For the Love of Movies That Never Played at the Mall…

For the Love of Movies That Never Played at the Mall… May 8, 2008

In my experience of discussing movies online, few people have challenged me to dig deeper and look closer at movies than Ken Morefield.

That’s why I’m enthusiastic about having his as a “guest reviewer” so often at Looking Closer.

So I am delighted to discover that…

Morefield has a book deal!

Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema will include some of his work. And not only that, it will include essays by several more of my favorite film interpreters: Doug Cummings, Mike Hertenstein, and Darren Hughes. I’ve met these three in person, and they’re great guys with impeccable taste in films.

Here’s the Table of Contents.

I’m excited about this book. Congratulations, Ken, Mike, Doug, and Darren.

If these guys started a film studies program, it would be pretty close to ideal, and I’d want to sign up right away. (Of course, I’d have to quit the rest of my life — I can’t even manage to find time for lunch these days, much less movies.) If these four were regularly participating in a film discussion board, film enthusiasts like me would flock to it from around the world. But you wouldn’t find much discussion of the movies that are playing in your neighborhood multiplex. Instead, you’d find discussion of the finest films ever made, visions from all corners of the globe. Not movies that pander to the audience, but movies that ask the viewer to consider what the world looks like from very different perspectives. Movies that the people who pick the Oscars probably don’t even know exist.

I’ll never be able to keep up with these guys, mostly because I can’t even average one movie a week these days, due to the demands of working a full-time job; fulfilling Christianity Today’s film-review assignments (which are usually about mainstream American cinema, not art films from foreign countries); *and* the pressure of deadlines associated with publishing one novel per year. But I’m thankful for the films I’ve discovered due to the discussions in the blogs and reviews of these writers. And I’m grateful to have enjoyed conversations with each of them that sharpened my discernment a little more. I miss those conversations.

Now, sometimes when film critics start talking about the difference between popular movies and art films, they quickly start sounding like snobs. Likewise, when film critics bother to talk about box office hits, they can be quickly judged as simpletons by other film critics. I find this constantly frustrating. I see a wide range of movies, for very different purposes, in very different contexts, and I discuss them daily with different communities.

I go to movies for so many reasons.

  • There are those I see because the movies interest me.
  • There are others I see because they’re stirring up interest in my community, and I want to participate in that discussion and help illuminate their strengths and weaknesses.
  • There are some I attend simply because I’ve been assigned to review them.
  • And then there are others I see just because that’s the territory where certain friendships grew and continue to flourish.

Alas, there are some circles of film dialogue that seem to require me to “repent” of these enthusiasms in order to deserve some kind of worthiness, and I’m not interested in reinforcing any such condescension or cliquish behavior. Nor am I interested keeping up with box office hits when so many of them are a total waste of time.

When I’m out on the town with friends on the weekend, I usually end up in the cineplex watching blockbusters. I want to spend time in relationship with those who still enjoy the things we enjoyed in high school and college. We love to talk about sequels and how they measure up. Or we’re looking for a new, quotable comedy that will add new vocabulary to our banter. It’s not a matter of art, it’s a matter of community. Like Madeleine L’Engle said, I don’t think of my age as an isolated statistic. I’m still four, and seven, and fourteen, and twenty-three. I still enjoy today the things I enjoyed then — and that includes ice cream bars and cheeseburgers.

Sometimes, it’s a matter of convenience and capacity. I went to see Iron Man because a traffic jam had caused me to miss a speaking engagement. I suddenly found myself in a part of town where only the only Plan B available to me was a cineplex playing the box office top five. I was frustrated by the two hours in traffic, and weary. Since I knew my local moviegoing friends were across town watching Iron Man, I liked the idea of unwinding later by discussing it with them. So I grabbed a ticket to a showing at the nearby shopping center. I didn’t have the energy for anything demanding, and Iron Man really only requires about 5% of your brain.

Online, I devote a great deal of time to the Arts and Faith community, because I’ve found more than just film discussions there — I’ve found lasting (even life-changing) friendships there, and there’s an openness to discussing the whole range of filmmaking. I can toss around trivia with comic-book fans, or I can discuss filmmakers’ subtle engagement with spiritual mysteries in abstract art. It’s part of a discipline of examining what is popular and uncovering what those movies reveal to us about our culture, our questions, our strengths and weaknesses, and our obsessions. Sometimes tempers flare, sometimes personalities clash, but it still feels like home because it’s okay to be a fan of both Kieslowski *and* the Coen Brothers *and* Disney *and* the X-Men movies. That’s where I met Mr. Morefield, and I’m glad I did.

But then, on those days when I’m on my own and I can watch whatever interests me most, I go to movies for entirely different reasons. I consult particular reviewers, take trips to particular theaters, and have very different experiences. Or I rent something that never would have discovered without the help of writers like Jonathan Rosenbaum, who is so interested in the social and political implications of film, or Doug Cummings who is becoming an expert on the state of progress of cinema as an art form around the world.

A copy of Syndromes and a Century from Netflix has been sitting on my television for three months, just so I can watch it again and again, and I wouldn’t have been so eager to see it without the enthusiasm of these writers. (Next up: Private Fears in Public Places.) I have a hard time finding folks in my community who are eager to watch and discuss films that don’t feature familiar celebrities, or that are subtitled, or that don’t have a simple narrative flow. But I don’t care. When I have a day to myself (a rare event days), more often than not I end up driving across town to some out-of-the-way theater where only five or six people are in the audience. And on Sunday, when I’m asked “What have you seen lately?”, my answers usually provoke blank stares.

At the Christian writers’ conference in town last week, someone recognized my name, and asked me what the last movie I saw was. When I said Flight of the Red Balloon, his disappointment and disinterest were obvious. “Have you seen Incredible Hulk yet?” he quickly asked, hoping to talk about something that qualified as a Movie in his vocabulary. We ended up talking about, yes, Iron Man.

And that’s fine. Iron Man isn’t trash. It’s an amusement park ride. But I do tire of talking about rollercoasters and bumper cars. I wish I could have talked to him about Flight of the Red Balloon, which is not an amusement park ride… it’s more like a painting hanging in a Paris museum. But in our two-minute chat, how would I even begin to explain what I appreciate about that film? He didn’t want to talk about art. He wanted to talk about amusement.

So it can be a lonely pursuit, this desire to discover movies that demand to be studied, to find films that I’ll have to see many times to begin to understand and absorb what they have to offer. (My wife would rather read a good novel, and I don’t blame her… I miss out on a lot of great reading because of my interest in movies.) But time is short, and if I have a good opportunity I want to savor an extravagant meal instead of settling for fast food. That’s why I’m grateful for reviewers like these, whose recommendations have been so rewarding, whose blog posts can send me across town just to see for myself what they’re discussing. It may not be what my community wants to see and discuss, but it’s the kind of artmaking that inspires me most.

So I’m pre-ordering Morefield’s book. And then I’ll end up revising my Netflix request list.

Want to grow in your appreciation of film as an art form? Want to discover the best films you’ve never seen? Here are a few places to start:

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Jeffrey,

    Thank you for the info on the Flight of the Red Balloon. I will let you know how it goes.

    I read your book on watching film, and was intrigued by the Story of the Weeping Camel title. I’m afraid seeing the movie would spoil the images that conjures up. Can a movie be better than that title? But will keep it in mind.

  • Robert, yes, I noticed. Glad to hear you haven’t moved on. But perhaps it’s better that you didn’t have anything in the issue with the most frightening cover ever. I didn’t realize Scarlett Johannson could be made to look so ghastly. (shudder)

    Slowlane, Flight of the Red Balloon will probably be more interesting for adults than for children, due to its focus on adults caught up in maddening pressures and longing for the freedom and meandering, wide-eyed wonder of youth. But I don’t think there’s anything in it that would *offend* children and I would be very interested in hearing from you about what your son thinks of it. I was delighted to hear reports from a few families that The Story of the Weeping Camel was holding very young viewers spellbound. If your son likes Flight, well, that’s very promising! It’s one of those films that, for me, is rewarding even if you just go back and watch a ten or fifteen minute selection. (I am lucky enough to have a DVD that I keep revisiting.) It’s playing on the big screen now, and I’m eager to see if the experience is much different watching it in a theater.

  • Jeffrey,

    I am an aged woman who doesn’t get to current movies. (I did see Babette’s Feast on its first run.) But I will try get to Flight of the Red Balloon. Because you recommend it, and it sounds like something our son might enjoy.

    The serendipity of those grade school movies still fascinates me. (I went to a poor rural public school, in central Ohio, which none of us realized was was poor until a teacher told us. Probably 20% of my second grade class was Amish, at that time. They probably stayed home on movie day. Migrated out, soon after.) Late 60’s, early 70’s.

    Marco Polo
    Rebel Without A Cause
    Red Balloon

  • Thanks, Jeffrey. That’s nice of you to say. I think the June issue of Paste (with Scarlett Johansson on the cover) is the first issue in years that I didn’t write anything for. Been busy with other things — but I’ll be back.

  • kenmorefield

    Jeff, thanks so much for the shout out and kind words. I’m sure you know but for the benefit of others who might read this post, there is a lag time between when one gets the contract and when the physical book arrives in one’s anxious little hand. Still, seeing the actual contract does make it seem more real.

    Given the nature of your post, I also thought I should mention that the blog of mine you’ve linked to is my personal blog and is likely to have all sorts of non-film related stuff: my disc golf musings, my hubristic (and currently stalled) attempt to do a “close reading” of every chapter of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” my political grumblings, my failed attempts to decipher what the heck happened at the end of “Sweeney Todd,” my “rants” etc. I’m always happy to have traffic there, but perhaps a better link for the above list would be, which just has links to my most recent reviews (some of which will direct people back here).

    Thanks again for your encouragement.

  • Slowlane, you’ve seen The Red Balloon. But have you seen Flight of the Red Balloon, by Hou Hsiao-hsien? It’s a sort of homage, and my favorite film of 2008 so far.

  • Ah, I see what happened. I had meant to delete another link, because I went to see what the last few posts were about, and they seemed to be all about hockey, so I decided that might be rather surprising for readers, so I meant to take that one off the list. Instead, I clipped part of yours… Sorry.

  • Robert,

    Yikes! I did *not* mean to delete yours. That was just a typo in my HTML. It’s restored, Robert. And you’re one of my favorite critics. When I get Paste in the mail (as I did yesterday), the first thing I do is open to find your reviews. (I’m a fan of Alissa Wilkinson too.)

  • The Red Balloon was one of the first movies I ever saw. We had no television in our home, and only saw movies at school, once a year, on the (short) last day of school. (Sometimes we saw a cartoon first.)
    One year, we saw The Red Balloon.

    These films had every student’s undivided attention. Grades one through eight.

  • Jeffrey, I’m a friend and fan of some of these fellows, too, so even without having read a word of it, I know this book proves to be a work of real substance. Also: Syndromes and a Century and Flight of the Red Balloon, I’m with you all the way on that pair.

    BTW, I think there are some invisible links in your list of film blogs. You can’t see all of them, but you can tab to them in Firefox. I know this because one of the invisible ones is mine, and I can only assume you took another look at my site and decided I didn’t belong in such illustrious company and (incompletely) deleted me from the list. And I can’t say I’d disagree. ;-)

  • jenzug

    “He didn‚Äôt want to talk about art. He wanted to talk about amusement.”

    Great way to describe the difference. I get into a lot of conversations like this, mostly around the idea of movies I like being “depressing” and life is depressing enough and why can’t we just be entertained?!