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Tag Archives: art film
American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973) and
Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971)
The pair of car-culture themed films being screened by the Astor theatre in Melbourne as a double bill from the 24th to 30th of April make a fascinating pair; at once complementary and highly contrasting.
George Lucas’ American Graffiti was an exercise in instant nostalgia: released in 1973, it had the temerity to be nostalgic for 1962, only eleven years before. At one level this might be partly excused by the extent of social and political change that occurred in those years. These days, however, we might more readily cast it as a sign of something lacking in George Lucas. He’s known now as a cold and technocratic filmmaker, more interested in fantasy and machinery than with people; and it’s easy to see American Graffiti as part of that pattern. Its escapist revelrie of an adolescence untouched by the social upheavals of the 1960s but glammed up by rock and roll, drive-in diners and hot rods can be painted as Lucas’ rejection of all subject matter that was more complex, troubling, contemporary, and adult.
I’ve seen only four MIFF films thus far (once again, my viewing seems loaded towards the end, with three films on the last day). This year, I’ve actually written slightly fuller reviews of two, which complicates the format of my usual MIFF round-up.
Not Quite Hollywood (Mark Hartley, 2008)
Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (Marina Zenovich, 2008)
Ashes of Time Redux (Wong Kar Wei, 1994/2008)
Nobody likes to seem stupid, so there can sometimes be a reluctance by critics to admit they just didn’t get a film; and at an individual level, it can be hard to decide whether comprehension problems lie with the viewer or the film. So as I wandered, confused, out of Wong Kar Wei’s Ashes of Time Redux (I have not seen the 1994 cut) I wasn’t sure whether I hadn’t gotten into it because it was confusing, or if it was confusing because I hadn’t really gotten into it. (It’s a bad sign when you find yourself making a mental note of a photogenic camel). It was a bit of a relief to find even complimentary reviews (like this one) making reference to the confusing plot. The film always looks good, as you’d expect from one of the great director / cinematographer teams (Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle) but the disjointed narrative was inherently distancing. Apparently, it was a troubled production, and that’s ultimately what it feels like: confusing not out of pretension, but because it was an expensive epic that was never quite put together properly. I was going to suggest that in that sense it was like a Hong Kong Heaven’s Gate, but it’s not that bad: it says something that despite my disorientation, I remained interested throughout.
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
The popular remembrance of the reception to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 is of a generation of hip, pot-addled college students letting the sound and light show wash over them, and then arguing long into the night about the film’s meaning. In 1969 the veteran science fiction writer Harlan Ellison sarcastically complained about acquaintances boring him at 3am with lengthy treatises on the film’s commentary on “the philosophy of the Vedantist movement, and the incredibly brilliant tour de force of Nietzsche-esque subplotting Kubrick pulled off.” Critics’ reviews at the time alternated between those hailing a masterpiece and those deriding the film as a pretentious con.
As much as it would have been fun to have been part of that initial wave of appreciation, looking back it’s hard to see what was so puzzling about 2001. While the film has never quite shaken its reputation for inscrutability, watching it today there’s nothing so mysterious about it. Not only have there been many more genuinely obtuse science fiction films since (starting with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris in 1972), but the basic themes and devices of Kubrick’s film have been so absorbed into the genre that they now seem like familiar standards. Yet 2001 hasn’t been reduced by this process: if anything, that increasing comfort with its message and approach has defused the criticism of those who would dismiss it as a pretentious think-piece. And when we no longer characterise it as a giant-budget art film, it’s easier to appreciate its grandeur on its own terms and also to discern its lasting impact on a wider front.
This says a lot about me: the deaths of Michaelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman last week sent me scrambling for an episode of The Goodies. Specifically, I wanted to check if either had received a mention in Tim Brooke-Taylor’s dressing down of the mid-seventies art-film industry in the episode “Movies,” from 1975. Turned out neither had (I guess because they peaked earlier), but it’s still a great clip:
McCabe & Mrs Miller (Robert Altman), 1971)
When Robert Altman made McCabe & Mrs Miller, he wasn’t the stereotypical New Hollywood director. In his mid forties, with many years in the industry (obscure B-pictures in the fifties, and television throughout the sixties), he was an emerging talent but still a product of the system. Yet McCabe & Mrs Miller is nevertheless classic New Hollywood: it takes an established Hollywood genre and deconstructs it; it focuses on amoral (or at least non-heroic) protagonists; it’s downbeat; and it’s photographed and constructed more like a European art film than American genre films typically had been until that point. You can see why canon-building critics like Pauline Kael, eager to welcome in a new wave of filmmakers, flipped for it. Kael wasn’t wrong – it is a great film. Yet I think it’s worth another look because the response to it is very telling about the way audiences and critics respond to the collision of art and genre.