Friday, March 14, 2008

If you see only one movie this year...

...then you will probably miss some of the complexities, since watching movies takes practice. You should probably stick with something easy to follow. If you watch a lot of movies, on the other hand, you will probably find it easy to enjoy some movies that others find strange or disturbing.

Note: this is not quite an endorsement of the Everything Bad is Good For You idea. Johnson argues that lots of "trashy" TV shows and video games are good learning tools because their complex narratives make high conceptual demands on their audiences. He has some good things to say about film too, arguing that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is narratively more demanding than the Star Wars trilogy--using the number of characters as a rough measure of narrative complexity. I'll grant him that, as a generalization. But he goes on to say that movies are not quite as good as TV or video games because the shorter time limit for movies limits narrative complexity. Here's where I think he's wrong.

First, complexity of narrative is not the same as amount of narrative. Which is harder to follow: a tightly plotted show like 24 which provides a clear McGuffin and where each character has only one motive at any time, or something like Pulp Fiction where 90% of the talking is entirely irrelevant to the plot but which contains a few narrative ellipses and disorderings? My point is that time constraint has nothing to do with how demanding a narrative is.

The second issue I have with his dismissal of film is that he focuses solely on narrative, explicitly dismissing "quicksilver editing" as something that might challenge an audience. While it's true that faster editing is not necessarily harder to follow--this is the whole point of the term "intensified continuity" as I understand it--it's not true that "narrative" is the only thing spectators must engage with cognitively. Or to be more precise, film narrative is built from things like framing and editing, and spectators have access to the plot only through these cinematic techniques. In movies that differ from usual Hollywood practice, the viewer will be cognitively engaged with "form" as much as or even more than "content." This is why slow movies can be harder to follow than fast movies.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Another Jennifer Jason Leigh Post

In my continuing quest to say new things about movies that are so old no one cares about them anymore (see the Last Days of Pompeii post below), I want to take on Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which I saw this weekend.

This is an entirely different experience from seeing it on TV, and not in the way you think.

Sure, you get to see Phoebe Cates topless, which is nice if you're into that kind of thing. But the other scenes that get cut, the ones where Jennifer Jason Leigh gets naked (yes, there are two of them), are so crucial to the plot that leaving them out changes the movie entirely. When I Love the 80's talking heads go on about how cool Spicoli was or admit how many times they jerked off to the bathing suit scene, they give the impression that this was some kind of raunchy proto-American Pie. Roger Ebert basically says the same thing with less approval, calling the movie sexist. (Is that an apology for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls? None needed, actually.) Here's his argument:
[Leigh's] sexual experiences all turn out to have an unnecessary element of realism, so that we have to see her humiliated, disappointed, and embarrassed. Whatever happened to upbeat sex? Whatever happened to love and lust and romance, and scenes where good-looking kids had a little joy and excitement in life, instead of all this grungy downbeat humiliation? Why does someone as pretty as Leigh have to have her nudity exploited in shots where the only point is to show her ill-at-ease?
Basically, Ebert has no problem with sex in movies as long as it's unrealistic. He seems in denial about the fact that the movie is almost feminist. The main point is that all of the boys are losers who are so lost in their male fantasies that they can't satisfy Leigh. She's not humiliated or embarrassed, she's actually pretty much in control of the situation. Yes, she's disappointed, but not as much as Ebert is at not getting to see more beautiful people fucking. At least Leigh's character is honest about her situation, whereas Ebert has to hide his disappointment behind false concern about Leigh being exploited. (Shorter Ebert: "Only ugly people should be exploited to show sexual embarrassment; beautiful people should be exploited to make me hard.") And by the way, he's wrong when he calls her a slut "promiscuous sex machine": she has sex twice in the period of a year.

(Spoilers here.) The disastrous second sex scene, in the poolhouse, actually entirely changes our interpretation of two different characters. The next scene has Leigh and Cates talking about how long their respective lovers take. Having seen Mike's little incident, we know that Leigh is lying when she says he took 15 minutes. So we interpret Cates's answer (30-40 minutes) as a lie too. In fact, I think we're supposed to assume that Cates's long-distance boyfriend is entirely imaginary, an excuse she uses to make herself seem sophisticated even though she's scared to death of sex. Mike also comes across as both less promiscuous and less honest. He flakes out on the abortion not because he's an insensitive jerk, but because he's embarrassed. All his talk about how great he is with women is just a bluff to hide his inadequacies. Okay, so he's still a jerk, but he and Cates's character are also more human than they appear on TV. And way more human than any character in American Pie.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Celine and Globalization

No, not that Céline.

That Celine.

I just finished reading Carl Wilson's book, which I highly recommend to anyone who's a music snob or wants to understand a music snob. I won't say much about the Bourdieu aspect of it, which I think makes a lot of sense. I'm more interested in his argument for music criticism that is more personal, "a tour of aesthetic experience, a travelogue, a memoir." He does this well for Celine, relating her to his divorce and his feelings about getting older, in ways that make sense of why he doesn't like Celine but why he feels conflicted about not liking her.

The most exciting pop music discoveries I've made in the past few years have all been foreign: MIA, Françoise Hardy, Fela Kuti, and Shiina Ringo. This is not to say that these are now my favorite artists, just that there's an extra element of surprise and pleasure in finding something slightly strange or exotic that still sounds great and totally accessible. All four make music rooted in their respective national traditions (although MIA is probably more globalized), but they all respond to dominant American musical genres. My personal aesthetic travelogue would include the fact that I'm not entirely happy with America or with living in America. So my attraction to this stuff is political and personal. MIA and Fela are both explicitly political, while Hardy and Shiina come from countries I've lived in.

One of Wilson's arguments is that because Celine is Quebecoise, people around the world hear her as just slightly non-American. He might have said more about why this is attractive to so many people right now, but the fact that she's huge in Iraq right now is a huge hint. People can hear the positive aspects of America, especially the rags-to-riches dream, without also hearing the music as culturally oppressive. My point is that my appreciation of foreign music (and movies too, probably) is the mirror image of their appreciation of Celine. Both tastes are structured around an understanding of America as the cultural superpower, both attractive and threatening.

Which is also to say that if I were Iraqi, then maybe I'd like her too. But I'm American, so I think she sucks.