Saturday, September 15, 2012

Evaluation Calibration

I’m always interested to observe how watching so many films in a row affects my judgment. The first films I get to see have an automatic start-up bonus: I’m eager, excited, willing to take in everything with open eyes and lots of faith in the festival’s programming decisions. But soon, distinctions crop up, what looked like good films become relativized by better films, or films that didn’t work so well for me during the screening begin to grow on me as I compare them to later fare. It’s like a crash course in aesthetic judgment, a training school for evaluating films quickly, decisively (and then revising those evaluations again). For example, I watched a stretch of several films in a row that I considered middling or fair for no particular reason until the encounter with Noah Baumbach’s lovely Frances Ha  made me look back and ask: why hasn’t anyone else had the impulse to shoot in black and white? Why weren’t the editors of any of those other films as awake in the cutting room as Jennifer Lame, Baumbach’s not-at-all lame editor? Why can’t more films take chances on narration in similar ways, speeding things up to condense a whole family-Christmas-visit into 3 minutes but then slowing them down to draw out a dinner party until the protagonist’s self-absorbed ramblings grate as much on the audience as on the other characters (an effect that is fully intentional and put to fantastic use in the film’s overall approach to tone and character)? So after Baumbach’s film, I’m suddenly re-thinking all the other films I’ve seen in terms of cinematography, editing, pacing, and narrative. But then I ask myself: are these really my criteria, can any one film provide a yardstick for measuring all others? Yesterday’s encounter with the aftermath of revolution in Egypt in After the Battle wouldn’t have held up terribly well under this lens (the female lead is almost too likeable for the film’s own good, the editing is fairly conventional, though there are some effective cinematographic flourishes…); and yet I found it a very powerful film for its differentiated, nuanced, and presumably only lightly fictionalized look at the epicenter of the Arab Spring in Tahrir Square through the lens of class and gender. In other words, I notice shifting not only my judgment of particular films around until they form certain patterns of value in my mind; rather, I also constantly recalibrate the very criteria by which I evaluate individual films as opposed to others: am I judging a film by how it looks and feels? By its theme or content? On formal, aesthetic grounds? Of course, it’s never just one thing, but watching such widely different offerings as After the Battle and Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa, an American-Japanese historical epic (Emperor) and the ruckus of a multi-hour bus ride through the Bronx (Michel Gondry’s impressive The We and the I), a German biopic (Hannah Arendt) and Baumbach’s character portrait of Frances Ha in the space of a couple of days is an excellent lesson in reflecting on and trying to articulate (at least for myself) what makes a good film.

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