Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Why Film Criticism is So Bad

I’m generally the last person to talk about how they don’t make movies like they used to. Yet this is the second time this year that I’m about to do so (the last time was after seeing Face in the Crowd and Splendor in the Grass). By and large it’s like anything else: whether or not progress is really just a fancy word for decay, the fact remains that the past is past, and whatever movies are being made today—and whatever else you can say about them—they are of their time and so speak more directly of it (more fully represent it) than do old movies, no matter how great. This is true only up to a point, however. Who can argue that King Lear is more relevant today than, say, Dan in Real Life (a sweet enough film which I will review here soon)? Or that Metropolis speaks more acutely of our times than Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium—or The Brothers Karamazov than Southland Tales? Art will out, and however timely trash may be, it is still, at the end of the day, trash—to be forgotten almost as quickly as it is devoured.

I just saw All About Eve, which is currently enjoying a revival in London. I was swept away by the film. It gripped me in a way that no recent works, not even the best (Into the Wild, Atonement), have managed to, drawing me into its world and holding me in a way that generally only great novels do. Pauline Kael called it “one of the most enjoyable movies ever made”; it is certainly that, but it’s also more. With its scathing yet balanced depiction of (what was then) “the modern world” of show business, and its chilling portrait (in Eve, who is really Lilith) of the pathological drive to success running through it like a slow poison, it hasn’t dated one bit. If anything, it may be more insightful and “relevant” today than ever.

The film holds up far better than Citizen Kane, which is to say, better than just about any other American movie from the period (1950). It’s an incredibly sophisticated work, and although stylistically it’s perhaps not in Kane’s class, in terms of story, character, and dialogue, it’s light years ahead of Welles’ film. But let’s face it, though Citizen Kane is a brilliant film, it’s not a work of much depth. Do we ever really care about Kane as a person? Has anyone but movie buffs ever cried at the movie? I doubt it. All About Eve does more than move us—it moves us and then it reveals that we have been deceived (as much as the characters have) to have been moved; and then it moves us again, only this time genuinely. It is I think a work of genius (the genius being Joseph L. Mankiewicz, whose brother Herman co-wrote Kane.)

The reason Citizen Kane is so highly regarded, perhaps, is that it is both a cerebral and ostentatious work, filled with playfulness and ingenuity but not much heart or soul. Critics, being generally deficient in the areas of heart and soul, tend to approve of such works. Welles’ stylistic flourishes and his somewhat detached insights into human nature appeal to the predominantly intellectual bent of critics, and since it is critics who “decide” which works get to be called great, naturally the movies that appeal to the critical sensibility (i.e., the overly intellectual mind-set) are the ones that rank highest. All About Eve is also considered a great work, but nowhere near the stature of Kane. Yet it is by far the more heartfelt and affecting work.


Pauline Kael once wrote an essay entitled: “Is there a cure for film criticism?” The answer I’m afraid is no, there is not. Power corrupts, and the paltry power which critics have to impose their tastes (i.e., egos) on their readers seems to be what drives many journalists to the field of movie criticism. What clearly does not drive most of these critics is a simple love of movies, a love which Pauline Kael possessed in abundance, and which characterizes even the most scathing of her pieces.

Since I have been writing for The List I have been attending press screenings, and as a result have begun to believe that film critics aren’t really as interested in movies as they are in expressing their opinions about them. At the last film I saw (Dan in Real Life), sitting on either side of me were two (male) critics, both with pen and notepad in their hands, scribbling away throughout the movie. It’s true that, during Southland Tales, I was so bored by the movie that I wrote my review in the theater while the film was still playing. But this was expressly because the film was so bad that I needed something, anything, to relieve the boredom. It’s also true that, occasionally, very occasionally, I might jot down a quote or a thought during a movie, in order not to forget it. But these two critics were constantly jotting things down, and they spent half the time with their noses in their notepads instead of looking at the screen. After a while, I began to wonder if they were seeing the movie at all—they seemed to be too busy analyzing it. Instead of thinking about what was happening on the screen, they were already thinking about what they were going to say about it—in other words, about themselves.

It strikes me as rather pitiful that someone could be so immersed in their “station” as a film critic—and take it so seriously—that they would forsake the basic pleasures of watching a movie. Is it any wonder there is so much shoddy, petty, and mean-spirited film criticism, or why critics are by and large such obtuse and unimaginative creatures?

On the other hand, perhaps related to this, there is another fact to consider. Critics seem to be all too easily corrupted by the perks of power which their office provides. Such power is twofold: the public need critics to help them decide whether a movie is worth seeing or not, and moviemakers and distributors (to some extent at least) also rely on critics to create a positive “buzz.” So a critic may perceive an almost slavish dependency on his or her services on both sides. It’s a paltry sort of power, all told (with rare exceptions, no movie was ever saved or sunk by critics); but then again, if it interferes with the purity of the critical process (by creating self-interest), any power is too much.

There is such a thing as critical consensus, and the public have been known to go along with it: some truly mediocre films have somehow attained the consensus of greatness, either as a result of critical or public opinion or both (e.g., Silence of the Lambs, The Exorcist, Dances with Wolves, The Shawshank Redemption, Little Miss Sunshine, the list goes on and on). In theory, one critic can turn the tide if enough other critics (for whatever reason) fall in line, whereupon the public obediently follows suit. There are even occasional upsides to this normally depressing process, such as when Kael single-handedly created a reevaluation and re-release of Bonnie and Clyde. But mostly, it is simply a case of the rot settling in.

The desire for social influence comes from basic lack of self-esteem or personal power—in a word, an insecure ego. Naturally, such insecurity is assuaged by the feeling of self-importance that having some influence over other people’s opinions brings. This is most commonly seen in religious fanatics who attempt to convert anyone and everyone to their beliefs—ostensibly out of religious zeal (to save souls), but really only to prop up their own precarious belief system by getting others to invest in it. Even more fundamentally, it is a means of increasing their sense of self-worth by “helping” other people to “see the light.”

In our modern world, the average sophisticated person hasn’t much by way either of a religious or a moral system to adhere to, much less advocate. In its place (since nature abhors a vacuum) we have a modern value system that pertains more to matters of taste and style (though also political conviction), so that today, it is not so much what we believe as what we “like” that defines us. Most of us become uncomfortable if a close friend doesn’t agree with us about a movie we especially love (or hate); either secretly or openly, we want somehow to “set them straight” and convince them they are wrong. In more or less the same way, zealots attempt to convince sinners of the error of their ways, albeit with considerably more zeal and moral arrogance, the basic motive being the same. In our present culture of entertainment, journalists and critics are the equivalent of preachers—high priests in the case of the more influential ones—and just as in religion and politics, the field attracts a disproportionate number of scoundrels and rogues, insecure and unscrupulous individuals who will do just about anything to consolidate their petty sphere of influence.
Apropos of this, I recently saw that both Film Comment and Sight and Sound gave glowing notices to Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales. In both cases, it was the same critic doing the praising (Amy Taubin, who compared Kelly’s film to Citizen Kane). I couldn’t help but wonder—in the light of such a brazen travesty of critical judgment—what was in it for these magazines. Kelly’s film is so indefensibly awful that it seemed destined for the kind of critical and popular reception that every filmmaker dreads. If such bizarre critical favoritism helps save Kelly from oblivion, fair enough: bad as Southland Tales is, Kelly doesn’t deserve to be barred from making future films. However, I can’t believe that either Film Comment or Sight & Sound commissioned Taubin to praise the film out of sympathy for Kelly (and even less out of admiration for the film). Yet there remains the distinctly odd coincidence of the only two “serious” and widely distributed film magazines praising what must be the worst auteur movie of the year, or of the last few years for that matter. The only explanation left—besides simple chance—is that the company behind the film (Sony) has been offering out bribes as a means of damage control, to prevent the movie from being a total disaster.

It’s a simple enough procedure for a magazine, having been “encouraged” by a major corporation to praise a film, to seek out one of its writers who actually liked the film and then give the commission to them. Editors (in this case Gavin Smith and Nick James) can tell themselves there’s nothing “unethical” about such a procedure, since after all, a review is always only one person’s opinion anyway. But the fact remains that corporate agenda is dictating the magazine’s policy.

Whether specifically true in this case or not, there’s no doubt that this is becoming more and more the case. There is more and more evidence that, even when individual sensibilities are expressed through the media, they tend to be almost deliberately perverse and completely out of whack with anything resembling good sense or critical judgment. Such aberrational “exceptions” are probably serving the machine in ways that may not at first be obvious. Southland Tales is supposedly a subversive film, even an apocalyptic one; but it is so utterly dismal a work that I can only imagine the forces which it appears to be denouncing and exposing will be perfectly happy for it to reach audiences, since it can only serve to deaden their brains even more than they are already. (It strikes me as a very cynical film, because there is nothing behind the “subversive” ideas save a rather self-indulgent desire to wallow in them.)

All about Eve, on the other hand, is a truly subversive and inspired work. It does exactly what the consensus of politicians, journalists, film critics, and all the rest of the intellectualized bellwethers to the secret elite—as well as the lobotomized masses they take delight in controlling—seem intent on avoiding at all costs: it stirs the depths of the soul. Watching it is not just entertaining, it’s enlightening. It brings us to a higher, more finely attuned state of consciousness, one of compassion, understanding, and empathy. This is what characterizes all true works of art, and what the rest of the world appears to be increasingly intent upon suppressing at any cost: intensity of feeling.

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