Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Playing Favorites

When my brother Troy suggested to me that we blog about our 25 favorite albums and movies, it got me thinking about the difference between 'favorite' and 'best'. I have kind of touched on this a little with this post about my taste in movies, and how that taste evolves over time. I also just explained in my post about Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that that film holds a particularly special place in my film-going heart. It is the first film where I started to notice other aspects of filmmaking besides the action on the screen. What is the difference between 'favorite' and 'best' anyway? Is there a difference? To me it's the difference between something like The Virgin Spring and Aliens. Yes, those two films have nothing to do with each other, except for the fact that I hold the former in high regard. I would even place it on my list of the 25 greatest films ever made. Aliens? Probably not. But there are fewer films I can think of that I find more entertaining than James Cameron's hyper-kinetic action/sci-fi masterpiece. Which brings about another debate: are films by Bergman, Ozu, Fellini, etc. not entertaining? Can only big budget movies or genre pictures be called entertaining? And if so, is this a way that more serious film-goers simply explain the difference between the two in order to save their credibility? Is there a distinction between film and movies?

I have always explained to people that film, unlike few artistic mediums, has the ability to change perspectives and make profound statements about life. It's the most interesting of art forms (to me) and I love nothing more than absorbing the philosophies and images of a Bergman or Fellini. But would I just pop in Cries and Whispers while I'm working on a crossword puzzle or cleaning the apartment? Probably not. It's a film that requires your utmost attention to its finely crafted details; simply it cannot be half-watched. A film like Aliens however can, and I would argue it can still be enjoyed the same as if you were giving the film your full attention.

Of course I am speaking primarily of my favorites; films I have seen time and time again, that for some reason keep me coming back for more. Some of these are just great films that I grew up with; others are more serious films that I have studied over the years. But I keep coming back to the debate that I faced a lot when I worked at a video store: can a 'heavy' film (like Bergman) be entertaining? I think it can, and I think most of his films are exhilarating experiences. Sure, not in the Steven Spielberg/George Lucas sense, but they unique and life altering experiences with film. They also consist of moments where the pieces seem to fit from other films. As you watch these classics and masters at work, one can see how other films have been influenced by, and utilized the skills that the Bergman's and the Fellini's used years before them. Understanding the referential aspect of film is only obtainable by watching movies that are often timed deemed 'too serious'.

That term bothers me, because there are plenty of bad movies made recently that people claim to love, but I would qualify them as 'too serious'. This can mean a number of things, but I mostly attribute this to the filmmakers thinking that their film is a lot more important than any other film released that year because they are making an important societal message. Films like Babel, Children of Men, Crash have garnered both a lot of praise and a lot of hate. I didn't necessarily find the first two films entertaining or important (although I could appreciate the craft that went into them), but I enjoyed Crash (I'm not ashamed, I don't care how much street cred I lose because of it) and found it extremely over-the-top operatic and entertaining. This is an example of a popular film that many average Joe movie-goers found to be both serious and entertaining. I would say the same about a film like 8 1/2, probably the best film I have ever seen, and coincidentally one of my favorite movies, too. It's a film experience unlike any other and I can safely say that I would enjoy watching the film (for as emotionally draining as it can be) at any time on any day. It's also a foreign film, and at times, quite serious. But I defy anyone who sees that movie to claim that it's not entertaining.

Now, the difference between 'favorite' and 'best' is a different argument. There a re a lot of movies that I want my friends, family, and girlfriend to see that they haven't. Some of my favorite movie moments don't come from the uber serious films I love and admire (and would gladly claim to be 'the best'); rather they come from films like Raising Arizona, The Weatherman, Casino, The Godfather, etc. These are the films that shaped me and helped me evolve into a serious film-watcher. These films ushered me through my apprenticeship with the medium and were the catalyst for me discovering the classics and the more challenging films from filmmakers like Bergman. If it weren't for these 'favorites' of mine, then I don't know if I would have ever watched anything by the aforementioned directors, or even directors like: Mallick, Ford, Lang, Murnau, Herzog, Eisenstein, Tarkovsky, and the list could go on.

I want to end with this: I touched on it briefly in my post on my taste in movies, that if it wasn't for John Woo's action pictures, or pieces of crap like The Last Boyscout, then who knows if I would be the admirer of film that I am today. I can think of countless films that I used to love when I was younger, simply because I thought they were cool, or had neat action sequences. These are the attributes I appreciate today as part of the referential aspect of film (like I mention in my review of Nightmare City) that can be seen in any film by Robert Rodriguez or Quentin Tarantino. I am glad I used to love a weird trashy Noir film called Romeo is Bleeding starring Gary Oldman. Seriously, I used to watch that thing all the time on HBO. Now I see the film for what it is, and it doesn't quite make the list, but it's still one of my favorites.

So why not just be a man and not worry about being some pretentious film connoisseur who dismisses these films as being nothing more than 'mere entertainment that doesn't have the capability to challenge me'? Well...I really don't care about that, and I would gladly (and do) consider a film like Raising Arizona as one of the 25 best films ever made. I make no apologies for loving everything about a film like Raising Arizona and placing it (albeit arbitrarily) ahead of films by Kubrick (who I don't like, save Barry Lyndon and 2001) or any other 'esteemed' filmmaker. But things get hazy after the few selections I consider to occupy both my top 25 'favorite' films and top 25 'best films'.

Do I appreciate the technique and influence of say a film by Eric Von Stroheim (I love The Wedding March)? Absolutely. But I much rather watch Peter Weller stab the dude from "That 70's Show" in the eye with a giant knife.

So I purpose the question to you: is there a difference between your favorites and what you consider 'the best'? Can serious film be considered entertaining? Would you rather sit through Spielberg or Bergman? Burton or Murnau? Is there a difference?

*I will explain more of these differences and better articulate some of these thoughts when I roll out my 25 favorite movies in the next couple of weeks. Also, look on Troy's blog for the same thing. My top 25 favorite albums will follow after that. Enjoy, and feel free to add your own list on your blog.


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