Month: October 2009

Transformers shooting down movie critics

Transformers 2PARIS – When I argued, a few months ago, against using popularity rankings to judge the quality of a film, I did so out of a love for film. Today, the emblem of the popularity vs quality debate is Transformers 2 (which I have not seen). What makes this particular film more interesting than others like it, is that there is a near unanimity about its lack of merits. But people still go to see it, presumably thinking that with more robots and more of Megan Fox and it being a success – it can not be too bad. And then, inevitably, the audience is surprised to find that the film is actually bad! But so many people went, in fact, that the film has already hit the 9th place of top grossing films of all times in the USA! You can not help but wonder: Why?

It is hard to quantify how determined people must be to go in, despite having heard and read things like Roger Ebert’s a “horrible experience of unbearable length”; or Quinn from The Independent resorting to “boring, preposterous nonsense”. It would seem that the audience has shut itself off from all criticism. We could also turn to Ebert and Quinn and ask them why they bothered to review such a film at all? The audience obviously does not care, in this case at least, what the critics think. The divide between the critics and the audience has never seemed so wide, with people already proclaiming the death of movie reviewing.

Let us go back in time to look at the development of the interplay of critic and audience to see what is happening and how we got here. The two camps were once clearly marked, with newspapers hiring educated people with insight and writing skills to come up with critical reviews. The critics were in competition amongst each other, being judged by other film fans. Over the last decade, the internet gained so much ground that it is becoming a universal medium. The internet offers everyone the possibility to voice their opinion on a film, competing with the paid reviewers of the newspapers. Now that you can put the two groups side by side, what do we see happen?

The audience accuses the critics of forgoing the pleasure of movie-watching in exchange for pretentious analysis. The critics, in the their turn, feel that if you are not going to “really watch” the film, what is the point in writing about it? It might be added that the critics have seen too many films to be able to rave about a copy-paste production, making them pretentious in the eyes of the more indulgent young cinema-goer. This feeds the separation of critic and audience which has become so wide that we have reached this point where the press is clearly irrelevant to the success of this film Transformers 2. This is not a co-incidence. I think the critics misunderstand the films they are reviewing, at least they misunderstand their role.

People do not go to see the film because it is any good (the critics are not wrong). People go to see the film because it is the “hype” of the moment, it gives them something to discuss in a world where television is losing ground through over-production. There is no specific channel airing programmes everybody will have seen the following day, TV viewers can have been watching anything. Similarly with music – there is so much choice, what should you be listening to? Transformers 2, and other such commercial splash-outs, are the common culture. They give you not only something to discuss, unpretentiously, but it is also a guide in music choice, fashion and even political ideology. And they are international. In a globalized world, these films offer “something” in common between people. Whining about how bad the latest commercial film is, is a shared pastime. It is a pleasant and easy subject of conversation between people of different (sub)cultures.

Even besides actually discussing a film, one can say “Optimus Prime” or “Voldemort” in conversation and get away with it. It creates a shared global culture out of nothingness – “agile like a Jedi, but tall as a Hobbit”, without risking the embarrassment of ignorance on a reference to Mr Darcy’s fate. Of course film references in conversation are often silly, but then that is part of the appeal. Calling Human Resources the “Dementor of the office”, or referring to the consultants as the “Men in Black” will be understood.

It is also about what constitutes “public knowledge”. It would be a stretch to assume, even in France, that people know what is in the old French national library now, but you can easily presume that everyone knows that people speak “Chti” up north (thanks to Bienvennue chez les Chti’s).

For a film to be able to take on these roles, as leaders in conversation fluff or assessments of public knowledge or opinion, a film must be a huge success. But not only that, but advertised as such. These are commercial films we are talking about. Audiences will still want to read reviews on Sin Nombre (Mexican gangstar love story) but critics can perhaps give Lucky Luke a miss – although a lot of fun, it is the audience which will decide whether or not they go, irrespective of any critic’s vision.

It would make sense for movie reviews of commercial films to be replaced by press releases, advertisements and the audience’s comments (“It was like awesome”), as they are consumer goods which fit a product launch and life cycle. This sounds somewhat depressing, but it is actually just a more realistic approach then writing crushing reviews for films (such as Transformers 2) which lack the pretension of quality. Someday movie reviewing may even become the distinguishing criterion – if it is taken seriously by the critics (positively or negatively) the film belongs in the category of art and culture rather than in commerce. And that would not be such a bad thing.


La Vida Loca

LaVidaLocaLa Vida Loca
Christian Poveda :: France, Mexico, Spain :: 2009 :: 1h30

In stark contrast to the tranquility of the little painted houses in a tree-lined suburban housing estate in El Salvador, a violent gang culture permanently kills, maims or has jailed the young of the community. With a rate of 9 murders a day amongst the young, the country is caught in a massive gang feud. The gangs, and the feud, originate from the 1980s run-down south central Los Angeles. The problem could have been contained, considers Poveda, were it not that in 1996, the US government (under Clinton) decided to send 100,000 convicted gang members from US prisons to central America. Combined with a foreign policy of supporting dictatorships and financing civil wars, the scene has been set for human tragedy.

The fearless photographer and documentary-maker Christian Poveda submerges himself into central America a decade later, into the underbelly of society. He managed to get permission from the Salvadorian police and one of the gangs, the “18”, to follow them in their lives. Four years later, La Vida Loca sees the light, taking you along the path of violent outcasts of society. And it is very different to what you might imagine.

The documentary takes us from the unfolding of someone’s life to their funeral after a shooting. It is an endless spiral of gang violence, with seemingly no point to the gang war whatsoever, other than that of having an enemy to unite them. Joining a gang is not even an alternative employer for the poor, as the gang does not offer any external symbols of success (wealth, privilege, whatever). In fact, the gang does not seem to offer anything at all but the prospect of death, jail or invalidity. Hardly the attractive option, but these youths are already broken by their lives. And change becomes inevitable with the gang tattoos (voluntary or forced) marking their allegiance. Once you are have your face covered in tattoos, you can no longer send your CV anywhere. They can not back down.

The film lets the youths talk for themselves. They talk about their broken pasts, of growing up without the guiding support of a family. They speak of the love they get from the gang. They talk, with a peculiar detachment, of passing from one social service (juvenile detention) to another (jail), exposing an existential loneliness at the impoverished fringe in which they live. The gang might not offer the flash of fast cars, bikinis and swimming pools, but it does offer loyalty, stability and a shared suffering. The love of the gang is a love which fills an emotional void, giving them a sense of belonging amongst their peers. The gang is so much an end in itself that its members do not even fear death for it, but rather they expect it. The gang is not the path to wealth, status or happiness but rather a goal in itself. An end. But their fearlessness does not come from a feeling of superiority, what you might expect, but rather from an all-round stunted emotional development born out of their misery. They are phlegmatic, almost accepting their fate as a given. And hence they can tattoo themselves, as a confirmation of their fate, as whatever should befall them would befall them anyway.

But some do try. Christian Poveda follows a re-insertion programme, where ex-gang members try to set up a bakery. We see them, the tattoo-ed ex-bullies, kneading the dough, we know they are serious about doing the right thing, of trying to improve their lives despite expectations. We see them pray, and talk with priests, but it is as if the words just float over their heads. When push comes to shove, who knows what they will do.

As tragic as the lives of the gang members are, as surprising it is to see that there is a normal society outside the walls of their lives. When they get hurt, they find themselves in a capable hospital, with all health services paid for by the state. When they find themselves in court, they are confronted with seemingly capable legal actors. When they are confronted with the police, they seem professional and organised. You might expect the gangsters to be aggressive ego-tripping characters, perhaps even with dubious contacts in the judiciary, but they are not like that at all. At least, they are not presented that way. When they are stopped by the police, they let themselves be searched or taken. When in court, they hear the court’s verdicts stoically, accepting their fate as givens. Of course it is that same stoicism which makes them untouchable, even from punishment. Everything is pointless.

Seeing the film today, so shortly after director Christian Poveda was shot dead in El Salvador, makes the film all the more moving. It is a unique chance to meet people you will never meet, and hear words you will never hear spoken. A look into a violent, criminal subculture normally hidden from view. A testament to a culture which so badly needs understanding, to, hopefully, one day rest in the past.

Sin Nombre

sin_nombreSin Nombre

Cary Fukunaga :: USA, Mexico :: 2009 :: 1h36

Sayra is picked up in Honduras by her father, who she barely knows, to take her up north with him to New Jersey (USA). Without money and without papers. Once on her rough and dangerous journey to a prospective better life, she meets the young Mexican gangster Willy. The young man, nicknamed Casper, had grown up in the violent Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS) gang. Their stories begin to intertwine as Casper slowly but surely turns his back on the gang, and Sayra takes his hand so they can run together.

Sin Nombre (“without a name”) drags us through the underbelly of society, along the railway tracks, with the aspiring immigrants, the profiteers, and the omni present gangsters. The dangerous journey they embark on, is one which will define their lifetime. For Sayra, if she makes it to her family in New Jersey, she will be at the beginning of her new life as an illegal immigrant. However it turns out, her story will have started with that continental crossing, on the roof of that train. For Willy, who knows he can not outrun his Casper shadow, his future is as uncertain as the whims which control the life and death of a gangster.

Carefully put together with an excellent cast, Sin Nombre is as a fictional companion to La Vida Loca, with the wider perspective of poverty and migration in North America. Long after you have left the film, you will still see the train cutting through the countryside with, on the roof, a mass huddled together dreaming of a better future for themselves. A dream, which survives through the hardships and cruelty of the world. A tough watch.