Quality
(pt. 2)

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By Beppe Colli
Jan. 11, 2009



For this writer, the Holiday Season, and the whole period at the end of the year, are usually a peaceful, serene time; at least, quite more peaceful and serene than the norm. So, for me this is definitely the perfect time to surf the Web, looking for fine movies that I hope I'll be able to catch in a month or two, the following year (though it happens, once in a while, that those "few months" turn into a whole year, or even two), in a theatre, or, in DVD-V format, at home. Surfing the Web looking for news and reviews about good movies I hope I'll eventually see is something I do quite often - though not as often as I'd like, one's time and attention being, as it's widely known, finite quantities. What I especially like about end-of-year critical lists is that they are the perfect occasion to give low-budget, uncommercial, difficult movies a lot of ("immaterial", "virtual") inches, so placing them for once on a level playing field, at last able to compete with those big productions.

Looking so early for movies to see can appear as a strange, bizarre occupation (also a strange way to spend part of one's Holidays). But if we think about it, in a way it mirrors what a lot of magazines and newspapers already do, as they start dedicating their pages to movies that have just gone into production (or are still at the planning stage, their casting, at best, an hypothesis). With articles, curios, interviews, pictures, and so on,  all doing their best to arouse the audience's interest, hoping it'll turn the movie into a smash at the box office.

It's quite obvious that this way of "contributing to a smash", while offering nothing one could define as "criticism" (it doesn't even pretend to be criticism), is totally beyond the grasp of the budget that's typical of a low-budget movie; it's also the only way many people (those who still read, by the way) have of learning about a movie. Sure, one has not to underestimate the importance of "word of mouth", but this is precisely the kind of factor that's bound to decrease in importance as movies increasingly appear in DVD-V format only: a private experience in one's home, not a shared experience in a theatre.

I firmly believe (still) that the ideal place to watch a movie is a big screen in a large room. When I watched Ghost World - a movie I only saw in DVD-V - I could only hope to correctly "perceive" what to me appeared like pastel colours, also some "almost art deco" scenography. But I was quite surprised when I realized that - in its translation from big screen in a large hall to small screen in a small hall to computer screen at home - Lost In Translation lost a not-so-small part of it power to fascinate (me). While only a fool would say that a movie like the Dardenne Bros.' Lorna's Silence, it being so "minimal", could be just the same on a small screen. While I'm obviously aware of the importance of the pragmatic argument "catch as catch can", i.e., sometimes conditions that are far from ideal will have to do.

So it was on a day like any other day, last December, that I happened to stumble across a movie frame where a girlish woman and her dog were playing, the usual wood stick being thrown. I was reading The New York Times, and I saw that the movie in question - titled Wendy And Lucy - had a NYT Critics' Pick tag: "This movie has been designated a Critic's Pick by the film reviewers of The Times". And since below the frame there was a review of the movie - written by A. O. Scott, dated December 10, 2008 - I decided to read it.


It goes without saying that those who dare say that nowadays Andy Warhol is not widely appreciated as a theoretician would be immediately hit by a shower of Campbell's Soup cans. Still - maybe it's just what I read? - it appears that Warhol's name is not mentioned very often, though those scenaries that he perceptively perceived - if not "in nuce", at least in a form that was not so extreme as today's -  are easily visible today, even to the naked eye.

I'm sure everybody remembers that famous dictum (I'm quoting from memory) "In the future, everybody will be world-famous for fifteen minutes". The accent usually goes on "fifteen minutes". I propose we concentrate on "everybody": to become world-famous today it's not necessary anymore to be somebody whose work is extraordinary - Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Einstein - this possibility being nowadays accessible to anyone. But since it's accessible to "anyone", this entails a minimum duration: those famous "fifteen minutes".

Warhol's "Superstars" - who in the context of those times could have been filed under "ordinary people" with great difficulty - didn't really possess any extraordinary qualities. With the obvious exception of their being "unusual", starting with the way they looked. And an "unusual" look is not something that today is confronted with disapprobation, the opposite being true most of the time.

Warhol's scenery is one that's appropriate to define as "affluent". A lot less famous than the one about the fifteen minutes is the aphorism about the sameness of all consumption experiences, as in the famous dictum about Coca Cola: there's not a better Coca Cola for people of a higher income, or higher social status, but (I'm quoting from memory) "The President, Liz Taylor, you and I... all drink the same Coca Cola... and we are all aware of this fact... the President, Liz Taylor, you and I".

The fact that according to Warhol the consumer horizon is of the "reflexive" kind is made apparent by the impact of a technological innovation such as the video tape recorder, which (quoting from memory one more time) "will make it possible for a lot of regular people to shoot some porn movies and watch them with their friends".

Since this framework is "democratic" and perennially "dynamic" (given the perennial invention - on a technical level - of new things), I think the famous aphorism about surface being the only thing, and a thing under which "there is nothing", which some have considered as being quite mysterious, becomes quite easy to understand.

If we assume this framework - where anybody is a collector of sensations that productivity makes easily available to anybody in a very large quantity under the guise of "objects" - the whole issue of quality as an "external" entity becomes meaningless. Outside the framework there are still quality in a technical sense - the solidity of a building, the hygiene of a restaurant - and religious faith.

But if we agree upon the fact that "a pleasant experience" is one that's worth repeating very often, here we have the "All you can eat" model. (And what happens when technical innovation makes it possible having one's experience separated from a platform and a price?) It goes without saying that a model of consumption that transfers "alimentary" properties to all things makes the role of "arbiter of taste" become absurd: if listening to music or watching a movie are not different from eating, the only one who can act as the judge is the one who does the eating. In fact, see what happens when people are invited to go beyond reactions such as "I liked it", "I didn't like it", "I'll listen to it, then I'll make up my own mind about it".


The end of the year brings the usual articles (in print and on the Web) about those who went belly-up, those who were fired, those who are about to go bankruptcy, and how soon, etc. But besides the usual problems of rising costs, the central issue is the same as always: sometimes expensive, quality never comes cheap, and today not many people appear to be willing to spend some cash.

With the passing of time, the idea (that once I would have defined as being "intuitive") that knowing the background of something, its cultural links, its structure, its "meaning", made one's appreciation different - also "better", 'cause more profound - increasingly appears more and more mysterious to most.

And while one we considered a musician who played "impossible things" (that all other people would never manage to play) on his instrument (this is not only a "technical" issue: think Monk) as something worth of our admiration, today's model is one of those "reality" shows where "people like us" appear. For fifteen minutes.


The fine review appearing in The New York Times convinced me that adding Wendy And Lucy to the small list of movies I intend to see this year was a good idea. I also read other fine reviews, the best one being the one written by Cynthia Fuchs which appeared in PopMatters. It was at that point that I decided to have a look at the website of the Village Voice, where J. Hoberman's work is one of the few things I still consider to be worth my time there. Totally by chance, the review of Wendy And Lucy that was featured there was by Hoberman (the review appeared on Tuesday, December 9th 2008 at 1:54pm).

Here's an excerpt from the final part of the review: "(...), Wendy and Lucy has obvious affinities to Italian neorealism. Reichardt has choreographed one of the most stripped-down existential quests since Vittorio De Sica sent his unemployed worker wandering through the streets of Rome searching for his purloined bicycle, and as heartbreaking a dog story as De Sica's Umberto D. But Wendy and Lucy is also the most melancholy of American sagas".


Beppe Colli 2009

CloudsandClocks.net | Jan. 11, 2009