Big Things, Little Bites

By twhalliii | THE BACK ROW MANIFESTO by Tom Hall December 11, 2007 at 5:30AM

Big Things, Little Bites
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A few of the little things on my mind this week...


Citizen Kane

Awoke to the news that Orson Welles' Screenwriting Oscar for Citizen Kane goes on the auction block today. Am I the only one fantasizing that in the Sotheby's auction room in Manhattan, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Kent Jones and hundreds of other supporters of Welles' legend will be sitting, paddles in hand, bidding against one another in some sort of cinephilic feeding frenzy, leveraging homes and cars, throwing wrist watches on the table, hoping to outbid their colleagues and bring the Oscar home? The idea that some wealthy banker or real estate mogul (or, irony of ironies, a newspaper magnate) will pony up the expected $1.2 million dollars for the Oscar is sort of tragic. Not that film fans don't exist in the halls of power, but would it be a double insult to have perhaps the most coveted piece of movie memorabilia, almost a Holy Grail of late-20th Century cinema criticism, not receive a proper home?

Which of course, made me think of this sketch. I should note that this Kids In The Hall skit has grown nearer and dearer to my heart over time. As a film programmer, this conversation happens to me about fifteen times a week, primarily when meeting a new acquaintance who discovers what I do for a living. It cuts close to home.

UPDATE: The Citizen Kane Oscar Fails To Meet The Minimum Selling Price At Auction. Long after his death, Welles doesn't get the respect he deserves. Oooh, if I only had a million two burning a hole in my pocket...

Foxes and Hedgehogs

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.-- Archilochus

I've been thinking about that quote quite a bit lately, and about Isaiah Berlin's use of it as the taking off point for his discussion of artists and their work. I am, without question, a hedgehog who wants to become a fox, much like Berlin's discussion of Tolstoy (see the link above); I spend my days watching films, reading blogs and news, staying on top of sports and politics, family, household issues, just like everyone else. But at the core, I do see the world as a hedgehog does, governed by a single idea of reality and truth. How to become more like a fox?

When the idea strikes, the mind immediately races to Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives, one of my favorite of his films, and the great scene between Judy Davis and Liam Neeson when Davis' character Sally, lying in bed during lovemaking, starts dividing up her friends into foxes and hedgehogs, which to this day may be one of the best, most neurotic things I've ever seen on the screen. And then, a minor jealousy fills me, because who in their own life wouldn't love to come upon that idea and spin it into comic gold? Maybe instead of looking for my big idea, I should begin assembling smaller ideas and details, the cumulative effect of which might be something beautiful?

The Characters! The Drama!

I can't wait for Sweeney Todd; I'm a huge fan of Stephen Sondheim's music and Sweeney is his masterpiece. The question is, will I revert to my childhood behavior of singing along from my seat? I have watched many of the online clips and they have only enhanced my excitement for the film, and this holiday season looks to be a blood soaked affair for me; I am also dying to see Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, which is the one film this year I've been tracking like a Junior High School fan boy. Well, not as Junior High School as some. I have no idea of when the films will arrive here in the Provinces (oh, Florida), but I may sneak in some screenings when I head home to New York for a couple of days over the holiday season.

Most of all, I am hoping these films are successful because, of late, I have been lamenting the absence of great American dramas at the movie theaters; Films aimed at adults that deal with serious, intimate issues but that carry ambitious ideas about character and a profound aesthetic sensibility. In my opinion, 2007 has been a step in the right direction, with films like The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, I'm Not There and now There Will Be Blood and Sweeney Todd leading the way back from the new age nonsense found in pap like Crash, Babel, 21 Grams, etc; Ultra-thin ensemble pieces that bludgeon audiences to death with their boring, empty notions of human interconnectedness. For me, these movies have been an inversion of great storytelling because they refuse to focus on character; The way that movies can transcend is to be found in the interconnection of the empathetic response we have for great characters, for stories that show us life but don't tell us everything.

The drama has been perhaps the greatest victim of the new, profit-pandering Hollywood because of its emotional complexity, its need to show us things we don't think we want to see. That said, even when Hollywood tries, so often it fails; the thundering artlessness of so many serious films, especially those that deal with the ultimate feel-bad situation in Iraq, have done nothing to enlighten us and instead tend to pummel the choir with their own guilt. Audience guilt has never been a successful formula for great drama. There is only one road to greatness, and that is through empathy, which we should never confuse with sympathy. Too often, people I know discuss how they can't "relate" to certain characters, and I wonder if they aren't so used to being forced into a condescending situation, constantly forced to experience other people as foreign, external and unknowable, that they have confused the need to empathize, to know through feeling, with the need to sympathize, or feel for. The distinction is not small, and it seems to me that sympathy is the plague that inspires some people to demand tax cuts while they gloat over their charitable contributions; Drama should not inspire pity, but a deep connection with the needs and desires of the characters. So often of late, cinematic characters have been these empty shells for all sorts of "ideas" and "messages" about things one step removed from the human condition; We know what they mean, what they think, but we hardly ever see how they really feel. Casey Affleck's Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James was, for me, brilliant in its depiction of the human desire to transcend that feeling of inferiority and to become something great; It was a deeply human movie and a great role/performance. My hope is that in films like There Will Be Blood and Sweeney Todd, we will continue to see the evolution of the drama, returning to a time when seriousness was not a curse, when cinema told great stories.

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