Critics love categories, and most movies can be squeezed into a limited number of them, from specific ones like "western" to broad ones like "blockbuster."
Stuart Klawans, film columnist for The Nation, is one of the rare reviewers to dream up a new one: "film follies," referring to movies that provide "the excitement of seeing filmmaking pushed beyond all rational limits," as he puts it in "Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order," his highly entertaining new book (Cassell, 192 pp., $21.95). Stretching from the silent "Intolerance" to "Cleopatra" and "Apocalypse Now," these are movies "for people who want to die from too much cinema."
What defines a film folly, as opposed to an ordinary picture that simply costs too much or flops at the box office? "They have to be big," Mr. Klawans explained in a recent conversation, taking a brief break from viewing, writing, and the pleasures of caring for his 10-week-old son. "And they're always messes to a degree. They're huge and bewildering in some ways, but truly awesome in others. They're valuable to think about just because I don't know what to make of them.
"And you can't believe what people did to make them!" he adds with a chuckle. "You have to imagine Erich von Stroheim shooting the conclusion of 'Greed in Death Valley' and waiting until July to do it. You have to imagine him shouting to his actors, 'Fight! Fight! Try to hate each other as you both hate me!' That's a lot to do for authenticity, don't you think?"
Klawans has never sympathized with reviewers who trot out "bad movies" to prompt laughter and sneers, so it's important to note his affection and even respect for cinema's great follies.
"Almost all the films I write about are films I enjoy and admire," he insists. "I don't think of them as the best world cinema has produced, because let's face it, they do fall all over themselves. But in their parts they're remarkable, astonishing, moving, thrilling, awe-inspiring, and laughable all at once."
They're also revealing. "Most were produced at moments of rupture in the film industry," Klawans notes, "and most were judged at their own time to have been crazy to make. So they tell us something about the society that made this judgment."
Some periods, such as the 1930s, produced no true follies at all. "But when you see [aspects of the film industry] falling apart a little bit, you get more follies," Klawans continues. "It happens when a Stroheim is in conflict with the production system. Or when a Fritz Lang is trying to make a superproduction ["Metropolis"] that will beat the Americans at their own game. Or when a David O. Selznick is making 'Duel in the Sun' independently because the studio system is ending and what's supposed to be a cheap quickie western ends up costing $3 million more than 'Gone With the Wind.' "
While some people might see little but wastefulness and self-indulgence in such moviemaking, Klawans finds thought-provoking qualities in the often ungainly results. "Part of the allure of film follies," he says, "is that for different groups of people they have become symbols of opposition to the dominant culture - to a dull, money-driven, overly commercialized system of industrial production and consumerist values. These are big movies in opposition to the culture of big movies."
Klawans recognizes that there's another way to challenge the big-studio syndrome of stale formulas, giant budgets, and box-office greediness. "You can slap together some money any way you can," he says, "and organize friends and families into a skeleton crew, and work on the edges of the system, and try not to turn yourself into a bitter old crank. That means being a John Cassavetes, or an Italian neorealist, or a Robert Bresson, or one of the Iranian filmmakers today. Make little movies, cut corners, do it cheaply."
This strategy challenges the money-motivated values of the Hollywood mainstream just as follies do, and in his heart of hearts, Klawans tends to side with the mavericks who do things outside the dominant film industry. But he can't shake his longtime love for the outsized follies that arise improbably and outrageously within the industry itself.
"There's no absolute break between them," he says of the two approaches to ornery cinema, "and I'm glad I don't have to choose."
*A program of film follies selected by Klawans is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through Feb. 16. He will present Leos Carax's rarely seen French epic, 'The Lovers of Pont-Neuf,' at New York's Lincoln Center this Sunday and at the Cleveland Cinematheque April 17. He will present 'Duel in the Sun' and 'Lola Monts' at the Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge, Mass., Feb. 28 and 'Greed' at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, Calif., March 4. David Sterritt's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org