Thursday, August 12, 2010

Sunset films, pt. 1

Last weekend, a friend of mine briefly recounted a debate she'd had with an acquaintance about Hollywood remakes of foreign films (Let the Right One In, etc.). The acquaintance argued that these remakes have been unfairly maligned and are performing the valuable service of bringing a good story to an audience that would never see a subtitled film. I think this man's argument is interesting because it's so alien to the way I watch movies and the way most film buffs/cinephiles/obsessed weirdos watch movies. Well, maybe I should just speak for myself. It's alien to the way I watch movies. To this guy, a movie is a vehicle to tell a story, and story is the most important thing about a movie. There's nothing inherently wrong/evil/assholish about this argument, and I like a good story as much as anyone, but to reduce the essence of a film to its plot mechanics and events is to take away everything cinematic about a film. Film is a visual medium. I thought this was an obvious point, but it seems to get lost in mainstream discourse. Framing of shots, movement of camera, facial expressions and body movements of actors, inhabiting of characters by actors, color, light, shadow, structure, form, juxtaposition of shots, editing, use of visual space within the frame, interplay of music and sound, cinematography, the actors' voices and how they say the lines, character development, scenes that have no bearing on the plot, directors' obsessions and fetishes, overall effect of all these elements working together. All of these things are so much more important to me than the mechanics of plot and the events in the story. The how, not the what. (I should also point out here that there is a substantial canon of important non-narrative films that have no story at all. Some of my favorites include Bruce Conner, Hollis Frampton, Jack Chambers, James Benning, Oskar Fischinger, Al Jarnow, and, occasionally, Andy Warhol.) The directors and films I return to again and again give me indefinable atmosphere, texture, mood, pure visual experience. I don't care what these movies are about, I just care what they do. People understand this about music. Good lyrics are always appreciated, but when a person tells another person about a band, the question asked is usually, "What do they sound like?" Film and literature, however, get saddled with that dullest of questions, "What's it about?" This is a long way of saying that maybe those remakes are bringing a good story to a new audience, but what they aren't doing is bringing those movies to a new audience. The experiences are different. They are two different movies, made by two different people who organize that visual space in completely different ways, who frame the shots in different ways, who juxtapose scenes in different ways, who hire different actors who move differently, say the lines differently, and look differently. The sound of the languages is different, creating a different sonic texture and cadence.
This is also a long way of introducing a second post, which may be extended into other posts, about a neglected group of films I happen to love very much, and which I want to discuss in more detail. These films would mostly fail the conventional narrative good story test, but their virtues are overlooked by people who just want a lot of punchy events and three-act structures. I'm talking about an imaginary subgenre of film I'm going to call sunset movies because they occur late in the careers of established older directors in the late 1960s-early 1980s. These films were often ignored or scorned by the general audience and mainstream dullard critics but well regarded by film buffs and more interesting critics. They share a lot of surprising qualities, and I find them emotionally affecting and formally inventive. They're made by old men close to retirement (sometimes against their will), and often in poor health. I'm going to talk about some late films by John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and Otto Preminger, among others, and I'll probably squeeze John Cassavetes in because I always find some way to include him. I would write more, but then I'd be up all night, so I'll get to these guys soon.


milk and cake said...

you have a very, very good point. i was having a conversation kind of similar to this with my boyfriend the other day; i found a film on IFC that totally surprised me, sucked me in, and was beautiful and strange and wonderful. he "didn't get it" and kept asking "what it was about" and couldn't understand how i could like a movie whose plot seemed so secondary. you're right about all the things that aren't storyline and plot that are important in films, and how those things are often overlooked by the general movie-going public.

and i will say, the boyfriend watched a whole lot of that movie that he claimed to not enjoy or understand, so i think he got it on some level. there's hope for him yet!

Plop Blop said...

Can't wait to hear more.

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