A question that I’ve heard a lot recently (at least 2 or 3 times a year) is how come I stopped blogging?  Was it because I no longer care about films?  Too busy with family or school?  Lack confidence in my rapidly decaying writing abilities? Lost the initial buzz and couldn’t rediscover some motivation?

The answer to all of those questions is yes and no.

I set a high bar for myself.  I wanted to write engaging, thought-provoking and convincing analyses of all sorts of films, from obscure silents to this year’s blockbusters.  I found the process of formulating my thoughts on a film and committing them to writing immensely rewarding but it took an inordinate amount of time and effort to execute.   Watching a film now required much more attention to detail which was difficult to muster while still enjoying the film for what it was.  On top of that, I’d have to watch parts of the film several times, read others’ commentary to see if there were issues that I was missing, grab screenshots and most importantly string it all together into a uniform review that was entertaining to read, even by people less enthusiastic about the film than me.

I often considered writing shorter, simpler more “magazine-friendly” reviews but always ended up deciding against it.  Why bother doing something that doesn’t have much inherent value and is already being done by thousands of people who can probably do it better than you?  My only hope of obtaining relevance is by writing in the genre in between the vacuous commercial reviews and the ivory tower formalistic essays of the high-brow film world.  I’d like to argue that there is another way to watch films.  You can be more serious than the passive blockbuster attendee without recourse to the voluminous and  tenuously relevant world of “film studies.”  There’s room in the world for a cinephile.  If you read Truffaut’s “The Films in My Life” you’ll find he was somewhere in this in-between world.  I don’t intend to hold him up as some gold standard for how things should be done (though that wouldn’t be a bad way to start) but his success demonstrates that a fertile middle ground exists.

In the time since my last blogging I’ve watched many tens of hours of film, learned to appreciate new facets of filmmaking from technique to broader context and reformulated for myself what exactly I’m doing here.  With this added experience,  the next crop of reviews promises to be more entertaining, deeper and more circumspect than the first.

So what’s in store?

  • The long awaited Dark Knight review, incorporating a review of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman
  • A survey of Japanese cinema based on the late Keiko McDonald’sReading a Japanese Film: Cinema in Context.” Using this book will provide me with an eye-opening path through films I haven’t seen and a new perspective on ones I have.  Also it provides me with a persistent interlocutor for the duration.  The first installment, a review of Mizoguchi’s “Sisters of the Gion” is half-written already.
  • More posts on non-film subjects.  As this is my only soapbox (for the time being), I may as well exploit it for all it’s worth.

I hope that my readers old and new will enjoy accompanying me on this next phase of souls on the road.

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Often times you’ll see a film and someone (possibly yourself) will ask you what you thought of it.  For many, myself included, that can be a pretty difficult question.  Even if you have some sort of feeling about the film, it’s often hard to turn that into a defensible opinion.  Before you begin to try and understand a film, you have to answer for yourself: was it any good?

Sometimes it’s easy: The 400 Blows (1959, dir. Francois Truffaut) is good–you may not know or care to know why, but it’s pretty obvious that the film is good.  The Life of David Gale (2003, dir. Alan Foster) is bad; very bad.  Once again, though you may not want to know how bad it is (indeed the breadth and depth of its badness are quite disturbing) but it’s pretty obviously bad.  But then you have all those other films.  Films like Slumdog Millionaire (2008, dir. Danny Boyle) or Ida Lupino’s the-popcorn-in-the-theater-cost-more-than-the-budget-of-this-film The Hitch-Hiker (1955) or Kurosawa’s oddly balanced I Live in Fear (1955) where it just isn’t that clear whether the film is any good.

I found a partial answer for this, more or less on the spot, when I had to give an intelligent response to the new remake of Yoji Yamada’s Yellow Handkerchief (1977).  I must confess that I have not seen the original and probably would not have seen the remake had I not been invited to a special screening of it.  Yellow Handkerchief (2007, dir. Udayan Prasad) was exactly that sort of in-the-middle movie.  It’s a sentimental but elegant story of a convict being released from prison and looking for his pre-prison wife.  She is to signal that she wants him back by displaying a yellow handkerchief on the post by their old house.  On his way he meets some misguided teenagers and together they travel through the countryside towards the film’s predictable, though well executed, climax.  The film is proficiently constructed, the cinematography is appropriate, the acting believable (if not outstanding) and the various ingredients well mixed to pave the way for the climactic end.  Everyone in the theater cried (myself included) and we went home.

The test that I developed in response to this film was as follows.  A good estimate of a film’s quality can be assessed by when the emotional climax takes place.  In Yellow Handkerchief, it was exactly at the end.  It kept our interest until that point but when it ended it ended.  The truly great films, on the other hand, continue to grow long after the lights in the theater go on.

Anyone who doesn’t believe that the emotional climax of a film can come long after the film ends simply has not watched enough good films.  Batman: The Dark Knight (2008, dir. Christopher Nolan) easily grows for a good couple of weeks before it really peaks.  It took me several months after seeing Sansho the Bailiff (1954, dir. Kenji Mizoguchi) until its emotional power really hit me.  Returning to the above examples, I’d say that the Hitchhiker passes.  The story is compact and brief, but the suspense and fear continue to develop after the film ends.  I Live in Fear probably doesn’t–it has its intense moments but by the end you just ask yourself, “where was he going with all that weirdness?”  If I had seen Slumdog Millionaire before its ridiculous hype build-up, I might say that it passed.  But since I spent the whole film looking for something that could justify it being considered a “great film” I couldn’t appreciate it for the above average film that it was.

This test isn’t objective–Kurosawa’s Red Beard(1965) and Ikiru(1951) affected me for a very long time when I first saw them but no doubt they would affect me for far less time were I to see them again today.  It isn’t wholly original either.  Rather, it stitches together at least two time-honored principles: a great movie should not leave you when the lights come back on and a bad movie won’t keep your attention until the end.  This test further fails in that it maligns the ability of a film to merely maintain its power.  Plenty of excellent films build some sort of structure within the film that merely continues to exist in the viewers mind long after the film ends.

But next time you see a film, think about it.  If you suspect the film may have been of exceptionally high caliber, wait a few days.  And see if it waxes or wanes.

Next tidbit:  “What made the Golden Age Golden?” – Film scholars, cinephiles and your grandmother all agree that the quality of the films released in the middle of the last century is better than any later period.  Are they correct?  If so, why?  Featuring the insights of Francois Truffaut, Donald Richie and more!

Upcoming reviews: UNFORGIVEN, BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT and THE 400 BLOWS