It’s summer, and theaters are amok with films labeled “critic proof.” Summer blockbusters are often a dime-a-dozen bunch made to draw a few big weekends and fade quickly away like so many Fourth of July fireworks. Does anybody still remember Superman Returns or the last Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film? There are notable exceptions to these flash in the pan films, but they are just that — exceptions.
Critic proof means that despite the general panning of movies like Terminator Salvation or Night at the Museum 2, the films will draw audiences. This gives rise to many questions about film as quality entertainment (who is qualified to judge? What makes it a “good” or even worthwhile film?) and about the role of the critic. Are critics necessary? Should they simply review (i.e., describe the content and form) or make qualified judgments? If judgments are to be made, how much is arbitrary, or based on taste? “The Film Talk’s” Jett Loe recently interviewed Gerald Perry (who made a documentary on the subject called For the Love of Movies) about the waning days of print criticism and the rising tide of bloggers (thanks for reading, by the way) and podcasters. It also says something about what audiences are looking for. If the critics are right, why do people choose to see these films anyway? Is it because the marketing and advertising are so appealing?
Cinema is the literature of our age. It says much about our culture, and plays a subtle but meaningful role in how we live our lives. These are our stories, our myths, our history. Writing is fairly democratic; anyone can write (although not everyone can find a publisher, but again, new media changes things) and perhaps this is one of the greatest assets of the independent film movement, Youtube, and more affordable equipment. Now almost anyone can make a movie.
That doesn’t mean that everything out there is great or worthwhile, however. And it brings us back to the question of quality, and who is qualified to determine what is worth watching. All of this has been eternally complicated by the knowledge that the vast majority of films produced are made not to tell a story, but to gain an audience. They are not made to last or endure or be well made. They are put out there to get people in the seats once or twice and make money for their investors. How do we lump films that are mere product in with films that are art and try to create standards?
The strange and wonderful thing about movies is that amid all of these questions we still watch them for fun, and in doing so find the exceptions. They are product, yes, but the people who made them took some time or some skill and created a quality meal under a brand name label. That’s what I love about classic Hollywood. In the 30s and 40s, at the top of their game, the big studios were putting out something like 500 films a year. A lot of them were terrible, and have happily been forgotten. But others have become a standard. It’s why 1939 is still called the high water mark of American (and perhaps worldwide) filmmaking.
I was thinking about all this last night as I watched the 1953 movie version of Cole Porter’s classic Kiss Me, Kate. Porter wrote the songs for the Broadway production (which was a huge hit late in his career) and was very involved in the making of the film (he’s even written in to the film version as a character in the first scene). The film was an MGM Freed Unit musical, will the full treatment of splashy costumes, named stars (Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson as leads), and the big treatment. It was filmed for 3D, but opened in the waning days of the fad, so only half the prints were sent as 3D. As a side note, I had the chance to see it screened in 3D when I lived in Boston, but opted for Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder instead. Hitch’s film only had about 5 minutes of fun 3D (Grace Kelly reaches over her head, seemingly into the back row of the theater, and pulls up a pair of shears to defend herself against an attacker!) and I now regret the decision, but I digress.
Kiss Me, Kate is a fun musical, especially for anyone who knows and loves musical theater (another side note, my college produced it when I was a sophomore. Don’t be fooled, I wasn’t in the show. I was carting around scenery and running into the stage manager with a cumbersome set wagon). The book by Samuel and Bella Spewak (the screenplay by Dorothy Kingsley only slightly modifies it) is an inspired contemporary 1930s version of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” with the plotline interweaving between the backstage action and the performance of Shakespeare’s classic within the narrative.
Within the first five minutes, Ann Miller is dancing around to a tamed version of “Too Darn Hot” and throwing accessories toward the camera. Props are hurled camera-wise throughout the picture and there are noticeably shallow-focus shots to make objects or actors “jump out.” Bob Fosse plays one of Bianca’s suitors (if you know Fosse’s style, you can pick him out quickly) and Hermes Pan (who worked with Astaire on choreography for the Fred and Ginger pictures) let the principle dancers develop their own styles for their numbers. The result was Fosse’s big break, and he’s a lot of fun to watch.
The musical film is the realm of the performer. Many of them had come from vaudeville, and were used to performing an entire routine. A filmed dance or a song is centered on the actor. The performer does the work, and the camera just dances along. Musical films may not be noted for sophisticated shooting and camerawork (unless they’re directed by Busby Berkley) and that’s probably why critics in general have never spent much time with them. But does the lack of sophisticated “film-making” lessen the amount of artistry in a movie, or is it simply a difference in style? Is using the film medium as a platform for other artistry to shine (instead of the filmmaking shining) less valid?
A musical, or any film, is not supposed to be real life. Maybe this was easier for audiences who did not have streaming video and home movies to grasp. Perhaps watching vaudeville performers made audiences more used to the separation of stage and audience. Perhaps only being able to see the films larger than life in a theater made them obviously fictional. Documentary, cinema verite, and realism are vital and well used storytelling forms, but as many critics and theorists have noted, no form is completely objective. Every lens has a point of view. And for that matter, so does every pen (or blog, etc.).
Kiss Me, Kate foregrounds the artifice of musicals by making the “backstage” a stage as well. This is heightened by the film form. Everything is presentational, from the sets and costumes to the staging of the musical numbers and 3D camera coverage. The final shot of the film finds the curtain being drawn on the play within the play. Our leading love interests have resolved their differences while playing their Shakespearian characters (i.e., as Petruchio and Kate “make up” so do Fred and Lilli). We, the film audience, know that this is not Keel and Grayson making up. We accept the fiction of the film and that lends an understanding of the fiction within the film. The two leads are superimposed over the closing curtain. They zoom larger and life toward the camera. Stage and screen. Performance and fiction. Commentaries on life, not life itself. But the intention is to entertain. The commentary comes because all story is commentary in some way.
This again, is something film can do that other forms cannot. This is sophisticated storytelling as well as entertainment. Critics who can recognize a films ability to do both certainly exist, and are gaining wider platforms with new media. The pantheon of film is so large and so varied that film lovers should be able to find both critics and films which are of good quality, but suit taste. There is a balance there, somewhere, I’m sure.