What makes great cinema?

Catch this three-way conversation

group photo

Bill Yates, Suzanne Murphy and John Hufstader gather in the auditorium with students to get their thumbs up or thumbs down on the latest movies.

John Hufstader, associate professor of communications, teaches the Movies in America class. He produced and edited a 60-minute film, "Small Steps, Great Strides: Fifty Years on the Lake," a history of Saint Joseph's College on Sebago Lake.

Suzanne Murphy, Coordinator of Continuing Education in the Division of Graduate & Professional Studies, is the co-host of Big Talk, a live public affairs program on WMPG. She is a longtime movie fan.

Bill Yates, a former broadcaster and now associate professor and chair of the communications department, teaches Movies in America on campus. He narrated "Small Steps, Great Strides: Fifty Years on the Lake."

What makes great cinema?

BY: If you can engage a person ... then it's great film. I think of "Titanic," which I think is a great film. The critics just pretty much savaged it. But it's a great film, because you are engaged. "Schindler's List" is a very different movie, but you're engaged ... you know the story of the Holocaust, but here's a presentation of it that engages you.

What makes people engaged?

SM: I am very story- and character-oriented. I want to see and hear great, well-written scripts. And I'm interested in the quality of the acting. Even though film is a visual medium, the visuals are second-place to me. I appreciate the editing and camera work on some level, but if the acting is great and the writing is good, that's generally what draws me in.

JH: My idea of a good movie is one that connects a person with everybody else. It could be you relating to a character on the screen or you relating to what's happening in the world on the screen. But it's sort of that ‘I'm part of this whole big picture.' .... It's when a film makes that connection that things get really, really, interesting ... and the writing, acting, and visuals all come into play. And when it's done really well, you don't even think about it ... you're in the concentration camp or you're standing on the deck of the Titanic, or you're riding in a taxi cab with Robert DeNiro.

One of the things that I really like about film is getting a hundred or so strangers in a dark room all watching the same screen. I love when we teach the film classes: we stand in front of the class and look at everybody looking at the movie. It's fascinating .... Everyone is experiencing the same emotion at the same time, and that's powerful filmmaking.

SM: When it's good, you don't notice it .... I think that the production values of the film are important, because you shouldn't be distracted by them. Then again I've seen some independent films where they didn't have enough money but had good production values .... The lighting stinks, the film stock is bad, but it's a good movie. They had no money to make "Half Nelson," let's face it. But man! Talk about performances and story and connecting. Wow.

BY: My all-time-worst movie is "Battlefield Earth," which is all special effects. Huge budget and it's terrible. It's got great production values, but the story is terrible....With a good story line, you put up with less-than-perfect effects and production values. "Titanic" had special effects that support the story and didn't overpower it. So what you see is believable. It's not robots shooting each other.

I love a good slow film .... It’s like being saturated in the moment. You watch someone’s face change.
– Suzanne Murphy

SM: I think there's a difference between great cinema and good. If we're going to talk great, it's about getting through to real human truths. Just like any great art. Just like great literature or great painting. It's something really profound. I think there are levels when you go to the movies. Like some things are just good, which makes for great popcorn-eating movies. But then there's great cinema, which is a whole other level. Then, you don't buy popcorn.

Popcorn is the stupidest thing you could possibly sell in a movie theater. I don't understand, because it's noisy and ridiculous. I don't get it.

SM: To me what makes a film great is when all the factors work. So you have the great camera work, editing, writing and acting. To me, in a great film, every scene works.

What films have that flow?

SM: I would say Hitchcock. Pretty much every scene in a Hitchcock movie is there for a reason and works. "Notorious" is one of my favorite films, with Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant. Ingrid Bergman is fantastic and the plot is really tense. It's a post-World War II film, and it's great.

What else makes a great movie?

SM: I like unpredictability. And that's hard to find in an American movie sometimes. I don't really want to know exactly where everything is going. But I don't mean a suspense thriller. I mean unpredictability in the scene and the story .... I really enjoy being challenged by the film.

BY: What about Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven?" Was he a hero? Was he the bad guy? Well, he's both. For American audiences, that's often confusing. Like in old television westerns, the good guys are in white hats and the bad guys are shifty and wear black.

JH: I think people might be getting a little sappier. There will always be the "Spider Man" movies, but I think about something like "Crash." That was a fantastic film. It blew me away. That was unpredictable.

SM: I thought it was totally predictable, and I was not impressed. I didn't care about the characters. I was very disappointed.

JH: But the score was incredible.

Have you seen any great films in the last year?

SM: One of the last movies I said that about was "Mystic River." When that movie ended, I was just like ‘Oh, my God. Everything worked in this movie.' And that was straightforward filmmaking. No special effects and hardly any fancy camera angles .... I was very impressed. Clint Eastwood seems to be turning out a lot of great work in his late years ....

He wrote the score for "Mystic River," "Million Dollar Baby," and "Letters from Iwo Jima." There's the most recent movie that I thought was pretty amazing. "Letters from Iwo Jima" and "Flags of our Fathers." One story told from the American side and one told from the Japanese side.

What parts of filmmaking are underrated?

SM: The editing. People don't quite realize how critical that is to the timing and the pacing.

BY: People can see costumes. And sound, they can hear. And the visuals they can see. But they don't see the editing. They see the aftereffects, how fast the movie moves .... But they don't see the process.

SM: I think that people don't pick up on pacing .... A lot of movies kind of just sag about 45 minutes into the movie. And that's all editing .... Some people come out of a movie and they think. "Oh, I didn't like that too much." That's all probably because the pacing was off. And so they were bored.

How will the Top Ten list change in years to come?

BY: When I teach the movies course, I use "Citizen Kane." And on almost every list, it is arguably the best film ever made .... Most students don't like it because the pacing is so slow and the development is so slow. I think ... younger people are used to video, MTV, instant, quick analyses. So they can pick up a plot in a story line in 10 or 20 seconds.

In an old silent movies with the soundtrack, the orchestra leads you into the film .... It's light and frilly and then heavy and menacing. It tells you in advance what to expect ....

SM: Audiences have gotten more sophisticated in that they don't need that anymore.

BY: Fifty years ago it took four or five minutes of exposition to get people clued in .... I think the (Top Ten) list is going to change, and that may be one of the reasons that some of the traditional classics will be gone ... because perceptions have changed. They now expect quicker, faster.

JH: When you have a standard scene, it's basically three seconds. But the general rule is you put the shot up there until the audience gets it. And when they get the shot, that's when you change it. That's what makes a good editor.

SM: I love a good slow film. Because it's not about exposition, it's about sitting with the moment that has just happened. It's like being saturated in the moment. You watch someone's face change. I love that kind of film, but I think that's an acquired taste. I'm not sure I would've loved that when I was 20.

Can anyone make a movie these days?

BY: What I think is cool about technology is that now with a $2,000 camcorder and a $2,000 laptop and $1,000 worth of software ... you can produce an image that is visually Spielberg's equal. You still have problems with the story and the content value. But if you put it online, you're an independent producer and you've kind of bypassed the traditional route of getting a distributor, having prints made and all that stuff.

But with documentaries especially, it's now kind of wide open and cool. It democratizes movies. Conceivably, if you've got some thing to say and make it short enough to put it on YouTube, and if a buzz builds, people will start watching until there's total distribution of it. You probably don't make any money doing it that way though.

JH: Those $200 camcorders that you can get at Wal-Mart now do have the same quality as standard definition broadcast television. What used to be a $100,000 studio camera is now a $200 throwaway. You can go out and buy a high-definition camcorder for $500 or $600.

Now with a $2,000 camcorder and a $2,000 laptop and $1,000 worth of software … you can produce an image that is visually Spielberg’s equal.
– William Yates

BY: Because of the Web, you may hear more voices .... The system was so set up. Guys with multi-million dollar budgets talked to multi-million dollar producers. But this is like a spot for new voices to be heard.

JH: I feel like eventually, when there's so much out there, so many things that so many people have seen, there will be no real thread that pulls people together.

SM: But I would welcome the proliferation of other voices, myself. You look around at the theaters and they're all offering the same 10 movies. I mean, where are all of these other voices? The system promotes a fair amount of schlock.

BY: I see that too. If you go to Amazon.com, after a couple visits they have a profile of what you like. So that's what they suggest. And news services will also do that with this kind of push technology. So the danger is that your world gets smaller because they're feeding you things that you like. And you've got to be wise enough to say ‘No, I'm going to go surf over here' or just enter as a visitor without a profile and kind of just shop around.

SM: Netflix does the same thing and I just think, ‘You don't know what I like. Don't tell me what I like.'

Could we make a Top Ten list?

SM: I just think there's so much great film and it depends on what mood you're in and what day it is.

JH: I think the American Film Institute just re-did their top 100 films of all time. That's a good list to start from. It had "Citizen Kane," "The Godfather," "Star Wars" ....With "Citizen Kane" everything just came together. Photography was outrageous, the sound, the acting, the story, the time that it was released. It just came together.

BY: A couple years ago I had a student that had access to Indian films. And those are great films! Of course they're all Hindi and in different languages, but they're very basic .... They are just real great fun, and you'll just never see them here because we don't translate them.

SM: Americans are a tough crowd. No one wants to read subtitles. Everybody in every country wants to make movies. It's a real human urge. And everybody wants to hear a story. People will scrape the money together if they want to make a film. If there are no films coming out of a country, it's because people are oppressed.

JH: In my Politics and Media class, I always talk about Peter Gabriel's organization called Witness, which is basically distributing camcorders to all these populations that are oppressed. They go out and film stuff and put it up on the Web, these documentaries ..... It's fantastic. Film is going to more and more people who can do it quickly and distribute it universally. And it doesn't involve money, studios or distribution channels.

Do you think people go to the movies to be transported?

SM: Yeah, I do. That's why I like film in the theaters. I mean I'll watch things at home on DVD and that's okay. But I like to go to a big screen with loud sound and nobody talking, thank you very much. (In regards to people talking) I feel like saying "Don't you want to give yourself up to the movie? Don't you understand what movies are about?" It's like they think they're in their living room.

JH: Which is a whole different thing. Now we're going big-screen TVs, high-definition, and we have to think of what that is going to do to the movie industry. I think we are going to wind up leaning more toward the big grandiose special-effect kind of movies in the theaters, where the effects are more profound ... as opposed to the character-driven and plot-driven movies. That's my prediction.

BY: Lucas and Spielberg are saying they won't do any more movies unless they are in 3-D. And we're not talking about the traditional weird glasses. This is new technology. Apparently whatever you put on looks like regular glasses. But it's a true digital 3-D experience. They're saying ... only theaters initially will be quick with this technology. So you can probably rent the movie and watch it on your screen at home, but if you want the true reception of it, you'll need to go to the theater.

I think as time goes on there will be newer technologies that will keep the theater experience going... there'll be something to keep it living. I mean, I hope.

(movie reviews on Fridays)