December 29, 2006

Random bullet-point-fire. 2006.

Except for the death of Robert Altman, not a whole lot rattled my cage this year - probably because many of the films garnering the most raves I take seriously haven't yet opened in Germany. On a variety of film world fronts, though, 2006 seems to have been a year of slow but sure evolution rather than revolution, of barely detectable tectonic shifts that, who knows, may be tightening up for a good and loud crack in 2007. Not that there weren't engaging films to see, stories to blog and criticism to read, of course; but nothing that immediately rearranged the landscape pops to mind. But there's more than that to be said for 2006. From the POV of a media junkie living overseas, a few items I've found worth noting:

Showgirls / Code Unknown

The Da Vinci Code / Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
  • I'll stray from the meta in a bit, but 2006 was a year in which critics - professed, self-professed or neither - did a lot of fretting about the state of film criticism. In the mainstream media, the story crested twice: in May, when anyone who could tap a keyboard demolished The Da Vinci Code and yet the unwashed masses flooded theaters to see it anyway; and again a month later, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. What's more, the masses rubbed salt in the wounds by making both DVDs mega-sellers. They wanted to see it again! And again! And they still don't care what you think about that, either.

    The wounds were hurting. Papers were letting name critics go. There was an ugly shake-up at the Voice. Overall, and taking into account all the obvious exceptions, the printed press, undergoing a long hard squeeze, has tended towards streamlining arts coverage budgets by running essentially outsourced consumer reports rather than actual criticism written from a local point of view for a local readership. The alarms went off this year when it finally sank in that this downsizing would inevitably take some of the stalwarts of what used to be the alternative press down as well.

    But all in all, I'm not as worried as others seem to be. As I've argued here before, good writers and good readers will find each other, and if there's some sort of perceivable value going on where they do, economics will catch up. Yes, it'll be rough going for a while, maybe even a long while. But I remain optimistic that it'll be easier to find good writing and to get good writing read than it was before the advent of the new media that have put this long hard squeeze on the old.

    One slow development I've been happy to see is a fading out of the sort of haughtiness and disregard old media critics used to show the new just a few years ago. It was borne of a willful ignorance in the first place, really, and that ignorance, save for a few dark and faraway corners, is dissipating fast. Most old media critics understand by now that there's more to writing about film online than Ain't It Cool News (not that those guys aren't great at what they do), and perhaps the last of the dinosaurs will take a look at the names participating in the indieWIRE Critics' Poll and count the number who blog or who have written for blogs or other online publications - and maybe even sample a bit of that writing - and concede that there's room in the vast reaches of cinephilia for all of us.

    Can't leave this bullet-point without recalling one of Jonathan Rosenbaum's replies to a question posed by Jeremiah Kipp for the House Next Door a few months ago: "[W]hen people ask me today where I live, I am often tempted to say instead of Chicago, I live on the Internet. That has affected who I am and how I function at least as much and maybe more than my grounding in the 1960s. I also see the Internet as a tool that has allowed me to implement some of my 1960s values."

The Queen / Volver
  • Not only are film publicists already well aware that the eyes of film lovers are turning online as well as to what remains of solid film criticism in print, but so are filmmakers - and, you'd almost suspect, producers as well. I know nothing about what all went into the campaigns for The Queen and Volver, the two most obvious examples, when these films were in the planning stages. But given the systematic changes in film coverage - or, from a producer's POV, film PR - if you can get a film into one of major European festivals in the spring or summer and into the New York Film Festival lineup, you're practically guaranteed wall-to-wall coverage for six or seven months, counting even a limited release after the NYFF, and in the case of these two films, on through awards season stretching into the beginning months of the following year. That's a PR campaign several times longer than the actual shoots.

    Now, I haven't seen The Queen (it opens here in Germany in January). I quite like Stephen Frears (I can hear some of you groaning, but I'm ignoring you) and, like everyone else, adore Helen Mirren. What's more, I'm a true sucker for any film playing in the intersection of the personal and the political. But for all that, I expect to enjoy The Queen, though I seriously doubt it would be possible for almost any film to move me in a way that warrants all this. As for Volver, I have seen it, and I have also seen much better Almod�var. With each passing festival, accolade and award, with each rumination on the filmmaker's "return," Volver appears more and more like some calculated play for something - canonization? You're already there, Pedro, relax - above and beyond, or rather, outside what a filmmaker usually aims to do with a single film, namely, make a good one.

    The point at this bullet, though, is New York: If your film can make a theater there, it can be blogged about anywhere, it seems. How much does this actually help? Naturally, it depends on what sort of audience a film needs. For the truly scrappy DIY indies, it's just about all they can hope for, whereas Ron Howard probably couldn't care less and doesn't need to, either. The interesting cases lie somewhere in between, and anyone dreaming up a package aimed at a Queen/Volver sort of audience has just seen how to badger that audience into feeling absolutely obliged to see the film, however much that audience might or might not want to see it on the film's merits alone.

The Host / Der Freie Wille
  • Hollywood actually fared better overseas than it did in 2005, but there were signs all over of its slippage on a variety of fronts at home and abroad. With the exception of the two already mentioned, not too many blockbusters busted blocks this summer; and when the studios took risks, they were not rewarded - David Poland had some interesting insights on this last month when he saw seven films deliver bad news to future risk-takers: "Great young filmmaker. Tough idea. A supportive studio. And when these films flop - or are perceived as flopping - that is when the price is paid."

    If there were something like a Time magazine for cinema, surely Alfonso Cuar�n, Alejandro Gonz�lez I��rritu and Guillermo Del Toro would appear on the cover as "The Three Amigos of the Year." Of course, none of their 2006 films - Children of Men, Babel and Pan's Labyrinth, respectively - are Mexican films; instead, they represent the forefront of a new international cinema that's livelier and more invigorating than, say, many of the Europudding productions of the last couple of decades.

    If I recall correctly (and I could be wrong), South Koreans not only saw more Korean films than American films this year - many commented that The Host is a better genre flick than any Hollywood's come out with in years - they saw more Japanese films as well. And, as noted the other day, Japanese films dominated the Japanese box office for the first time in 21 years.

    As much as I understand Ronald Bergan and others growing sick and tired of hearing about what a great year it was for British cinema, Brits did have a good year on screen, no matter what the nationality of the various production companies involved have been. Besides all the swooning over Helen Mirren, a Brit became the most talked about comic of the year and Bond was back - some say, better than ever. Myself, I'm looking forward to Red Road, London to Brighton and This is England when they come around.

    Back in May, I went on quite a bit about the year as it was going for German cinema - very well - and I'm happy to report that the good news simply kept on rolling right through to the end. 20 percent doesn't sound like much of a showing at the box office for homegrown films, but for Germany, it makes for a pretty good year indeed. Some of those percentage points can be chalked up to Perfume, of course, a massive hit here, though, for me, a film Tom Tykwer co-produced rather than directed betters it considerably. While Perfume concentrates on one half of novelist Patrick S�sskind's formula, vividly conjuring samples of sensory experiences, it either ignores or simply never deigns to grasp the other half, the deeply cynical yet cheerfully grotesque comedy. Ein Freund von mir (A Friend of Mine), on the other hand, knows exactly what it's about: it's a buddy picture, merrily racing through nearly every clich� imaginable on its way toward proving that, in the right hands, it can work regardless. Those hands: Sebastian Schipper, the daring yet confident writer/director, and a superlative cast: J�rgen Vogel as the extrovert, Daniel Br�hl as the introvert and the exquisite Sabine Timoteo as the woman they love.

    How odd and refreshing it was to see Vogel and Timoteo as a couple again - in a comedy. Since I saw it at the Berlinale in February, Der Freie Wille - not a comedy by any means, and the first film to pair Vogel and Timoteo - remained my #1 film of the year, but, as it's simmered in the back of my mind all these months, I have to say Requiem's been giving it a run for its money. In the end, both films are practically built from the ground up on what are unquestionably the two best performances I saw this year, Vogel in Wille and Sandra H�ller in Requiem. I was pleased to see both honored at festivals outside of Germany throughout the year as well.

    The best reason for optimism with regard to German cinema right now, and a reason we can hope without feeling foolish that 2006 has not been some fluke, is that successes have been spread all up and down the scales, from the box office smashes made by populist entertainments like Perfume and the World Cup documentary Deutschland. Ein Sommerm�rchen to the international recognition garnered by the solid thriller The Lives of Others to critical accolades for the likes of Wille and Requiem to the first murmurs heard outside of Germany of new names, ideas and approaches to cinema coming from what some are calling the Berliner Schule.

Time: The Personal Computer and Ted Turner & CNN
  • YouTube was the biz-n-tech film story of 2006, just as surely as the video iPod was in 2005: we don't yet know what either of these technologies are going to mean in the long run, specifically, but we do intuitively sense that both are big, big deals. In YouTube's case, of course, quite literally: Google forked over $1.65 billion for it, and I'm not sure anyone inside or outside Google knows exactly why. But both innovations suggest, however vaguely, significant steps toward the viewing experience of the future, namely: what you want to watch, when, where and how you want to watch it.

    The video iPod addresses questions of access and portability; as long as it keeps evolving towards a sort of glorified USB stick for video (albeit one with a preview window), it'll stay in the running. YouTube addresses questions of creativity and choice. That's quite a different and ultimately more fascinating field to be exploring. Within a few short months, YouTube became a widely popular companion to libraries such as the Internet Archive, UbuWeb and the Video Data Bank, only much more eclectic and user-friendly. But it's also, of course, a haven for moonlighting curators of pop culture, collagists, mash-up artists and vloggers, one of whom, Lonelygirl15 became a star, then an international mystery, then a Wired cover girl. By the way, if I were drawing up a top ten this year, besides Wille and Requiem, YouTubers would be in there somewhere.

    YouTube was also undoubtedly at least an inspiration for Time's choice of "Person of the Year," i.e., "You." The moment I saw that cover, I recalled two other, earlier abstract choices, the personal computer as "Machine of the Year" (for 1982) and Ted Turner as "Man of the Year," which was shorthand for saying that the big story of 1991 was actually CNN. In a way, each represents a powerful, gravity-like pull on the culture at large, each opposed to the other. In the early 90s, we thought we were witnessing CNN act as a catalyst that would bring about, for better and worse, a global culture. The better part had to do with a community of shared values and the focus of the eyes of the world on trouble spots, ensuring that would-be bad guys would behave themselves under all those lights. The worse part had to do with the suffocation of traditional cultural identities.

    Funny thing is, we assumed that the Internet would only speed up this process; more connectivity for a smaller world. Instead, the Internet, all these personal screens and advances in technology across the board have made for not a smaller world, but many smaller worlds - millions of them. We didn't factor in the rise of so many other 24-hour news networks or the fact that a few would take on ideological bents of their own; or that cameras and editing equipment would become sophisticated and cheap enough to make a career in filmmaking a feasible option for millions; or that the Internet would come up with a way to make their work viewable for next to no cost, should they choose to go that route; or that like minds would virtually cluster so intensely that there would be no time to run across anyone with different points of view. I wouldn't be the first to note that this severe nichification is at least partly responsible for the so-called red state/blue state divide in the US to the extent that the bundles of niches on either side don't just disagree; they genuinely do not understand each other.

Old Joy / Young American Bodies
    The proliferation of media and the niches that glom onto them has, in fact, led to the dissolution of the sort of community, at least on a national scale, that Stephanie Zacharek addressed in Salon the other day and which, as Susie Bright notes in a comment, is an all-media "avalanche." At the same time, even as we lament the loss of the sort of phenomenon that would have everybody talking about, say, The Godfather not just for one weekend but for months, how can we not also celebrate the fact that word on a film like Old Joy - and yes, that would have made the list, too, as it was my favorite American film of the year - can spread to proverbial Kansas even if it never screens there, so that, when it comes out on DVD, the proverbial Kansan cinephile will be sure to see it?

    Or that a filmmaker like Joe Swanberg can do what he does - which is his real home, by the way, Chicago or the Internet? Regardless, as much as I admire LOL, for all the reasons I wrote about here, Young American Bodies is the one that would be on that list, too. I would simply add that, for all the frustrations people assume are inherent to the online viewing experience, YAB reminds us that it can also intensify an element of intimacy between you, the single and private viewer, and the work on the screen.

  • Some have suggested in the past, and again this year, that I write up a top ten somewhat in tune with what I do day in and day out here at the Daily - blog posts, movie reviews, articles, or simply, the best film writing of the year. Lord knows, I'd love to read such a list, but unless you're consciously tending to such a project from January through December, I don't see how it could be done, or at least done right. I did, in fact, start clicking through the archives here a few days ago and realized... this glut is insurmountable.

    Even so, more than a few items have left a lasting impression, and I thought it might be a good idea to choose just one. The choice is an easy one: Matthew Clayfield's entry on Adrian Martin. Naturally, I'm hoping you'll read the full entry from top to bottom, but as we slip from 2006 over to 2007, the closing thought there - especially in context, I reiterate - is one I hope we can all hold onto. Adrian Martin writes to Matt:

    [T]here is life apart from cinema, and sometimes climbing a mountain, going on a trip, doing intensive yoga or being in love is entirely more important than watching and writing about another one hundred movies!



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Posted by dwhudson at December 29, 2006 3:10 PM

Comments

Thanks for taking the time to share this with us, David! It's great to read your insights on the year that was, with hints of your cinematic favorites squeezed in here and there (I'm reconfirming my conviction to make Der Freie Wille my #1 must-see of the upcoming Berlin and Beyond festival).

I was particularly moved to reread the quotes by Rosenbaum and Martin in the context you placed them. Here's to a 2007 full of mountain-climbing, love, the Internet, and cinema! (I admit I still need a bit of convincing on the "intensive yoga" front.)

Posted by: Brian at December 29, 2006 4:18 PM

Excellent column, David. As for the Blogathons, I don't think I kicked off the one on Lana Turner...I believe Self-Styled Siren instigated that:

http://selfstyledsiren.blogspot.com/2006/06/lana.html

Posted by: Flickhead at December 29, 2006 4:47 PM

Many thanks, Ray - tweak's been made.

Agreed, re: the yoga, Brian... I'd have to work my way up to the intensive phase, and I'd have a long, long way to go.

Posted by: David Hudson at December 29, 2006 5:07 PM

What a sophisticated response to this past year. I love that post. Back to read it again.

Posted by: Michael Guillen at December 29, 2006 7:12 PM

Thanks for the recap of this year in blogathons! I was trying to find all the links today. I had missed a lot, so I could update from your list. Here is one not on your list : Terry Gilliam.

Your hardwork on GreenCine Daily should be the top bullet-point of this 2006 online appreciation! This live news is amazing and definitely proving the superiority of the internet technology on the press.

Posted by: HarryTuttle at December 30, 2006 1:15 AM

Many thanks for all these kind words - and for the reminder of the Terry Gilliam celebration at film ick.

Happy New Year!

Posted by: David Hudson at December 30, 2006 2:04 AM

David, Thank you so much for sharing your many insights on the film-year. It's a great, bookmarkable read.

Wish you a Happy New Year!

Posted by: girish at December 30, 2006 5:42 AM

Thanks, Girish - I'm looking forward to another year of reading your blog and following the great discussions your entries always spark.

Posted by: David Hudson at December 30, 2006 9:31 AM

Excellent post, David, It has indeed been a brutal year for critics, but one of the silver linings is sites such as yours, which rope together the disparate commmunity of film writers and film enthusiasts. Keep up the good work and best wishes in the new year.

Posted by: Scott Tobias at December 30, 2006 12:05 PM

agreed, great read, thx.

Posted by: noc at December 30, 2006 12:44 PM

David, thanks for putting so many different things in context. Thanks also for the attention and supporting during The House Next Door's first year.

Posted by: Matt Zoller Seitz at December 30, 2006 6:14 PM

Ditto ditto ditto... Great summary of the year, David, and a very entertaining read, as always. You certainly get my vote for blog of the year, and it's clear I'm not alone.

Haven't seen Old Joy yet but agree with your point about the role the Net has played in getting word out about it, and how it will positively impact dvd sales. The big issue will continue to be the shrinking dvd window, and whether these "small" films will be able to sell the dvd quickly enough to take advantage. In the case of docs like mine, that are dependent on funding from broadcasters, the window remains a tough obstacle - if we're lucky enough to even get a theatrical window we have to wait until after the broadcast and then a sizeable holdback period before we can sell the dvd. So internet word of mouth is even more critical, but it's tough to sustain for months and months.

Anyway, much thanks for your ongoing support this year and here's to a great 2007.

Posted by: Doug Block at December 30, 2006 8:44 PM

Regarding the Adrian Martin quote, it pretty much explains why I am currently in Thailand.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at December 31, 2006 12:25 AM

I've never been to Thailand, but word is, it's a great place to life a Real Life. All the best, Peter.

Doug, I can't imagine trying to sustain buzz from, say, SXSW in March all the way through to making AO Scott's top ten list at the end of year - big congrats on that, by the way. It's a well-deserved honor. (Sidenote: I thought of 51 Birch Street again when I pulled up my old copy of Memories of the Ford Administration the other day; maybe that's an odd connection, but maybe not so odd, either.)

At any rate, we're all learning how to deal with not just a new way to distribute and publicize a film, but many, many new ways all at once. Ultimately, more options ought to be a good thing, but I can certainly understand that it also means making some daunting choices. Maybe one possible strategy for some films of limited means is to concentrate less on sustaining a constant sort of buzz and more on a strategy of well-timed waves. Maybe.

Meantime, many thanks, Matt and Scott - having read you guys for years, this means a lot.

Posted by: David Hudson at December 31, 2006 6:35 AM

Eloquent writing; well-expressed from a refreshing viewpoint. And thanks very much for pointing out, without prejudice, such a wealth of articles and viewing tips that might otherwise slip beneath the radar.

Posted by: peter martin at December 31, 2006 8:41 AM

Best to all in the Greencine community--writers, readers, and most of all its dauntless compiler and annotator--for 07.

Posted by: Robert Cashill at December 31, 2006 9:38 AM

David,
This is most interesting. Happy new year, and will be looking forward to much more from you next year.

Posted by: carlos at December 31, 2006 5:39 PM

Thanks for making Green Cine Daily an essential part of my day.

Posted by: Jon Pais at January 1, 2007 8:36 PM