Wednesday, December 29, 2004

It stinks!

Normally I'd post something like this to my film blog, but since I have this page for more personal observations I figured I'd put it here instead.

Is film criticism becoming irrelevant? It's a question that bears asking, not so much for serious film-nerd types, but because of more mainstream moviegoers. My job in a multiplex brings me face to face with these people every day, people who don't necessarily espouse the same ideas on film as an art form as I do, people who still see movies as a tool to unwind and relax after a stressful day. I'm not one of these folks, although I can kind of sympathize with where they're coming from- sometimes you just need something to take your mind off your troubles. And when you have to spend $8.50, you'd like to pick a winner.

Now, sometimes this means seeing a movie like THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, a silly but highly diverting disaster movie that sells itself on effects and spectacle. But, as the old saying goes, you can't eat burgers everyday. Sometimes you crave something a little different, although with some grounding in the familiar, usually a recognizable cast. How, then, can one choose between the various offerings out there that don't have a $30 million ad campaign or a pre-sold franchise name? That's where the critics come in.

In the past year, the critics have given their seal of approval (more or less) to a number of just-outside-the-mainstream titles as BEFORE SUNSET, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, I HEART HUCKABEES, THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, BIRTH, SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, and CLOSER, all of which have played at my (mainstream) multiplex. These positive ratings have (to a certain extent) encouraged a number of people to see these films, and when I've had the chance to observe the audiences exiting after these films, more often than not I've heard a distinct amount of grumbling. Random comments I've heard have included "well, THAT sucked," "I didn't get it," or the old favorite "what the hell was that about?"

None of the aforementioned titles are outside my cinematic comfort zone, so I can't exactly empathize with people who don't receive these films on their respective wavelengths. Still, I can see where they're coming from. When one is used to viewing a certain kind of film (e.g. Hollywood) in a certain way (e.g. "turning the brain off"), watching something in a non-commercial style that requires active engagement in the story can cause uneasiness and discomfort in an audience caught unawares.

I suppose the mainstream critics are at least partly to blame for this. One major reason is the ratings shorthand that has pervaded contemporary movie reviews, providing an at-a-glance assessment of a film's quality, or lack thereof. Taken in the context of a full review, a critic's rating can provide a relative measure of his feelings, but more and more newspapers and magazines have taken the ratings out of their natural context. Nearly every (mainstream-oriented) publication I read nowadays has a page devoted to "capsule" reviews and ratings, with little more than a sentence or two to back up the rating. So when one picks up a newspaper with the intent of finding something to see, there's a list of movies, star ratings, and maybe a bit of synopsis or a pithy observation.

The problem comes from taking the star ratings at face value- i.e. to assume that every film listed under a given rating is equal. To name one ready example, Roger Ebert gave both VAN HELSING and THE BROWN BUNNY 3 stars. Having seen both films I can attest to the fact that assuming one film is equal to the other is, quite frankly, laughable. And yes, I realize that the example is a bit extreme- after all, they were never meant for the same audience, they were never booked at the same theatre in Columbus. However, if two different films at the same multiplex are rated similarly by critics (for example, BIRTH and FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS), there's a temptation to think both films to be equally-suitable choices for a casual weekend viewing, when that's clearly not the case.

It's this conundrum, and the bad feelings it stirs up among some viewers, that brings me back to my original question. Is film criticism becoming irrelevant? I don't think so, although the discontent many people feel for critics would imply otherwise. If people are going to put stock in the opinions of critics, these people need to learn to actually read the reviews, instead of just going by the critic's grade. A good critic will, in the process of expressing his own opinions on a film, provide enough information on the film's style and substance for a reader to gauge whether or not he's interested in the film in question. If you trust a critic, you should be able to read a review and know whether you want to see the film, provided you hadn't already decided.

I think it also helps to know one's own tastes. If you don't like a certain kind of movie, that's OK. As with anything in life, when it comes to cinema we all have a comfort zone (mine includes violent Asian revenge flicks and long-ass French movies about nothing, but does not include Garry Marshall movies). If you want to try something new, that's fine, but if you don't like it, don't blame someone else. But at the same time, don't let that discourage you from trying something else that's new in the future. After all, do you think I've been watching Claire Denis movies all my life?

Monday, December 20, 2004

Don't ever try to swim against the mighty tide of justice.

A few weeks ago, I got a jury summons in the mail. I was summoned to report tomorrow morning at the municipal courthouse, and I'd be in bed right now if not for the fact that the theatre doesn't give time off for jury duty. While there are certain things in this country and its current government that have me disillusioned, at heart I believe in the system itself, and so I'm a little frustrated that I'm unable to report for jury duty. We're taught from a young age that jury duty is both a right and a responsibility for all citizens, much like voting, and I sincerely believe that's true.

What rankles me is that, like so many other things in life, money became the deciding factor for me- my choices were to either be excused from my civic duty in order to remain financially above-ground, or to report tomorrow morning and bail on work for as many as two weeks (if not more) during a season in which the theatre is short-staffed. So naturally, I chose the former, with one of my managers sending a request to the courthouse asking that I be excused (at least, I hope she sent it- all I need now is to get in trouble for THIS).

So pardon me if my rants all seem to have the same theme of late- I just can't help but feel like I'm hemmed-in by my economic station these days. If I was working a job more befitting my degree and intelligence level, I'm sure I could've gotten vacation pay in order to be a good citizen. But since I'm working for, quite frankly, lousy pay, I can't afford not to keep working.

Which brings me to a point I made around election time- while the financially comfortable are free to participate in government if they want, it's an uphill battle for those who are scraping by. Back then, I suggested that Election Day be made into a nationally-observed holiday, and now I think something really ought to be done for jury service. Not a holiday, of course, but something that encourages service among people of every social class (there, I said it), not just those who can afford two weeks off. Perhaps an incentive for companies who grant their employees jury pay, I dunno. This way, juries really will be comprised of the defendant's peers, and not just if the dependent is well-off, either.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Do you have rock'n'roll? Can I buy it?

For those of you who don't get the reference, the title of my blog comes from Don Hertzfeldt's animated short REJECTED. This is seriously one of the funniest things I've seen in a long, long time. I originally saw it as part of Hertzfeldt and Mike Judge's anthology film THE ANIMATION SHOW, but it can also be found online at REJECTED was even nominated for an Oscar, for those of you who care about such things. For those who don't, don't let the Academy endorsement frighten you- it's so cool and warped that the nomination was almost certainly a fluke.

Also, WinMX rules. I downloaded a bunch of Leningrad Cowboys music and the sweet "Al Capone" song that I heard in Claire Denis' U.S. GO HOME, among other things. Of course, file-sharing is bad, immoral, etc. But it's also good for those of us who don't have gobs of money to spend on CDs. Therein lies the rub, etc.

For those who are hankering for more film reviews, I should be posting a short piece on OLDBOY in the next day or so, as soon as I'm able to watch it without being interrupted. I'm stoked to see it- I hear it's awesome- but I just haven't had time lately.

We don't need bells to worship God.

So I gave up caffeine a few months ago. Aside from the somewhat-astounded looks I get from people when I tell them, I've had no trouble whatsoever with it. I've become calmer, I think, and less prone to frantic or angry outbursts. And my body has been co-operative- up until recently, that is, when it has been rebelling somewhat. I've been getting tired more easily since I gave up caffeine, but lately I've found it difficult to sleep more than a few hours at a time, or when I have, it hasn't been a particularly deep sleep.

Which brings me to the point, the reason why I'm up at 9 in the AM on Sunday, my day off, complaining on my brand-spankin'-new blog instead of snoozing as I ought to be. This morning, around 7:30, the Catholic church down the block rang its bells. This isn't the first time I've been awakened by the bell-ringing, but in the past, it's been my bad luck rather than the early hour that was to blame. Sometimes the church is given to ringing the bells in the evening while I'm napping, and one time was especially rough since I was trying to sleep off a migraine. But this time I wasn't to blame- after all, it was 7:30 in the morning, an hour when quite a few people are still sleeping, especially on a Sunday.

Now Sunday, as most people know, is the day traditionally set aside by the Catholic faith (and others besides) as the day of rest. All good Catholics are to get up and attend mass that day, and aren't supposed to work. But what about the rest of us (the folks who celebrate Festivus)? I'm certainly respectful of all kinds of religions (unlike some people: see, and as a lapsed Catholic, with many family members who are active in the Church, I've got nothing against the Church or their God, even if we aren't exactly on speaking terms. And yeah, I'm certainly glad that Bess got into heaven- she went through a lot, after all. But come the fuck on. How many Catholics were still in bed when the bells rang? Chiming bells for the entire surrounding neighborhood to hear regardless of the hour (and yes, I'd maintain that 7:30 AM on Sunday is early) is just plain inconsiderate. To say nothing of the Freedom Of Religion Is Freedom From Religion crowd, who now have more fodder for their secular-centered arguments.

As for me, as soon as I'm able, I plan to enjoy the day of rest by resting. I hope the bell-ringer doesn't get any wild ideas.

I live in a giant bucket.

The Xmas season is in full swing, as we all know. Some people I know will ream me out for calling it Xmas, but really, what the hell does Christ have to do with it anymore? So anyway, I recently made my yearly trip to the mall to buy gifts for the family. Walking around, I realized how alienating the mall was for a guy like me, a guy who doesn't buy into the whole go-go consumer mindset. As I walked around this temple of commerce, I noticed that nearly everyone else was dressed in nice, un-faded clothes, wearing expensive fragrances, and carrying fancy cell phones and other assorted gizmos. I'm against the idea of carrying cell phones (a rant for another day), but what kind of got to me was the clothing/smelly-stuff issue. Thinking about it, I realized that I haven't bought a piece of clothing that wasn't socks, underwear, jeans, seasonal outerwear, or souvenir t-shirts in at least two years, and I've never spent any money on what might be classified a "fragrance."

This realization, combined with the fact that most Xmas music makes my asshole clench, made me quite uneasy. I didn't recognize these people, I thought. I don't see myself in them. They look like people I'd see on television, and I don't watch television. Are they the strange ones, or am I strange for not conforming to their ways? Is the fact that I don't wear fashionable clothes and drench myself in manufactured scents the reason I don't have a girlfriend or a well-paying honest-to-goodness-grown-up job?

And then I realized- these were exactly the thoughts I'm supposed to have, walking into a mall. The trend-based environment that was so suffocating to me is meant to produce anxiety in shoppers, in order to compel them to make guilt-based purchases lest they feel like they're behind the curve. Unfashionable behavior is the disease, and large-scale spending is the cure. Trouble is, if you think this way, you can never stop spending, since fashion is temporary, and next season is just around the corner.

Meanwhile, I'm dressing much the same way I did in high school, spending most my incidental scratch on DVDs instead of the clothes on my back, and I could honestly live the rest of my life happily without going inside a mall ever again. I know enough people who are also like this to know that I'm not alone in thinking this way. We may be a minority, but I'm fine with that.