My first job straight out of college was teaching English at Tunghai University in Taiwan. Once an English teacher always an English teacher! I grade movies—from A+ to F-. Handing out grades brings clarity: it tells you precisely what I think of the film. I sometimes do not finish a film and give it a W for Walkout.
A+ A A- These are the great films. The third way. True gold.
B+ B B- Above average
C+ C C- Average entertainments but still worth seeing
D+ D D- Bad movies—either ugly or stupid or both.
F+ F F- Very bad movies.
Movies can get an F simply because they are filled with cruelty and ugliness and stupidity and pathology for no purpose.
Or—even worse—they can be false gold.
The first kind of false gold are movies by directors who are trying to be great but have no real talent. They overreach. They do not have the magic. In Somerset Maugham’s The Alien Corn, a character says: “. . . I can see that you have worked very hard and you have applied technique and brilliance. But you lack the magic, the quality that is the combination of soul and fire, without which no artist can reach the heights. I’m sorry. Your playing is square. If I thought you had in you the makings of an artist I shouldn’t hesitate to beseech you to give up everything for art’s sake. Art is the only thing that matters. In comparison with art, wealth and rank and power aren’t worth a straw.”
Look, for example, at the difference between La Notte (1961) by Michelangelo Antonioni and Certified Copy (2010) by Abbas Kiarostami. Both are stories about writers in troubled marriages. But Antonioni has the magic and Kiarostami gives us false gold. (1)
The second kind of false gold are the dishonest films. Films that are really just propaganda masquerading as drama. They have a hidden agenda. Their purpose is to “educate” us with the “right” ideas. They want us to walk out of the theater saying “Isn’t it awful that . . . ” followed by whatever it is they want to indoctrinate us with. The “characters” are not the creations of a true artist with a poetic soul but are manufactured to create the illusion of drama so that we will absorb the propaganda without realizing it.
In addition to concocting a counterfeit drama, the makers of these movies employ tricks to distract us from seeing their true purpose. They may throw in some hot sex. They may use flashy cinematography. Or they may unnecessarily go forward and backward in time instead of telling the story in a straight-forward way.
These movies remind me of Macbeth: “Stars hide your fires. Let not light see my black and deep desires.”
I might happen to agree with the propaganda in any given film but that makes no difference. Fake is fake and I will still give the film an F.
There are many films that do this. Some examples:
Atonement (2007) directed by Joe Wright
Caché (2005) directed by Michael Haneke
Death and the Maiden (1994) directed by Roman Polanski
In the Heat of the NIght (1967) directed by Norman Jewison
The Lives of Others (2006) directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Missing (1982) directed by Costa-Gavras
The Name of the Rose (1986) directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) directed by Tommy Lee Jones
False gold movies—of either type—remind me of Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita when he says that Charlotte Haze “. . . struck up a make-believe conversation about a fake book by a popular fraud.”
The primary purpose of Zero Circle Films is to take you to the beautiful great films. At the same time, as your guide I feel a responsibility to point out the false gold along the way.
Just as it can be difficult to find the true gold, it is easy to be fooled by poseurs into thinking their movies are great when they are really meretricious.
Laocoön warned his fellow Trojans that the horse was not the magical gift it appeared to be. I will be your Laocoön and from time to time you will hear me say what he said: “A deadly fraud is this . . . .”
Laocoön was killed for his trouble. I hope my fate is happier!
As counterpoint to my Laocoön Alerts I give you Unexpected Pleasures—movies I thought would be trivial and boring but which surprised me by being the opposite.
I keep a running log. I list each movie I see, the date I see it, and the grade I give it. For example:
|1||A||The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow)|
|3||F||Romeo Is Bleeding (Gary Oldman, Lena Olin)|
|5||C+||Brass Target (John Cassavetes, Sophia Loren, Max von Sydow)|
|5||D–||Cherry 2000 (Melanie Griffith)|
|5||D+||Broken City (Mark Wahlberg, Catherine Zita-Jones)|
|9||B–||Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike)|
|11||B+||Other People’s Money (Danny DeVito, Penelope Ann Miller, Gregory Peck)|
|12||B+||Outcast Of the Islands (Carol Reed, Joseph Conrad, Trevor Howard, Kerema)|
|15||F+||Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, Juliette Binoche, William Shimmel)|
|16||B||The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrman, Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan)|
|17||A||La Notte (Antonioni, Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, Monica Vitti)|
|19||C+||American Psycho (d: Mary Harron, w: Bret Easton Ellis, Christian Bale)|
|22||F||Zazie dans le Metro (Louis Malle, Philippe Noiret)|
|23||F||A Place Beyond the Pines (d: Derek Cianfrance, Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper)|
|24||DW||Underworld U.S.A. (Sam Fuller)|
|25||A–||(500) Days of Summer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel)|
|4||D||The Great Gatsby (d: Robert Markowitz, Mira Sorvino, Paul Rudd)|
|9||A–||The Deadly Affair (d: Sydney Lumet, w: John le Carré, Harriet Anderson, James Mason)|
|15||F+||The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski, Rutger Hauer, Michael York)|
|19||C+||The Great Gatsby (Jack Clayton, Robert Redford, Karen Black, Mia Farrow)|
|14||D||The Woman in Blue (d: Michel Deville, Michel Piccoli, Lea Massari)|
|15||C–||The International (Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl)|
|16||D||Separate Lies (d: Julian Fellowes, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson)|
|18||B||The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann, Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan)|
|20||A–||The Secret Rapture (w: David Hare, Juliet Stevensen)|
|23||C–||Loving (George Segal, Eva Marie Saint)|
|23||B+||Mr. Jones (d: Mike Figgis, Richard Gere, Lena Olin)|
|27||A–||Scene of the Crime (André Téchiné, Catherine Deneuve, Wadeck Stanczak, Claire Nebout)|
|28||C–||Gangster Squad (Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling)|
|3||D–||The Perks of Being a Wallflower (d: Stephen Chbosky, Logan Lerman)|
|7||C+||Less Than Zero (w: Bret Easton Ellis, Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz)|
|8||B–||Page Eight (David Hare, Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz)|
|9||B–||The Bourne Legacy (Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz)|
|10||D+||The Mouse that Roared (Peter Sellers, Jean Seberg)|
|12||F||Not Forgotten (Simon Baker, Paz Vega)|
|13||D||A Song of Innocence (Isild le Besco)|
|14||D||Tempted (Burt Reynolds, Saffron Burrows)|
|16||A||Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen, Barbara Hershey, Michael Caine)|
|18||A–||Farewell My Lovely (Robert Mitchum, Charlotte Rampling)|
|20||C||Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (Paul Schrader)|
|23||A–||Wild Reeds (André Téchiné, Élodie Bouchez)|
|28||A+||Night Moves (Arthur Penn, Gene Hackman)|
© Richard Hobby