Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Church of the Cultured Mind: The Cinematheque's The Best of the Decade List

“I have had enough serious interest in the products of the ‘higher’ arts to be very sharply aware that the impulse which leads me to a Humphrey Bogart movie has little in common with the impulse which leads me to the novels of Henry James or the poetry of T.S. Eliot…To define that connection seems to me one of the tasks of film criticism, and the definition must be first of all a personal one. A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he’s that man.”

--Robert Warshow, The Immediate Experience, 1955.

We seemed to have come a slippery distance from the time when critic Robert Warshow eagerly expressed curiosity about an impulse, or a justification to make a connection between what is often deemed “high culture” and “low culture.” One look at the TIFF Cinematheque Best of the Decade list tells you that there is no desire, or curiosity, to connect with anything but their own church of refined taste. This is why it is really immaterial to discuss what’s on their list of the best films of the past decade. In examining their choices, I’m sure that we can all find things we love (The Gleaners and I, Yi Yi), things we dislike (Syndromes and a Century, Caché), even things we didn’t see – and perhaps might want to (Songs from the Second Floor). What is more important, as the previous writers on this site attested, is to discuss what isn’t on it – and why.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Where is Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings Trilogy on the 'Best of the Decade' lists?

Since I stepped away from regular criticism more than 20 years ago, I freely admit that my ability to see more 'challenging' films has declined (made more difficult by the fact I live outside of Toronto now and these films never make it to either my local cinema or DVD shop). So it would be unfair and dishonest to address the shortcomings (or strengths) of TIFF Cinematheque's Best of the Decade List since I've only seen a small handful of the pictures. Besides, my cohort Shlomo has already done a fine job eviscerating it, so what's the point of repeating?

I'll only make one comment before I get to the point of my piece: a major work of art that is missing from the List. Critics or curators who make lists that refuse to even acknowledge commercial cinema are as ridiculous and narrow-minded as people who only go to the movies so they can 'check their brains at the door' and think flicks like Transformer 2: Revenge of the Fallen, or The Dark Knight, are The. Best. Movies. Ever. There is no difference. On one hand, the James Quandts of the world will turn up their noses at anything that might be considered 'commercial,' while the others would run screaming from the theatre at the first sign of a subtitle. Me? I can get just as jonesed by a cinematic essay by Chris Marker, such as Sans Soleil or La Jetée, as I can by zombie flicks like Shaun of the Dead or 28 Weeks Later.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Buyer Beware! TIFF Cinematheque's so – called Best of the Decade

The Best Films of the Decade list recently unveiled by TIFF Cinematheque (formerly Cinematheque Ontario), is problematic in many ways, not just in terms of what was picked (and not picked) as the finest of the past decade but more significantly, for what it says about the stagnant view of movies held by those who chose the 54 films on the list. (See for all the titles, not all of which will be shown in Toronto).

That film list, which begins showing today, is put together solely by curators and programmers (and not film critics), as TIFF Cinematheque Senior Programmer James Quandt, who shepherded the list to fruition, is quick to point out. The collection is chock full of many films that would try the patience of most film-goers, movies that often have words like rigor attached to them in the film notes. (Rigor mortis would be more accurate.) They deliberately go out of their way, it seems, to eschew any cinematic energy or zip. Resembling museum pieces rather than entertaining works of art, they remind me of that old joke about movies being called moving pictures, which many of the films on this list decidedly do not.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Love As An Open Argument: Remembering Kate McGarrigle

When I heard the news yesterday about the death of Kate McGarrigle from cancer, it really cut to the quick. “It’s like getting kicked in the gut, you know,” Sylvia Tyson remarked upon hearing the news. I know what she meant. Over the years, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, the folk singing siblings from Quebec, had written and performed a distinct body of beautiful songs that had the capacity to share wounds and open sores that their soaring voices could quickly heal. Their temperaments were radically different – Anna the hopeful romantic; Kate the skeptic – but the blending of their differences often created a harmony unique to popular song. Calling the McGarrigle sisters’ material “tart and tuneful,” J.D. Considine in Rolling Stone said their work married “the resonance of folk to the emotional immediacy of everyday life.” What Kate and Anna McGarrigle did was give the genre a different lease on everyday life. They wrote personal songs without resorting to solipsism. They wrote romantic songs without bending to sentimentality. They could be funny and sarcastic without being smug.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Consideration of The Lovely Bones

I grew up in Parry Sound in the 1960s. I was part of a big pack of kids who would play outside until after dark throughout the summer, completely unconcerned about our safety, not oblivious to it, just unconcerned. However, we also all knew to 'stay away from Johnnie'. Johnnie was probably a pedophile. He was a man in his forties who lived alone in a big house up the street from our home. We would always see him walking quickly through our neighbourhood, a hand always in his pocket, watching the kids as we played. We nicknamed him Johnnie Walker (no offense to the fine scotch producers). We just all knew to stay away from him. Creepy and weird, he certainly was, yet our parents were seemingly oblivious to him and what he might be, but we weren't. Yet we sure as hell never told our parents about him. We wanted to be able to play unfettered. Granted, he didn't, that we know of, ever actually act on his obvious compulsions, so the light of adult suspicion was never cast upon him. These reflections came to mind as I watched Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones, because there is a major character in the film that reminded me of Johnnie.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Ad Men & Women

The characters on Mad Men tend to lack integrity in both their personal and professional lives. AMC’s perceptive and award-winning series, set in the early 1960s, broadcasts consistent proof of that pitiful human condition into my living room. This miasma of mendacity, which most often comes during breaks for commercials and TV promos, reflects the output of contemporary Don Drapers, Peggy Olsons and Pete Campbells.

The tasteless deception is so pervasive that undiscriminating viewers can no longer differentiate between genuine information and the cesspool of artful lies. In enumerating some of the many atrocities, let’s not preface these peeves with the word pet because that would be offensive to my two lovely cats:

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Rohmer Passes

The recent death of French filmmaker Eric Rohmer, at age 89, reminds us not just what a significant director he was but how the French revere their artists, from allowing Rohmer to work into his late eighties, something which rarely happens in America, to the moving eulogy given him by French President Nicolas Sarkozy when word arrived of his passing. Sarkozy’s comments, calling him a "great auteur who will continue to speak to us and inspire us for years to come” is more than apt but it might prompt those who are suspicious of the praise meted out to any celebrity who dies, to think Sarkozy is exaggerating. He’s not. Rohmer really was one of the greats.

His films, the best known of which were unveiled in his series’ Six Moral Tales, Comedies and Proverbs, and Tales of the Four Seasons, spanning the 60s to the 90s, usually featured young people, women more often than men, talking about, seeking and finding love, with an emphasis on the romance behind most hookups. But Rohmer never simplified his characters' search for love and his affection for the people at the center of his films was such that they achieved a humanity and generosity that is still a rare commodity in the cinema. They also influenced everyone from American filmmakers Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset) and Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, Barcelona) to his fellow countryman Oliver Assayas, whose Summer Hours (L'heure d'été), owes much of its tone and structure to Rohmer’s way of seeing. For me, his films were often the highlights of the Toronto International Film Festival, movies I eagerly looked forward to seeing, especially because I knew it was likely my only chance to see them as they often wouldn’t open commercially in Toronto. And I rarely felt short changed by any of them, right through to the end of his career and his final 2007 film, the sweet Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon (The Romance of Astrée and Céladon.).