Monthly Archives: October 2009

Reverting to Period

Spotted over at MaryAnn Johanson’s site, and too clever not to share – Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1950s style. It’s not quite as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark as made by a bunch of kids, but it’s still pretty cool. And certainly better than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

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Dogs in Space and Time

Dogs in Space (Richard Lowenstein, 1986) and

We’re Livin’ on Dog Food (Richard Lowenstein, 2009)  and

He Died With a Felafel in His Hand (Richard Lowenstein, 2001)

Movies are time capsules. Inner city suburbs of Melbourne such as Fitzroy, Brunswick, Carlton, Richmond, St. Kilda and Collingwood are now largely gentrified, filled with young professionals and with only a modicum of their former grunginess preserved; much of the shabbiness that remains – pokey cafes, tatty pubs – is artfully preserved to maintain an inner city chic. Yet the older, scruffier inner Melbourne is still there in all its glory in films like The Club, Malcolm, Death in Brunswick and Monkey Grip. Amongst this group, no film stands as deliberately as a time capsule of a place and an era as Richard Lowenstein’s cult classic Dogs in Space, from 1986, which has now been released on DVD after playing at the 2009 Melbourne International Film Festival.

The film chronicles life in a Richmond share house in the late 1970s, centering on the spaced-out musician Sam (Michael Hutchence) and his easygoing girlfriend Anna (Saskia Post). Virtually plotless, it depicts the parties and conflicts in and around the house as various different subcultures (punks, hippies, and one unfortunate uni student) co-exist. Many of the housemates are in underground punk bands, and the film was inspired by real-life events in the Melbourne post-punk music scene. As Lowenstein’s subsequent documentary We’re Livin’ on Dog Food (which also played at the festival and which is included on the Dogs in Space DVD) makes clear, the timing of Dogs in Space was at once far enough away from the real events that it already had a nostalgic air, and yet close enough that the film could get a documentary-like feel through the participation of some of the real people and bands.

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John Lasseter’s Where the Wild Things Are

It’s nice to see Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are getting some love (see here) and opening well (see here). I posted the trailer for the film back in May and remain feverish in my anticipation. (It opens in Australia at the start of December). It’s not just that I admire both the book, and Spike Jonze, it’s also that the trailer gave the distinct impression – now also being supported by some of the reviews – that Sendak has approached this not so much as a kids film but as an all-ages film that is about about childhood. That’s a really interesting and rewarding avenue that isn’t explored often enough, presumably because studio bosses think it is likely to confuse people about whether the film is for kids or adults. (Never mind that one of the most commercially successful films ever made is exactly such a film). The reviews (even some of the less positive ones) give me increased hope that it was timidity, not real problems with the material, that caused the studio to delay the release of the film for so long.

I won’t post the link to the wonderful second trailer, since that’s in all the Australian cinemas right now. Instead, here’s some test footage of an aborted Disney adaptation directed back in 1983 by none other than future Pixar supremo John Lasseter. The footage itself is nothing special – a kind of show-offy exploration of how computers would allow animation to more freely play with depth – but it’s an interesting glimpse at an intriguing mix of artistic sensibilities. I have a lot of regard for Lasseter, and for good Disney, but you have to wonder whether the studio was in any creative state to deal with a masterpiece like Sendak’s book in 1983.

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AFCAtastic: Film Writing Awards

A few years ago I wrote a long appreciation of the film critic Pauline Kael (you can find it here). The discussion of Kael herself was bracketed by some thoughts about the state of the practice of film criticism. I started with the following thoughts:

…criticism isn’t held in high esteem because it is seen as a by-product of art, rather than an expressive pursuit in itself. There is some justice in this, as even the best critics are there to serve the appreciation of the medium they are talking about, making it difficult to justify the consideration of their criticism as a piece of creative work with its own worth. As a result, critics are held in contempt by many, and writing about or discussing the quality of a critic’s work in any depth can be seen as a self-defeating exercise. What could be more of a redundant exercise than criticising critics, and thus putting yourself a level even further down in the hierarchy? To the extent they are thought about at all, then, critics tend to be seen as the bottom feeders of the artistic establishment. The general quality of film criticism has done little to change this perception: many media outlets take the view that basically anyone can review a movie, meaning that even the professional film reviewing sector has a very poor base standard. While the public’s interest in cinema ensures an audience for film criticism, most readers undoubtedly feel that if they were given the job they could write as good or better reviews themselves, and frequently they would be right.

I finished with this:

It’s perhaps easier to appreciate Kael now that she’s gone, and fifteen years have passed since her retirement with nobody of her stature emerging in the field since. Critics have only become more devalued in the interim. Kael’s 1963 suggestion that there were “so few critics, so many poets” seems a little quaint now: in the age of the internet, anyone can be a critic, and there sometimes seem to be more people offering reviews than there are readers for them. And while some of this writing is very good – the internet allows long-form and niche writing that for the most part can’t be achieved in traditional media – the landscape of criticism is so fractured that no voice can gain the kind of cultural purchase Kael achieved. Such diversity of opinion is generally a good thing, but what film criticism as a field has lost in this process is a universally recognised beacon of excellence. The defining critic of the last decade is probably Harry Knowles, from the website Ain’t It Cool, who became the heavy hitter of a generation of self-taught internet critics and whose style (a combination of incoherency and sheer geekish mania) has unfortunately become the defining model for internet criticism. Voices such as Knowles have their place, but if criticism is to be seen as playing a vital role in film culture, both critics and their readers need to demand a higher standard: “real bursting creativity” rather than mediocrity. This requires an appreciation for the defining figures in the field, and Kael – for all her infuriating flaws – remains the gold standard against whom other critics should be judged.

Generally little has changed since those comments (although Knowles seems to have faded into the background as a critical voice on his own site; this is actually a change for the better since many of Ain’t It Cool’s other contributors are substantially better writers than Knowles). With occasional rare exceptions – one notable example being a long feature Erin Free did in FilmInk back in December 2007 – critics remain reluctant to publicly examine what they do or to praise good work in their field. There is basically no recognition of excellence for critics. When a society of actors give out awards, they give out awards for acting; when a society of directors give out awards, they recognise directing; but critics’ associations give awards to those in other professions. This is all well and good – obviously film critics’ main game should be to recognise excellence in filmmaking – but along the way critics have forgotten to recognise achievements in their own field. This doesn’t help to foster a rise in standards of film criticism.

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