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Finally! One of the great films of all times has become available. For years I have waited for a good copy of Marcel Pagnol’s La femme du boulanger (“The Baker’s Wife”) to be transferred to DVD. The only version I have is one I recorded from a Turner Classic Movies broadcast decades ago. The subtitles were horrible and the print none too good. I have treasured it for years and proudly introduced it to friends whenever I could. 

But now, Criterion will be offering a new, cleaned up, re-titled version. It is one of the greatest films ever. After watching it, Orson Welles claimed that its star, Raimu, was “the greatest actor in the world.” He called the move “perfect.” 

Raimu etches a perfect line between the comic and the tragic, playing a French village baker whose wife runs away with a younger man and who, heartbroken, refuses to bake another loaf until she returns. The villagers, despairing of ever again getting a good baguette, go all out to retrieve her. All the fine details of pre-war village life are drawn with subtle precision. As novelist Graham Greene said of the film, “the human actors are only part of the general setting — the well and the olive trees and the crude, crowded church and the Cercle Republicain (tavern) with the tin advertisements, and the hunter going out in the dawn with his dog and his gun while the baker sleeps in his (dough) trough beside the oven.”

It is a closely observed and beautifully seen world. 

(It is hardly the only great film too long unavailable: Abel Gance’s famous 6-hour silent film, Napoleon, has been restored, but is unavailable in the U.S. for ridiculous legal reasons — blame Francis Ford Coppola — but is available on a Region 2 disc from Amazon. All-region DVD players are common and inexpensive and worth the small investment.)

The popular conception of “foreign films” has changed over the years. Where once the term meant Bergman, Fellini and French films, it has now gone on to mean Pedro Almodovar, Johnnie To and Oscar-winning Mexican directors. A foreign language film is more likely to be in Cantonese than in Swedish. 

But I was born in the earlier era, and for me, the great movies are French. Yes, I have almost all of Bergman’s films on DVD, and most of Tarkovsky, but the great majority of the discs on my shelves are in French. I once catalogued them and counted well over 200 of them. 

Most people, when they think of French movies, think of the New Wave — that handful of directors in the late 1950s and into the 1960s who brought new techniques and new energy to the industry, along with an appreciation of Hollywood’s best work. 

But French cinema is much more. There were great movies before Truffaut ever came along. And great directors. Pagnol, Becker, Duvivier, Vigo, Clair, and above all, Jean Renoir. 

And there have been great directors since the wave hit the shore: Patrice Leconte, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Agnes Jaoui, Catherine Breillat, Jamel Debbouze.  

I am going to suggest a few of their movies, all (at least when I bought them) available on disc. Many are also available on streaming video. 

I have listed no more than a single film from any one director, to ensure a variety and a wide scope. I have tried to avoid the obvious choices, because you may already be familiar with them: Rules of the Game, Grand Illusion, Breathless, Jules and Jim, Wages of Fear. And, I have not included any Renoir films, mostly because they are self-recommending and any real movie lover should already be familiar with them. 

The earliest of these films is Pepe Le Moko, which was remade (and sentimentalized) in the Hollywood remake with Charles Boyer, Algiers. The French original is much better, in large part because Jean Gabin is so much greater an actor than Boyer. Julien Duvivier was a great standard of French directors in the 1930s. 

I am including also a peculiar film, The Story of a Cheat by Sacha Guitry. Guitry is one of the great French comics, who wrote many stage comedies, was as famous a performer in his day as, say, Richard Pryor was in his. This film is unusual in that it is presented almost entirely as voice-over narration. It is excellently clever. 

Mainstream French films of the ‘40s and ‘50s include many wonderful genre films, almost all better plotted and with more interesting characters than their Hollywood cousins. 

Touchez pas au Grisbi, by Jacques Becker, is one of Gabin’s greatest roles. And that is saying a lot. (The title translates, roughly, as “Hands off the loot.”) 

Les Diaboliques, by Henri-George Clouzot is the greatest suspense movie of all time, outdoing Hitchcock by a large margin. It was remade in Hollywood  in 1996 with Sharon Stone. Oy. 

A third crime drama from the 1950s is Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows, which has a great soundtrack by Miles Davis. It marks a shift in French film. Malle’s early work is not generally considered part of the New Wave, yet, there were several directors working at the time who prefigured the New Wave, giving us very personal films and often using locations rather than sets, and a more naturalistic style of acting.

Among those directors is Jean-Pierre Melville. Most of his work comprises heist dramas or crime stories. But I didn’t want to overweight this series of films with gritty thugs and grittier cops. And Army of Shadows tells an almost autobiographical story of the French underground in World War II. It has plenty of suspense and drama. 

Now we come to the New Wave itself. There were a handful of directors working in this new style, more free and improvisational, using location shooting rather than studio sets, and breaking up the normal beginning-middle-end narrative structure. 

The two gods of Nouvelle Vague couldn’t be more different. Jean-Luc Godard is anarchic, innovative and indefatigably political. He wants to destroy the status quo. He probably never made a completely successful film, but moments in every one of the astound with brilliance. He does things no one ever thought to do: drop out the soundtrack, edit arbitrarily, shoot dialog from behind the heads of the actors, shift from color to black and white and back, point the camera away from the actors. Godard freed up filmmaking for the next 40 years. Band of Outsiders is one of his most famous films, and includes the race through the Louvre that is quoted in several other films.

Francois Truffaut, on the other hand, is a dyed-in-the-wool humanist, and he finds the humanity in pretty much everything he films. As warm as Godard is cold, he is everyone’s favorite New Waver. So many of his films are so well known, I’ve tried to find one for you that you probably haven’t seen, The Woman Next Door. It’s a late film and features Gerard Depardieu before he became a joke. He was then a great actor. 

Claude Chabrol was the most prolific New Wave director, with nearly 60 films under his belt. He was also the most conventional of the New Wave directors, turning his talents primarily to suspense and crime films, but seen in the fresh style of the New Wave. Le Boucher is probably his most characteristic film. 

Eric Rohmer may be an acquired taste. They are talky, and were made in series, one group called “Moral Tales,” and another called “Comedies and Proverbs.” Summer (in French Le Rayon Vert: “The Green Ray”)  is one of the Comedies and Proverbs. 

Jacques Rivette is another New Waver, and he is notable for the length of his films, and his patience. It can try the patience of his viewers, but not if you pay attention. My favorite film, La Belle Noiseuse, is four hours long and spends a lot of that time showing an artist drawing with a crow-quill pen on paper. I’m not letting that out of my house. 

But I’m going to suggest instead, Va Savoir, probably his most accessible film, that has a great part for Jeanne Balibar. Claude Berri has a supporting part as a librarian.

I only mention that because Berri is really a director, and The Two of Us is a great film, and probably the only one in which an anti-Semite comes across as lovable. Michel Simon is a force of nature and I recommend seeing any film he is in. 

Finally, two recent films. French cinema has long ago taken what it could from the New Wave and moved on to more contemporary themes. 

One of my favorite living directors is Patrice Leconte. The Hairdresser’s Husband is quirky and heartbreaking and stars Jean Rochefort. He’s great in everything he does. 

There are several women directors who should be included. My favorite is Agnes Varda, but I’m including here instead Fat Girl by Catherine Breillat. It can be rather brutal, but it is definitely worth seeing. 

Lastly, I’m including a musical. Yes, a musical. It is Francois Ozon’s 8 Women, and it features an “all-star” cast of great French actresses: Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Beart, Fanny Ardant, Virginie Ledoyen, Danielle Darrieux, Ludivine Sagnier and Firmine Richard. This is like lining up Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland, Ava Gardner, Veronica Lake, Barbara Stanwyck, Lucille Ball and Marilyn Monroe, all in the same movie. It’s a doozy. 

I hope you enjoy all these. There’s plenty more to see, if these whet your appetite for Gallic filmmaking and if any of these directors particularly hits your buzzer, there are another five or ten films by the same maker. 

That’s your first 15 recommendations. But here are 25 or so more (I cheated. Some are trilogies, one is a pair). These are all films I love dearly:

Quai des orfevres by Henri-Georges Clouzot

La bete humaine by Jean Renoir

La ronde by Max Ophuls

Une femme est une femme by Jean-Luc Godard

Bob, le flambeur by Jean-Pierre Melville

Betty by Claude Chabrol

Le quai des brumes by Jacques Prevert

Monsieur Hire by Patrice Leconte

Le Trou by Jacques Becker

Mouchette by Robert Bresson

Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 by Jean-Francois Richet

Under the Roofs of Paris by Rene Clair

Man on the Train by Patrice Leconte

The Taste of Others by Agnes Jaoui

Vagabond by Agnes Varda

The Dreamers by Bernardo Bertolucci

The Marseille Trilogy by Marcel Pagnol, three films: Marius; Fanny; and Cesar

The Earrings of Madame de … by Max Ophuls

Trilogy by Lucas Belvaux, including: Cavale on the Run; An Amazing Couple; and After Life

La Vie en Rose by Olivier Dahan

The Widow of St. Pierre by Patrice Laconte

Inspecteur Lavadin and Cop au Vin by Claude Chabrol

Le Samourai by Jean-Pierre Melville

Shoot the Piano Player by Truffaut

Jet Lag – (Decalage Horaire) by Danièle Thompson

Sex is Comedy by Catherine Breillat

Ridicule by Patrice Laconte

I am deeply embarrassed by the films I have left out. If you have a favorite, please add them to the comments.

Click any image to enlarge

We’ve reached the end. Six days in Palm Springs looking at a hundred or more short films. The judges now have to sit down and parse out who will get the awards. Some judges are better at this than others. Notes I took as one of those jurors in 2000 at the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival. 

Judges Attend The Annual Service At Westminster Abbey To Mark The Start Of The UK Legal Year

Aug. 6

Today is judgment day.

We met as groups in the Festival office beginning at 9 a.m. Jack and I sat in one booth with a VCR. Sharon and Andy took the conference room. Selise and Norman took the larger office.

Jack and I had already discussed out choices for documentary the evening before, so we had a good idea where we were going. But Jack, very generously had gone and viewed my choice for documentary another time.

“I looked at Esther, Baby and Me one more time this morning,” he said. “And I’m willing to change my mind on it. I’ll agree it is a documentary. It’s not a traditional one, but it does examine the filmmaker’s state of mind during his wife’s pregnancy, and although he gave her lines to learn and perform, I guess that is the only way you could film it.”

esther the baby and me 4

Note from 2016 — Decide for yourself; See Louis Taylor’s Esther, Baby and Me: https://vimeo.com/39118601

Jack surprised me several times with his generosity and willingness to consider other points of view.

Indeed, during the juroring process, he was always willing to negotiate and bargain and compromise. I take that as a sign of a very good juror. I also was willing to compromise. I think it’s the only way to do it successfully.

At any rate, we got through our choices in about a half hour and it only took that long because we stopped to view one of the films another time.

I conceded his first choice for documentary — The Sunshine, a straight documentary about the bums living in a Bowery flophouse — and he accepted Esther, Baby and Me as the second prize winner.

For Live Action 15 minutes and under, we both agreed on This Guy is Falling, although, if he had wanted to argue the point, he might have said it wasn’t really live action, since all the sets and backgrounds were computer generated. He didn’t so argue.

this guy is falling fire extinguisher

Note from 2016 — the film by Michael Horowitz and Gareth Smith explores what happens if the gravity switch is accidentally turned off. See This Guy is Falling: https://vimeo.com/347702

Our previous first choice, Echo, about a pair of holocaust survivors, one blind, the other deaf, fell gracefully into second place. Done.

In the conference room, Andy and Sharon had twice as many categories to go through: all the student films. It took them about an hour and they were done, too, with no rancor.

We waited and waited. I went out to the car and got a book. We watched a few favorite videos while waiting for Selise and Norman.

At one point, Fred Linch came into the booth with two videos.

“I’m going to have to cast a tie-breaking vote,” he said.

As head of jury, that was his job, although in six years of the festival, he had never had to actually do such a thing before. He watched two animations and finally made a choice. We heard a few grumbles from the office where Selise and Norman were arguing.

Another hour goes by. Fred comes in with another two films to cast another tie-breaker.

The voting was supposed to last from 9 to 11, if necessary. It took till 2 in the afternoon, because Norman and Selise didn’t know how to compromise and negotiate. They were both stubborn, although, as we found out later, it was mostly Norman who was the horse’s ass.

During the full-jury session to pick “Best of the Fest” from our selections, Norman blocked us, slowed us down and vacillated constantly.

“No, wait. Did I vote for Edge of Dusk? I meant to vote for … no wait, what were the choices?”

There were three choices, but he kept wanting to open it up to others, although no one else would have voted for them anyway, making the issue moot.

Over and over, Norman split hairs, argued points — all meaningless — and made us vote and revote. His notes were a salad of scrap paper with scribblings, in no particular order, so when he wanted to consult them, it would take him forever to find the note he needed, and then when he found it, it was no longer the point he was trying to make.

We were all pretty well exasperated by him, but finally drew the thing to a close.

Each judge was permitted to give one award to any film he wanted, no questions asked. Six “special merit” awards.

I gave mine to Titler, for the category, “Offensive in the Most Memorable Way.” In it a transvestite Hitler sings wildly obscene songs in various industrial settings. Note from 2016 — You can find it on You Tube, but I feel good taste and discretion recommends I not post it here.

After the five of us had done that, Norman came up with three possible merit awards and couldn’t make up his mind — more precisely, he couldn’t remember what they were. He shuffled notes, voted for one picture, changed his mind, no, wait, he went back the the first choice, but then, no, he found a third film and went with it, but wasn’t sure. We were beginning to form a lynch group.

Then Fred asked if there were any other films we should consider.

“I’ll allow up to two more merit awards, if you think they deserve it. But only two. I’ll leave the room and you decide what you want.

I nominated Tex, the Passive Aggressive Gunfighter. Everyone agreed it deserved an award.

Note from 2016 — Tex, The Passive Aggressive Gunslinger, by Brian Sawyer, features Bob Balaban as the deadly desperado who never needs to draw his gun. See Tex: https://vimeo.com/14837389

tex 3

Sharon nominated a slender little slapstick animation film. Norman had three or four — he couldn’t make up his mind which.

Selise joined in. One of Norman’s films was a socially aware film about child abuse. As she was an officer in the group called Women in Film, she jumped right on it.

When Fred came back, we wound up having to vote to see which of the films would get the awards. Tex came in first, so he passed.

To make Selise happy (we didn’t care about Norman), we agreed to give an award to the child abuse film. Sharon was very upset, because, she said, “No one understands animation. This film is very good. I know how hard it was to do it. Awwwwwww.”

Jack jumped to it.

“I’m going to change my choice. For my unchallengable choice for a merit award, I’m going to go with Sharon’s animation. My film already won another award.”

Here he was again, building consensus. Sharon was very mollified.

So, that is how it all ended. The best film didn’t win best of show, but the film that did win was very good. Jack and I had bartered and were satisfied with our awards. I managed to squeeze a special award in for Titler, Andy and Sharon were happy with their choices, and Fred’s choices for Norman and Selise’s two first-place awards were perfectly acceptable.

That is the way it is as a juror. You hope to come out not being embarrassed by the jury’s choices. We did. If the best films in any one juror’s opinion didn’t prevail, at least the second choices of all averaged out and we all came away satisfied.

Even Norman was finally satisfied.


We are winding down now at the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival and the actual judging has begun. These are notes I made as a juror back in 2000 and I hope they give some sense of what it was like. 

TV camera and reporter

Aug. 5

I was interviewed by the TV crew at the hospitality suite.

“I’ve seen a lot of very good movies,” I told the camera, with its light glaring in my eyes. “And no dogs. The quality level has been surprisingly high.”

“What about the filmmakers,” the camera asked.

“They ask, ‘Have you seen my film?,’ but of course, what they really mean is, ‘Did you like my film?’ ”

What I really meant to say is, when they ask, “Did you like my film,” what they really mean is, “Did you like ME?”

What I did say to the camera was, “Artists are so needy.”

The jurors symbolically bought lunch for the filmmakers today — the Festival paid for it, but we were there to “serve” it, which really meant just being there as the food was eaten. TV crews came, piles of Mexican food in drifts on the tables were gobbled up.

The filmmakers mainly talked to each other; they speak the same language. The jurors mainly spoke to each other for the same reason.

“I expected to be bothered more by the filmmakers,” I mentioned to Andy Friedenberg. “Fred said they would be on us all the time.”

“I thought so, too,” Andy said. “They must have gotten to them before it started and warned them not to talk to the judges.”

Nevertheless, a number have come up and looked at my judge’s neck tag and asked with the faces of puppy dogs if I had seen their films.

“That film is in my category,” I would respond.

“Have you seen it yet?”

“It’s in my category.”

It must have driven them nuts.

“Have you seen my film?,” another asked.

I parried, asking him which film it was. I was only looking at professional films and I thought he might be a student, which would get me off the hook.

“Are you student or professional?,” I asked.

“Well, I’m not enrolled in any school, so I guess I’m a professional.”

I thought, that’s a perfect way to define professionalism.

Jack Ofield

Jack Ofield

We started the day with breakfast with Jack. He explained how he got from arctic Canada to San Diego, beginning as a painter planning a career selling gallery art, moving on to scenery painting in local theaters, moving up to directing local theater, thence to a special program for local theater people at the Canadian Film Board, where he learned from Norman McLaren, then on to a life in TV documentaries and to a position as filmmaker in residence at Sand Diego State University.

“I don’t know anything about teaching,” he says he told them.

“A professor took me aside and said, ‘Do you know how much we work? We get three months off for summer, we teach three or four classes a week. The salary is fantastic and they’re offering you tenure. Are you nuts?

“So I took the job.”

We talked over the documentaries. His choices were diametrically opposed to my choices. The two films I voted for were both questionable as documentaries, but I figured, if the Festival accepted them as documentaries, it wasn’t up to me to second guess them. Besides, the films I liked were rich with the sensibilities of their makers. Personal films with distinct points of view. When you finished with them, you got the feeling you knew something about the men who made them.

Jack, on the other hand, chose more traditional documentaries.

“I’m just not sure your films are documentaries at all,” he said.

We argued back and forth, in a good natured way.

“When the Maysles brothers began,” I argued, “there were plenty of people who didn’t think what they did was documentary, either. The camera changed the course of the action they filmed. People acted differently because they knew the camera was running. Now, we have no trouble with them. You complain that the film I love has people in it who are acting, and therefore they can’t be considered documentary. But what they act is the only way to show what was going on inside the head of the filmmaker. It is accurate and factual to the interior life of the filmmaker, and that is what he is making the documentary about. You can’t stick a camera in his ear and see what’s going on in his head. You have to show it metaphorically. That is what the recreations and fictionalized scenes do. They can’t show mere fact, so they attempt to show truth.”

Jack wudn’t having any of it.

At any rate, I finally offered a compromise. We could give first place to his choice if he would allow us to give second place to my choice.

Agreed.

We didn’t discuss our other category in depth, because we had both not seen all the entries yet. But based on what we did say, we won’t have such a difficulty agreeing on a winner.

Carole and I went to the office after breakfast to watch the day’s films in my category — professional live action films 15 minutes or under.

There were some very good ones.

As we were watching I heard someone enter the office and talk to the receptionist.

“Are you a filmmaker?,” the receptionist asked.

“No, but my son is,” she said.

Back in the year 2000, it is day 4 of the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival, for which I am one of six jurors. These were my notes at the time. 

MST3K

Aug. 4

Each day is a constant challenge to organize. The films I need to see to judge are scattered through mixed programs, some of which overlap. To catch up on the films I miss in the theater, I have to go to the Festival office to see on video. But sometimes the time it takes to watch the videos cuts into the next theater session, meaning I have to catch up all over again. It is a never-ending task. At the end of today, I have seen 74 films to judge, and many more outside my categories. By the end of the festival, I will have seen 91 of them.

I am becoming glazed over with short films. I can hardly tell them apart anymore. Sensitive guys learning to be gay, assertive women learning to be shallow, lesbian grandmothers teaching their grandchildren how to be themselves, men in flophouses learning to wear gold lame.

I should say something about the other jurors. We met at the beginning of the festival, but because we are seeing different categories, we rarely come across one another now. Except when we meet at the Festival office and jockey for video stations to watch films. The stations are prioritized. Jack Ofield likes the one in the carrel, separate from everyone else. Only one can sit and view films there.

The largest screen is in the east viewing area. It is usually chosen first by whoever is there. It is a mini theater and many can pull up chairs and watch.

A conference room down the hall has a small TV with a built-in VHS player. The chairs in that room are hard and the lights a little glary and the video player has no remote, which means we cannot pause during the credits to read something.

Finally, in the back of the office is the dubbing station, used by the Festival staff to copy tapes. The set is tiny and only plays mono sound, so some tapes sound like crap in it: You only wind up hearing one track of the stereo sound.

jack ofield 1

Jack Ofield

Jack is in my category, but he is an odd squirrelly fellow with shaggy hair. He’s about 60, I would guess, and is here with his wife, although we never see her. She has the car, so Jack is always bumming rides from here to there. He has a kind of lost look in his eyes and so far has been very good at not tipping his hand.

He has a PBS show called The Short List and obviously sees a lot of shorts. He also teaches filmmaking at San Diego State University.

We talked briefly about the Documentary category today, since we saw the last of them. It sounds as if his tastes are wildly different from mine and we agreed to meet for breakfast to discuss the category. He really liked the flophouse film, which I thought overlong and rather ordinary. We’ll have to see how it goes tomorrow.

sharon wu 2

Sharon Wu

Sharon Wu is a film instructor at the California Institute of the Arts and has been a judge at Palm Springs for at least 4 years now. A recidivist.

Every time we have gone to the office to watch videos, Wu is there. It seems as if she must watch all the films on tape. She is about 40 and just had a baby, which she calls the first baby of the Palm Springs Short Film Festival. She is well liked by all and a genuine regular.

Selese

Selise Eiseman

Selise Eiseman is director of programs for a group called Women in Films. She is married and a mother, thickly built and seemingly humorless, although I haven’t really had enough exposure to her to say that with assurance.

Andy Friedenberg is a shaved headed guy who is director of the Cinema Society of San Diego. He seems jolly and connected. He reminds me almost dead-on of Evan Handler on It’s Like… You Know.

andy friedenberg

Andy Friedenberg

(Outdated reference note from 2016: Handler was a regular on many TV shows more recently, including Californication and as Alan Dershowitz on American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson. But if the ref is too arcane, let’s just substitute Howie Mandel.)

Finally, Norman Gerard is a producer, writer and director of films. He talks like an industry insider, and is quickly dismissive of anything that seems to him to be a demo tape for an actor, suspicious of anything done on video instead of film, and he has that slightly curdling quality of the inappropriately intimate — you know, the kind of guy who calls me “Dick” the first time he meets me, or like the waiter who tells you his life story.

norman gerard

Norman Gerard

Fred Linch is the jury-meister, and is always lining us up with parties to go to when we have no time, or interviews with reporters who never call or get-togethers with filmmakers and studio people when I have to be at a screening. He is big bellied and jovial, with a gravelly baritone and — as I mentioned before — one missing front upper tooth that he seems unaware of.

I’m sure I must seem just as odd to them, always coming to screenings or office viewings with my wife. Carole and I are pretty close to inseparable. I rely on her taste and judgment, but I think the other jurors are perhaps a bit dismissive of her, telling her places she might like to visit while I judge films. Shopping malls and spas — you know, girl things.

Little do they know Carole.

Day 3 at the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival in AD 2000, and the jurors are beginning to be a little bleary-eyed. 

eyes have it

Aug. 3

By the end of the day, I’ve seen a cumulative total of 56 movies.

The process is interesting. The first day, you have nothing against which to judge the movies you see. You don’t know if the film that was pretty good is in fact the best movie of the festival, or if it will turn out to be in the bottom half.

By the second day, you’re beginning to get a good idea what the general run of film is going to be like. And by the end of the day, the deluge of film is beginning to blur together into a single gigantic epic instead of a machine gun of individual shorts. The similarities link together and you see all the pretty, ambitious, miniskirted, black haired, shoulder-padded career women turn into a single type. All the scruffy, unbathed, snotty-nosed begging children turn into a single caricature. All the rock-playing, layabout, scraggle-haired skinny boyfriends become one.

I have sat in a dark theater from 8:30 in the morning and on some days, don’t get out of the dark until nearly midnight. The crowd is mostly insiders — filmmakers and distributors — and they applaud each others’ efforts so no film goes unappreciated. When the maker of one of the screened films is present, he or she is introduced before the program begins and asked to make a few appropriate comments. Most thank their mothers.

The way the judging is set up, we have three pairs of jurors. Two handle all the student films. The next two handle the animation and all the films longer than 15 minutes. Finally, Fred Ofield and I handle all the documentaries and all the live action films under 15 minutes.

The 250 movies entered in the festival are screened in the main theater in programs of 6 to 8 or 9 films in 90 to 120 minute segments, each attendable by the ticket purchasing audience as if it were a single feature.

The programs are built around themes. One program features children, another features gay themes, another looks at crime films. One program is ghost stories and another is experimental. That means that films from each of the five categories (student, animation, documentary, more and less than 15 minutes) show up in each program, making it necessary for all the jurors to attend all the programs.

Luckily, there is a way around this problem, and the problem of overlapping programs, when we cannot be in two theaters at once. That is that we can view videos of the films in the Festival office.

The very first afternoon, we had to set up a dozen or so videos, just to catch up with the films shown the first day, before the jurors actually arrived.

Today, we looked at another 9 films trying to catch up with stuff we couldn’t get to, and even at that, we didn’t finish before closing time. We did manage to see the videos of the films that would be shown tonight, so we worked it to get an evening off. We’re getting worn.

There have been a healthy number of bad films. A few so bad that me and Fred would look at each other and silently hold our fingers to our noses.

“That one was a complete waste of film,” I said of one.

When I mentioned to fellow juror Norman Gerard that his category, with the longer than 15 minute live-action films, seemed to have better films than our category, he just said, “grass is greener.”

I’m sure he had his turkeys, too.

Yet, the level of proficiency has been quite high. Few films suffer from technical incompetence. Most look gorgeous.

The problems are not generally technical, but a lack of something to say. All that technique is used to imitate the cliches of Hollywood, or used for a good idea that the filmmaker never takes anywhere. It dies on the vine.

There were some good lines in the films.

A small girl at a train station watching the odd behavior of the people around her says, “Deep down, there’s an explanation for everything. Trouble is, you can never get deep down.”

An aging blond model is asked about how full her clothes closet is and says, “I don’t change my clothes, they change me.”

In another film a former drug dealer and ex con becomes a father and tells us, “I was the poster child for the anti-father, and I’ve always kind of liked that about myself.” He changes.

A woman who lives in Japan for a few months is bewildered by the culture and its contradictions and hypocrisies, and finally decides she is limited to “seeing through the keyhole that is my own experience.”

Another woman’s idea of excitement is the “high-risk perfectly executed one-nighter.”

There is a good deal of cleverness and wit in these films, although too many of them peter out in the second half. And considering they are all under 15 minutes, that is a mighty quick petering. Interesting set up, no payoff.

Seeing the videos all afternoon freed us up to travel around Palm Springs in the evening.  There are a gracious plenty plastic surgery offices in town. Some cosmetic dentistry, too. And at least one office that promised “biological age reversal.” Whatever that is.

As far as the city goes, it is almost like a science fiction movie. Palm Springs in August is a ghost town. Shops are closed, restaurants are closed. We have trouble finding a place to eat. The Hyatt Regency, where we are staying (at the Festival’s expense) is empty. We can walk around the lobby and listen to the great hollowness.

palm springs hyatt

Yet, at every Festival event, the people ooze from the woodworks. Hundreds show up for the screenings. Hundreds hang around the “Hospitality suite” in the shopping center, where filmmakers hawk their films to the industry. And on Thursday evening, Palm Canyon Road is decked out in a street fair, with food booths, rides, radio station promos and craft tents. Thousands of people walk up and down the pavement getting temporary tattoos and eating tacos and ice cream cones. Bands play music and kids take pony rides. Where did all these people come from? This afternoon, you could have shot a bazooka down mains street and not have injured a fly.

It is almost like a Twilight Zone episode, the transition is so mysterious. Ghost town — bustle and hustle. Where do they go in the daytime: Shopping centers are closed. The shopping mall next to the hotel is vacant. We walked up and down the street on Tuesday evening trying to find a place to buy some bottled water, and everything was closed up. It was like a university campus during spring break.

Tomorrow, we’re scheduled to begin looking at films at 8:30 a.m. The question now is if we’ll be able to survive the next 50 films.

It is the second day of the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival in 2000 and I am one of six jurors looking at dozens of shorts, of varying degrees of eptness and ineptness. Four more days to go after this one. 

palm springs post card

August 2

Breakfast at 8:30 with my fellow jurors and Fred Linch. We are introduced to the “juror wranglers,” who will follow us around and make sure we do what we’re supposed to. They will make sure we don’t miss any of our films.

Because screenings began yesterday — we didn’t know it; we weren’t told — we had to catch up on a few films, so after lunch, we drove to the festival office to watch videos of them. When we got there, juror Jack Ofield was already watching. We went through a quick dozen of them and managed to finish in time to get to the 5 p.m. program at the theater.

I won’t go over the films individually here, but I should note a few trends. It seems that short films are for short people. Over and over, the films were about talented and sensitive children and their loutish parents. It seemed a film couldn’t go by without an adult punching, slapping or otherwise bruising a quiet, sensitive youngster. Some of these films were good, some middling, some bad. But the theme pervaded.

There was a lot of street begging, too.

Another thing I noticed is that short films are slower than features. Although they follow less action and their plots are more compact, the camera will follow an action endlessly, letting us savor every millimeter and moment. Where a mainstream film will cut from one significant action directly to another, avoiding the transitions as needless upholstery, the short film will pretty well pass up the important action — often too complex or expensive to film — and concentrate on the transition, letting the camera linger excruciatingly over the character rising from his chair and walking step by painful step all the way over to the door, grab the door handle, turn it a full 140 degrees, slowly, with every creak of metal, and open the door, finally walking into the next room, closing the door behind him. The main part of the scene, however, is likely to be played out elliptically.

We see a lot of waiting in the films, too. Rain falls and we wait. The elevator is paged and we wait. Life in short films is full of waiting. Pensive, portentous, meaningful waiting.

In general, the foreign entries are less trivial than the American ones. The American films tend to be about the peeves of young Americans, their boyfriends, girlfriends and parents, all miffed at each other. Or they are about nothing but rehashed feature film ideas: ghost stories, superheroes, action adventures, all concocted out of previously-owned plot material. Characterization is brief and sketchy, pretty much borrowing “types” familiar from other films.

The American films have a tendency to be flashy, slickly made and banal. The European and Latin American films seem to be more concerned with actual life, not life as learned from the TV screen.

As we left the theater to go and grab a quick bite for dinner we passed a man on a cell phone making a deal in the parking lot. He held his briefcase in the same hand as the phone and it wagged off one side of his head like a giant Dumbo ear.

“I welcome your energy,” he said.

Dinner was at a health food restaurant. Carole had the carrot shaving and alfalfa sprout burrito and I had the avacado and lettuce quesadilla. It was said to be quite nourishing.

Meanwhile, a man came in and looked at their magazine rack.

“Do you have the Yogurt News?” he asked.

Bergman DeathWe had to rush back to the theater for the 8 p.m. showing of Jewish documentaries, mostly involving the holocaust. Scary looking stuff, but the real winner was a film called King of the Jews, which took a very personal look at the image of Jesus as seen by a young Jewish boy who was deathly afraid of Jesus. It was all made up of clips of family films and old movies, set to the music of Bartok and Arvo Part. It made me cry. It gets my vote for best documentary. At least, so far.

There was also a Brazilian short about Bergman’s pasty-faced Death looking for his next appointment in a bar and having a drink with a suicide. It was a scream, with a paunchy Death and a couple of absurd deaths.

We got back to the hotel by about 11 p.m. in time to go to bed and wake up for the next day’s haul.

I wrote a fair share of movie reviews as a critic with The Arizona Republic. Because of my interest, I was chosen in 2000 to be a juror at the Sixth Annual Palm Springs International Short Film Festival by event  director Fred Linch. I recently rediscovered the daily notes I made during my sojourn in Palm Springs, and will post them over the next several days. 

palm springs night

August 1, 2000

I am a juror at the Sixth Annual Palm Springs International Short Film Festival and I’ll be seeing something like 250 films over the next five days.

The festival is the largest international short film festival in North America, a title that I notice is worded quite explicitly, with a lot of loopholes.

Nevertheless, opening night festivities are crowded with about 400 people. Some are jurors, like me. Others are presenters, even more are filmmakers and industry flacks. There are corporate sponsors and a sizable army of hangers on. You recognize them by their heavy makeup and garish black costumes. One fortyish woman in black capri pants looked as if, not counting her silicone, she must have weighed 80 pounds. Counting the silicone, I doubt I could have picked her up. Her chest rose like twin balloons, held down by twine. If she had inhaled too sharply, I think her chest would have strangled her.

The event began with the usual procession of officials making slack jokes and applauding each other. The city councilman congratulated himself, and then everyone else he knew, either personally or by reputation. The schoolkid who designed the poster was applauded and given a prize check. The jurors were identified from the podium. We had to stand and let ourselves be known. Later this proved amusing.

line to enter theater

After the ceremonies, we watched five short films, all rather on the longish side, but probably worth seeing. Then the lights came up and we all exited the theater and joined the buffet in the parking lot.

Lines formed everywhere for the tiny Mexican burritos, the tiny enchiladas and the baby-size tacos. Drinks were a couple of bucks and they were going fast.

There were only a few tables and chairs, and they were full, so we walked around with our plates in our hands, popping chicken wings into our mouths and licking the grease off.

One young man with a handful of promo cards shoved one in my hand.

“You’re that judge, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I guess I am.”

“Well, make sure you see this film.” He slapped one of the cards in my empty hand. “Riddle of Ararat,” it read. “World premiere of a film by Robin Simmons, produced by George Adams.”

“Is an ancient volcano at the center of the earth’s land mass the hiding place of Noah’s Ark?,” is said, rather longishly for a catchphrase.

“Ararat,” he said. “It’s in northern Turkey.”

“I know where it is,” I said. “And now I know where the movie is, too.”

“What? Oh. Yeah.” And he turned away looking to slap a card in another juror’s mitts.

People were lined up being interviewed against the marquee by TV cameras and their attendant microphone pointers in red blazers. One after another, camera lights went on, microphones were pointed, trenchant comments were made and lights went off.

An older woman passed by and saw my neck tag.

“Oh, I better not mention it to you. You’re a judge.”

“Oh, it’s OK,” I said.

“Oh, nothing,” she said. “I’m the filmmaker’s grandmother and I want everyone to know how wonderful he is.”

A young man in a white shirt with no collar looked at me funny.

“Aren’t you one of the judges?”

“Guilty.”

“Which one did you vote for?” he asked.

I looked puzzled. This was the first night. We hadn’t seen any of the entrants yet.

“I mean, you are one of this year’s judges, aren’t you?” he asked.

“Yes, but we haven’t seen the films yet.”

“Then how can you judge them?”

“We’ll be seeing them over the next week, then we’ll judge.”

“But I thought you already saw them.”

“No.”

He looked at me like I obviously didn’t know what I was talking about and that unless I told him the truth about which film I voted for, he wasn’t going to waste his time with me. He didn’t and left, disappointed.

A blond woman in a black dress introduced herself.

“I’m from Scottsdale,” she said. “I read your reviews in The Arizona Republic. But what I want to know is why doesn’t Phoenix have a film festival?

“We do.”

“We do?”

“There is the Scottsdale Film Festival. I was a juror for it, too, earlier in the spring. At Scottsdale Community College.”

fred linch ast scottsdale film fest

Fred Linch (left) at the Scottsdale International Film Festival

“I must have missed it.”

Meanwhile a radio station DJ was blaring very loud music all across the parking lot and making market-savvy interjections between the songs.

It was beginning to wear on us, so we went back to the hotel.

When we got to the lobby Fred Linch was sitting at a stuffed chair just outside the bar waiting for some friends. Fred is beginning to look a little too much for his own good like what Rod Steiger became. He also has one upper front tooth missing.

He reminded me about the jurors’ breakfast the next morning and told Carole, “There’s a really good discount mall at the edge of town, just take Palm Canyon Road out of town past the I-10 junction and go a couple of miles beyond to the Indian reservation. It’s the greatest discount mall. Bigger than the Fashion Square in Scottsdale.”

Earlier in the evening, he had told Carole she wouldn’t be seeing much of her husband in the next five days.

In both cases, our teeth shriveled for the obvious dismissal of Carole as a mere wife, whose interests must lie in shopping or something else more trivial than the movies we important people were going to watch.

So, we rode the elevator up to our room, enjoyed the air conditioning and prepared for bed.

purple rose 2

Most people, when they go to the movies, go to see aliens blow up the world, or they go to see the lovers win out over odds, or to see the superheroes beat out the supervillains.

end of ricoThat is not much different from why they went to see the movies 80 years ago, except then they might have gone to see the chorus girl become a star, Fred and Ginger glide over the dance floor, or the end of Rico.

In other words, the initial satisfaction of moviegoing is the story, setting up characters and then seeing what happens next. And next after that. We think of them as having happy endings, but such endings are not necessary; some movies end in tragedy.

One is reminded of director Sam Fuller, when asked “what makes a good movie?”

sam fuller“A story,” he said.

“And what makes a good story?”

“A story!”

There is, however, another level of satisfaction that comes from watching a film, and that is an awareness of how the film is made. Not everyone understands the process by which the story is told, and not everyone cares. If a story is well-told, it is enough that the story is appreciated.

But there is a separate class of film buff who are moment-by-moment aware of how the pieces of film are put together to tell that story. They are aware of the lighting, the editing, the camera angles, the camera movement, the point of view — and are aware of how all these things are used to manipulate the story and the emotions of the filmgoer. An entire critical apparatus is brought to bear on a film, and especially if it is a film made by a director known to be innovative or astute at using these elements of film. For these people, watching a film is always a dual-track affair, as if they were reading a book in translation, seeing not only the story, but how it has been constructed at the same time.stagecoach

One can look at the studio films of Hollywood’s golden age and dissect them and notice how well made they are, and one can catalog the special habits of some of the better movie directors of the time — William Wellman’s overlapping dialog, Hitchcock’s time distortion, John Ford’s landscapes — and, indeed, whole books have been written (to say nothing about doctoral dissertations, and worse: books made from doctoral dissertations) about what makes Woody Van Dyke different from Gregory La Cava, but this is film-school subculture grist. The people who paid their pennies and dimes to watch those films in the grand movie palaces of the 1930s seldom considered the problems of reverse shots in editing dialog. They just wanted to know what happens next.

citizen kane low angleNowadays, one can hardly turn over a stone and not find someone spotting the use of camera angle in Citizen Kane or yanking our lapels to point out the amazing tracking shot that begins A Touch of Evil.

There is a subset of this sensibility that brings to bear the whole history of cinema — especially genre film — when viewing a film. I call this the Tarantino effect; it is that if we want to truly appreciate what is going on in, say, Kill Bill, one needs to know who Sonny Chiba is, what are the differences between Hong Kong martial arts films and those made in mainland China, and what is more, individual scenes from individual movies that are quoted or referenced in Tarantino’s opus.sonny chiba

This is the foundation of the current bumper crop of superhero movies, too. Fans know the backstory of each character, and the full weight of the “Marvel universe,” or the “DC universe.” The fact that all comic-book superhero movies are basically the same hardly matters if fans argue minutia of the worlds inhabited by these cliches.

The problem with all this is that it becomes a form of in-joke, or worse, a shibboleth separating those who “get it,” from those who don’t. And in this eddy of thought, the references become the subject of the film and the plot becomes incidental. One of the results is that it fosters cliche, with a wink and a nod, and negates original ideas, or at least glibly assumes that original thought is no longer possible. In this it buys into the Postmodern mentality, wherein it is held everything worth saying has been said, and now our job is just to rearrange the game pieces in clever ways. This conveniently forgets the fact that it has always been hard to be original, even for Raphael or Goya.

So, in our film culture now we have two strata of movie appreciation. There are still those who go the movie theater to enjoy a good story, but there is another class that blogs endlessly about the subtext, meta-theory and the film-school techniques of their favorite movies.

However there is a third level to be considered when assessing a film.  If most films don’t aspire to more than story and technique, in the greatest films both story and technique are just tools for for a further end: Expressing something real about life. These are films made by people who have something important to say, something to tell us. They are films that investigate our humanity.

Stories alone can be entertaining, and the meta-view can be engrossing to those whose minds are attuned to “what’s really happening underneath,” but when I make a list of the best movies ever made, it is neither of these levels I care about. Or rather, I assume them as given. No, what I look for is whether the movies have something to say about human existence, that I can weigh against my experience and decide if it is true or not, whether it has something to say about the experience of being alive.

battle of algiers

That is why my Top 10 list does not feature The Dark Knight or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Such films may be diverting, but they don’t say much about the real world. Instead, my list contains films such as Rules of the Game, The Battle of Algiers, and La Dolce Vita. I learn more about love and sex from My Night at Maud’s than from all the Wedding Crashers and Knocked Ups combined. It is this third dimension that is missing from most popular movies. Content to be clever or scary or thrilling, they forget to be human.

Such films put me in touch with the deepest well of my being, remind me that such depth is shared by all of humanity, and that all our lives are complex and what is most important to us is not our jobs or our automobiles, but the emotional connection we have with the earth. One leaves such films profoundly moved and deeply shaken.

uma pulp fiction

Pulp Fiction, to take one example, is certainly a cleverly told story, beautifully written and just scrambled enough to keep us attentive. Yet, unlike Tarantino’s more recent films, it has a third dimension. In Pulp Fiction, death has human meaning and aftermath. There are consequences. When Mia overdoses and Vincent rushes her to Lance’s house for an antidote, her immanent death is something felt by the audience and when Marvin is blown away in the back seat of the car, there is blood everywhere. Yes, it’s a joke, but it’s also very real. In Pulp Fiction, each of the characters is a believable human being. Compare those episodes with the fight scene in Kill Bill where a comic-book Uma Thurman slices and dices her way through “The Crazy 88.” Nowhere is anyone mourning the death of a father or brother. They are tin ducks in a shooting gallery.

Most truly great films have these three dimensions. I don’t want to denigrate a good story, and surely a badly made film won’t move us, no matter how profound the content. But of these three levels, the only one that can elevate a film to classic status is its humanity. Stories and film technique create patterns we recognize and respond to, but what we really need from patterns is more than mere recognition; what we need is meaning.

Of course, it isn’t only in film we need meaning, but in all of art. And so, we search paintings or poetry not just for pretty pictures or clever rhymes, but for what answers that need in us to understand, to find or create meaning.

cassattNone of this is to deny you the pleasure you may get from Captain America or from paintings of pretty flowers. There’s room for that, too. Such things are fine on days when your ambition is cooling out, but the real satisfactions of art come when you are challenged by something more substantive, where you find your life reflected back at you, and you are forced to confront moral dilemmas, the inevitability of death and loss, the complexities of ideas, and the ultimate interconnectedness of all life on the planet. More ambition is good.

So, when we look to justify art in a world increasingly dominated by technology and STEM disciplines on one hand, and an increasing reaction into superstition and tribalism on the other (nativism, fundamentalism, bigotry and its retinue), it is important to make a case for looking inward with a piercing eye to find what is there, at the bottom of the human well.

Caspar David Friedrich, Sea of Ice

Caspar David Friedrich, Sea of Ice

Werner Herzog can always give me a good chuckle.

Herzog's jokeThe dour German is more than a film director, he is a world treasure. If he did not exist, we would have to invent him. Just his voice, narrating a bit of documentary, or when filmed eating his own shoe, tells us that here is a man of substance, one who measures his gait against the cosmos. I will watch anything made by him, or in which he appears.

So, it made me laugh out loud when I was reading his book, Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed (conversations with journalist Paul Cronin), to see him disavow any romantic tendencies in his work.

“You can’t get a more contrary position towards the Romantic point of view than mine. Go back and listen to what I say in Burden of Dreams — the film Les Blank made on the set of Fitzcarraldo — about nature being vile and base, lacking in harmony, full of creatures constantly fighting for survival. Anyone who understands such things knows those could never be the words of a Romantic. If you’re interested in what I think about nature, take a look up into the night sky and consider it’s a complete mess, full of recalcitrant  chaos. …”

Does he know what Romanticism is? Here’s what he said in the film, talking about the Amazon jungle where he filmed Fitzcarraldo:

“The trees here are in misery and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing, they just screech in pain. … It’s a land that God, if he exists, has created in anger. It’s the only land where Creation is unfinished. Taking a close look at what’s around us, there is some sort of harmony. It is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder. We in comparison to the articulate vileness and baseness and obscenity of all this jungle, we in comparison to that enormous articulation, we only sound and look like badly pronounced and half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban novel, a cheap novel. And we have to become humble in front of this overwhelming misery and overwhelming fornication, overwhelming growth and overwhelming lack of order. Even the stars up here in the sky look like a mess. There is no harmony in the universe. We have to get acquainted to this idea that there is no real harmony as we have conceived it. But when I say this, I say this all full of  admiration for the jungle. It is not that I hate it. I love it very much. I love it against my better judgment.”

If that isn’t the very definition of Romanticism, I don’t know what is. It reminds me of the lines by Lord Byron in Manfred, when the hero is wandering the Alps in search of an escape from his suffering and guilt. He summons the spirits of nature, which are vast and impersonal. They describe nature much the same way Herzog does.

One says of nature, it is “ Where the slumbering earthquake/ Lies pillow’d on fire,/ And the lakes of bitumen/ Rise boilingly higher;/ Where the roots of the Andes/ Strike deep in the earth,/ As their summits to heaven/ Shoot soaringly forth …”

Another says, “ The star which rules thy destiny … became/ A wandering mass of shapeless flame,/ A pathless comet, and a curse,/ The menace of the universe;/ Still rolling on with innate force,/ Without a sphere, without a course,/ A bright deformity on high,/ The monster of the upper sky!”

Friedrich, The Monk at the Sea

Friedrich, The Monk at the Sea

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

On the next page in Herzog’s book, even he seems to admit his basic romanticism, when he admires the German Romantic painter, Caspar David Friedrich. He is “someone I do have great affinity for. In his paintings Der Mönch am Meer [“The Monk by the Sea”] and Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer [“The Wanderer Before the Sea of Fog”] a man stands alone, looking out over the landscape. Compared to the grandeur of the environment surrounding him, he is small and insignificant. Friedrich didn’t paint landscapes per se, he revealed inner landscapes to us, ones that exist only in our dreams. It’s something I have always tried to do with my films.”

There is a common misunderstanding of Romanticism, that it is somehow warm and fuzzy, that it has something to do with being in love. But if you read the texts, look at the photos, listen to the music, you discover that Romanticism is something dark and mysterious, placing tiny humanity in the looming shadows of a vast, hard and roiling universe. You find it in Friedrich, with his ship crushed by

Sadak In Search of the Waters of Oblivion

Sadak In Search of the Waters of Oblivion

icebergs; or Shelley, with the depressing parade in Triumph of Life, or the spinning orbs  “intertranspicuous” grinding “the bright brook into an azure mist/ Of elemental subtlety, like light” in Prometheus Unbound; or William Blake staring down into the abyss in Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and seeing “beneath us at an immense distance was the sun, black but shining; round it were fiery tracks on which revolv’d vast spiders, crawling after their prey; which flew or rather swum in the infinite deep, in the most terrific shapes of animals sprung from corruption, & the air was full of them, & seem’d composed of them.”

Romanticism is John Martin’s Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion, and Berlioz discovering his beloved is turned to a harpie at the Witches’ Sabbath at the end of the Symphonie Fantastique, and Ahab blaspheming on the quarter deck in Moby Dick.

So, Werner Herzog, you gave me a good laugh.

chainsaw“Earlier this week, the Israeli Supreme Court outlawed torture, so I know one place ‘Love Stinks’ will not be opening. love stinks

“It’s the kind of movie you fidget your way through, holding your wristwatch up to the light of the screen to see how long you have survived, sort of like seeing how long you can hold your breath underwater. It’s a macho test to survive this miserable, vile clunker. 

“You, lucky moviegoer, can always walk out. You can demand your money back. But pity the poor reviewer, paid to sit through it, who cannot leave but is handcuffed to his seat, with wire claws lashing his eyelids open, being forced to watch endless failed flatulence jokes, Elvis jokes and hair jokes. 

“How can a flatulence joke fail? This movie shows you. 

“Yes, you can demand your money back, but I can never demand back the time I gave to this sinkhole. It is time missing forever from my life and will be listed in my memoirs as my greatest regret. This is a movie that can damage you spiritually.”

Wow! I really didn’t like that movie.

But I seemed to have enjoyed writing about it. This is a constant nag to a movie critic, and one of the questions most often asked of us — “Do you have more fun writing bad reviews.”thumbs down The answer, of course, is I hate writing bad reviews, but — you got me — I love writing fun reviews of really awful films.

This is the crux: Some of the most memorable movie reviews are the pans, like when Roger Ebert wrote, of “North,” “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it.”

Most people go to movies occasionally. The most avid rarely go more than once or twice a week. But the movie critic sees movies, sometimes several in a day. We become surfeited.

We also see a lot of un-inspired twaddle. You, the moviegoer may be mildly entertained by a mediocre movie; you can forget it soon after exposure. But the critic has probably seen a dozen rom-coms with the same plot, the same jokes, and the same actors — at least they do seem to blend together eventually into a single pair of Hugh Grants and Julia Robertses.love and sex

Imagine a light romantic comedy with Julia Roberts and Mandy Patinkin, with clever writing, snappy direction and a heartwarming ending.

  Then imagine that Roberts isn’t available, so you replace her with a look-alike. And then Patinkin isn’t available, either, and neither are the good writers nor a classy director. 

What you have is “Love & Sex,” a film that never rises to its own ambition.

It can’t decide whether it wants to make real points about real life and love, or wants to be a low-budget imitation of a high-budget Hollywood meet-cute romance.

It is true that I wasn’t a fulltime movie critic. Mostly I covered art and music. But I was a kind of back-up critic for our regular guy, and he often gave me art films and foreign language films to review.

For this I am hugely grateful.

It isn’t simply that foreign films are better than Hollywood films, but rather that the bad French films or Italian films are less likely to be imported and distributed in the U.S., meaning my films was pre-selected for quality.

That meant, I  got to see a better run of films than our poor movie critic.

But for times he was on vacation, or out sick, I wound up having to review some real dogs.

There have been so many first-rate foreign, indie and small films to come through town lately that it sometimes seems that a critic must have run out of stars to sprinkle from his pepper shaker.  So it should be a relief to find a dud, but it never is.

And there are so many.

earthbound humans Anyone who manages to sit through “The Mating Habits of the Earthbound Human” to the end and, in a masochistic exercise, remains in the theater for the credits will see the two funniest jokes of the movie — not making too strong a claim for them. 

So you don’t have to squirm in your seat that long, I will reveal them here: First, the credit line says, ”This movie was shot entirely on location on the planet Earth,” and then the disclaimer line reads, ”No humans were harmed in the making of this movie.” 

There you have the best this sorry exercise has to offer. You can now save your money.

Or, to turn to another one:

wicker park To call “Wicker Park” glossy is an insult to the word “glossy.”  There is not a thought in its pretty little head. 

And it does look gorgeous. Shot mostly in winter, its cityscapes are as romantic as Impressionist paintings. The falling snow provides a sense of motion, even when the film is dead in the water. 

But it’s like watching a 90-minute fashion commercial, and with about as much character development.

You are grateful for good films; certainly, you would prefer that all the films you see are top-notch. Good films make your life better, richer, fuller. The only problem is that, for a critic, there are only so many words you can use to praise a film, and the praise can get a little numbing for your reader. How can you express your enthusiasm without seeming addled or hyperbolic? You put five stars at the head and hope your readers will notice.

And most films you see are neither very good, nor very bad. They are a bear to write about. What can you say? You won’t waste your money, but you won’t remember the film at all by next year.

A friend recently asked me to send her some of my old movie reviews for fun, and I scrolled through hundreds of them, and I was shocked at how many movies I saw, I wrote about, and yet I have not a single recollection of. They have evaporated.

But the truly awful movies: They are memorable. And they give the critic a chance to rev up the invective. We have suffered through you movie, so we are going to balance the karmic account by enjoying the review writing as much as we didn’t enjoy sitting in the dark theater cringing our way through the miserable offering.

ask the dust There is a long-abused, overworked and now out-of-date word to describe Robert Towne’s “Ask the Dust.” 

Phony. 

This movie, set in Los Angeles in 1934, is as phony as a three-dollar Hollywood smile. Nothing in it rings true. Not the dialogue, not the acting, not the sets, not even the air. 

Which is too bad, considering Towne was also responsible, as writer, for the best LA-in-the-’30s movie ever, “Chinatown.”

But “Dust” fails in all the ways “Chinatown” triumphed.

It’s our revenge.

“A Home at the End of the World” was made by Warner Independent Pictures, and that pretty well sums up its strengths and weaknesses.  Warner Independent Pictures — that’s like Consolidated Amalgamated Home Made Pies Inc.

How can a gigantic multinational media conglomerate make an independent film?  Well, it can’t.

Critics are often accused of hating movies. And there are movies we hate, but critics — and it is true for me — don’t hate movies; we love movies. And so, we are heartbroken when a movie fails to live up to its potential. And more than heartbroken, we can actually get angry about it.

Because it is so unnecessary for a movie to be as bad as some of these films are.

A tin ear is a painful thing.

Not for those who have it, but for those who are asked to review its productions. 

It begins with this film’s title. Here is a story of epic sweep, recounting a heroic and desperate episode in the Mormon migrations westward into Utah. It is a tale that begs for a star like Charlton Heston, a score like “Exodus,” a cast of thousands. 

And they name it “Handcart.”

The technical name for this trope is bathos. It is a sign of tone-deafness.  But that is just the beginning. Throughout this two-hour saga, its makers manage to trivialize every point possible, turning genuinely dramatic events into cliches of cloying sentimentality and predictability.

fast food fast women

So, we have to lay our cards on the table. Wretched is wretched.

When friends and relatives rib me about being paid to watch movies for a living, I only have to point them to something like “Fast Food Fast Women” to prove that there is a cost involved. This film is payback. 

It’s one of the worst films of the year, a candidate for the Ed Wood Award for incompetent cinema. It’s that bad.

It isn’t only the cheapy films, or the exploitive films that cause this hiccup of disaffection. It is often the high-budget literary films that drive me to distraction.

house of mirth 3 If you’ve ever gotten a shirt back from the laundry with too much starch, you will have some sense of what is wrong with “House of Mirth.” It creases where it should drape. 

You might expect a movie with mirth in the title and Dan Aykroyd in the cast to be a barrel of laughs, but there is not so much as the hint of a smile in this glum period picture made from the Edith Wharton novel about New York high society in 1905. It is Wharton with all the subtlety left out. 

What is left is the worst of Masterpiece Theater: Mannequins in rich dresses moving about and pronouncing their words so distinctly that you’d think they were shelling pistachios with their tongues. 

And, oh, those lines they are forced to mouth:  “If obliquity were a vice, we would all be tainted.”

I like that line: “ pronouncing their words so distinctly that you’d think they were shelling pistachios with their tongues.” It is bad movies that evoke such language.

So, yes, I have to admit, writing reviews of bad movies (as opposed to writing bad reviews — reviews badly written) is often a good deal of fun. Certainly more fun than sitting through the movie.

But there is another kind of film that elicits bad reviews. There are movies that rile up the moral indignation normally complacent when watching an entertainment medium. Some films are morally reprehensible.

I am not talking about taking political sides in a current debate, as if a pro-Arab film is somehow a bad film because of its message. I’m talking about something deeper than that.

And readers so often confuse the content of a film with the quality of the film. I never had more reaction — negative reaction — to a review I wrote than when I panned Meryl Streep’s “Music of the Heart.”

The events of the film had a good heart, good intentions. It was about teaching music to inner-city kids. This is an idea no one can argue against. But the movie was a cloying, sentimental lie, from beginning to end. I could not believe a pismire of it, despite that it was “based on real events.”

music of the heart

“Music of the Heart” is the most nakedly manipulative movie I’ve seen in years.  It yanks you around from pillar to post, trying to make you grab for the hankies, but instead, it makes you squirm in your seat. 

It means to make you feel good as you leave the theater, but take my word, the earlier you leave the theater, the better you’ll feel. There is no other word for the movie but ”phony.” Nothing in it is believable.

The kind of thing that made me cringe was the fantasy that a part-time temporary teacher in the New York City school system, now a divorcee from a Navy man, had enough money — despite complaining about her poverty in the film — to buy and renovate a New York brownstone.

When I see movies like this, I wonder what chumps the film industry takes us all for. How many final basketball games are we meant to sit through, wondering if the underdog will win? 

The Big Game in this film is a Carnegie Hall concert, meant to save the music program in the school where Streep teaches. Will they pull it off? With the help of Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, Arnold Steinhardt and — if they are too highbrow — Mark O’Connor? 

This is not a story; it is a ritual. But even ritual must be judged by the truth that underlies it. There is nothing in this film even remotely related to real life: And I’m not just talking about how a single-mother substitute teacher with two young boys can afford to buy and renovate a house in Manhattan, building a little bit of Yuppieville in the middle of Harlem.  No, I mean that no schoolchild ever acted like these children, no ex-husband ever acted like this one, no new boyfriend ever thought the thoughts of this one, no group of tiny fiddlers, spending the year playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in unison can turn around and instantly start playing J.S. Bach’s four-part counterpart on the stage of Carnegie Hall. 

But what can you expect when a film sets out to press every button mechanically? There is artificial pathos at every moment, from divorce through rejection into spousal abuse and drive-by shooting. 

There is even a little girl in leg braces who received inspiration from the example of Perlman. No cheap tear is avoided by director Wes Craven. 

 The film moves from one crisis into another by rote, using each to create a mini epic of schmaltz with each problem and resolution leading into the next, building to the Big Crisis at the end, with the Big Payoff.

Well, I heard squawks and squeals from all the fine and sensitive readers who thought I was disparaging the idea of teaching kids music, that somehow, I thought giving Harlem children violins and attention was a terrible thing.

I tried to make it clear in my review that I thought no such thing. Teaching is good; movie is bad. The distinction isn’t always made by civilians, for whom the mechanics of filmmaking are subliminal and the story is all that they notice.

I want, finally, to give you one whole review, entire. I was often blamed for alleged artiness, that I valued art films over entertainment. And while I certainly asked of films that they have some lasting value to the viewer — something beyond the momentary tickle of amusement — I was no fan of mere artiness.

In fact, the film that gave me the most severe moral nausea was perhaps the artiest film I ever saw, save only “Last Year at Marienbad.” It was Peter Greenaway’s “8½ Women,” which struck me as so vile and misogynistic that it gave me the equivalent of metaphysical borborygmus.

8 1:2 women

There is no one who admires art films more than I. If you have read my film criticism over the years, you already know that if it is slow, wordy and has thoughtful gazes instead of car crashes, I usually give it stars out the wazoo. 

But I have met my match. 

Peter Greenaway’s new film, “8½ Women,” is so pretentiously arty, so aridly sterile, so ponderously coy that I could barely make it through to the end.

If you’ve seen other Greenaway films – “Draughtsman’s Contract,” “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover,” “Prospero’s Books” or “The Pillow Book” – you have some idea what to expect. If you enjoyed those films, you may enjoy this. I could find neither pleasure nor intellectual stimulus. 

The film follows a 55-year-old financier and his grown son as they accumulate a harem on their Geneva estate, and then we watch as the whole thing breaks down. 

That synopsis makes it all seem more coherent than the movie does, which is elliptical to the point of cloying.

It is all told in a series of brief, enigmatic vignettes strung together like baroque pearls on a string.

  The 8½ women are not really women, and they are not really stereotypes either: What they are are embodiments of various fetishisms.

Critics have lamented Greenaway’s misogyny – I won’t belabor that point – but it isn’t simple misogyny. In fact, the women in this film don’t matter at all, one way or another. What matters are the accouterments of their individual brands of fetishism. 

In other words, while pornography objectifies women, fetishism objectifies the paraphernalia and ignores the women altogether. 

So, we have a harem including: a prostitute dressed as a nun; a woman in a business suit who makes usurious loans; a nude woman in leather body brace who loves horses and a 600-pound, enormously pink pig; a Japanese woman who wants to be a female impersonator so she can be more ”feminine”; and an amputee – the ”½” woman. 

I have no doubt that Greenaway is serious about all this. But in human hands, such a cast could create only ludicrous comedy. Unfortunately, Greenaway doesn’t have a funny bone in his body: It is all quite grave. 

Both father and son in the film are notorious narcissists, and it seems as if Greenaway is, too, but instead of navel gazing, they are staring a bit lower.

Most of the nudity is of 55-year-old John Standing, admiring his penis in a mirror.

I’ve never seen a film with this much nudity that is so unerotic. 

Giving stars to a film like this is a problem. We are supposed to take into account the intent of the film. We don’t give bad reviews to action films because they are brainless: We take into account what the film intends and whether it succeeds at it. 

Well, Greenaway intends to make a pretentiously arty film. So, should he get five stars for succeeding at making a reptilian, repulsive, boring, emetic and anaphrodisiacal yawner? 

In his press material, Greenaway says that ”it is absolutely imperative to read poetry many times” and that we need to view his films multiple times to extract the meaning from them. 

I think you’ll be a champ if you manage to make it through even once.