I really loved MSN’s “Most Taxing People in Film” feature. Besides the fact that they picked on several of my own pet scapegoats — Michael Bay, Ron Howard, Jennifer Aniston — there were some very thoughtful pieces on people I genuinely like… or at least have no particular problem with. To wit, Jim Emerson’s summation of Christopher Nolan is accurate. Damnably so. I’m not inclined to disparage Nolan, now that Emerson has succinctly destroyed him, because I think Emerson’s reaction to Nolan is proportional to the amount of praise he generally receives. I do happen to think he’s one of the best mainstream directors working, and it’s largely because his “See Spot Run” method of construction is so precise. His mise-en-scene is not complex, but he tells stories based on solid construction, with a clear idea of character and theme that — unlike most stories passively absorbed by the bovine masses — actually resonates with people as they walk out of the theater. I threw together some thoughts on a few of my own picks for the most taxing people in film, and I have to lead off with one that directly relates to Nolan, and it’s not even an individual; it’s a group. A type.
The Imdb Film Buff
The most taxing interactions I have on a regular basis are not with the people starring in films or the creative decisions of those people, but with people who labor under the delusion that they’re cinephiles. These are the people who honestly cannot wrap their minds around the fact that I do not like James Cameron’s Avatar. It is literally inconceivable to them that anyone could legitimately despise that film. The Imdb Film Buff is the person who will cite Christopher Nolan as his favorite director. Not favorite current director or working director in English-language film. Favorite Director, period. I like the guy a lot, but get real.
I suppose it’s a phenomenon related to that discussed by Kristin Thompson in the recent blog entry that spawned my cineliteracy salvo: people who think that because they keep tabs on industry buzz and watch a lot of stuff in the theater, it makes them genuine fans of the medium. This is not the case. There are people who like to be diverted, and since motion pictures are the most common source of entertainment, it makes sense that some people will convince themselves that they love movies, because they happen to watch a lot of them. The truth is that they don’t love movies. They don’t actually know anything about them. They know nothing of film history, of filmmaking, of film criticism, or even the biggest trends in world cinema. A true film buff would recognize the limits of his knowledge and desire to fill in those knowledge gaps. The Imdb Film Buff doesn’t.
I have had more discussions than I’d care to recount with people whose profound ignorance does nothing to dissuade them from issuing opinions and proclamations that only serve to demonstrate how irrefutably stupid they are. Now, there are a lot of people out there who are film experts who have a genuine, informed appreciation of Christopher Nolan. I’m not an expert, and I have a lot to learn, but I like to think that my genuine admiration of Nolan is at least proportional to the sum of my knowledge. That said, I’ve developed a little theory I call “the Nolan Bar.” It is simply this: whenever I meet someone new who identifies him- or herself as a film buff, and s/he says Christopher Nolan is his/her favorite director, I assume that the person knows puckall about cinema until that person demonstrates otherwise. A corollary is “the Inception index”: any stranger I meet who uses words like “genius,” “original,” or “masterpiece” in connection with that film is assumed to be working with a diminished capacity for film appreciation. This generally applies to anyone whose primary sources of film information are Rotten Tomatoes, the Imdb front page, or Web sites that track the box office trends of contemporary films.
The Imdb Film Buff is not someone who can discuss the craft, artistry, or meaning of a film. The only thing that person knows — if even that much — is the business of marketing movies in the United States of America. (This may be a reason why the Imdb Film Buff will frequently brag about the size of his DVD collection.) I frequently come away from these conversations feeling inordinately depressed and possessing a strong desire to watch Batman Begins again.
Thankfully, Ferrell seems well on his way to obscurity, but there was a long period in the last decade where I was certain that he would top the Bill Murray Chart of Comedic Genius among both critics and popular audiences. Many of the great comic performers developed a certain persona and played variations of it to great effect. I can’t think of one that was so obstreperous in the last 20 years. This includes Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey. The amount of acclaim that greeted Talladega Nights was deafening. It wasn’t enough that the film was a parody of the NASCAR mainstreaming of redneck culture. No, it was a brilliant social satire. A politically incisive broadside against the red state conglomerate and an elevation of Ferrell’s man-child shtick into something Meaningful.
The fact that Ferrell makes fun of celebrity culture in most of his films isn’t really a testament to his political acumen. It’s an extension of his long tenure at Saturday Night Live, where the stock-in-trade is poking fun at America’s celebrity culture from a leftist angle. The problem with Ferrell — apart from how indescribably grating his LOOK MA I’M SHOUTING SHOUTING IS FUNNY WHOA SHOUTING LAUGH PEOPLE SHOUTING LOOK OUT NOW I’VE TAKEN MY CLOTHES OFF comic methodology — is that it’s not smart. It’s broad. It may be, to some extent, accurate. But when you’re as prolific as Ferrell and as lowbrow, you’re bound to hit the mark at least once or twice. Ferrell may be an intelligent, educated man, but his comedy is not intelligent or educated. His impression of George W. Bush is the most telling example of Ferrell’s failings as a comedian. The real-life Bush always came across as a relatively dull-witted individual trying very hard to appear smart. Ferrell (as frat-boy Bush) always came across as a relatively dull-witted ham trying very hard to appear stupid. While Bush’s policies were running the country into the ground, Ferrell was content to run his one joke into the ground, and the parallel was not an incisive bit of satirical doubling — it was just a loud, incompetent comedian who was lucky enough to get face time playing an incompetent leader. I’d rather have Bush as president than Ferrell as the evening’s entertainment, which is saying something.
Even when Ferrell has done more “serious” roles, he can’t shake the sense of being totally overwhelmed. Stranger Than Fiction is probably his best role (and best film), but he never seems comfortable playing straight comedy. There’s always something meta about his performance. The scene where he picks up a guitar and starts singing doesn’t feel like something the character would do; it feels like the sort of thing Will Ferrell would do when it became clear that his act was bombing, and a quick-n-dirty musical number was the only way to tap dance out of it.
The biggest problem with Ferrell is that his brand of comedy can be practiced by anyone. Swap him out of any film and replace him with someone willing to do the same stupid stunts, and it will make little to no difference. That’s why John C. Reilly consistently comes across as doing such a good job, even though he chooses to be in such awful comedies. He’s a real actor who understands how to tailor the delivery in a unique way. Ferrell just turns the dial up to 11 and lets ‘er rip. He’s not an actor; he’s a loudspeaker with no volume control.
I don’t think there’s any director who has been so thoroughly destroyed by the endless possibilities of computer animation as Tim Burton. While portions of Alice in Wonderland kind of worked, most of it was a garish, tone-deaf goulash of bad animation and even worse production design. The relative restraint of his earlier features may have been a result of a leaner, more controlled directorial vision. In retrospect, it seems that they were more a result of the fact that one can only do so much with physical sets and makeup. Imagine 1989’s Batman done in the style of Sweeny Todd. That cold shiver running up the length of your spine is just the air disturbance from the passing bullet we dodged.
Ever since, oh, about the time of Planet of the Apes, Burton has been on a collision course with the logical extreme of his own predilections. While that film may have been a silly action fantasy, Sleepy Hollow revealed his basic insensitivity to the needs of a story, his preference being instead to flaunt grotesqueries and the eccentricities of his lead actor — that is to say, he’d prefer a film to be “Burton-esque,” as opposed to being simply a good film. Even Big Fish, a halfway decent drama, had a ho-hum listlessness about it in any scene that wasn’t a brightly-colored, fantastical flashback — and these scenes were so overstuffed with supercharged, saturated hues that they weren’t beautiful or pretty. They were “purty.”
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory represents the nadir of Burton’s career so far, a perfect example of when a director and an actor with no sense of restraint go full-bore to achieve the effect of a sloppy, childlike nightmare without reference to story mechanics or a consistent atmosphere. Instead, each sequence feels sliced up into component parts that serve to emphasize the Burton-ness of the proceedings. Johnny Depp is perfectly happy in his own private Burtonland, affecting Michael Jackson vocal and facial tics and flouncing with his bobbed hair and coattails rather than creating a character with an interior world. I get that the factory is supposed to represent Willy Wonka’s interior world, guys. It’s as devoid of concrete ideas and texture as Depp’s performance.
Burton seems to have cornered a little niche market for himself of adaptations that call for forced “dark” whimsy. He’s got a feature length version of his own short film, Frankenweenie, coming up as well as a film of the TV soap opera Dark Shadows. I hate to say it, but I’m pretty sure Catherine Hardwicke would do a more serviceable job. The last thing Johnny Depp needs is to do another movie where he looks like a foppish parody of Stephanie Meyer’s pasty vampires.