Get Moving

Strictly speaking, there’s nothing really wrong with Fast Five. It’s dumb as dirt, sure, and it embraces all the hoariest action movie clichés. It makes Rio de Janeiro out to be a hillside aggregation of crime-ridden slums, and it treats women as interchangeable T&A, the fleshy equivalents of fast cars. Still, it’s trashy fun that delivers on its promise of gunfire and Vin Diesel in tight shirts. The characters share a rough-and-tumble camaraderie as they plot their $100 million heist, exchanging Predator-style hand clasps and basking in Diesel’s goofy grins. Affable and generic for the most part, Fast Five peaks with its climactic set-piece—a high-speed chase that harks back to Buster Keaton.

So I have nothing against Fast Five, but I still flinched when Time film critic Richard Corliss listed it as #10 in his “Top 10 Best Movies of 2011.” Which I assume was his point. The rest of his list—The Tree of Life, Hugo, The Artist, etc.—comprises a pretty standard, amiable summation of The Year in Film. Fast Five is his bold, counterintuitive choice: an olive branch to blockbuster-loving readers, maybe, or a gesture of mild defiance to the critical establishment. In your face, “sensitive indie dramas!” Fast Five has more “craft and cojones” than you ever will, you effete piles of mush.

And, you know, that’s cool. It’s Corliss’s prerogative. It’s his list. I think it’s stupid to refer to such a melodramatic, cookie-cutter action movie as the “first great film of the post-human era,” but whatever. Maybe he really, truly loves Fast Five. No, my real grievance lies with The Guardian, which asked (in response to Corliss’s list), “Would Fast Five make your top 10 films of 2011?” Let’s make no bones about it: this is a really shitty article. You have been warned. And now I’m going to do perform some close reading:

  • It starts out bemoaning the sameness of year-end lists. That’s a totally legitimate complaint to make, except 1) author Stuart Heritage uses the phrase “dutifully chronicling,” assuming a total lack of passion in everyone’s top 10 lists and 2) he draws a dichotomy between “prestigious middlebrow Oscar-bait” (i.e, boring) and “big summer marquee blockbusters” (not-boring). So yeah, he’s lumping every low-budget or non-franchise movie together under the heading “Oscar bait.”
  • The next two paragraphs are brimming with mock surprise at Corliss’s audacity. They say that he “remembered films that people actually went to see”—because, of course, critics or cinephiles who go to see artsy movies don’t count as people.
  • Heritage asserts that Fast Five is “undeniably fun,” then derides Drive as basically Fast Five rendered boring through artsy pretensions. He also employs those essential weasel words “There is an argument, perhaps…” (Own up to your worthless claims, man!)
  • The next paragraph is a classic: it alludes to “films that have been written and produced specifically to win awards,” then cites The Skin I Live In, Margaret, and We Need to Talk About Kevin. By “win awards” does he mean “take artistic risks and thereby earn critical accolades”? Does he know anything about those specific movies or about awards season? “It almost seems like a validation of brainless popcorn flicks,” he says of Corliss’s list. Almost seems. Two words that tell us nothing.
  • This disingenuous, faux-rebellious article ends by declaring “amnesty.” That’s right: people are allowed to express fondness for popular, profitable movies again! Fie on you, critics, for making us ashamed to love Thor. Never again!

Before I rant on, I should add that if this were posted on some random asshole’s blog, I wouldn’t blink. But this was posted by the fucking Guardian. 44,000 people saw it linked to on Twitter. This piece received 52 comments. And it’s meant to pass as professional film journalism. That’s just bullshit. I’m all for genuine populism, for recognizing genius in lowbrow movies. (Hell, I’m second to no one in my love for Chopping Mall.) But that Guardian piece’s unspoken thesis is that we should collectively disregard any movie with a modicum of artistic ambition. Fast Five is good enough, and “good enough” is the new “great.”

You know why people “actually went to see” Fast Five and Transformers 3 and The Smurfs? Saturation marketing. Because they were advertised ad nauseum, and then opened in multiplexes nationwide. Margaret, meanwhile, was dumped into 14 theaters by Fox Searchlight. Notorious piece of Oscar bait, that. These simple circumstances give the lie to Heritage’s whole pseudo-populist agenda. He’s set up a false hegemony—i.e., “Critical groupthink only supports boring, artsy movies!”—when in reality, this is about publicity and access. It’s about real, active critics vs. the stultifying power of ad dollars.

When critics endorse mediocrities because they’re “good enough” (or from fear of looking elitist), they’re no longer critics. They’re just adjuncts to studio publicity. Criticism is about drawing attention to great cinema even though most such movies are, yes, artsy and in limited release. If you can’t countenance praise for movies that nobody “actually went to see,” then I’m really sorry, but you have nothing meaningful to say about movies.

Incidentally, Corliss later released some “Filthy Secrets” about his list-making process. He explains that “indie or foreign art-house films… with important exceptions, are going through a static or mopey phase,” gets in a dig at A Separation, then clarifies that Fast Five “did what movies should do: move.” Movies are supposed to move. Maybe all those mopey art films will keep that in mind next time, and splurge on some car chases. Thanks for the advice, Richard Corliss.

6 Comments

Filed under Cinema

6 responses to “Get Moving

  1. Jia-Li

    Your writing in this post is very good. I really enjoyed it

  2. someonenamedashlee

    “He’s set up a false hegemony—i.e., “Critical groupthink only supports boring, artsy movies!”—when in reality, this is about publicity and access. It’s about real, active critics vs. the stultifying power of ad dollars.”

    Thank you!

    And totally well-written.

  3. someonenamederik

    Very dead on–might Corliss be an over-educated, under-intelligent film critic who wants his 14 year old son’s friends to 1.)think he’s cool, or 2.)not lynch him?

  4. Fucking A. Corliss has been playing this shit for years, and it’s entirely hypocritical. Back in 1990, when it was still fashionable to play the no-bullshit intellectual in critical circles, he bemoaned the “decline” of criticism at the hands (or thumbs, rather) of Siskel & Ebert. Ebert correctly noted that, whatever his thoughts on “At the Movies”‘ critical approach, at last he & Siskel weren’t writing fluff pieces for movie stars and their publicists for cover stories in a national news magazine (hint: Corliss was). Come 2008 (when blockbusters are arguably worse than they were in 1990), and Corliss has dropped the last vestiges of the tsk-tsking elite for a phony populism, praising blockbusters as the true art films. To me, it all smacks of boomer desperation. Sure, you see some dopey kids claiming no films before 1986 should “count”, but for the most part young people I know are excited by films of the past, and disillusioned with movies of today. But aging critics like Corliss fall over themselves trying to seem hip and with-it by praising the special-effects opuses that critics have been slamming for years, while their audiences slide. Sound like too much bad faith? Perhaps, and I’ll grant that Corliss probably thinks the shit he’s shovelling smells sweet. But it’s also quite convenient in a time of diminishing critical returns and growing separation from film audiences, isn’t it? (But no, let’s all bash bloggers again for “dumbing down” the trade as if critics haven’t been doing that for years.)

    As for the Guardian article, don’t even get me started. A few years ago, I heard David Denby give a talk about the decline of movies. I agreed with much of what he said, but though he left the critical establishment off the hook for its culpability; pressed on the matter, he offered only a snide non-response. And now lo and behold, he’s caught up in this New Yorker-Scott Rudin scandal where Hollywood studios are scolding him for not obeying their publicity-fueled “embargo.” This whole thing stinks to high heaven – I feel sorry for a lot of the good critics who’ve lost their jobs but when critics are falling over themselves to abandon standards and embrace crap in misguided efforts to seem cool, all while badmouthing the evil blogosphere where “anything goes,” well, get me a shovel and let me help in the goddamn burial.

    Yeah, a lot of indies and Oscar bait are crap – I’m no more fond of the current trends in independent and art cinema than I am in mainstream narratives. I think the western cinema as a whole has fallen into a rut. But since when do we live in an either/or world where this means the other kind of crap no longer is crap?

    I think the establishment has it backwards, falling over themselves to praise the new and the lowbrow while the Criterion Collection, Netflix, the classic movie blogosphere and other new forms are opening young eyes to higher achievements cinema is capable of. I don’t even go to new releases anymore, and I’m 28. Let the old fogies and entrenched establishment have their kiddie fare. May they choke on it.

    • Joel —

      Thanks so much for the magnificent, rightfully angry response. I remember reading Ebert and Corliss’s back-and-forth in Awake in the Dark; now that you mention it, the retroactive hypocrisy is galling. It’s so disappointing to see print critics grasp for relevance through shock tactics like this while simultaneously decrying bloggers for destroying criticism. (A certain erstwhile New York Press critic comes to mind…)

      Meanwhile, it’s so refreshing to see online and print critics working together, engaging one another, advancing film culture, etc. with honesty, intelligence, and open minds. (As in the recent campaign on behalf of Margaret, to name one example.) It’s just sad that some members of the Old Guard can’t see that—and that they’re frequently the ones precipitating “the decline of film criticism” through their stunts and shoddy writing. (And all while actually drawing a paycheck.)

      Anyway, that’s why I see it as my responsibility to give hell to lazy paid critics whenever possible. I’m just grateful that we have our “anything goes” territory, which can lead to enlightening meta-discussions like this.

      • Frustrating as Armond White is (and dumb as his lazy attacks on bloggers are – yeah, some may deserve it but talk about painting with a broad brush) one thing I like about him is his willingness to call out critical hypocrisy when he sees it. He can be a bit nasty in the process, but the perspective he retains on the integrity of the critical mission is refreshing. He’s certainly not mealymouthed.

        He also has a penchant for overpraising complete fluff or trash, but at least when he does so, it’s the wrong films for the right reasons – he invests them with all sorts of meaning or achievement, unlike Corliss or the Guardian, who seem to relish in the puerile provocation of their preference for Vin Deisel movies.

        White’s reflexive contrariness got a bit tiresome after a while (did you ever read that “Armond White critiques a blogger’s breakfast” post a while back? It was hilarious!), which is why I stopped reading him after a few years of relishing his oddball integrity. But I still cherish the fact that he called Mystic River on its bullshit and if his own drummer is way off-course, at least it’s a different drummer. In this day and age, that’s something; he’s sort of like the movie-critic version of Christopher Hitchens (I’d say God rest his soul, but it hardly seems appropriate).

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