A Film or a Movie? What Makes Great Cinema?

I often draft posts that then send my mind off on another tangent, so that the actual order in which I post things might not be the order in which they came to me.

You see, I was going to muse about the fact that although I have written about — and, indeed, championed — Canadian film and TV for, literally, decades…that doesn’t mean I’m always the biggest fan of individual productions. In fact, often Canadian TV series I like get cancelled…and ones I’m indifferent to run for years. Canadian movies I regard as mediocre are cited by others as shining examples of what all Canadian filmmakers should aspire to replicate.

Where this can become awkward is that even as I can find myself odd man out when it comes to the critical consensus about the merits of a Canadian film (or filmmaker) often the commercial success of said film has been uneven — so, really, whose judgement is more astute? Me, who says a movie that bombed wasn’t that great, or the critics who insist it was the greatest film Canada ever produced…and the public is just too dumb to appreciate it?

As a bit of serendipity, I just came upon a list of the “greatest” Canadian movies ever made (“Are Canadian Movies Getting Better or Are We Just Learning How to Appreciate Them?” by TVO’s Thom Ernst). And, honestly, it’s a list I regard with some ambivalence even as, I know, a lot of critics would whole heartedly agree with the writer’s selection. In a lot of cases it isn’t even that I didn’t like the films…I just didn’t really love them. But even then, some I freely admit…I regard as bad, or at least mediocre, yet are being held up as the glory that Canadian film can achieve.

Again though, there’s no right or wrong. But it can put me in a curious position.

Part of that depends on what you are looking for in a movie, in a cinematic experience.

There are films…and there are movies. There are Art House films which challenge the very conventions of cinema…and there are movies in which the medium is just there to convey the story. And one is not inherently better or worthier than the other…despite what fans of each might insist. Nor does enjoying one make you better or smarter than the person who enjoys the other. (Believe it or not, there’s a whole school of thought that thinks locking yourself in a dark theatre for two hours to watch a strip of celluloid — whatever the film — is kind of stupid when you could be out in the fresh air, hanging with friends and interacting with reality).

I have the capacity to like all sorts of films, of different styles, intents, and genres. But I’ll admit, I do lean in certain directions. And I think my tastes have changed (or solidified) over the years, so that I’m actually less patient with certain films than I was in my youth. And films from both extremes. Modern Hollywood action movies that, I suspect, I probably would’ve thought were cool when I was 12 I find just noisy and vacuous. While artful dramas of slow meaningful pans and pregnant pauses that I suspect I would’ve found profound at 17 I now regard as self-consciously pretentious and style over substance.

These days I tend to think of myself as a meat and potatoes kind of guy. Give me a good plot, good characters, well paced, and I’m probably happy. I like special effects in a sci-fi action movie…but I don’t go to a sci-fi action movie for the special effects. I can enjoy artfully shot fields of waving grass while a sombre cello plays on the soundtrack in a “serious” Art House drama…but only as dressing to what should be a good story and compelling characters.

There are lots of Canadian movies that get embraced by critics (and a certain fandom) which just kind of leave me a bit ambivalent because, to me, they fail to satisfy those basic criteria of story and character.

So what do I mean about those things? Well, take for example the movie C.R.A.Z.Y. from a few years ago — a movie resoundingly embraced by critics, winner of multiple awards, and often likely to place on a top Canadian films list. I thought it was…okay. And there’s one scene inparticular (or non-scene) that kind of sticks in my mind as an illustration of what I mean about what I like versus what others like. C.R.A.Z.Y. is essentially about a young man, coming to grips with his homosexuality, and reconciling with his working class, homophobic father. Now right there I could quibble and say that’s not really a “plot” — it’s a theme, an issue, but it’s not a story, per se. Indeed, reflecting back on it (admittedly a few years after I saw it) I’m not really sure what happened to fill up the running time. But anyway…back to a particular scene.

In the early part of the film (as I recall — and maybe my memory is playing tricks on me) the hero as a youth is in denial of his orientation…to the point of actually bullying and deriding an openly gay classmate. Then there’s a scene — THE scene — where his father spies a car rocking in that tried and true cinematic way that indicates people are inside the car making out. The door opens, his son emerges…followed by the gay classmate. So, it’s a kind of important moment from the father’s point of view, but it seemed to me to be a completely empty scene…from the son’s point of view. I mean: it’s a character drama, right? (As I say, the plot is almost incidental). Isn’t it about the son’s emotional growth and coming to grips with his orientation? So isn’t the important scene, not when he emerges from the car, but the scene where he gets into the car? That is: the scene where the in-denial young man finally accepts and embraces his true orientation? I mean, sure, I’m not gay — I’ve never really “thought” about my orientation. But for a gay person, certainly one who was denying his sexuality, isn’t that a rather pivotal moment in his life, when he finally says: “Hey, I guess I am gay?”

And the movie skipped over that scene! And I just don’t see how you can call a character drama that skips over such a crucial character growth scene a “great” movie. A good movie — sure. An enjoyable time killer — why not? But great?

And perhaps equally significant…C.R.A.Z.Y. was a movie where critics tend to make a big to do about the pop rock sound track — including by the Rolling Stones and like (given limited budgets, Canadian films often don’t get to license Top 40 sound tracks the way Hollywood films do). Now, I like great tunes on a soundtrack…but that ain’t why I, personally, go to a movie (unless, of course, it’s blatantly a musical, then the catchy tunes are important). With that said, there’s nothing wrong if that is why you go to a movie. After all, a movie is a visceral experience, so it’s just as legitimate to go for the CGI monsters, the sepia-tinged cinematography, or the hit parade soundtrack.

Whatever reason you like a movie or TV show…is a legitimate reason to like it.

And, obviously — I’m putting my neck out there by making my comments about C.R.A.Z.Y. After all, maybe if I saw it again, I’d realize the filmmaker had carefully portrayed the character’s evolution, but in subtle twitches of the eyes and nuances and I was just too dense to pick up on it the first time. I’m sure fans of C.R.A.Z.Y. would quickly say that. Whether they are right though — well, as I say: to each his own.

You know a movie I like? 12 Angry Men. Ever see it? (particularly the great 1957 version with Henry Fonda, though they did an okay remake years later). Here’s the set up: a bunch of guys in one room (one set) talking in more-or-less real time for 90 minutes. No flashy camera tricks, no moody cellos or Top 40 hits, nothing. And it’s one of the most gripping dramas you’ll ever see. And it hits all the bases. Characterization? Oodles of it, as we slowly learn about the participants, and in some cases, peel back layers and motives. Plot? Absolutely — it’s a mystery as the characters must tear apart and analyze a crime. Structure? Yup — beginning, middle, climax. There are funny bits, witty lines…and there’s powerful drama and tension.

Now not every movie can be 12 Angry Men — you wouldn’t want that. It’d make going to the cinema pretty boring if every movie followed one template. But I’m just using it as an illustration of what I mean about “meat and potatoes”. A great story, great performances…and everything else is just gravy.

And this applies to other things, other genres. As a kid, I was a Star Trek fan and really enjoyed the Star Trek motion pictures…but I was a huge Star Wars nut! I had Star Wars action figures…I didn’t have any Star Trek toys. Star Trek movies tended to have about three key action scenes, but were mainly about three increasingly aging guys sitting around discussing their feelings and the meaning of life…while Star Wars was non-stop adventure of mind blowing special effects and wicked cool action. And then as I got older, I still retained a nostalgic affection for Star Wars…but I remain a true fan of the (classic) Star Trek movies. Why? ‘Cause Star Trek movies are basically about three old guys discussing their feelings and the meaning of life interrupted by occasional action scenes…and Star Wars movies tend to be a lot of F/X and protracted fights.

Now, obviously, to each his own. One person might say they don’t watch a big budget sci-fi movie to watch three old guys discuss philosophy, anymore than they would buy a ticket to a rollercoaster and expect to get a lecture on geo-politics. They watch it for big action and special effects. Fair enough.

For that matter, what we get from a movie often relates to what we bring into it. As I say: I’ve seen critically acclaimed, award winning movies that are heralded as powerful character dramas…in which precisely my objection is that I felt the characterization was vague, even non-existent. So who’s right? Did I just not pick up on the nuances…or did a fan of the film simply fill in the blank spots with their own preconceptions? And, of course, how we even define “characterization” varies. In the movie The Bad Lieutenant, which was basically a character study and received oodles of praise, I saw one commentator remark how in the movie you never really know anything about the main character (his background, his family life) — and the commentator saw this as a good thing. Whereas to me, if you don’t really know anything about the character…how can it be a character study? In the movie Leaving Las Vegas (critical and commercial hit) Nicolas Cage’s character, an alcoholic, remarks that he can’t remember if his wife left him because he was a drunk..or whether he started to drink because his wife left him. Again, to me, that’s a big problem in a “character drama” when the filmmaker just blithely shrugs off what’s kind of an important background to the character and his motivations (I mean, it’s a clever line for a minor supporting character…problematic for the character the story’s about). But hey, it did well and critics loved it so, y’know, who am I to say nay?

Is a good character drama one where the character is a simply defined archetype illustrating a theme (he’s driven by grief, he’s driven by guilt). Or is a good character drama one where the character has lots of aspects that flesh him out and round his personality aside from the central theme? Should a character exist for the scenes he’s in…or should he convince you he could function in scenes not shown? I mean, Hamlet is widely regarded as one of the greatest plays in the English language…but is Hamlet himself really a 3D personality?

Fans of certain films will often defend their favourite as being “profound” or “thought provoking”, often boldly stating that any who don’t like the film are, therefore, shallow and stupid. But surely thought “provoking” means it provokes thought. So if someone doesn’t find the movie “provoking” — if, indeed, they find the themes rather simple and something they’ve already mulled over on their own — then does that mean the movie was too smart for them…or not challenging enough? Ironically, when people suggest a film is thought provoking they usually mean they agree with it and it reinforces their pre-existing beliefs — so it’s not thought provoking at all.

Funnily enough, I’ve seen movies I haven’t much cared for, then I go on-line to see what people who did like it have to say about it…and sometimes (not always but sometimes) I come away feeling it was the fans who misunderstood the film, not me, as they interpret scenes and motives in a way I don’t for a minute think the filmmaker intended. In other words, they loved the film…but not necessarily the film the filmmaker actually made!

(And some message board postings are just creepy, like the thread about Barney’s Version where someone insisted Rosamund Pike’s character was a “whore” for leaving Barney because he cheated on her! And I’m still showering down after a discussion thread about the 2011 Clash of the Titans re-make — I didn’t like the film, but seeing how it offended certain ultra-conservatives and misogynists, I actually regard it more fondly! End of digression.)

Others would say howsoever a viewer interprets a film is enough. Indeed, I know film scholars who will adamantly insist that the intent of the storyteller is irrelevant — that even if the filmmaker himself were to flatly state that the viewer misunderstood his film, it is the filmmaker, not the reviewer, who is wrong.

Anyway, that’s just me musing for today. And that’s why I can watch a movie like Small Town Murder Song and say it’s beautifully shot and stylishly atmospheric…and, to my mind, a terrible, empty film. Or I can concur with fans that Mr. Nobody is a breathtaking spectacle of imagery and composition…but I still found it a bit dull and unsatisfying.

Doesn’t make me right, or wrong. But it does put me in an awkward position sometimes regarding the critically regarded creme of Canadian films.

‘Cause I like my gravy on the side, thankee very much.

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