Saturday, May 22, 2010

How I Wound Up as a Film Surgeon

From a post at the forum:

Morality and taste are both equally irrelevant so far as being honest goes.

One thing first off: BL II had a point about bringing the big picture into it, because if I didn’t, at that time, really believe that George Lucas (or any corporate entity of his ilk) wasn't strictly human anymore, I wouldn't have let loose on his ass with such fury and glee. At the time, I considered Lucas fair game for anything I might say, because he was One of Them. (Which he probably is, but that's not relevant to this post.)

Father issues are at base of it all, on top of which is my frustration at failing to attain even a modicum of the recognition and success that George had attained. And of course, the very drive to attain such success (getting world’s attention) is itself sourced in those father issues.

But all that is rather rudimentary, and a bit simplistic. It’s true that if I had succeeded as a scriptwriter/filmmaker in Hollywood, I wouldn't ever have written The Blood Poets. But on the other hand, I began writing film criticism before, or simultaneous with, writing film scripts (at about 14). In fact, some of the first “reviews” I wrote were imaginary ones of the films I would some day make (I recall one called Houses in Motion, starring Robert De Niro and Jessica Lange, the title taken from the Talking Heads song). . . . So the two drives co-existed from the start, which indicates that it wasn't frustration that led me to write the film books, but merely a natural alternative mode of expression that pertained to the same area, that of movies.

What actually inspired Blood Poets was re-reading Pauline Kael for the umpteenth time and thinking, “I wish I could do that.” The penny then dropped: "Hey, I could!" By that time (late 20s), I was less into movies, watching or making them, than I was into reading about them, and as already stated, I had more passion for Kael and her writings than I did for most, if not all, filmmakers. She was closer to a kindred spirit, let's say, than any filmmaker, presumably (in part) because I was more of a writer than a visual artist.

One of the things that most impressed me about Kael was how she could influence my own feelings about a movie. Films I liked I would grow cool towards after reading her totally demolishing them; films she admired I would give a second look. (Ironically, she was less persuasive in this direction, and rarely did one of her reviews change my mind about a movie I didn’t care for, while it was frequent occurrence for the reverse to happen.) Kael saw through the contrivances and conceits of filmmakers, and the gullibility of audiences, and exposed the hypocrisy and dishonesty at their core. Her influence was especially profound on me because I discovered her while I was still a teenager, so with movies that I would have grown out of/seen through eventually, she accelerated that process. (A good example would be Midnight Express, a film I loved at 14, so that I must have been disappointed by her trashing it at the time. Yet by the time I wrote about the film for Blood Poets, I found myself trashing it also, albeit in my own voice ~ because she had been right, it did suck as a movie!)

I said already to BLII that my desire to write film crit., and specifically to demolish films that were highly regarded and bring the filmmakers down to size, pertained to a need to validate my reality.

When during our discussion, I, as Jake, defended my vitriolic attacks by stating that the filmmakers rarely read the pieces, BL pointed out that, in that case, they weren't having any effect on the quality of filmmaking per se. This is probably accurate, and now that I think about it, the target of my vitriol was always less the filmmaker than the audience , who, by buying into such crap, were endorsing it and keeping the crapola machine running. If a talented filmmaker made a poor movie and was critically drubbed for it, I had no interest in mucking in. Why kick them while they are down? My target was always films that were crap but which audiences embraced as wonderful works of art, that won awards for their filmmakers despite being some of their worst work, films such as Wild at Heart, Silence of the Lambs, Barton Fink, Match Point. I wanted to show how, when a filmmaker gets praised for his worst work, he is likely to lose sight of his own gifts and never recover. Beyond that, I wanted, needed, to “set the record straight,” if possible, by persuading audiences who had let themselves be fooled into thinking a work had merit (just because it won awards) that it clearly didn’t.

(On the other hand, like Kael, I often went out of my way to praise, and even overpraise, works of merit that were being ignored, such as United States of Leland, some of Keith Gordon’s films, Hottest State, and so forth.)

In the case of Lucas’ films, it's true that no one was really praising them, but countless people were defending them, even critics, not only because the great whore of the media was ensuring they do so, but because of “the psychology of previous investment”: all those star wars fans who’d grown up on Lucas' pop mythos, and were now determined to enjoy the new movies, no matter how bad they were. I felt disgusted by that, and obliged to point out just how naked the Emperor really was.

Reality validation.

To this day, it disturbs me if I get the impression that only I can recognize something that isn't right. Recently, I watched Bad Lieutenant with Nic Cage. Halfway through, Cage begins to distort his voice and assume a very broad, almost cartoonish accent. I kept asking my wife if she’d noticed. It baffled me that he would do this deliberately, it was so obvious to me, and I became mildly anxious that maybe I was the only one who noticed it. Did the director even spot it? Why did he allow Cage to do it? (My wife did notice it, at least when I pointed it out, but she put it down to the character’s exhaustion.) Something like this might even cause me me to go online and do a Google search, just to make sure that other people spotted it. I find it unsettling, to say the least, if something very obvious to me, something that seems incongruous, isn't being commented upon.

As a child, there is one thing that was very obvious to me that others didn’t see: my brother’s bullying. There must have been countless other things also that I saw that weren't commented upon, even if they were obvious to all (my mother's madness, for example). I suspect that this is what’s behind my emotional need to validate my own perceptions about movies: if I can see, clearly, that a movie sucks, for example, it upsets me when people are talking about it like it’s something wonderful. This is especially the case when they are people close to me. One of the most uncomfortable social situations for me is if someone I respect brings up a movie which I hate, and starts praising it. (A recent example was In Bruges, a really mediocre movie that lots of intelligent people seemed to enjoy.)

Consider the following, an argument of my former self:

Dan Brown is a great author.

Opinion, or error of judgment?

Dostoyevsky is a great author.

Opinion, or statement of fact?

To my way of perceiving, neither of the above statements are opinions. One is a fact, while the other is an error. Most people here (at least if they have read the authors in question) will surely agree, intellectually at least, even if they have an emotional resistance to this position and perceive it as “tyrannical.” They might then argue (intellectually) that it is all relative, or whathaveyou (define “great,” etc, etc).

OK. Now try these ones:

Stanley Kubrick is a great director.

Opinion or statement of fact?

Stanley Kubrick is overrated.

Opinion or statement of fact?

Eyes Wide Shut is an underrated movie.

Opinion or statement of fact?

Eyes Wide Shut is a pile of horse manure.

Opinion or statement of fact?

As most of you know by now, I would consider the second statements to be statements of fact, the first ones to be mere opinions.

If given the time, I, or my former self, could show you why, whatever greatness is on display in some of his movies, and however much you may like his work, Kubrick certainly is overrated. I could also describe to you the sociological, and even conspiratorial factors (a culture that worships intellect, for example) that contribute to Kubrick’s false canonization, and the way the psychology of previous investment obliges Kubrick-devotees to defend a work of such shocking ineptitude as Eyes Wide Shut: in order to maintain their structure of beliefs around its maker.

The question is, however: why the Hell would I bother? Why would I care enough to try and change people’s minds about Kubrick, or anything else?

The answer is two-fold, like everything. First there are the patterns mentioned above, which cause me to feel threatened when my own perception of what-is isn’t being supported by other people’s perceptions.

This creates a rift. Sweatyk is one of my closest associates; the fact that he adores Kubrick doesn’t come between us, as such, but that’s only because we don’t spend much time talking about Kubrick. In my mind, it is still there. I think, "Keith is great, but he does love Kubrick. Damn. That’s a real shame. I really need to do something about that."

Now, is that entirely because I want Keith to validate my perception of reality, and to be as much like me as possible?

Or is it also because I know that he has been hoodwinked, and want him to see something that he is unable to see?

When Kael exposed the dishonesty of a movie I liked, she also exposed my own complicity with that dishonesty. It was disillusioning, even painful, and sometimes infuriating; but it was also liberating. After all, I had “lost” an emotional attachment to a movie I’d liked, yes. She had "ruined" it for me. But then, I’d also found a more honest, accurate perception, one that allowed me to see that the attachment I’d forged wasn’t worth having. It was basically a lie.

So then, my desire to criticize movies and filmmakers and “set the record straight,” wasn’t just an emotional need to validate my perception of reality. It was also an impersonal drive to get to the truth, and to bring the truth to others, by exposing their own distortions to them.

In other words, just what I do at SWEDA!

(Eos mocked me a while back as having gone from film critic to dream critic. This was one of his insights which I suspect he failed to understand himself, since he apparently used it to denigrate what I do, rather than to deepen his own awareness of it: not that it can't be both!)

So there is my answer, to BabyLion II and Eos and all the trolls, and why I'd like to thank you for poking and heckling me into seeing this, and into coming clean about it. Because insofar as I use the power and authority given me (that of seeing the truth of our distortions) as a way to validate my own reality and make it more comfortable for myself, then I am abusing that power and authority, in however subtle a way. And in both cases, the giveaway is when I take a little too much relish and personal gratification in tearing others down to size. What's going on then is that it has become a way to big myself up. (Kubrick, schmubrick. I'm the guy who gets to judge Kubrick.)

My apologies to all those I have taken down a peg or two, in order to increase my own status.


Aster said...

That is why being a guru is so dangerous to the guru himself...eventually the guru gets rid of everyone who disagrees with him and/or refuses to mirror him, leaving only those who mirror his own reality back to him. The guru may be surrounded by crowds of people, but in reality he is immensely isolated and lonely, because there is no Other there, only miniature, distorted versions of himself. A more "autistic", narcissitic way of living can hardly be imagined.

Jason Kephas said...


(word ver: poxicat! ; D )

Aster said...

LOL...poxicat, huh?

The first rule of Bite Club is: you don't talk about Bite Club.

Anonymous said...

Nic Cages 'broad' cartoon irish accent may have something to do with his -of late 'blond' dye hair job, linking to his 'undiscovered' celtic background. Thinking about Cage brought to mind that he named his son Kal El, resonating to Pauline Kael. Both the names of 'superman' or a super critic.
Bad Lieutenant port of call new orleans was one of those hollywood vanity takes on Nic Cage in Bad Lieutenant 2, Bad Lieutenant 1 had Harvey Keitel & the enfant terrible director Abel. Nic Cage having to live up to a sequel, well of course the lad during his drug use will go 'weird'. The optical 'sequence' with the lizards was extremely strange, i was wondering if they ran out of money for it, and tried to pull off a leaving los vegas reptilian concept.hmm, strange -leaving los vegas was about Cage wanting to drink himself to death..but i meant fear and loathing in los vegas with the johnny depp lizard sequences. Cage was also cast with Fairuza Balk, as a horny police woman in black lingerie. An interesting choice because after the Craft she opened up a string of witch-occult stores in los angeles. Falk up to this point had fallen off the map, with her last 'main' film that i had seen being American History x, and of all things Waterboy.
Stanley Kubrick, to most people is the director of 2001 a space odyssey. A film that for years played on movie hours. With it's apes and space sequences, most kids, and i being one of them saw it as real in a sense. Remember it was this period of 1968-onwards when Apollo and 'film' seemed to be the same thing. The astronauts have claimed Kubrick showed us how the moon would look. While the conspiracy crowd spin that into Kubrick faked the 'footage' of the moon landings. So when i see Kubrick i see my childhood of Apollo model kits, built with mind altering 'solvent' glue. The various hollywood tv shows with their 'astronaut' characters. hell if i can fault Kubrick for one thing it is that we are not living up to the 'dream' he made possible. 2001 space bases on the moon and alien contact. Dr. Strangelove, and Clockwork orange are two other good classics-yes for the same reason, saw them as a kid -and they stuck in the mind's eye. Reviewing your own fictional movies is how the 'game' of reality is played. Even a stick figure drawing or a 'fake' poster of a non-existant film -or for that matter, say, faking paranormal powers or events -can actually cause them to appear. Magic -sorcery is theater for the soul. That the question is always did it realy happen did i do that? There is always doubt, that is part of it, and you have to keep changing the 'art' the system to allow a new view of reality. Eyes Wide Shut was 'boring' and dull, but the message of 'glowing' stars, 'mysterious' occult hungarians. Masonic lodge next to the costume shop. Kubrick did have his fun, perhaps it killed him, there is a lot of controversy of stroke or heart attack being a signature 'death' for radicals that challenge these 'illuminati' forces. As for becoming the 'one' the script writer, or the director. Quentin Tarantino has for years sold more posters of Quentin Tarantino than of his 'movies'. Tarantino represents a dream of youth, of taping into that 'power' of success in making a movie. I doubt he makes films. Kubrick makes films, Sir Ridley Scott makes films. Tarantino makes trash but it is good trash. Lady Gaga mocks Kill Bill with her pussy wagon take on Tarantino glitz with the telephone video. Gaga pushes the esoteric illuminati sex slave symbolism. Interesting to see how long she lasts.

Anonymous said...

In the Jake Horsley and Jason Kephas interview you clean up rather well. Jake Horsley in a guru photograph could like an Austin Osman Spare art work -change reality for whoever prints it out and posts it on their wall. Eastern Gurus are very fond of giving out pictures of their burning gaze, many followers claim to be taken in by just that one image. The more images of the guru that make it over the earth, the more power the 'guru' gains. Of course the image has to bring something the believers need, wealth, power, luck. If Quentin Tarantino can inspire youth to put up posters on their wall in the U.K. I want to do that? What can a 'guru'?

Z said...

I've always felt a bit of antipathy towards Pauline Kael for some of the reasons you mentioned in your post. It seems like her chief attribute was that she was able to effectively "do dirt" on a movie she didn't like. Which is a pretty cheap and easy skill to have; if you know how to do it, it's not that hard muck around with people's "phantasmagorical" engagement with any movie, to make them feel ashamed and guilty of it.

When she's not doing that, so many of her observations strike me as either obtuse or grotesquely cynical (as example, I'd offer "Trash, Art and the Movies", which contains both characteristics).

I don't mean to bad mouth all her writing, (honestly, some of her stuff is pretty wonderful) but I think it effectively illustrates the limits of taking a highly egotistical approach to film criticism.