by Allan Fish
At this time of year, with the “bah humbugs” behind us, time to reflect…and I find Scrooge is alive and well…
It’s strange to be putting fingers to keyboard again. There’s an old joke about making plans being the surest way to make the almighty laugh. My plans had been to do a lot of rewatching and reviewing through December to meet a deadline. I’d been looking forward to the period since the summer, but like Alex après Ludovico Technique, “as quick as a shot came the sickness, like a detective that had been watching around the corner and now followed to make his arrest.” The flu stuck around for two weeks, like a party guest at a mansion so inebriated that he woke up in the west wing a fortnight after the event not knowing where the hell he was. The resultant coughing fits were enough to put Derek and Clive to shame and resulted in the pay-dirt of laryngitis and the sort of inability to sleep worthy of Edward Norton’s protagonist in Fight Club. After quercetin, perotin, pholcodine, paracetamol, covonia, ibuprofen, amoxycillin and the ghastly Kilkof (I’m sure it does, it nearly killed me) I thought I’d put digits to plastic while I could.
In my absence I’ve missed the usual wrangling over 10 Best Lists and frantic last minute watching of films that, nine times out of ten, probably weren’t good enough, and even then, the list changes by the hour as something else comes to mind that you forgot. I deplore year end lists simply because I don’t follow the rules of US critics of having to be shown in their country at that time. I remember the laughable state of affairs of some critics who should know better including Melville’s The Army of Shadows in their 2005 poll because it hadn’t been seen in New York prior to then. For me, the year is the year it was first seen, pure and simple. But that’s another story, for it’s rather the deliberation process itself that brings me circuitously to my point.
From what I have seen of it, 2010 has been a mediocre year. One look at Sam’s predicted top 10 contenders will show you that half of them are actually 2009 foreign entries (Lourdes, White Material, Mademoiselle Chambon, etc). And, to be honest, having seen all three, I can’t say I’m really a serious fan of either. I can see why dear old Sam loved Lourdes, it’s almost Bressonian in its restraint. The problem is that it goes nowhere; Bressonian doesn’t make it Bresson. Looking over the list of 2010 films I feel like General Melchett in Blackadder Goes Forth when looking at a map of the Western Front and muttering “God, it’s a barren featureless desert out there.” He was looking at the wrong side of the map, and I here ask myself, am I looking at the wrong side of the map?
Take the directors regarded as masters. Scorsese is seen as the best American director, but one cannot escape a feeling that he’s making films increasingly with old classics in mind and has been for the best part of two decades; The Age of Innocence was his homage to Visconti, Casino a homage to himself, Gangs of New York a film out of time and place, The Aviator a chance to homage pictorial styles of the 1930s and 40s, The Departed had enough references to old classics (my favourite to The Third Man in a cemetery scene) to sink Cameron’s liner and was, like Cape Fear, a remake, and Shutter Island went as far back as Caligari. There are good films in there, but can anyone truly say they are not the work of a master on autopilot, a ghost of film-making past, a past when Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen were masters, a fact that anyone who had seen only their output post circa 1990 would find impossible to comprehend.
Then there’s Spielberg, the ultimate master by his own convictions. Schindler’s List was seventeen years ago and was an exceptional if faintly manipulative movie which, let us not forget, was a story about hope, about the successful saving of several hundred Jews for which the extermination of several million was merely a backdrop (a point even his friend Stanley Kubrick was quick to make). Keyser Soze would be proud of how Spielberg has convinced the world he’s the master film-maker. He’s certainly a master at utilising the vox populi, but look at the output since; ghastly dinosaur and Indiana Jones sequels with no redeeming features whatsoever, the prototype virtual reality war of Saving Private Ryan, as conventional a war movie as even the most partisan propaganda of 1940s Hollywood offered, the embarrassing Amistad, the thoroughly mediocre Munich, the even worse War of the Worlds and the misguided Minority Report. The only saving grace was A.I., and he all but ruined that with that awful last act, drawing himself back from the abyss into his usual comfort zone.
It goes further, as witness Ridley Scott’s latest production line effort being no longer a thing to salivate over but groan about. Gladiator was great entertainment for the masses, but no-one’s idea of great cinema, even if compared to Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood it might seem to be. Everything else made in between, meanwhile, not being worthy of getting out of bed for, let alone going to the cinema to see. A decade ago Oliver Stone was seen as a master, but when you have never actually made a great film and your last half decent one was Nixon fifteen years ago, you can consider serious interest in your work being pretty much vaporised. Michael Mann has his admirers, but he is the perfect representation of what is wrong in cinema today. Not forgetting Clint Eastwood, who we are supposed to be grateful towards for still working at 80, but for whom Unforgiven was his best and final say and everything since not worthy of cleaning the mud from Will Munny’s boots. When the likes of Mystic River and Letters from Iwo Jima are being proclaimed the work of a master, I begin to wonder whether certain critics know what a master really is. He’s a fine old-school craftsman capable of gems, but he’s on the level of Henry King, Clarence Brown or Henry Hathaway, safe directors pf prestige productions but let no-one mistake them for Welles, Ford or Hawks.
Then there’s David Cronenberg, often seen as one of modern cinema’s masters, but while I admire Crash’s burning-ice eroticism, admired aspects of Eastern Promises and think Spider may grow with age, I cannot embrace the likes of A History of Violence or Dead Ringers (despite Jeremy Irons’ legendary performance(s)) as anything remotely approaching mastery and the rest of his entire catalogue I could happily do without. His countryman Atom Egoyan meanwhile has been in freefall for over a decade. David Lynch is another matter, but even he seems to be taking audiences to their limits and seems now to have lost interest in cinema entirely. He’s 64 now, so can he muster the enthusiasm to keep pushing the boundaries? How much further can he take them after Inland Empire?
Even the shining light of the early nineties Quentin Tarantino has fallen to pattern, making cool films that he would like to see if he was a viewer, not realising that he isn’t the viewer, we are. Since Pulp Fiction, despite the technical proficiency of the first Kill Bill, I wouldn’t give you ten cents for the rest of his output and see no reason to believe that he’s going to change my mind any time soon. This is a world that has proclaimed Gus Van Sant a master (God help us), seen Wes Anderson as the next bright thing (who cares that he’s never made a satisfactory film), and worships James Cameron and Peter Jackson. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Lord of the Rings as much as the next man, but do I have any reason to believe that Jackson is anything other than one of the accepted, and that having crossed his Rubicon, or climbed his Mount Doom, the mediocrity of masterhood will not strike him down, too. While any self-respecting person who finds real merit in the likes of Titanic or Avatar needs to have a “TO LET” sign nailed into their cranium. A generation that praised Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich and Traffic (disposable, both) but neglected The Girlfriend Experience, that praised Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger and Brokeback Mountain – admittedly excellent films – but totally shunned what was easily his masterpiece, Lust, Caution.
For sure, there are talents amongst the up and comers, those with potential to rival the Coen Brothers in years to come; Darren Aronofsky, Noah Baumbach, Sam Mendes (if he doesn’t fall back to the theatre), Sofia Coppola, Andrew Dominik (if he doesn’t get disheartened at The Assassination of Jesse James‘ criminal neglect), Todd Haynes (if he avoids the pit of his own pretension), Alexander Payne (though let’s go back to the acid of Election, for About Schmidt was a backwards step and Sideways did exactly what it said in the title, despite the praise), Christopher Nolan (if he would only learn the lesson of Inception and give people a denouement, a prestige, worthy of them, rather than have his whole plot disappear up itself like it had turned into Synecdoche, New York), David Fincher (if he avoids the Benjamin Buttons of this world and is wise enough to know the praise for The Social Network is undeserved) and Paul Thomas Anderson, the one with surely the most potential, both for greatness and disillusionment, of the lot.
TV has again become a major rival, with series like The Wire and Deadwood matching and surpassing just about anything in American film in the last decade (ditto Red Riding and In a Land of Plenty in the UK), while as I write, of the five 2010 works I rate at ****½ and include in my book (I have seen no ***** work), four are from TV (Five Daughters, This is England ’86, The Trip and Carlos), while the other, A Serbian Film, is so repellent that one would be hard-pushed to recommend it to anyone. Films such as Winter’s Bone are decent enough, but lack entirely any real originality. Even Toy Story 3, which was clever enough and funny, was predictable. What did it REALLY have to offer that the superior first two instalments hadn’t already done? Nothing.
In Blighty the situation is little different. The likes of Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay and Shane Meadows are fine talents, but can they avoid a sense of repetition? Brilliantly observed films about working class people are all well and good, but the anticipation becomes less prevalent until one develops almost nonchalance towards them as has now been the case with Mike Leigh and especially Ken Loach for some time (the same could also be said of their Francophone contemporaries, the Dardenne brothers). They’re part of the institution when they were so much better outside in the cold looking in. Peter Greenaway made his best film in decades with Nightwatching, but who saw it? Terence Davies is still on the outside, but masterful though Of Time and the City was, one was left with a sense of frustration and bitterness that he was unable to find backers for the work he doubtless still wants to make. It viewed like an elegy to his own career as much as the Liverpool of his youth. (He was not alone, though, even poor lamented Satoshi Kon struggled to find finance for his work, including that he was working on at the time of his death.)
Then there’s the increased proliferation of documentaries, which is a really worrying sign. Don’t get me wrong, these documentaries tell stories that need telling, but most of them are pure TV really. A perfect example being Adam Curtis’ political piece The Power of Nightmares, made for British TV but shown in some US art house cinemas. Many rate them masterpieces of the art, but can we really compare them to the work of Marcel Ophuls, Joris Ivens, Alain Resnais, Leni Riefenstahl, Pare Lorentz, Humphrey Jennings, Frederick Wiseman, Chris Marker, Dziga Vertov, or even modern TV masterpieces by Ken Burns. One can admire the likes of Iraq in Fragments, Taxi to the Dark Side and their ilk well enough, but if you want a great political documentary, try Patricio Guzman’s The Battle of Chile or Solanas’ The Hour of the Furnaces. Let’s not mistake perfunctory excellence with greatness, people. In the words of Malcolm Tucker, “wake up and smell the cock!” That way when something magnificent does come along – like Wang Bing’s Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks – we can really rejoice. These documentaries are the equivalent of many an uplifting Hollywood movie whose story moves but whose camera too often doesn’t. Great documentaries go beyond merely telling the story, that should be taken for granted.
Only a week or two ago, when I posted my piece on Enter the Void, I referred to Gaspar Noé as an event film-maker, and one commentee – Jamie, I think – pondered what directors others see as event film-makers. For me, in American film, probably only Lynch and Malick (their long hiatuses between films having something to do with that), then Noé, Von Trier, Wong Kar-Wai, Sokurov and Haneke. I’d add Lav Diaz, but opportunities are so few and far between the event becomes impossible get invited to (like getting to see Wagner at Beyreuth and just about as long to sit through), while Tsai Ming-Liang, Abbas Kiarostami, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Lucrecia Martel and Nuri Bilge Ceylan are so eclectic that one can hardly call their works events. One admires them as one admires Rothko paintings, works that seem to mesmerise you to an inner void. Black hole cinema, if you like.
In France, who is left of the old masters – Resnais, Godard, Rivette, all past 80 as I speak – and their work increasingly recalls Browning’s Ozymandias. In the next generation or two there are Leconte, Chéreau, Tavernier, Denis, Téchine, Assayas, Audiard, Jeunet, Breillat, Desplechin, Ozon and Jaoui (I’ll leave Noé out for now). The result is that we live in an age where the likes of 35 Shots of Rum, Summer Hours, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, Rois et Reine and The Last Mistress can be proclaimed masterworks. Without wishing to be insulting, I don’t ask for Renoir, but Duvivier at least would be nice. In Italy, Bertolucci and Bellocchio are still working, but if Vincere was well received, it was only because Bellocchio had fallen into such a black hole over the recent few decades we wondered whether he was still alive. In Germany Wenders seems to have retired, to all intents and purposes, Herzog prefers the life of the nomad and hasn’t made a great film in nigh on 30 years and the new generation (von Donnersmarck, Hirschbiegel, Tykwer) follow the dubious example of Wolfgang Petersen and get blinded by the lights of Hollywood before they have had chance to develop their craft further in their own tongue. The age of Fassbinder working three lives in half of one and of Syberberg’s monumental Nietzschean epics seems an aeon ago. In Spain meanwhile, Almodóvar’s embracing by Hollywood hides the fact that he’s perhaps had his day, while Julio Medem and Alejandro Amenabar have not quite lived up to their promise. Austria has Götz Spielmann and Ulrich Seidl, Sweden have Roy Andersson (after three decades in the wilderness) and Lukas Moodysson (if he can avoid the path taken in his last three works) both capable of great things, Mexico has del Toro, Reygadas, Cuaron and Iñarritu, either one of which could prove a master if they stay aware from the lure of Hollywood. Australian ex-pat Peter Weir is still there in the background, but another masterpiece looks unlikely from one so hit and miss and Jane Campion could still make a comeback, but will have to do better than the rather rarefied Bright Star, beautiful to look at and well-acted by Abbie Cornish, but seemingly inflicted by the same consumption that killed Keats. In China Zhang Ke-Jia remains an acquired taste, Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou have drifted away and Jiang Wen has gone into virtual obscurity, while Japan have Kore-Eda, Sono, Kurosawa and Nakashima. But can either really prove worthy successors to the masters of modern (post 1960) Japanese film, Oshima, Masumura and especially Yoshida? Then there’s Korea, but are Kim Ki-duk and Park Chan-wook really the masters of tomorrow? I sincerely doubt it.
How can film-makers develop their own identity in the face of so much depressing, tabloid-style so-called criticism, where a talent is instantly called the new such-a-body and their film described in the payoff as “like…..meets…” Is it any wonder that true originality, true lightning bolts of brilliance get lost in the shuffle. As a case in point, the best film of the last decade, Shion Sono’s Love Exposure, remains virtually unknown in the US. Even Sam, who bought a copy after I placed it number one in the poll in July, still hasn’t watched it to the best of my knowledge as, for him, the film doesn’t exist until it makes it to a big screen. The desire to stay on top of new releases is just too much, he’s like Pacman but with Manhattan as his game screen and movie ticket stubs in place of dots, replenished not with occasional flashes of fruit but with egg whites.
So what is the problem? A lack of truly encompassing criticism for one, as many of the younger generation of critics just don’t have the necessary grounding in cinematic history. Criticism is no longer about a voice read by followers religiously. It’s rather about a voice who gives the target readership what they want to read. A populace drawn by what worthless sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic says, or periodicals from Variety to Empire. If they’re gospel, give me the apocrypha.
Let me take an example. Surveyed in 2005, Empire readers listed the 25 greatest directors of all time as Steven Spielberg, Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Akira Kurosawa, Peter Jackson, Quentin Tarantino, Orson Welles, Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, David Lean, The Coen Brothers (despite Joel being the actual director until recently), James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone, Sergio Leone, John Ford, Billy Wilder and Sam Peckinpah. No-one could deny any of them (well, maybe Stone, Tarantino and Cameron) a place in the Hall of Fame, but only one foreign director (simply because Kurosawa did cool things with samurai swords, mention Ikiru to them and the same people who voted for him would look at you with a blank expression like you’ve just asked them to recite Newton’s second law of motion) and only four directors in the list who made all their best films before 1960 (with Kurosawa and Kubrick overlapping that date). And seeing names like Robert Zemeckis, Brian DePalma, Tony Scott, Tim Burton, George Lucas, Ron Howard and M.Night Shyamalan in amongst the nearlies (along with Lang, Hawks and Bergman), with all due respect to them, it just makes me do a Howard Beale and head for the nearest window.
Some say blogging is killing regular criticism, but in truth it’s often improving it. Sure, there are people undertaking monumental tasks online they are not prepared for, but there is a lot of respected and respectful writing out there in the blogosphere which threatens mainstream criticism as potently as the asteroid threatened the dinosaurs. It sounds condescending, but we really need to educate people about the true quality of great film, because we’re in danger of a generation who think of Star Wars, Jaws, Halloween and The Exorcist as their monuments. Van Gogh, Renoir and Monet are all well and good, but let’s not pretend that Caravaggio, Raphael, Vermeer and Rembrandt never existed. Education was the mission statement of my book, and in doing so, it may also prevent me from finally despairing of the state of modern cinema appreciation. Over the last few days, in the pit of despair of my malady, I found myself rewatching Shoah and Rees’ Auschwitz, as if to put my sufferings in their proper perspective. Yet in writing and doing so for the reasons I continue to do, maybe Spielberg was right to show the ray of hope, the coloured candle lit on the Sabbath. Here’s to lighting candles, but please let’s make sure the subject of the altar is worthy of the tribute.