Tag Archives: film criticism

Recommended reading #2

I love putting together our Link Dumps. They’re a valuable platform for disseminating high-quality online writing. But sometimes, bulleted lists just aren’t enough. Such is the case with two terrific blog posts from late January, pieces that cut very close to my cinephile heart. They’re “Spirits and Influences” by Jim Emerson (part #13 of the “SLIFR Movie Tree House” roundtable) and “What the Siren Will Be Doing on the Night of Feb. 26” by the Self-Styled Siren herself.

Both posts demand more than a mere hyperlink and an injunction to “go read this!” Emerson’s, for example—arriving midway through an incredibly erudite six-way conversation—reads almost as a moviegoing manifesto. He deftly jumps across myriad topics: the troubled release of Margaret; his distaste for We Need to Talk About Kevin; the death and ethos of his friend Bingham Ray. And all the while, he espouses a desire for greater diversity in the worlds of critical thought and film production. A pair of quotes especially caught my eye. First, this one:

All that matters is what the critic has to say about the movie. Everything else is irrelevant and/or speculation. On the other hand, if a critic can’t articulate why he/she loves or hates or is ambivalent about something, then how can his/her opinion possibly matter? It doesn’t. Opinions are a dime a dozen, but they have to be tested to find out whose carries any weight.

Which pretty much sums up my beliefs about what criticism is and should do. Opinions are like assholes; everybody has one. At the end of the day, a critic’s worth (and the worth of their opinions) comes down to the quality, meaning, and power of their writing.

A couple paragraphs on, Emerson addresses the fact that he and Armond White both listed Kevin as one of their least-favorite movies of 2011. (Emerson explained his decision, but White just answered the film’s title with a glib “Must we?”)

So, do I “agree” with AW? There’s no way of telling. I gave my reasons. He didn’t. We may hold entirely different views about the movie, even though we both, evidently, don’t think very highly of it.

I’m reminded of the legal concept of a “concurring opinion”: when one justice on a court agrees with the majority, but for a different reason. The point being, you can come at a movie from radically different critical mindsets (as Emerson and White certainly do) and still “agree.” Cinema isn’t just a world of thumbs-up, thumbs-down, “yes” or “no.” It’s a thorny world of reasons, aesthetics, context, and personal histories. (Or, to borrow from Renoir in Rules of the Game, the wonderful thing about discussing movies is that “everybody has their reasons.”)

As for the Siren’s post, well, it’s an impassioned plea for a history-centric Oscar ceremony, and you need to read it. It’s an excellent case for why The Artist or Hugo should win all the awards, and why the filmmakers behind them should then turn the ceremony into a soapbox for film preservation. It’s a pipe dream, yeah, but a beautiful and noble one. This isn’t, after all, about two specific movies of mixed quality; it’s about the thousands of movies that no one will ever learn about or see. (In part because they might not exist anymore.) That’s a tragedy, and it’s one that these two backwards-looking films could, possibly, go a little way toward reversing.

So thanks to the Siren and Mr. Emerson for elevating online film discourse and inspiring me with their incisive prose!

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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.

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Link Dump: #48

Boris Karloff’s grave-digging villain in The Body Snatcher needs to stop getting into fights. It’s pissing off his kitty! Look at how that cat’s snarling. It’s saying, “Hey Karloff, take your petty corpse-related squabbles elsewhere! I’ve got kitty stuff to do.” We hope you’ve been enjoying our feast of pre-Halloween delights this month, with plenty more to come. And now, here are links:

This isn’t that weird of a search term, but I found it too funny not to share: “snow white and the seven dwarfs get some pussy.” Yep.

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Lost in Termination

In the inaugural piece for her new GQ series “The New Canon,” Natasha Vargas-Cooper writes the following:

Whether reverence for movies from a bygone era is rooted in merit, nostalgia, or neurosis about film being an inferior medium to literature, movies keep pace with social mores of a time and deserve to be free of the tastes and prejudices of people who grew up without Quentin Tarantino.

Am I crazy, or is Vargas-Cooper completely full of incoherent shit? I really want to know! Every time I reread the intro section of her article, I question my sanity a little more. Is it an elaborate prank? Is she trolling her readers? Or does she really believe that “any movie made before, say, 1986 has received its due respect”? Is she just trying to flatter the ignorance of her audience? Or is she trying to look edgy and populist in a way that, as Glenn Kenny rightly points out, is about half a century behind the times?

Mind you, I’m just addressing the article’s first five paragraphs and their philistine manifesto. The rest of the piece, discussing Terminator 2, is pleasantly written and generally inoffensive, hardly appropriate for the first skirmish in a culture war. Where are the bold claims and aesthetic gambits suggested by her introductory bravado? She really just echoes what everybody’s been saying about T2 since it was released two decades ago. Could it be that she’s all bark, no bite? Or that she has no idea what the hell she’s talking about?

Take a sentiment like this: “[I]t’s an obligation that every generation must take upon itself in order for art to thrive: tear down what’s come before and hail our own accomplishments as good enough. Otherwise we exist in a sort of dead time, retreating back to the nostalgic and sacrosanct.” Why, it’s like she took a handful of somewhat iconoclastic ideas, then mashed them together without worrying about whether or not they made any kind of sense!

Because yes: it is good to question received wisdom. (Duh.) But no, it’s not good to “hail our own accomplishments as good enough”—i.e., settle for mediocrity. This seems obvious. Is this obvious? I mean, why would any person with a modicum of critical thinking skills ever want to trash everything that came before the past 25 years, let alone use that desire as a battle cry in a GQ article? (And on what planet does being open-minded cause us to exist in a “dead time”?)

I could go on and on about Vargas-Cooper’s ridiculous bullshit—her reference to nonexistent “purists” who refuse to discuss Paul Thomas Anderson; her framing of the series as a wacky but noble experiment; her apparently belief that militant anti-intellectualism and blatant ageism are radical ideas—but I’d be wasting my breath. The point is that we have enough blind spots as it is; we don’t need to validate them! And for Natasha Vargas-Cooper, the lesson is that you can slaughter sacred cows without slaughtering your own credibility.

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Raising Brows

By Andreas

“If it had been released 50 years ago, The Help would have been the cinematic event of the summer.” This is how critic Stephen Farber began a piece on middlebrow message movies published two weeks ago by the L.A. Times. No, I’m not kidding, and oh, it gets worse. The whole article reads like a satirical attempt at bad, counterintuitive criticism. Maybe there’s a good argument to be made for valuing gently progressive, Stanley Kramer-esque dramas in the 21st century, but Farber sure isn’t making it.

That opening sentence certainly doesn’t bolster his credibility. Does he seriously think that the only difference between 2011 and 1961 is that critics now are more “persnickety” and less open to middlebrow fare? Does he really not suspect any legitimate reasons, reasons other than widespread critical bias, why the passage of that half-century should lead to “lukewarm” reviews for The Help? This colossal blind spot (or should I say blind side?) hobbles his argument from the get-go, because most of the vitriol currently aimed at The Help is spurred by its racial politics first and its status as a well-intentioned prestige picture a distant second.

But no, if you ask Farber, critics are unmoved by The Help and its bland brethren because these days, they cherish trashy genre movies instead. (He doesn’t mention Pauline Kael by name, but her influence is obvious.) So these poor, tasteful movies suffer the indignity of—as Farber says of The King’s Speech— “not [being] universally loved.” They might win Best Picture, but what’s the point if a few heartless critics still mock them? Alas, the tragic plight of a middlebrow, Oscar-baiting drama… hey, you know, that sounds like a pretty good story for a movie!

Honestly, the piece is so lazily written it’s like he’s asking for bloggers to dissect it. He quotes negative reviews of social problem dramas like The Whistleblower and A Better Life as evidence of anti-middlebrow bias, but never takes on the critics’ claims with any specificity. He never even addresses the possibility that these might just be, say, mediocre or bad movies. He also twice refers to middlebrow dramas as “ambitious,” even though they’re defined by their formal conservatism. To quote the bard Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Farber closes out his argument with this kids-these-days sentiment:

Younger critics in particular are desperate to prove that they’re hip, and so they champion esoteric, highbrow movies — “The Tree of Life,” “Meek’s Cutoff,” “The Future” — that most audiences are more likely to find ponderous, impenetrable or impossibly precious. These younger reviewers also have a fondness for lowbrow fare — gross-out comedies like “Superbad” or violent genre pictures like “Bellflower” and “Zombieland.”

Clearly if us kids weren’t so focused on hipster posturing, we could appreciate the real pleasures of cinema: preachy melodramas about Real World Issues! This anti-youth potshot is in character with the rest of the article, whose overall point seems to be, “Why can’t critics go back to loving mediocre, respectable movies like they used to?” The answer, of course, is that they do. Many critics have been blown away by The Help, just as many swooned at The King’s Speech. Mediocre movies will always find an audience eager to have its intelligence and taste flattered.

All told, I think Farber’s article really pissed me off because it’s unnecessarily whiny. It’s good-natured whining, sure, but when your only grievance is that critics aren’t pouring enough adulation onto middle-of-the-road dramas, that’s definitely whining. The whole piece is spectacularly misjudged; thankfully, Mark Olsen offered up a very smart retort, again in the L.A. Times. No offense to Mr. Farber, who sounds like a fine writer and fellow, but when all you have to say is “I want more movies that alleviate my guilt and don’t take risks,” you don’t really have anything meaningful to say.

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Recommended reading

By Andreas

This is officially my Anxiety Summer, as it’s the first time in my life that I have to worry about unemployment, paying rent, and buying food. Adulthood FTW! (That glamorous logo you see above was designed by Miles of The Daily Robot.) But thankfully, there’s more to my summer ’11 than just hunger and creative stagnancy. I’ve also been reading lots of sharp, funny, and insightful film writing online…

First of all, we have David Bordwell, the guy who wrote the book on movies. He’s one of my heroes, as well as one of the best, clearest film writers out there. So it stands to reason that he’d add a very valuable two cents to that whole “cultural vegetables” discussion I talked about a few weeks back. His piece “Good and good for you” is essential reading, addressing trends in filmmaking and reception that have led viewers like Dan Kois to give up on austere art films. Bordwell writes:

Why shouldn’t people follow Kois in giving up their vegetables? No reason, except that they’re missing some worthwhile cinematic experiences.

Then he illustrates that contention with visual examples from Ozu, Béla Tarr, and more. This is why he’s awesome. It’s a fine defense of movies that may be resolutely unconventional or inaccessible, but great nonetheless—movies that I’m dying to see more of. Not just as “aspirational viewing,” as Kois calls it, but because these movies are pleasurable, if in a different and difficult way.

If any movie I watch this summer can give me a pleasure matching the end of Stalker, the color palette of Floating Weeds, or the entirety of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, I will be all the happier for it.

It’s hard to follow up David Bordwell, but I got a dual pleasure from these two reviews of Cars 2: “It’s a CAR-TASTROPHE” by Alex of Film Forager and another review by Bryce Wilson of Things That Don’t Suck. Alex, covering both films, ponders the inconsistencies and bizarre logic of the Cars universe; Bryce points out the many appealing qualities of Cars 2 that make its Larry the Cable Guy-centric writing that much more tragic. I haven’t seen a second of either Cars movie, but I enjoyed every word of these reviews.

Finally, Jeffrey Sconce of Ludic Despair gives us the “Zookeeper Checklist.” Genius. You owe it to yourself to read it.

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Link Dump: #28

One of my favorite parts about the fun-but-forgettable Go, aside from the guts and raw energy of Sarah Polley, was this kitty. Look at it! It’s so cute and it’s terrifyingly telepathic! This is why you don’t pop tons of Ecstasy. Because that’s when cats start messing with you. In other news, the Internet has been happening for the past two weeks. Here’s the best of it:

  • I love my minimal movie posters, and these Stanley Kubrick pictogram posters are both well-made and dryly funny. (Also, spoiler warning on Full Metal Jacket!)
  • This Total Film article about inserting Doc Brown into every other time travel movie is pretty hilarious, and very British.
  • Pajiba has a list of “The 50 Most Expensive Movies of All Time,” with their budgets and grosses listed, plus some fun/informative trivia.
  • Badass Digest inducts Pauline Kael into its “Badass Hall of Fame,” which is a very appropriate place for her. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that Ms. Kael is a personal hero of mine, and the piece is thoughtfully written; give it a quick read!
  • The two things I never get tired of, Black Swan and Rebecca Black’s memetastic “Friday,” have finally been combined into one horrifying/funny video. (Huge spoiler alert for Black Swan.)
  • Few directors are as eloquent or congenial as David Cronenberg, and interviews with him are always a pleasure to read. This Q&A from Macleans.ca is no exception, as he dishes out yummy details about A Dangerous Method. (SO EXCITED!!)
  • Jonathan Coe in The Guardian digs into the hazards of the literary adaptation, with special emphasis on Barney’s Version and John Huston’s The Dead.
  • The YouTube channel MisterSharp has a series of hilarious pseudo-educational videos, including “The Bizarre World of the Bisexual,” which made me laugh out loud several times and is highly worth a view.
  • For The New Yorker, Tad Friend talks about the comic genius of Anna Faris, a woman we love around these parts. (This is also probably the most praise you’ll ever hear for The House Bunny.)

We had some weeeeeird search terms! I like the rhyming and biological inaccuracy of “zit on my clit,” and of course I adore the utterly inexplicable “george w bush sex in bed.” I was kind of creeped out, not gonna lie, by “female dead hand,” but the best two were definitely “молчание ягнят,” which is Russian for Silence of the Lambs (yay international readers!) and “i dont know why they dont explodes.” I don’t know why either. Maybe someday we’ll all find out.

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