Saturday, November 6, 2010

Carrot Cake or Popcorn?

The IFI has recently been accused of ‘going commercial’ or showing more mainstream films than would be expected of an independent art-house cinema. Apart from the many problems associated with such terms as ‘independent’ and ‘art-house’, what this means for the most part is the screening of what are perceived as ‘commercial’ American films. The titles cited in these comments include Inception, Cyrus, Buried, The Social Network and The Kids Are All Right. All of these films are outstanding in their different ways, and to some extent their programming at the IFI hardly needs to be justified, especially since they are amongst the finest offerings available at the moment.

A few of the films in question are also interesting in that they blur the distinction between ‘art-house’ and mainstream. Distributors and marketing people seem to be fully aware of the crossover potential of movies like The Social Network and The Kids Are All Right, which were quite deliberately booked into independent and multiplex screens, with mixed results. A more extreme example is Christopher Nolan’s Inception, a box-office blockbuster which appears to have appeal across the board. Indeed, one could argue that Nolan is a kind of modern day Stanley Kubrick figure - an avant-garde artist who just happens to work with commercial projects and big movie stars. With Inception, Nolan has somehow married the film of ideas with a James Bond-style action movie that appeals to both intellectuals and fans of video games. The very least one can say of Nolan is that he is one of the most interesting of contemporary directors, maybe even a genuine auteur, whose work connects with a mass audience in ways that few so-called ‘serious’ film-makers ever manage.

David Fincher is another director who has his finger on the pulse of modern social trends, as confirmed in The Social Network. Although its subject matter could hardly be more topical - the intriguing story of the rise and fall of the founders of Facebook - the surprise of the film is that it’s also something of a throwback to the days of smart, witty writing of the kind to be found in the classic Hollywood films of a director like Billy Wilder. The writer of The Social Network is Aaron Sorkin, who is best known for TV’s The West Wing. It could be argued that much of today’s best screenwriting finds it outlet not in movies but in television, and there’s little doubt that the quality of Sorkin’s script for The Social Network is just as distinctive as Fincher’s work as director. Many people thought The Social Network would fail at the box-office because nobody wanted to see a movie about Facebook. The film’s success is perhaps explained by the fact that it is much more than a film about the founding of Facebook. As the critic Scott Foundas writes in his review of the film for the IFI’s November programme, it’s a movie on such timeless themes as power and privilege, and such unmistakably modern ones as the migration of society itself from the real to the virtual sphere.”

Lisa Cholodenko is yet another talented director who has benefited from collaborating with a scriptwriter, Stuart Blumberg, on The Kids Are All Right. The sole author of her earlier independent productions, High Art (1998) and Laurel Canyon (2002), Cholodenko was disappointed that audiences weren’t sure if these films were meant to be funny. “Partly what drew me to working with Stuart Blumberg as a co-writer,” says Cholodenko, “was that, in my other films, I felt the humour wasn’t expressed as assertively as I hoped it would be. When I heard people talking about my films - critics and others - they’d kind of wonder, ‘Were they funny?’ I thought they were funny, but they couldn’t discern the humour. So when Stuart and I talked about working together, I identified in him the potential to work on a more commercial canvas and with humour that was more obvious and mainstream.”

With the addition of a terrific cast headed by Julianne Moore, Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo, Cholodenko has fashioned a smart comic drama that qualifies as one of the most enjoyable films of the year. Moore and Bening play a lesbian couple who’ve been together for over twenty years and have two teenage kids they conceived with the help of the same anonymous sperm donor. Complications arise when the kids decide to contact their biological father (Ruffalo), which worries the controlling Bening. All the tensions, awkwardness and frustrations of this semi-farcical situation are beautifully captured by Cholodenko and her team, especially in two extended dinner party scenes. The Kids Are All Right is an extremely funny and mildly subversive take on alternative family values. There’s a certain tension between the broad humour and the film’s more serious concerns, but overall Cholodenko’s strategy of reaching out to a wider audience works very well, as reflected in the film’s considerable success at the American box-office.

A final few words about the other two films cited at the beginning of this piece, Cyrus and Buried, both of which seem to have suffered from misrepresentation. A small-scale seriocomic drama made by the Duplass brothers, who came out of the so-called ‘mumblecore’ movement (low-budget, semi-improvised dramas about young ‘slackers’), Cyrus was marketed by 20th Century Fox as a broad and quite crude comedy. This gross misrepresentation meant that potential audiences had a completely false impression of the film. There were also a few misconceptions surrounding Buried. Made by a Spanish director but filmed in English, Buried is unusual in that it is part genre film and part bold formal experiment, set entirely in a coffin in which the central character is confined for the film’s duration. Significantly, this excellent movie didn’t work at all in art-house cinemas but fared much better in multiplexes. Perhaps this is an example of the multiplex audience being more rather than less adventurous than the art-house crowd.

Watch trailers for The Social Network and The Kids Are All Right. The Social Network runs at the IFI until Thursday November 11th, and The Kids Are All Right runs until Thursday November 18th.

Peter Walsh
Cinemas Manager


  1. It's obviously more of a business decision to show these films than it is an artistic one...I think to plead otherwise is a bit disingenuous...but that's cool..i mean these is hard times and we all gotta eat..papa needs some new shoes....etc...
    Each film apart from Buried contains an Oscar winning or multi-nominated actor/director and don't need the help of Arthouse cinemas to reach an audience...but i do agree that they are quality movies and would recommend all five of em...

  2. I agree 100% with Del there. Wouldn't begrudge arthouse from showing these films.
    It's like Sonic Youth signing for a major, which they beef, i'll still buy their records, however would prefer if they had led by example, same goes for IFI...