Monday, May 18, 2009

IFFB 2009 Day Six: For Love of the Movies and Art & Copy

Monday was the second-to-last day of the festival, and took place at the ICA. In previous years, the festival would show a full slate of films on this day, but the organizers felt that this was spreading everything too thin - both the staff and the attendees. I admit, I've run myself ragged going between Somerville, Cambridge, and Brookline in previous years, but I also would have liked some other choices on Monday night, even if it was just repeats from earlier in the festival.

The two movies I did see weren't bad, and they made for an interesting double feature: Both film criticism and advertising are about an attempt to be creative and memorable with a specific purpose in mind. Both had a good number of clips, a history lesson, and plentiful interviews with the folks who do it for a living. I think Art & Copy winds up the better movie, as it doesn't have so many obvious biases and doesn't seem like quite so obvious a lecture.

An entertaining part of Doug Pray's Q&A after Art & Copy (the one for Peary's For the Love of Movies was mostly his friends telling him how wonderful he/his film was) was Pray getting excited about the theater he was showing it in, and I have to agree - the ICA theater is a pretty amazing space. The screen is lowered into the middle of a stage area, and the stage not only has curtains at the front, but at the back; when opened, they give a fantastic view of the harbor. Even if you take it as a multi-purpose room, I'm not sure exactly what purpose it serves.

But I love it. Aside from just being a beautiful space, there's something delightful about the way that the thin screen which you can see behind from certain angles reminds the audience of the projection mechanism. In most theaters, your mind can process the screen as a window; a television is a box that has things in it. At the ICA, your movie is just hanging in mid-air, like a special effect, a spell that a wizard has cast to see something far away. Some may take seeing the edges of the illusion so clearly as spoiling the magic of the movies, but I must admit, I kind of like it.

For Love of the Movies

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 April 2009 at the Institute of Contemporary Art (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism takes on a century of its subject in less than ninety minutes, and as is almost inevitable, feels a little uneven. There are places where seems to do little more than scratch the surface, and even when filmmaker Geary Peary does dig a little deeper, it often doesn't seem deep enough. Whether this means the movie should have had a tighter focus on some specific thread or been expanded (and then, perhaps, broken into six half-hour chunks, as a PBS series), I'm not sure.

Aside from being a film critic for the Boston Phoenix, Peary is also a college professor, and he structures his film like a college course. "Dawn (1907-1929)" focuses on the early days of cinema, with particular attention paid to Frank E. Woods, the first critic of note who went on to co-write Birth of a Nation. "Cult Critics and Crowther (1930-1953)" shows film reviewing evolving into the form we recognize today, with star ratings and the championing of worthy independent and foreign films. "Auteurism and After (1954-1967)" introduces us to the rivalry between Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael, which carries over into "When Criticism Mattered (1968-1980). That time period overlaps with "TV, Fans, and Videotape (1975-1995)", which covers the rise of the fanzine. Finally, the film finishes up with "Digital Rebellion (1996+)".

With a scant ten or fifteen minutes with which to cover each of these segments, there's some limitations on what Peary can include. Some are right up there in the title - this is the story of American film criticism, so the groundbreaking work being done in France is mostly excluded, except in terms of how it pitted Sarris and Kael against each other. Perhaps a more subtle selection bias is how much time is how focused the film is on newspapers' reviews of new releases. Criticism that emerges from academia gets very short shrift, and while "TV, Fans, and Videotape" mentions Siskel & Ebert and how video led to the revisiting of older films by enthusiasts as much as professionals, it doesn't do much more than that, even though these are factors which would have a major influence on the film's concluding chapter.

Complete review at eFilmCritic.

Art & Copy

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 April 2009 at the Institute of Contemporary Art (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

If there's high art and low art, advertising must be considered the lowest of them, with perhaps only grudging admission that any part of it can be considered art at all. Advertising is creative work, though, and for better or worse, a good ad probably has a much larger impact than a good piece of non-commercial artwork.

Director Doug Pray's Art & Copy focuses on the good ads, whether you measure that by artistic merit or commercial success. Those looking for an examination of the rightness and wrongness of pervasive advertising as a phenomenon should look elsewhere; this is an overview of how the medium works combined with a look at some of its more noteworthy practitioners. A key example of both comes early, as we're told about Bill Bernbach, who changed the face of advertising by putting the art director and copywriter in the same room. Before this, ads were very text-heavy, a far cry form the punchy, slickly-designed ads of today.

We get insight on some of the simpler, and most pervasive, advertising campaigns of recent years. Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein, who describe their job as "entertaining society using clients' products" talk about their "got milk?" campaign, pointing out how the much-imitated catchphrase was originally the punchline to a very elaborate commercial, while also breaking down how it evolved from the client's specific needs. Pray also talks to Dan Wieden, who came up with "Just Do It". His stories are less about how they built the campaign (although the inspiration for the phrase is amusing), and more about how it took on a life of its own.

Complete review at eFilmCritic.

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