Filmism.net Dispatch June 20, 2011

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How many films do you walk out of thinking there were a few funny lines and a couple of decent action scenes but which you've forgotten completely by the time you're driving out of the carpark?

Plenty of films are good ideas and look like they're going to be great but never quite manage it. I remember being very excited by 2004s Van Helsing because advance concept art made it look like it was going to be a cross between Dracula and Ghost in the Shell . No such luck.

If you were around to be a cineaste in 1968 (and I wasn't) you probably saw more than just 2001 or Planet of the Apes that year. But do we remember any of them? Is it just because we live in meme-friendly culture where consensus opinion carries the legitimacy of sheer volume? Personally 2001 did nothing for me, but I'd hesitate to say that in a film-literate gathering without preparing to make a very convincing case or be dismissed as a Philistine.

Pixar's a good example. Of the millions of CG animated kids comedies Up, Wall.E and Toy Story are the ones that get Oscar nominations. Why? Most people will tell you no matter how flashy the effects or impressive the sets, movies are about stories and characters, and that's what Pixar gets right despite their technical prowess.

So how does that explain why 2001 is remembered so fondly? Kubrick's dialogue is so sparse and devoid of drama it's like watching a documentary about a future where we holiday in space, and most casual moviegoers would be hard pressed to name a single character (except maybe HAL). Can it be because Kubrick got just one thing right (the production design and the melding of music with movement), showing us something we'd never seen before?

The reason I bring all this up is because after seeing the most recent offering from auteur-of-the-moment Terrence Malick, Tree of Life (review coming soon) I'm sure it'll be remembered for a long time to come despite its shortcomings.

But taking the rumbling of discontent into account, just why will it be remembered? The film's main narrative (of family discord in smalltown 1950s Texas) is hardly groundbreaking, and it's wrapped up in such a long, slow collection of imagery it's bound to put mainstream moviegoers off.

The critical dissent that's met Malick's opus was also directed at last year's Adam Sandler comedy Grown Ups, yet we collectively consider Malick rather than Sandler an important filmmaker. What's the difference? Is the creative force behind a movie (Sandler for Grown Ups, Malick for Tree of Life) judged according to past work? Is that why we deride Sandler for stuff like Happy Gilmore and elevate Malick for Badlands, The Thin Red Line or The New World?

At least Sandler stretched himself in Punch Drunk Love. Malick's last three films have relied on the same devices (poetic voiceover, reverent shots of nature), so we can't really call him 'original' any more. But can you see Adam Sandler ever receiving the Palme d'Or?

I loved Tree of Life - maybe not as much as The New World, and I'm still digesting it as I write these words. And I snorted with derision as soon as I came out of Grown Ups along with everyone else. But the question remains. We all love different movies as individuals for individual reasons, but what makes a movie memorable in the film firmament?

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