Wednesday, December 10, 2008

AIFF -Dilemmas for film Critics

We met RA at the Fireweed to see the Singaporean movie, Carrot Cake Conversations. (The website - at the link - is clever and worth a look.) When I proposed this as the movie we go to see together before dinner, he responded that he was looking at the same one as a good choice. Well, he is originally from Malaysia and Singapore borders Malaysia. It also turns out his sister lives in Singapore and she said it had been released in Singapore to decent reviews, but she hadn't seen it. As an added benefit we saw the short Donut Heaven before the movie. I have a short video from the director of Donut Heaven, Annetta Marion, in the previous post.

I'm struggling with the role of the movie reviewer. As a retired professor, my main experience with 'reviews' was grading papers. It seemed to me that the point of commenting on papers is to let the student know what you thought they did well (everyone needs outside confirmation that there work is good) and to show them ways to improve the parts that need work. I wrote about my criteria for evaluating movies last year, but there are other issues - like the purpose of the review and the relationship of the reviewer and the reviewed.

So Peter Porco's Anchorage Daily News review of the shorts he saw the other day, while pithy and more or less accurate, were sometimes pretty stinging. "Tepid acting and a lame script kept this film's amusement at the level of a groaner." That's like a punch to the stomach of the director, and while I'm afraid it is more true than not, I don't know that it will help the director do a better job next time. Granted, in a newspaper article that reviews six short movies, you don't have much space to say anything. But Porco spent more time in his review of the film "One-Two Punch" on a synopsis of the story, which ruins the movie for people who haven't yet seen it, and doesn't enlighten people who have seen it already.

But this also raises the issue of how relationships between reporters and their subjects affect what the reporters write. I met Tim Anderson, who made "One-Two Punch" (there's a video of Tim here) the second day of the festival. And I was able to talk to him briefly after I saw the film. I told him that I thought the acting was weak at times, but we also talked about the dilemma of capturing ordinary speech without being boring. The opening phone conversation between a couple having relationship problems is not brilliant conversation, but it is probably what two people might actually say. To what extent should writers elevate everyday conversation to a more literate level of talking? (People raised those issues about vice presidential candidates too I recall.)

The issue also came up in Andrew MacLean's filmmaker workshop. His film portrays a day of seal hunting. He said actually it was three days. And the killing of the seal, which happens at the end of the film, took place early in the first day. But the story narrative, influenced by his New York University faculty, required that the killing had to come at the end. I asked if an Inupiaq narrative style would have done the film differently. Andrew said, probably the end result was his own combination of those two styles and his own mix of cultures. When I asked if he would have made a different movie had it only had Barrow as its intended audience, he paused and explained in some detail why it would.

One issue here then is how our predetermined story lines and narrative styles cause us to reshape reality to fit culturally defined standards. And if we do that enough, do we create a separate reality in our recreations of reality, ones that cause us to see what isn't really there?

Porco could, rightfully, respond, "Hey, this is the bigtime. People who throw their films up for the world to see, need to be ready to face the fact that some of their films aren't very good." (Of course, while I'm making like I'm being fair to Porco, I'm also creating his lines which may not be nearly as good as what he himself would offer.) And I'd respond, first, film festivals are a venue for new film makers, and second, Anchorage's film stage is hardly the bigtime.

Now if the point of the criticism is to serve as triage for potential viewers, then one could argue one should be pointing out the gems AND the dogs so viewers don't waste their time with a bad movie when a good one is showing in the next theater. But that assumes that any one reviewer represents the tastes of all film goers.

Another role of the critic is to help film makers improve or at least think about how they might improve or the impacts of their films that they may not have considered. That tends to be my style. Rather than talking with the voice of God, it seems more appropriate to raise questions, point out areas which "from my perspective" seem weak seems both more humane and more productive than passing judgment from on high. I don't think my former students would say I was a pushover at grading, but I think most would say that my purpose was to point out where they could do better rather than to humiliate them. (For some it took longer to reach that perspective than others. And not all stuck it out long enough to get there.)

All this is a preface to why I haven't done any serious reviewing so far for this Festival. A good movie takes a while to parse. A bad movie takes even longer to constructively critique. When I talked to Tim Anderson about his film we talked about the basic theme - when the truth is so bizarre that people don't believe you. I asked if he knew why he wrote the film. He didn't have a ready answer, hadn't delved into his childhood for a clue, but did say that there was a time when he often picked up friends at the airport. (The main character assures his girlfriend in the phone call that he'll be their to pick her up when her plane comes in.) And sometimes he would think of what might be legitimate excuses if he couldn't make it. Being tied up by two men in bunny suits who invade your home and then invite their friends over to party wasn't one of them, though that's what ends the relationship in the movie. Writing a short review doesn't let you get into this level. Writing a review doesn't give you a chance to hear the filmmaker's side either. Now you can say the piece of art should stand on its own. But what is a short film for anyway these days? There isn't really much of a market for them except as parts of a television show, maybe, and film festivals. Perhaps theaters can be convinced to add them before features, like they used to do with newsreels and cartoons. But now that they've crossed commercial line, that isn't likely. So I suspect that shorts are often done by people without the resources to do feature length films. They are a chance to try out some techniques less expensively than in a feature length film. They can be a showcase for up and coming film makers. And some things don't need more than ten minutes to say, but this can be a pretty expensive project if there are few ways to pay your costs. MacLean said his second film cost $30,000. Tim Anderson said "One-Two Punch" cost $800, if I recall correctly. I think it is not unreasonable to have one way of evaluating films is against their costs. For $800 "One-Two Punch" is a helluva film compared to some Hollywood movies with multi-million budgets.

Of course, there is at least another purpose of criticism - to show off the cleverness and hipness of the reviewer. And certainly any decent reviewer wants to write the review in a way that provokes thought and redounds positively on the reviewer. But ultimately the focus should be on the subject of the film, the ideas that the film raises.

[picture from Donut Heaven website]

So, with that said, what can I say about the two movies tonight? I liked "Donut Heaven." I wish I had talked to Annetta after seeing the film instead of before. Was the weight loss of the mother real or was she just wearing a fat suit at the beginning? (Now that gets right to the deep psychological issues of the film doesn't it?) The basics - the photography, the acting, etc. worked for me. (One of my grading criteria for papers was "writing." Generally this was something you lost points for if there were more than a couple of grammatical or spelling errors or the style was particularly clunky. Sometimes if it was really outstanding you could get points. Points being more figurative than literal here. The basic technical parts of the film, for me are similar. You need to avoid gaffs. Ideally, the technical parts should be good enough that you don't notice them. And they shouldn't draw attention to themselves and away from the story - the way some music and photography can do.) The characters were real to me, though I'm a little skeptical of the mom's ability to suddenly curb her eating. The daughter's sneaked smokes was more realistic. It was also a good mother-daughter (parent-child) movie - where both wanted to be better to the other, but couldn't help but dig into the other. Especially those things they didn't like in themselves.

Dare I attempt Carrot Cake Conversations? Having spent five days visiting my son in Singapore last April, (he's back in the US now) I did want to see this film set in Singapore and made by Singaporeans. It was an Altman like style of four main characters, plus a few more folks, whose paths, in the course of 16 hours or so, cross in different ways. Carrot Cake from what I learned in the film, is a stir fry dish with lots of soy sauce and chili. While my son took me to eat at the Newton Hawker Market, where they ate in the film, I didn't have carrot cake. There's a video of the hawker we bought from here.

There wasn't anything special about this movie, except that it had a Singaporean setting and point of view. But I did like all of the characters, despite their flaws, and for me things dragged a bit. At times I saw the actors (meaning they seemed to separate from their characters enough that I saw them as actors reciting lines) but I thought Adrian Pang who played Matthew was right on the money all the time. The issues covered were universal issues - relationships (husband-wife; mother-daughter), the link between career success and happiness, and control vs. spontaneity. Nothing terribly new or insightful, but perhaps some of the ideas would seem fresher for someone much younger them I.

RA, J and I went to Tofu House afterward to talk about the movie and life. We've got several more inches of snow this evening and we passed the cyclist on Fireweed. He did have a light on his backpack, but it needed a new battery, which we were able to tell him as he caught up with us at the light.

I spent most of the day finishing my video for class tomorrow. I was working on the animation and then the sound. It came out ok - the music helps enormously to fill in the slow parts. The assignment was for 30 seconds with an understanding it could go over. Mine is just under 90 seconds. And I'm still having problems saving from iMovie (o6) to a .mov file. The second clip freezes the video as the audio goes on its merry way. I guess I'll have to get out the old iMovie disk and reinstall it.

[Carrot Cake pictures from the website.]

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