Who Is Max von Sydow Again?

By  · Published on August 4th, 2015

One thing I hate in this kind of debate is when somebody starts turning it into a one or the other type of choice, you either get Tony Scott or you get Terence Malick, and you can’t have both.

That’s for chumps and nitwits. A narrow view like that signals a boring person. Like I always say, a well-rounded person is open to a Jean-Luc Godard and a Jean-Claude Van Damme.

That’s Vern writing way back in 2013, and it’s as solid a definition of pure cinephilia as you can get. Note it’s not about loving Godard or Van Damme or both at the same time, but simply being open to them, because a cinephile at his or her broadest is someone who loves movies. Not one kind of movie. Not movies from one director. But the greater idea of cinema, with a passion that creates a willingness to open your mind when the lights go dim.

Some film critics are cinephiles, but not all. Some people who love Marvel movies are cinephiles, but not all. Some people who really love L’Avventura are, but not all. If you’re sensing a theme here, it’s good to keep that open mind going for the rest of this.

Yesterday, Peter Sciretta at Slashfilm posted the news that Max von Sydow would be joining Game of Thrones (as a tree-man with what Stephen King calls the Shining) carrying the headline “Star Wars: The Force Awakens Actor to Play Game of Thrones Three-Eyed Raven.” Some readers and fellow film writers took him to task for effectively diminishing the career of a heavyweight, some didn’t notice, some labeled it clickbaiting, some fist-pumped, some simply complained about how GoT recasts too often and got the design of the three-eyed raven wrong in the first place. Because, seriously, a guy sitting in a branch? Lame. Hopefully they’ll embed von Sydow fully into the tree next time.

Totally rules how mentioning anything or anyone who existed during the first 80 years of movies is somehow elitist now.

— Danny Bowes (@bybowes) August 4, 2015

Yes, the headline is another textbook example of how looking to the future dominates the conversation instead of looking to the past, but that’s all it really is. Peter got grief for reducing an immortalized actor to a franchise movie that’s not even out yet. I understand and sympathize with that frustrated response, but – as I said in that State of the Movie Fan Union – Peter and a lot of others sites (including this one sometimes) are really, merely the messengers.

So what’s the message? That, of the millions of readers needed to keep an independent movie website alive (or a corporate-owned entity from getting axed), the cinephiles are the minority. Yes, you heard that right. Millions are obsessed with movies and Hollywood right now, but the ones who have even heard of von Sydow are a miniscule percentage. If you don’t believe me, ask 100 people at the mall if they can name a movie he’s been in. Good luck.

In that sense, movie culture sites are a lot like blockbuster movies. Who’d ever even heard of Iron Man in 2008? Not the millions of people who spent good money to see something that looked cool regardless of name-recognition. Dedicated fans are the core, and the unbelievably massive percentage of people who shrug their shoulders when Thor comes into the lineup are the fuel that keeps the money-making machine running.


’Twas ever thus, but it feels at least lately like the scales are tipping even further in the direction of entertainment reporting and future-casting when prominent sites even have to consider dropping a name like von Sydow from a headline or choosing which film to put next to it. “Exorcist Star Joins Game of Thrones.” “Oscar Nominee Joins Game of Thrones.” “Stone Cold Badass Who Defeated Death Itself Joins Game of Thrones.”

Peter’s response to criticism was that the headline would draw in more readers, and some of those readers would get a nice education about von Sydow. The thing is, he’s not wrong about either part. It’s impossible (or delusional/naive) to ignore that dropping Star + Wars + Force + Awakens into a headline is a good formula for getting more eyeballs, and I trust Peter to know his audience better than anyone else. It’s also easy to imagine at least a certain number of readers scoping out the news, seeing the name, recognizing a That Guy face and getting curious. At least it’s something to calm the nerves – consider it the Classic Is Getting Remade Consolation Prize.

Unfortunately, it’s situations like this that create a false dichotomy between elitist scum who just want some fucking decorum for a living legend and blasé whippersnappers who refuse to watch anything older than Back to the Future. I don’t know a single person that fits neatly into either category, and Scott Weinberg (who engaged with Peter about the headline) and Peter certainly don’t. They are both cinephiles, lapping up everything they can in admittedly different ways.

If there’s a real dichotomy in cinema it’s not between high art and low art, stuffy critics and fun-lovin’ normals, or even “mindless” studio fare and “thoughtful” indies; it’s between the dedicated cinephiles and the untold number of casual fans looking merely for Game of Thrones tidbits ahead of the next season. Cinephiles in one corner, entertainment fans in the other, bigger corner.

Now picture it with the dude from Strange Brew.

The frustration comes from the sheer force of the casual movie fan’s number and the way the internet has tailored itself to suit their needs ahead of deeper conversations. The market is fantastically powerful right now, manufacturing an interest gap between the largest studio movies and the fascinating stuff from outside the system, and that environment militates every publication’s ability to write about movies of the past or, hell, to toss Seventh Seal into a headline about naked ladies riding dragons.

At the very most, there are only a few who can balance repertory writing and indie cinema coverage comfortably. Some sites find the current environment perfect because the owners/writers want first and foremost to cover the exact kind of news that is crazy popular right now. Some sites find it to be a daily challenge of juggling your personal interests with what too often feels like ephemera (Kate Mara and Michael B. Jordan had to talk to an insensitive, ill-prepared asshole interviewer? Who cares.).

Yet Slashfilm and Screenrant and Heroic Hollywood and Da7e didn’t create the marketplace; they’re simply benefiting from a studio evolution emboldened by an internet age and a larger group of people curious about how their favorite movies get made. They want behind-the-scenes photos of Scarlet Witch, not a dissection of Wayne’s World. Or maybe they want both. But not enough of them to break even.

Also, you know, looming large over all of it is the immortal specter of celebrity nonsense that has followed us since Ork’s painting of a woolly mammoth attracted grunting neighbors from the next village over.

@bybowes Redefining education and taste as “old people stuff” is an excellent way to justify never leaving one’s comfort zone.

— Matt Zoller Seitz (@mattzollerseitz) August 4, 2015

Do not step with your “you only like highbrow stuff.” I gave four stars to PACIFIC RIM. And I WOULD DO IT AGAIN MUFUGGA

— Matt Zoller Seitz (@mattzollerseitz) August 4, 2015

Honestly, it feels like a lot of us went a little crazy when we lost The Dissolve. Or maybe that it was the dam breaking on a lot of things cinephiles, fans and critics have been experiencing for a while.

These things go in cycles, though. The existential crisis of whether commerce is beating the living daylights out of art loops back around in different forms all the time, and those of us who are lucky enough to write about this stuff for a living have to tighten the medical bracelet around our minds a little tighter.

If you want proof, look no further than this:

“For some time, a very small group of people and the things they chose to write about were the natural catalyst drawing in audiences with similar experiences (or audiences so compelled to disagree that they spoke up and became loyal readers). With different types of movie geeks – geeks that love only noir, geeks that love Hammer films more than life, geeks that lose their mind for Godard and Godzilla in equal measure, geeks who only dig on war films from before 1950, geeks who may not necessarily want the challenge of Splice or chest vaginas – comes a different environment on the internet.

“In summation, the internet has thoroughly helped the movie geek, but it’s also killed the exclusivity, opened the doors to anonymous gadflies, and created an opportunity for the studio system to co-opt a culture they had previously not understood.”

That’s me writing five years ago in response to an editorial from Devin Faraci back when he was still at CHUD in which he lamented the downfall of true movie geeks being overrun by people who refused to watch Splice. (CHUD has since taken his article down.) You can go further back and further back and further back. People of every era have concerned themselves with a mythical purity that doesn’t exist when they (read: we) are really bothered when the identity inherent in spending a lot of time and attention on something is challenged by an avalanche of apathy that says, “We don’t care who the death-defying Mr. von Sydow is; we just want to know something about Game of Thrones before our friends do.”

Maybe here – five years later – we’re just now starting to feel the weight of the sky on us, or maybe it’ll get even heavier. I sympathize both as a fan and as a writer whose livelihood depends on keeping current; there’s a lot of shit to wade through if you’re a cinephile.

Yet it comes greatly from a place of privilege. It’s difficult to remember the kind of access we have to movies from all over the world and from every kind of bank account when you’re being inundated with information about who The Joker may or may not be torturing in a 10-second clip for a movie coming out 365 days from now. But even through the handwringing and the coming to terms with the fact that a lot of people simply don’t know the name “Max von Sydow,” we still have the freedom to check out an absurd array of movies or pop in our Criterion of Flash Gordon as we see fit.

I think it’s perfectly okay for writers and outlets to be contentious. There should even be more of it, but the objects of our contention should be on the movies themselves and not how we all report on them. Unfortunately, one of the incipient problems of focusing on the future in all things is that there are few editorials out there to engage with and bounce between. That’s why there are more “articles” doing frame-by-frame breakdowns of the Batman vs Superman trailer than there are articles responding to great writing like this. Add another layer of frustration to the pile.

Luckily, since all of this is a flat circle, I can reuse the closing paragraph from my piece from five years ago, assuaging those who fear the reign of true cinephilia is over:

The point is that the modern movie geek is alive and well – because you’re still around and because there’s an entirely new crop of people that have just discovered the meeting place. Times are still a’changing, there will be a ton of comments to ignore, but the good outweighs the bad.

Besides, I want to get back to celebrating a love of movies. Who’s with me?

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.