About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Movie, Quietly

Once upon a time when I reviewed movies for the Michigan Daily, I sometimes speculated on the idea of becoming a movie reviewer or film critic as a career. These days, I wonder had I done so if I would've kept to some real-world sense were I doing so, or if I too would have drunk the critical Kool Aid that makes critics dump on movies that are not necessarily good but are nonetheless entertaining, jump on the bandwagon for books that no person who doesn't watch movies for a living would ever want to see, and pad a Ten Best list with at least four films that never saw a broader release than the Nuart and Film Forum and had they seen a wider release would still not have been of interest to anyone.

Would I have become a Manohla Dargis, whose first "essential movie" of 2010 is Sweetgrass, a documentary about bringing sheep up to their summer pasture?

Would I have become a J. Hoberman, whose top ten list includes all of three movies that were given a broad commercial release in 2009?

The film that inspires these thoughts is Police, Adjective (seen Wed. evening at the IFC Center, Aud. #3), which is the #3 movie of 2009 according to Hoberman, and which was the #7 film in the annual Village Voice critics poll.

Did anyone notice that the movie becomes over its course a kind of Mad Magazine version of what an art film is supposed to be, that they are reviewing a Mad Magazine version of an art film as if it were an art film?

The movie is set in Romania some time after the dictator was deposed but before entry into the European Union. A young policeman is doing stakeout work of three younger people who are smoking pot. The policeman comes to think it's not worth pursuing, his superior is set on doing a sting operation. That's pretty much what the plot is.

It's like watching an episode of Survivor that is 95% the shots coming out of the commercial breaks of the birds flying and the waves crashing against the shore, or of a sitcom where more time is spent on the establishing shots of the outside of Cheers than actually in Cheers. Because most of the "action" consists of watching the young policeman tail the three suspects. And in my opinion, not doing such a good job of it. How can they not notice him? So we get shots of two people walking down streets. Lots and lots of shots of this.

When we're not doing that, we might be watching scenes that watch like a bad novel, where the author hasn't learned that one of the things an author does is select which details are important. This is a movie where it's not enough to see a character asking for tea at a shop, but then to be asked if he wants the mint, fruit, or herb tea, complete with response. Where two characters walk down the hall at a police station, and one of them says he forgot his keys, he'll go back, and the other character that he doesn't need to, there's someone else in the office.

When we're not watching long shots of people walking down streets or being presented with trivial details, the movie includes discussions of language. The lead character and his wife discuss the meaning of song lyrics "what would the field be without the flower."

In the end, when the police officer is trying to escape the sting operation his boss asks for a dictionary, and the characters read aloud the definitions of conscience, law, morality, ultimately getting to the word police, and the movie gets its title because we then get a big blow-up of the dictionary page for police where we see "police, adjective" as one of the sub-heads.

And this is the movie that the Village Voice critics poll ranks as 7th best of 2009.


Well, I might've been less bored by this than I was by Sherlock Holmes, but it probably helped that I'd slept through most of a movie right before seeing this so I was well-rested.

There's a certain formalism to the movie, a level of craft, that can be said to elevate it beyond the norm. As an example, we can see the flickering old monitors in the police officers that tell us something about the time period or the police force at the time without it having to be told to us specifically. While the set design of the office of the superior in the police force doesn't have the symmetry of the hotel manager's officer in Kubrick's The Shining, there is an echo of Kubrick in the distance, the formality, the interest in holding a long shot on the superior in center of the frame and two officers sitting at either side. I don't want to say that the film is disposable cinema of no critical or artistic interest at all.

But yo, critic dudes, if you want to talk about morality in an army or a police force, if you want to think Kubrick, there's more going on in two minutes of Kirk Douglas confronting his superiors in Paths of Glory than there is in 20 minutes of Police, Adjective.

And is there anyone without a guild card or critics pass who can read my description of the movie and think "wow, this sounds great" or "oooh, that's something really important." For you, please remember that the first essential movie of 2010 is Sweetgrass.

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