Margaret Nagle’s Long Path to THE GOOD LIE

Margaret Nagle’s Long Path to THE GOOD LIE

nullWhether immersed in a discussion with Margaret Nagle or in her film The Good Lie, one seems to forget the
materialistic obsessions of our culture. Nagle is no stranger to the industry,
with Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for her work as well as multiple WGA
wins. She’s battled with studios, executives and all the other elements that a
female writer has to wrestle with in the business. Her career is expansive,
encompassing writing on Boardwalk Empire,
the critically praised TV Movie Warm
Springs
and recently creating Red
Band Society
on Fox. But within the spectrum of her work is a common
thread: humanity. Many of her stories, The
Good Lie
included, explore survival. Whether an audience is watching kids
cope with cancer in The Red Band Society or
Sudanese refugees wrestling with America in The
Good Lie,
it’s impossible not to put our culture’s trifles aside and focus
on a much more visceral exploration of humanity.

It’s not often a film breaks down humanity to the basics.  The Good
Lie
is not a story about selfies, iPhones or materialism. It’s about pure
survival. It makes you wonder, do we
really need all this crap to survive?
Nagle gets to the crux of this
question with her story about the Lost Boys of Sudan. The film centers on
Jeremiah, Mamere, Abital, and Paul, a close-knit group of friends who, after
fleeing their country, grow up in a Sudanese refugee camp. 13 years later,
they’re among the lucky few who are posted on a list in the camp, given the chance
to move to America and start a new life. They meet Carrie (Reese Witherspoon),
a woman in Kansas City who helps them get settled. She takes them around to
grocery stores and factories, introducing them to the managers and hoping to
find them employment. Eventually, with her encouragement and persistence, they
find jobs. But the more they become immersed in American culture, the harder
their battle is to preserve their past culture and morals. Jeremiah (Ger Duany)
is scolded for offering a homeless woman food from the grocery store where he
works, even though he’s headed to dump it in the trash. The wasteful nature of
Americans baffles him. Paul (Emmanuel Jal) is tempted with pot by his
co-workers and struggles to maintain his work ethic while building new
friendships. Each of the characters must decide what principles to preserve and
which to sacrifice in order to build their new life.

The film took 11 years to make, with Nagle being attached to
the project, then fired, then re-attached. She never, though, lost her
emotional connection to the film. Despite an apparent difference between Nagle,
a white woman from the US, and a group of Sudanese refugees, their childhoods
possess a similar sense of survival. Despite the public, presentational
environment of our interview (we’re sitting outside Arclight surrounded by
movie-goers) Nagle soon revealed some private, intimate facts. Not only does
she only have her own tale of endurance, taking care of her disabled brother
for years, she admits that writing the film has helped her see that there is
salvation for herself and others. Freedom from guilt and healing can begin,  the catalyst being the act of sharing. Lucky
for her, that’s the beauty of film.

“I was selling purses out the trunk of my car,” Nagle states
matter-of-factly, popping a fry in her mouth. She worked a number of odd jobs
but found time to do her own writing in-between gigs. Two of her purse suppliers
were guys from Senegal whose grandfathers were from Sudan. They were going
through an adjustment, learning American culture, and Nagle became close with
them. Around the same time, she heard about the open assignment at Paramount
about the Lost Boys. She’d never been paid as a writer and just had a spec
script. Nagle is a fighter. Her agent assured her that better known writers
were up for the open assignment and that she should pursue other options. But
after urging her agent countless times, she finally got a meeting.  Soon after, she got the job. Nagle and then-producer
Robert Newmyer traveled the country and pitched the story to The Lost Boys
themselves.  They went to Atlanta, Phoenix,
San Diego and Kansas City twice.  She
wanted to create a fund for their education and knew that making a film about their
community would raise awareness. Nagle, most importantly, also wanted the Lost
Boys to “sign off on the story.” When Newmyer died of a heart attack soon
after, the Lost Boys all drove across the nation to speak at his funeral. Nagle
recalls that they said, ““Bobbie Newmyer was a Lost Boy. He was one of us.”

Nagle spent the next few years trying to get the script
made, even being fired from the project at one point. The studio wanted a
bigger-named writer. But the script eventually landed in the lands of Molly
Smith. Smith’s father had adopted a Lost Boy and put him through college. Six
months after the movie was shot, the Lost Boys told Nagle they “prayed for
Molly.” She was the producer needed to get the project jump-started.

Nagle is adamant many times throughout our chat about how
much research she did, stating that it kept the project strong.  She does “immersion writing” where she learns multiple
levels of a story. She reads every article she can on a subject and is
enthusiastic when discussing her process, clearly passionate about getting into
the psyche and circumstances of her characters. Nagle doesn’t want to meet the
people she’s writing about until she’s made a lot of decisions. With The Good Lie, she used a number of videotapes
of documentarians who couldn’t finish shooting in Sudan. The environment is
extremely volatile and many filmmakers have had to choose their own safety over
the completion of their projects. But this movie is not a documentary. The more we talk, it’s clear that the
project’s continuation isn’t only due to Nagle’s work ethic. I ask her again
what about the story kept the project
going. “Because it’s about such courage. It’s about sacrifice and the ending is
a surprise.”

Although the film is distributed by Warner Brothers and
showing at Arclight, it’s still independent in spirit. The budget was 15
million (okay, so right at the ceiling of what’s considered an indie). All the
children in the film are children of Lost Boys. Even the main actors have
backgrounds that are shockingly similar to their characters’ backgrounds. Many
of them have lost family members and have had to flee their homes. Nagle speaks
warmly about each of them. Kuoth Wiel, who plays Abital, auditioned on her cell
phone “in the library at school. She was born in a refugee camp in Ethiopia.
She walked from Ethiopia to Sudan several times, back and forth.” Emmanuel Jal,
who plays Paul, has a big lion scar on his leg. In the film, Paul has a similar
wound on his arm. Nagle finds it coincidental. “Just so happened I had Paul
have it on his arm. He had a really, really bad life over there.” Ger Duany was
discovered by David O. Russell and appeared in I Heart Huckabees. He was
the first actor Nagle met for the film. Like his character Jeremiah, Duany is
writing his own book on transcendence. He has told Nagle that “religion can make
people do really bad things,” but that it’s how he survived. Arnold Oceng, who
plays Mamere, was raised in London after his father was killed. Nagle recalls
that he “never talked about it, ever” and “felt tremendous survival guilt.”

Up until this point in the conversation, Nagle has revealed
very little about her childhood. As we become more comfortable, she opens up,
admitting she’s often tentative about explaining her childhood to people. “I
grew up with older brothers and we were on our own.” Her parents weren’t
divorced but they were “out of commission” and “high-functioning alcoholics.” Nagle
and her brother took care of their other brother who was disabled through a car
accident, leaving him a quadriplegic, with brain damage. From a young
age, Nagle, too, was forced to learn to survive. The roots are coming together
now. Nagle is Mamere, but also Abital; she had two brothers were “allowed to be
very sexist” towards her. Her parents were in denial.

The parallels are becoming clear. The film’s main character,
Mamere, is fueled by guilt.  At the
beginning of the film, as a child, he lets his brother Theo (Femi Oguns) sacrifice
himself. As the children hide in the brush, Theo rises and tells approaching
soldiers that he is the only one around. He’s then taken away and the other
children are able to escape. I ask if Nagle has been driven by her guilt over
her brother as well. She admits, “I was so scared to live my own life and leave
him behind.” Finally in Chicago as a young adult, Nagle’s therapist put her in
a group with Holocaust survivors. Although she was initially reluctant, her
therapist urged that she, too, had been through a traumatic experience and that
she was “very self- destructive” in ways she couldn’t even understand. She
didn’t agree until the group finally called her out. “You’re full of shit! What
you’ve gone through is terrible!” Eventually, Nagle was able to accept that she
had survived something. Like Nagle,
her characters struggle to not only talk about their past, but accept it.

This film isn’t about wallowing in past trauma; it’s about
liberating oneself from it. We learn late in the film that Carrie lost a sister.  When she invites Abital to live with her, she
begins to discuss how it’s affected her. Through sharing their guilt, their
pain, the characters begin to reach healing. Nagle stops after we draw the
connection: “Oh my god! I can’t believe you’re pointing this out to me!” Her
time with the group validated her pain in the same way Abital validates Carrie.
At this point, Nagle reveals perhaps the most touching moment in our talk. In
the film Mamere and his brother have a game. They draw a square in the sand and
put their hands on top of each other. It’s one of those intimate idiosyncrasies
siblings share.  Nagle did the same with
her brother. “He’d put his hand on the bed and I’d make a line in the sheets.”

It’s Nagle’s personal connection to the film, on the deepest
levels, that makes it so raw. But Nagle has more goals than just personal
catharsis. There aren’t schools in the refugee camps and Nagle stresses, “We
can’t solve the war in Sudan, we can’t change the religious differences. We can
make these camps better for the people that are living in them.” The Good Lie has been screening every
night in Washington, D.C.  UNICEF, Oxfam,
and the Enough Project have all come on board. Nagle is adamant: “How do we
turn this into policy? How do you shift things? It’s so tragic that we’re
allowing these really minor things to divide us. Jeremiah has a last narration
in the film and talks about our common humanity. We share this big world we
call home. For the future of mankind, we’ve got to come together.”

Nagle is undeniably inspiring. Nagle’s passion has again
made me note my materialistic surroundings. Why is everyone around me jamming
in the parking lot with their gas-guzzling cars to flock to see Gone Girl, about bad people doing bad
things to each other? Nagle is clearly calling for the opposite.

“The film is going to be more than just a film. I’m so
proud. I get very choked up because it’s what I wanted.”

Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for CraveOnline, Paste, Flaunt, and Complex Magazine. She is also Senior Editor at The Script
Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed
Shakespeare nerd. @atwwalloway

Stuck in the Middle: 30 Great Films about Middle Age, PART THREE

Stuck in the Middle: 30 Great Films about Middle Age, PART THREE

And so we arrive at the top ten films about middle age, at which point I must
finally ask myself: did I become a perpetual adolescent because I make lists,
or do I make lists because I’m a perpetual adolescent?  At any rate, while I had intended to exorcise
my inner fanboy by accepting my age, I find that I have simply repeated
patterns already set.  Perhaps this is
what it really means to be stuck in the middle…

10.       Georgia (1985)

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Nothing is worse than being compared unfavorably with a more
successful sibling, and the virtue of this film is that it doesn’t take that
predictable and judgmental route. 
Although the downward spiral taken by drug-abusing singer Sadie
(Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a sad one, the staid, predictable life of her sister
Georgia (Mare Winningham) is hardly exemplary. 
The choice to name the film after the less compelling sister is an apt
one, reflecting as it does her commercial success as compared to her needy and
depressive sister’s lack thereof.  Although the
encounters between the sisters are ostensibly the film’s center, the real drama
occurs onstage.  Director Ulu Grosbard
lets the camera roll allowing Leigh to give some of the most emotionally
exhausting performances of her life, screeching her way through alt-country
numbers as she bares every nerve.  Like
her life, these scenes verge on the unbearable, but are infinitely more
fascinating than her sister’s accomplished but ultimately dull renditions of
folk classics.  While films about
musicians usually suggest that it’s better to burn out than to fade away, this
one actually suggests there might be a dark virtue in doing both at the same
time.

 9.        Jackie
Brown
(1997)

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The opening credit sequence of this film alone makes it
worthy of inclusion on this list, as we watch a middle-aged flight attendant
ride a moving walkway through LAX to the accompaniment of Bobby Womack’s
“Across 110th Street.”  Pam
Grier conveys a mood of resignation as the automatic machinery of her life
pulls her forward, the blue mosaic tiles rolling by behind her, marking the
passage of time.  By casting a middle-aged
black woman as the central character in a crime drama, Quentin Tarantino not
only revives the politics of liberation that fueled the blacksploitation genre
in the seventies, but also explores the role nostalgia plays in our lives.  The film’s touching portrayal of awakening
mid-life passion, in the relationship between Jackie and her bond agent Max
Cherry (in a mesmerizing late performance by seventies character actor Robert
Forster), is conveyed by the couple’s mutual fascination with Philly soul group
The Delfonics.  Although Jackie’s
criminal life prevents her and Max from finally getting together, they are
still able to share the past.

8.         Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

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A film with a happy ending for a change, although the
anguished moments the characters go through to arrive continue to linger even
while they celebrate that rare thing: a happy Thanksgiving.  Structured around three main narratives, providing
intimate perspectives on the many ways of being stuck in the middle, the story
gradually weaves these different experiences together so seamlessly that we
conclude feeling like we’ve lived an entire life in the two years of the
story’s tight arc.  From Elliott’s
(Michael Caine) reawakening of passion for his wife’s sister, to Holly’s
(Dianne Wiest) stumbling attempts to find her life’s direction, to
hypochondriac Mickey’s (Woody Allen) belatedly discovering joy as the meaning
of life, all reflect on distinct aspects of the middle age experience.  The settings, too, resonate with a nostalgia
only those of us past our thirties can know: wandering through New York’s old
bookshops, seeing a Marx Brothers movie at the Metro, and bumping into an old
acquaintance while shopping at Tower Records: these lost places are almost as
romantic as the love affairs.

7.         All That Heaven Allows (1955)

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Lavish Hollywood melodrama at its finest, this also remains
a daring account of a Spring-Autumn romance, largely because of its reversal of
the expected gender roles.  Middle-age
and well-to-do Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) falls for her hunky gardener Ron (Rock
Hudson) and Cary’s propriety-obsessed set is scandalized.  Particularly incensed are her daughters, who
so forcefully scorn her that she gives up her paramour.  In one of the most painful scenes of 1950s
American cinema, the children give their mother a television set to keep her
company, now that they are all moving away from home.  But in time-honored melodramatic convention,
they are reunited via an improbable deus
ex machina
, and the film ends with a lapidary Technicolor image of a deer in
the snow blessing their reunion, so kitsch it actually works.  It’s all so marvelously complete that when
Todd Haynes reprised it in Far From
Heaven,
he could only write in the margins.

6.         Groundhog Day (1993)

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Bill Murray was forty-three when he made this
film. The premise of being trapped in a repetitive life is a quintessentially
middle-aged dilemma; and thankfully, so is the promise of self-reinvention that
the story offers.  The brilliance of the
film’s conceit is in the fact that only by embracing every nuance of what we
see every day can we make it new, a potent metaphor for the possibilities that
lie in what seems to confine us.  As a
revision of Frank Capra’s It’s a
Wonderful Life
, Harold Ramis’ masterpiece brings a greater sense of
relevance and urgency to the premise of appreciating what you’ve got by
shifting the emphasis away from small-town communities and into the experience
of rutted repetition in general.  The
result is at once more universal and more precise, and I continue to go back to
this film for perspective on whatever frustrates me.

5.         Savages (2007)

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Tamara Jenkins’ subtle, understated account of two alienated
siblings dealing with their father’s dementia is a darkly comic relief from the
sentimental twaddle with which such life-experiences are too often met.  Philip Seymour Hoffman gives one of his
subtlest performances as Jon Savage, who teaches drama in a Buffalo college while
writing a book about Bertolt Brecht.  His
sister Wendy, played by Laura Linney with a curious mixture of childishness and
world-weariness, is a struggling playwright so anxious about her lack of
success that she lies to her brother about receiving a Guggenheim Grant.  These mid-life dramas are played out against
a background of encroaching mortality, which the characters confront with a
gracelessness so extreme it verges on grace. 
In one particularly brilliant scene, during an argument in the parking
lot of a high-class nursing home from which their father has just been
rejected, Jon shouts: “People are DYING, Wendy! Right inside that beautiful
building — right now! It’s a fucking HORROR show! And all this wellness
propaganda and landscaping is just trying to obscure the miserable fact that
people die and death is gaseous and gruesome and filled with piss and shit and
rot and stink!” The camera then pulls back to reveal a nurse pushing an elderly
patient past in a wheelchair, and Jon and Wendy hang their heads in shame.  Mixing dry wit with stark sadness, the film
is something like what Charles M. Schulz might have produced in later life if
he hadn’t been stuck writing comic strips about children.

4.         Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

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Focusing on a female character for a change, Martin
Scorsese’s portrait of Alice (Ellen Burstyn), a middle-age woman struggling to
make it after the death of her husband, flirts with the conventions of
melodrama, though tempered by astonishing candor and naturalism.  If Burstyn never made another film, this
should have been enough to make her a legend, and her interactions with her
mouthy son Tommy (Alfred Lutter) are as funny and endearing as those in Paper Moon.  Like that film, this is also an unconventional
road movie, but instead of selling bibles, Alice is trying to sell herself, as
a singer that is, and Scorcese films her sweet but rather awkward performance
scenes with a touching intimacy that doesn’t cover up or mock the signs of age
that lie just beneath her make-up and tawdry dress.  The tensions that beset her developing love
affair with rancher David (Kris Kristofferson) are real, as when he disciplines
Tommy to harshly for her mother’s liking, so that when the film concludes with
a rather formulaic happy ending, you believe it because you want to.  Burstyn’s Alice may be film’s most enduring
and endearing middle-age everywoman.

3.         Close Encounters of the Third Kind
(1977)

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“Like Halloween for grown-ups,” Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) says to Jillian (Melinda Dillon) as they
anxiously wait for the aliens to arrive, and indeed the entire film is a
magical evocation of the resurrection of childhood dreams in middle age.  What keeps this from straying into the trite
sentimentality of Spielberg’s later fantasy films is its attention to the emotional
costs of following the sense of wonder, as Roy increasingly alienates and is
ultimately abandoned by his family.  “I
guess you’ve noticed something a little strange with old Dad,” Roy says with rueful self-mockery, and he might be talking about any number of mid-life
crises.  But the magic of this film is in
the realization of Roy’s dream of escape, one that is anything but nihilistic
but almost an evolutionary step beyond the human self, as the realization of a
fantasy becomes a kind of heroism.

2.         Amarcord (1973)

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With a few minor exceptions, none of the characters in this
film are middle-aged, only the director, as he brings his childhood past to
lavish life with unembarrassed affection and hyperbole.  Was the snow once so deep that the townspeople
had to dig paths like high ceilinged corridors through the streets?  Did the cruise ship come that close when the
bewitched boaters rowed out to see its dazzling lights at night?  Was the late-winter bonfire really that
high?  Were the tobacconist’s breasts
really that big?  Of course not, and
that’s the whole point.  Fellini
simultaneously mocks and relishes nostalgia’s penchant for fabrication,
creating a magical realist portrait of a world that hasn’t so much faded away
as never really existed, except in the middle-aged film-maker’s mind.

1. Adaptation
(2002)

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Mid-life self-doubt as post-modernism: this is Charlie
Kaufman’s raison d’etre and this may well be his finest, most ambitious
rendering of that wholly original conception. 
In this layered self-portrait we watch Kaufman struggle to adapt Susan
Orleans’ seemingly unadaptable The Orchid
Thief
, as the struggle becomes a metaphor for, or perhaps just the most
acute manifestation of, a mid-life crisis. 
Just as Kaufman is unable to settle on one plot line he is incapable of
opening himself up to others, particularly to his female friend Amelia Kavan
(Cara Seymour), on whom he has a blindingly obvious crush.  Kaufman’s divided self is hilariously
embodied by his twin brother Donald, both played by Nicholas Cage in what is
surely his greatest performance. 
Kaufman’s anxieties are matched by Susan Orleans’ herself, whose loss of
passion forms a subtext to her book: “I want to know how it feels like to care
about something passionately,” she writes, and this desire to desire draws her
to orchid hustler John Laroche (Chris Cooper). 
She discovers that to care passionately about something “whittles the
world down to a more manageable size,” and this becomes the principle
discovered by Kaufman as he puts his script and his life into a (barely)
manageable order.

[Click here to read Part One of this journey into the films of middle age…]


[Click here to read Part Two of this journey into the films of middle age…]

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

Stuck in the Middle: 30 Great Films about Middle Age, PART TWO

Stuck in the Middle: 30 Great Films about Middle Age, PART TWO

I must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on: here we are with Part Two of the list of what I consider to be the best movies about middle age.  If you’re still with me, you’ve admitted your
age, and acceptance is the first step towards… whatever, here’s the list.

20. The Prime of Miss
Jean Brodie
(1969)

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Like so many of us at middle age, teacher Jean Brodie (Maggie
Smith) likes to proclaim she is in the prime of her life, and the devoted
following of her select girl students (whom she dubs the crème de la crème) would seem to confirm it.  But as much as she inspires her charges with
a love of art and nature, she also leads them astray through her misguided adoration
of Francisco Franco and Mussolini.  The
film implies that aging without grace can sometimes land one on the wrong side
of history, and it can also land one on the wrong side of the young.  Pamela Franklin brings a severe intensity to
her performance as Sandy, a student who grows to resent her former idol and
takes revenge by stealing Brodie’s former lover, exposing her dark
secrets.  As Brodie leaves in disgrace, only
Maggie Smith could make us feel sorry for a misguided fascist. 

19. The Man Who Shot
Liberty Valance
(1962)

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One of John Ford’s most emotionally complex Westerns is also
an ambivalent meditation on the aging process. The film begins with Senator
Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) returning to the once lawless Old West town
that made his name.  He’s there to attend
the funeral of his old friend Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), and as this frame
narrative gives way to flashback, we hear a story that is as much about
the historical as the personal past.  As
“Ranse” Stoddard progresses from emasculated dishwasher and busboy to the
killer of the film’s title, his brand of pacifism and justice is juxtaposed,
and finally undermined, by his rival turned friend, Doniphon.  While I’m no fan of “the Duke,” he gives a
stunning performance here as a man embodying frontier values at the very moment
of their dissolution.  His trademark
wooden delivery somehow manages to capture the alienation of a man whom history
is passing by, and Stewart’s familiar earnestness is almost childish by
contrast.  The film leaves us wondering
if what we call the wisdom of age might simply depend on a selective memory of
the past.

18. The Big Lebowski
(1998)

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When I first saw this film in the theater, I felt that it was one
of the funniest, but also the most pointless, of the Coen brothers’ films; now I
regard it as offering one of their more pointed political commentaries on
generational politics.  Set less than a
decade before its release, in 1990, the film raises complex questions about how history is
made, and what role we play in the making of it.  In characteristic fashion, the Coens
foreground the constitutive role of language in shaping how we perceive events:
the Dude (Jeff Bridges) acts as a kind of linguistic sponge, picking up and
recirculating phrases spoken by those around him, including George Bush, Sr.’s
(in)famous “This aggression will not stand” speech.  Once a member of the subversive political
group “the Seattle Seven,” “Dude” Lebowski now spends his time bowling, getting
high, and drinking White Russians, seeming to confirm the accusation leveled
against by his namesake: “Your ‘revolution’ is over, Mr. Lebowski!  Condolences! 
The bums lost!”  But in a world
where the possibility of meaningful political change seems to have been shut
down, perhaps the best answer is to echo back the meaningless rhetoric of the
status quo, making of its very emptiness a kind of accusation: “This will not
stand, ya know, this will not stand, man!”

17. Sideways
(2004)

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This hilarious road movie about a couple of buddies on a
kind of “stag” wine tour moves effortlessly into a moving meditation on slowly
fading joie de vivre, for which wine
serves as ironic metaphor: ironic, because the characters aren’t necessarily
getting better with age.  In the film’s
most memorable scene, Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Maya (Virginia Madsen) share
their passion for pinots, while tacitly reflecting on how other passions have
grown sour.  Maya movingly observes how
“a bottle of wine is actually alive — it’s constantly evolving and gaining
complexity. That is, until it peaks—like your ’61—and begins its steady,
inevitable decline.”  Though the film
offers a glimmer of hope and possibility at its conclusion, this is its abiding
mood, but fortunately, as Maya adds, “it tastes so fucking good.”

16. The Accidental
Tourist
(1988)

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Writing travel guides for people who don’t want to travel,
Macon Leary (William Hurt) is a walking advertisement for middle age
malaise.  Fittingly, the symbol used on
his popular series of books is a lounge chair with wings.  The loss of a son has further strained his
marriage, and Macon seems fated to spend his life in a chair for one until his
dysfunctional Welsh corgi leads him to winningly daffy obedience trainer Muriel
Pritchett (Geena Davis), who awakens in Macon something bearing a vague
resemblance to passion.  In addition to its compellingly eccentric love story is, the film also includes an ensemble cast of other aging
eccentrics, offering diverse perspectives on the waning and rekindling of
affections.  Macon’s siblings are all
co-dependently repressed, until spinster Rose (Amy Wright) manages to capture
the heart of her brother’s publisher (winsomely played by Bill Pullman).  The fittingly beige-toned yet romantic
conclusion manages to land somewhere between “The Love Song of J. Alfred
Prufrock” and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

15. The Squid and the
Whale
(2005)

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This semi-autobiographical journey into the dark places of
family life is as much an exploration of middle age as it is of
adolescence.  Though told largely from
the point of view of two boys, Walt and Frank, their parents’ split-up becomes
the focus of the film, resulting in a funny and sad account of how people grow
apart.  Their father, struggling writer
Bernard (Jeff Daniels), forces his tastes and lifestyle onto his boys, a habit
that grows worse as he feels threatened by his estranged wife’s publishing
success.  The film shows how early we can
become middle-aged in spirit, as the older son, Frank, begins spouting the formulaic
literary preferences and dislikes of his father, and adopts his cynical,
self-serving worldview.  As he gradually
comes to realize the uncredited role his mother (Laura Linney) played in his
life, we understand that the conflict between his middle-age parents has become
Walt’s inner conflict as well.  Our mom
and dad, they fuck us up, indeed…

14. Picnic (1955)

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This film is as much an enactment of mid-life crisis as it
is a portrayal of one, in that star William Holden is an actor in his late thirties
playing a character in his early twenties. 
The result is wildly implausible but, because it’s William Holden,
unexpectedly poignant.  As aimless
drifter Hal, he shows up in a small Kansas town on Labor Day, seeking out a
fraternity brother whose father owns a local mill.  Along the way he encounters Madge Owens (Kim
Novak), and passion smolders.  But a
sadder, and in some ways more compelling, romance is also taking place, that
between middle-aged schoolteacher Rosemary (Rosalind Russell) and store owner
Howard Bevens (Arthur O’Connell). 
Rosemary has been trying to get Howard to marry him, and her desperation
spills over as the whiskey flask grows emptier at the annual town picnic,
culminating in a painful scene where she throws herself at William Holden to
make Howard jealous, accidentally ripping the shirt of the “young Adonis” in
front of all.  Layers of awkwardness are
at work here: Rosalind Russell’s vivid portrayal of mid-life sexual desperation
ironically paralleling William Holden’s mid-life desperation as an actor
playing well beneath his age.  Yet it
somehow works.

13. Now, Voyager
(1942)

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Bette Davis is mesmerizing as a middle-age spinster coming
out of her shell.  Bullied to the point
of mental breakdown by her oppressive mother, mousy Charlotte Vale seeks the
help of psychiatrist Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains).  As she grows more confident under his care,
she gets away from it all on a therapeutic cruise where she reinvents herself
and falls in love with married man Jerry (Paul Henreid).  If their star-crossed love affair were all
this film were about, it might be just another forties Hollywood melodrama, but
when Charlotte ends up at an asylum under Dr. Jaquith’s care, she
befriends Tina, a young woman who reminds her of her own repressed self.  Though Tina turns out, rather improbably, to
be old flame Jerry’s daughter, the film ends with Charlotte taking the girl
under her wing, and settling for a life of quiet female companionship rather
than torrid romance.  This resolution is
somewhat sad, but poetically right, offering an unconventional view of
middle-age life choices.

12. Mildred Pierce
(1945)

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As with Picnic and
The Wrestler, this film gains added
depth from the middle-age drama of the actress as much as that of the character
she portrays.  Thanks to Mommie Dearest, we all know how
desperate an aging Joan Crawford was to get this part, and how much she threw herself
into her role; thus, it’s difficult not to see the character of Mildred as
autobiographical.  Left by her husband, Mildred
Pierce works herself out of her and her daughters’ financial desperation, first
as a waitress, then as the owner of a successful chain of restaurants.  Along with Barbara Stanwyck’s Stella Dallas, this is one of the most
powerful portrayals of a working woman from Hollywood’s golden age.  Yet, while she finds satisfaction in work,
her wayward second husband reminds her of her age when she finds him cheating—with
her own daughter.  Rarely has the
generation gap been so nastily rendered.

11. Lost in
Translation
(2003)

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From the moment Bill Murray stood on the diving board in Rushmore, belly sagging over Budweiser
swimsuit, cigarette hanging out of his drooping mouth, he has become
Hollywood’s great icon of middle age. 
Here he internalizes that sad-sack pose, making it more tragic by hiding
it behind the pasted-on smile of Bob Harris, an aging actor doing a photo shoot
for a series of advertisements for Suntory, a Japanese whiskey (!).  Paralleling Bob’s mid-life crisis, Charlotte
(Scarlett Johansson) is having a “mid-twenties crisis,” and many of the film’s
most compelling scenes are without dialogue, showing her walking through Tokyo,
where nothing seems to make sense.  When
they meet at a hotel bar, their mutual malaise is a perfect match.  “I’m planning a prison escape; we first have
to get out of this hotel, then out of the city, then out of the country,” Bob
tells her, and she answers: “I’m in,” leading to a night of bar-hopping that ends in a karaoke bar.  Murray’s
off-key rendition of Roxy Music’s world-weary “More Than This” is surely one of
cinema’s great moments, turning the classic song into a mid-life anthem.  When they part, Bob whispers something
inaudible in her ear, and they both wander off in irresolution: a perfect way
to (not) end this movingly understated film.

[Click here to read Part One of this journey into the films of middle age…]

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

Stuck in the Middle: 30 Great Films about Middle Age, PART ONE

Stuck in the Middle: 30 Great Films about Middle Age, PART ONE

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Like most movie fans, I’m a compulsive list maker.  The habit began in my teens with naïve
exuberance (best monster movies, best science fiction), grew more pretentious
as I began taking film classes in college (best Nouvelle Vague films, best
German Expressionist works), finally reaching monomaniacal proportions in grad school
(50 best non-American Westerns, 25 best Japanese gangster films).  Though I probably should have grown out of
the habit, I remain a list-oriented viewer. 
Recently I came across a list of teen films by a writer I’d always
respected, but was so annoyed by his failure to include what I take to be the
greatest teen film of all time, Over the
Edge
, that I started to prepare a rebuttal.

But as I sat down to write about teen films I thought:
what’s wrong with me? I just turned forty-eight and I’m getting worked up about what
the greatest teen film should be? 
Shouldn’t I be more interested in films about people a little closer to
my age?  Then I started looking to see
what kinds of lists about middle-age films critics have compiled and found
none, or rather found several films about the Middle Ages–but not about middle
age.  In speculating on why this might be,
one might be inclined to trot out familiar arguments about our culture’s
obsession with youth and the commercial tendency to market to younger
demographics.  But plenty of critics are
older, and films about middle age often receive positive, intelligent reviews.  So why no lists?  It’s easy to find lists of best women’s
films, best teen films, best African-American films, but the middle seems to be
missing.

Perhaps it’s because few people want to acknowledge that
they are middle-aged.  If you’re among
the small number of readers who didn’t automatically pass over this piece on
the basis of its title, you belong to that rare group of people who acknowledge
their age and are interested in seeing films that do the same.  It’s not a pleasant admission, but films can
help.  I’ve always turned to film to give
me perspective on my life, its difficulties as well as its joys.  So over the next couple of weeks I’m going to
share my list of some films that have given me perspective on the middle stage
of life, even when I didn’t realize that that’s what these films were doing.

30. Lost in America (1985)

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“It’ll be like Easy
Rider
, but in a motor home”: the perfect metaphor for middle age.  In what is perhaps the funniest film ever
about a mid-life crisis, Albert Brooks gently mocks the desire to reinvent
yourself while still retaining the poignancy of discovering you can’t be young
again.  Fed up with a dead-end executive
job, David Howard and his wife Linda (Julie Hagerty) decide to drop out of society. As they
head out on the highway in their Winnebago, the gap between dream and reality
is made clear when David waves admiringly at a Harley driver who flips him
off.  After Linda loses their nest egg
gambling in a Las Vegas casino, they are forced to take pathetic minimum wage
jobs.  Finally they realize David has to
go back to his boss “and eat shit,” and they resume their former lives.  A little cynical, a little sad, Brooks’ film
nevertheless makes high comedy out of compromise, in a refreshing honest
rebuttal to mendacious claims that life begins at forty.

29. You Can Count on Me (2000)

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In what remains one of Laura Linney’s finest performances,
she plays Sammy, a single mother and lending officer at a small town bank whose
dull life is both enlivened and threatened by a visit from her errant brother,
Terry (Mark Ruffalo).  Both characters share
an abiding sadness, perhaps because of the early death of their parents in a
car-crash, but Terry is more free-spirited, if compulsively irresponsible, and
at first he seems to represent everything Sammy gave up for a secure,
predictable life.  But as he begins to
meddle in her son’s life, and as a sordid affair with her boss (played with
impeccable comic presence by Matthew Broderick) begins to spiral out of
control, her old humdrum life begins to seem almost attractive.  Kenneth Lonergan’s funny, wistful take on the
peculiar nature of sibling relationships makes what would otherwise seem an
inconsequential visit into a poignant meditation on the roads not taken.

28. Portrait of Jennie (1948)

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This criminally overlooked David O. Selznick production
stars Joseph Cotten as a struggling artist whose creative wellspring seems to
have run prematurely dry.  But then he
encounters a wise and enigmatic little girl in the park and in painting a
portrait of her from memory he rediscovers his art.  The girl reappears at intervals, growing
rapidly older with each encounter, and his artistic powers grow along with
her.  I can’t help associating this film
with the final, haunting scene in Fellini’s La
Dolce Vita
, where an aimless Marcello Mastroianni sees a mysterious,
wistfully smiling little girl waving at him across the water: symbol of his
lost innocence? repressed and undeveloped feminine self? elusive paramour?  Portrait
of Jennie
, though it adopts the conventions of the ghost story, remains
similarly ambiguous on what this muse figure represents for the artist, and the
film passes by like a sad and wistful middle-aged daydream.

27. Home for the Holidays (1995)

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Though this Jodie Foster comedy could be written off as
trite holiday fare, Holly Hunter’s standout performance as a single mother at
the crossroads brings a quiet gravitas to this sometimes slapstick comedy.  While Robert Downey, Jr., threatens to steal
the show as her gay, rebellious brother, it is their eccentric parents, played
expertly by Anne Bancroft and Charles Durning, and their complicated
relationship with their children, that give the film its surprising emotional
depth.  Steve Guttenberg and Cynthia
Stevenson play the children who struggle to make what they perceive as a normal
life as a defense against the rest of the family, but succeed only in making
themselves miserable.  Everyone in this
film experiences some kind of crisis, appropriately brought to the surface over
the tensions of Thanksgiving, but ends with a poignant memory of Holly Hunter’s
character as a girl, sitting on her father’s shoulders as a 747 takes off in
front of them: an apt image of youthful dreams that dazzle even as they fly
away, leaving the sad and funny oddities of our grown-up selves.

26. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

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As an aging academic, this one hits a little too close to
home for me, but Edward Albee’s genius was in creating stories that pull the viewer
through discomfort to redemption.  Mike
Nichols’ disarming point-of-view cinematography immerses us into the awkward
encounter between alcoholic professors and the seemingly naïve young couple who
are their late-night guests.  As the film
progresses, this immersion moves subtly from repulsion to sympathy, and we end
with a surprisingly touching scene of Liz and Burt on the moonlit lawn, exchanging
words of long-rehearsed but no less real affection.  Marriage, like tenure, can have a numbing
effect over time, but it is also a source of enduring comfort: even
passion.  The aging couple at the center
of this film remain intense despite their repetitive lives, and if the price of
that intensity is slow self-destruction, the story suggests, it might just be
worth it.

25. Waiting for Guffman (1996)

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This remains the funniest of Christopher Guest’s
mockumentaries, and also the most touching, largely because it captures people
desperate for something to believe in.  When
washed-up dramatist Corky St. Clair gets the chance to present his absurd
musical production to a New York critic, he draws his hilariously amateurish small
town ensemble into his fantasy.  The irony
is that the play, Red, White, and Blaine,
is meant to honor the small Missouri town’s sesquicentennial, yet all of the
characters embrace the opportunity of getting out and making it big.  The hilarity ends in disappointment, somehow
made more sad by the epilogue, which shows the characters having abandoned
their town for questionable, even demeaning, gigs in the business we call
show.  Like many, I have watched this
film so many times that I’ve memorized nearly every line, probably because I am
drawn nostalgically to my small-town past, as much as I like to mock it.

24. Thief (1981)

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The plot of this groundbreaking and stylish thriller could
be read as a metaphor for middle age: hardworking safecracker Frank (James
Caan), falls in love with a cashier, Jessie (Tuesday Weld), and decides to try
and get out of the crime racket and live free. 
Juxtaposing surprisingly labor-intensive, grueling break-ins with
intimate conversations, Mann’s film is as much about the burdens of clocking in
as of the dream of getting away.  In one
of the most compelling first date scenes ever filmed, Frank and Jessie, shot
against a plate glass window giving onto a dark highway, pledge themselves to
one another, essentially because neither of them are getting any younger, and
life’s too short to let something they know is real slip by.  When Luciferian crime-lord Leo enters the
picture, offering Frank an opportunity for one last heist, the deal turns into
a kind of indentured servitude, and we root for the protagonist’s liberation as
we might for any working stiff aging his life away in a soul-crushing job. 

23. Thelma and Louise (1991)

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Why is it that so many of the best films about middle age
end in death and destruction?  Ridley
Scott’s classic road movie suggests that it’s because it might be better to die
than to fade away, but does so with a bold twist on the convention by focusing
on women.  Thelma and Louise aren’t
breaking away from dead-end jobs and marriages so much as they are from men in
general, and their final, liberatory drive takes on added political power as an
affront to the patriarchy that drove them to it.  Susan Sarandon plays Louise as one of those
aging diner waitresses who seem fonts of wisdom and calm, only to reveal the
anger and bitterness underneath, a result of men’s abuse.  Her fiery reinvention of herself draws in the
younger Thelma (Geena Davis), as the older woman becomes a kind of
sharp-tongued prophet of women’s liberation, at whatever cost. 

22. The Wrestler (2008)

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Much of the pathos of this landmark Darren Aronofsky film
derives from the tragic symmetry between the lives of the leading actor, Mickey
Rourke, and his character, Randy “The Ram” Robinson.  The scars and blemishes on that ravaged face
are real, and tell a story every bit as harrowing as the downward spiral of the
washed-up wrestler of the film.  Rourke’s
brave self-exposure is ably matched by Marisa Tomei’s performance as an aging
stripper, and the two bond out of a mutual recognition of living past their
prime.  They share an affection for
eighties music, and the era of good times and younger days it encapsulates.  But living in the past becomes
self-destructive when “the Ram” tries to rekindle his former glory, in a
grotesque parody of the showbiz comeback, that is as much as a commentary on
the fickleness of fame as it is on the inevitability of age.

21. The Station Agent (2003)

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On a happier note, this gentle comedy courts tragedy, only to
allow its three misfit characters to find friendship and a renewed sense of
purpose.  Although Finbar McBride (Peter
Dinklage) is at the film’s center, as an aging dwarf cut loose from his beloved
job, Patricia Clarkson brings an awesome presence to her alternately ditzy and
tragic character, Olivia, a middle-aged artist whose marriage is breaking up
following the death of their son.  Bobby
Canavale threatens to steal almost every scene he’s in with his pitch-perfect
rendering of Joe, an attention-deficit-afflicted food truck entrepreneur, but
ultimately he serves as the intermediary between his disaffected older friends,
just as Finbar’s obsession with trains serves to reignite the other characters’
dwindling love of life.  Alienation and
eccentricity become somehow heroic, even livable qualities in this enduring
independent film.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

Better Red Than Dead: Director Gabe Polsky Revisits the Cold War Through Hockey

Better Red Than Dead: Director Gabe Polsky Revisits the Cold War Through Hockey

Sport is nothing if not a battle
of ideologies. The West Coast offense versus the Option. Tradition versus sabermetrics.
Defense wins championships. In the Cold War era, international sport provided a
unique look into all manners of ideology, from citizens’ approach to sport to
the all-encompassing Communism versus Social Democracy debate. From Olympic
boycotts to defections to Rocky IV,
sport provided a venue for discussion of larger issues of ideology through the
microcosm of its very nature and metaphor. Nowhere was this more evident than
in hockey.

As a Canadian, I was taught the
greatest hockey team of all-time was the 1972 Team Canada that beat the Soviets
at the Summit Series. Paul Henderson’s series-clinching goal had as much
magnitude as our national anthem. Similar arguments were made of the 1987
Canada Cup team that boasted both Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. That’s the
greatest hockey I’ve ever seen, or likely ever will see.

For Americans, I imagine a
similar argument could be made for the 1980 Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid
(they’d be wrong, but my nationalist bias causes me to digress), if not for the
team then for the virtue of its victory. But history is born of nationalism,
written not so much by the victors, as Winston Churchill suggested, but rather by
those with a medium with which to argue who was the greatest, who were the
heroes, the villains, and indeed the victors. Filmmaker Gabe Polsky’s upcoming documentary
Red Army “tells the story of the most
dominant sports team in history: the Soviet Union’s Red Army ice hockey
team.” 

Polsky is the son of
Russian-Ukrainian immigrants, and grew up in Chicago. He played hockey at Yale.
I don’t for a second doubt his credentials as a hockey documentarian (even though my Canadian
passport demands I should) nor his affection for his subject matter (it is
infectious). But my immediate reaction, as a Canadian, as a hockey fan, to the
above quote from the film’s production company was: I’ve got a whole country
that disagrees with you. However, I will admit, Polsky’s argument is
compelling. And according to its director, Red
Army
is about more than hockey. It’s about an era. It’s about the rise and
fall of an ideology, and the end of the Cold War.

While North American hockey was,
and is, built around stars, the Red Army team was more interested in the
collective. As Polsky says, “A lot of Soviet ideology ended up in sport. They
didn’t emphasize the individual.” This shouldn’t be that much of a surprise, as
the Red Army team was the international face of a communist dictatorship. They
took their brand of hockey and social order around the world, to battle on the
ice and in spectators’ minds.

As a student of the game, I had
always believed that creativity was born of individuals such as Gretzky, Orr,
Lemieux, who took us out of our seats to revel in their artistry.
Interestingly, Polsky argues the opposite, that it is the collective approach that
truly bred creativity, likening it to “what Brazilians did with soccer…
[they’re] more creative and they have more style to the game, brought a more
artistic approach to the game. A more beautiful game.”

Red Army uses Soviet defenseman Viacheslav Fetisov as a
narrator of sorts, a vehicle through which to tell the film’s story. Fetisov
played through “three generations of Soviet teams,” and was one of the first
wave of Russians to be allowed to play in the NHL. What’s compelling for Polsky,
a hockey fan who grew up during these eras, is the transition of Fetisov from
enemy (on the Red Army teams), to sympathetic character (in his desire to play
in the NHL), to endearing fan favorite (in his later years with the Detroit Red
Wings). Polsky sees Fetisov as the ultimate embodiment of the Cold War, from its
rise to its eventual fall.

If Fetisov’s story represents the
arc of the protagonist, then the story’s antagonist is Viktor Tikhonov, the head
coach of the Red Army team during its most dominant era. Tikhonov was the
communist dictator of a team during a communist dictatorship. To his team, he
was the USSR itself. When I was growing up, invested and engrossed in the later
era Super Series and the 1987 Canada Cup, I recall thinking Tikhonov’s embodiment
of evil was straight out of a Bond film, and indeed Polsky calls him a “perfect
villain.”

The director recalls a story of Vladislav
Tretiak, perhaps the greatest goaltender to ever strap on pads, asking his
coach if he could train at home because he wanted to see his family. Tikhonov
told him “no” and that if he didn’t train with the collective he “wasn’t
playing.” Contrast this with Tretiak’s rival and competition for the greatest
goalie ever title, the Montreal Canadiens’ Ken Dryden, who sat out during the
1973-74 season over a contract dispute, and used that year to complete a law
degree at McGill University. Perhaps nowhere better can we see the vast
difference between the ideologies resting on opposite sides of the globe than
in the dichotomy of the goaltenders’ narratives.

Just as communism never made it
stateside, the practices of the Red Army team never became part of the habits
of the NHL, with the exception of the Scotty Bowman-era Red Wings, who employed
the Red Army’s 5-man units, as opposed to the North American system, which
interchanges 4 forward lines and 3 defense pairings. Interestingly, Fetisov
(who Bowman drafted in 1975 while coach of the Montreal Canadiens, despite
knowing he’d never be allowed to come to the NHL) was a part of those team, as
were Red Army disciples Vyacheslav Kozlov and Igor Larionov. Teams that notably
won three Stanley Cups during Bowman’s tenure.

Bowman appears in Red Army, creating a bridge between
ideologies and histories, as he also coached against the Red Army in the 1976
and 1981 Canada Cups, as well as what has been called the greatest game ever,
the Red Army versus the Montreal Canadiens on New Year’s Eve 1975. But the NHL
has always eschewed innovation, and the influence of the Red Army begins and
ends with Bowman. But does the argument for the more virtuous system, in hockey
and beyond, end there as well? The Berlin Wall fell. The Cold War ended and the
Soviet Union with it. Russian players came to the NHL, and are now a staple in
the league. Red Army will be a
fascinating look into a part of hockey’s history rarely told, and an intriguing
look into an era of the sport that defines its mythology.

Red Army (directed by Gabe Polsky and produced by Jerry Weintraub and
Werner Herzog) will be released later this year.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The
Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among
others, and contributes to MTV’s
 PLAY
with AJ
. He is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare
Books, 2008), the short story collection
Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press,
2011), and the co-author of
Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out
Hockey Player
(Found Press,
2013). His next poetry collection,
Bourbon & Eventide, is forthcoming in 2014
from Invisible Publishing. Follow him on Twitter
@mdspry.

Predictions You Can’t Refuse: Previewing the Sight and Sound Greatest Films Poll, Part III

Predictions You Can’t Refuse: Previewing the Sight and Sound Greatest Films Poll, Part III

nullEDITOR'S NOTE: This summer Sight and Sound, the magazine of the British Film Institute, will issue the seventh edition of their international poll of critics and directors on the greatest films of all time. While there have been plenty of lists and polls of this kind conducted over the years by innumerable publications, websites and other outlets, the Sight and Sound poll occupies a special place among them. It polls a select number of participants that rank among the most respected authorities on film (the 2002 edition polled 145 critics and 108 directors). To my knowledge it is the longest-running poll of its kind, having first been conducted in 1952, and conducted only once every ten years.

To discuss the poll, its history and relevance to film culture, and possibly indulge in a bit of prognosticating, I’ve organized an online discussion with David Jenkins, UK-based film critic for the website Little White Lies, Vadim Rizov, US-based film critic for Sight and Sound and other publications, and Bill Georgaris, Australian-based creator of the website They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They and keeper of the massive list of 1000 greatest films, compiled from over 2100 such lists, including each edition of the Sight and Sound poll. (His list was what inspired me to start my own blog Shooting Down Pictures, in which I watched and researched all 1000 films on the list, a project that did as much towards expanding my film knowledge as anything I’ve done.) – KBL

Read Part One: Not Simply the Best

Read Part Two: A Top Ten Dilemma

KEVIN B. LEE: Since we touched on a bit of trendspotting in our discussion, I wanted to take some observations from the historical results of the poll. If we look at the last five editions of the critics' top tens and make a newspaper headline for each, it would go like this (click on each year to see the results that inspired their headline)

1962: Humanism Is Out (Bicycle Thieves, Chaplin), Formalism Is In (L’Avventura, Citizen Kane)

1972: Kane, Rules of the Game, Potemkin Cement Canon Status; Fellini, Antonioni, Bergman Lead 60s Vanguard

1982: Kurosawa and Singin’ in the Rain Shift Spotlight to non-Western and Genre Films

1992: Ozu, Satyajit Ray Broaden International Canon; Dreyer, Vigo Lead Early Cinema Resurgence

2002: Godfather Films Break Silent Embargo on Post-1970 Cinema

That last one is only half-facetious. It’s flat-out crazy that at the time of the 2002 poll, the last 30 years of film accounted for only 1 of the top ten and one sixth of the top 50. And the only reason the Godfather films placed so high is that the compilers kinda sorta fudged and counted votes of the two films together, regardless of whether they were voted on as a tandem.

In case anyone is curious, here’s a list of the top films from the cinematic wasteland known as 1970-2002, based on votes from the last poll:

null1. The Godfather and The Godfather II, 1972 (actual placement #4, 23 votes)
2. Barry Lyndon, 1975 (actual #27, 7 votes)
3. Fanny and Alexander, 1982 (actual #35, 6 votes)
tie. Taxi Driver, 1976
5. Blade Runner, 1982 (actual #45, 5 votes)
tie. Mirror, 1976
tie. Shoah, 1985
tie. The Travelling Players, 1974

You’ll notice nothing from the 90s (I believe the top placer was Pulp Fiction with 3 votes). Had I taken part in the poll, I almost certainly would have included Jia Zhangke’s Platform, a 2000 film.

Thinking back to the Robin Wood Rule discussed earlier, I understand the logic of it, but frankly I admire those crazy critics in 1962 that had no compunctions about putting 2 and 3 year old movies like L’Avventura, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Pickpocket among their top tens. I think members of my generation who live and breathe the films of today have a duty to make the best case for the films of our time – if we don’t, who will? At least one or two titles wouldn’t hurt.

MOVERS AND LOSERS FROM THE LAST POLL

There were some big ascenders back in 2002 (see full list here) from the 1992 results (see full list here). It’s curious to speculate what films might do the same this year. Barry Lyndon is on my short list, so its relatively meteoric rise in the 2002 poll – up about 105 spots from 1992, up to #27 – was heartening to see, moreso than the Godfather I & II’s 26-spot ascension to the top ten. The single biggest mover was Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums, up at least 108 spots to the top 25. I’m not sure I can account for its rise the way I can Au hasard Balthazar’s 43-spot leap to #19 (that 1999 worldwide Bresson retrospective made a difference, I imagine), or Rashomon’s remarkable 80-rung catapult to #13 (the '90s rage of non-linear, multi-subjective narratives in everything from Pulp Fiction to Satantango made this film a hot ur-text). 

nullOn the flip side, the biggest loser of 2002 was Roberto Rossellini, whose Paisan fell from #18 out of the top 60 – Journey to Italy didn’t do much beter. Bicycle Thieves fell 34 spots, just as it was on the fringe of making it back to the top 10 for the first time in 40 years. Seems that Italian neo-realism fell out of favor – as did its Indian cousin Satyajit Ray, whose Pather Panchali fell out of the top ten. Surprisingly, Rear Window dropped 35 spots even as Vertigo nudged into the #2 spot, seriously challening Citizen Kane – you have to wonder if the Hitchcock contingent somehow collectively agreed to go all in on Vertigo. But the biggest surprise for me is seeing Raging Bull lose support, falling out of the top 50 after being the #1 post-1970 film in the ‘92 poll. (Note in the list above that Taxi Driver placed higher, so the Scorsese contingent may have shifted their focus). Maybe it just goes to show that it’s hard for recent films to gain momentum; and that it’s not that there aren’t any worthy of being the greatest, but perhaps too many for any one to attract consensus.

Bill, I agree with your observations about the directors’ lists vs. the critics’ lists; I find the latter more inspiring and credible from the standpoint of breadth and depth. Though there were some fascinating individual lists (Richard Linklater’s, Michael Haneke’s and Terence Davies’ top tens really illuminated their sensibilities for me), and particularly the comments of some like Catherine Breillat and Michael Mann (who sounds like he should write a dissertation, or at least should be writing on film more often).

Scorsese didn’t take part in 2002, but I remember in his ‘92 ballot he listed only five films and said that these are the titles he will always stand by (off the top of my head, it was Citizen Kane, 8 ½, The Leopard, The Red Shoes, The Searchers – five is easy to remember!). Interesting and perhaps disheartening that one of the most literate of directors is so rigid with his list. But I admire his loyalty to certain films and filmmakers, it may be what gives him an anchor for his own visions. My own tastes and values can feel downright unfocused and promiscuous in comparison.

I currently don’t have any loyalties to auteurs informing my agenda. Looking back at David’s questions, I’m not particularly interested in genre representation, except perhaps a desire to include at least one documentary and/or avant garde film. However, I think I will make it a point not to include any of the top ten from 2002, and not to include more than one film from a given country (and possibly a given decade). Perhaps this makes my potential list sound too calculated or draconian in its design. But the fact is that there are too many great and worthy films and these restrictions are one way of narrowing it down.

And I completely know where Vadim is coming from with his point about ad hominem gauntlet-throwing, even though it has a tinge of cynicism to it – but heck, this whole conversation rings of a cynicism, or at least a loss of innocence or naivete (whichever connotation you prefer) about how canons are formed and what they mean. But it’s necessary.

And to Bill’s point, it will be interesting to see how many of them I’ve actually seen in a theater. The holy movie theater, another sacred cow, like film canons, in need of re-evaluation under threat of irrelevance.

BILL GEORGARIS: This is a bit of a calculated guess. I've added up all the noteworthy lists that I've compiled since the last Sight & Sound poll. This may be a reasonable guide to the forthcoming results.

null1. Vertigo
2. The Godfather
3. Citizen Kane
4. The Rules of the Game
5. The Seven Samurai
6. Sunrise
7. Au hasard balthazar; Lawrence of Arabia
9. 2001: A Space Odyssey; 8 1/2; Dr. Strangelove; Taxi Driver
13. The Wild Bunch
14. Some Like it Hot
15. The Magnificent Ambersons; Once Upon a Time in the West
17. The Bicycle Thieves; The Shop Around the Corner; Singin' in the Rain; The Third Man; Tokyo Story
22. The Godfather Part II; Jaws; Playtime

The above list is based on 182 critics/filmmakers. It is a very decent sample. Battleship Potemkin is the only film from the 2002 S&S Top-10 not included in the list above.

I, personally, will be quietly elated if a Robert Bresson film makes the top-10. If that occurs, then maybe Humanism is Back In. In terms of a headline, how about "Internet cinephiles crash BFI server(s)".

In terms of a bold pronouncement, I am going to be mechanically-boring and side with the results of the list above, and assert that Citizen Kane will not top the poll this time around. And, I predict, will never top it again. Furthermore, an obvious point perhaps… If either The Godfather or Vertigo are number one, it will the first time a colour/widescreen film will rule the roost.

A more uneducated pronouncement would be that films from the last decade-or-so will poll strongly. Just my gut feeling. I think many critics, especially those being polled for the first time, will want to bring something fresh to the table and I think they will draw from recent cinema for that freshness. Among films of the 21st century, I expect In the Mood for Love, Mulholland Dr. and Yi Yi to do quite well. Also There Will Be Blood and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days will probably get some recognition.

[Editor's Note: See Bill's compilation of the 21st Century's Most Acclaimed Films, compiled from countless critics' polls of the past decade plus change.]

DAVID JENKINS: Bill and Kevin have offered their predictions based on hard fact and considered conjecture. So I thought it best to offer some totally spurious thoughts on how things may go down…

nullIt's interesting to see that Bill predicts The Godfather will rise in the rankings. I was under the impression that it would, if not crash and burn, then at the very least fall out of the top ten. Coppola has hardly been churning out the copper-bottomed classics of late (20 years since the last decent film?), and perhaps his recent slump could affect participants' memories his early hits. Of course, it'd be churlish to think that too many participants would question their love of The Godfather on the basis of the director's more recent work, but for those formulating their lists by picking favourite directors and then narrowing things down from there, it could be swing the vote in small but meaningful ways.

Again, an entirely spurious proclamation, but I think (hope!) the lists sent in by "internet cinephiles" will reflect a reaction to – and possibly a rejection of – past consensus. Considered gauntlet throwing, if you will. Just recently I was nosing in on an Twitter back-and-forth which espoused the relative merits of De Palma's neglected Mission to Mars, to cite just one tiny example. It'd be disingenuous to dismiss this strain of criticism as wilful contrarianism (which some more established critics have) as it's clear in the reading that the large majority of these critics possess the necessary deep background to back up their claims.

I agree with Vadim that there is an all-mouth-and-no-trousers critical contingent (a practice which I'll admit I'm occasionally guilty of myself) but for the purposes of this list, being bold – justified or otherwise – can only make the final results more interesting. Whether these bold decisions will galvanise in any way seems less likely. I'd love it if a group of critics rallied together for an act of cine-terrorism and tactically voted Soul Man into the upper echelons of the canon.

Interested in Bill's belief that the last decade will poll strongly. More interested to see where those votes come from – critics covering the weekly theatrical releases or bloggers who have more opportunity to cover the back catalogue?

I'll also go further and say that not only will Kane fall from the top spot, it'll fall out of the top ten. Major backlash.

Personally, I'm against Kevin's idea of creating a list that cosily covers bases. There are some Russian films I love and would absolutely put them in my top ten, but I wouldn't do so because they were Russian. It also seems a shame that, say, French cinema should be covered with a single film. So you've had your Bresson and that's adios Melville, Godard, Renoir, etc… I've tried my best to make my list as expansive as possible, but I've gauged this expansiveness in terms of style and, to a lesser extent, time of production rather than geography.

Apropos of nothing (and somewhat off-message), my method has been to select 100 films, personal favourites mainly, rewatch as many as possible and then gradually hone them down to ten. I kinda felt that there just isn't time to make new discoveries, but more than that, there's not the time to be able to process them properly. All bar one of my top ten I originally saw at the cinema, though that did not affect my selections.

nullKEVIN B. LEE: Looking at Bill's predictions, I would be thrilled if Balthazar makes the top ten. Bresson is one of a handful of directors I would ever consider devoting a lifetime to study, and Balthazar along with L'Argent are my very favorites of his inimitable corpus. And I would be even more pleased – and perhaps a bit ashamed – if he makes it in without my vote. Because I'm pretty sure I'll be selecting another film and master as my lone representative from France.

Reading David's comment in response to my "one film per country" requirement, I sense the incredulousness that such an approach may meet among others. But I don't see it as "cosily covering the bases" (it's not like I can select a film from every country that I think has an all-time great film) as it is spreading the field in a way that I think is valuable. And I really don't see it as any more or less risible than, say, the auteurist thinking that typically dominates this kind of list-making, and that in my view has been taken too far. The glorification of the film artist gets taken to the point that people undervalue the importance of film as a global, social phenomenon, almost always made by groups of people instead of individuals. Creativity and innovation spring as much from social forces and cultural developments than they do from individual genius.

nullI struggled with these matters a lot concerning one film that is one of my favorites and will continue to inspire me for years to come, but I ultimately will not select. That film is Godard's Histoire(s) du Cinema, which is in some respects the greatest essay film ever made, and as a film about films is the kind of work I could only dream of making. I know at least one film critic who has it in their top ten ballot. But I ultimately decided not to include it because, as a work that seeks to explore film, its worldview in regard to cinema history and cinema's relevance to world culture is so baldly, unapologetically provincial that many times it feels antithetical to my understanding of film. Of course it is a reflection of Godard's Eurocentric orientation, but whatever the case the work embodies a lot of assumptions about what film is that, in the 21st century, can no longer be taken for granted.

The conventional way of thinking about films, as discrete, self-contained works whose value is self-evident according to received aesthetic criteria, often ignores the larger cultural forces that shape our way of evaluating them, including the Sight and Sound list. My framework for creating my own list seeks to address that. It is not just shaking things up for the sake of being bold, controversial or un-boring. I want my list to express a set of principles that I consider to be crucial ways to understand cinema. As I mentioned in my first entry, I'd rather see a list espousing ten ways to watch a movie than a list of the ten "best" films. There are so many films out there worthy of being called the best than can't possibly fit in a list of 10, 20 or 100. I think we are at a point in the history of the movies where it is more important to think about how we watch films than about which films to watch. Or at least the latter should serve the former.   

Speaking of where we are in film history, at least David and I agree on spreading the field according to decade – this is the last possible decade where one could make a top ten list with a feature film from each decade in cinema history. And maybe that's a framework that we have to let go of as well, insofar that it holds us back from thinking about the future. After all, a list of the greatest films of all time should be less a reflection of what the best of cinema has been, but of what it can be.

The Androgyny of Artists: An Interview with Mary Harron

The Androgyny of Artists: An Interview with Mary Harron

null

In the short span of four feature films, director Mary Harron has created an intense body of work, in which deeply conflicted characters work through identity crises. Harron’s most famous protagonist is probably the psychotic Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (2000). But just like Patrick, both Valerie Solanas in I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) and Bettie Page in The Notorious Bettie Page (2005), Harron's two other films, find themselves trying to strike poses that don’t quite fit them.

So goes Harron’s new movie, The Moth Diaries (2011), a vampire melodrama set at an all-girls' boarding school. Rebecca (Sarah Bolger), a young but lonely adolescent, unconsciously reshapes her life as a gothic novel. This makes Ernessa (Lily Cole), a pale and mysterious new girl, Dracula to Rebecca’s Mina Harker. I talked with Harron via email last week about the effect of conflating ourselves with our public personas.

Many of your movies revolve around the disparity between modes of representation (journals, plays and pornography) and the essence of what they're portraying. Having been an arts critic, I'm curious how you feel the gothic novel has grown, and how that's reflected in The Moth Diaries' use of the gothic novel as a false source of comfort for our heroine. Her narrative is, after all, phrased as a dysfunctional gothic novel (as Ernessa says at the end, nothing can save Rebecca, not even the gothic novel narrative she's created for herself).

Mary Harron (MH): I can't really speak to the present day gothic novel, because I haven't read many of them.  When I was working on The Moth Diaries, I did read a lot of the classic gothic, Bram Stoker, and Sheridan Le Fanu, and some later British horror like M.R. James.

In the film, when Rebecca reads Le Fanu's Carmilla, is the book giving her clues to understanding who Ernessa really is, or is it fueling her paranoia?  You have to draw your own conclusions.  However, I don't think it's true that nothing can save Rebecca.  I think she saves herself—because she's created so much havoc, she's taken away from the school. To me it's quite a hopeful ending. She's left the school (adolescence), and now she's out in the world. She's going to face her adult life, whatever that will be.

The teacher, Mr. Davies, who is conducting the class in 'literature and the supernatural,' is the 'expert' you always find in gothic literature.  The early vampire stories always have a professor or academic or doctor who comes in and explains everything, but sometimes he gives the wrong explanation, or can't see what's in front of his eyes.  I love how you can't trust the experts in those books.  Anyway Mr. Davies thinks that his discussions with Rebecca are about Gothic literature, about metaphor, and she thinks they are about something absolutely real.  Just as when she comes to talk to him about Lucy, he thinks they're talking about anorexia but she's trying to tell him about a vampire.  Neither one is listening to the other.

I also find it striking that almost all of your feature films contain characters that are just as much victims as they are active creators of their own self-images, which often come across as schizoid personas. Bettie Page is a good girl that can't stop herself from being bad. Patrick Bateman can barely hide his blood thirst beneath a sheen of yuppy respectability. Valerie Solanas grew to resent that her pointedly vulgar and revolutionary rhetoric was misunderstood. And now The Moth Diaries' Rebecca is a victim of the traditional gothic story she's created for herself. Is it necessarily perilous for someone to reinvent themselves?

MH: Oh no, it can be very good to reinvent yourself. Bettie Page got a lot out of her reinvention of herself, until the censors came down hard on her.  And so did Valerie, until madness took over.  I don't know that Bateman actually re-invented himself —  he's more of a monster hiding behind a mask.  I have to say that I don't really see Rebecca as a victim, because in the end she goes down into the basement, she faces her fears — and she gets herself thrown out of that school, which is a good thing!

Speaking of being image-conscious, you directed an episode of Fear Itself recently. I imagine this is because of American Psycho, so I have to ask: do you feel like you've been pigeonholed as a horror filmmaker?

MH: I'm kind of flattered when that happens, because I don't consider myself a real horror filmmaker.  It always seemed funny to me that American Psycho was in the horror section of video stores. It's more like a satire with horror elements.  It's ironic, because when I try to get television work in comedy I'm told that people think I can't do comedy! But my first three films have a lot of comedy in them, I think. Not Moth Diaries, that's more teen melodrama.  

I just read Midnight Movies and saw that there's a note about your portrayal of Solanas in there. Having been a critic, I wonder how much you pay attention to criticism of your films and whether or not you're concerned with the way your films seem to be rather literally critiqued for not being period-specific or exaggerating details to elicit a specific effect.

MH: Hmm, I haven't read Midnight Movies.  Because I was a critic, I probably take reviews more seriously than other filmmakers. However, there is just so much to read now, with all the blogs and all the comments added in, it can become overwhelming and destructive. Maybe it's better to wait five years, until the dust has settled, and then read your reviews!

My first movie was very well received, but American Psycho and The Notorious Bettie Page both got mixed reviews and were understood better a few years after release. That makes me question the immediate reaction. Also, when I was a critic I sometimes gave bad reviews to things that I later found I liked.

Tell me about the way you film the past in your films' flashbacks: it seems your representations of past events is reliant on an understanding of nostalgia as being associated with dated technology, as in the flashbacks in The Notorious Bettie PageI Shot Andy Warhol and now the black-and-white flashbacks in The Moth Diaries.

MH: I think that comes from all my early experience in documentary film.   I was a researcher in British television and worked on a lot of biographies of artists, which involved looking at loads of archive film in many different formats—black and white, color, 35mm, 16mm, super 8, video.  I think that's where I get my love of mixing different film stocks and formats together, and using them to evoke a particular era.

Do you think representations of LGBT characters in films have changed since you made I Shot Andy Warhol? I know you directed an episode of The L Word, and the notion of having an uncomfortable sororal bond is in both The Notorious Bettie Page and The Moth Diaries.

MH: Yes, LGBT representations have changed hugely in the last fifteen years.  Being transgender wasn't even part of a mainstream discussion.  The 'sororal' bonds in The Moth Diaries are quite complicated. Teenage girls pour all their emotion into their female friendships, which are very intense and quite romantic.  They fantasize about boys, and have relationships with them, but their strongest bond is with their friend. Those intense girls friendships can be very beautiful, and also very destructive when they go wrong. The relationship between Lucy and Ernessa goes farther than that romantic/platonic girl friendship, though… 

I'm particularly struck by the contrast of strong femininity projected both by Page and by Solanas: the dominatrix and the man-hater. Given that Bateman is the most macho man in your movies and is a psychopath for it, it stands to reason that the independent women in your films are marginalized or still finding their voices. But I'm also reminded of how Solanas is asked what she will do for money and how she can get by without money. Trying to be revolutionary or even just different seems to mean you have to be misunderstood. By contrast, Bateman is misunderstood but accepted because he's a paragon of caricatured manliness, no?  

MH: Well, as Bateman says, he's just trying to fit in! He's so insecure, and so obsessed with getting all the surface details right, that no one notices what's going on underneath.

Then again, one of the things that struck me about I Shot Andy Warhol is how Solanas comes to irrationally despise these two effete men of power, Andy Warhol and Maurice Girodias. Androgyny, in both that film and in The Moth Diaries, specifically with Ernessa, seems to be an indicator of a conflicted kind of enlightenment. Is woman the future of man?

MH: It's sad, because Valerie turned her aggression on the only people who encouraged her, Warhol and Girodias. They had their failings but they weren't the enemy as she laid it out in the SCUM manifesto.  Gay men like Warhol were supposed to be women's allies.  I don't know if woman is the future of man, but I do think artists tend to be androgynous, in sensibility at least…

Who are the filmmakers and storytellers that you feel influence and inspire you the most?

MH: Polanski, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Bunuel.  Also I love Howard Hawks, in all his different genres,  and thirties comedy for its wonderful lack of sentimentality and its brilliant pacing.  I love David Cronenberg and David Lynch, and admire the careers they have, in which they never stopped making interesting films. Gus Van Sant was another inspiration for me. Drugstore Cowboy caused a big revelation, that you could actually make a movie like that.

What are you working on next?

MH: I'm attached to a film called Wicked/Lovely that is based on a young adult novel.  It has a lot of visual effects and is expensive, so the producers are still working on putting the money together. Then I have a couple of other projects I'm working on, but it's too early to talk about those!  

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, the L Magazine, the New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

A Top Ten Dilemma: Previewing the Sight and Sound Greatest Films Poll, Part II

A Top Ten Dilemma: Previewing the Sight and Sound Greatest Films Poll, Part II

nullEDITOR'S NOTE: This summer Sight and Sound, the magazine of the British Film Institute, will issue the seventh edition of their international poll of critics and directors on the greatest films of all time. While there have been plenty of lists and polls of this kind conducted over the years by innumerable publications, websites and other outlets, the Sight and Sound poll occupies a special place among them. It polls a select number of participants that rank among the most respected authorities on film (the 2002 edition polled 145 critics and 108 directors). To my knowledge it is the longest-running poll of its kind, having first been conducted in 1952, and conducted only once every ten years.

To discuss the poll, its history and relevance to film culture, and possibly indulge in a bit of prognosticating, I’ve organized an online discussion with David Jenkins, UK-based film critic for the website Little White Lies, Vadim Rizov, US-based film critic for Sight and Sound and other publications, and Bill Georgaris, Australian-based creator of the website They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They and keeper of the massive list of 1000 greatest films, compiled from over 2100 such lists, including each edition of the Sight and Sound poll. (His list was what inspired me to start my own blog Shooting Down Pictures, in which I watched and researched all 1000 films on the list, a project that did as much towards expanding my film knowledge as anything I’ve done.) – KBL

Read Part One: NOT Simply the Best 

Read Part Three: Predictions You Can't Refuse

DAVID JENKINS: In terms of what the list means to me, I entirely concur with the notion that it operates best as a tool to help prospective cinephiles broaden their horizons. Like a giant cinema tip sheet, or something? That has certainly been my experience with it. The 2002 poll probably remains the most important one to me – possibly a result of it being so easy/fun/addictive to navigate online? – and while never rigidly committing to watch all the films selected or every title in the top 100, I did (and still do!) carry around a dog-eared slip of paper in my wallet with scrawled lists of prospective purchases and films to look out for in the schedules.

For the 2012 poll, I'm most excited to see how the era of DVD and film downloads has an effect on the results. It's hard to predict whether easy access to famously obscure titles (eg, Jacques Rivette's long-lost Out 1 recently surfaced on Italian television(!) and came out on German DVD) would serve in calcifying the status of the untouchable classics of yore, or force poll participants into adopting a broader view of film history based on the diversity of their viewing.

nullAnd on that note, would celebrated revivals and restorations serve to nudge under-loved films into the limelight? Will 2012 be the year of Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep? Will the new, extended cut of Fritz Lang's Metropolis make it more of a contender than it has been in past polls?

In attempting to formulate my personal top ten, various issues have inevitably arisen regarding what makes a "great film" just that. The Sight & Sound brief leaves the term "greatest" tantalisingly open to interpretation, leaving each participant to choose what kind of statement they want to make with their own list. Here are some questions that I wrestled with while trying in vain to whittle down my own choices:

1. How much do you want your list to be a reaction to past polls as well as to the notion of an established canon? Or, put another way, how much do you feel Citizen Kane deserves another poll victory?

2. What preparation is required prior to formulating your list? Will you re-watch your proposed top ten before filing? What supplementary books, lists, websites will you use for reference?

3. Is there an unofficial period of maturation required for a film to be eligible for selection? In the 2002 list, Robin Wood noted that it was “too soon to be sure” whether Haneke's The Piano Teacher would be worthy for inclusion. Should, say, at least ten years have passed before a film can attain classic status?

4. Should every list acknowledge the importance of certain areas of cinema (historical, geographic, gender of director, sound, silent, etc…)? Should each participant be obliged to include at least one silent film or a film by a female director? Or if your specialist field of knowledge is African film or American film, is it OK to remain within your comfort zone and select the films which best represent your interests?

5. Should you create a list in terms of directors rather than films? And if so, is there a need to rally around a consensus title so that your favorite director gets a high ranking? Is it worth playing the long game? Eg, selecting 'Tokyo Story' over a lesser-known Ozu to represent the director's entire oeuvre knowing that you'd probably be boosting the film's overall rankings even if you din't see it as the director's most representative work. Or, should one always attempt to justify a personal favourite, whatever its current status? This question would probably be where the proliferation of home video and downloads rears its head.

6. Should subjective favourites always trump objective, universally recognized canonical titles? The big one.

Now Vadim is going to tackle some of these questions…

VADIM RIZOV: David asks: "How much do you want your list to be a reaction to past polls as well as to the notion of an established canon?"

nullI have no plans to put Citizen Kane on my top 10 list; I watch it every 5 years or so and try to come around, but it's still not working out. (Welles was right: The Trial really is his best film. Anyway.) I'm also not planning for the only film I think has a reasonable chance of replacing it (Vertigo), so from the outset my interest in contributing to any kind of top 10 surge or shift is minimal. (Should I feel guilty about these relatively underwhelmed responses? I'll let the internet tell me!)

Let me skip to David's question on representation, which truly troubles me. I have a lot of trouble with the idea of a meaningful top 10 list stating what I truly believe to be the all-time greats, even subjectively. My goal is to select 10 films that actively represent a cross-section of my viewing patterns. No matter how hard I try, though, I'm not going to be able to come up with a list that is truly representative not just of my viewing patterns but any political values I have. There will be, I fear, no non-fiction films, no representatives of the avant-garde, and — distressingly — probably no films directed by women. (For some people, any one of those absences would be enough to prompt scorn.) Moreover, I'm straining hard to make a list that represents my time-period-indifferent viewing in aggregate. A late-night subway ride during which I tried to casually jot down the first candidates that sprung to mind was overwhelmingly slanted towards recent stunning films, many of them American. This won't do — so I'm tamping down the emphasis on my immediate recent favorites a bit. This is my modified version of Robin Wood's rule.

Let me be clear about why I feel no guilt about making a list that's more than a little self-consciously designed to be a little punchy. First of all, my eyes glaze over like anyone else's when I pass over lists of unimpeccable but standardized choices; that's what the aggregate numbers are for. But secondly: I read, every day, bold criticism in which people make categorical declarations without remotely trying to back them up, and these are considered some of the most valuable writers working now. I may not be as good as some of these writers (no names), but for some reason gauntlet-throwing is considered an acceptable mode of discourse. When it comes time to make this list, for once I'm going to indulge my urge to make categorical declarations with minimal explanation. I'm summarizing my viewing values, not trying to start a fight about Which Films Truly Matter.

BILL GEORGARIS: My perspective on the Sight & Sound poll will be from the point-of-view of a punter, because that is what I am, in film terms. That is, a long-time film lover who is subscribed to Sight & Sound, and who also, as you know, assembles (via many sources, including Sight & Sound) his own list of greatest films for the website They Shoot Pictures Don't They? I have been collecting film lists in one form or another since 1988. John Kobal's book "John Kobal Presents the Top 100 Movies" was where it all started. I love these bloody polls, although at the same time, I can see why they are often frowned upon.

nullFirstly, I'd like to comment on the process, and express my minor disappointment at the fact that S&S have decided not to increase the ballot from 10 films. It would have been nice to break with tradition and call for 20-25 films from each critic/filmmaker. The consensus at the top may have remained very much the same but the variety of films at the bottom would probably have intrigued more. That's not to say, that there won't be intriguing selections, just less than there might have been.

Alright then, in no particular order, I have a few remarks and further questions relating to the poll and to a critic's perceived responsibility when it comes to penning their selections.

Should a critic/filmmaker slave over their selections (the studied approach), or should they just jot down the first 10 great films that come to mind (the off-the-cuff approach)? I sense that most critics and scholars steer towards the studied approach, whereas filmmakers probably generate their lists more spontaneously. This has been my perception with the previous polls.

I enjoy seeing the filmmaker selections as much, and in many cases, more than the critics' selections, but I am sceptical as to the time and effort that goes into their selections. I acknowledge that I am generalising here. It would be fair to suggest that most filmmakers spend far more time planning and making their own films, than watching films by others (past and present). For example, I heard an interview with Werner Herzog a few weeks back where he stated he has only watched a handful of films over the last few years. There are some obvious exceptions, the most famous being Martin Scorsese, whose appetite and care for film history is seemingly as insatiable as that of the most dedicated film critics and scholars. Maybe Marty could have a double-vote?

Generally-speaking, I agree with Robin Wood's 'test-of-time' rule. I, personally, wouldn't select a film from the past 10 years, but at the same time critics/filmmakers should go with their gut feeling. If they honestly believe that a film from this year or last year is worthy to be in their top 10, then so be it. Just do it.

The selection dilemmas, as Vadim touched on, when limited to just ten films are immense. Does the voter restrict themselves to 1 film per director, 1 film per decade, a maximum of two comedies, not too many American films, a handful of Asian films, etc, etc. And, gosh, how do I squeeze in my favourite film noir? This is the quandary that you will all possibly be having. How can ten films possibly represent the overall taste of a critic/filmmaker? And, does it matter? Probably not.

In terms of trends over the last 10 years, I envisage that the 2012 poll, more than any other, will include more selections that have been viewed in the comfort of the voters' own homes, than in a film theatre. The increase in availability of hard-to-find films from all parts of the globe over the last ten years has been breathtaking. Criterion and others have enabled us to explore films and filmmakers that were previously tough to track down. Also, the Blu-Ray revolution has given us the opportunity to watch films at their best, something we weren't able to do in the past. Seeing a classic film in Blu-Ray could see it shoot up into contention for your top-10. If I had a penny for every Blu-Ray that has made me reassess the overall quality of a film, then I would be…

Also, let's not forget the advances in television technology over the last 10 years that has made viewing films in a domestic environment a far more rewarding experience. I'm not 100% sure where I'm going with this, but I guess what I am alluding to is the fact that viewing habits since the last poll have changed markedly, and hence, may influence choices.

Continue to Part Three: Predictions You Can't Refuse

Read Part One: NOT Simply the Best 

Not Simply the Best: Previewing the Sight and Sound Greatest Films Poll, Part I

Not Simply the Best: Previewing the Sight and Sound Greatest Films Poll, Part I

nullEDITOR'S NOTE: This summer Sight and Sound, the magazine of the British Film Institute, will issue the seventh edition of their international poll of critics and directors on the greatest films of all time. While there have been plenty of lists and polls of this kind conducted over the years by innumerable publications, websites and other outlets, the Sight and Sound poll occupies a special place among them. It polls a select number of participants that rank among the most respected authorities on film (the 2002 edition polled 145 critics and 108 directors). To my knowledge it is the longest-running poll of its kind, having first been conducted in 1952, and conducted only once every ten years.

To discuss the poll, its history and relevance to film culture, and possibly indulge in a bit of prognosticating, I’ve organized an online discussion with David Jenkins, UK-based film critic for the website Little White Lies, Vadim Rizov, US-based film critic for Sight and Sound and other publications, and Bill Georgaris, Australian-based creator of the website They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They and keeper of the massive list of 1000 greatest films, compiled from over 2100 such lists, including each edition of the Sight and Sound poll. (His list was what inspired me to start my own blog Shooting Down Pictures, in which I watched and researched all 1000 films on the list, a project that did as much towards expanding my film knowledge as anything I’ve done.) This is the first in a series of posts on the poll, and examines the poll's significance; part two looks more closely at how critics create their top ten lists. – KBL

Read Part Two: A Top Ten Dilemma

Read Part Three: Predictions You Can't Refuse

KEVIN B. LEE: Speaking personally, the Sight and Sound poll played a seminal role in my movie love. I first learned of it in the 1980s as a teenager when Roger Ebert shared his top ten list for the 1982 edition of the poll in his Movie Home Companion, composing one eloquent paragraph for each film. To read a critic at the top of his craft write about the films he loved the most really imprinted a deep regard for film and film writing in me. Films both from the ’82 poll results (Citizen Kane, Seven Samurai, Vertigo) and Ebert’s list (Taxi Driver, The Third Man) occupied my personal top ten for years to follow. Ebert's respect for the poll hasn't abated: just the other week he blogged about it as "The best damn film list of them all" and surmised which titles will make his ballot for this year's edition.

nullAnother critic I admire, Jonathan Rosenbaum gives his personal account of the list’s influence in Essential Cinema: on the Necessity of Film Canons. Rosenbaum recalls how, as a college freshman, he encountered the 1962 edition of the list in Sight and Sound Magazine on the heels of writing a paper for his NYU film class arguing for the greatness of Citizen Kane, a film his professor dismissed as “uncinematic” (according to Rosenbaum, this was a prevailing assessment of Welles’ film at the time). For Rosenbaum, the S&S list affirmed his own values in regard to Citizen Kane, and pointed towards discoveries beyond what the ideological confines of his film class could offer:

Citizen Kane, I was happy to discover, placed first, and I was astonished to discover in second place L’avventura – a film by Michelangelo Antonioni that preceded La notte and that I had only just discovered and was still trying to process… I vowed to see as many films on the list as I could, and for the next several years proceeded like a butterfly collector, dutifully underlining each title in that issue of Sight and Sound as soon as I’d seen the film… Some critical favorites on the list proved to be disappointments, others were greater than I had even hoped for, but in both cases these responses represented not so much end points as the beginnings of evaluations and reevaluations that would continue over decades and that are still taking place.”

These examples should suffice in accounting for the impact the Sight and Sound list can potentially have on a young person interested in cinema. Rosenbaum links the list’s relevance to an underlying need for a canon that people can explore to develop their appreciation of film. The necessity of a film canon (as well as the complications and considerations that arise from this assertion) is something I’ve discussed with him following the release of Essential Cinema in 2004 and that he goes to some length in examining in the book. One point worth noting from our exchange is his expressed disappointment with the most recent edition of the list from 2002:

“Sight and Sound knew how to get a representative sample of international critical thought in the 50s, 60s, and 70s; more recently, I think the same magazine has shown a less certain grasp of what’s going on in criticism.”

The statement hints at the politics of canon formation: how the quality of the list of films depends on those involved in selecting them. When he wrote this back in 2004, I wasn’t as aware as I am now of the vast totality of contemporary film criticism as it exists around the globe. I still can’t confidently declare my familiarity with it all; who really can? There's been such an explosion of worthwhile criticism over the past decade thanks to the internet and blog culture. If it was challenging enough for Sight and Sound to assemble an authoritative critical mass for their poll back in 2002, one can only imagine the Quixotic dimensions of such an endeavor now. The internet, web 2.0 and social media have marked a radically new era in film culture, specifically in the proliferation and dissemination of reviews, opinions and theories on cinema. It will be fascinating to see how all of this will register shifts in the new poll (both in its participants and results), or to what extent it will echo the status quo and stagnation characterized by the 2002 poll results.

nullIndeed, the 2002 results were a letdown, at least for me. I had seen nearly every film in the top 100, so it had little in the way of discoveries or surprises, other than how unsurprising it was. For that reason my relationship to the list changed; I no longer took the perspective of list consumer but that of a curator, looking for ways to make the list more meaningful.

My chief complaint is its overwhelming orientation towards films from the US and Europe and lack of recognition of films from the remaining 80% of the world. If this list was meant to be a canonical introduction to cinema, its cultural disposition was alarming to say the least. Given the thriving international festival and archival culture that’s emerged in the last 20 years, it’s not like there’s a lack of worthy films from Latin America, Africa and Asia to consider; more likely there’s a lack of awareness of them. This was when I began to realize the self-perpetuating mythical importance of lists like these: they entrench certain films, and all the aesthetic and cultural baggage that come with them, at the expense of granting access to new films with new values and perspectives. I think a shakeup is in order.

Scholar Kristin Thompson says as much in a recent blog post where she diagnosed the problem with the Sight and Sound list and canonical cinema in general: “With so many smaller countries starting to make movies and so many festivals making them widely available, it becomes impossible to anoint new classics in the way critics used to.” One possible solution might be to expand the top ten list to a top twenty, allowing for critics to account for more diversity in their selections. But who’s to say to what extent that would alter the consensus choices at the top.

Thompson offers an intriguing alternative to the Sight and Sound poll as it is currently conducted:

“I think this business of polls and lists for the greatest films of all times would be much more interesting if each film could only appear once. Having gained the honor of being on the list, each title could be retired, and a whole new set concocted ten years later. The point of such lists, if there is one, is presumably to introduce people who are interested in good films to new ones they may not have seen or even known about.”

Out of curiosity, I decided to simulate Thompson’s proposal by running through all the previous Sight and Sound film polls and “retiring” any film that had already placed in the previous edition, thus ensuring a fresh set of films each time. The results are below, and can be compared with the actual historical results as found on Thompson’s blog and on Wikipedia. (Many thanks to Bill Georgaris for supplying the data.)

As obsessed as I’ve been with lists for most of my life, the Shooting Down Pictures project convinced me that the world of great cinema is far too vast and multifaceted for a single list to do it justice. (These days I’m less interested in a list of great films than a list of ways to watch and think about films.) But young prospective filmmakers and cinephiles will continue to embrace these lists as a guide to their viewing and development. Therein lies the importance of this poll and what's on it.

Sight and Sound has its work cut out for it. Judging from past poll results, it seems that for the last 40 years canonical film culture has largely been stuck in the 50s and 60s, and overwhelmingly in Hollywood and Europe. Can and will this hegemony be altered? And if so, what will it take?

I hand the discussion over to David, Vadim and Bill who may have their own take on these and other questions. I know David has several questions that he feels every participant in the poll should ask themselves…

CONTINUE TO PART TWO: How the Sausage Is Made

READ PART THREE: Predictions You Can't Refuse

An alternative history of the Sight and Sound Poll (a "Hall of Fame" approach)

Following Kristin Thompson's suggestion, I ran through the results of each edition of the Sight and Sound Greatest Films poll, “retiring” any film that had already placed in the previous edition, thus ensuring a fresh set of top-voted films each time. How surprising are the results? See for yourself.

(Note some years have more than 10 entries in the event of ties)

1952 (same as actual results)
nullBicycle Thieves (1948, De Sica)
City Lights (1930, Chaplin)
The Gold Rush (1925, Chaplin)
Battleship Potemkin (1925, Eisenstein)
Intolerance (1916, Griffith)
Louisiana Story (1949, Flaherty)
Greed (1925, Stroheim)
Le Jour se leve (1939, Carne)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Dreyer)
Brief Encounter (1946, Lean)
La Regle du jeu (1939, Renoir)

1962
Citizen Kane (1941, Welles)
L’avventura (1960, Antonioni)
Ugetsu Monogatari (1953, Mizoguchi)
Ivan the Terrible, Parts I and II (1944, 1958, Eisenstein)
La terra trema (1948, Visconti)
L’Atalante (1934, Vigo)
Earth / Zemlya (1930, Dovzhenko)
Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959, Resnais)
Sunrise (1927, Murnau)
Zero for Conduct (1930, Vigo)
Pickpocket (1959, Bresson)
Nazarin (1959, Bunuel)

1972
8 ½ (1963, Fellini)
Persona (1967, Bergman)
The General (1927, Keaton and Bruckman)
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, Welles)
Wild Strawberries (1957, Bergman)
Vertigo (1958, Hitchcock)
Pierrot le fou (1965, Godard)
La Grande Illusion (1937, Renoir)
Ikiru (1952, Kurosawa)
The Searchers (1956, Ford)

1982
nullSingin’ in the Rain (1952, Donen and Kelly)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Kubrick)
Andrei Rublev (1969, Tarkovsky)
Jules et Jim (1961, Truffaut)
The Third Man (1949, Reed)
Tokyo Story (1953, Ozu)
Touch of Evil (1958, Welles)
Les Enfants du paradis (1943, Carne)
Modern Times (1936, Chaplin)
Madame de… (1953, Ophuls)
Contempt (1963, Godard)
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972, Bunuel)

1992*
Raging Bull (1980, Scorsese)
The Godfather and the Godfather Part II (1972, 1974, Coppola)
Pather Panchali (1955, Ray)
La Strada (1956, Fellini)
La Dolce vita (1961, Fellini)
Rashomon (1950, Kurosawa)
Breathless (1960, Godard)
Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948, Ophuls)
Apocalypse Now (1979, Coppola)
Paisan (1945, Rossellini)
The Mirror (1976, Tarkovsky)
Fanny and Alexander (1982, Bergman)

2002*
Lawrence of Arabia (1962, Lean)
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964, Kubrick)
Psycho (1960, Hitchcock)
Sunset Blvd. (1950, Wilder)
Some Like It Hot (1959, Wilder)
The Seventh Seal (1957, Bergman)
Au hazard Balthazar (1966, Bresson)
Taxi Driver (1976, Scorsese)
The Apartment (1960, Wilder)
Casablanca (1943, Curtiz)
Chinatown (1974, Polanski)

Some initial observations on this approach (which somewhat resembles a Hall of Fame induction process):

– *The ’92 and ’02 polls incorporate votes by directors – wasn’t able to separate the two with the data set I had.
– While in 1972 nearly half of the list consisted of new titles, in 1982 there was only one, and none in 1992 and 2002.
– The cinema of the 50s and 60s dominate as much here as they do in the official poll. I had assumed that this approach would surface more newer films, but looking at the last three editions, 50s and 60s films outnumber films from subsequent decades by a 3-to-1 ratio. While the results of this exercise still aren’t fully satisfying, at least they put different films in play and offer a list that’s continually expanding rather than stagnating. (One critic who is participating in the poll for the fourth time told me that he is using a similar approach, and will not include any films he selected in his previous ballots.)

Sculpting Away: An Interview with Willem Dafoe

Sculpting Away: An Interview with Willem Dafoe

null

Willem Dafoe's versatility as an actor cannot be understated. His range as a performer is remarkable, and that comes across in a wide range of his performances, from his expressive turn as Jesus of Nazareth in The Last Temptation of Christ to his charmingly bombastic voice-acting performance in Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Dafoe is starring in a couple of new features now hitting theaters, like The Hunter, an upcoming eco-thriller, and 4:44: Last Day on Earth, a moving drama that will get a limited theatrical release starting Friday. In Last Day on Earth, Dafoe plays a man who has to come to terms with the fact that the world will end at exactly 4:44 a.m. I had the pleasure of talking with Dafoe at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival about reacting to nature, and about how television is changing actors’ performance styles.

Which of the three films you have at the festival was the most rewarding to work on?

Oh, I never have favorites like that. It goes against my nature; even if I have favorites, I don’t admit them, to myself or to anyone else.

(laughs) Okay, let’s talk about The Hunter then. Had you read Julia Leigh’s novel before taking the title role?

I didn’t read it first. There was a script, and we had to get the script to a place where we wanted it. And I felt it was best to really identify the story we were trying to tell. Once that got to a place that felt good, then we could do the movie. They did an adaptation, cut out the story we were going to make.

Now you say “we,” I’m curious…

The [screenwriter], the director, and myself.

How did you refine the role? Did you do rehearsals or rewrites? What was your process?

In this case, all of those things. But certainly working with the dialogue, seeing what was necessary and what wasn’t. You sculpt away, because you tend to overwrite initially so you can identify what you’re interested in, but then cut it back to something more essential. Then, once you’re filming, that becomes your blueprint. And you make another draft during the filming.

Right. I’m curious because of the three films that I mentioned, The Hunter seems like the most intensive role. You’re not really consistently reacting to other actors; you’re mainly reacting to everything but other actors. You said you did research for the role. What kind of research did you do?

Well, first of all, I did have another actor to work with, and that was nature (laughs). I had to learn how to do all that stuff, bushcraft stuff, the law of survival and hunting. Also, in the script, there are things that I needed to learn how to do practically, so that when we were filming, I could do them gracefully and efficiently. But also, from the point of view of a character, it helps. Because when you learn something new, it always makes you adjust your point of view and your way of seeing things. That becomes the little crack through which you can enter the character sometimes. It’s really essential that I learn to do those things so that I have authority, and it’s fun, besides. I worked with old-fashioned trappers and kangaroo hunters and animals, and this very good survivalist who makes these beautiful snares. He taught me a lot about how to survive without anything but a knife and some string in the bush.

You don’t seem to be slowing down in the number of roles you take on. At all (laughs). I know you’ve said you don’t like to pick favorites when it comes to your roles, but do you have favorite collaborators?

I mean…(sighs audibly) My favorite collaborators are the ones that invite me to work with them over and over again. (pauses) I wouldn’t even say that, because there are some people that I’ve only worked with once that I’ve really enjoyed collaborating with.

Recently, this new movie of Abel’s [4:44: Last Day on Earth] is very good, I think. And that’s the third time I’ve worked with Abel, and each time, I think, it gets better.

I know you’ve also worked at least three times with Paul Schrader. What’s it like rewriting or going over your roles with him?

Well, it’s very specific to each film, but Paul is someone that works very efficiently. And because he started primarily as a critic and a writer, a lot is accomplished in the screenplay. He’s also usually working with a very tight budget so we tend to shoot quite efficiently. So the advantage of having worked with each other is that we have a understanding, and very little has to be explained or said. I remember the first film I worked with him on, Light Sleeper. Halfway through, he had barely talked to me. I remember we were starting up one day, and he came over and said, “Listen, you’re probably wondering why I haven’t said anything. It’s because you’re doing fine.” (laughs) He was right—if he was happy, I was happy.

Do you find the conversation that you have with more experienced or maybe even more established screenwriters or filmmakers is different than the one you have with new filmmakers?

Always, but I don’t categorically say one is better than the other because sometimes, people who have made films for a while start to get lazy, or get bad habits, or get stuck. And you can imagine with young filmmakers, some of the problems with them. They don’t, sometimes, have a history to hone their instincts. I think the more someone’s been working, the more they can skip to the chase. And there’s less talk, because they have a history of sensation. When someone is making something, they’re wide open. There’s a good part of that and a bad part of that. The good part of that is they’re usually passionate and really turned-on, but the bad part is that they don’t experience . . .

But I’m good with both. I remember Gene Hackman told me, when I was working on Mississippi Burning, “If you want a career, never work with a first-time director.” But I don’t follow his advice. (laughs)

Yeah, obviously! You’ve been working with a lot of first-time directors over the last couple of years, it seems. That’s a very trusting decision on your part.

It is, it is. But I think, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been able to be more reckless with my choices, because practically speaking, you get less careful. Your choices become more instinctive, and you feel like if you make a mistake, it won’t destroy you. The irony is that, when you’re younger, you feel like if you do a bad movie, that’ll be the end. You never try to do a bad movie, of course, but if you’re worried about that, you can’t take the same kinds of risks or do things that are driven by your curiosity and passion.

You don’t seem to do a lot of comedic roles. I can’t recall one since Mr. Bean’s Vacation, at least.

Uh, Life Aquatic. There are elements of comedy in Spider-Man—huge elements of comedy. You know, that’s arguable. I think, generally speaking, no, I’m not a go-to comedy guy. But as I get older, more comedies are available. I’m not that attracted to comedies. I like seeing them, but a lot of comedies are broad, and they tend to cast comedians for them.

There’s a lot of broad comedy throughout your career, in films like Wild at Heart, which is just a spectacular performance and, as you mentioned, the Raimi films. And you have a real knack for it. Does it feel like a different experience when you go broad like that?

I don’t feel dimension (laughs). I’m not attracted to naturalism, I’m not attracted to behavior, I’m attracted to dance. I’m attracted to gesture, I’m attracted to singing with your voice, as opposed to having a natural manner. I’m a theater actor first, so that probably influences a lot of my approach. And I think in many ways, naturalism has ruined movies.

Could you expand on that a little?

I think film has taken a lot of cues from television over the years, although I often like understated performances where the actor disappears. I like that a lot. But this imitation-of-life stuff doesn’t always tap into what’s beautiful about the language and the poetry of film.

What kind of television do you feel is guiding the film industry?

I’m just saying that a certain acting style depends on close-ups and personality. Personality and psychology and literature, rather than poetry, space, light, dance. All the energy is going toward TV these days. It’ll shift back. TV is seductive but I don’t think it can do all of what film can do.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.