Film Popism

owen

Well-known member
I had an argument the other day with a chap who works at the NFT. I mentioned that I wrote part of a MA thesis on Fassbinder and got an (often quite funny but anyway) tirade about the evils of film that doesn't entertain and so forth, and on the primacy of spectacle, the box office and whatnot- and that to ignore this is to miss the point of film itself.
Obviously this argument can be demolished easily enough, but what I thought was curious was that I might have made a similar point about music- I can imagine defending the 3 minute pop song much more than I ever would the blockbuster. I remember being incredibly annoyed by Freaky Trigger's Top 100 films for instance- the anti-canonical in discussion of film just comes across as irritating and trite, 'why tony scott is better than kiarostami' or whatever. But up until around the 70s, most of my favourite films are in some way crassly commercial...sooo...the question I'm asking in a garbled fashion is-
what is film popism? What is its canon, and what makes it different from musical popism? (which i may disagree with, but share many of the musical tastes of its proponents) does anyone fancy arguing in favour of it?
also anyone who wants to call me a ponce for preferring watching Cries and Whispers for the millionth time rather than any of the Lord of the Rings films is welcome to do so ;)
 

Woebot

Administrator
Staff member
i suppose the central plank of film popism would have to be the hollywood of the 1970s. scorcese, altman etc. entertainment which managed to tick just enough of the requisite critical boxes, thus seemingly able to out-perform art cinema even on its own turf.

actually with movies i cant get poppy enough. this may be because as a visual spectacle the blockbusters cant be beat, while inversely it's the sonic spectacle of underground music which is fabulously rich. pop music, with maybe a few exceptions (usually the bombastic spector/horn) is a sonic desert.
 

k-punk

Spectres of Mark
O come on Matt, give this anti-pop thing up, it's mad....

Film Popism wouldn't be the film of the 70s (I think that Scorsese-Coppola axis [I'm discounting Altman who I, alone I know, think is shit] would be the equivalent of postpunk, i.e. what popism cannot admit the existence of). Film Popism, very much to the contrary, would begin with the END of that period, something that can be dated very punctually with the arrival of one film, Star Wars. What ensues is the era of the blockbuster (the pop equivalent would probably be Thriller) - and here I find myself totally at odds with Matt again lol. I just can't see that the visual spectacle of blockbusters is in any way engaging or compelling; with very few exceptions, the blockbuster is visually unimaginative and pretty much unwatchable once the halo of hype is removed. Blockbusters have certainly got worse the further they've got from any influence of art cinema. Who now can watch Independence Day without cringing, or, perhaps worse, shrugging? Gladiator would have to go down as one of the worst films ever made. Have a look at the top-grossing films and oscar nominees of the 70s, then compare it with similar lists from the blockbuster era of the 90s.... and weep...
 

dominic

Beast of Burden
yeah, i'm definitely with k-punk on this one

which isn't to say that i go in for the merchant-ivory fare either

rather, this is what i said on the top ten films thread

and the latest "serious" and "ambitious" film that i've seen seen and liked is marco bellochio's "good morning, night" -- which re-imagines the encounter b/w Aldo Moro and his Red Brigade kidnappers
 
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owen

Well-known member
woebot, there is surely some mistake here!

eg, xenomania and the sugababes may form the uk pop mainstream. the uk film mainstream is richard curtis and guy ritchie. i don't think that's being overly selective either...

reminds me of a point someone made once about how something as shiveringly otherworldly as aaliyah's 'try again' was made for the soundtrack of something as lumpen and prosaic as (the already utterly forgotten) 'romeo must die'...
 

Woebot

Administrator
Staff member
k-punk said:
O come on Matt, give this anti-pop thing up, it's mad....
(doubletake) well i dunno if it's mad, but it's certainly a decent wind-up. you may have to scout around here for my Madonna "Beautiful Stranger" thread, there's more on Pop there. Anyway, I'm actually validating a Popist position with regards to film here.

k-punk said:
Film Popism wouldn't be the film of the 70s (I think that Scorsese-Coppola axis [I'm discounting Altman who I, alone I know, think is shit] would be the equivalent of postpunk, i.e. what popism cannot admit the existence of). Film Popism, very much to the contrary, would begin with the END of that period, something that can be dated very punctually with the arrival of one film, Star Wars. What ensues is the era of the blockbuster (the pop equivalent would probably be Thriller) - and here I find myself totally at odds with Matt again lol. I just can't see that the visual spectacle of blockbusters is in any way engaging or compelling; with very few exceptions, the blockbuster is visually unimaginative and pretty much unwatchable once the halo of hype is removed. Blockbusters have certainly got worse the further they've got from any influence of art cinema. Who now can watch Independence Day without cringing, or, perhaps worse, shrugging? Gladiator would have to go down as one of the worst films ever made. Have a look at the top-grossing films and oscar nominees of the 70s, then compare it with similar lists from the blockbuster era of the 90s.... and weep...
yes you're on the money here. star wars. maybe the equivalent of FGTH, because obviously lucas had his roots in the cinema of the 70s just as ZTT was the last gasp of post-punk.

but, fraid to report, I just loved star wars, and i'll quite happily celebrate most blockbusters (independence day, that one with bruce willis blowing up the asteroid) above the wretched hand-wringing of art cinema. ok i'll give you herzog. but he was a visionary of visual extremity. all the great russian cinema vertov, eisenstein connects more meaningfully with the total cinema of the blockbuster than it does with the paucity of ambition of art cinema.
 
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Omaar

Guest
The problem that I have with these films is not that they're popular, but that they just tend to reinforce all the myths and dreams of capitalist ideology. Not all the time, and there may be some contradictory subtexts going on occassionaly I guess, but on the whole ... not good. However, I often enjoying seeing them, just to try and figure out what sort of values and ideas and being represented in them, and I guess I enjoy a bit of spectacle every now and then. I think the original star wars trilogy is a separate case, for the reasons given above, plus the fact that I quite like the evil empire myth - though I guess han solo does portray this entrepreneur archetype too. The last 3 sequels are a completely different story ... On the other hand, I can't stand art house drivel that masquerades as art but's really just middle class entertainment.
 

anhhh

Well-known member
Just for being speculative (i see lots of holes in the following):

When we’re talking about art cinema i should talk about two streams, one, centered around the little stories, the relationship between the characters or some kind of ideas less or more expressed. That one is really boring, even when in some cases intersects with the second stream, let’s call it the “structural” one. This one is centered in the form, in the use of textures, cinematographic recourses, and how this is related to the core of things the film want to say (or it’s open to the interpretation of the whom watch it). Let’s say hou hsiao hsien or abbas kiarostami.
A musical equivalent to both kind of films will be indie rock for the first one (from the ones you can’t discern any difference with the mainstream to the sad guys like will Oldham et al) and the second one will be the wire type of records (probably I’m thinking in people like fennesz et al to the electroacoustic side).

I think mainstream cinema would be an easy equivalent to mainstream pop. Cinema is working with the same scheme of genres, the use of sound, flashbacks, the way the shoots are made, the lightning, et al. Films that are linked to other films (maybe genres, but also films that resonates on other films…, remakes, etc), to the story of cinema (or whatever story), the use of quotes like riffs (the matrix effect, …)
In music it’s all about the production, just to get the “sound”, verse-chorus-verse, the hang, the tricks with the equipment, the warmth of the recording, the equalization as axis, the amusement of details in the use of speakers… About the quotes on music, I was thinking in ashlee simpson sounding a bit like franz Ferdinand in “boyfriend”, but you could find it everywhere, sound here a little reggaeton, or whatever…
I suppose that the popism in film (now) (and I still talking about form and not in contents) should be people like sofia coppola et al (even tarantino?) that works with the same elements that mainstream uses, but just something more enjoyable. Like sugarbabes or xenomania (even when I prefer sugarbabes to the cinema examples that i named before)…
 
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droid

Guest
Does anyone think that there is a connection between the 'musical/pop cover version' trend - epitomised by the conveyor belt style of shiny Westlife covers - and the relatively recent upsurge of 'film cover versions' - most pointless of late being 'the ring' or 'Charlie and the Chocolate factory'?.

A snapshot comparison of the box office/music charts from the past 5 years or so might offer up some interesting comparisons - it certainly seems to me that every 5th or so film or single released is a re-hash of some kind.... and symptomatic of complete creative bankruptcy combined with the economic pressure of having to make 'good returns'...

How many years before EVERY bit of pop or mainstream cinema is a cover? :confused:
 

blunt

shot by both sides
Small aside on the subject of Star Wars. Yes, it's a phenomenon, and yes, it's marks a major turning point for the industry (altho I've heard the same said about "Jaws", which comes out 2 years earlier). But one of the things I've long found most interesting about it is that it's just as subversive & clever as it is big & dumb...

Check this great anecdote from Walter Murch about the origins of Star Wars:

"Originally, George Lucas was going to direct [Apocalypse Now], so it was
a project that George and John [Milius] developed for Zoetrope. That was
back in 1969. Then when Warners cancelled the financing for Zoetrope, the
project was abandoned for a while. After the success of American Graffiti
in 1973, George wanted to revive it, but it was still too hot a topic, the
war was still on, and nobody wanted to finance something like that. So
George considered his options: What did he really want to say in Apocalypse
Now
? The message boiled down to the ability of a small group of people to
defeat a gigantic power simply by the force of their convictions. And he
decided, All right, if it's politically too hot as a contemporary subject,
I'll put the essence of the story in outer space and make it happen in a
galaxy long ago and far away. The rebel group were the North Vietnamese, and
the Empire was the United States. And if you have 'the force', no matter how
small you are, you can defeat the overwhelmingly big power. Star Wars is
George's transubstantiated version of Apocalypse Now."​

Quoted in "The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film" by Michael Ondaatje, which, incidentally, is an amazing book about one of cinema's great unsung heroes.
 

owen

Well-known member
all the great russian cinema vertov, eisenstein connects more meaningfully with the total cinema of the blockbuster than it does with the paucity of ambition of art cinema.

christ matt, have you been reading my PhD proposal?! a large chunk of it is on how the techniques of the blockbuster and of MTV were hijacked from Vertov and Eisenstein, and what happens to them as forms when this transformation occurs. the point is that these were propagandist works, designed to excite, to agitate, to incite and to shock (eg eisenstein wanting to install small electric shocks in the seats). but as omaar points out these techniques are being harnessed to a very diffrerent political project, and this tends to change form as well as content- again see the quote on Star Wars that blunt uses- these things are never neutral.

i suppose we have to clarify what 'art cinema' is here. if it is chris marker, alain resnais, wong kar wai, vera chytilova, then it can more than hold its own in terms of ambition and spectacle. if it is french rom-coms, chamber dramas and literary adaptations then obv not. but surely there's nothing less ambitious than (say) Independence Day. and christ, i can't think of anything more tedious than the 4 or so hours of my life that were spent watching (one apiece) of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films...
 
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Omaar

Guest
owen said:
i suppose we have to clarify what 'art cinema' is here. if it is chris marker, alain resnais, wong kar wai, vera chytilova, then it can more than hold its own in terms of ambition and spectacle. if it is french rom-coms, chamber dramas and literary adaptations then obv not. but surely there's nothing less ambitious than (say) Independence Day. and christ, i can't think of anything more tedious than the 4 or so hours of my life that were spent watching (one apiece) of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films...
Agreed on the first bit of the above, but in terms of the ambition of lord of the rings in particular, I often hear of people refering to it as a fantastic 'achievement', I guess in terms of orchestrating the production, the fx etc. Ambitious in scale then, but perhaps not in terms of aesthetics.
 

Woebot

Administrator
Staff member
owen said:
all the great russian cinema vertov, eisenstein connects more meaningfully with the total cinema of the blockbuster than it does with the paucity of ambition of art cinema.

christ matt, have you been reading my PhD proposal?! a large chunk of it is on how the techniques of the blockbuster and of MTV were hijacked from Vertov and Eisenstein, and what happens to them as forms when this transformation occurs. the point is that these were propagandist works, designed to excite, to agitate, to incite and to shock (eg eisenstein wanting to install small electric shocks in the seats). but as omaar points out these techniques are being harnessed to a very diffrerent political project, and this tends to change form as well as content- again see the quote on Star Wars that blunt uses- these things are never neutral.
ha! no, but it's there with bunuel and the surrealist films too. yep i'm quite aware that the intended philosophical project may appear to be different. is different maybe. but are you so sure?

 

owen

Well-known member
LOL!

actually i was angling to get the author of the below as my supervisor...

which posits something of an epistemological break with Snow White into a reactionary medievalism, realism, pictorialism and spectacle in place of the daring, elasticity and experiment of the early Disney...and Snow White can be seen as the prototype of all that Lord of the Rings nonsense.

difference between Eisenstein and the blockbuster= shock used to incite activity vs shock used to induce passivity?
 
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henrymiller

Well-known member
i suppose the central plank of film popism would have to be the hollywood of the 1970s. scorcese, altman etc. entertainment which managed to tick just enough of the requisite critical boxes, thus seemingly able to out-perform art cinema even on its own turf.
i wd have thought the absolute opposite -- this is the stuff peddled by uncut month after month! i like the 70s stuff fine, much as i like a lot of the musical rockist canon. but the way it's handled in uncut or in (obviously) biskind is *just like* how rock is treated by rockists. male misbehaviour/genius/auteur vision, etc.
 

henrymiller

Well-known member
"all the great russian cinema vertov, eisenstein connects more meaningfully with the total cinema of the blockbuster than it does with the paucity of ambition of art cinema."
christ matt, have you been reading my PhD proposal?! a large chunk of it is on how the techniques of the blockbuster and of MTV were hijacked from Vertov and Eisenstein, and what happens to them as forms when this transformation occurs. the point is that these were propagandist works, designed to excite, to agitate, to incite and to shock (eg eisenstein wanting to install small electric shocks in the seats). but as omaar points out these techniques are being harnessed to a very diffrerent political project, and this tends to change form as well as content- again see the quote on Star Wars that blunt uses- these things are never neutral.
the 'great russian cinema' connects meaningfully with a number of currents 'more meaningfully' (ie formally) than with the blockbuster: - with hitchcock (and other brit directors -- thorold dickinson, anthony asquith), with any number of documentary filmmakers, with jean vigo (who employed vertov's bro) and, dialectically, with carne and renoir.

i don't understand your notion of 'hijack' at all -- i mean, eisenstein was taking from griffiths, from the futurists, from all sorts of people who were less than heroes of the soviet republics! and many of the russian filmmakers beloved in the west were criticised for their avowed americanism.

as for the political projects -- i don't think you can seriously argue that mtv has a 'political project' in the same way that 'october' does. it obscures extraordinary differences.
 

owen

Well-known member
totally agree on the 70s movie brats as 'film rockism'- interesting in the way the Stones are interesting....but the postpunk comparison is rather tenuous. as a whole it's a movement full of very rockist machismo, swagger and general method acting. there are exceptions to this of course- the conversation, or alan pakula fit more into this schema.

(lots of this is a question of budget, really)

but on eisenstein (i'd rather talk about vertov mind you) i think its obscuring a genuine rupture to say 'oh, he took from griffth'- sure, how could you not at that point?- the differences are more interesting than the similarities.
and perhaps, mtv isn't 'explicitly' a political project but there's a point here about ideological state apparatuses that is surely a bit obvious

also you have to understand Eisenstein in terms of his (and the rest of the Lef Group, ie Rodchenko, Mayakovsky, Stepanova, Vertov etc) americanism- an enthusiasm for technology, mechanisation and even v dubious stuff like Taylorism, precisely so they could be harnessed to communism. the process is of course two-way...
 

henrymiller

Well-known member
and perhaps, mtv isn't 'explicitly' a political project but there's a point here about ideological state apparatuses that is surely a bit obvious
seriously?

also you have to understand Eisenstein in terms of his (and the rest of the Lef Group, ie Rodchenko, Mayakovsky, Stepanova, Vertov etc) americanism- an enthusiasm for technology, mechanisation and even v dubious stuff like Taylorism, precisely so they could be harnessed to communism. the process is of course two-way...
yes, this is true. but coming down to cases, i don't think 'communism' is a useful term -- it's about as concrete as 'capitalism' here. what *kind* of communism did they want to harness their project? and what ddid this have in common with the actual history of the SU? there are many forms of communism, and not all of them are congruent with the whole cult of unnaturalism bought into (from the futurists, ffs!!!) by this crew. frankly i think these were aesthetes out of their depth with the extraordinary horrors of the russian revolutionary project (*not* a result of the Bad Object stalin, but clearly there in the revolution's imperialism -- at home, where it had to "convert" an ignorant population, and in countries like poland, which it invaded).

other than saying 20" rims and big tits are what the good life's about, i don't think mtv is a major factor in the day-to-day continuation of captalism.
 

k-punk

Spectres of Mark
owen said:
totally agree on the 70s movie brats as 'film rockism'- interesting in the way the Stones are interesting....but the postpunk comparison is rather tenuous. as a whole it's a movement full of very rockist machismo, swagger and general method acting. there are exceptions to this of course- the conversation, or alan pakula fit more into this schema.
Surely Pakula doesn't fit into it, he IS it .... Not sure how the macho thing plays out really, since the 70s was a period in which American masculinity was presented as in crisis.... Someone like De Niro may be very male but macho, hardly.... Taxi Driver is not a film in which masuline swagger is celebrated... and, as I've argued before, Apocalypse Now saturates post-punk, it's THE post-punk film... partly that's because it is reflexive about film/ images in the way that post-punk was reflexive about pop...

What also makes the post-punk comparison compelling is the use of 'arty' techniques in mainstream form.

Film rockism, I think you have to look further back... to the 40s, with John Ford and maybe film noir too.

btw I wrote about the Star Wars capitalism relation (and the Apocalypse Now connection) here
 

henrymiller

Well-known member
the 'classical hollywood canon of the '30s, '40s, and '50s does have a strong claim to be the 'rock' in film rockism -- but a lot of the love for it started as a popist move on the part of young (french) critics. for me it's almost *such* an ossified, gone-over thing, that it doesn't exist for me, whereas i was practically weaned on the '70s films.

in a way, i think the post-punk equivalent in film is the leftwards shift of euro art movies in the late '60s, early '70s--exactly the crisis point in US cinema too.

my thesis: '68 didn't 'happen' in pop until punk/post-punk, but it happened -- was integrally bound upwith -- immediately in (euro) cinema. 1968-9 is an incredible year in film, and godard's break with commercial cinema is only the most visible sign of that. but in pop this is year-zero of rockism (praps) with, eg, pink floyd giving up on singles, and the blues revival really taking off.

it was in the late '60s that so many of the iconic figures of post-punk -- brecht, especially -- became hot names in cinema.
 
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