April 04, 2004

Notes on Movies

Posted by Ed

Here are some random, disjointed, and poorly developed thoughts on several recent movies I've seen:

  • Last night, Susan and I saw the German movie Goodbye, Lenin! at the Music Box Theatre. If you haven't either seen the movie or been to the Music Box, then you're really missing out. The movie tells the story of a young German whose mother has a heart attack in October 1989 and falls into a coma for eight months; she eventually wakes up, but when her doctor warns that any major shock could kill her, her son decides not to tell her about the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism. Instead, he pretends that East Germany is still alive and well, creating a miniature German Democratic Republic in his apartment building and recruiting a technologically savvy friend and a former cosmonaut to help him with his charade.

  • Reviews for Goodbye, Lenin! have ranged from tepid to wildly enthusiastic. I thought that the movie was a little long, that a few scenes were too silly, and that the narration was sometimes a little too cute; some critics have said that Goodbye, Lenin!'s humor resembled that of a sitcom. (As Susan asked, do the movie's comedic style and left-wing political content thereby make it a sit-Commie?) Even so, I generally found the humor quite appealing, and the movie brought back fond memories of a 1988 trip to Berlin and of the exciting events of the fall of 1989.

    There were times, however, when the movie would have benefited from a deeper and more nuanced look at East German communism. One reason for the film's success in Germany, after all, is a widespread feeling of "Ostalgie," or nostalgia for the communist East; the movie's mother figure is portrayed as an ardent and enthusiastic Communist, and her elderly neighbors express their unhappiness with post-1989 changes in society. It would have been nice if the movie had confronted this phenomenon head on. If the movie had been called Goodbye Goebbels, and had dealt with the main character's efforts to recreate the Third Reich in his mother's apartment, the public would have reacted with anger and distaste. What makes Communism different? Is Ostalagie a true nostalgia for Soviet rule, or an accidental nostalgia that results from legitimate unhappiness with the present day and then merely falls back on a recent era that happened to be Communist? What did people admire in East Germany, and were they ever correct to do so?

    At times I thought that Goodbye, Lenin! was about to make a more sophisticated point about Ostalgie. At one point, I expected the mother to tell her children that her love for the East was a charade, but she didn't do so. I couldn't tell whether she caught on to her son's trick in the end and simply decided to go along with his games, or whether she remained clueless about her country's fate until she died. Finally, the central character eventually acknowledges that the East Germany he'd created for his mother had become the East Germany he would have wanted himself. How, if at all, did this country differ from the real GDR?

  • One of the highlights of this morning's New York Times is a fascinating essay by A.O. Scott on the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In this article, Scott examines the connections between moral philosophy and the Hollywood romantic comedy, building on a point David Edelstein made in his Slate review of the film:

    There is a prominent American philosopher who has devoted a good part of his distinguished career to exploring such connections. In his review of "Eternal Sunshine," Slate's David Edelstein noted that it fit the template, laid out by the Harvard philosophy professor Stanley Cavell in his 1981 book "Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage." By fortuitous coincidence, a review copy of Dr. Cavell's new book "Cities of Words" (to be published by Harvard next month) landed in my mailbox on the same day that I went to see "Eternal Sunshine." The book, which follows the outline of a popular undergraduate course Dr. Cavell taught for many years, juxtaposes canonical texts of Western moral philosophy with studio-era comedies and melodramas, with occasional excursions into Shakespeare and Eric Rohmer.

    While it would be exaggerating to compare this dazzling, rambling 500-page intellectual excursion to one of Mr. Kaufman's scripts, it is possible to imagine a character like Dr. Cavell popping up in one of them, a kindly wise man who might help the main characters solve their problems, or who might succeed only in making them worse. (Even his title Walter M. Cabot Professor Emeritus of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value sounds like something Mr. Kaufman might have dreamed up.) But whether or not Mr. Kaufman has read Dr. Cavell, his latest movie confirms and extends the philosopher's notion that what is at stake in a certain kind of romantic comedy is also at stake in the strain of thought he calls "moral perfectionism."

    Scott's essay is worth reading in full, if only because it's an entertaining look at a fascinating effort to examine pop culture through the lens of academia. What struck me most about the article, however, was the way that it highlights the delightful complexity of Eternal Sunshine. To what extent is it accurate to describe the movie as a romantic comedy, for example? Is it possible to produce a "romantic comedy" that isn't actually romantic? How did Charlie Kaufman (the main screenwriter) and Michel Gondry (the director) use the rules of romantic comedy to produce a film that's far more difficult to categorize and explain than standard Hollywood fare? These were the sorts of questions that occurred to me as I read the essay.

    I'm not going to try to answer these questions, in large part because it's now been several weeks since I saw the movie and my memories of it are no longer completely clear. These questions point to one of the claims I made when I wrote about Eternal Sunshine in this blog, however: given the movie's obvious surface-level appeal and its reputation as a "smart" film, it's easy for a viewer to decide that he or she really likes it without really understanding it. Many viewers and reviewers of the film seem to believe that it's a straightforward romantic movie, for example; just yesterday, I read a commentary on the film claiming that its main message was that "love conquers everything, even efforts to erase it" (or something like that.)

    I can't help but think that this is a naive and unsophisticated reading of the movie. One could just as easily leave Eternal Sunshine with a very different conclusion--that it's easy for someone to act self-destructively or foolishly when he's enraptured by a member of the opposite sex. According to the IMDB, the original cut of the script had an alternate ending, in which Kate Winslet's character decided to have her memories of the Jim Carrey character erased again; the audience would then learn, through a view of a computer screen in the office, that she and Carrey had erased their memories of each other several times before. I'm glad that this scene was deleted--it's a little too clever for my tastes, and it would have shifted the emphasis of the movie away from the universal problems facing people in relationships toward the personal eccentricities of the main characters. Even so, I think the fact that this ending was once in the script is evidence that the movie shouldn't be read as completely optimistic about the prospects for true love in the world.

    Of course, I don't want to suggest that there's nothing romantic about Eternal Sunshine. I can even think of a way to argue that the movie really is a romantic film about the triumph of love, but I think that this argument is wrong--and raising it would involve listing several spoilers. Even so, what makes the movie really intriguing is its combination of sentimentality and cynicism, realism and surrealism. That's a mixture that gets short shrift whenever someone overemphasizes the romantic side of the story, and that really needs to be appreciated for a genuine understanding of the movie.

  • I'm not the only blogger to link to A.O. Scott's essay on Eternal Sunshine today: Will Baude has also posted a link to the article. I was somewhat intrigued by what he wrote: "the Times also runs a semi-review by A.O.Scott about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," he says. "(Which was fabulous, Ed Cohn not withstanding, (but so was Shakespeare in Love).)"

    Will seems to think that I didn't much like Eternal Sunshine, which surprises me: my blog entry on the movie (which he linked to) strikes me as very favorable overall. (I'd rank Eternal Sunshine with The Triplets of Belleville as one of the two best movies I've seen this year.) True, I did write that some viewers of the movie seem to have enjoyed it without fully understanding it, but I consider that a criticism of the viewers--not of the movie itself. Moreover, I get the sense that I touched a nerve when I criticized Shakespeare in Love, which--as I just learned when I searched Will's blog for references to Eternal Sunshine--Will praised in the very blog entry in which he first wrote about Eternal Sunshine. Perhaps Will read this (incorrectly) as a veiled criticism of him.

    I think there's something deeper going on here, however. Several months ago, after I watched the movie Lost in Translation for the first time, I wrote an entry with several criticisms of the film. I tried to make it clear that Lost in Translation was worth seeing, but I think I summed up my attitude when I wrote, "It was a good movie, and I enjoyed seeing it, but I can't quite figure out why so many people are so excited about it." Another blogger, commenting on what I wrote, said "Ed at Gnostical Turpitude really didn't like it... I had a somewhat more positive take on the flick. At least, I enjoyed watching it." This struck me then--and strikes me now--as a misreading of what I wrote.

    Maybe I was just unclear in my comments on both movies: it's quite possible that my commentary on each of them sounded more negative than I intended. (It's certainly true that my criticisms of Lost in Translation were more memorable and more developed than my praise.) Nevertheless, I think there's something more going on here--something connected to the way that people read and write commentary on movies and on popular culture in general.

    I've always thought that blogs are a potentially important new outlet for intelligent commentary on movies, but they've never lived up to my expectations. The best reviews, I believe, are those that try to say something interesting about the subject in question, and aren't just straightforward recommendations on whether or not to see a movie; that's one reason that many of the most entertaining and interesting reviews come from magazines that aren't aiming at a mass audience, rather than from mass-market newspapers. Today's New York Times article was an essay in the arts section, not an actuall review; in general, I prefer reviewers at publications like Slate and The Chicago Reader to newspaper reviewers.

    I've only read a very few fun blog posts about movies, however: Naomi Chana and Timothy Burke wrote insightful essays on The Return of the King, but they're the only bloggers I can think of who've written memorably on film. (Terry Teachout has written some nice blog commentary on movies too, but I'd put him in a separate category of writers, since he's a critic in his day job.) More often, blog entries about movies seem intended merely to evaluate or to judge--to give a quick-and-dirty assessment of the film, without really telling what makes it interesting, important, or appealing. In this sense, they're just as shallow and uninteresting as the reviews in a small-scale American newspaper.

    There's a sense in which this style of movie blogging resembles a lot of blogging about politics. In general, political blogging has left me underwhelmed: most of the good political blogs give you analysis and reporting on very current issues--analysis that's worth reading, but that would be out-dated before it could appear in a magazine. (Josh Marshall and Kevin Drum are among the best practitioners of this style of political blogging.) On the other hand, far too many political bloggers merely assert their opinions on a wide range of issues--issues they often know little about--and attract the interest of people who agree with them. I doubt that Instapundit will ever change anyone's mind on a serious issue, after all.

    There's a real opening for another type of political blog, however. This type of blog would feature essays that are more informal, speculative, and tentative than you're likely to find in an opinion journal, but longer than what you expect to see on an op-ed page; these essays are harder to write, take a lot of time, and can't be produced with the regularity or frequency that characterizes most blogs. There's only one political blogger I know of who writes entries like this, and that's Mark Schmitt--who, just this week, has written insightful entries on the role of ideas in politics and the political future of the white South. I can't really imagine political analysis of this sort appearing anywhere but in a blog, but most political bloggers are more interested in writing narrower analyses that focus on political horse races and judge small-scale trends in politics. That's a shame.

    My point, then, is simple. Bloggers run a very real risk of becoming opinionated without having opinions on things that actually matter, or of constantly providing readers with their thoughts without writing anything thoughtful. (I sometimes feel that I fall into this trap myself: I worry, occasionally, that I write a lot without ever having the time to sit down and put much thought into what I'm producing.) Readers of blogs can fall into a similar trap--of looking for a quick lesson or message in a blog entry when there isn't one readily available, or assuming that a blog entry on a movie is intended to give a simple recommendation on whether it's worth seeing when that isn't really its goal. That's one of the downsides of blogging, and I hope I don't fall into either one too often.

Note: I may rework part of the third section of this entry sometime tomorrow. I'm not terribly satisfied with it.

Posted by Ed at April 4, 2004 08:45 PM


[Ed wrote:] Several months ago, after I watched the movie Lost in Translation for the first time, I wrote an entry with several criticisms of the film. I tried to make it clear that Lost in Translation was worth seeing, but I think I summed up my attitude when I wrote, "It was a good movie, and I enjoyed seeing it, but I can't quite figure out why so many people are so excited about it." Another blogger, commenting on what I wrote, said "Ed at Gnostical Turpitude really didn't like it... I had a somewhat more positive take on the flick. At least, I enjoyed watching it." This struck me then--and strikes me now--as a misreading of what I wrote.

---Looking back at the post, you're quite right; the greater detail of your criticisms made more of an impression on me, apparently, and I ended up treating the positive remarks as more or less a disclaimer. Oops!

Posted by: Andy at April 5, 2004 11:09 AM

No problem. I was slightly wary of writing what I wrote, for two reasons: first, the two cases of misreading that I mention don't particularly matter (and I didn't want to suggest that I care a lot about them), and second, I didn't want to sound like I was accusing either you or Will of the sillier, shallower type of blogging.

Even so, the two cases I mention are the best evidence I have for another argument: that since commentary on many blogs consists mainly of quick and shallow attempts to give an overall judgment or evaluation, a lot of readers are conditioned to read most any post in those terms (especially if they're reading quickly). I certainly get that sense from posters like Josh Marshall, who often posts email he received that suggests that a certain subset of readers (especially those who disagree with him) miss some of his more subtle points and focus only on the most narrow possible interpretation of his argument. (No, I'm not just talking about the crazies who gravitate toward any political site...) Blogs have given lots of people the opportunity to express their opinions in public, while only sometimes raising the level of discussion of these issues.

Posted by: Ed at April 5, 2004 12:53 PM

i came across your movie posts via crescat sententia and really appreciated your comments on eternal sunshine and lost in translation. but even more interesting are your thoughts on blogging about movies. i also haven't really come across much movie-blogging (and i also like david edelstein) but have tried to do some interesting movie-blogging myself. i'm no expert, and have neither the time nor the knowledge to get into deep analysis. i guess i try to focus on mentioning movies i think more people should see and articulate why i think a particular movie is good, or interesting, or important, or why it resonated with me personally. a lot of the time, this is pretty hard to do, and i end up with short, lame comments. but sometimes i think i hit on something good and, i hope, other people find it interesting. i'd love to know about more people blogging interestingly about movies.

not to self-toot, but most of my writing is at http://www.perkowitz.net/blog/ - with a link on the right side for movie posts.

Posted by: mike at April 5, 2004 06:18 PM

I'd planned to include this in my blog entry, but forgot to do so:

There's a sense in which good blogging about movies requires more intelligence and creativity than other blogging does. Blogging (or writing in general) is often most successful when the writer knows more about his subject than his readers do; that's one reason that many of the best political bloggers (say, Josh Marshall) are reporters with access to more information than the average concerned citizen. (Notice the proliferation of group blogs at political magazines, which have staffs of people whose job it is to pay attention to politics.) This also helps explain the growth of certain academic blogs, whose writers bring a level of knowledge to the job that's based on their professional background.

This makes it far more difficult to write blog entries about movies: after all, film-going is an a democratic activity open to the public at large. Anyone who wants to go the movies can do so; everyone who does so will have an opinion about what he's just seen. Moreover, the number of movies is limited (relative, say, to the number of books out there), meaning that when someone writes about a popular movie, it's harder for him to write something original that won't have occurred to a good chunk of the audience for his blog.

I'm actually not convinced (as Will Baude writes in his response to my post) that a major impediment to blogging about movies is the need to avoid writing about the plot and spoiling the experience for others: this is certainly sometimes the case, but less often than one might guess. (An interesting philosophical question: to what extent does a person's opinion of a movie depend on the plot? Most of my comments about, say, The Triplets of Belleville and Eternal Sunshine had very little to do with the backbone of the story, after all. And I tried to write about what made those movies interesting, appealing, or off-putting.) It's a bigger challenge to convey some basic information about the story without being boring and repetitive to those who haven't seen the movie.

When I first began blogging, I thought that I'd especially enjoy blogging about movies, but I tend to think that my posts in this subject have been among my least interesting. That may, in part, be because I know much less about movies than I do about, say, history. But it's also because movie-blogging is difficult, for a variety of reasons.

Posted by: Ed at April 5, 2004 07:17 PM

i agree with your points, ed. of course, it is possible to become more knowledgeable about movies than the average reader just by watching a lot, and perhaps by reading some (fairly light) commentary and analysis. which gives you more insight into themes and allusions and so on. on the other hand, this can come off as really pretentious. as you say, movies are a democratic medium and highfalutin criticism can sound out of place. i think there's a balance, where you can bring knowledge to bear in an interesting way without losing sight of the basic democratic fun of movie-going -- a balance slate's david edelstein strikes quite well, i think.

Posted by: mike at April 6, 2004 11:46 AM

Reading your discussion on the state of movie journalism (a very insightful discussion, I should say), I must give props to someone who I think is hands-down its best practitioner: J. Hoberman, of the "Village Voice." His blurbable evaluations of a film are often hard to find in any given review, & this because the main of his energy goes into developing often shockingly good descriptions of the film. At their best, his pieces read like sharp meditations that extend the viewing experience of the film into deep (or, re your criterion that reviewers know more than readers, let's say _deeper_) cultural & experiential waters. That is to say, he spends more time matching the film's effects & pinpointing the film's particular achievements & failures than offering global judgments (or than contriving new "clever" ways to dis the newest gross-out comedy). This sounds something like your ideal of interesting film writing. Anyway, checking out VV's film page can't help but improve anyone's opinion about movie reviewing in papers. (www.villagevoice.com/film)

Posted by: Perry at May 14, 2004 09:44 AM
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