Sunday, March 2, 2014

Chariots of Fire, changing tastes and deciding what is good

Recently I found myself watching Chariots of Fire again. I know it’s not fashionable, but I do like the movie. What I mean by not being fashionable it’s kind of looked down upon as one of the years when Oscar got it wrong and now looking back 30 year it's felt Reds should have won. (Then again Reds is kind of forgotten and most people just remember Raiders of the Lost Ark)

Of course as with most things if we knew what the right choice would be several years or decades later we probably would choose differently – just think about any of your ex-girlfriends or boyfriends.. A large part of this is the result of changing times, how films get copied ripped off or made fun of. How perception of a moment in time changes as history does (Cold War films anyone?)

Actually the fickle finger of fashion shifts around especially when it comes to popular culture so that films can be hailed great then crap then great again all over a period of a couple of years. All you need is the right person to say something to get the ball rolling and people will go along with what ever the supposed person says is right.

I think a great deal of the dislike of Chariots is that the music and the running sequence which bookend the film have been the source of much merriment. The sequence has been made fun of to death, and past that to the point that people now think the jokes are the film. I also think the film is one of the British wave that filled Hollywood with films and filmmakers through the late 70’s and early 80’s. You may not realize it but there was a period where anything English was deemed instantly better than if it was from Hollywood. Once the wave crested anything that was in it was discarded or at least diminished.

To be honest Chariots of Fire vexes me. It’s a good film, extremely well done on every level. I enjoy it every time I’ve seen it, which, thanks to cable is close to two million times (actually I think Peter Gutierrez and I worked it out to be about 150 times). The trouble is I don’t know what the point of the film is. I mean why are we being told this story? I don’t know. Don’t get me wrong it’s a good story with great characters but why are we getting the story of both runners? Is it just because both men ran in Paris? I could see the story of Ben Cross's Abrahams, but not both. I’ve never heard it adequately explained even going back to the film’s original release.

Seeing the film I started to ponder what are considered great films. For those of us at Unseen this is an important question since the site’s primary purpose is to highlight films that not being thought of as worth seeing. Many times the films we recommend run counter to what people say are great or even good. Who should we listen to when deciding what to see and what might be good? Should we ever consider what the critics and the awards say is good or should we just go with gut reaction?

I would argue our own gut reaction. What you think is more important what I think, or what anyone else thinks. Yes, you can use what we say as a guide but at the same time if you see something on TV or the shelf that looks interesting go for it and forget what anyone says about it. If something looks good you have just a good a shot at it being good. What I or any other film writer says is good doesn't mean anything other than that one person liked it.

A couple of things you need to remember when looking at the Best of awards or lists. If the award or list was made by any sort of group of people its highly suspect. The winners are likely not the best of the year but the best that the majority of the group can come up with.  I say this after talking to someone from one of the New York Critic’s associations last year who said that the group choice was more often than not the best that they could come up with under the rules of the association. Best of the year? No best of the choices given that they can agree on. I would bet, that if you asked the all of members of the deciding body what their favorite best film was it would be different than what was picked.

As for awards- say the Oscars- the voting is based on any number of factors that has to do purely with things other than quality. Sure sometimes they get it right, but I think sometimes the reasons have to do with more than straight quality- like Sandra Bullock is my friend.

Recently there was a call to re-evaluate the films we consider classic. I don’t remember who it was, but they had just seen The Searchers and were shocked that it wasn’t the classic they had been told. They had all sorts of problems including ones with the racist tone of the film. My reaction to the piece was to wonder why anyone would assume that any film was classic just because they were told it was. I’m constantly finding classics and all-time best films less than advertised. I mean Citizen Kane is good and Vertigo leaves me cold.

For me any film called classic is automatically suspect until I see it. Until I see a classic its like any other film. I want to see if it stand up to being called a classic and if its not why not. Obviously some films have been over hyped, some films have been stolen from so many times they no longer surprise or seem less than they were, many films were very much of their time, and some films have just been over sold by the intelligentsia who have to seem smarter than the rest of us. I try to walk into a film and see where it stands in my own pantheon and why.

With Chariots of Fire I'm at a loss to explain anything. Why did it win the Oscar? Whats it all about, or even why I like it. I don't suppose I'll ever know. All I know is that I like it, and that in all probability had it not won the Oscar we'd  not be having the conversation because odds are it would have been completely forgotten by time..

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