As Jonah Keri said by way of introducing his interview with Jon “Boog” Sciambi, “My buddies have some acclaim.” One such buddy is Andy Horbal, who has blogged about movies, TV and recipes at a variety of locations, most recently at Buzz, Buzz which I do hope will have a mighty rebirth now that he has found a job and doesn’t have to spend every minute of unpaid internet writing thinking “I should be writing cover letters”. Unlike Andy, I haven’t written many polished pieces of more than 200 words, so writing on this blog helps me train for a possible writing-intensive career in science. Andy has already optimized processes like “viewing one’s own thoughts objectively”, “not seeming sophomoric”, and “writing something with a beginning, a middle, and an end”, as you’ll see in this exchange.

Andy is qualified to be a film critic, not necessarily through his status as a film major, but through his years of watching everything available and puzzling out its significance both to himself and to the audience at large. More than half of the films I saw at Pittsburgh theaters in the last five years were in his company, and I always looked forward to hearing his opinion not just on the movie but on my opinion of the movie. I am more of a dilettante, always moving to a new obsession with a new topic about which I can become superficially knowledgeable.

Part One of our exchange is at Andy’s site. He’s just asked me to go into a bit more detail about my vaguely morality-inspired distaste for movies that seem wasteful of physical resources.

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From: Mike
To: Andy
Date: December 27, 2010

It’s important to have these reviewers who completely trust their own opinion, and I think your citing Dave Kehr is a great compliment to him because, unlike the others you cite, he was a mass-market reviewer for decades, and not given the luxury of time to mull things over or of focusing on what he wants to write about. Although a lot of critics retain their enthusiasm after many years of maximum word-production about mediocre films that not even their creators care about, this enthusiasm can go in strange unintended directions. Roger Ebert in particular, his free-form internet pieces are sometimes great. But when he champions an obscure director or writer in the form of one of his 500-word reviews, it just seems like he was in a really good mood when watching something (also true of Stephanie Zacharek). And the relentless giving of 3 stars based on the idea that someone out there will like it leads to degraded judgment in general. I would rather see more people randomly giving things 0 stars based on the idea that someone out there will NOT like it. Are there any more Armond Whites, among the ranks of people who review everything?

I do like the idea that a worthy person would get valuable experience or a new perspective from working on Film X.  Film X might succeed at none of its intended goals (entertaining the audience, making the audience think, becoming part of a certain canon), but it probably isn’t a waste of everybody’s time. But there we’re just talking about the value of practice, or as Bill Simmons would call it, “getting the reps in”. Nowadays we don’t bemoan the tragic fate of Zack Greinke wasting his great performances on the Royals, because he’s going to have the opportunity to pitch Games That Matter at some point, before the end of his prime.

But there are some, let’s say, ideas, or images, that get associated with a bad film and then can’t be used in good ones. It’s often lamented that the Hollywood movies most worthy of remakes are the ones with solid premises that failed in some way (usually adaptations of great plays, or fascinating sci-fi/fantasy concepts done badly), and they don’t get remade because they lack the advantage of name recognition. And anyone showing a certain sort of vision of the afterlife now has to pretty much make the best movie of the year to overcome the reflexive response of “What is this, What Dreams May Come (Vincent Ward, 1998)? The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson, 2009)?” You may have seen my posts on Facebook about how good Knowing (Alex Proyas, 2009) was, which I recanted a week later, because I didn’t actually want to recommend it to anyone since none of the actors do a good job. There are some moments in that film that are visually amazing in a straightforward, believable way, and those visual ideas are sort of stranded there. But those aspects aren’t really wasted on the film in question, because they are more appropriate for that film than for any other. Those are the outstanding elements that mean Knowing, unlike From Paris With Love (Pierre Morel, 2010), deserves to exist.

Really, the issue is wasted money, like you mention for Transformers (Michael Bay, 2007). That movie would have been basically the same if they had spent 1/5 as much on it. The visual effects might have been less sharp and flashy, or maybe not even if the filmmakers used some ingenuity. They didn’t use that money to hire an all-star cast or film in authentic locations. They didn’t even use it on costumes. It’s not a situation like Superman Returns (Bryan Singer, 2006) or Catwoman (Pitof, 2004) where the huge number quoted as the budget includes a decade of paying screenwriters and directors and other people to come up with ideas that were never used. It’s just a total waste from the audience’s point of view, even if it means a lot of visual effects programmers and designers can make a living.

I don’t think Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, 2006) was a particularly expensive movie, but it creates this complete microcosm for its characters to interact in believably, it takes its time with important moments, it has all those perfectly cut little music videos, and all it needs is a story. I even appreciate its point, about showing us how the 18th century French royals resemble today’s Hollywood celebrities, and how jarring it is that they also had political power. But that’s conveyed pretty quickly. The film is one of those reflections, or meditations, on fame, on isolation, on its subjects’ situation. There could have been a lot more to it. They could have shot three different movies in this setting before it was dismantled. They were allowed to shoot in the actual palace of Versailles! I haven’t actually seen Tsai Ming-Liang’s film shot in collaboration with the Louvre, but I’m guessing he tried to take full advantage of the unique opportunities that offered.

Maybe my response to Sofia Coppola is sort of like my response to Noah Baumbach. Each one of their films seem like it wasn’t that hard to make (well, except for Marie Antoinette). The great moments come from things falling together unexpectedly, not from their being perfectionists, and yet it seems to take them an unnecessarily long time to make their films. I want to say to them, it seems like you have a lot of ideas, and I don’t think your oeuvre will be one in which any one film is a towering achievement, so get more ideas out there! Take more risks!

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From: Andy
To: Mike
Date: January 12, 2011

Gilles Deleuze once wrote that “The cinema is always as perfect as it can be.” This statement can be applied to the work of individual directors, too: part of what makes Noah Baumbach Noah Baumbach is the fact that he has not made a lot of feature-length films [compared to the directors active in the heyday of the studio era]. Ditto for Sofia Coppola. Their cinema is always as perfect as it can be.

Were I employed as a professional film critic, I would feel obligated to asses films in terms of their value (to my readers, to film culture, to humanity, etc.). Since I am not, I prefer to ask not what the film in question has done for me, but what I can do with the film in question?

I watch as many movies as I can as a way of panning for gold: I’m looking for things I can use to make sense of my life and the world and the cinema (because to a certain extent I am mystified by the hold it has on me). I’m looking for examples. I don’t spend much time pondering the value of individual films, because that would be like questioning the value of a single grain of sand on a beach (or, to avoid mixing metaphors, in the silt of a riverbed). It can be done, but it misses the point somewhat.

This picture of Noah Baumbach came from a Google image search for "Armond White".

If a movie doesn’t speak to me, I get up and leave. Or, more often, I let my mind wander. In fact, movie theaters are almost as important to me for being places where I can go to think as they are for providing the best possible environment to fully experience films. When it comes to movies, I will gladly, happily — even necessarily, maybe — take the “bad” with the “good.” For that reason I am very rarely disappointed in the films I see. And to feel that something represents a wasted opportunity, I think it must disappoint you, yes? So perhaps we’ll never see eye to eye on this.

Armond White, by the way, is necessarily one of a kind, for the same reason that you couldn’t make a version of 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957) in which the initial vote came back 10-2, if that makes sense!

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From: Mike
To: Andy
Date: February 3, 2011

Yes, disappointment comes when I have some idea of what went into creating something — thus making me imagine what could have been accomplished. Unlike a novel, a movie contains evidence of the resources that went into it, and it’s hard not to have expectations, even if we know nothing about the genesis of the project. And then it’s easy to like something that gets the most out of its materials, like Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009) or The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981). I can’t be the only one who responded to Army of Darkness (Sam Raimi, 1992) by thinking “This is objectively much better than The Evil Dead, but given their respective budgets it should have been, like, 500 times better. No! That doesn’t make sense!”

I usually want to be carried along by a movie, not to draw something great from it here and there. The exceptions are muted human dramas like Starting Out in the Evening (Andrew Wagner, 2007) or Hell Is Other People (Jarrod Whaley, 2010) in which a character we’ve seen in such detail that he or she becomes unique is in a situation or state of mind that can’t be explained, only observed. This is akin to the experience with a novel where we’ve followed the characters for so long that we perceive their situation in ways we can’t describe. I think the collaborative nature of film makes these moments more serendipitous and magical. But a film needs to have more than one such moment to seem like it’s worth the effort. I kept feeling like Please Give (Nicole Holofcener, 2010) spent most of its time running through its plot points (maybe more like “character development points”) in order to get to one or two moments where it makes a major statement. It could have lingered on things more.

So in general what I’m hoping for in a movie is for the whole experience to be worthwhile, or at least consistently engaging, without requiring it to be polished or well-organized. Although I persist in viewing each grain of sand alone, instead of looking at the whole oeuvre, I tend to be interested in artists who keep producing work that expresses what they want to say at that moment, without masterminding every detail. Like Neil Young, or Robert Altman, or François Ozon. Someone who realizes they are not the best judge of their own creative output and relies on the audience to appreciate their high points while hoping they aren’t defined by the low. Looking at filmmaking as a job, I feel like that’s the way to do it.

But looking at it as artistic creation, I shouldn’t blame someone for having a different process. If Sofia Coppola or Rian Johnson can’t direct something that isn’t a fully conceived project over which they have total control, that’s understandable. And if people like Brian De Palma need to micromanage all aspects of the production, even those that aren’t among their talents (Is this a flashback or not? Why is this actor ten times worse than the others?), that’s the way they need to work.

Maybe it’s like being a coach. There are some people who try to hire a well-rounded group of assistants and delegate everything, and then there are people like Mike Krzyzewski who have many admirable traits but need to be surrounded by yes-men. There must be a reason why Andy Reid refuses to take Bill Simmons’s advice and hire a “Clock Management Closer”: he’s afraid of losing control in other aspects of the operation. When you hire him that’s what you get.

So, no one person possesses all the talents needed to make a great film. And, of course, when you put together everyone listed in the credits, you have an unpredictable mixture. You can end up wondering what the brilliant script would be like with better performances, or you can appreciate the score or a great performance surrounded by inanity, like George Clooney’s in The Men Who Stare at Goats (Grant Heslov, 2009) or Peter O’Toole’s in My Favorite Year (Richard Benjamin, 1982). Though one great element doesn’t turn an otherwise dismal movie into a good one, it makes it more bearable. So you’re right: it’s better to “pan for gold” than to imagine what perfection would look like.

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From: Andy
To: Mike
Date: May 15

Right! Sorry it took me so long to respond to your last letter! Between the end of the semester, the overlapping Russian Film Symposium and Silk Screen Asian American Film Festival, and a few recent job interviews, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by life lately. Thank goodness for the NBA playoffs, which, wow, are awesome this year. Anyway, without further ado:

Hmm . . .

I don’t know that I wanted to convince you that my way is better. In fact, in the sixth months since we began this exchange, I’ve turned a corner of, sorts, so I’m not even sure that it’s my way anymore. It is a way, though, definitely. What I mean by that: there is no correct approach to watching movies, but depending on what you’re trying to do, some work better than others. Auteurism, for instance, is a godsend if you’re writing a book about film history or covering a film festival, where a list of cast & crew and a one paragraph description in a festival guide is often all you have to go on. It’s less useful if you’re primarily interested in acting or music or some other specific aspect of filmmaking. And you can do without it if you’re not planning on seeing more than five or six movies a year.

My way was moments for a long time because I was trying to make up for my not-misspent youth by watching as many movies as I could, upwards of ten or fifteen a week. This didn’t leave a lot of time for dwelling on individual films or for proper long-form writing. Then, too, there’s the fact that I’ve never been very good at writing pans or playing the good-better-best game because I genuinely appreciate most of the movies I watch, which is sort of like being someone who enjoys traveling: the question isn’t ever What am I doing here?, it’s What’s going on? You can answer that in either 300 words or 3,000, but not anything in between, and being a blogger I generally opted for the former.

But I’m getting older now, and I want to do something with my film knowledge someday, and I’ve seen so many movies already, and as a result of all this I’m starting to change my ways. I’m much more likely to watch a movie twice now than I am to see two movies in a day, because there are so many other things I want to do, and if I am going to watch something, I want to make sure I really understand it: how it works, and what I’m being told, and what impact it has had on me. I also find myself wanting to start responding to the question of why movies matter. For much of my life it was enough that they did, but as with each passing day it becomes less obvious (but no less true) to the world at large that they do, I feel like it’s time to make a stand. What I’m doing, therefore, is spending more time with the filmmakers that matter to me the most, which makes me less charitable towards those that don’t mean much to me at all. I still don’t have anything against Sofia Coppola, and I still enjoy her work, absolutely, but darn it, she’s taking time away from John Carpenter and Raoul Walsh and Roberto Rossellini and Leos Carax, and I’m just not as cool with that as I used to be.

For the sake of symmetry, then, I’ll close the same way you did: yes, a great moment can make a mediocre film worthwhile, sure, but life is short, and there’s so much to do, so why settle? Why be a prospector if you have the training and resources to be a mining engineer? Perhaps it isn’t fair to ask how a movie isn’t perfect, but, after all, “progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

By the way, I love your idea that “director” and “coach” are equivalent concepts. The key to success for both is selecting personnel that fit into their system, but also being willing to occasionally adapt their system (which, incidentally, is a product of their personality in each instance) to take full advantage of whatever resources they have to work with. And it’s not necessarily all about winning for either. Spot on!

Mike, it has been a pleasure!

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Thanks dude!

Again, Part One of the exchange is at Andy’s site.