A few remarks on Ebert’s top ten films of all time

Most of us nerds make lists; few of our lists will actually have some measurable form of cultural impact.  Roger Ebert has submitted his list for the 2012 Sight & Sound critics poll.  As most of you probably know, this poll is conducted every ten years.  Prestigious filmmakers and critics around the world each submit their top ten films of all time; the results are tallied, and the results are published in as close to a “definitive” generational top ten as you’re likely to get.  His blog post, in which he ruminates on listmaking and his decision process is therefore of some interest to those of us who a.) like making lists and b.) are interested in the thought processes of people who make lists that matter.

The big shake-up this year is that Ebert has replaced Kieslowski’s Dekalog with Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.  He writes:

Apart from any other motive for putting a movie title on a list like this, there is always the motive of propaganda: Critics add a title hoping to draw attention to it, and encourage others to see it. For 2012, I suppose this is my propaganda title. I believe it’s an important film, and will only increase in stature over the years.

He may or may not be correct in regards to that last remark.  I’m sure that, if anything, academics and cinephiles may come to accept The Tree of Life as part of what is contentiously considered to be “canon.”  Beyond that, though, I don’t see it racking up the wider cultural cachet of of Citizen Kane, Vertigo, or 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Not that the likelihood of broader cachet should be a consideration; I’m just not as confident as Ebert that The Tree of Life will have that kind of impact or staying power.  Critics flipped out over The New World back in 2006, and apart from Malick nuts and a handful of cinephiles, nobody has given it a second thought.

The more interesting aspect to Ebert’s post was his designation of that tenth slot as his “propaganda title,” mostly because the also-ran for that space in his top ten was Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York.  I don’t begrudge Ebert opting for the Malick film on the grounds that he sees it as more hopeful and optimistic; Lord knows that those are worthy reasons for holding something in regard.  There are two reasons that I wish might have convinced Ebert to go with Synecdoche, NY instead, though.

One, I like it better.  I don’t mean that Ebert’s entire aesthetic philosophy should be guided by my personal taste, but rather, I do genuinely think Kaufman’s to be the superior film.  Formally, it’s a lot tighter, the performances are more focused, and the ending has a tragic pull that feels like the logical extension of everything that has come before it; by contrast, the ending to The Tree of Life is… well, basically, a bunch of New Agey hash.  How many times did Jessica Chastain lift her hands up to the light in that sequence?  Ninety-five?  It’s so hard to remember.  By contrast, I can still recall the lump in my chest when Phil Hoffman, having wandered through his constructed life’s work, finally sits down on that old couch and dies.  It’s such a mundane, earthy moment in a film that’s laden with absurdist twists, fully emblematic of Kaufman’s commitment to the humanity of his characters… as opposed to the artificiality of Tree of Life’s last act, which is so contrived that it virtually reduces its characters to treacly constructs, just like that damn door in the desert.  Again, my reaction is fully subjective, but I think Kaufman’s technique was simply more controlled and elegant, even though his film is almost as much of an idiosyncratic mess as Malick’s.  So I guess my first reason isn’t really a rational argument, per se, so much as a beef.

Two, Synecdoche, New York is in more need of critical rescue than The Tree of Life.  Ebert’s post is the first time I’ve read about Synecdoche, NY in more than a year.  It was not a box office hit, and my impression is that it was much more divisive amongst its much smaller audience than The Tree of Life.  As skeptical as I am that The Tree of Life is likely to grow in stature, I’m even more skeptical that Synecdoche, NY will survive as anything more than that one film the writer of Adaptation and Being John Malkovich cashed in his chips to direct.  It’s all but forgotten now.  A top ten plug from a man of Ebert’s rep might have reinvigorated interest.  Maybe the blog mention will be enough to get that ball rolling.

The other thing that struck me about this top ten — and something Ebert doesn’t mention in his post — is that this might be the last list he submits to S&S.  His health has not been great the last several years.  God willing, he has another decade left in him.  We can pray for it.  But even if Ebert isn’t planning to shuffle off anytime soon, I would think that mortality and the eternal questions have been on his mind lately.  I hesitate to armchair psychoanalyze, but it seems to me he has to be cognizant of this top ten being one of his last significant critical gestures.  If he’s going to leave behind a definitive top ten, this might be it.

Of course, in his post and in some of his responses to the comments, he emphasizes just how arbitrary lists are, so I’m sure he’d be the first to pooh-pooh the notion that this is The List He’ll Be Remembered For… but maybe not.  Even if he doesn’t mean it that way, it may end up being exactly that.  Which is why, even though I think Synecdoche, New York would have been the better choice (if it must be one or the other), it makes sense that he’d opt for the much more metaphysical, affirmative film — especially one that is so much more messy and recent.  Besides endorsing the film’s essential outlook, selecting a very contemporary film plugs Ebert into the present and the more immediate future, as opposed to the long-established past.  To me, it signals a critic who is still looking forward to the things cinema has in store, even if he might not live to see it.  Rather than enshrine the past, he’s still actively trying to shape the future, and in a way that upholds what he might perceive as more positive values.  It’s the kind of choice that  confirms Ebert as a man of faith: faith in the medium to which he devoted his life, faith in humanity, and faith in the possibility that there is so much more to this universe than any one film or life — or top ten list — could possibly encompass. ☕

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About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

19 responses to “A few remarks on Ebert’s top ten films of all time

  • jubilare

    I have no knowledge of the films mentioned in this post, though I find it interesting.
    I just wanted to let you know that I had some time on my hands this evening and I chose to watch a movie over playing some FFIV. Remembering your challenging me to watch “Lost in Austen,” I found it on instant watch and gave it a try. The only current, comprehensible response I have so far is WTF?
    Perhaps I will have a more coherent breakdown of my thoughts in the morning.

  • jubilare

    Let’s see if I am any more coherent, now. Hmm. I probably need to watch it over again to figure it out, but I don’t want to. I found it interesting, but as entertainment, it just isn’t for me.
    The film reminds me of a corn-muffin I had recently. There are tasty bits and dry bits, but the whole thing fails to hold together.
    Part of my problem is that I know too much about Georgian culture. I gave this movie a lot more leeway than I am willing to give straight-up period pieces, but even so, I found myself constantly saying either “what?” or “wtf?” out loud. It kept asking for more suspension of belief than I was prepared to give, especially as it never bothered to explain itself. Just as I seemed to see some consistency, the film broke its own assumptions, again and again. I assume it was just enjoying being postmodern.
    I actually like what they did with most of the characters. The exceptions were Lady Catherine and Mr. Darcy. Their actions seemed to make, in my brother’s words, zero-less-than-no-sense.
    I am still not entirely sure what the film was trying to do, what, if anything it was trying to say, or… anything, really. Maybe that was part of the point, I really don’t know. I was shocked by the ending because Amanda made a 180, going from trying to help and protect Jane, whose life she helped make a mess of, to completely screwing her over without a thought. Cold, man… icy cold.
    Some of the one-lliners, though, made be glad I saw the film Elizabeth Bennett saying “I’m macro-biotic” was classic, and drunk Bingley was quite a thing to watch.
    As a writer, it was interesting to watch someone trying to guide a story and to have it blow up in her face as the characters do their own thing. That was a lesson I learned early, thankfully.

    Anyhow, I am much perplexed by this crumbly muffin.

    • mjschneider

      I’m sorry you didn’t find it entertaining. I certainly didn’t intend you to take it as a “challenge”! It was more of a sincere recommendation that I believed would be of interest to a fellow Austen fan. I’m not well versed in Georgian culture apart from what I’ve gleaned from Austen’s books, but my wife is, and she loved Lost in Austen, so I guess, like corn muffins, it really is mostly a matter of taste.

      I don’t think Lost in Austen is necessarily trying to “say” anything big, but the way it works says a lot. What the film presumably set out to do was a fanservice-y riff on Austen that played on the conceit of modern (single, female) readers imagining falling in love with Mr Darcy in the flesh. And yes, I think it simply enjoyed being postmodern. What intrigues me on a deeper level is how the ultimate escapist romantic fantasy is consistently undermined… then suddenly reaffirmed right at the end. The difference, though, is that that person who indulged her escapist fantasies winds up being a different person; rather than conform her fantasy to her own wish-fulfillment, she finds that she also must bend and grow. To me, this suggests that the best pieces of fantasy fulfill a similar kind of function, helping readers/viewers participate actively and undergo a profound change. It also suggests that there are levels to any work of fiction that are unknown both to reader and writer, and that playing around in that space can be creative and fulfilling in its own way. So fanfiction itself is indirectly affirmed, even as it charts the vagaries of a fan presuming to claim ownership or direction over the lives of characters she did not originate.

      So those are the reasons why I thought it would be intriguing, if not entertaining, especially in context of our discussion of escapism. On a much more visceral level, though, I simply enjoyed watching Lost in Austen a great deal. I loved the dialogue and I loved how it screwed around with the characters. The first time through, I hated that Amanda ends up with Darcy, and I found her to be consistently irritating. Upon second (and third) viewings, it made more sense, and I realized that Amanda probably irritated me so often because she and I have many similar traits. Overall, I think the show is meant to be a frothy, smart romantic comedy, and on those merits, I was highly entertained. Elliot Cowan is also my favorite Darcy that I’ve seen so far. Well, all the actors are my favorites that I’ve seen so far, with the possible exception of Gemma Arterton, and that is probably because she has so little screen time that she barely registers.

      Re: Amanda screwing over Jane at the end… I’m actually not quite sure what you mean.

  • jubilare

    Ah, that was not meant to guilt you at all! I am glad that I watched it because it was interesting. That I did not find it entertaining was my fault, if anyone’s. I am a firm believer that one can never be sure how a film will strike someone, even among close friends and family.

    I suspect that I was thinking too much. I might try it again some day and see if knowing what to expect improves my opinion. I often think too much in films, especially when they present a seeming mystery or problem. I was trying to figure out what the heck was going on and nothing I could come up with made sense. In the end, the question was left unanswered.
    I did enjoy the train-wreck of manipulating characters one did not originate, though it was painful to watch Amanda make so many thoughtless decisions. I was wondering the whole time what was being implied by the deviations from Austen, a question that was also never answered. Added to that was the inconsistency of the culture. The film-makers seemed, one minute, to use the cultural norms of Georgian England as an excuse for character motivation, and then they would abandon the same conventions when they became inconvenient, thus making it very hard for me to suspend disbelief.

    Hm… I think I see what you are saying. Perhaps that I dislike fan-fiction (I don’t hate it, but I don’t like it) is something else that stood in my way with this film. Amanda’s acknowledgement that Austen was probably spinning in her grave might have been funny to me, if I had ever learned what, exactly was going on in the film, but the movie chose (probably wisely) not to explain itself and I was left wondering.

    The screwing Jane over… Lady Catherine’s one condition in annulling Jane’s marriage was that she, Lady Catherine, would never have to see Amanda again. …therefore when Amanda ends up with Darcy, presumably before the annulment is able to take place, Lady Catherine will have no reason to go through with her side of the bargain. In fact, she will probably not just out of spite. That creeped me out to no end. I doubt the inference was intended, but I wasn’t able to get around it.

    Like I said, I think too much. One of my biggest pet peeves with film, or fiction of any kind, is internal inconsistency. Even with works I like, I tend to growl when there are internal contradictions for the sake of plot. Lost in Austen was rife inconsistencies. Looking back on it, I can see that it is a romp that is unconcerned with such things, but I think I would have liked it more if it hadn’t kept confusing me so much. I do prefer it, vastly, to the 2008 P&P, though.

    • mjschneider

      I don’t see anything wrong with being thoughtful about what you watch. If it didn’t make sense to you, and that affected your enjoyment, then that’s that. It’s worth talking about, either to confirm or reconsider your opinion. Lost in Austen is riddling with very convenient plotting, but I guess I took that in stride as just another mechanism for keeping the drama going. It would make perfect sense to me that the filmmakers ignored period cultural norms at their convenience, thus creating inconsistencies. That didn’t bother me, because I didn’t know those norms in the first place, but if it bugged the crap out of you, that’s fair. I’d have to watch it again to get a feel for how it foregrounded those norms (above and beyond those hailing directly from Austen) inconsistently. Generally speaking, I’m not too hardnosed about historical inaccuracies or inconsistencies unless it detracts from the aesthetic impact of the film, or unless they’re deployed to serve a pernicious thematic goal. For instance, it bothered me at the end of the more recent P&P when Darcy encounters Elizabeth, and he’s barely got his torso covered up. I get why that was done. But it seemed highly inconsistent for his character (so proper, even at his most passionate), and possibly something that Elizabeth herself would find to be a bit classless. It was an anachronism that (to me) reduced the whole story to a bodice ripper. A minor point, but an illustrative one. I didn’t have many similar problems with Lost in Austen, but then, Lost in Austen didn’t take itself so dreadfully seriously.

      Long story short, though, I get extremely hung up on inconsistencies… rather inconsistently. :)

      I didn’t have a problem with Amanda hooking up with Darcy despite Lady Catherine’s condition. I didn’t give that much thought before, but on reflection, a couple of rationalizations emerge. (Granted, it would’ve been nice had the film itself hinted at them, but this is the best I can do by way of apologetics!) One, Bingley has the money to get them both to America, which may or may not be far enough geographically, culturally, and politically for a common law marriage to work. Two, Darcy might have intervened himself if his aunt had not. Look who we’re talking about; he has the capacity to be ridiculously generous, especially on matters of honor, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he would’ve just handled things himself. Three, if he didn’t handle things himself, Darcy might have prevailed upon his aunt in the end. I seem to recall that, in the book, Lady Catherine initially refuses to visit Pemberley once he marries Elizabeth, but eventually gives in. Even she might be persuaded to forgive and forget… or at least not be a total you-know-what about it. Four, I think the main thing about the Bingley/Jane arc in Lost in Austen is that they finally choose to be together, consequences be damned. My hunch is that once they’ve had true happiness confirmed for them once, they won’t let it go so easily. I could be wrong. In any case, I doubt that Amanda would have simply hauled off to Pemberley without first trying to make sure that they’d be okay. I think that, for the sake of wrapping things up, they simply neglected to close that plot/characterization hiccup on screen. Which isn’t to excuse it completely — after all, I shouldn’t have to make excuses, should I? That’s the film’s job — but I don’t think it’s so terribly cold as all that, especially given her exertions up to that point. I just find it highly unlikely that she’d screw them over like that.

      So, yeah. That’s like 300 words of excuses. Talk about overthinking it!

  • jubilare

    There’s a distinction to be made between being thoughtful and over-thinking, though. The line may be blurry, but I feel it is there. Lost in Austen, as you say, doesn’t take itself very seriously, and as such my over-thinking was probably unfair to it. My problem was that it seemed to suggest that there was some underlying theme, and that theme escaped me.
    “It was an anachronism that (to me) reduced the whole story to a bodice ripper.” Well put. I am not a purist when it comes to historical accuracies, but blatant anachronisms irritate me because it highlights, to me, the fallacy of projecting our cultural assumptions into the past. These anachronisms tend to run rampant in the faux-Austen type period drama/romances because their creators seem to feel it necessary to “spice things up” in an obvious rather than accurate way. …they also tend to idealize the cultures they portray, which is irritating. I was prepared to, and tried to give Lost in Austen a ton of artistic license when it came to the anachronisms because, as you point out, it isn’t taking itself seriously. The whole point of the film is an anachronism. My problem arose with the film’s trying to have it both ways, or so it seemed to me. It played up the characters’ Georgian-ness, and then had them behave in ways that would have been not only scandalous, but culturally catastrophic. Case in point: Miss Darcy admitting something, to an acquaintance, the rumor of which has the potential to ruin her life?
    I wanted there to be some explanation for this inconsistency. I waited for an explanation and on receiving none, I was unable to suspend disbelief.

    Ah, we’re all inconsistent, as I think you have pointed out before. I enjoy Downton Abbey in spite of myself, and it is a train-wreck when it comes to anachronisms. In my own defense, I have shouted “wtf” at that show too, though.

    I hope you are right, but that particular tangle, to me, was representative of my problems with the film. “Consistency be damned, (am I allowed to say that here? if not, feel free to edit), let’s do something funny/weird/romantic.” This is a film that requires me to just let go and enjoy the ride, and that is a hard thing for me to do.

    • mjschneider

      I think letting go and enjoying the ride is a particularly hard thing to do consistently (that word again!), since any consumer of any intelligence will always think about what s/he’s consuming. I’ve watched (and enjoyed) a great many Hong Kong movies, which are notorious for inconsistencies in tone, plot, and characterization. Yet that is part of the fun of watching them. The same goes for a movie like Hudson Hawk, which is one of my personal favorites. For some reason, there are some art objects for which the internal inconsistency is half the fun, whereas for others, internal consistency is an IED smuggled on board by the artists’ inattention to craft. That’s why I’m forgiving of anyone who is worried about “overthinking” anything. Sometimes thinking at all will degrade an experience, and I daresay that if someone is capable of completely eliminating all thought-processes, that person is probably clinically braindead. The problem is, as I think we’ve been getting at, the fact that it’s hard to pin down what we as individuals personally tolerate (or find stimulating) on a case by case basis. I’ve yet to discover the secret formula by which I deem one thing entertaining and another thing to be crap.

      Maybe a part of it is the highly individual areas of expertise we all possess. I was dazzled by the wit of Lost in Austen, though I know very little of the period culture; you were less dazzled because you were more distracted by how thoughtlessly anachronistic it was. I often find American SFX blockbusters to be mediocre and dull, though they are in many ways more polished and technically proficient than their Eastern counterparts; yet I enjoy the average Jackie Chan film eleventeen times more. This may be partly due to the amount of reading I’ve done on the craft of HK cinema and Chan’s career; I’m much more apt to revel in the precision of what a Chan film’s aesthetic tries to do, even though, by most narrative standards, they’re virtually incompetent. I don’t know.

      As far as anachronisms go specifically, I tend not to mind projection as a dramatic device (for whatever reason), such as occurred in Lost in Austen. What I find to be more troubling is when historical characters and events are used for more polemical purposes, which often results in revising or reshaping history to the convenience of a political end, which I find personally distasteful. There are exceptions, but I think it has to do with theme and tone. Lost in Austen isn’t striving to win converts, unless by “conversion” it means getting more contemporary viewers to read Austen, which I fully endorse. By contrast, something like JFK remains controversial because its purpose was blatantly political. It happens to be a movie I adore, but I’m not unaware of its potential pitfalls. Even if an anachronism isn’t terribly “modern” in an obvious sense, if I know enough about the history of a subject to know better, it is often a stumbling block. Brett McCracken recently posted a list of 33 films that “take faith seriously” that he thinks ever Christian should see, and one of them was the 2003 film Luther. It does take faith seriously, I suppose, but it’s also a piece of crap film. And besides generally being a piece of crap, it presents a version of Martin Luther that is very hagiographic and very modern. That really bothered me, not only in the sense of disliking the fraudulent revision of history, but because it distracted me; it took me right out of the movie every time Luther said or did something in a way that struck me as “modern.” But that was a movie that took itself very seriously indeed.

      Coincidentally, I’m planning to watch Downton Abbey this summer. The first season is on Netflix, one of my wife’s friends let her borrow season 2 on BR. I’m looking forward to it. And as with Lost in Austen, I doubt I’ll recognize any anachronisms. The majority of my knowledge of British history and culture is via Austen, Doctor Who, and Monty Python.

  • jubilare

    I can’t argue with that. :)

    Interesting. I think both forms of history-abuse irritate me equally. If anything, I am more opposed to breaking historical or cultural norms for plot than by slanting history. That is probably because history is always slanted some way or another. A blatant agenda in a historical film will irritate me, though, especially if it is preaching at me (back to this again! I think we are wandering in circles. Good thing I find the circles entertaining so far.) When a film-maker or writer ignores cultural or historical norms, I either feel that they are ignorant, lazy, or cheating “because the audience doesn’t know better.” It’s like watching an author meticulously set up rules for a fictional world, then break one of the rules without explanation. If someone wants to mess with history in that way, I feel they need to make up their own reality for it like I do. …I take my fiction very seriously. :D
    Mm… fiction should never get away with being shoddy or bad just because it has a “good message.” I am saddened that so much of the Christian community is happy to consume crap just because it is “Christian” crap.

    I’d be interested to know your thoughts on it. It is the first time I have been addicted to a show and had no idea why.
    Austen is a good teacher there, as is Monty Python, in a backwards kind of way. Doctor Who? I can’t speak for the earlier iterations, but the current one… not so much.
    Even if you are unaware of the details of a society being depicted, it’s pretty easy to tell when a character is being used as an anachronistic mouthpiece. The thing that irritates me the most is when characters decide to go against the “society” of the time as if the consequences of such an action were tolerable. Pet peeve!

  • mjschneider

    #Interesting. I think both forms of history-abuse irritate me equally. If anything, I am more opposed to breaking historical or cultural norms for plot than by slanting history. That is probably because history is always slanted some way or another. A blatant agenda in a historical film will irritate me, though, especially if it is preaching at me (back to this again! I think we are wandering in circles. Good thing I find the circles entertaining so far.) When a film-maker or writer ignores cultural or historical norms, I either feel that they are ignorant, lazy, or cheating “because the audience doesn’t know better.” It’s like watching an author meticulously set up rules for a fictional world, then break one of the rules without explanation. If someone wants to mess with history in that way, I feel they need to make up their own reality for it like I do. …I take my fiction very seriously. :D#

    Oh, I do, too! That’s an interesting distinction you make, and it’s one I’ve never thought of. I guess, to me, there’s a distinction to be made between slanting history (by cherry-picking facts or interpreting in a way that fits one’s own ideas, concerns, biases, etc.) and flat-out changing it (getting facts wrong or twisting them beyond their literal truth-value). The similarity to an author setting up rules in a fictional world, then breaking them for pure convenience (as opposed to some other motivation, from in-text explanation to a meta commitment to absurdity, etc.) is striking, and I’d have to ponder whether that kind of laziness or maliciousness has a similar impact on an audience as does playing fast and loose with history. Both things — inconsistency in fiction and bad historicism — tend to anger me, but I think for different reasons. I have yet to figure out what the distinction is, though. When “bad” history is merely “one’s own version of history,” though, I can be more forgiving — again, so long as it’s done well and done for larger purposes to which I’m sympathetic. Which is, of course, a factor that is highly subjective and often inconsistent. :)

    #Mm… fiction should never get away with being shoddy or bad just because it has a “good message.” I am saddened that so much of the Christian community is happy to consume crap just because it is “Christian” crap.#

    I’ve written about that a lot on this blog, and it is sad. Part of my long-term project is to change that. I’m heartened, though, that since I began my blog, I’ve encountered numerous other Christian writers and critics with the same, or similar, goals.

    #Even if you are unaware of the details of a society being depicted, it’s pretty easy to tell when a character is being used as an anachronistic mouthpiece. The thing that irritates me the most is when characters decide to go against the “society” of the time as if the consequences of such an action were tolerable. Pet peeve!#

    I think I’m approaching it from a different angle. It peeves me more when the author seems to think it’s tolerable. If a character thinks it’s tolerable, then I try to consider whether that kind of behavior is consistent for the character, rather than typical of the time. My reading of Lost in Austen’s Georgiana, for example, suggested that such outre behavior, for her, is not atypical at all, but that the ill-effects it would produce have been mitigated by her brother’s overprotectiveness. The way she’s framed makes it seem that she was the instigator of the Wickham seduction, and it may only be because she’s been socially cut off since then that her intolerable behavior has not produced similarly disastrous effects. She seems smart enough not to go on like that in front of her brother, but Amanda clearly projected a sense of being a very “modern woman.” That’s probably why Georgiana’s confession was startling (and funny) to me, but not necessarily something that took me out of the story as an unjustified anachronism.

  • jubilare

    Where do you draw the line, though, between bad history and historical bias? That is the hard part. And yes, one’s own sympathies do play merry hell with objectivity. :)

    Aye, there are a lot out there who want to reform Christian arts. Unfortunately money drives the industry, and a lot of the consumers opt for what is familiar to them. What is familiar is often not very good. Still, there is some hope in the fact that we have some very good Christian writers working away industriously, and some of them are being recognized.

    I think my old cynicism rears its head in this case. I tend to assume that the author is the one who thinks such things tolerable unless they are able to prove to me that the attitude is character-driven. Guilty until proven innocent. My reason for this is that such violations of cultural norms in literature are usually either wishful thinking or a “cheap way out.”
    I fear I cannot regard Georgiana’s choice as you do. Had it been isolated, your point would hold more weight with me, but instead it is endemic. Every character seems to ignore the conventions when convenient, but (here is my problem) never consistently. Some of the violations are simply too much for my suspension of disbelief.

    I think I can sum up my issue simply. I will try. Lost in Austen is manifestly post-modern and comedic, which should excuse all of its playful violations of the culture in which it is set. However, it makes the mistake of playing with the consequences of Georgian ethics and then abandoning those very ethics when convenient. I would have been happier if it had merely indicated a reason for this inconsistency. For instance, if the story is a creation of Amanda’s mind, that would explain the inconsistency entirely and I would be fine. I was left, at the end however, saying “wtf” for the umpteenth time and wondering what the premise was. If I watch the movie again, I will have to make up my own premise.

    Individually I liked all of the characters, though I liked Amanda less than the others. I liked the wit, the playfulness and the creativity of the film. I just couldn’t get around the inconsistent assumptions. I think that your less-precise awareness of Georgian norms is not as much of a factor as your enjoyment of what you term the “fanservice-y riff.” For me, enjoying that aspect (which is one of the major aspects or points of the film, I think) required more context. I needed more explained to me.

    • mjschneider

      #Where do you draw the line, though, between bad history and historical bias? That is the hard part. And yes, one’s own sympathies do play merry hell with objectivity. :)#

      That is indeed the hard part, and I’m sure that where I draw the line would not only be at variance with where others draw the line, but I would draw it inconsistently — often depending upon my mood at the time. I strive not to fall into this trap, but it’s inevitable, and I’d rather acknowledge the inevitability of human frailty clouding my judgment (while affirming my desire to do better) than pretend that I have an ironclad method for arriving at an empirically justified conclusion.

      #Aye, there are a lot out there who want to reform Christian arts. Unfortunately money drives the industry, and a lot of the consumers opt for what is familiar to them. What is familiar is often not very good. Still, there is some hope in the fact that we have some very good Christian writers working away industriously, and some of them are being recognized.#

      I try to recognize good Christian art when I see it, but for the most part I think most of what I consider to be good or great is stuff that was made long ago. Then again, truly great art tends to be rare anyway. With open Christianity being at a low ebb in the arts at this time, it’s not surprising that, statistics being what they are, there’s simply fewer great Christian artists than there have been at times when Christianity was a little more fashionable. And even when there an art-object appears whose creators’ faith is unknown to me, sometimes I find that it is a masterful evocation of everything grand about my religion: case in point being The Son by the Dardennes.

      #I think my old cynicism rears its head in this case. I tend to assume that the author is the one who thinks such things tolerable unless they are able to prove to me that the attitude is character-driven. Guilty until proven innocent. My reason for this is that such violations of cultural norms in literature are usually either wishful thinking or a “cheap way out.”
I fear I cannot regard Georgiana’s choice as you do. Had it been isolated, your point would hold more weight with me, but instead it is endemic. Every character seems to ignore the conventions when convenient, but (here is my problem) never consistently. Some of the violations are simply too much for my suspension of disbelief.#

      Fair enough.

      #I think I can sum up my issue simply. I will try. Lost in Austen is manifestly post-modern and comedic, which should excuse all of its playful violations of the culture in which it is set. However, it makes the mistake of playing with the consequences of Georgian ethics and then abandoning those very ethics when convenient. I would have been happier if it had merely indicated a reason for this inconsistency. For instance, if the story is a creation of Amanda’s mind, that would explain the inconsistency entirely and I would be fine. I was left, at the end however, saying “wtf” for the umpteenth time and wondering what the premise was. If I watch the movie again, I will have to make up my own premise.#

      If you have to make up your own premise in order to make sense of a movie, perhaps the failure is the film’s. I don’t think conveniently ignoring the rules of a fictional (or historical, or whatever) universe should be automatically excused by the fact that it may be postmodern and/or comedic. I think we’ve sort of danced about framing the discussion the way I’m about to, but perhaps this is a matter of storytelling ethics. Could it be that you view the way Lost in Austen handled its anachronisms to be fundamentally unethical? I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, but the ethical code of the period is the emblem of the problems you had with the film. I don’t mean to say that it’s a case of, “The filmmakers ignored the ethics of the period, which must mean that the filmmakers don’t care about ethics, and I resent that.” I mean, it could be a part of it (or not), but what I’m getting at has more to do with a sort of contract that could be said to exist between a storyteller and his audience. Even if that’s not the metaphor that you’d choose to use (and it’s a problematic one), would it be fair to say that your problems with the film amount to more than “the characters didn’t behave as they would, given the circumstances”? It seems to be more like the filmmakers either didn’t care if the characters acted as they “really” would, or they cared, but purposely manipulated the audience capriciously anyway. Which would amount to a potential ethics violation, so to speak. Maybe you don’t care to frame it that way, but it seems that we’re dealing with a conflict of ethical paradigms here.

      #Individually I liked all of the characters, though I liked Amanda less than the others. I liked the wit, the playfulness and the creativity of the film. I just couldn’t get around the inconsistent assumptions. I think that your less-precise awareness of Georgian norms is not as much of a factor as your enjoyment of what you term the “fanservice-y riff.” For me, enjoying that aspect (which is one of the major aspects or points of the film, I think) required more context. I needed more explained to me.#

      That’s fair. I wish I could articulate my own assumptions that went into me being able to take the film’s nature and inconsistencies for granted. I’m trying to think of a parallel case in which my reaction was closer to yours. The easy one would be Joe Wright’s P&P, but we already hit on that. Broadly speaking, I think superhero films fall into that category for me. I don’t like or love all of them, but the ones I do like, I tend to forgive for essentially unforgivable lapses. One of the big ones is Batman Begins. The entire plot builds up to Gotham being threatened by a device that vaporizes all water. Which would, in theory, not only vaporize the water in the sewers, but also the river, the storage tanks, and the blood in people’s bodies. It’s a gargantuan gaffe, and I never even noticed it myself; others had to point it out. Yet I still think it’s a great film, but for a myriad other reasons, even with that massive plot flaw. I’m not sure what context I expect the film to provide to explain that flaw, though. At best, it would be technobabble. It’s one of those things that sort of asks you to take a leap of faith. I was willing to make that one, but there are hundreds of others in other films that I can’t or won’t. Inconsistency again. I did certainly enjoy the vibe, wit, and performances in Lost in Austen, and you’re probably correct in that my enjoyment of it’s general attitude short-circuited the more critical part of my brain that should have gotten stuck on loopy characterization. Yet the film also provoked other critical faculties that seized upon its general themes and delivery, none of which were probably intended by the film, but which I got out of it anyway…

  • jubilare

    #I strive not to fall into this trap, but it’s inevitable, and I’d rather acknowledge the inevitability of human frailty clouding my judgment (while affirming my desire to do better) than pretend that I have an ironclad method for arriving at an empirically justified conclusion.#
    This is a very wise way to go about things in general, I think.

    I am not familiar with that film, but what you say parallels something I learned about myself, and by extension others, over the last few years. When my relationship with God is healthy, and I am healthy, I see the world through very different eyes. It is not easy to explain, but even things I know to be non or anti-Christian affirm my faith because I see and hear the human longing for hope and salvation, and the glimmers of understanding. When I am in a more fragile state, which often happens, I am much more likely to feel threatened by things that try to attack or undermine Christianity.
    By extension, I’ve come to realize that when Christians behave in hate and fear towards non-Christian things, it is because their own faith is presently too fragile and they are not trusting that God is unassailable. In short, when my faith is strong, I trust that Christianity cannot be undermined, and when my faith is weak, I fear being undermined because I am not standing firmly on the Rock.
    In this way, though there are certainly creations in the arts I do not want in my head, I am not restricted to overtly “Christian” things, as I believe the undercurrent of God’s Spirit in the world touches all souls whether they knowingly embrace It or not. I also use this as a litmus test to see where I am spiritually. If I easily jump to feeling threatened, all is not well.

    #“the characters didn’t behave as they would, given the circumstances”#
    This does echo my feelings, rather. The most convincing characters, to me, were Wickham and Lydia (which is interesting, when I think about it) because both of them were shown to exist outside of their cultural norms. They were the only major characters who did not strike me as inconsistent. Another contributing factor might be the choice of Austen as the foundation for the film (though it had to be Austen), because ethical consistency and inconsistency are one of Austen’s favorite character-development tools. When there is inconsistent behavior in her novels it is either an intentional character-flaw or a noticeable arc of character-development.
    But my only kick against the film is the lack of explanation. The story seems to require inconsistent character behavior. I just needed to have a logical explanation for the inconsistency. Instead, the film was left open and unexplained. This may be a case of “be careful what you wish for,” though, as an explanation could make it worse as easily as it could resolve questions.

    I never even thought about the water-vaporizing issue in Batman Begins! Hah! But yes, I am inconsistent in my reactions to such things, I must admit (which might pardon some of the lesser character inconsistency in Lost in Austen). Tone and feel are huge factors in my reactions to films.

    • mjschneider

      I am not familiar with that film, but what you say parallels something I learned about myself, and by extension others, over the last few years. When my relationship with God is healthy, and I am healthy, I see the world through very different eyes. It is not easy to explain, but even things I know to be non or anti-Christian affirm my faith because I see and hear the human longing for hope and salvation, and the glimmers of understanding. When I am in a more fragile state, which often happens, I am much more likely to feel threatened by things that try to attack or undermine Christianity.

      By extension, I’ve come to realize that when Christians behave in hate and fear towards non-Christian things, it is because their own faith is presently too fragile and they are not trusting that God is unassailable. In short, when my faith is strong, I trust that Christianity cannot be undermined, and when my faith is weak, I fear being undermined because I am not standing firmly on the Rock.

      In this way, though there are certainly creations in the arts I do not want in my head, I am not restricted to overtly “Christian” things, as I believe the undercurrent of God’s Spirit in the world touches all souls whether they knowingly embrace It or not. I also use this as a litmus test to see where I am spiritually. If I easily jump to feeling threatened, all is not well.

      That’s a great insight. My own process works similarly, though not consistently enough that I use it as a litmus test. Sometimes I find that when my faith is more fragile, that’s when I’ll be looking more closely for affirmative signs.

      This does echo my feelings, rather. The most convincing characters, to me, were Wickham and Lydia (which is interesting, when I think about it) because both of them were shown to exist outside of their cultural norms. They were the only major characters who did not strike me as inconsistent. Another contributing factor might be the choice of Austen as the foundation for the film (though it had to be Austen), because ethical consistency and inconsistency are one of Austen’s favorite character-development tools. When there is inconsistent behavior in her novels it is either an intentional character-flaw or a noticeable arc of character-development.

      But my only kick against the film is the lack of explanation. The story seems to require inconsistent character behavior. I just needed to have a logical explanation for the inconsistency. Instead, the film was left open and unexplained. This may be a case of “be careful what you wish for,” though, as an explanation could make it worse as easily as it could resolve questions.

      I never even thought about the water-vaporizing issue in Batman Begins! Hah! But yes, I am inconsistent in my reactions to such things, I must admit (which might pardon some of the lesser character inconsistency in Lost in Austen). Tone and feel are huge factors in my reactions to films.

      It should go without saying that the characterizations in Lost in Austen are not nearly as fine-tuned and nuanced as those in Austen’s actual novels. :) So it is more likely that unexpected behavior in one is used as character development, whereas unexpected behavior in the other is just a byproduct of inconsistency. And yeah, sometimes explanations often bog down the whole thing or make it even more implausible. As you say, tone and texture are key elements in helping me decide how important plot or character inconsistencies are in my judgment of a film. I’m not even sure that Lost in Austen is all that textured, but because the tone is so assured — to me, it really has the tonal qualities of an Austen tale, if not the texture — it was easy to get swept up in it. But I’m a sucker for that kind of thing. By contrast, sometimes I’ll forgive a film for uneven tone and texture if the characterization is spot-on or the plot particularly well constructed (despite tonal irregularities). It’s not always one quality or another that dominates my appreciation or disdain for a film, but sometimes one or two qualities will emerge as the saving graces.

  • jubilare

    Interesting. That is very interesting to me.

    I wonder if I was too distracted to notice the tone… whatever the cause, it didn’t strike me. I guess not striking me at all is better than striking ill. It is true, though, that a film need not be perfect to be good. When enough is done right in a film or book, it excuses the wrongs. Thank goodness it does, too. I’ve never read a book that didn’t have some kind of weakness or flaw, though some come close.

    • mjschneider

      I didn’t think of this yesterday, but your posts on George MacDonald seem like a good illustration of how that works out sometimes. Not every time. Because in the case of MacDonald, it seems that his “flaws” are actually something that you find particularly fascinating, whereas in something like Lost in Austen, maybe the flaws are just flaws that are balanced out by something else.

  • jubilare

    MacDonald is a very special case with me, indeed. I cannot consider myself at all objective when it comes to him.
    A better comparison might be David Eddings. His inability to kill characters is shameful, I find his plots predictable, and some of his protagonists bore me, but I enjoy the color of his novels, their tone and the characters. Because of this, I own several of his books and enjoy reading them.

  • jubilare

    Ahh!

    …I think this is the first time I have ever been startled by Renoir.

    Anyway, I was going to say that I recommend Eddings to anyone who wants to read entertaining pulp fantasy.

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