Oh, there you are, Robin!

I first became aware of Robin Williams when my parents took me to see “Hook” at the age of six. I adored the film, watching it over and over again on video. Williams plays Peter Banning, an adult Peter Pan. Bogged down by the pressures of being a parent and a professional, he has no recollection of his time in Neverland. During a pivotal scene, the Lost Boys try to reinvigorate his memory. One boy pokes and prods at Banning’s face until he finds Pan. “Oh, there you are, Peter!”

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There’s movie magic in that scene, as there often was when Robin Williams was on screen. Yes, Dean Cundey’s golden hour lighting is evocative. And yes, John Williams’ score is beautiful. But it’s all on Robin Williams’ face. Through that dour façade, we capture brief glimpses of mischief and youth. For me, Robin Williams will always be the man caught between childhood and adulthood.

Most known for his comedy, Williams certainly gave us reason to look closer. Perhaps a gloomy comparison, but he’s like the inverse of Philip Seymour Hoffman. My kneejerk reaction to Hoffman’s death was to recount his various dramatic roles. I momentarily forgot how funny he could be. Robin Williams spent so much time making us laugh, and he was so good at it, that it’s easy to forget “The Fisher King,” “Good Will Hunting,” or “Dead Poets Society.” Or go a step further and look at his villainous work in “Insomnia” and “One Hour Photo.” Those characters are so lacking his manic energy, so certain that they’re of sound mind, that they’re doubly frightening.

A year after “Hook,” there was “Aladdin.”  The next year, “Mrs. Doubtfire.”  Robin Williams became the first entertainer I ever looked forward to seeing on screen.  He may have solidified for me, at an early age, that movies are stories unspooled, and that their creators’ lives extend beyond that canvas.

I’ve spent the last couple days laughing harder than I have in months, as I revisit clips from his movies and stand-up routines. Thanks for the laughter and tears, Robin.

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What you can expect from this blog

I wanted to give you an idea of what you can expect from me when I’m evaluating a film.  There are a lot of theories about what constitutes criticism, but for me, it comes down to this: a film is a film.  And I’d love to expand on that… 

A movie needs to stand on its own.  Deleted scenes, early drafts and on-set drama are all well and good – I get a kick out of that, myself – but 30 years from now, most of it will be forgotten.  All that will be left is the film, so it better work.

Conversely, a movie is not a book or a comic or a video game.  An adaptation isn’t a failure if it doesn’t rigidly adhere to every detail of its source material.  Don’t get me wrong, if a filmmaker is going to adapt a piece of work, s/he should maintain its essence…otherwise, why bother adapting? If Harry Potter isn’t an orphan, is he really Harry Potter?  Of course not, but what I’m talking about are the little things: “That line doesn’t belong to Harry!  It belongs to Hermione’s second roommate’s sister’s boyfriend!”

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I’m not a fan of the following argument:  “You just don’t understand Y movie, because you’ve never been exposed to X thing that happened in it.”  X could be any number of things — divorce, being a parent, a particular occupation, etc.  One, that argument is inherently condescending.  Two, when we take that line and run with it, the whole argument is invalid if Joe Movie-Goer has experienced X thing and still didn’t respond to Y movie.  It’s great when you can look at a film and smile or frown knowingly at a particular plot development or character quirk, but that alone does not a good film make.

Films set up their own rules, and they set up their own means through which they should be evaluated.  Broadly speaking, if you don’t laugh during a comedy, that’s a problem.  It might not be a big problem, if the characters are vivid or it’s thematically resonant, but it is a problem.  Along the same lines, a heavily plotted film, to my mind, is under a greater obligation to feel cohesive and held together than a film that isn’t so heavily plotted.

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Films aren’t under any obligation to tell stories or certainly to tell them conventionally.  Granted, a film should engage its viewers, but it should not be confined to the small box of traditional narrative structure. If Woody Allen wants to offer a 90-minute personal essay of sorts on relationships, more power to him.  If Terrence Malick wants to spend 150 minutes ruminating on man’s place in nature, so be it.

And finally, I’m going to end on a quote from Roger Ebert.  “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it’s about it.”  Thousands upon thousands of decisions go into making a motion picture.  What color should her shirt be?  What lens do you want on the camera?  Should we trim four frames off this shot?  How are those decisions working on you, the viewer, to produce a reaction?  You may have a preference for a film that makes you feel good or a film that makes you feel bad or a film that embraces one philosophy or another, but that doesn’t make all other films inferior.

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It’s not as if I have a checklist when I sit down to watch a film.  I’m not arguing that you can’t just enjoy a movie, and I’m certainly not trying to prove or disprove anyone’s taste.  As I’ve discussed film with friends over the years, these are some of the arguments that have reared their heads. So if you want to talk constructively about movies, I feel this is a pretty good framework.