Frames: Breaking the Waves
By Kathleen Murphy
From the early days of internet comes profiles of web-based authorities on the subject
It's been three issues since I initiated this "safari into terra multimedia to collect sites, sights, and sounds of interest to filmlovers and cybersurfers of all stripes," and while I've heard from readers, they haven't heard--in print--from me. No lack of stuff to talk about, but a great chunk of my year was swallowed up by an unexpected, and hugely educational, writing project. More on that in good time. Meanwhile, suffice it to say that the job represented an intersection--perhaps even a collision--between film writing and forms of cyberdata. Retro lover of deeply resonant language, long complex sentences, and style-as-signature that I am, I'm still delighted on occasion to play jazzier popcult rhythms. Often homesick these days for literate printtalk about movies, my experiment in cyberspace cuneiform makes me wonder if the kind of language that makes a Shakespeare or a Joyce possible is fading as swiftly as critics who speak it.
As Entertainment Weekly is to FILM COMMENT, so is a good deal of Web- or CD-ROM writing to the kind of shaped, elegant prose to which our best critics once aspired. Online, the eye often won't stick with a complex sentence, nor do vision and memory persist long enough to trace the evolution of a formal gambit through an essay. The surface of cyberdata is slippery; one's attention slides away so easily, locking on to those provocatively underlined or bolded hotlinks that encourage one to drift off, distractedly, into further fields of superficial exploration. Communication and knowledge as free-floating, multilayered grid; reading as tranced leapfrogging from data pad to data pad. Information is seductively discrete, yet simultaneously fecund: every definition fashioned to stand alone, but full of hot spots that spawn a swarm of cyberdata. The process implies a world composed of easily and quickly accessed and abandoned bits and pieces, a comfortable, comprehensible chaos to swim in.
Cyberwriters and readers alike should scare up Paul Roberts' "Grub Street Hack: Sorrows of a Multimedia Hack" in the June 1996 issue of Harper's magazine for some splendid insights into the sad but apparently inevitable realities of our postprint future. Forget stylistic play, idiosyncratic voice, and respect for ambiguity; we have entered the anti-world of those Irish monks who saved civilization during the Dark Ages. Instead of cloistered, anonymous artists scrupulously copying and illuminating the texts of the world's accumulated knowledge, we now have home-officed, anonymous hacks chewing up and digesting masses of complex data, then spitting out reductive, often inaccurate, perfectly featureless "Content."
The last word isn't in yet, by any means. Webbing and CD-ROMing is wonderful for film research that mostly yields information bits rather than ideas or concepts. I'm still hoping for the kind of communications revolution that will somehow short-circuit the eternally self-congratulatory dolts and voyeurs who pride themselves on digging in their heels so as never to be nudged off the Isle of Solipsism. If James Agee came back to post a pan of Independence Day, instant interactive audience ripostes might (indeed, already do) run to: "This movie stinks...this movie sucks beyond belief, but the popcorn was good...I did not go to sleep...the characters may not be deep, but they're fun, and you want them to succeed...." This is a mantra from the near future. William Gibson envisions, in his latest novel Idoru, a multimedia-ocean of images and information where synthetic celebrity is the biggest and most endangered fish. The User of this global aquarium is "best visualized as a vicious, lazy, profoundly ignorant, perpetually hungry organism craving the warm god-flesh of the anointed.... It's covered with eyes and it sweats constantly.... [It] can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote."
Cinemania* vs. Corel All-Movie Guide vs. Internet Movie Database: First, in the interests of full disclosure: both Richard T. Jameson, editor of FILM COMMENT, and I occasionally contribute reviews, interviews, and obituaries to Cinemania's Website. That said, I can testify, as a result of a six-month film research tour, that Cinemania (Website and CD-ROM) soon became my first stop in the quest for filmlore. The data I found were consistently more reliable, more logically accessible, and more classily presented. Reviews and plot info are provided by the likes of Leonard Maltin, Roger Ebert, and Pauline Kael, while most of the biographical material is reprinted from Ephraim Katz's invaluable Encyclopedia of Film or Baseline. Corel All-Movie Guide is an adequate second-stage attack, but its online format is strictly low-rent, the filmographies are often an inaccurate mess (e.g., failure to discriminate between William Boyd/Hopalong Cassidy and William Boyd/guy-who-wrote-Tune In Tomorrow), and nothing like Cinemania's provocative chunks of critical thought on each movie is available. The All-Movie Guide's open invitation to the online User to provide opinion and information must always raise suspicion. The Internet Movie Database is unattractive and clunkier to get around in, but it's particularly good for TV info and cast lists with character names.
Cinemania's Website (cinemania.com) is definitely one of the most stimulating moviejoints around. You'll find smart reviews of films (old and new, foreign and American), fests, books, and video written by thinking, feeling, informed Seattle-based writers Sheila Benson, Jim Emerson, and Jeff Shannon and New Yorkers Chris Chang and Eric Monder. While all the world was worshiping the hip energy of Trainspotting, Emerson fired off an essay titled "Trendspotting," nailing down the slickly seductive "slacker nihilism" of this highly overrated movie for Kids. Emerson also runs a satisfying rant called "Scanners," a column of dish and diatribe that's much more than skin-deep flaying of the popcult booboisie and their excesses. (Recent skewerings ranged from the "duh" style of a movie-set interview/analysis by Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum to Steven Seagal's thuggish, big-bucks lawsuits to keep exposŽs about himself out of print.) Look for Emerson's superb review of Crash, the David Cronenberg film Ted Turner and England deem too rife with sex and violence for us to see, as well as a valuable, lucid interview with Cronenberg.
Cinemania also features special multifaceted tributes to movies such as Vertigo and directors such as Krzysztof Kieslowski; "Faces to Remember," appreciations of recently deceased showbiz folk; and the Cinemania Collection, a library of essays about "movies you must see before you die." Ultimately, what makes this Website so much fun to hang out in is its rich climate of unabashed, distinctive personality. There's style and talent here, as happy a discovery as a movie for grownups.
Slate.com: Microsoft's online magazine for grownups makes room for movie reviews, written by one Sarah Kerr, unidentified beyond her byline. Kerr proffers superficially literate reviews, occasionally punctuated by a sharp insight, but largely forums for the kind of flip, nothing-gets-by-this-hip-chick pronouncements that nowadays pass for seasoned critical analysis. Readers accustomed to believing everything they read if it's written cool and cheeky, and happy to be part of the elect, won't stop to deconstruct--in Kerr's reading of Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves--casual, sloppy distinctions between life and art, realism and stylization, artistry and "posing." Thus, while the voiceovers in Von Trier's earlier Zentropa are airily dismissed as "very postmodern, very early '90s," and the director's assertion that he is a "film stylist" is reduced to "this pose," Kerr approves the "raw realism" of Breaking the Waves: Von Trier "seems to be looking for the first time at life, not just the movies." Words have meaning, and sentences ought to accrete meaning into argument; here, concepts and assumptions are slung about so defensively that significance can't be pinned down. Why should we automatically define style as pose, rank raw realism and life better than art or artifice? Questioning those careless equivalencies, we can't readily write off Von Trier as the vaguely demonic manipulator Kerr would paint him. And if the dreamlike Breaking the Waves really looks like "raw realism" to a critical viewer, then we're well and truly lost in a Tower of Babel.
More usefully, at the conclusion of Slate's movie reviews you'll find a selection of links to studio, distributor, and/or fan sites, as well as database references. Video and audio clips are also appended. And "Summary Judgment" offers a handy compilation of critical opinion on the film currently reviewed, from writers such as Andrew Sarris, David Ansen, and David Denby.
Cinemachine.com: A very nifty Website, where you can track down reviews of films past and present, foreign and American--with a link straight to the Internet Movie Database for further information. I haven't explored as thoroughly as I will, but these are my early findings: if you type in Sunrise, the 1927 silent masterpiece by F.W. Murnau, Cinemachine will point you to 28 reviews of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995), two reviews of the Murnau, and two for Robert Towne's Tequila Sunrise (1988). For Breaking the Waves (1996), 33 reviews were listed, from The Boston Phoenix, Roger Ebert at The Chicago Sun-Times, Newsday, The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, E! Online, Mr. Showbiz, Film.com, Time magazine, and numerous individual "lay" offerings. In a random selection, Jules and Jim elicited reviews, but L'Avventura and Tristana did not. The Philadelphia Story raised a couple, Sylvia Scarlett was cogently reviewed as a "lesbian film" at PopcornQ ("the ultimate home of the queer moving image), but Marnie had nary a critique. Four reviews came up for Citizen Kane, and three for Persona. One assumes--and hopes--this database will grow.
Digital Librarian (servtech.com/public/mvail/movies.html): "A librarian's choice of the best of the Web--Movies," this alphabetical list includes the usual suspects (All-Movie Guide, Cinemania, Internet Movie Database), studio sites (Disney, Miramax, Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox, et al.), Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, American Film Institute, Drew's Scripts-O-Rama (500 movie and TV scripts), the Film 100 (the most influential people in the history of cinema), Pictures/Players (info on 30,000 movies and filmographies for more than 500,000 moviemakers from The Motion Picture Guide), Virtual Film Festival, French, Italian and British sites, and much, much more. Go exploring here--for fun and information.
filmlinc.com: The Digital Librarian lists the New York Film Festival as a worthy site. In actuality, the nyff coverage is part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's brand-new Website. Drop in for introductions to all of the Film Society's programs--the NYFF; New Directors/New Films; the annual Gala Tribute (1997: Sean Connery); New York Video Festival; and daily screenings at the Walter Reade Theater (schedule provided). You'll also get a sampling of the current FILM COMMENT, just enough to make you want to go out and get the whole issue to read!
Dracula: Truth and Terror (Voyager CD-ROM for Windows and Macintosh): I thought this new Voyager release might be an entertaining, informative item for the horror film aficionado with a special interest in Dracula movies. But Truth and Terror turns out to be a surprisingly thin and disappointing release from this usually class-act publisher.
What's promised here is "the most complete collection of Dracula lore available in one place," a patently inaccurate claim. What you actually get is the complete text, with annotations, of Bram Stoker's novel; a colorful history of Vlad the Impaler, 15th century source for the Dracula legend; and a world map with clickable locales that call up that particular country's version of the vampire or the names and addresses of vampiric organizations, e.g, the Nocturnal Ecstasy Vampire Coven in Illinois.
So far, so cool. But on the movie front, the pickings are slim indeed. Wonderful, of course, to have F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu ('22) on screen, but the only other cinematic selections are brief clips from an unrepresentative and unlikely trio: Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (John Carradine, '66), Scars of Dracula (Christopher Lee, Hammer Films, '70), and Zoltan, Hound of Dracula (Jose Ferrer, '78). No way can this disk be touted as definitive Dracula lore, with such short shrift given to movie history. Probably the clip selection is the best that could be achieved, given copyright strictures, but considering cinema's incredibly rich Dracula tradition, the viewer / reader can't help but feel cheated bigtime. Even leaving movies aside, this CD-ROM doesn't outshine the many available print versions of Dracula history and arcana. It's fun to click on the highlighted titles of stories and legends in the historical survey of Vlad the Impaler, to hear narratives of his atrocities and outrages recounted out loud--but do we really need Vlad's voice dressed up in a fakey Transylvanian accent?
Films & Video on the Internet: The Top 500 Sites by Bert Deivert and Dan Harries, Michael Wiese Productions, 1996. An ephemerally useful paperback reference, considering the Net's fast-motion life cycle, especially at $26.95! Categories include animation, film & media schools, magazines & journals, memorabilia, research and databases, screenwriting, TV programs, etc. Addresses and evaluative descriptions provided for each of the 500 sites, as well as a listserv list, a selection of usenet newsgroups, and a substantial appendix of cross-references.