Sunday, February 15, 2015

"What I Love About Movies" - Book Review


The question is so basic as to be ridiculed, yet baffling enough to make your jaw drop to the floor. Which is not that surprising, given that defining one’s affection is usually the hardest thing to do without looking like a fool. What do we love about movies? For it is surely love that makes theaters fill up and tablet screens flicker every second of every day in every corner in the world. And it must be love that makes thousands upon thousands of adults of every background admit to that sinister-sounding condition called cinephilia. What do movies have that other arts don’t – and what is the nature of our fascination with them, which seems to thrive despite the tectonic changes within the medium itself?

That question lies smack at the center of the book “What I Love About Movies”, edited by David Jenkins and “presented” by “Little White Lies”, a UK-based periodical that is known to many cinephiles for its excellent critical prose, fastidious graphic design and gloss-free paper that makes one feel like one is leafing through a picture-book of one’s childhood. Issues of “Little White Lies” are objects you want to keep – nothing in their look encourages disposing of a copy once you’re done reading it – and so it is most appropriate and welcome that the team behind “LWL” mounted this new project, which introduces their work in a form that will quite possibly widen its audience significantly.

The book is structured around the replies given during interviews “Little White Lies” conducted over the years, each of which has been capped with the titular inquiry. The answers belong to 50 high-profile directors and actors, with the almost complete absence of any other film professions (or professions unrelated to film, for that matter). Unlike massive compilations by Studs Terkel, whose classic “Hard Times” or “Working” were based on accumulation of wide variety of testimonies, “What I Love About Movies” is focused on the driving passions of highly successful people who bring us the work we admire – as well as on examination of their careers and sensibilities. Each of the answers is accompanied by artwork depicting the interviewee (commissioned to 50 different designers, one per chapter), plus a capsule essay that serves as a bite-size critical profile.

The very shape and design of the book encourages random skipping rather than linear reading, since we’re naturally drawn first to the answers given by people we admire most. However, it’s one of the surprising pleasures of “What I Love About Movies” that the most interesting answers often come from folks you’d least expect to give them. It is also rather fitting that the coffee-table format makes you peruse the book at your home rather than on the bus or your subway train. Dedicated to Philip Seymour Hoffman, the volume has an air both celebratory and autumnal: it is a celebration of an art form that is almost extinct in its original incarnation (35mm projection in a movie theater), launched by means of a printed medium that itself becomes more and more obsolete. This beautiful book on the art of film feels so great to hold and browse through exactly because it’s a labor of love designed for fellow lovers. Note that the question whether one really loves movies is never once raised.

Despite the stellar cast of interviewees, including Quentin Tarantino, Francis Ford Coppola, Kelly Reinhardt, Wes Anderson and Ryan Gosling, the true stars of the book are the authors of the capsule essays, with two leads being David Jenkins (as the most prolific) and Vadim Rizov (as the most astute). Part of the accomplishment of “What I Love About Movies” is that it serves as a reminder of just what has happened in the hectic universe of world filmmaking in the past 20 years or so: the two decades that passed all too quickly, with much too much activity going on for anyone to have a complete, all-encompassing view of the entire picture. Film culture has changed so much and the plethora of extraordinary work from around the globe reaches us through so many channels (amplified by the 24/7 social media frenzy of raves, pans and feuds), it really seems like time flies much quicker than it used to in the pre-digital era. Personally, I always find it baffling to think that as many years have passed between the opening of The Godfather, Part II (1974) and Pulp Fiction (1994) as between Pulp Fiction and Inherent Vice (2014). Somehow, the two identical gaps do not seem to fit in size.

The book’s opening response comes from Francis Ford Coppola, and it is appropriately grand: the maker of Apocalypse Now (1979) states simply that “the human race was waiting for cinema” (p. 21). Darren Aronofsky concurs, pointing to the close-up as “an overlooked great invention of the 20th century” (p. 161), while Viggo Mortensen lives up to his taciturn, if potent, screen persona by offering the single briefest response in the volume: “The places you will go” (p. 101). There’s no denying that there is no great revelation awaiting in the wings of the 50 answers we get (rather predictably, the word “transported” gets the biggest mileage), but it is the very difficulty with defining the central passion of their lives that is most telling in those filmmakers’ responses. Accompanied by lucid, often brilliant reading of their works by the “LWL” writers (the four-member team also incuses Adam Woodward and Sophie Monks Kaufman), the responses enter into exciting friction with the critical writing – as well as with the artwork, which is never less than lively (it is “LWL” tradition that every piece is credited both to the person responsible for the “words” and the one providing the “pictures”).


In the introduction, on p. 15, David Jenkins admits to shedding tears every time he watches Jacques Tati’s Play Time (1967): by no means a sad film, but one that moves him by means of sheer power and meticulous, grand complexity of its vision that verges on a folly. I think unexpected tears are as good a starting point to trance one’s love of movies as any. Personally, I never fail to well up at the bike ride in the sky in E.T. (1982), and the moment when the bike posse first rises in the air is as exhilarating as it is heartbreaking for me. The knowledge that I am looking at sheer magic brought about by force of friendship, paired with cold conviction that this thing could never, ever happen the way I am seeing it, has a devastating quality for me - and yet it still ends up in uplift. How is that possible? I really don’t know. The cover of the British edition of “What I Love About Movies” looks like a ticket stub, while the American one has Jude Law’s head capped with an unspooling reel of film, rendered with noir-ish glee by Mario Zucca. Maybe that’s the answer. Maybe movies are uncoiling our brains, making us surrender, even making fools of us from time to time – and yet they also provide us with our smarts, explain the world for us and enrich our understanding of it in the process. What we love about movies…? My answer remains: go figure.

[The book is now out on Amazon; you can purchase it here (UK) and here (US)]

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Bridges of Madison County (1995, Eastwood)



I was happy to contribute to Sam Mac's ongoing "Kicking the Canon" project with this short piece on The Bridges of Madison County, one of my favorite Clint Eastwood movies.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Something, Anything (2014, Harrill)



My new review up at RogerEbert.com is of Paul Harrill's beautiful first feature, Something, Anything. You can read it here.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Discussion of "Ida" at Columbia University [VIDEO]



I was honoored to moderate this discussion of Paweł Pawlikowski's Ida at Columbia University. It featured Matt Zoller Seitz, Sheila O'Malley and Stuart Liebman. You can watch the video here

Walerain Borowczyk Box Set


My review of "Boro: Camera Obscura", which I consider to be the DVD/Blu-ray release of the year, is now up at MovieMezzanine.