Llewyn

Two hep "Cats"

Two hep “Cats”

In the last week I went to the U.S. premiere of Hunger Games: Catching Fire and its very lavish after party, as well as to a screening of the new Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which was followed by a panel where Ethan and Joel Coen, the soon to not-be-unknown actor in the title role, Oscar Isaac, his co-star and already known fellow actor John Goodman, as well as several others with the film, spoke.

So, how was all of this?  Well, um, equally dull and exciting; smart and dumb; provocative, entertaining and just plain cheesy.  In other words, they were pretty much representative of where the movies are today in that they are the extremes on either end of Hollywood’s taste level or lack thereof depending on what side of the taste barometer you choose to reside in (Major Note: These extremes should not be considered good and bad but, more accurately – blatantly commercial vs. purposefully obtuse and odd).

You know.. kind of like what happened here.

You know.. kind of like what happened here.

Before we get into any kind of judgments, or even observation, it is important to be clear at the outset on one general point:

Neither of these experiences makes me a VIP or represent in any way an achievement on my part.If you live and work in Los Angeles and in the entertainment industry in any form –or even know or are peripherally fascinated by those who do – you too will quickly gain access to these kinds of exclusive affairs.  In fact, even if you’re simply in town and make it your mission to be on the lookout for these events, chances are you will eventually rub shoulders with someone or something that can get you in.  On the latter point it is always important to remember that films are part of a multi-billion dollar industry called SHOW business.  This means that unless its puppet masters have enthusiastic people to whom they can show their wares to and spread the (good?) word, their piece of merchandise – or asset, as movies are now referred to by its many MBA schooled agents, producers and studio executives – will die an obscure and, more often than not, premature (at least in their own minds) death.

In a contemporary world where illusions are fast becoming reality – in part thanks to the myriad amount of misinformation in what is supposed to be the age of information, this is essential to remember.  Movies and anything having to do with them are in no way reality.  They are merely meant to be distractions from or reflections of reality.  Therefore, to measure one’s value on how included, or important or isolated one is to or from key cultural events like movie premieres or screenings would be akin to spending your time infuriated that you didn’t get invited to the seemingly fantastic dream your friend, co-worker or enemy told you they had last night.

Just kidding!

Just kidding!

Dreams are personal illusions that are only as real as their dreamers choose to make them to themselves and to you.  The same can be said for movies, movie premieres and screenings AND the people who attend and run them. Plus, just as there will always be another dream – and perhaps better dream of your own personal invention – there will forever and ever be another film (and, one hopes, better film) or film premiere, talkback, screening or some such occasion to which you too will be either invited or personally motivated enough to get into.  (Note: Or even crash… which, if you succeed, certainly counts in the scheme of things since it can make for an even better retelling of a dream you specifically retailored to yourself).

As for the films:

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

HungerGames_Catching-Fire-catching-fire-movie-33836550-1280-673

Vogue.

Jennifer Lawrence has now become America’s fun sister, cool girlfriend, ideal daughter and best friend forever.  It also helps that she is immensely talented.  If you have your doubts, have someone record YOU, in close-ups, holding an oversized bow and arrow while you’re looking into a blank space and see how many real and true emotional expressions you can come up with.  It will be shocking if there is even one we can all believe.  Yet I’m still counting the emotions JLaw had me believing as she steadied her quiver and stared down me and everyone else among the many millions who watched her pull these and many other moves around the world onscreen this weekend.

If you want to make a somewhat silly tent pole studio movie that’s dramatic it helps if you can find someone with movie star qualities who can really act to hang it on.  Warner Bros. found this when they recruited Robert Downey, Jr. for Iron Man and Disney realized it, despite their initial reservations at his effete outrageousness, when they cast Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. Jennifer Lawrence holds this Hunger Games (and probably the upcoming third and fourth installments in the next two years), with these very same attributes, and does it equally well as the guys, if not better.

Oh, she knows it!

Oh, she knows it!

 Certainly, it helps that she is surrounded with a slew of Academy Award winners and nominees in supporting roles – including Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer and any number of other award contenders and just plain really good actors I’m leaving out.  But were it not for JLaw’s ability to hold the screen as the unlikely teen heroine Katniss Everdeen – a kind of tough talking, wild child pioneer girl thrust to reluctant prominence in a dystopic future only because she wants to save her beloved little sister – there would be nothing much of anything to watch here.

One of my students asked me if this film was better than the first HG.  I replied yes, but that I was the wrong person to ask since:

a. I am far, far beyond the target audience these films are intended for and

b. I didn’t read the books and was sort of lost during the first one.

ancient artifacts

ancient artifacts

When I watched the first HG I had no knowledge of anything about this world and couldn’t get past the fact that the wealthy elite running this society chose to dress in powdered wigs and clothes right out of the French Revolution at the time of colonial America.  I mean, if you had all of that money centuries from now wouldn’t you choose fine fabrics and comfort rather than the stiff, heavy armor of the 17th or 18th centuries?  Plus, being the liberal romantic I am I just couldn’t buy that everyone with money in this privileged society had devalued life to the point where they were rooting for large groups of young people to literally kill each other off live on television for entertainment.  Of course, I still can’t believe anyone in America takes Sarah Palin seriously, believes that Ronald Reagan was a great president when he helped usher in the age of AIDS and corporate deregulation, or that Rand Paul doesn’t wear a rug.  So perhaps I’m not the best critic in these types of scenarios.

Yes, HG2 has some clever moments, one in particular involving a Lenny Kravitz designed dress (that’s all you’re getting from me); another where JLaw demonstrates to the powers-that-be just how dangerous she can be with some rope and white plastic in the space of 30 seconds; and a third where Ms. Plummer gives us a few new and original sacred crazy moments she’s become known for throughout her career.

But ultimately, this is called H GAMES for a reason – to present yet another permutation of yet another game.  Oh no – here we go again.  Yup, that’s right.  Deadly stuff comin’ at ya from all directions, no time to rest and little food or drink to be had.  How much of this can we watch?  Well, how many fights did Rocky live to fight, or help fight?  That should give you a pretty good idea.  There are no adjectives – good or bad – to quantify the experience.  Only money.  And…sequels.  Two more at the very least. (Note:  Yes, I know they say there will be ONLY two but c’mon, get real).

As for the premiere itself:

Bad News:

  1. At least 90 minutes to get there and park (one’s own version of HG without death or lethal weapons, assuming you don’t use your car as the latter).
  2. You must surrender your cell phone on arrival because you must go through a metal detector to gain admission.
  3. Once inside and waiting for the film to begin, you have to listen to live commentaries on large projected screens being beamed online by Yahoo that are hosted by three good-looking young Yahoos holding microphones, asking inane questions and referring to JLaw as Katniss Everdeen when we all know she is, as I’ve said, America’s new sister/daughter/bff.

Good News:

Werk girl

Werk girl

  1. The stars are all there (no – I didn’t get to walk the red carpet with them) and ushered out onstage in front of you right before the film. (Note: JLaw wore a cool outfit that looked like a belted Danskin underneath of see-through light blue ball gown. Woody Harrelson, however, wore baggy 80s jeans, a rumpled old T-Shit under an overly long mismatched sport jacket, and a baseball cap).
  2. The food was plentiful and FANTASTIC afterwards.
  3. You walk into the after-party past two lines of men on either side of you who are systematically banging their own timpani drums to exactly the same beats you hear in the movie. It makes you feel like a HG contestant but with no (well, little) risk of getting killed.

Inside Llewyn Davis

Llewyn and a bearded Timberlake

Llewyn and a bearded Timberlake

Let’s get this out of the way first – it’s pronounced Lew-in Davis.  This drove me crazeeeee before seeing the film.  Why couldn’t I pronounce it?  Why did I care that I couldn’t pronounce it?  Why did the Coen Bros. choose to title their film with a word many people couldn’t pronounce and how were they smart and savvy enough to convince the studios and their marketing departments to allow them to do so?

The answer to the latter and many other questions concerning this movie and its makers is, in part, why they are THE Coen brothers and why their films are so strange, iconoclastic and uniquely their own.

Llewyn Davis is a guy we all know and have probably met.  He’s the one who’s brilliant at what he does but is his own worst enemy.  In creative terms, he is the singer/musician who is so hopelessly talented that he moves us less than a minute into his song and infuriates us in pretty much every other moment before or after he’s done singing.  He’s the kind of person who seems to get off on complications, who goes out of his way to sabotage himself and pretty much anyone or anything else he cares about, either accidentally or by design, and yet is also the one who stays in our minds long after he’s gone. He’s the type of guys women dream about being with or are with and the friend other men secretly wish they could be, at least for a day or week or two, for the sheer, unadulterated id of it all, whether they admit it or not.

This type of character is not limited to show business but is perhaps easiest to appreciate and exemplify in the creative arts.  That is because odd behavior is accepted in our world (odd being not so much deemed odd but original) and thus it makes Lew-in weirdly likable and appealing in this film even when he’s doing unappealing and downright strange things.

Well, what is normal anyway?  Especially in the 1961 Greenwich village folk music scene – the pre-Bob Dylan era where NY still had a bit of a small, hometown feel and the idea of being a revolutionary through your music seemed daring and risk taking.  In today’s world, one would actually have to BE a revolutionary – someone who blows things up or participates in real wars – in order to earn that real type of street cred.  Hmmm, perhaps that was the real, underlying appeal of the time period to the Coens, though it’s doubtful you could ever get them to admit to this or much of anything if you asked them.

This would be years before Betty's trip to the Village

This would be years before Betty’s trip to the Village

One has to admire filmmakers like the C Brothers who have managed to make so many unusual movies in the business parameters of today’s industry.  They’ve had Oscar favorites like No Country For Old Men, True Grit and Fargo, cult hits like The Big Lebowski and Barton Fink– all of which I very much enjoyed and/or appreciated to varying degrees.  They have also done movies so oblique or off-putting that they just drown in their own self-awareness – The Ladykillers, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man and Intolerable Cruelty come to mind for me.   They’re infuriating and invigorating all at the same time.  That they exist and that they manage to exist…and yet…that they continue to exist at all – is confounding.

Frick and Frack?

Frick and Frack?

It is then not surprising that watching the Coens answer interview questions about one of their movies for half an hour is no more enlightening about their creative process than the most obscure part of a scene in their strangest, most to difficult to grasp pieces of work (Note: You choose your most favorite, or unfavorite CB moment).

Q: Why did they write about the folk scene in 1961 pre-Bob Dylan’s arrival some years later?

Um, well.  We don’t do icons.  (Long silence).

Um, well, okay.

Q:  Their style of directing, or writing – the way they approach material?

Uh, lots of awkward silences and roundabout answers that I can’t recall because I’m not quite sure they were answers at all.  Perhaps they are Llewyn themselves or individually?  Well, not really because their kind of commercial and critical success would make Llewyn an icon and as they have clearly said – they don’t do icons.

Well, aren't you a special little snowflake?

Well, aren’t you a special little snowflake?

Perhaps it was the interviewer.  The questions to these guys were not the most incisive nor even prepared.  I mean, if you’re going to interview individuals who make this kind of material, wouldn’t you have 5, 10 or even 15 back-up questions just in case they tried to vague the daylights out of you?  This person did not.

On the other hand, there is a game to be played here and most directors, writers and actors in the industry these days play it.  It’s called showing up to screening events – talk backs as they’re called – and with good humor, cheer and some thought, letting people know how a bit more of how you were able to put onscreen what they’ve just seen.  It makes people feel appreciated and a bit more a part of your process and shows how you got there.   And in places like the Motion Picture Academy it gets them to perhaps nominate you for an Oscar – or even vote for you to win.  You make a deal to show up for the studio at the same time they make the deal that allows you to make and/or distribute their movie.

Well, at the very least the Coens did show up and perhaps that’s enough.  Or maybe it’s not.  I mean, what do awards mean anyway?  Okay, let’s not go there.

Well, they certainly don't hurt.

Well, they certainly don’t hurt.

What’s more important is perhaps learning about the process of filmmaking from people who are among the best at it.  Hmm, not sure that happened.  Though at some point they did admit that neither one of them were the best at talking about how they do what they do.  Which might have been the most revealing and honest moment of the interview.  Certainly, it was among the most memorable.

In this context – and granted I’m making this all up as I go – perhaps one could think of Llewyn Davis (the character) as a version of the Coens were they not as savvy in getting their work out to the powers that be and as fortunate to have ridden the wave of quirky and then broader commercial success.  One needs to possess talent, timing and some sense of respect and savvy to those in the business of show, especially when you’re starting out, in order to succeed.  Llewyn Davis possessed only one of these.  The Coens, in their own individual way, possess ALL of these.

About the film:

Good News:

  1. Oscar Isaac, who has up to this point only done supporting roles in movies, does a real star turn here.  He’s an excellent singer and riveting screen presence who is in practically every moment of the film.   It’s worth seeing for him alone.
  2. The look for the film – seemingly black and white but not, and the evocation of the time period – is sadly beautiful and thoroughly realistic in its stylized manner.  Get a bunch of contemporary films about the sixties and watch them and note the differences.  LD doesn’t pretend to be the sixties, it simply IS the sixties
  3. The film has an excellent sound track with original music composed and vintage music chosen by T-Bone Burnett.
  4. The running time is 105 minutes.  Few films should be over two hours.  Unless I choose to make one sometime in the future.

Bad News:

  1. There are few feel good moments (though perhaps this is good news) and you won’t leave singing a happy tune.
  2. Few big relationships or moments are played out to emotion satisfaction or, really, to completion.
  3. Cat lovers might get a bit nervous throughout, though in the crawl there is a statement by the Humane Association that no animals were harmed in the making of this film.
NEXT STOP:  Saving Mr. Banks and American Hustle… Stay tuned.