In this classic article, the Culture Schlub looks at the fancypants world of arthouse cinema.
Anyone who has read even a little bit of CC2K will recognize that, of all the regular contributors to our site, I am by far the least studied in the world of film. While Lance Carmichael dissects the work of Lars Von Trier and John Milius, Tony Lazlo painstakingly deconstructs his favorite film franchises, and James Hittinger waxes philosophic about films no one knows or thinks about, I am most likely to spend my time mocking the easily mocked, hating the easily hated, and deconstructing the easily deconstructable. If our writing staff were a fraternity, I would clearly be the goofy fucker who’d drink vile shit so that the other guys would keep me around.
I’m no film scholar, is all I’m saying.
And yet, even I have the need to expose my inner geek. This desire was on full display this weekend, when I dragged my cousin Jason with me for our second ever Arbitrary Independent Excursion, or AIE for short. (I tried very hard to find a way to make this acronym AEIOU, just because I might have been the first person to do that, but I couldn’t make it work. Arbitrary Excursion to Independent Outposts of Universality? It just didn’t come together. I digress.)
The rules of the AIE are simple: Jason and I pick a time, and show up together to an independent movie house. There, we pick up a local paper, read reviews, scan posters, and ultimately go see a film neither of us had ever heard of before.
The LAST time we executed a successful AIE, we found ourselves watching World Traveler, starring Billy Crudup as a douchebag, and featuring Julianne Moore as a freak. I think we agreed that this film had an interesting message at its core, but ultimately failed in its attempt to get there. But again, I digress.
On this particular AIE, our choices were quite eclectic. We had to choose between:
- Art School Confidential – Wacky hi-jinks in a fine arts school. More mocking at the expense of the left-brained. The review said it was soulless.
- Down in the Valley – a grown man (Ed Norton) seduces a teenage girl (Evan Rachel Wood). No need to see this film; I LIVE it.
- Look Both Ways – an Australian movie, either about a woman who imagines terrible things happening to herself, or a group of people who bond after a train accident. Or both.
- Mountain Patrol: Kekexili – Chinese movie about a journalist who risks his life to stop the illegal poaching of endangered antelope. I was excited as you are.
- Army of Shadows – Jean-Pierre Melville’s epic 1969 masterpiece about the French Resistance during WWII.
Now while Jason and I typically agree in instances like this, we found ourselves of two minds on this matter. My vote was for Look Both Ways, due to its poster’s claim that it was vibrant and unique, and the review stating that it was a sad film in content, yet executed as a “melancholy lark.” Jason, on the other hand, pushed hard for Army of Shadows, based mostly on the review’s claim that the director was “the master of the super-cooled postwar French gangster flick,” and that the film was a “literal Mission: Impossible.” I gave in, and it was off to Nazi-infested France for us.
In the end, it was clear that we had misread the review. What was clearly stated as “super-cooled,” we both saw as “super-cool.” There is a WORLD of difference in those two letters. Thus, we went in expecting a brilliantly written and executed film that showed us the underground resistance using their wits and their surroundings to fight the insidiousness of the Nazis at every turn. Instead, we saw a 2.5 hour French film that used long stretches of silence to represent frustration and futility. And in that, they succeeded brilliantly. When we walked out of the theater, we agreed that 2.5 hours felt more like four, and that while the film might be brilliant, that didn’t make it good.
But outings like this are intended for more than just hoping to luck upon a great movie that no one else knows about. Jason now has yet another story about hanging out with his unpredictable cousin (ask him about our two trips to the Church of Scientology), and I got to feel like the more erudite Cin Citizens for one afternoon, even if I suspect that their opinions on the movie would be far different from mine.
This brings up an interesting question: what is the definition of a great movie, or a “masterpiece?” If greatness is gauged based on the assessment of critics and scholars, then Army of Shadows clearly ranks up there, despite the fact that almost no one has heard of it, even fewer have seen it, and most of those who have (if my theater full are any indication) were bored out of their minds. But on the other hand, if greatness is gauged on the opinions of the masses, then Napoleon Dynamite, The Matrix, and Titanic are masterpieces. Would those who truly study the craft of filmmaking agree with that? I think not.
In the end, while this question may never be answered, it does provide for plenty of fodder for future AIEs, and it allows even a film ignoramus like me to find a forum for what I have to say on Cin City. Not too shabby.
But what do you all think of this? What should the distinction be between a normal film, and a classic. What are the benchmarks to which other films should strive? Click over to the forums, and be heard!