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12 bad reasons to call a film great

by Mike Spence
12 bad reasons to call a film great by Mike Spence
1. It’s ambitious, epic and grand – Properly defined, these things are not necessarily awful traits. Too often, however, people mistakenly assume that “big” stories about wars, economic crises, or civil rights movements are greater and more ambitious than stories about two or three people in a room talking about or hiding the subtle, little emotions we go through in the ridiculously complex minefield that is human interaction. This is one of the fallacious reasons some favor Renoir’s ‘The Grand Illusion’ over ‘The Rules of the Game.’ There may be valid reasons for considering the former to be better than the latter but if your ranking is… Read more

1. It’s ambitious, epic and grand – Properly defined, these things are not necessarily awful traits. Too often, however, people mistakenly assume that “big” stories about wars, economic crises, or civil rights movements are greater and more ambitious than stories about two or three people in a room talking about or hiding the subtle, little emotions we go through in the ridiculously complex minefield that is human interaction. This is one of the fallacious reasons some favor Renoir’s ‘The Grand Illusion’ over ‘The Rules of the Game.’ There may be valid reasons for considering the former to be better than the latter but if your ranking is based on the war film being about “bigger” or “more important” themes you should rethink your approach to art and life. The media machine feeds this insecurity based notion by telling us everyday that big events are more important than small events, celebrities are more important than non- famous folks, Presidents are more important than garbage men, nurses or high-school principals. These are lies we cherish because we can never accept that our lives and the multivalent small moments that make them up are as great as any that have ever been. There is nothing more important than what goes on in Tom Noonan’s film about a first date between two people, ‘What Happened Was,’ not battles in Algiers, Normandy invasions, Nagasaki, The Holocaust, nothing.

“These people and these small feelings are the greatest political force there is.” – John Cassavetes*

2. You identify with the characters – Great art is never about making us feel comfortable in our current attitudes and prejudices. In art, flattery will get you nowhere. Seek out experiences that challenge our unfortunate tendency to judge people and events. Seek out knowledge of characters you don’t identify with. On first viewing of A Woman Under The Influence, many viewers “identify” with Nick’s dilemma: how to cope with a crazy wife. Attentive and sensitive viewer will soon begin to question whether Nick is in fact the bad guy, driving her crazy, but still, she is so off the wall! Wait, so what she brings up going to bed with Nick, why do THEY make a big deal out of it. He just wants to control everything. She’s alright, just a little wonky sometimes, but…what about that guy she took home in the beginning? This is life. We can’t simply slip into easy identification in real life because the little differences, even among our closest familiars, bug the hell out of us. Demand that film invite you to a party where you don’t know anyone very well and simply observe how many of the truly weird and annoying things people do (not the cutesy ones from bad rom-coms and faux-edgy indie flicks but really annoying vocal tones and gestures) are similar, while utterly different from things you do yourself. Notice how one moment you’ve got the person you’re talking to figured out, and the next, without warning, they seem like a total stranger, then they come back and you can’t even remember what gesture or statement made them seem like a stranger, and on and on, back and forth. Think about how easy it is to sink into a driving rock or rap song because the backbeat starts and ends with basically the same goals and achieves them. Then think about a Charlie Parker solo or a Bach Partita and how, even when they end up in the same place, the path they took to get there was so winding, twisting and with so many stops and starts you felt you were completely lost for a moment, then think about how exhilarating THAT was.
3. It is beautifully composed, shot or produced – Great art can be all of those things but they are not at all necessary in the way that people usually mean. Mike Leigh and Harmony Korrine’s work is rough and not “pretty” but allows us to rub up against harsh surfaces and come away transformed by the truth of the characterizations. Art is not a beauty pageant. Getting lost in the motivations of character can be a great thing, it can mean that the artists has captured the flowing, unformulated rhythms of life. Getting lost in pretty pictures is a waste of time. They are easy to make and easy to swallow so with all this easiness where is the chance for growth? If beauty were truth then every great cinematographer would automatically be predisposed to being a great director. Such is not the case. The greatest directors are distrustful of holding a pretty shot too long for fear of losing their characters and the rough, non-composed, lifelike quality they and the performers have created.
4. It is disturbing, shocking or harrowing – Being disturbed out of our complacent belief systems can be a good thing. being disturbed by how horrible humans can be to each other is childish and yields no real rewards. Once again, the media tells us that the extreme characters in life are the ones we should be focused on. Serial killers, prostitutes, heroin addicts, these are the stories Hollywood and the fake independent hacks who emulate it tell us are important. Even if these shock-jocks tell a story about an ordinary cab driver he has to eventually find a conspiracy, or go through a revelatory experience with his friends or family. Remember, as sensitive human beings, going through the grocery store and picking up a few things can take us through a whirlpool of emotions, embarrassments, and incidents. These ordinary events, when there are no extreme forces working against us are what 90 percent of our lives consist of and and they are more important than any story about the harrowing life of a teenage porn star.
5. It is extremely complicated and puzzling – It is easy to construct an oblique narrative in which many mysterious characters speak and act in puzzling ways. When we are young and adolescent this appeals to us most because we distrust the surface appearances or the world so much that we feel there must be something sinister hidden behind the curtains, or smiles. Puzzles are not art, they are games. The key thing about the adult mysteries of life is that they are not hidden, but rather on the surface. Everything is a mystery and none of them have any solution. Films that tell tales where the normal difficulty we encounter with not being able to read what a person’s expression is turns out to have some big secret behind it may be entertaining but they are not art. Directors focusing on the void, the abyss or the darkness in the woods fail to realize that the best art, like life, is collaborative. We are NOT lone visionaries seeking a single destiny, we are connected, improved, destroyed, elated or hurt in collaboration with those who love, hate, ignore, or depend on us.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
-Robert Frost
6. It’s a metaphor for something – Bad critics and poor education has drummed into our heads the idea that metaphors equal greatness. The truth is that metaphors are easy and distractions from what’s important. ‘Animal Farm" and ’The Old Man and The Sea’ are big metaphors that entertain but never reach the greatness that George Elliot or Henry James do by simply writing about people plainly with no underlying meaning. Meaning is slippery and right on the surface of things. A person who is crying means that a person is crying and if you film them truthfully you will be watching a great natural mystery unfold that requires no explanation.
7. It was the first to do something – Film history is fascinating but it should not be confused with criticism. There are some silent films that are great works of art and certainly 90 percent of them are more pleasurable than anything playing at your local cineplex simply by virtue of being coherent. Nonetheless, simply because a film was the first to use a certain dolly shot or low angle has nothing to do with the experience it offers. Before calling it great, assume I have no knowledge or interest in film history but simply want an experience that will rock me to the core the way a James novel or a Bach composition will.
8. It made a lot of money or won a lot of awards – Yes, this one seems obvious but I still hear people who should know better suggesting, sometimes tentatively, that the box-office take or popularity of a movie must indicate that something was done right. The answer to the question " can _______ number of people all be wrong" is yes no matter what number you insert. Hollywood is a business and while they are frequently wrong they are mostly right about selling their products, the number of people who see these films are no indication of any greatness. Likewise, the very idea of awarding one work of art over another is based on such a twisted value system that it is no wonder that practically no film that has ever won an award i have heard of is even really worth watching for anything other than mindless entertainment.
9. There is nothing else like it – Films that can be said to be sui generis may be masterpieces or they may be garbage. Much like puzzle films, it is easy to simply throw everything but the kitchen sink into your films and hope something will stick with a viewer. There are subtle differences between real art and silliness and we must be careful not to confuse the two. Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha doesn’t break new ground technically, thematically, or in terms of it’s mise en scene. As an experience, told with absolute attention to the twisting flowing nuances of it’s characters, it feels a million times more new than the latest groundbreaking piece of shit the Hollywood machine is offering at the multiplex.
10. It shows you a world you didn’t know existed or captures it’s time – This can apply to “world-building” sci-fi flicks, or to some people’s approach to viewing world cinema. If Kiarostami’s films are great, and I think they are, it has nothing to do with introducing some westerner to Iranian culture. That is the least of what makes his cinema great. The greatness comes from his reminding us about human nature, not transient culture. Similarly, capturing a period of time is for time-capsules. Art should capture emotions and feelings which will be around for all time. Art does not transport us away from the world like a spaceship but rather sends us hurtling down to earth from the spacey recesses of our consciousness only to rise with greater perceptions about ourselves and those all around us.
11. It’s “political.” This is often a way of stating that a film examines poor or disenfranchised people and the issues that plague them. These may be virtues in a politician but they are weak qualitative measures for a poet or filmmaker. Shakespeare, Henry James and Cassavetes have all been criticized for focusing on Kings, rich people or middle-class concerns. What these artists and any great artist understand, even if they can’t verbally articulate it, is that the politics of the heart, mind and soul are the most important concerns for a work of art. Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep isn’t important because it shows the plight of an undervalued segment of society, it is great because it depicts the interior conflict in its characters situation through the exterior difficulties they have with expressing their desires and frustrations and turning desire into practical power.
12. Its “personal.” This is usually used with good intentions. The problem is that if the artist’s personal concerns are shallow it makes no difference whether their film is close to their heart. A filmmaker may be personally obsessed with ghosts, serial killers, or with the feelings of alienation which plagues them in their teens. This doesn’t mean their work is of value to adults who are looking for films that deal with what it means to be an adult. There was a thread not too long ago where a hack filmmaker was compared with Cassavetes because his silly film about his obsession with his hot wife’s breasts was “personal.” This is meaningless. Just because Bob Guccione really likes big tits that doesn’t make Penthouse a work that should be compared with Dubliners. Similarly, if an artist is attuned to the movements of men’s minds and hearts and how difficult it is to translate these movements into one’s daily interactions with the world, it doesn’t matter if their location or the nationality of their actors is far removed from their origins. Making your film personal shouldn’t depend on making a film about what you saw in your neighborhood growing up, but rather the deepest human concerns which, regardless of specifics, will resonate with any viewer who is equally perceptive.

An addendum: I will more than likely not do a follow up list of 10 Good Reasons To Call A Film Great because the great films can’t be reduced to a laundry list of ingredients. It’s only the lesser films that end up being called great for silly reasons that deserve to have their dubious charms dissected in this way, although some great films are called great for the wrong reasons.

Another addendum for Number 1. Listening to the radio recently I heard a song by Mariah Carey that illustrates the flawed values our society perpetuates. The song is called ‘Obsessed’ and is a response to Eminem bashing Carey in one of his dumb songs. There is a line where Carey disses Em, saying “you’re a mom & pop, I’m a corporation, I’m a press conference, you’re a conversation.” Look at what’s being espoused here. In truth, every mom & pop store I’ve seen is more interesting than any boring homogenized corporation and a conversation yields more value than any contrived press conference. Think I’m using a straw-man argument, then ask yourself why so many people will tell you Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan, two bloated Spielberg pieces of trash about ‘important" subjects are better than Ghost World and Junebug, two masterpieces about common human interaction. i’ll tell you why, because the media has sold them a bill of goods. It’s Time to return the bill of goods and get a refund.

Another addendum to number 6. – 4.9.2010 Number six kind of goes with number 3. These metaphorical films where everything stands for something else flatter our intellectual fantasies about ourselves in much the same way films that concentrate on identification flatter our emotional fantasies about ourselves. We feel smarter because we can see the meaning behind the metaphor and this confirms our belief that if we are smart we can see the meaning behind issues in our lives by going over them in our minds over and over again. We can solve life’s puzzles the way we solve a moves puzzles. Life’s, and great art’s, puzzles are not only unsolvable, but many pleasurable mysteries are missed in the effort to pin them down and dissect them. Great works invite us to slowly float over the surface of their depths. When we stop and try to “figure our” exactly what a mystery below the surface is we find it has disappeared and that we have missed new phenomena because of the attempt. We must embrace flowing and avoid freezing. Freezing kills depth.

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