The Idea of What a Movie Is: A Very Greg Journey Through Film

A movie.

Just a Bunch of Footage

Security camera footage is not a movie, but screened at a film festival with a name like ‘Big Brother’s Kung Fu Grip’ (or some artsy crap) it is.  Andy Warhol filming the Empire State Building for nine hours is a movie—the video the real estate agent showed you of the interior of the house on Maple is not.  It’s all about context and intention.

Since art is subjective, people make up their own definitions.  Many people do not consider Andy Warhol’s Empire a movie.  Since I’m a science guy, I’ll say this—you can’t technically say that about it, but I get the impulse.  You can’t say it because art is a word with a definition and you can’t just go all willy-nilly and make up your own.  However, what’s happening when someone says ‘Empire isn’t a movie’ is that they think it’s such a bad movie that it can’t even be considered a movie.  I agree with that.  So from now on, keep in mind that when I say something is “not a movie”, that’s what I mean.

Raging Bull is not a movie.  It’s a bunch of footage of a guy walking around—mostly he’s mean.  No attempt is made to explain why he’s mean or why we should care about him or anyone around him.  Hence, a bunch of footage.  It’s pretty footage though.  Footage with an attitude, one might say, which is why people like it.  Well, not people.  Movie geeks.  I’m one of them, so I should know (a movie geek that is, not somebody who likes Raging Bull). Raging Bull is boring, especially to the layperson who isn’t concerned with pretty pictures, sound design, and editing techniques.  Being a movie geek, I love that junk, but it doesn’t make it a good movie.

Field of Dreams is a movie.  The difference being, Raging Bull is celebrated merely for being ‘beautifully photographed’ whereas Field of Dreams is celebrated for making Dads cry.  If you went outside, closed your eyes, and randomly snapped one hundred pictures, you’d end up with a couple pretty pictures, but you wouldn’t make your Dad cry (I hope).  The irony here is that Field of Dreams also has pretty pictures and great sound design and editing.  It’s just that in Field of Dreams, those things add up to a singular idea that makes you cry—not sit there, ambivalent.  A movie is the result, not the ingredients.

Field of Dreams is advanced filmmaking. It uses the tools of cinema to express rather than impress.  And that’s what separates the big boys from the adolescent jerk offs that make ‘stylistic’ movies.

It’s all relative though.  Some of the people who love Raging Bull, those who force themselves to think it has a story (a series of hollow, dramatic moments is not a story) probably don’t consider Field of Dreams to be a ‘movie’, because they have a black heart, and believe it to be Hollywood fluff (or whatever generic, cliché criticism an intellectual makes).

There are some movies that are supposed to be just a bunch of footage.  For example, Microcosmos, Genesis, the Qatsi trilogy, Baraka, Cody’s film Rehearsals, and the aforementioned Empire.  Some are good, like Microcosmos, and some are crappy, like Empire.  It gets boring for me when the ‘footage’ technique is applied to what is supposedly a narrative.  Is Raging Bull supposed to be a story or an atmospheric exploration?  Well, I don’t know, because it doesn’t do either convincingly.  Since it has events happening in an order—chronologically, that is—we’re lead to believe it’s a story.  But those events happen without purpose or meaning, and are instead just artfully executed.  The layperson snores, the movie geek applauds, and I say pick one method and go with it.

But I guess it all just depends on what your idea of a movie is.

The First Movie

The notion of ‘what a movie is’ is not static.  When movies started, they were literal.  Which is why I love the word movie—because it’s so stupid.  A movie is literally a picture that moves.  “Movie” is what people in the 1900’s thought sounded neat, because they had no brains.  In the first few years of movies, the idea of what a movie is was a shot of a guy sneezing or a train coming into a station.  Then some genius figured out that it might be a good idea to shoot something that made you want to keep watching—you know, like a story. They say that guy was Thomas Edison.  Then another genius came along and figured out that rather than just pointing the camera at everything that was happening, you could isolate certain areas of what was happening and edit them next to other things. They say that guy was a racist named W.D. Griffith.  Then it took about 70 years for movies to really become what we understand them to be today.

In the “golden age” of movies (according to Wikipedia it’s between 1917 and 1960, but I’ve always thought it to be considered around 1935-1955, namely 1939) the idea of what a movie is was melodramatic overacting filmed in front of a flimsy set—basically a play photographed.  If a scene took place outside, it looked awful.  Then, in Italy, they decided to shoot those scenes outside and make them look good!  Go figure.  They call this the ‘Italian Neorealist Movement’.  It helped, I guess.

But the idea of what a movie is didn’t really happen until about 1975.  Jaws is sort of the first movie.  And not just because it’s the first blockbuster. (We could go on and on about whether that ruined everything or whatever, but who cares.)  Jaws is sort of the first movie because it’s one of the first times a movie feels like a movie, like where things are happening and you care about them and it’s executed in an interesting and effective way.  The only two examples of this before 1975 are 12 Angry Men and Inherit the Wind, with Citizen Kane as an honorable mention.  Everything else before ‘75 pretty much sucks.

Movies like Easy Rider aren’t good, but they helped.  They helped pave the way for movies like Jaws, which sounds insane but there’s a whole litany of film history that plays into it that I won’t bore you with now.  It’s outlined in A Decade Under the Influence and Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, two books/documentaries about cocaine.

A year after Jaws came Rocky.  The first actual movie ever.  The movie that defined the idea of what a movie is.

Rocky is the first time a movie truly 100% felt like a movie.  It’s a straightforward, linear story that you follow to its natural conclusion.  See, movies like All About Eve or Vertigo or whatever suck because they’re boring.  They don’t even try not to be.  They don’t look like anybody tried at all.  And it’s not just that they’re dated, although that certainly doesn’t help.  They do have stories (I guess) but they lack the understanding of how movies can properly execute a story.  Which is why they just look like filmed plays.

Rocky was made for five cents, and incidentally, like Jaws, that’s the best thing that ever happened to it.  The limitations of Rocky make it feel real.  When Rocky is being told “up yours, creepo’’ I believe he’s really on the street with that girl, because he is.  This kind of realism did exist before, but it’s the story part that didn’t.  So ultimately, Stallone and Avildsen were kind of the first people in history with a real idea of what a movie is.

What Year Did That Come Out?

Once Rocky opened the gate, movies became movies and stayed movies until around 1999.  In 2000, everyone’s brains fell out again and movies lost their chance of being good again.  Similar to the 50’s, movies devolved back into static, phony-looking, glossy, melodramatic messes where actors over-emoted sappy dialogue on claustrophobic sets that all had a ‘look’ (which just means they were tinted green or desaturated in post to ‘enhance the mood’ or something.)

We’re still in that era and I hope it ends soon.  David Wain is currently the only good filmmaker, although Inglourious Basterds was Tarantino’s best movie, by far.  And Moneyball and Looper were both pleasant surprises.

The idea here is that decades are really genres.  You know what I mean when I say ‘80’s movie’, and you know I don’t actually mean a movie that came out between 1980-1989.  Wet Hot American Summer is an 80’s movie, albeit a send up of one.

Super 8 desperately wanted to be an 80’s movie, and I guess it was.  It wanted to be one so hard that it couldn’t even remember what genre it was supposed to be.  But an A for effort.

Try to think of movies that came out in the wrong decade. It’s a fun exercise!  And try to think of movies that want to be in another decade, too.  Like the fonts Tarantino uses (a bunch of decades) or The Sitter (the 80’s—fuck that piece of shit movie) or Kevin Smith’s Cop Out (which strives so hard to be an 80s movie, even using Harold Faltermeyer for the score).

I’m surprised they haven’t dug up Tangerine Dream with all these 80’s movies coming out lately.  Although I guess Noah Baumbach did that, by using pieces of score from Three O’Clock High in his 80’s period movie The Squid and the Whale—perhaps the most bizarre, visibly earnest repurposing of any score ever.

Back to the Future, an 80’s movie, wanted to be timeless so bad that they tried picking the most accessible, universal song to open their movie with—which, ironically, and perhaps partly due to the popularity of that movie, is now the most dated song of all time.  But hey, you can’t win em all.

The truth is though, movies aren’t good.  Sometimes they accidentally are, and a lot of times it’s all because of their ‘era genre’.  I suspect that the Indiana Jones trilogy is good because of the limitations and popular styles of the time.  Not necessarily more so than the talent of the filmmakers, but maybe.  It’s a bizarre chicken or the egg situation.  See, Spielberg and Lucas trail-blazed that era.  They famously came of age in the first generation of filmmakers to be influenced by movies rather than other art forms.  Whereas Hitchcock and John Ford grew up with literature and plays, Spielberg and Lucas grew up with Hitchcock and Ford.  And they spun straw into gold.

What you have to consider is the fact that the limitations of the time had perfectly aligned with the frontier of imagination—which spawned Indiana Jones, one of the greatest movies ever made.  However, if you look at the fourth installment, released in 2008, it becomes evident that had Lucas and Spielberg been able to do what they fully wanted to do back then, the movies would’ve sucked.  Either that, or they’ve lost their minds. I’m willing to accept either explanation.  However, remember, Jaws is good partly by accident—the shark not working, etc.  Now, the shark not working does not negate the fact that Spielberg has proved his filmmaking prowess time and again with an overload of amazing moments in Jaws and his other movies. So, it’s not as simple as whoops, the shark doesn’t work, oh hey, it’s good now.  But you see what I’m driving at.

The relative goodness of a movie is often mired by what was popular at the time.  Had Ghostbusters been made today, it would have been full of constant references to dildos and asshats or something, and it would be all glossy and fake looking.  And the scary moments wouldn’t be effective.

The best example of this is the Terminator series.  Each installment feels exactly like the era it was released, and each one suffers or succeeds relative to its era.

Terminator (1984)  A fresh, foreboding thriller with well-defined characters.  Its superficial trappings reek of the 80’s so obviously that I won’t bore you with the minute details, but basically, the score, the sex scene, the lightning effects, the way the cops act, etc.  It’s a little boring and outlandish, but its style is compelling and it’s clearly trying to create an interesting world.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)  The superficial trappings spell 90’s all the way—the obligatory use of Bad to the Bone, the cool factor added to Schwarzenegger, the haircut on Edward Furlong, the practical, clean blue light in the night scenes. And the story and it’s structure feel very 90‘s: we’ve come further than the 80’s, there’s a little more pizzazz, way more spectacle to the action, and everything is a little less boring because of it.  The action is heightened but not yet masturbatory.  It feels cool and necessary somehow, because the obligatory action beats are filmed in such a way that they keeps you invested.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)  Completely forgettable.  Um, it has a hot girl and a truck chase.  That’s about it.  I don’t even want to talk about it.

Terminator: Salvation (2009)  Here’s where the era thing becomes most apparent.  This movie blows because of its era.  The entire thing is tinted some glossy, desaturated, pukey-grey color.  The reason is that the movie is about a stark future where humans live in a desolate desert of their own creation, constantly at war with machines.  All very 1984, Devo, minus the fun and sardonic political satire.  The problem here is that the first two are about that too, but they didn’t need to be tinted some weird color to express it—the story did that.  This time we are made to look at puke because the director wants to put us in some kind of mood, and since the writers didn’t supply it, he figured tinting the screen would help.

And just as much a sign of the times is the bland, overcomplicated, low-stakes story. In the first two, the idea is simple—a badass killer is hunting our hero, and someone has been assigned to protect her.  Through this we are given all of the political and social commentary we need.  The fourth one is about a guy who’s a robot but doesn’t know it yet or something, and a kid who fights robots because that’s what ya do in the future I guess.  Nothing really matters and the climax that they clumsily arrive at is uneventful because there doesn’t appear to be any real difficulty in achieving it—’it’ being whatever they were trying to do. I forget. Something to do with Skynet or something.

Auteur Theory, or, One Dude’s Idea of What a Movie Is

What I like best are movies without era.  Signs and Raising Arizona are the best examples.  These movies are about universal ideas, with a clear story, artfully executed by people with a strong grasp of how movies work.  Their style is a reflection and expression of their story, rather than an alignment with the status quo.

Movies without an era often come from writer-directors.  I think this is because, by default, they’re creating something original.  And also by default they’re creating something for themselves.  Their idea of execution is tied to their idea of the story, with no room for misinterpretation.  It’s not surprising that the Coen Brothers meticulously spends three weeks with an artist storyboarding every shot in their entire movie.  This not only saves money, it also ensures that the movie is designed to their liking.  It gives them their distinctive tone.  The study of this (a director’s distinctiveness) is known as ‘auteur theory’.

Auteurs can circumvent era or fall victim to it.  It’s always sad to see a director succumb to the style of the time.  Look no further than Tim Burton, who’s early work captured a rustic exuberance that was wholly original, but who’s later work embraced the glossy nonsense of modern Hollywood.

Alternatively, a filmmaker who has been able to successfully adapt is Sam Raimi. The simple charm of Evil Dead evolved nicely into the Hollywood scope of the Spiderman trilogy.

Auteur theory is why I like the bad movies the Coen Brothers have made,  and why other people even force themselves to actually think those movies are good.  No Country For Old Men isn’t good, but it’s a Coen Brothers movie.  It’s fun to see what’s in their brain every few years, even if it’s boring (try cutting out Tommy Lee Jones).  As Kevin Pollak puts it on his ever-brilliant chat show, The Kevin Pollak Chat Show, ‘it’s when an artist achieves the status of that his work can only be compared to the rest of his work’.

In that sense, like era being genre, directors are genres too.  Spielberg is families, Cameron is imagination, Tarantino is whatever movies he’s currently obsessed with, De Palma is Hitchcock.  Similar to era, people are always trying to make movies like other people.  De Palma makes better Hitchcock movies than Hitchcock.  With Super 8, Abrams wasn’t only trying to make an 80’s movie, he was trying to make a Spielberg movie.  A lot of folks try to make Woody Allen movies. I don’t know why, since Woody  himself barely makes any good Woody Allen movies (but when he does they sure are great).

I think ultimately a movie should be whatever it is.  That’s a stupid thing to say, but what I mean is, the story will tell you what it should be.  Most movies shouldn’t be what they are.  Most movies shouldn’t exist in the first place.

Raging Bull probably doesn’t need to exist.  The script is just fodder for Scorsese to aimlessly show how good he is at creating tone.  He is awesome,  sure.  I mean, he uses slow motion in the middle of a scene—I could go on forever about that but I’ll save it for another post.

Field of Dreams existing is pretty cool.  It’s about a guy who’s searching for purpose in life and finds it when a magic voice tells him to build a baseball field in his corn crop.  He does so because this is a movie, and what ensues is a fun journey about not taking for granted the most important thing in life: family.  The movie itself is beautifully constructed—each shot builds upon the previous, never relying on coverage.  The visuals, sounds, music, performances, and dialogue all work together and help each other create a symbiotic rhythm that doesn’t keep us in awe at the cinematography, but instead melts over us and lets us enjoy the story.  The beauty is invisible, not insisted upon us.  It’s informed by the story—the one we’re following, not waiting for.  This is my idea of what a movie is.  And it’s what only about 92 other movies are.  The rest are just a bunch of junk.

So I guess what I’m saying is, in the summer of 1989, Phil Alden Robinson had a great idea of what a movie should be.  But it wasn’t an ‘idea’ at all—it was a movie.

87 thoughts on “The Idea of What a Movie Is: A Very Greg Journey Through Film”

  1. His name is D.W. Griffith, bottlenose. Also Freud was writing things in 1900, which goes a long way to prove your no brains theory.

      1. As I said later on in the comment thread, I left it in because it felt in step with your dismissal of old cinema. A stylistic flourish, a la ‘Inglourious Basterds’.

  2. Really? There were only three movies before Jaws “where things are happening and you care about them and it’s executed in an interesting and effective way?” That seems a little…pessimistic? Extreme?

    That said, I’m glad to finally see someone else who thinks that Vertigo is just terrible.

  3. The second I read the line “Raging Bull is not a movie”, I knew that nothing you said after that would hold any validity whatsoever.

  4. This is the dumbest God damned thing. It’s nice to know that art mean “whether you like something” and I’m not using the general you here, because in this piece it’s clear that you think only the films that you think are good are films. Do you even like movies all that much? Who looks at the wealth of awesome movies that come out these days and says “why aren’t they making real movies anymore?” Who claims they like film yet only thinks 25 years of it’s history are valid?

    Just stop writing about movie. Thanks.

  5. I’ve been reading things on the Internet for a long time, and this is certainly some of the weakest, least informed, most incoherent faux-contrarianism I’ve ever seen on my particular topic of interest.

    The truest statement in the entire piece is “That’s a stupid thing to say,” which happens to apply to all of it.

  6. Usually I blame NYFA for producing people that know even less about film than they did going in, but you’re so aggressively ignorant, so stunningly proud of how little you know, so aesthetically retarded, that there is nothing that even the greatest institutions in the world could have done for you. You are the Dunning-Kruger effect personified.

  7. This article is ridiculous! Did Kevin Costner write this? Thanks for sharing your ignorance and shitty criteria for a “movie”. Go back to your day job, Greggy boy…

    1. But wait- Greg’s day job is as a film maker and video editor. Didn’t he win an award or something for his documentary about Canada?

  8. I don’t agree with all of the post, but it’s refreshing to read someone with an actual viewpoint. And it’s well written. Forget these numbskulls. They can’t see past the ends of their pretentious noses.

    1. Thanks for chiming in. I don’t agree with all of this post either, and I’m fine with that. I always enjoy reading Greg’s writing. He’s remarkably consistent in his views, and actually quite intelligent. For people to write him off as simply someone who doesn’t understand film is unfortunate. He does get film, he just doesn’t personally like a lot of it. And there’s nothing wrong with that. He brings something interesting to the table, and that’s why he’s a part of the site. I would urge those who have read only this post of his to explore his other work, particularly his review of Stone Reader, in order to get a better sense of him as a person and a critic. He’s not always so hyperbolic and subversive.

      I should point out that I also adore John’s writing. He’s extraordinarily knowledgable, and, like Greg, has a very unique outlook. I’m honored that he’s a part of Smug Film. And also just like Greg, I disagree with him from time to time about movies. (What he sees in Drive, I’ll never understand.)

      Basically, there’s room on this site for critics who disagree. And room enough in my heart for loving two people who disagree, and who I disagree with from time to time. And room enough in your heart, dear readers, if you feel like, y’know, opening it or whatever.

    2. Great, now it’s considered pretentious to like things made before 1975. I’ll go tell my parents they’re awful hipsters because they like The Sound of Music.

      1. I guess it didn’t occur to me because it’s just what I think. As I explained in the beginning of the piece, ”not a movie” is not meant literally. It’s a way of saying I don’t like a movie. I’m sure you don’t like some movies I like, that’s not very controversial to me.

        Furthermore, I truly don’t understand the acclaim and attention Raging Bull gets. I don’t know anyone that really likes it, cinefile or layperson alike. Goodfellas tends to be everyone’s favorite. And why not, it’s awesome. But that’s not even important because ultimately I’d like to throw your question back at you.

        What is controversial about it? Because it’s beloved?

        Oh and if you were speaking literally than disregard this comment.

        1. I find this piece so baffling in its tone, style, and content that I’m forced to throw aside all of my numerous questions and just ask one, perhaps with some follow-ups if I can make out your answer:

          Why did you publish this?

        2. I’m aware you didn’t mean it literally. You meant Raging Bull “sucks.” And yes, it’s controversial because it’s a widely admired film. That you had no idea that calling it “such a bad movie that it can’t even be considered a movie” would get a reaction I find hard to believe.

          As for Vertigo… what’s next? Shakespeare sucks? Beethoven sucks? Please, enlighten us.

  9. LK, how do you know you are not the Dunning-Kruger effect personified yourself.

    Your blanket condemnation of this piece was so content free and fallacious that I literally cannot complete the hanging phrase where I should describe the effect of your worthless post.

    1. “I should check out this thing that pretty much every film writer I respect is mocking. Yeah, it really is that shitty.

      Oh wow, Michael Hitchcock is defending it.

      Of course he is.”

      1. Haqhaah

        No I am not. Hahah I don’t actually agree with it.

        But just saying someone is stupid and their school is stupid is not a very good rebuttal.

        Also, citing the Dunning Kruger effect is extremely stupid. The effect says that someone stupid can never really know if someone is smarter than they are- that just plain has no place in a meaningful rebuttal. It is not possible to know which side of the effect you are on.

        And if you’ll all indulge me, here is an example of Andrew Bemis’ stance on having different opinions on film:

        After watching Watchmen together Andrew asked me who my favorite character was and I had a lot of difficulty choosing because in film I relate to each character. I finally settled on Ozymandius. I thought it was interesting that what all of the other characters were doing on a personal individual scale he was doing on a global scale. He was just the logical conclusion of vigilantism; the arrogance and self-confidence to force your view on others.

        Then Andrew YELLED hahahah yelled at me: “NO! You’re wrong, Michael. Ego can’t see ego! That’s why no one likes you.”

        He yelled more (he really can go on a bit) and when he finally left a gap in the “conversation” I asked him who he liked.

        “I liked Night Owl.”


        Night Owl was the “right” choice and my choice was “wrong” EVEN when I framed it in the context of scale. HAhahahahahahah. Yeah sure buddy. The way you didn’t understand what I was saying then would explain why you think I am “defending” this article now. I frequently make fun of Greg’s hatred of so many films.

        1. Michael, I don’t remember saying “That’s why nobody likes you” or yelling. If I’m mistaken, I’m sorry, but I do think it’s appropriate to use one’s loud voice sometimes. In any case, I’m disappointed that what I meant as a carefully worded jest about our adversarial relationship failed to amuse you. I had no intention of hijacking the discussion. If you’ve got something to say to me, you know how to reach me.

          1. Also, wait. Are you actually saying that someone liking a different Watchman than you is one of those times loud voices are needed? INTERESTING.

  10. “But the idea of what a movie is didn’t really happen until about 1975. ”

    I think it would be useful to know in what year the person who wrote that was born.

        1. Right, the year a person was born determines the validity of their views. Young people are the worst!

    1. Well, it’s actually incredibly facile and ignorant – but I can see how someone who knows nothing about film or film history could mistake it for “brilliant.”

      The piece is actually simply a bunch of sweeping assertions (“old films don’t know how to tell stories,” “old films are all melodramatic,” etc.) that anyone with any real experience with pre-1975 film would scoff at. Why are “12 Angry Men” and “Inherit the Wind” (both good films) the only pre-75 films – when there are HUNDREDS of other films like them from the same period? And that’s the point – the author never actually justifies himself, so who knows? One can only assume that the author has only seen about 6 films made before 1975. Either that or his criteria for what constitutes a “good film” are so wildly idiosyncratic that they’ll be completely meaningless to anyone that isn’t him.

      Incidentally, I’d love to see you defend statements like:

      “See, movies like All About Eve or Vertigo or whatever suck because they’re boring. They don’t even try not to be. They don’t look like anybody tried at all. And it’s not just that they’re dated, although that certainly doesn’t help. They do have stories (I guess) but they lack the understanding of how movies can properly execute a story. Which is why they just look like filmed plays.”

      How exactly is that brilliant? It’s a series of assertions – the kinds of assertions people could make without actually even seeing the films in question. It’s generic writing that could apply to any film, ever: “‘Field of Dreams’ and ‘Rocky’ suck. And they suck because they’re boring. And they look like their creators didn’t even try. And that’s why they suck.”

      Love or hate “Vertigo” (I’m ambivalent to it myself, mainly because of the preposterous plot), anyone who has actually seen it would never accuse it of feeling like a filmed play. It’s one of the most utterly cinematic films ever made – from the vivid technicolor to the unforgettable soundtrack to the sweeping camerawork, it’s as “filmic” as film gets.

      Yes, I get that film opinions are subjective, but I will declare that there’s absolutely no way he could reasonably defend the position that “Vertigo” feels like a filmed play. He just threw it out there in the hopes of making a few ducks like yourself say “Yeah! Someone on the internet brave enough to call a well-loved film ‘boring!’ How brilliant!”

      On a side note, in spite of the straw film snob he has created in his mind and so valiantly battled in this piece (all while displaying some of the strongest snobbery imaginable,) I don’t know ANYONE who would suggest that “Field of Dreams” isn’t a film while “Raging Bull” is (I like both films, for the record, though neither is a favorite.) That’s a fallacy fairly unique to this author.

      1. Why are you assuming this complete stranger knows nothing about film or film history? And why are you asking said complete stranger to ‘defend’ sarcastic and hyperbolic statements he didn’t even make himself, but merely appreciated reading? Such strange behavior. The internet is interesting. I’m learning a lot.

        1. I should probably let Thomas answer these himself, but as the responses seem fairly obvious, I’ll give it a go:

          1. I think the reasons for Thomas’ assumption are pretty well-explained by the rest of his post, which illustrates why he feels appreciation for film history is incompatible with the assertion that Greg’s essay is “brilliant.” Perhaps you disagree with Thomas’ reasons, but it’s not as if he doesn’t explain them.

          2. When a person claims a piece is “brilliant”, it follows that they would be willing (and, if one is being generous, able) to defend said piece.

      2. Where is the part where I said it was brilliant or where is the part where I’m arguing anything? People keep saying I’m arguing a point. How? When, what part? Telling the ether what you think about stuff isn’t an argument with anyone.

        The title of the piece is, The Idea of What a Movie Is. My idea is summed up in the piece. Somebody who likes Vertigo has a different idea. Neither of us is wrong, just like the guy who likes Empire isn’t ”wrong”.

        “Either that or his criteria for what constitutes a ‘good film’ are so wildly idiosyncratic that they’ll be completely meaningless to anyone that isn’t him.” This part is 1,000% true. But my question is what’s wrong with that and why does it bother you?

        If we all liked the same shit wouldn’t it be boring?

        1. Sorry for the confusion, I see that you’re saying someone else said it was brilliant. However, I stand by the rest of my response. Sorry for the confusion.

      3. Let’s not take this so seriously!
        Blatant assertions like the ones made in this essay will be dismissed immediately in a scientific doctorate or a court of law. But let’s remember that we are discussing an opinion piece by a film critic, a self-appointed one at that. The point of this piece is to draw a line between good and bad movies. The titles in the article are stated to establish the author’s taste so he can build his point from there on. Thomas, your points are valid but I’m willing to relax my objective scrutiny for this article and allow the author to make his point, even if his arguments are extreme.

        What Greg drives at is that great movies use a good story structure to convey human issues. I would add that there’s also a third component – the director’s ability to engage the viewer which separates good movies from masterpieces. This is a very simple concept that I hope you would agree is largely missing from current movie titles. Greg believes that this formula is also missing from old movies and although I hesitate to draw this line I tend to agree. Most movies from the first half of the previous century seem to me like they carry an artificiality(prob. not a word) to them. It’s hard to pinpoint the cause for sentiment but I will guess that racism and the repression of women held movies back. I’m sure there are very important exceptions but most movies from the era fail to establish a connection with the viewer largely because women’s social issues are absent from the screen. Love stories don’t count as women issues, what I mean is that there aren’t any women freely writing movie roles for women. Women that appear in old movies act like are copies of the same mold with only mild character development and this unconsciously breaks the story line in the viewer’s head. Women occupy a central role in all aspects of our lives and it’s silly to believe that they didn’t back then.

        I’m sorry for the off-topic. If you don’t know what I’m talking about and are curious please check out any Eastern European movies from the Communist era. The heavy censoring disconnects the opportunity for social commentary which in effect breaks the story line and leaves the viewer wondering what the hell they are watching.

        1. Boris, while racial depictions in old Hollywood films are generally very embarrassing, your generalization about women does not hold water. In fact, many female critics and authors have said that there were better roles for women in the golden age, and that there were far more stories centered around women than there are now. Also, there were definitely female writers working throughout Hollywood history; in fact during the silent era I believe they were in the majority.

          I have oter major issues with some of the points you raise here, but we’ll save that for later.

  11. Are you related to ‘The Thing’, one of the dumber contributors to the Hollywood Elsewhere site? He may well be your long-lost, equally anti-intellectual twin brother.

  12. This article feels like all the scenes where Patrick Batemen discusses his musical preferences in the 2000 adaptation of American Psycho; cold, sterile, but humorous as it struggles to posture its anti-intellectualism into a crass form of identity. Your favorite movies don’t really define you, so the world wouldn’t really be boring if we all liked the same shit because the reasons for liking that shit would be different. I mean, this->

    “It’s informed by the story—the one we’re following, not waiting for.”

    and this,

    “These movies are about universal ideas”

    and especially this,

    ” People keep saying I’m arguing a point. How? When, what part? Telling the ether what you think about stuff isn’t an argument with anyone. ”

    make up the majority of all internet film discussion. I.E. “Plot is primary”, “finding universals from within”, and more or less expressing our favorite colors with elaborate words in an echo chamber where conflicting “ideas” are cut from the same cloth.

  13. Funny, I read a piece very similar to this just a few weeks back ( – only about music, not movies.

    This type of rotten, non-constructive opinion spewing, being passed as “writing,” must be getting pretty popular these days. Sort of like the “American Idol” of blogging: Having some super pretentious, self-centered, cocky know-it-all go up there and perform, then wait for their “votes” to come through in the form of “Likes” and comments.

    Your perspective that “Raging Bull” or other classics being “boring” is NOT new and it’s definitely NOT unique. I’m also not a very big fan of “Raging Bull.” Additionally, time and time again, in several contexts, I’ve always maintained that I’ve personally also never taken to both “Citizen Kane” AND “Casablanca” – and that I’d rate them lower than most people – and yet at the same time, I can (and do) also very clearly see (and give full merit to) why they’re considered timeless classics. Your “hook” here is to use the ill-thought out phrase “this is not a movie” to poorly represent what is only your personal, very limited (in every sense of the word limited) opinion, and nothing more. What you say and do here is not impressive – at all. It’s also not informative. It’s just self-indulgent writer’s masturbation – by you. And you’re some guy. Your opinion about movies says *nothing* about the movie, only something about you. And guess what? I don’t care about you. I don’t. Never met you, never will. So in the very same sense that you claim an advanced filmmaker uses the tools of cinema to express rather than impress – I think you should take a moment and reflect on the 3,000+ words you just spewed here, and understand how you just used the tools of your computer and the English language. You expressed *nothing* worth reading here. You impressed a few friends and dedicated readers who *already* agree with you (or think they do), but you just angered and frustrated anybody else who may have landed on this site because of *some* genuine interest in cinema – be it as a beginner who’s just discovered the beauty of the silver screen, to the most advanced and seasoned cinephile and movie reviewer out there.

    In other words – if I were to apply your logic to your own efforts here: This is not a piece of writing. It’s just a bunch of letters. Because if it was a real piece of non-fiction, editorial writing worth a damn – it would have maybe uncovered something new, informed someone, offered a unique perspective, and educated someone not already “in the know” and gotten them to see movies in a different, somewhat unorthodox, way, that was still beneficial to their own growth and intellect, and likewise, equally beneficial to the movie itself – by allowing it to lose the audience it didn’t need and/or gain the one that it had been searching for.

    Lastly, It’s D.W. (not W.D.) Griffith. And he was not responsible for the first narrative film – that was actually “The Great Train Robbery” (1903) by Edwin S. Porter. Shit, the least you could’ve done is gotten a few of the factual/historical parts of it right.

    I sincerely hope I never land on this site again.

    1. Jeez the essay is subtitled “A Very Greg Journey Through Film” – I don’t understand why someone would read what is clearly and unambiguously an opinion piece and then get so bent out of shape when she doesn’t agree with the opinion. American Idol comparisons are so much more clever though, you’re right.

    2. Editor here. Any inaccuracies in Greg’s essay (including the W.D. typo) were left in by me intentionally, because they worked as stylistic flourishes, since Greg doesn’t care much about old films.

      Also, before you sincerely hope you never land on this site again, please remember that Greg is just one critic on this site. There are four others besides him, including the guy who wrote the rebuttal to Greg’s essay. Dismissing the entire site based on Greg means you’re also dismissing the guy who rebutted Greg. And me, the kind gentleman reaching out to you right now.

      Don’t misinterpret me; I could care less whether or not you ever come back to this site again. The show goes on without you in the audience. I just felt like pointing out the fact that you were being overly dismissive.

    3. I actually like this criticism of it the best. It reminds me of that famous ”it’s not writing, it’s typing” quote that whoever said to Keuoak or whoever.

      But anyway, I wasn’t trying to sell the cool new idea that Raging Bull sucks, just aligning myself with it to discuss how era and technology effect an evolving art form.

      There are plenty of movies that came out before 1975 that are interesting aesthetically, artistically and historically, but who gives a fuck? It’s a jokey essay about movies, calm down.

      1. It was Truman Capote about Jack Kerouac. Gee, you really wear your anti-intellectualism on your sleeve. The least you could do is look it up on Wikipedia and actually learn something.

    4. 551 words about how and why you don’t care. You can see how there seems to be an internal inconsistency here.

    5. If you’re going to throw in a dig on the guy for his historical inaccuracies at the very end, at least be sure you yourself aren’t wrong. The Great Train Robbery isn’t the first narrative film. Hell, it isn’t even the first narrative film Porter made – he did Life of an American Fireman the year prior. By this point France was churning out narratives and creating genre cinema with Melies and Pathe (who’s global empire was based on genre and narrative). I usually don’t attack people’s views on movies, but I will attack a moron for being unenlightened when they are trying to attack my friend for being unenlightened.

  14. These comments would be a lot more interesting if they focused on defending the films Greg says aren’t movies, instead of making boring conjectures about his lack of film knowledge. Who gives a shit? Even if the only movies he has ever seen are jaws and rocky, ad hominems are still invalid and stupid.

    1. Raging Bull needs defense? Vertigo?

      I think it’s fitting that people put as much effort into their comments as Greg put into his essay–none at all.

      1. Why wouldn’t Raging Bull or Vertigo need defense? Not that many people like those movies or have even seen them — I’m speaking comparatively to more mainstream movies. Also, the reasons why they’re celebrated are so widely talked about they’ve become cliche and don’t really explain anyone’s individual feelings. Why do you like Raging Bull and Vertigo? I’m not ”trolling”, I’m genuinely asking. It would be a more interesting discourse if people would actually participate.

  15. 26-year-old thinks news things rock and old things suck.

    This is not news.

    “I sincerely hope I never land on this site again.”

    It gets one point for including ‘The Last Days of Disco’ in its banner. One point isn’t enough.

    And if ‘Signs’ represents the best of cinema, Greg, then the Taliban were right to torch the Kabul film library when they took power.

  16. Full disclosure: Greg is a personal friend. We tend to agree on a lot of things in regards to movies, he’s a little bit more militant than I am but our perspectives are aligned fairly closely. I am considerably older than him but to bring age into this argument is beyond irrelevant to the piece and anyone who has done so thus far is a thoughtless, empty-headed, jagoff.

    What nobody seems to understand is that this essay is a guy pouring his heart out. He truly loves the concept of film, and of movies. But in my eyes it’s the love a child would have for the parent who abused them as a child. They still love them, but remain at arms length. And I think that’s fair. And just as a drunken parent would kick the shit out of a child, movies have kicked the shit out of Greg. He knows what he wants out of them, and what he expects them to be. He has gleaned this from watching thousands of movies, spending countless hours and days enjoying them. And he has also spent that time watching ones that just don’t quite do it for him too, and it is this perspective that I find fascinating. Movies have been an important part of my life since I was a child too, this statement would also apply to most people so it’s not new or unique, obviously. But what is unique about this perspective is that it is challenging what I would call the status quo. Status quo is what most film buffs would call classic cinema. I call it mostly unwatchable. And I, like Greg, spent a great deal of my formative years watching everything from The Godfather to Big Daddy to Apocalypse Now to Field of Dreams and all the way back around. And I too came up with the same conclusion.

    Most old movies are not in line with what I expect from and enjoy in a “movie.” That’s not to say that they’re all wrong or that they’re all necessarily boring. New movies have just as many if not more problems than the ones of the golden age. They can be equally as boring, stodgy, lifeless and without merit. This applies to every decade associated with movies. And yes, everyone is aware that you can’t have a De Palma without a Hitchcock, etc., etc. But this is a boring argument and it accomplishes nothing. Let me ‘splain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

    The automobile. Nearly everybody owns one today and appreciates it for what it accomplishes; transportation. Yet nobody is out there saying that you are not allowed to drive a car or appreciate the convenience it affords you until you understand everything that Henry Ford and his contemporaries did to aid in its creation. It simply is. And I think that applies to everything. Yes, I get it. Cars vs. Art, fine line, blah blah. I really don’t see any reason why you can’t compare the two. Art isn’t some holier than thou thing that exists solely to be marveled at. It’s to be enjoyed, discussed, it is to entertain and illuminate/shed light on whatever the artist is discussing. This applies to whatever the form is whether that be painting, literature or film.

    The same argument could be applied to pizza, and is often with the same fervor as well. See: New York Style vs. Deep Dish. I find both sides of the argument to be flawed. Just because New York Style was first doesn’t automatically make it better (ditto for original movies) and just because Deep Dish changed everything to make it completely different and “improved” doesn’t make it automatically better (ditto for new movies). Greg and I live in the middle ground, literally. We’re from the midwest where we have no allegiance to pizza styles. Our favorites are from the mom & pop joints in our neighborhoods. The rub with that? They are neither New York Style or Deep Dish. They are their own thing. They are at the same time, classically pizza, and yet not easily fitting into any preordained Coke vs. Pepsi box.

    This is how I view movies. All old movies aren’t bad, all new movies aren’t good. Most are bad too. All movies from the 80s aren’t good, ditto for the 70s, 90s, 60s, and so on. I judge movies on a very specific criteria that few people in my world truly understand. I understand Greg’s criteria very well, although I am sometimes surprised by what he likes vs. what he doesn’t like. And that’s the whole point. Film is subjective as is any kind of art, or food, or whatever. And all you goons that came out of the woodwork to swoop in and make lame attempts to tear down what Greg has written are quite frankly, the gestapo.

    In your sad, pathetic little film appreciation society there is no room for discord. It’s either Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Raging Bull and the like are the finest films ever created or you’re a complete moron. There’s no room in your club for anyone who would argue that Raising Arizona is the best movie of all time, or Field of Dreams, or whatever. You can call Greg a troll all you want, but you are truly the trolls. You’re all guilty of a groupthink mentality that will get you absolutely nowhere in life. The world will continue to roll along, and nothing will ever displace your precious classics. There are even those of you who will claim that you don’t like Raging Bull but still acknowledge that it’s an enduring classic. How so? Since film is subjective as we’ve already established, if you don’t like it then you would have to admit that it isn’t a good movie. Any other read on the situation is disingenuous. Subjective means subjective, end of story. There is no other interpretation. You either like something or you don’t. It’s either the best or it’s not. You kinda like it or you kinda don’t. There’s no middle ground in the realm of subjectivity, in my opinion. If you truly believe the Godfather is the best movie ever made, more power to you. But that’s not my worldview, and that’s not Greg’s. And to force your opinion on people like us is short-sighted and wrong-headed.

    Greg wrote a personal essay about what HIS version of a movie is. It’s a broad, sweeping piece filled with many generalities. But it’s not a call to arms against film buffs. Quite to the contrary. In my opinion, it’s a thesis statement about the whitewashed version of film history and appreciation, and how he’s disappointed that there are few people out there who would even accept that there’s an alternate way to appreciate movies, let alone agree with him at all. Every person that has come to comment on this and make snarky remarks on Twitter have proven his thesis correct. Not a one of you have original, critical thoughts in your heads and your reaction to this piece is proof of that. Now go have a big floppy, greasy slice of New York style pizza and have a good chuckle about how you really showed this guy a thing or too. You’ve earned it.

    1. Mark, I frankly would have been more interested in reading a piece like your comment – whose content I wildly disagree with, by the way – than Greg’s, whose tone is confusing, whose statements are asserted rather than argued logically, and whose wildly generalized “facts” are often either just plain wrong.

      As I said to Cody on Twitter yesterday, I actually enjoy contrarian pieces when they are well-argued. When a fellow blogger attacks Citizen Kane, a movie I love, I defended him against charges of philistinism or trollery because he made a number of interesting points which engaged directly with the content of the film and made me dig more deeply into why I DID like it. What troubles me most about Greg’s essay, besides the sloppiness of the presentation, is the laziness of his engagement. I find this is unfortunately common among people, many quite intelligent, who use “subjectivity” as a dodge to avoid engaging with the ideas/responses of others.

      Raging Bull is one of the most acclaimed films of all time for a reason. And it behooves those taking it down a notch to actually grapple with why so many like it, instead of just summoning up a straw man (unthinking conformists who like a movie because they’re supposed to). Greg stumbles toward this on occasion before getting distracted by some other half-baked point – when he touches upon what would have been the central feature of a better, more focused essay: that to him a great movie must put only one element in the driver’s seat, and Raging Bull does not do so.

      He may not have generated so many hits that way (and no, I suspect that wasn’t his intention), but he would certainly have earned more respect.

      1. First of all, the piece is not about Raging Bull. Not even remotely. And everyone seems to be ignoring the parts where I give Raging Bull some credit. Not to mention my other essay where I champion Martin Scorsese.

        But ultimately my question is, what does Raging Bull’s acclaim have to do with how good or bad it is? And what does my opinion on Raging Bull even have to do with the entirety of the piece? And who cares whether I like Raging Bull or not? You guys are acting like homophobes that just got a chubby looking at a guy. Me not liking Raging Bull doesn’t hurt Scorsese or the movie or you or anyone. I’m just a guy saying stuff.

        And I guess the piece is contrarian — if thinking all movies ever made except for like 50 suck, then yes, I’m contrary to the other 342896856 other movies.

        1. Let me rephrase, with italics to emphasize rephrasing: “to him, a great movie must put one element in the driver’s seat and many widely acclaimed films, including Raging Bull [do] not do so.” With that, the point stands.


    2. Who’s that, Marky B? What up kid! You don’t care much for deep dish pizza? I love it – I think it’s delicious. I also love New York style. Where I’m from I call it Greek Style (!) because there’s a lot of Greeks up there making fabulous pizza. It doesn’t fit in with New York or Deep Dish, but it does fit in with the teachings of Socrates, who, coincidentally, never wrote anything! He just spoke! Glad to see ya.

  17. I know this will sound terribly condescending, but after I got over the confusion, mild shock and brief anger, the main thing I felt was pity. Greg is clearly a smart guy; he writes well and even makes some good points here and there. But there are so many great films available from the pre-1975 years, that it beggars belief that one couldn’t find more than a couple that made a positive impression. Sure, it’s all opinion, all subjective; but as someone who has been moved, entertained, impressed, enlightened, and occasionally humbled by literally hundreds of excellent films from the era in question, I can’t help but feel sorry for someone who finds so little of worth there. No point in making a laundry list of films I find great, or ragging on a perfectly decent if cinematically pedestrian film like INHERIT THE WIND; despite what some of the commenters here think, there’s no strict, lockstep thinking in the world of cinephilia, even if there are large areas of general agreement among certain factions. Personally, I think there are great films from every era, including the present one. Greg’s entitled to his opinion (of course), but it does sadden me that someone might read this and think, “This guy sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. No need for me to check out any more of that old crap. I have been validated, and can therefore comfortably close my mind to the idea that anyone before the 70s might have known what they were doing with a motion picture camera.” That won’t be Greg’s fault, but young people already have a bunch of ill-considered “reasons” to dismiss some of greatest achievements in cinema. That’s disheartening enough without adding fuel to the fire.

    I also find it odd that Greg prizes clear, strong narratives such as FIELD OF DREAMS over less linear, more ambiguous stories such as RAGING BULL, when pre-1975 commercial cinema has far more examples of the former than the latter. I mean, it’s no contest. I love both films, for what it’s worth (nothing, I’m sure).

    Lastly, as someone else pointed out, Greg’s subjectivity fails him on the issue of ALL ABOUT EVE and VERTIGO being “filmed plays.” This is objectively not true (yes, even in the case of EVE, which takes place in the theatrical world). He also does his arguments no favor by reductively (and inaccurately) saying, “In the ‘golden age’ of movies…the idea of what a movie is was melodramatic overacting filmed in front of a flimsy set—basically a play photographed. If a scene took place outside, it looked awful.” Again, hundreds (hell, thousands) of examples refute this. It makes me wonder if Greg has seen enough films from the era to achieve a statistical sample that means anything. I know some younger folks see a smattering of Oscar winners and “official classics” and think they’ve done their homework. This doesn’t seem to be the case with Greg, but you couldn’t blame anyone for thinking otherwise after reading his essay.

  18. What the fuck do you people think an opinion piece is? Apparently unless you jerk off to Raging Bull and take the majority view on something you are a(n) . How dare someone not care about a “classic”, a “timeless” piece of cinema (of which all of that is opinion as well)!

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