Monday, November 24, 2014

2014 Blind Spots Series: The Wages of Fear (1953)

The Wages of Fear, released in 1953

The premise is simple. Two guys must drive a truck 300 miles across rocky territory to an oil field. The catch is their cargo — unprotected barrels of nitroglycerine that could explode with any minor disruption. There are two trucks, and the prize is $2,000 per person at the end. Only desperate men would tackle a job with such a low chance of success. This situation gives Director Henri-Georges Clouzot the perfect set-up to craft an extremely tense thriller. Released in 1953, The Wages of Fear offers a nihilistic look at human nature. The script from Clouzot and Jérome Geronimi reveals the dark side of modern civilization. The American Southern Oil Company (ASOC) is making huge profits in the Mexican town of Las Piedras, but their gains come with a steep price for the locals. The industrial ruin creates a bleak wasteland that provides the backdrop for this perilous journey.

The opening shot is a kid tormenting bugs, and this ugliness pervades the film. A man throws rocks at dogs, and no one looks happy in this hot and uncomfortable setting. The beautiful Linda (Clouzot‘s wife Véra) stands out in this grim environment, but she’s treated like a subhuman. There’s little humanity in this desolate place, and its remote setting makes it difficult to escape. Mario (Yves Montand) connects with Jo (Charles Vanel) over their French background, and they become friends. They’re among the most aggressive volunteers for the dangerous mission for the ASOC. They end up driving one truck, while the jovial Italian Luigi (Folco Lulli) joins the stoic German Bimba (Peter van Eyck) in the other vehicle. The situation is so desperate that they’ll do anything to get away from it.

Clouzot doesn’t rush into the main plot and gives us time to understand the town. It’s a harsh place where only the oil company finds success. The real victims are the locals, who’ve been manipulated by the ASOC and can only watch as their land dies. Las Piedras resembles a post-apocalyptic town that’s been decimated and sits in ruins. An accident kills 13 workers, and the American company men only care about their investments. Transporting the nitroglycerine is so dangerous that they’re forced to say “to hell with the union!” and pursue other options. Nearly an hour of screen time passes before Mario and the others climb aboard the trucks. It feels like a futile gesture to serve inhuman corporate masters. The financial rewards are great if they succeed, but it's basically suicide.

The Wages of Fear, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

An early conflict at a bar spotlights the problems in Las Piedras. Luigi strolls inside with a big smile on his face and buys drinks for the crowd. This doesn’t sit well with Jo, a former gangster who dislikes everything about the upbeat Italian. The conflict escalates to an ugly showdown that nearly becomes deadly. The close-up shots of their feet and faces bring a horror that something terrible is about to happen. The static shot of the gun holds for a moment, but it feels like an eternity. A question hangs over Jo’s participation. He isn’t picked as a driver but gets the job when another guy doesn’t appear. Did Jo kill him? He seems desperate enough to do anything given the harsh conditions. Jo gives a strong impression, but hints arrive during their trip that it’s really just a brusque façade.

Once the journey begins, the slow pace lifts the tension to nearly unbearable levels. Even the drive out of the ASOC headquarters is nerve-wracking. Any turn of the large tires can lead to immediate death. Armand Thirard’s camera pulls right up to the tires and offers close-up views of each rotation. This intimate perspective of the road creates an ominous atmosphere that reminds us of the risks. Clouzot masterfully creates a sense that survival is highly unlikely for anyone. When the drivers bypass an obstacle, there’s certain to be something worse down the road. The stress on these guys makes a mistake more likely, and even lighter conversations maintain the aura of danger. We’re waiting for the challenge that’s too much, and the deliberately paced editing adds to the portentous tone.

Véra Clouzot in The Wages of Fear

The treatment of women in Wages of Fear is extremely negative and reveals its lack of warmth. Linda loves Mario, and he describes her as “half savage”. When he’s driving away and she tries to convince him to stay, Mario pushes her off the truck and into the mud. Casting his wife as Linda is an interesting move by Clouzot given this unfortunate portrayal. Our first view of Linda shows her cleaning the floor while the camera leers at her. It presents her solely as a sexual object from the start. Mario stands above Linda while she's prone on all fours beneath him. The tone feels similar to a rough Western where the women have a limited purpose. Linda must watch as the man she loves heads towards death and can do little but cry about Mario’s impending fate. He treats her like a nuisance and doesn’t share the feelings enough to care about her sorrow.

An interesting undercurrent is the difference in personalities between Mario and Jo, who plays tough but has lost his nerve. They seem like pals before the journey begins, but the stress changes their relationship. Mario becomes more impetuous and reckless, while Joe becomes so cautious that he can barely react. A telling scene has the younger guy nearly knocking Jo off a cliff while they navigate a narrow perch on the truck. This moment foreshadows both guys’ eventual fates down the road. They find a way to avoid dangerous obstacles, but it’s only a matter of time before something takes them down. Yves Montand was a famous singer and playing his first dramatic role in this film. His focused performance reveals Mario’s skills and why he eventually fails. Charles Vanel was a veteran who’d been working regularly for more than three decades, and you can sense the tension between the actors beyond their characters.

The Wages of Fear

A thrilling sequence involves removing a large boulder that’s blocking their path. Having massive explosives on hand is rarely more essential than at this time. It’s a lengthy build-up to the big moment with Bimba constructing a complex system to destroy the rock. The camera pulls in on the matches and other objects in a brilliant way to convey the stress of this moment. The precision needed to make this tactic work (and avoid fiery deaths) is mind-boggling. Clouzot stretches this scene out to an excruciating length and throws in a few surprises. It feels like a great victory, but there’s still an inevitable feeling that these guys can only flirt with danger for so long. Eventually, their luck will change.

The Wages of Fear faced heavy censorship in the U.S. because of its anti-American stance and nihilistic view of humanity. The cuts removed scenes presenting the difficult lives of the locals and the uncaring feelings of the ASOC. They also deleted moments of “affectionate personal camaraderie” to avoid charges of homosexual themes. It’s unfortunate because these edits mute a lot of the film’s power. It’s a relief to have the opportunity to watch a more complete version through the Criterion DVD. This story is based on a novel by Georges Arnaud and was remade by William Friedkin as Sorcerer in 1977. It’s no shock that a guy like Friedkin was attracted to such a negative worldview. Clouzot finds moments of humanity during the journey, but the end result leaves a hollow feeling about our future. The changes of the industrial age will destroy the world, and even determined individuals can’t stop their inevitable destruction.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Announcing the 2015 Blind Spots Series

The Man with the Movie Camera

The idea of a “blind spot” is tricky because it implies there’s a hierarchy of film fans based on which films you’ve seen. While it’s important to expand your horizons and seek out diverse movies, watching them to check a box is pointless. On the other hand, there’s a benefit in seeking out titles that interest us but were pushed aside for a variety of reasons. These aren’t obscure movies yet have never found their way onto our screens. It’s this reason that has driven me to keep participating in the Blind Spots Series. Last time, I selected 50 choices and had readers select 12 films. The result was an intriguing collection that hasn't included any duds. I’ve used this same process again for my 2015 series.

Thanks to 35 entries from you, I’ve narrowed down my list to 12 clear-cut winners. It was an extremely close vote, and five movies ended up just one vote short of making the group. On the other hand, seven films received just a single vote. I’m sad to say that Action Jackson, The Keep, Above the Law, American Pop, Infernal Affairs 2, and Rolling Thunder landed at the bottom of the rankings. I’m hoping to check out a lot of the options down the road. With a few exceptions, the votes followed no patterns and showed that it would be impossible to make bad choices from these options. Without any more unnecessary discussion, I present to you the 2015 Blind Spots Series:

Dirty Dancing
The Dirty Dozen
First Blood
The Great Dictator
The Host
Man with a Movie Camera
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Wait Until Dark

It didn’t surprise me that Carrie was the leading vote-getter, and seeing The Nightmare Before Christmas and Suspiria in the second and third slots was no shock. Despite its status in the Sight & Sound Top 10, I was a little surprised that Man with a Movie Camera made the cut. Another choice that I didn’t expect was Wait Until Dark even when you consider the star power of Audrey Hepburn. It’s an intriguing group of films that crosses genres and time periods. I really appreciate the support in building this list for 2015. I’ll post my thoughts about each film on the last Tuesday of each month. These pictures have sat on my watch list for years, and I can’t wait to discover them in the upcoming year.

Monday, November 17, 2014

I'm With the Band Marathon: Frank (2014)

Frank, starring Michael Fassbender

Anyone that presents their art on the public stage has a bit of insanity in them. It takes more than talent to risk audience rejection and not lose confidence. Plenty of well-known artists have struggled with mental illness. Robin Williams is a recent example of a guy who received the adulation, but it did little to save him. In the music world, performers have no leeway on the thankless stage. Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) has a rare voice and talent, but I’ve seen firsthand what happens when a concert goes astray. In a certain way, it’s the same insecurities that deliver her best music. It’s all part of the package, and daily tensions drive the art to new heights. Would Kurt Cobain have delivered songs that we still explore today if he was a happy guy with few doubts? While there’s no clear blueprint for art, it’s hard to deny the connection between tormented geniuses and original music.

Questions of mental illness hang over Frank, which depicts an eccentric guy (Michael Fassbender) who performs with a paper-mâché mask over his head. In fact, he wears the mask all the time. Is this a piece of performance art or simply part of his being? Inspired by Frank Sidebottom — the comic alter ego of Chris Sievey — Frank never reveals anything funny about this choice. He goes to diners, performs at clubs, and just lives his life wearing the mask. The script is co-written by Jon Ronson, who played keyboard with Sidebottom’s band in the late ‘80s. We observe the story through the eyes of Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a young keyboardist whose experiences have some connections to Ronson’s real-life history. This mix of reality and fiction brings a strange charm to this film.

We begin with Jon strolling down the streets and looking for songwriting inspirations. It quickly becomes clear that his ideas are limited in this area. When the best subject he can find is a lady’s bag, we aren’t in superstar territory. Despite having few followers for his blog and Twitter account, Jon keeps looking for an opening. I can definitely sympathize with this experience. When you’re just starting a project, any glimpse of interest is a thrilling feeling. Through pure happenstance, Jon meets Don (Scott McNairy) and gets a shot to play keyboards for the Soronprfbs. The gig is one of those unseen indie rock shows where a few curious bystanders passively observe the mess. It only lasts for a few minutes, but there’s a glimpse at something brilliant within the chaos.

Frank, directed by Lenny Abrahamson

Watching the Soronprfbs try to record an album is something to see. Calling it a “disaster” wouldn’t go far enough. The band lives in remote cabins in Ireland and rehearses for nearly a year before they even record a note. Given some stories of bands spending years on a record, this depiction probably isn’t thar far-fetched. Our entry point is Jon, who tries to become one of them and even grows a scraggly beard. He’s the only person intrigued by the commercial prospects for such an odd group. In the world of viral videos and YouTube sensations, Frank wouldn’t be the strangest thing to build a large following. Of course, what he can actually do with that interest is a different question.

The conflict between commercial and artistic success is common for bands that begin with idealistic concepts about their music. Fans want their favorite artists to get a larger following but don’t always recognize what’s connected to that growth. The Goo Goo Dolls toiled for years in clubs and were an energetic (if fairly simple) live act. When they finally made it big, they morphed into something unrecognizable and entirely forgettable. While this fate isn’t likely for Frank, he can’t help but get excited when Jon nabs the Soronprfbs a slot at South by Southwest. Playing for people that actually know them at such a grand event sounds amazing. The danger is stretching too far and inviting destruction.

Michael Fassbender is well-known for big-budget productions like the X-Men films and Prometheus. He might seem out of place in Frank, but that isn’t really the case. Looking at Fassbender’s career, he’s thrived in unconventional parts in films like Shame and Hunger. Frank is different than those guys yet equally challenging. It’s thrilling to watch Fassbender hide behind a mask and continue to stretch his talents. Despite the visual barrier, Frank is a unique character who isn’t a gimmick. When we see his real face in the end, the moment feels earned and delivers a powerful conclusion. It doesn’t really explain the mask yet provides enough to make it understandable.

Frank, starring Michael Fassbender and Maggie Gyllenhaal

There’s a deft mix of comedy and tragedy within Frank, and it doesn’t always connect. Jon is such a dummy, yet we’re stuck with his perspective. His bandmates are standoffish, particularly Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Clara. They have little interest in commercial success and recognize the danger from Jon that Frank doesn’t see. There’s a risk for the filmmakers to create too much distance or make fun of the band. Neither really happens here, and that’s the reason the movie works. When the challenges arrive in Texas, there’s the risk the story will go off the rails. There are so many ways to go wrong, yet Director Lenny Abrahamson sidesteps nearly all of them. It’s an offbeat tale that won’t offer an easy conclusion, and leaving the characters in their rightful places is no easy feat.

The music is surprisingly brief throughout most of the film. We catch glimpses of rehearsals, or something frequently goes wrong to stop the momentum. The exception is the finale, which reveals the rare power that emanates from Frank’s mind. “I Love You All” is an incredible song that closes the movie on just the right note. Despite the artistic success, the band isn’t heading for stardom. Even so, they’re collaborating on the fly and building remarkable music. Frank’s powerful voice sounds clearer than ever, and we really hear him for the first time. The story closes on just the right note and reveals their strength as a unit, no matter what obstacles arrive down the road.

Monday, November 10, 2014

I'm With the Band Marathon: Not Fade Away (2012)

Not Fade Away, directed by David Chase

I have a recurring dream where I’m tasked with playing live in a familiar band. The locations are usually random; it once involved a concert in my neighbors’ driveway with the Reverend Horton Heat. The scenario typically follows a certain pattern. I get up on stage and start into the songs and then realize that I have no idea how to play guitar. This isn’t really a nervous dream since we somehow still manage to create the music. It relates more to a subconscious interest in making a band. This is hardly a rare idea; anyone with even a modest interest in music has probably dreamed of being a rock star. Countless movies have depicted young idealists who only care about becoming successful. A few of them succeed, but most fall into the standard rise-and-fall narrative. Talent isn’t enough in a business that’s constructed on the artifice of what makes a “real” rock band. There’s a reason that so few have reached the apex of stardom.

Depicting young artists is easier when they’re real-life stars. We know where Johnny Cash or Joan Jett is heading. There’s an inevitable movement to their stories that keeps us engaged. On the other hand, there’s no sense they’re really going to fall short. Ray Charles may struggle with drug addiction, but we know his ultimate destination. The benefit in presenting characters that aren’t real music legends is the unknown aspects of the story. Of course, this mystery only works if the people are interesting. The aspiring rocker may seem cool in the movie’s world, but it’s wise not to alienate the audience. Giving a young actor a sharp haircut and hipster sunglasses can only take him so far.

Not Fade Away John Magaro

This challenge is everywhere in David Chase’s Not Fade Away, which chronicles a young man from working-class roots who joins a band. It’s a warm look at the ‘60s through some of its best music, yet its success hinges on the self-centered guy. John Magaro plays Douglas, a quiet teen who finds his place with rock ‘n’ roll. His timing is perfect and coincides with the rise of The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. The band gives him a sense of purpose, but it also lifts his ego into an unflattering zone. Douglas may feel engaged, but he’s become someone even less inspiring. When the band performs for a record producer (Brad Garrett), it’s hard to care. It’s clear they aren’t ready, but it doesn’t feel tragic. The constructive feedback that they need to pay their dues is accurate. It takes more than playing house parties for friends to become professional musicians.

This scene recalls a similar moment from Inside Llewyn Davis, where the weary title character (Oscar Isaac) takes his shot. In that case, he’s clearly a skilled musician but there isn’t “money in it”. The direct reply from Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) is tragic because we know Llewyn’s skills and his limitations. His refusal to join a trio is frustrating because his stubbornness will be his undoing. By that point, I was engaged by his story and felt the rejection with him. There’s little of that feeling with Douglas. Instead, the band’s inability to recognize the truth is irritating. They’ve been wooed by stardom yet have no interest in working for it. There’s a similarity with Llewyn’s response, but it feels completely different because these guys haven’t earned our respect.

Not Fade Away, starring James Gandolfini

Not Fade Away has many connections with Chase’s young life in Mount Vernon, New York. There’s a love for this time period from a guy who grew up in this era. Along with the interest in music, the family dynamics connect to his teenage life. The relationship between Douglas and his father Pat (James Gandolfini) is tumultuous because their world views are so different. It’s a tricky performance for Gandolfini because he’s playing the familiar trope of the angry parent who doesn’t understand his son. The working-class guy takes out his frustrations on Douglas and has little joy in his life. A conversation near the end shows Pat in a different light, but it’s so out of left field that it feels comical. It’s a dreary existence and starts becoming repetitive with conflicts on the same issue.

An exception is the music, carefully prepared by Chase and Steven Van Zandt with more than the obvious songs. The soundtrack includes Lead Belly, The Left Banke, The Small Faces, and other notable artists. The film’s best scene has the band rehearsing in a basement and joining together one by one to play “Bo Diddley”. The melodic hooks and upbeat drums do an excellent job showing what attracts them to playing together. Chase maintains the one shot and revels in the creation of the art. Douglas begins as the drummer and only gets the chance to sing through pure chance. His first moment on stage to sing “Time is On My Side” shows his talent, if only for a fleeting moment. The guys spend more time squabbling then creating memorable songs. That performance works because Magaro shows the uncertainty for Douglas in taking center stage. We don’t get the same feeling once he’s become the front man and lost sight of what originally inspired him.

Not Fade Away, starring Bella Heathcote

An inevitable part of any rock fable is the love story, and Douglas' role in the band helps him woo a girl he’s pined over for many years. Grace (Bella Heathcote) comes from the other side of the tracks, and she’s drawn to rock musicians. A key early scene shows her watching Mick Jagger perform and gazing at him longingly. Grace may feel a bond with Douglas, but it’s his place on stage that draws her. When they travel to California near the end, it’s doubtful they’ll stick together for long. How can he compete with icons that have actually made it? Of course, it’s too easy to let Douglas off the hook for issues in their relationship. He seems more concerned with being cool than listening to her ideas. There’s a subplot involving Grace’s sister Joy (Dominique McElligott) that never really gets off the ground. Her fate shows the generational rift but does little to further the main story.

The real challenge in connecting with Not Fade Away is Douglas. His facial expression reveals a guy who’s trying to be someone, and it isn’t convincing.  Does Chase intend us to think of Douglas as a phony? If so, then the awkward mannerisms from Magaro are at least understandable. It’s still tricky to identify with his journey, however. We don’t have to love the guy, but it’s hard to find much reason to spend any time with him. The music keeps us afloat for a while and livens up the environment, yet it can only do so much. The final scene with Douglas’ sister Evelyn (Meg Guzulescu) breaking the fourth wall is an interesting move. Her appearance helps frame the events as a rock ‘n’ roll myth. Douglas fades into our memory while his sister dances away to the Sex Pistols’ performing “Roadrunner”. The torch is passed to a new generation, and that cycle continues today.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The 10 Best Superhero Movies of All Time Blog Relay

Batman Begins, directed by Guillermo Del Toro

What more can anyone say about superhero movies? They’re quickly becoming the dominant force in big-budget Hollywood filmmaking, and there are no signs those trends will change anytime soon. Marvel recently announced a large slate of upcoming releases going all the way to 2019. They’re planning ahead and keep drawing huge crowds with each subsequent release. Warner Bros. and DC are jumping into the act and have announced movies all the way to 2020. This situation is getting out of control! Despite my concerns of overkill, I have enjoyed many superhero movies over the years. There’s room for great drama and entertainment if the right creative forces are involved.

One of the experts on superhero movies is Bubbawheat from Flights, Tights, & Movie Nights. In fact, his entire site is devoted to the genre. One of his projects is the 10 Best Superhero Movies of All Time Blog Relay. He’s set up an intricate system for a group of writers to determine the top movies in this segment. Once the popular choices are locked, there’s nothing that an individual can do to change their fate. I’ve been tagged by Steven Flores of Surrender to the Void to participate in this relay. I’m the 16th contributor and arriving with many picks set in stone. Even so, I still have a chance to help choose the final entries. Here are Bubbawheat’s rules for this project:

1. The list of movies will be passed to another blogger who will post their list within a week.
2. The blogger will take their list, remove 3 movies – with explanations, and replace with 3 new movies – with explanations.
3. If a movie lasts five rounds without being removed, it becomes locked in; it is permanent and can no longer be removed from the list.
4. If a movie is removed three different times, it is locked out and can no longer be put back onto the list by someone else.
5. Once four movies are locked into place, bloggers will replace 2 movies.
6. Once eight movies are locked into place, bloggers will replace 1 movie.
7. The relay will be complete when a blogger decides to keep the 10th movie in its 5th round to create the final list of 10.

The only movie that’s been locked out is Captain America: The Winter Solider. I’m okay with not having that option despite my enjoyment of it. All other films are fair game, besides the nine choices that are now locked into place. This means that only one final entry remains before the relay is complete. My decision is crucial in helping to determine which last contender makes the cut or falls just short. Here are the superhero movies that have already secured a spot in the exclusive club:

The Avengers, directed by Joss Whedon

The Avengers

Blade 2, starring Wesley Snipes

Blade 2

The Dark Knight, directed by Christopher Nolan

The Dark Knight

The Incredibles

The Incredibles

Iron Man, starring Robert Downey Jr. and directed by Jon Favreau

Iron Man

The Rocketeer, starring Billy Campbell

The Rocketeer

Spider-man 2, directed by Sam Raimi

Spider-man 2

Unbreakable, starring Bruce Willis


X2, directed by Bryan Singer

X2: X-Men United

While a few of these choices might not make my list, it’s hard to argue too strongly against them. Three films are currently in contention for the final spot, and I’ll be adding one more to the group. I also must pick which one of them to kick to the curb, at least for now. Before I reveal the loser, here are my options:

Batman Begins, starring Christian Bale

Batman Begins

Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy

Superman, directed by Richard Donner

Superman: The Movie

I love all three of these movies, so there’s no obvious choice to toss in the trash. Batman Begins grabbed the top spot in my Top 5 Superhero Movies, so that isn’t going anywhere. I maintain that it’s the best of the trilogy, though it’s a close competition with The Dark Knight. Superman hasn’t aged so well, but it has charm and provides a great origin story for the character. It also has Christopher Reeve, who remains the quintessential screen version of the character. I caught up with Guardians of the Galaxy last month, and it was one of the most entertaining movies that I’ve seen this year. This is tough! This job takes hard choices, so I must use this great power wisely and make the best available use.

Guardians of the Galaxy

What Goes Out: Guardians of the Galaxy
My choice for this removal says nothing about the quality of the movie. Guardians is just too recent of a release to place within all-time rankings. There’s no question that it’s an entertaining adventure, but it just arrived this summer. It needs to build staying power and retain its charm on a second viewing. Despite its financial and creative successes, we don’t know how it will look in a few years. I can see the merit with including it in this top 10, but the other choices both are more deserving at this time.

Hellboy 2: The Golden Army

What Goes In: Hellboy 2: The Golden Army
The current list includes some great films, but we need more offbeat humor and Guillermo Del Toro’s creativity (for the second time) within this group. His sense of fun and visual skills are everywhere in this true gem. Guillermo Navarro’s cinematography is stunning, and Ron Perlman is a perfect Hellboy. The troll market sequence is one of those rare examples in the CGI era of fantastical creatures that stay down to earth. That mix of wondrous magic and relatable characters makes Hellboy 2 the top choice for this list.

While Batman Begins inches closer to the coveted final spot, I’m ready to pass the baton to another contributor. My choice for this prized role is the great Nick Jobe from Your Face!. Nick, the fate of the world (or at least this list) is now in your hands.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Make Your Choices for the 2015 Blind Spots Series!

Memories of Murder, directed by Bong Joon-ho

One of my main reasons for starting this blog was to fill in the gaps in my film knowledge. The marathon structure allowed me to dig into zones that I’d hesitated to touch in the past. While the site’s format has evolved during the past few years, that goal is still part of the overall mindset. I’ve found the monthly Blind Spots Series helpful in ensuring that I’m catching up on movies that deserve my attention. I’ve participated in this project for the past three years and taken a different route each time. Last year, I stole Ryan McNeil’s idea to have the readers select their choices from a predetermined list. It worked out really well last time, so I'm doing the same thing again for 2015. While his options this year were extensive, I’ve restricted mine to 50 films. Without choosing the exact selections myself, this approach allows me to shape the general theme of the list.

I’ve spent considerable time recently pondering the goals of this site and what I’d like it to be in the future. This process has impacted the options developed for this series. For the most part, I’ve chosen movies that excite me and aren’t included to check a box. Some are genre films that would make few people’s lists of their favorite movies of all time. I don’t think the Action Jackson and Commando will be making the Sight & Sound list in 2022. It’s a diverse group from around the world that should lead to an entertaining ride each month. There are classics in the mix like Man with a Movie Camera, Patton, and The Great Dictator. None of these sound like work, which is the key. I’ve also incorporated genres where I’m still behind like musicals, horror, and animated films.

Your task is very simple, dear readers:

The voting will remain open for several weeks to allow you enough time to make your choices. I’ll announce the 2015 list in late November and start preparing for another strong year of movie watching. It won’t be easy for the new crop of films to live up to the 2014 selections. You should also be sure to check out Ryan’s monthly compilations of bloggers’ posts in the ongoing series at The Matinee. The participation continues to increase, and it’s interesting to note how differently each writer approaches their blind spots. Thanks in advance for your assistance in this venture!

Check out all the posts from the 2014 Blind Spots Series by clicking here

Friday, October 31, 2014

The World That I See: State of the Blog Edition

Wong Kar Wai's 2046

During the past month, I’ve slowed down the posting frequency for this blog and spent a lot of time pondering its existence. Like most creative endeavors, the site has morphed into something much different than where it began. It’s been thrilling to discover great films and connect with so many intelligent people in the online film community. I had little understanding of what the site would become and didn’t expect to enjoy blogging so much. I started posting four to five times a week, and keeping up with that pace was a constant goal. Somewhere along the line, the site reached a tipping point and started feeling like a job. I want to continue this project but must change to make it worthwhile again.

Although I’ve never considered the blog as a stepping stone to being a professional critic, it’s hard not to look for validation. There have been three times this year where I hoped to expand my online presence. The first example was applying for the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS), which seemed like a no brainer. It was a long process to get a juried response, and the reasons for the rejection were all over the map. I also inquired about participating in the Criticwire Survey, which gives online critics a chance to respond to a timely question about the movie world. This seemed like a long shot, but the lack of any answer was disconcerting. Finally, I hoped to cover the upcoming St. Louis International Film Festival by reviewing screeners prior to the festival. I located the right contact through a Twitter acquaintance and sent an inquiry. This request also was met with no reply, and that dismissal surprised me.

I mention these examples not to gain sympathy but to offer context for my thinking. That outreach was part of plans to strive for something more. Instead of bringing new opportunities, the results raised questions about the entire effort. My writing has improved, but there are thousands of similar sites. When you add in a full-time job, friends and family, and just trying to enjoy life, more time in front of a screen was less exciting. Beyond the external audience, was watching movies and writing about them still satisfying? That is the most important question in this endeavor. I don’t have an easy answer, and I’m definitely not ready to quit. Instead, I’ve decided to enact this solution:

Stop trying to be a film critic.

This choice may sound like I’m retreating, but it’s actually the exact opposite. I’ve often felt pressure for not seeing the movies that I “should” see. There are hundreds of worthy films released each year, and catching even a portion of them is difficult. When you add in trying to review them, it becomes impossible. This environment has led me to put together short reviews that have solid writing, but say very little. If I’m going to continue this blog, I must recognize that it’s okay to bypass obvious trends.

Once Upon a Time in the West

What’s strange about writing a personal blog is setting up deadlines that seem essential, but are really just markers. Instead of exploring a movie, I’m writing to meet an arbitrary date. Creating a schedule is important to keep the site flowing, but it can constrict the posts. By choosing to follow the rule above, I’m hoping to focus more on content. Why not take the time to do a more detailed post instead of a quick review? I’ve already moved in that direction by not having ratings and avoiding plot summaries, but there still are boundaries keeping the pieces in a certain format. This leads me to my second solution:

Slow down the writing process.

It’s important to get my thoughts down quickly after watching a movie. However, that doesn’t mean that publishing should happen soon afterwards. There’s a term called Slow Blogging that refers to a choice to ride against the stream of constant information. It’s hardly a new idea; the New York Times wrote a story back in 2008. Even so, the approach seems just right in my current stage of life. I have two young girls and want to spend as much time with them as possible. I’ve also been working to get healthier, and cramming in a quick blog post around other activities rarely works. It diminishes the quality of my writing and leads to stress and disappointment. It’s time to create a better balance.

Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes

When I think back to my favorite posts on this site, most of them are detailed essays that I spent weeks putting together. The short reviews barely register; it’s the more thoughtful pieces that stick in my mind. Doing a standard review of Skyfall was okay, but digging into it for several thousand words was much better. I’m not an expert on form, so it takes some time for visual themes and devices to make sense. Letting my mind ponder a movie can only help the blog. The number of posts may be smaller, but the results won’t feel like I’m checking a box. This leads to my final solution:

Diversify the content.

This evolution started earlier this year with a weekly look at Deadwood and several posts about Stargate Universe. I’ll keep doing marathons, but they’ll employ a looser format. The topics also may stray further into TV, books, and themed entertainment. The goal is to avoid falling into predictable patterns. I’m also trying to keep the subjects engaging for me. If I’m not excited to watch a movie or TV series, it’s going to carry over into the writing. It’s been so refreshing to blog about Survivor for Rob Cesternino’s site during the past two seasons. The community supporting RHAP loves the show, and connecting with them has been great. I’m engaged with the show, and writing never feels like work.

I want to develop a similar feeling about my writing for this site. I don’t have illusions that these choices will lead to more readers. There are so many blogs discussing films, and even having a small audience is inspiring. The current blogging environment is much different than where it was in March 2011 when I started the blog. Sites that were social centerpieces for many have become less influential. It’s just part of the ebb and flow of the Internet age. We’re all still figuring out what we can do, and new forms of content delivery keep changing the game. Professional critics are doing similar soul searching. It’s an exciting time for connecting with people around the globe. The challenge is ensuring that whatever we do is satisfying to each of us. I’m hopeful that these adjustments and others down the road will make this blog something that keeps inspiring me well into the future.