Friday, July 30, 2010

So I Reviewed an Axe Murderer

It's been months since I wrote a full-length review of a first-run film, and I was worried about getting kicked off the blogosphere. So, eenie-meenie, meinie-mo, the most recent release I screened as this impulse hit was Cropsey, a documentary that screened as part of last fall's Chicago International Film Festival and begins its Windy City theatrical run on Monday at the Music Box.

I wound up having a lot of objections to the way Cropsey handles a fascinating set of delicate and disturbing questions, some of which revolve around the possibility that a devil-worshiping, hook-handed axe-murderer still haunts the grounds of a notorious, now-defunct asylum in New York City's outermost least beloved borough: Shutter Island on Staten Island. Notwithstanding my caveats, I'd still urge you to go see Cropsey. I'm basically a fan of seeing almost anything at the Music Box, since it remains such a stalwart exhibition venue for international, underfunded, repertory, and nonfiction programming in the city and therefore deserves our fealty. But Cropsey is also a film worth arguing about, and not just because you can't tell who's head you're inside now, or whether or not that top is about to fall. I wish this project had been executed a bit differently, but I vote Yes to almost any movie that so easily guarantees a full dinner hour or two of follow-up conversation. My review is here.

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Come on In, the Mise-en-Scène Is Fine!

I'm feeling perturbed by an article that Tom Shone has recently published in slightly different versions on his own website and at the Daily Telegraph. I am not going to dispute all of the reasons for which Shone is understandably annoyed at the state of contemporary film criticism nor defend all of the reviews he singles out for disdain. But having seemingly worked himself into a lather over all of the sins he perceives in these reviews, I think he strikes some incoherent notes and zeroes in on some inappropriate targets that weaken his overall credibility.

I tried commenting on both sites to no avail, whether because of Blogger's recent rash of Comments-related problems, or the convoluted interface at the Telegraph that keeps asking me to login before I comment and then cycles me among the same series of comment-blocking screens, or because of some ineptitude of my own, or because Tom Shone doesn't want to hear from anybody. I assume the first three culprits are much more likely than the last. In any event, here's what I would say if I could figure out how to get it said:

A quibble, since you're opening the door for critiquing everyone else's critical vantage and voice: is mise-en-scène really so hard a term to understand, or such an irrelevant term to film criticism worthy of the name? It strikes me as one thing to be rankled by hyperbole, clichés, groupthink, and lots of the other trends that flatten and homogenize so many film reviews, which seems to be your overarching beef. But to ridicule writers for using even the most essential terms related to the art they are critiquing? And in an age where more and more film programs and wider and wider access to them and more and more exposure to "insider" commentary means that many, many more than "six people" know what mise-en-scène is? Seems churlish, and inconsistent with your other gripes.

Despite the long tradition of hiring paid film critics even at major publications with no real background in film or film studies, I'd think one would want to encourage more film criticism that can actually articulate the aspects of a movie that provoked a critical reaction, rather than implying that simply writing from emotion is enough to constitute a "review." I wouldn't want to read music criticism that wasn't allowed to talk about melodic lines, or book criticism that couldn't talk about voice or syntax, or theater criticism that couldn't talk about blocking or alienation. Surely it's not an insult but a credit to a general readership, maybe even an obligation, to write arts criticism that bespeaks and presumes at least a rudimentary grasp of the arts in question. And if some essential terms require a bit of explaining from time to time, then critics ought to offer portals into that understanding, rather than making sure that no one reading a review—including some of the people writing those reviews—ever has to deal with anything except intuitive responses and non-specific comments about huge, undifferentiated categories like "writing" and "acting."

I always get in trouble when I spout off about issues like this, but I just soured at Shone's conviction that certain forms of hollow prose imply that all forms of writing that he dislikes or misunderstands are also, by extension, equally hollow. Let me know what you think.

And by the way: mise-en-scène encompasses every tangible thing that is a visible component of a cinematic image, from the actors to the props to the locations to the color palettes. Imagine that what you formally experience when you experience cinema could be divided into four groups: what you hear (the soundtrack), the objects and stimuli physically present in the images (mise-en-scène), the lighting that illuminates those objects (cinematography), and the ways in which those images are sequenced and juxtaposed to each other (editing, or montage). Some areas like color or depth of field involve an overlap of cinematography and mise-en-scène: how far into the scene you can see, and how resonant or meaningful the image remains the further back you go, requires the camera to be situated a certain way, the lighting to be organized and manipulated a certain way, and the space and the objects being filmed to be arranged a certain way. In some films, the lighting is so intensive that it's almost a palpable component of the image, as in German expressionist cinema, so lighting can reasonably be discussed as part of the mise-en-scène in some cases. Other elements like visual effects, more and more of them computer-generated, entail part of the mise-en-scène despite having never appeared before a camera.

So, yes, there is sometimes ambiguity about where one of these arts stops and another picks up, perhaps especially between cinematography and mise-en-scène. It's a hybrid and highly collaborative medium. And I realize that Tom Shone might have been making a justifiable point about the blurry edges of these terminologies, if he hadn't got caught up implying that to even broach them is to make yourself jargony and ridiculous. But stop me if your mind has just been so blown that, even if you just learned the term for the first time, you can't imagine reading a review that invoked it in any way. Otherwise, don't believe anyone who thinks their readers are unequal to the task of looking up a word they don't know, or whose impulse to redeem film criticism involves laundering reviews of any language that implies even the most limited forms of expertise.

From what I hear, Inception does have pretty mind-blowing mise-en-scène (see how easy it is?), but I probably won't know until next week or the week after.

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