Note: This is the twelfth entry in an ongoing series that honors creative bloggers who have really made a difference, raising the bar for quality and productivity on the cultural front.
by Sam Juliano
He’s no fan of Pixar animation. He has questioned the long-held adoration for Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, and once wrote a scathing dismissal of Citizen Kane, saying the cinema landmark was actually a “bad” film. His placement of Sucker Punch as the best film of it’s year raised eyebrows, and his personal taste remains as autonomous and scrutinizing as any writer committed to culture ad the arts. Yet, one who approaches the often-infuriating prose of Briton Stephen Russell-Gebbett is in for a veritable lesson in how to approach art from a perspective long held as alienating. Russell-Gebbett’s spirited, opinionated and descriptive prose asks readers to think through long-protected views tainted by nostalgia and volumes of scholarly study by critics and historians that have served to maintain an acknowledged position by consensus building. Whether one ultimately agrees with Russell-Gebbett, one can never deny his compelling arguments and the confidence that enables him to demonstrate by the evidence that he’s far more than a contrarian looking for attention. His taste is rarely tempered by sentiment and the ‘emotional underpinning’ and he frankly admits “I have always thought that art appreciation can only really be subjective because nothing is not filtered through an individual person’s senses. A by-product of this is a feeling of freedom in not being squashed by the stamp of popular approval. Art is personal in the making and in the watching. Also, isn’t it so much better to share something with someone by saying “I love it” rather than just the abstract “it’s a great film”? “It’s a great film because I love it”.
Russell-Gebbett would seem to have a strong case for his propensity to examine a great number of films that have been panned by others on the grounds that they are invariable given short shrift in the critical process, often dismissed with little detail. At his blog Checking on my Sausages Russell-Gebbett, who is half Romanian descent, and speaks the language fluently, has been posting regularly since 2009, when he began the site with an essay on David Lynch. He considers Godard, Kieslowski and Tarkovsky as his favorite directors, and has named several works by Bresson as among cinema’s true treasures. He denies any authoritative role in the assessment of animation, but a short while back engineered an extraordinary project at Wonders in the Dark, writing every entry in a countdown of the greatest achievements in the genre in numerical order. While the project still showcases some of the author’s finest writing, he has upped the ante at Checking on my Sausages in past months by offering up alternatives to conventional film reviews, instead examining various elements that size up and analyze film in comparative and thematic terms, demonstrating an uncanny creative thought process that has elevated him to the top rank of online writers. Russell-Gebbett isn’t fazed by disagreement and rarely allows contentious discussion to obscure the overall picture. With him the film’s the thing, and he’s always prepared to defend his stance with scholarly vogour and a keen understanding of what comprises art and how one can be sometimes seduced by favored components. In one post Russell-Gebbett forged a persuasive case about how film music can sometimes hide intrinsic flaws in the overall product, and how the music itself can often manipulate an overall reaction. A survey of Checking on my Sausages will yield an extraordinary treasure chest of writing dedicated to subjects not usually broached by those who would much prefer to play it “safe.” Russell-Gebbett’s refusal to walk down the normal path stands as one of his most fascinating traits, and a visit to his place will always give readers a challenge in the comments section.
In a remarkable marathon on-line interview, Russell-Gebbett speaks candidly about himself, his goals, his interests and his philosophy, while elaborating on much of his past work. The comprehensive answers to question posed to him stand among the most enlightening ever entered at Wonders in the Dark and a real treat for the film blogger at large:
What inspired you to launch ‘Checking on My Sausages’ and how long has the site been running?
I had been writing down my thoughts on films for a few years on paper but these would get lost, creased, dirty or forgotten. I’d written a very long essay on Revenge of the Sith and soon after discovered that there was a place I could put it where I could present it in an attractive manner with lots of images and where it wouldn’t get lost or worn with age. That’s how it began. I enjoy writing as an end in itself. The blog started out as a kind of archive. Now, although I still do it for myself, it is great to get feedback from other people and share thoughts, perspectives and recommendations.
The first comment I left was on MovieMan Joel Bocko’s site The Dancing Image and he was the first to comment on mine after a not-so-subtle nudge in the direction of Checking On My Sausages.
My first post was in April 2009, a short one on Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. After that I published the Star Wars piece and then it was 6 months before I posted again. Ever since then I’ve been doing it regularly. It’s been going for about two years then.
You are one of the film blogosphere’s most versatile writers, covering a wide scope of cinema from the US and abroad. What would you say is your specialty, and the tradition that may inform it?
A specialty? There are things I enjoy doing more and which I feel more attuned to but I don’t know if I’m particularly expert in them.
I thoroughly enjoy spotting little bits of symbolism and of meaning, of following, disentangling and setting out themes, visual, verbal or otherwise – anything that is not obvious. For example, a couple of essays I did on ‘Identities and Labels’ in Chungking Express and ‘Circles and Globes’ in The Last Airbender.
I like finding points of comparison between films and seeing how trends and conventions are built up.
If there is a variety on the blog then it is because I think each film has a different feel, requires a unique approach and offers a special opportunity.
You can’t write about two films in exactly the same way; one might be best talked about in a mood piece or a tone poem, one in a detached, strictly analytical way, one with an image gallery, one with an essay on a single strand, one with a video etc. Most are best met with silence or a blank page.
Perhaps more than any other film blogger you have developed a reputation of fierce independence from the critical establishment, which has led you to develop your own aesthetic. Is this something that developed, or did you always realize that film like any other art form is a matter of ‘beauty in the eye of the beholder.’
I have always thought that art appreciation can only really be subjective because nothing is not filtered through an individual person’s senses.
A by-product of this is a feeling of freedom in not being squashed by the stamp of popular approval. Art is personal in the making and in the watching. Also, isn’t it so much better to share something with someone by saying “I love it” rather than just the abstract “it’s a great film”? Then you can say “It’s a great film because I love it”.
I have never gone out of my way to think differently about a film or to adopt a position I don’t believe in (to be a contrarian), but I am drawn to films that have been panned because they are talked about and written about in less detail. Criticism can go over the top into vindictiveness and self-love. There are films that have been slated and forgotten about. Films that create great hate can have something in them that can be revelatory to the right pair of eyes.
I always think that there is something of worth in any film, even if it only lasts a second. I have never seen a film that I haven’t taken something good from.
What did develop was the feeling that there is nothing stopping me from expressing independence of thought. Maybe I was a little reticent at first (once the blog was read by a few more people), thinking that what I wrote might be automatically dismissed out of hand as ‘bad taste’ or as showing a lack of knowledge or respect.
What is most important is to take a film on its own terms and to respond to how it wants and needs to be judged.
Of course there are things that are concrete and factual that are not subject to opinion or interpretation.
You once got into an on-line scuffle over a takedown of Orson Welles’ ‘Citizen Kane.’ Do you maintain that position now, and what were you basically trying to project in that exceedingly well-penned position?
Haha! Yes, I maintain my position. Absolutely.
However, I feel that I may have gone overboard once or twice in the tone of the piece. A couple of sentences, especially, felt spiteful, something I hate seeing in other people’s writing. It was as if I had been personally wounded, which is ridiculous. Perhaps then, subconsciously, I was trying to counterbalance all the wild praise that the film had been given. It’s hard to experience a film outside of that context.
In the end what is important is an honest relationship with the film – I don’t think it’s particularly good and there’s nothing wrong with saying so. I thought that Citizen Kane’s techniques which are overbearing, pleonastic and sometimes obvious were getting in the way of the story. The vast majority of films set themselves up to be taken primarily as narratives to be seduced by. Citizen Kane is one of those and I wasn’t seduced.
The story doesn’t really go anywhere emotionally. It doesn’t give you anything to hold on to. The film feels like a showcase of an artist’s craft and good craft doesn’t necessarily make good art. I said that the revelation of Rosebud, though we didn’t know what it was, reveals nothing of material importance – it is clear from the beginning that his early childhood was the place he was happiest and that power, greed and selfishness have left him isolated in a mausoleum for living statues.
There were still a couple of great moments, though.
Of Welles’ films I much prefer Touch of Evil or F For Fake.
You are known as an animation expert, yet you have taken a dim view of Pixar’s prominence in this form over recent years. Can you explain your dismay with that studio?
I am by no means an expert on animation but I am fascinated by its various styles and media – ink, paint, glass, sand etc. There are so many crafts on show under the animation umbrella and many animators are filming what they have made with their own hands. This is very different from regular live action film-making.
The animation countdown here at Wonders in the Dark gave me a chance to explore further down the rabbit hole and it was great fun.
I wouldn’t say I’m against Pixar’s prominence. It is where it should be, i.e. where the public want it.
Nevertheless, I do think future film-makers and animators might be better off being inspired by other studios. I think there are better animators and better storytellers out there to take as role models.
In Pixar I see a bankruptcy of imagination (one big idea frittered away), little subtlety of emotion, no real love of details, sentimentality, plastic expressionlessness, banal life lessons, and a mean-spirited dichotomy between good and bad people.
The computer animation has something to do with a couple of these, though there are computer animated films with more heart and more pep, like Bolt, Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs and, from what little I have seen of it, How to Train Your Dragon.
I think of how the evil Witch of the Waste in Howl’s Moving Castle, once she is defeated and depowered, is welcomed into the castle as a member of the family. Then I think of Muntz thrown off a zeppelin in Up.
Speaking more generally about modern American animation, this idea of shoehorning pop cultural references, self-referential gags or adult winks into what remain basically childrens’ films leads not to great family entertainment but to parents and their kids watching two parallel films side by side : dumbed-down adult entertainment and the most childish, coochy coo children’s fare all in one. Shrek 2 is the worst offender.
There is no reason why a film aimed solely at children cannot enchant everyone; something truly wonderful that is truly shared.
Who are the world’s most promising animators at this time?
I am not aware of too many up and coming animators – the most promising for me are probably the ones who have already created good works.
In my mind Hayao Miyazaki is still the greatest creator of animated films. Not far behind is his Ghibli stablemate Isao Takahata. I saw Ghibli’s latest film, Arrietty, and while I enjoyed it, it lacks the magic that those two directors bring to their stories as directors (Miyazaki has scripted a few of his proteges films). There is a tangible beauty, delicacy andoptimism in Miyazaki’s films and the animation is never an end in itself . it is simply there for the story. Hopefully a new master will emerge from the school.
Other good Japanese directors include Mamoru Hosoda (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars) and Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) who has also been making live action films more recently. This is a crossover we rarely see, unfortunately. Pixar director Brad Bird has also jumped, of course, to make Mission Impossible IV : Ghost Protocol.
Beyond that, Yuri Norstein (Tale of Tales, Hedgehog in the Fog), who works with paper cutouts, is a mammoth talent. He has been working on a version of Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat for over thirty years, which shows how time-consuming and intricate his work is and how dedicated he is to doing the best he possibly can. I like the style of Aleksandr Petrov’s works (Old Man and the Sea, My Love), as well as those of Estonian Priit Pärn (1895) and Sylvain Chomet (The Illusionist).
There are animators, too, who have technical talent (to sculpt or draw intricately) and who await an extra spark of brilliance either from within or without, such as Nick Park or the modern hand-drawn animators at Disney.
Can you tell us about about your schooling and educational background?
I went to a Grammar School in Colchester after which I studied Italian and Latin at University College London (UCL).
What employment have you engaged in over recent years?
I am not in employment at the moment. I have helped with a couple of Romanian to English translations quite recently.
What are your long-term goals with writing?
My long terms goals are to find a niche and to do longer studies of films or cinematic concepts. Hopefully I will be able eventually to be paid for some of this work, whether as part of a publication, a freelance or for individual books.
One niche I am already exploring is the use of Coca-Cola as a symbol in film. I wrote a little piece on it over a year ago and now, after copious research, I am writing a book on it. There are hundreds of instances and many many ways in which it is used to convey meaning. You find allusions to it in a D.W. Griffiths short as well as a 2011 blockbuster.
I am finding the whole process enthralling and very challenging. If I could pinpoint the most interesting aspect of this work than it is the discovery of how Coca-Cola, in certain time periods and in certain regions of the world, is a signpost for social / historical change.
Another study / book I may consider is how serial killers or killers in horror films are filmed : how they are framed, withheld from sight etc. etc. etc. and how that has changed over the decades.
Who would you say are your favorite film artists and/or directors and why?
My favourites are probably Krzysztof Kieslowski, Jean-Luc Godard and Andrei Tarkovsky. Kieslowski’s films have an incredibly easy way with symbolism and meaning. His Dekalog, is so unforced. This may have something to do with his background in documentary film-making.
Godard is probably the most talented of them all. He can do farce, poetry, philosophy, be pretentious, silly and serious, create glorious images and splice fragments of sound, music and voice into a profound whole. His films make you realise that you can feel the intellectual and think the visceral. His more recent films are statements populated by personas/ciphers yet they are warm and human at the same time, featuring the most intimate and beautiful close ups.
I always come away from a Godard film with something exceptional and something that I could not have predicted.
Tarkovsky’s films hum with layers of atmosphere and an unmatched depth of silence. Each moment feels important and has a weight to it that goes beyond the physical realities of the scene, creating a sense of something beyond – the divine, the ineffable power of nature or the mysterious depths of humanity.
Sadly Kieslowski and Tarkovsky are no longer with us and film needs that kind of talent.
I also like David Lynch (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is a staggering masterpiece), Hou Hsiao Hsien, Chantal Akerman, Lars Von Trier, Robert Bresson, Jacques Rivette, Kenji Mizoguchi and Hayao Miyazaki. I find the styles of Michelangelo Antonioni, Béla Tarr and Aki Kaurismäki interesting too, if not their films as a whole.
How would you size up the major differences seeing films at home on DVD or in theaters?
On balance, and this may seem strange, I don’t enjoy either way of watching more than the other.
The cinematic experience can wash over you and overwhelm you in terms of scale and volume in a way home viewing cannot match. However, with the speakers set to ‘deafening’ it can be too much.
Nor does it hold all the advantage emotionally.
At home it can be more intimate and it is easier for you to go to the film, so to speak, rather than it coming at you. Home viewing is a greater test of a film in the sense of attracting and holding your attention. Whilst cinema can expose technical deficiencies, DVD can expose story and character, because there is more space where the roar of speakers and the size of the screen would threaten to submerge certain substandard elements.
The communal experience of a film in a darkened room is great, with shared laughter and tears and gasps but that can also, by the same token, be an irritant. As I said above, film is personal because, though we all see the same images, we are all watching a different film.
In terms of DVD, what I think is most interesting is how we can pause, rewind or take breaks when watching a DVD. I did this with the plane crash in Knowing, which I watched twice in a row out of excitement and disbelief. When boredom or tiredness strikes the film will suffer less, as we can come back to it later. Long films like Satantango take on a new nature and have a completely different impact on us if we watch it over a few days and not in one go.
I think we are more likely to extract scenes to rewatch instead of seeing a whole film again, and to perceive film, sometimes, as a collection of parts to be chosen and cherished and not so much, in the remembering, a continuous flow. Likewise, special features and directors commentaries make us more curious and more savvy as well as, perhaps, more cynical and less easily absorbed. We are more aware of how films are put together and how they could be retailored to our own specifications – a new era of viewer authorship has begun – with editing technology available to many, “fan edits” are a few clicks away.
DVD, of course, is a great educational/critical tool for analysing film in depth. You can watch what you want, when you want and, with more and more available, almost anything you want.
All in all, I fancy DVD, and to a lesser extent VHS before it, has changed much more than we imagine.
I wonder too if film-makers might begin, or perhaps have already begun, to keep an eye on how a film will play in a home environment whether on DVD or even streamed online.
Has the current blu-ray phenomenon in your view changed the general parameters for the general home viewer, and does the high definition match the theatrical experience at least in terms of transfer quality?
No on both counts (though it depends on whether you have a large home theatre or not!). I don’t know the precise differences in definition between cinema and blu ray but there is a gap in quality, and my instinct is that it is still reasonably large.
I will only choose a blu ray over a standard definition DVD if the film is especially strong visually, whether from the point of view of storytelling or the pure aesthetic pleasure it offers – Avatar an example of the latter, The New World of both. Even then, I find it hard to tell if the entire experience is significantly richer.
I see no need for it in a film like Glengarry Glen Ross. It’s a little crisper but unnecessary. Also, if you’re buying, it’s not worth the extra expense.
What single review or series of reviews are you most proud of?
I am most proud of my essay on Southland Tales and Bad Lieutenant (‘A Wounded America’)
I also think my essays on A.I., Humanity Through Excess and the Dekalog were pretty good.
Of my reviews I like those on Twin Peaks, Whisper of the Heart and The Trial of Joan of Arc.
As for the more offbeat stuff, I’m quite happy with my real-time ‘Writing while Watching’ review of Taxi Driver and two videos – one a romantic montage, ‘Love’, and an homage to Godard entitled ‘In Praise of Godard’.
What do you attribute to the fact that you are acknowledged by fellow bloggers as one of the most creative people on line? Do you usually feel that a new approach will gain more impassioned interest among readers?
It’d be nice if they thought of me like that, if they think anything of me at all!
First and foremost, I try to do different things and use different approaches to keep myself entertained. I think that if I am then other people might be. Beyond that, if I see that other people haven’t done something, and I would like to see it done, I think that it would be best to do it myself rather than wait and wonder.
I don’t think that I’d be able to just write rote reviews on films. I only write something if I feel that I have something particular to say, as unique as possible to put down, or if I can make a wider point about cinema via a single film.
It would be good to think that I am making some sort of contribution.
Do you feel that catering to a larger general audience at the expense of introducing your readership to some wonderful finds is large undesirable?
I realise that most readers, even the most curious and impassioned film connoisseurs, would rather read (and are much more likely to engage in a discussion) about something they have seen than about something they haven’t. It’s perfectly natural. I am the same.
I would still write about something obscure, accepting that, being obscure, it would be primarily to just have it out there for someone to stumble across. If there are films that are not being written about and I believe deserve to be talked about, then I will – I did this for Forest of the Hanged at Checking on my Sausages and I Am Keiko here at Wonders in the Dark.
You can write a piece about a known film and make reference to something ‘unknown’ and thus show that different styles and types of film, often considered from separate worlds simply on the basis of publicity, can be seen the same and can be treated the same. It doesn’t have to be either/or.
It is nice, for a variety of reasons, to create a mix of types of films and types of writing, to sculpt one’s writing abilities, to try one’s hand at a variety of disciplines and provide a constantly rejuvenated ‘product’.
How much time to you spend a week reading the reviews of others, and what are some of your favorites blogs?
Not as much as I used to. I am more likely to spend my spare time watching films. My reading is more focussed on specific films and trends (mainly online) as opposed to the output of specific writers or sites. I own very few film books.
There are some blogs I follow quite regularly. Marilyn Ferdinand’s Ferdy on Films, and Just Another Film Buff’s The Seventh Art I think, are particularly well written and insightful.
I read Sheila O’Malley’s The Sheila Variations and the intermittent Cinema posts at Steven Shaviro’s The Pinocchio Theory and Agnostic’s Dusk in Autumn. Now and again I read an article or two at Acidemic. I am sure there are many many excellent blogs out there.
When it comes to pure film reviewing I like Amy Taubin, Stephanie Zacharek and Roger Ebert – good, clear prose and they can easily explain what they got from a film.
I don’t think that I have come across a blogger more enthusiastic or infatuated with film than you Sam, nor one as willing to encourage and promote others. Also, Allan’s ridiculously long All Time Top 3,000 list has been a godsend. I propose a companion piece of 3,000 Put-downs for those who blindly stumble upon the wrong opinion.
At what age did you get bitten by the movie bug, and what who were the artists that made the deepest impression on you in the early years?
I have always watched films (from as soon as I can remember) but I started to enjoy them more, and prioritise them over some other hobbies, when I got my first DVDs. This was when the format was new.
My favourite films when I was younger were Labyrinth, Home Alone, Short Circuit, Gremlins and the old Star Wars films. I never thought in terms of artists or directors or actors or film-making at all. They were just stories and I enjoyed them as that. They happened to be there and I happened to be able to see them. I think that would be a healthy way of being and thinking now but the genie is out of the bottle.
The first time I started to think about seeking out a film by a particular director was when I saw Tarkovsky’s Stalker. It was because he was creating an atmosphere and a visual richness unlike anything I had encountered before. It was as if he was treating the art of film seriously and as something capable of greatness.
Subsequently I saw Ivan’s Childhood and Mirror and I wasn’t disappointed.
How many movies do you generally watch per week, and has that number risen in recent years, with the wider of availability of product?
A handful at most. I rarely go to the Cinema. I go if I cannot wait for the DVD but it’s not a routine by any means. So many of the films I would go to see are never shown nearby – Melancholia, Film Socialisme, The Turin Horse, The Tree of Life, The Artist etc. Foreign films mainly. If I lived in London that would be a different matter.
I watch films on DVD – rented or bought – on TV (I have a wide selection of foreign satellite channels that show quite recent big-name films and ones you would probably never hear of otherwise) or on YouTube if they are rare or impossible to get hold of otherwise (especially animation shorts).
Watching trailers and clips, and knowing more and more about films and how you would react to them, means that you can sort the wheat of films that look good from the majority chaff. You can always catch up with what you’ve missed later, anyway.
I’ve become better at knowing what I will like and what will be worth watching. I do watch more than I used to, though.
What are you favorite film volumes?
I only own a few books on film – a comprehensive guide to films (TimeOut), a book on narrative theory by Bordwell and Thompson and Sculpting in Time by Andrei Tarkovsky. One book which impressed me but I do not own is Notes on a Cinematographer by Robert Bresson.
I would probably buy a book dedicated to images from films if I came across an especially good one. These, however, seem to be few and far between. I’ve been eyeing up Raul Ruiz’s Poetics of Cinema
Are there any upcoming films that have you excited, and what directors today always capture your special interest?
Prometheus, The Avengers, The Assassin by Hou Hsiao Hsien and The Grandmasters by Wong Kar Wai. I like the look of Killer Joe by William Friedkin too. There will be plenty which will sneak up on me and I will most likely find about on the week of release.
In terms of the up and coming directors who will take film into the future, I look forward to more films by M Night Shyamalan, Richard Kelly, Alex Proyas, Ti West (House of the Devil, The Innkeepers), Liu Jiayin (Oxhide and Oxhide II) and Sion Sono.
Are you planning to continue posting at ‘Checking on My Sausages’ for some time into the future, and if so, are you pleased with what you’ve put out there to this point?
Yes. As I’ve said, it’s to put down and share some thoughts and to (hopefully with the help of others) cohere my impressions. I still want to.
Sometimes, I put down a thought that I’m not even sure I agree with because it needs to be worked through over time. The comments I receive help me hone my thoughts and I hope I can make others think in a new way about certain films.
I am generally pleased with what I’ve done with my blog though only once in a while do I really feel completely happy with a post. Rarely do I think I’ve made a proper contribution to what is written on film.
You need to accept that some things you haven’t described or explained well and that some things simply cannot be put into words in a satisfactory way. You also need to accept that the reason why you think a film has succeeded or failed might not be the actual reason why you were turned on or off by it. Writing about art is an inexact science; in other words it’s not a science at all.
How important is it to fall within certain accepted parameters of general opinion, and if not important, should one rely on taste alone to defend a certain preference in film and the other arts.
I don’t think it is important. There are times when you need to be aware of and acknowledge what is most successful, acclaimed, influential or loved but this should not influence your opinion or its articulation when it comes to judgements of intrinsic worth.
I have an opinion and I try to put it across honestly and attempt to explain why I think and feel what I do. Art criticism is offering up as many different angles and ways into the work as possible ; illumination from new sources. It’s not a case of right and wrong but perspectives. We are all right (unless we are misinformed or have blatantly misunderstood).
I don’t think that I try to ‘defend’ or justify what I think. I don’t think we should look for validation of an opinion – if I can’t convince myself or someone else of why something is good that doesn’t make the opinion worthless or misguided.
Taste isn’t weak. It is each person’s truth – this is preferable to an illusion of an absolute truth decided by compromise and consensus.
How important do you feel music is in the making of films? Can music be seen as a controlling force that might elevate a film higher than it’s general craftsmanship would seem to showcase?
I think the default position should not be that a film should or will have music but to ask ‘do we need it?’ and ‘Would this film be better without it?’ Why would a film be boring without music?
Of course I don’t include musicals in this.
If music is a mirror rather than a window then it can be superfluous. It can reiterate and drown out subtlety. It can be a patronising aid to comprehension, hand-holding by a director scared of silence and afraid that we won’t understand him or her. It can be a cudgel to force emotion out in spurts, an extra bit of irreality, the life of the story repackaged as a product.
This is, a lot of the time, the case. Maybe not whole films, but at least parts of films.
If music can undermine what the text is saying, enrich it, be a catalyst to bring out its colours, describe what cannot be otherwise described, or bring to mind with a few notes a whole symphony, then it has a purpose and it will improve the film.
Music can work to imprint moments in your head. It is perhaps the easiest way to communicate and the quickest way to be moved. If music and the rest of the film successfully meld then they will become inseparable in our minds and the work can rise to great heights.
The fact remains, however : how often does this happen? Sad moment = sad music, happy = happy music and so on. Action = pick up the rhythm, hit the drums hard and get the blood pumping. Why? Can’t we be sad, happy or excited without being asked or told to? Do we need to be reminded to be human?
There are very good tunes and musical pieces in films but do they fit the moment?
Aside from animation, would you say there are other genres you generally prefer?
I don’t think I have a preference.
There are types of film that I have grown to appreciate more, especially minimalism. Once you have sampled a new form of art you become more receptive to it and I am no longer automatically turned off by any style or form of film.
There are genres, though, which I enjoy less.
I’m not against ‘political’ films per se but there are very few good ones and, although they don’t constitute a genre, I tend to dislike biopics. Political films can fall into dry didacticism while biopics are too often banal potted histories of career highlights, reconstructions with actors simply incapable of capturing the spirit of a person apart – apart enough, after all, to have a film made about them.
A well-made documentary, which can give film-makers just as much creative leeway as a fiction film, might be a better bet. What actor and what fictionalisation could do better than Asif Kapadia’s documentary on Ayrton Senna? I find performances such as those by Meryl Streep slightly off-putting because they are impersonations that cannot fail but be inadequate.
Nevertheless there is something to be said for the opportunity to “look with new eyes” at a person or series of events that a fictional/story veil can offer, a distance that can help refresh stale outlooks and arguments.
I generally don’t like musicals. The form isn’t necessarily at fault, as I have enjoyed a fair few (West Side Story, Singin’ in the Rain, Everyone Says I Love You, My Fair Lady) but more often than not I am dismayed when they suddenly burst into song and delighted when they finish.
It needs to feel like the singing comes naturally from a great outpouring of emotion and I can’t say that that happens very often.
You are well-rounded in Romanian cinema. How do you see that country going through a kind of cinematic Renaissance at this time?
Once one artist has made an impact and has achieved success through the courage of his conviction and through the tales of his native land, then others take inspiration and, crucially, confidence from this precedent.
There is a danger in this in that the first works that cause ripples abroad (The Death of Mr Lazarescu, Four Months Three Weeks and Two Days) can set the tone and what comes after may be inferior copies.
There is an unleashing of talent (we are used to ‘waves’ like this, as in South Korea a few years ago) desperate to tell stories that, under a Communist regime, could not be told, at least not as openly (censorship brings out allegory and a special cheek) as before. There is now sufficient distance, too.
Romanian cinema is in another era of political statements. The talk is now of old regimes and new disaffection, corruption and isolation. Of course there are plenty of films with no relation to politics or the dissection of the nation state or the state of the nation’s psyche.
Regardless, the predominant style is a hangdog black humour, low key borderline minimalism and self-amused (even self-mocking) irony.
I am not a great fan of recent Romanian films but I am delighted that Romanian culture is in the limelight and is gaining publicity for its art and for the things that concern Romanians.
Can you tell us a little about your upcoming ‘morality’ blogathon at your site?
I thought it would be fascinating to see what people thought about the state of cinema as it stands in 2012 from a moral perspective.
There are a vast number of elements in films, in the making of films, in the watching and criticism of films that have a moral dimension. I wanted to find out what encourages, worries and intrigues people about how film is used and, almost philosophically, about film’s structure and potential as a medium.
How far is something ‘just a film’ and what kind of influences can ‘just a film’ have? There are dozens of subjects to be broached to do with where we are now, where we have been and where we are going.
There won’t be many takers for the blogathon, I’m sure. I will be trying to write an overview from my personal point of view once the blogathon is officially under way.
What would you say are your other interests outside of film?
I have always loved watching football/soccer and all sorts of other sports. Now and again I play them too. I’m interested in a lot without being obsessive about any one thing : photography, foreign languages, professional wrestling etc.
I read history (of religion esp.), and I spend some of my time writing stories, posts for the blog, or preparing what might eventually (hopefully) become fully-fledged books.
How would you apply your own world view to your on-line blogging if that is possible?
I like to see the best in a film. I don’t like being critical in a public way (the vast majority of pieces I post are positive or about the films that I like the most), especially about individual people rather than the film as a whole, but if there is something I think is wrong (rather than just bad) I think it should be hammered.
I try to be even-handed and open-minded. I am not (too) put off by what negative things people say about individuals or organisations, preferring to make up my own mind and concentrate on, and make a judgement from, my own relationship with them.
The internet does offer people a chance to be offensive while remaining hidden. I write under my own name (sometimes I don’t like the idea) and think I am being myself when I write on the blog, so I suppose my world-view cannot help but show through.
I try to be nice at all times, especially as I am disappointed when I leave a comment on someone’s blog and receive no response.
Have you accomplished what you set out to do at this point?
The blog’s purpose was never, initially, to make a splash but to be a place to write what I thought down – though not everything! – and I am very happy that I have been able to.
It has evolved into a place where I hope to give something to the general film-writing community and, as I do, grow to think more clearly and express myself better in the form.
I would like to become a better writer and maybe narrow my focus onto bigger pieces or bigger subjects.
Is there anything about living in the U.K. that would impact movie viewing in one way or another?
I think that the countries of continental Europe are more open to each other’s culture/films. The fact that the UK is physically isolated still has an impact when it comes to our mindset, despite all the avenues of communication and travel. Because the English language cinema of the US is dominant worldwide, and because UK cinema is strong, there is less space than in the rest of Europe for something different.
There is no issue in terms of UK distributors and cinemas getting hold of films from abroad but I presume that they don’t think that it’s financially viable. Only in London and in a few select arthouses and festivals do even the most popular or high profile foreign films get shown.
This also applies to anything that is called ‘arty’ such as The Tree of Life. The cinemas showing it here were in a minority, despite plenty of publicity on radio and in newspapers related to Brad Pitt, dinosaurs, its reclusive director and so forth.
Thanks for the interview and for the honor Sam!