Notes From The Sidelines

By twhalliii | THE BACK ROW MANIFESTO by Tom Hall May 23, 2008 at 2:10AM

Or actually, I think "notes from the desktop" is probably more accurate, given that the sidelines are probably adjacent to the event itself.
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Or actually, I think "notes from the desktop" is probably more accurate, given that the sidelines are probably adjacent to the event itself.

Some short thoughts on recent obsessions...

-- I have been sitting with a bag of popcorn in hand, watching the instant reactions to the Cannes Film Festival fly around the world at lightning speed. As one who likes to blog about films at film festivals, I understand the phenomenon intimately. For me, writing about movies is a way of thinking about them. Period. I don't pretend to be a critic or an accurate gauge of commercial value or appeal, but I do love to think about film and writing has proven a reliable way to organize my head and get my mind around a movie. So, I have been enjoying most of the feedback about the films at Cannes, including what I think is a pretty interesting comment in the midst of my Desplechin adoration from Ronald Bergan, a writer I admire greatly; To have Bergan take a dump on my irrational exuberance is something I will wear like a badge of honor. I even found Eric Kohn's infamous live-blogging (via SMS) of the Indiana Jones movie to be rather hilarious, if only for the line "Even Lerman digs the chase" which, if you know Lerman, says it all.

It is the speed of criticism at Cannes that seems to have become this year's hot button issue; Speed is the new relevance, the topic du jour that is reshaping the way that people who care about movies talk about them amongst themselves. The lines seem distinctly drawn; the hysterical desire to post first, to get your review up and online before anyone else does, has created, in the age of instant on-line publishing, an environment where people are thinking less about film and offering a raw, ill-considered opinion immediately after a screening. On the other hand, film writing seems to have become a lot more personal, democratic and free, as much about the process of attending a film and a festival as it is about the movies themselves. Hell, if a security guard snubs the wrong blogger at the screening room door, their entire take on the film and festival can be muddied by the gray clouds of personal outrage. Which, as it relates to Cannes, makes for fun reading (if half-assed thinking); this is the home of class warfare amongst badge holders, after all, the place where film goers wear their access on their sleeve and where being turned away from screenings is a rite of passage that leads to discovery.

My own opinion? Who cares?! The number of people like me who wake up every day and read about cinema on-line is minuscule and as a free-thinking grown-up who has his own tastes and proclivities, I know I am capable of separating wheat from chaff. Over time, I think any reader comes to each individual website or publication knowing the personality of the writers, knowing what to expect in terms of tone, tastes and opinions. There are entire sites I just won't read, because I know what they will say before they say it. There are writers out there that I consider to be friends who drive me absolutely nuts with their blogs, but I read them anyway, if only to mark the moments when our thinking intersects and to shake my fist at the moments where they make me crazy. Reading opinion is a form of entertainment, pure and simple. Any film critic who takes himself seriously enough to think that what he or she is writing is anything more a single voice in the wind, one of a thousand sources of opinion that flock together and diverge like a cloud of birds over a fallow field, well, I respectfully disagree. Not all opinions are equally expressed, equally well-informed, have equal institutional muscle and brand identity behind them, but they are all a part of the same discussion.

As it relates to hasty reactions, well, I think there are many good writers who can dazzle with focused ideas five minutes after a single screening and there are those who can't. There are those who only seem to care about a film's commercial prospects because they are concerned with the business of film, and those who stand outside the commercial discussion and take each film in turn. There is nothing wrong with speed, per se, only sloppy thinking. For a reader, be they an industry professional or not, the written word only means so much. In the end, you have to see it for yourself. So, it's been great to live through another Cannes from Brooklyn, but I so wish I was there again, to see things for myself, to add my voice to the fray and try to do justice to my own thinking on the films I see. But until I do, I'll enjoy the messy marketplace of ideas from the sidelines and get ready to play catch up this fall.

-- I have also been noticing some serious trends in thinking, most disturbingly (and honestly) relayed via Anthony Kaufman's piece about auteur fatigue. While it may or may not be true that this year's festival program is somehow tethered to the tried and true, is it not the case that this happens every year at Cannes? Each May, the film industry descends on Cannes for the big show, expectations through the roof because of the slate of artists whose films will be debuting at the festival and the excitement of two champagne-soaked weeks on the Côte d'Azur. And each year, the fantasy of the films at Cannes fails to live up to the reality of the movies themselves. How could they possibly be better than our dreams? I wonder what it would be like to be the Dardenne Brothers, to create what has been almost universally praised as a very good film (Lorna's Silence) only to receive as feedback that your film is a lot like, well, the other films that you've made; The Dardenne Brothers have become too much like the Dardenne Brothers.

I don't get it, but I know it's real; there is a constant battle between hope, expectation, the past and the film itself. Nothing stands on its own merit. Instead, things must be not as they are, but as we hope they will be. The movie, full of its own ideas and logic, has been replaced by the story of the movie in our minds. The frames projected on the screen are replaced by a give and take between the film itself and our desire to find something of our own invention. This tug-of-war then expands into a shared critical fantasy. Opinions calcify around the heartbeat of the collective dream of the movie and it becomes something else entirely; the story of itself, the business of making the film, the press conference, the film as a chapter in a career, single film in a festival line-up compared and contrasted against other films that share only a temporal place in a program, the order in which the film is seen, another afternoon in the theater instead of on the golden beaches. The internet hums with news of the film's place in the world, fixing it in time. Eventually, maybe a year later, maybe next week, the movie will show up in a movie theater. A patron will buy a ticket and sit and watch in the collective darkness. What will it be by then?

In other news...

-- Mothertongue, the new Nico Muhly record, is available on iTunes. If you enjoy modern musical composition, grab it. If you're interested in new ideas for the interplay between vocal and instrumental composition, this record is dynamite and state-of-the-art in its diverse use of the human voice. I can't really describe it, so maybe give a listen to the samples and grab it if it strikes your fancy. My fancy? Well and truly struck.

-- As Mr. Michael Tully mentioned, I will be contributing to Hammer To Nail in the coming months. I am so honored to be asked and hope you'll take the time to drop by that site and give a look. My intention, as with all things, is to write about what moves, inspires and excites me about these films. I hope to do them justice.