The Naughts: The Critics of the ’00s

The Naughts: The Critics of the ’00s (photo)

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Film criticism as we know it tends to fall into a handful of time-worn categories: an expression of one’s personality, politics and taste, with traces of social critique and memoir (Pauline Kael, James Agee); or a kind of performance art on the page, using individual films, actors or filmmakers as springboards for sustained riffs on art and life (Manny Farber); or a scholarly attempt to draw connections between films and film movements, rank filmmakers by aesthetic significance and put works in historical context (Andrew Sarris).

All these approaches have merit. But when you zoom out from the here-and-now and think about what cinema is — about its dazzling totality, and the characteristics that distinguish it from novels or plays or paintings or dance or music, all of which feed, and are fed by, cinema — you’re struck by how much we’re not reading about, by how much our critics either can’t see or are not inclined to look for. Critics tend to fixate on content, as if film criticism were a book report or an op-ed piece. Form goes begging. And that’s nuts. If anything, the emphasis should be reversed. To quote Martin Scorsese, “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.”

David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson have turned Scorsese’s maxim into a career. The husband-wife team of film critics and scholars teach at the University of Wisconsin, publish books, maintain an indispensable and routinely astonishing blog, and lecture regularly at film festivals around the world. They’re strangers to the general public, but well known (if not always properly appreciated) by aficionados of film history and technique. Their great book “Film Art: An Introduction” — originally published in 1979, republished in a seventh edition in 2003 — is an indispensable primer on the history of screen composition, photography and editing, the cinema equivalent of Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style.”

Bordwell’s 2006 book “The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies” is the definitive work on the evolution of English-language film storytelling. Thompson’s “Storytelling in Film and Television” (2003) is just as strong. Bordwell’s 2005 “Figures Traced in Light” — about the evolution of film acting, and directors’ attempts to frame and shape performance — is the best survey of blocking on film and all the factors (photographic process, shifting social mores, movie star egos) that affect it.

12032009_bordwell8.jpgAnd that’s just a smattering of the team’s output. Between their books and their blog, Bordwell and Thompson publish more original, engrossing, often startling work in a year than most critics manage in a lifetime. Their specialty is writing about form plus content and how one fuels the other; with mainstream film criticism as we know it being so boringly literary, at times it seems they’re just about the only accessible mainstream film writers who still care. (One conspicuous exception is Jim Emerson, who blogs on Roger Ebert’s web site).

But they aren’t boring statisticians or trivia buffs. They cut to the heart of what movies are and what they do to us. They speculate on how a filmmaker’s creative choices produce (or aim to produce) certain emotional and intellectual responses in the viewer, often using screenshots, quotes from critics and historians, and even hard scientific data to support their claims. Then they go further, writing about how the symbiotic, ever-shifting relationship between filmmakers and viewers drives the medium forward over time — and about how a movie might not have produced a certain personal response, or had a lasting cultural or artistic impact, if not for what came before that.

Bordwell and Thompson’s approach reverses the usual critical strategy of formulating a thesis — sex is the new violence, TV drama is better than movies — then looking for films and filmmakers that “prove” it. (Thompson slags off this approach in the introduction to her 1988 book “Breaking the Glass Armor”: “Preconceived methods, applied simply for demonstrative purposes, often end by reducing the complexity of films.”) Instead, Bordwell and Thompson start by looking — actually looking, with open minds — at movies. Then they think about what the movies are saying and how they’re saying it. Then they compare the perceived statement to what movies used to say and how they used to say it. Then they try to figure out what factors (in the industry, in technology, in the culture at large) might account for the shift.

This description makes Bordwell and Thompson sound overly dry and scientific, and their writing is largely bereft of the glib pop zip that’s become nearly mandatory in the post-Kael era. But their simple (but never simplistic) output is thrilling in a different way because it teaches. It gives the reader tools to arrive at his or her own understanding and then apply that understanding to the act of watching films. Their work has aspects of social observation, industry criticism and personal axe-grinding. But these aspects are subtle and they tend to emerge long after you’ve read an article — often weeks later while you’re watching a film, noticing something you hadn’t noticed before, and realizing that you wouldn’t have noticed it if Bordwell and Thompson hadn’t warned you to keep an eye out.

12042009_Transformers2.jpgBordwell’s writing on “intensified continuity” has been especially valuable. He crystallized the term in a 2002 Film Quarterly article, then elaborated on it in books, including “Poetics of Cinema.” It describes a relatively new (and now pervasive) type of storytelling with fragmented visuals and quick editing — one that that prizes “energy” over everything else and supplants classical filmmaking techniques (careful compositions and editing, purposeful and thematically apt camera movements) with what my colleague Steven Boone calls a “snatch-and-grab” approach. In films that employ intensified continuity, intense physicality is conveyed not with carefully positioned shots that capture an entire action, but in a barrage of snippets — a flurry of motion signifying that two people are shooting at each other or that somebody got hit by a car. Think Steven Spielberg vs. Michael Bay, or “Raiders of the Lost Ark” vs. “Transformers 2”; or, if you prefer, a scalpel vs. a weed-whacker.

Intensified continuity isn’t just used in action and suspense pictures, Bordwell says; it gets applied to simple exposition as well. “Conversation scenes [now] feature very little movement of actors around the set,” Bordwell writes, in a piece that shows how Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” exemplifies the new way of making films, and compares the film unfavorably to its source material, “Infernal Affairs” and “Infernal Affairs 2.” (Just because your work evokes a Scorsese quote doesn’t mean you can’t spank Scorsese.) “Performers sit or stand and deliver their lines in isolated shots (singles) or over-the-shoulder (OTS) setups. The visual stasis is compensated for by lots of cutting, camera movements, and tight close-ups.” Not content to announce the bottom line and expect the reader to trust his accounting, Bordwell shows his math. This benign obsessive actually turned on his DVD player, sat there in front of a monitor with a stopwatch and timed the shot length in several Scorsese films made over a period of 33 years, then compiled a little chart showing how the average length of a shot in a Scorsese film has dropped from 7.7 seconds (in 1973’s “Mean Streets”) to 2.7 seconds (“The Departed,” 2006).


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.