A film quiz, with several half-baked musings

Every three months or so, Dennis Cozzalio holds a film quiz, chock-full of oddball, intensely personal questions about filmmaking and film viewing. The answers that people give are often informative, usually funny, and always revealing. I’ve been a long-time reader of Cozzalio’s blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, but I’ve never participated. Until now.

Here is the new quiz. Most respondents answered in his comments book—read them for laughs and pleasure—but I’m too lazy to make myself a Blogger.com account. So, what follows are his questions and my answers.

1) What movie did you have to see multiple times before deciding whether you liked or disliked it?

The Thin Red Line. The first time I saw it was on a first date—which should have told me how that relationship was gonna go—so I wasn’t paying, ahem, total attention. The second time I saw it, a week later, I was befuddled by the multiple perspectives, the nebulous narrative frame, and the dead soldiers intoning to the audience from beyond the grave, but the imagery was the most beautiful I’d ever seen on a big screen. The third time I saw it, a week after that with a good friend, we talked about for two hours afterwards at a coffeeshop. During the course of the conversation, I decided what I’d been leaning towards all that time—that it’s my favorite war movie ever, that it’s one of the densest and most contemplative American movies I’d ever be lucky enough to see on the big screen, and it would continue to yield new riches with each viewing. I was right on all three counts.

2) Inaugural entry into the Academy of the Overrated

John Ford’s The Searchers.

3) Favorite sly or not-so-sly reference to another film or bit of pop culture within another film.

Kung Fu Hustle. The entire movie is basically an homage to Warner Bros. cartoons in general, and Chuck Jones in particular, and it’s a hoot from first frame to last.

4) Favorite Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger movie

I Know Where I’m Going

5) Your favorite Oscar moment

1999: Roberto Benigni accepting his Best Actor award (or maybe Best Foreign Film) by climbing on the chairs, hugging everyone in sight, and telling the world in imprecise, exuberant English that he wanted to make love to the whole audience. In retrospect, Life Is Beautiful ain’t such a great movie, but since when have the Oscars been about honoring the best movies, anyway?

6) Hugo Weaving or Guy Pearce?

Guy Pearce

7) Movie that you feel gave you the greatest insight into a world/culture/person/place/event that you had no understanding of before seeing it

Jeffrey Blitz’s Spellbound (2003). I never thought I’d be interested in the National Spelling Bee, its teenage contestants, or their overbearing parents. This documentary proved me wrong, wrong, wrong, and it’s a nailbiter to boot.

8) Favorite Samuel Fuller movie

Pickup on South Street. It’s the only one I’ve seen.

9) Monica Bellucci or Maria Grazia Cucinotta?

Monica Bellucci

10) What movie can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.

11) Conversely, what movie can destroy a day’s worth of good humor just by catching a glimpse of it while channel surfing?

The collected works of Todd Solondz, but Happiness in particular.

12) Favorite John Boorman movie

Hope and Glory

13) Warren Oates or Bruce Dern?

Bruce Dern

14) Your favorite aspect ratio

1.85:1

15) Before he died in 1984, Francois Truffaut once said: “The film of tomorrow will resemble the person who made it.” Is there any evidence that Truffaut was right? Is it Truffaut’s tomorrow yet?

Of all the Cahiers-crowd critic/filmmakers, Truffaut’s been the one who’s most often been right. And I think he’s dead-on here. With the rise of cheap cameras, Flash animation, inexpensive editing equipment, and online distribution via YouTube and the like, more and more of us are making movies. Since we have so much control over the final products now—our computers are miniature studios; ask George Lucas and the director of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow—and how we view them (Hello, iPod!), the end products are much more personal, and technically much more attuned to our individual personalities. The recent documentary push, in which the filmmakers refuse to distance themselves from the subject and indeed sometimes are the subject, shows how much movies have come to resemble their makers. Even those of us who aren’t making movies are posting favorite clips on our blogs, thereby revealing our individual tastes.

Oddly, this rise of the amateur filmmaker/distributor comes at a moment when mainstream cinema is its most market-tested and impersonal. Now, I don’t know if the YouTube-ization of cinema is actually yielding any good cinema, but Truffaut’s statement wasn’t making value judgments, but rather just stating the truth.

16) Favorite Werner Herzog movie

Fitzcarraldo

17) Favorite movie featuring a rampaging, oversized or otherwise mutated beast, or beasts

Apocalypse Now—with Marlon Brando as the beast.

18) Sandra Bernhard or Sarah Silverman?

It’s more a matter of which one I despise less. Today, it’s Bernhard.

19) Your favorite, or most despised, movie cliché

Most despised, and part of the reason I don’t go in for horror movies: The black guy will bite the dust first.

20) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom—yes or no?

Sadly, no. Except for Always and 1941 this is the only Spielberg movie that I don’t like. Yes, that means that I even liked Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World. Leave me alone.

21) Favorite Nicholas Ray movie

Never seen one, not even Rebel Without A Cause. Again, leave me alone.

22) Inaugural entry into the Academy of the Underrated

Rough Magic, directed by Clare Peploe.

23) Your favorite movie dealing with the subject of television

Tanner ’88.

24) Bruno Ganz or Patrick Bauchau?

Patrick Bauchau

25) Your favorite documentary, or non-fiction, film

Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense

26) According to Orson Welles, the director’s job is to “preside over accidents.” Name a favorite moment from a movie that seems like an accident, or a unintended, privileged moment. How did it enhance or distract from the total experience of the movie?

Maybe my favorite music video of the past few years is Spike Jonze’s one for Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You.” The tune’s danceable but the video is—both by happy accident and conscious design—pretty much an anti-dance video. Jonze and his “dance troupe” converge on the outside lobby of a L.A. movie theater, armed with a hidden camera and cameraman (Roman Coppola, pretending to be a tourist), a boombox, and semi-practiced choreography. Whereas your typical dance video features finely honed beauties wearing the latest fashion, Jonze’s dancers (and he’s one of them, the leader) are slovenly and look like they’re wearing their laundry-day attire. Whereas most dance videos take place in controlled, enclosed spaces that look like the exemplars of hot singles’ nightclubs, “Praise You” is outside, where anyone passing by becomes an extra. Whereas most dance videos are immaculately designed and crisply lit, this one’s shot handheld, on grubby video. Whereas the dancing in such videos is usually tightly choreographed, “Praise You” is hilarious because the dancers seem to be making up the routine as they go along, and perform the most unfashionable dances (the robot, a chorus-line kick that’s not well-timed) imaginable. What makes the whole thing miraculous is the sound design. Rather, the song is the sound design; it’s a diegetic element, along with the confused crowd chatter, footballs, car sounds in the background. The music doesn’t drown out anything else that’s happening onscreen. At one point, we overhear an onlooker saying to a friend, “Who are these guys?” The friend responds, “I dunno. But they’re pretty good, aren’t they?” Which is just ridiculous—they’re awful. But that spontaneous response is part of why I laugh out loud every time I see “Praise You.” The whole thing’s shot on the fly—we see the backs of heads almost as much as we see the dancers—and consciously thumbs its nose at the entire genre of dance and hip-hop video, all set to a nevertheless catchy song. The whole video—from the unstaged crowd cheers, to Jonze’s “b-boy” (whatever, dude) moves, to the unstable camerawork—is a happy accident, and that’s why it’s such great satire.

27) Favorite Wim Wenders movie

Buena Vista Social Club

28) Elizabeth Peña or Penelope Cruz?

Peña.

29) Your favorite movie tag line

“Family isn’t a word… It’s a sentence.” (The Royal Tenenbaums)

30) As a reader, filmgoer, or film critic, what do you want from a film critic, or from film criticism? And where do you see film criticism in general headed?

I want the film critic to write with wit and elegance. (No matter how much I agree with a particular critic, I won’t read him or her if I don’t enjoy the prose style.) Most of all, I want the critic to engage my mind and force me to see cinema from angles that I’d not considered, rather than to just confirm my opinions or self-consciously piss on my parade. To this end, I love critics whose frames of reference seem to include other art forms (music, painting, literature, etc.), as cinema is—perhaps more than any other art form—a concatenation of different artistic mediums, and this needs to be reflected in its criticism. And, finally, I want the critic’s judgment to be of the movie itself—not its hype, not its audience, and not the offscreen personalities of its actors and creators. In this regard, it irritates me when a critic makes a blanket judgment/carpet bomb without actually bothering to give specific visual and aural examples from the movie under discussion. (Armond White, I’m looking at you.)

As for film criticism’s future, it’s looking strong. With the advent of DVD, streaming video, NetFlix and its competitors, and YouTube, it’s easier than ever to educate oneself about cinema, in ways unforeseen by critics 35 years ago. And the blogosphere connects film fans of all stripes, so that good writers and amateur critics can have a real-time conversation about their interests and opinions, and illustrate both with audiovisual samples and links to further reading. Because commentary on online essays can be seen almost instantaneously with their posting, writers are kept more honest, and can engage more directly with their readers.

The best model I’ve seen for this new wave of movie criticism is the House Next Door, run and edited by critic Matt Zoller Seitz. He’s got the credentials, as a critic and a filmmaker, to corral his stable of over 20 writers (some professionals, some amateurs, some in-betweens) into shape, and to keep the tone genial and conversational but also deeply informed about cinema’s history and technical advantages/limitations. It includes long interviews with film critics, lengthy commentaries on movies past and present, shorter and more colloquial pieces on items such TV show title sequences and soundtracks, and is a clearinghouse of links to the day’s most interesting movie-related articles. Because it’s got so many regular contributors who write about so many different aspects of film and video (and who comprise a lively, argumentative bunch), the House Next Door is basically a real-time symposium on the moving picture—a film journal, but without the static nature of a print version of the same. It’s a more tightly run and edited version of the blog-a-thon—which, too, offers ways for serious movie watchers to discover new interests—and is the closest thing to a good daily film magazine that we’ve got. The Chicago Reader has adopted this editor-run, group-generated format, as have countless political and media blogs.

All of this is a boon to film criticism’s reach out to the masses, of course. But it does mean that making a living as a film critic will become (has become?) more difficult. Will Film Comment, Cineaste, Sight and Sound, Cahiers du Cinema or even Fangoria and Cinefex have print presences in 25 years? I doubt it. Professional film/video critics will continue to emerge—if anything, the culture is becoming more visually literate, and less textually so, by the year—but I think they’ll move increasingly towards the academy. If the print mags don’t change their business models, they’ll be replaced by the free online sites. But I’m not sure how the magazines will re-invent themselves and still manage to remain financially solvent. The loss of such entities, and the subsequent loss of authoritative, fact-checked critical opinion, is potentially disastrous. The House Next Door is great in part because—for all the loose-limbed liberty and interconnectiveness it offers—it’s run by an authoritative professional with a singular focus. It’ll be interesting to see if such group blogs—film journals in disguise—can catch on for long without financial incentive for the participants.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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2 Responses to A film quiz, with several half-baked musings

  1. Walter! Do you have any objection to my cutting and pasting your list of answers into my comments column? It’s so good, I want to be sure it’s there when I do my roundup of favorite answers before the NEXT quiz! I will appeal to you to look at 1941 again– I love the exuberance and the overkill of that movie, and its many spectacular set pieces– but how could I complain about props to Kung Fu Hustle, Spellbound, Monica Bellucci, Pee We’s Big Adventure Elizabeth Pena and Tanner ’88 (you trumped my answer on that one– big surprise, huh?) And your answers to the Truffaut, Welles and film criticism questions were classics– I agree with you about Matt’s site too. It is purely wonderful. Thanks for taking part, and do let me know, either here or by e-mail, if I can take these answers and post them on my site. Good to hear from you again!

  2. Walter says:

    Hi Dennis. Thanks for the high compliments. Feel free to cut-and-paste. About 1941: yeah, it’s probably time I revisit both it and Temple of Doom (Alas, never again for Always…). I haven’t been shy here about proclaiming Spielberg as my favorite working American filmmaker–and I’m well aware how uncool that makes me–but I’ve never dug the aforementioned. Then again, I used to detest Hook, and now I find it fascinating and thoughtful. 1941‘s setpieces are lavish, and all scenes with Slim Pickens are marvelous, but somehow the spectacle overwhelms the comedy to me; it’s as if Spielberg hadn’t decided whether he wanted the audience to be bowled over by the effects or to laugh at the slapstick and, as a result, neither quite happens.

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