Friday, February 06, 2009

Slow down, already.

I have been thinking for awhile about how deplorable I find the state of movie reviewing these days.  

Exhibit A:  The Reader.  I will not make any grand claims about this film--I thought it was flawed, with the balance being a little off between the sexual affair the boy has with the Kate Winslet character, and what comes after it; still, I found the film to be serious, a consideration of how people might come to terms with a horrifying history that I found to be something like an allegory.  Yet the bile people have heaped on this film is quite amazing.  Moreover, when the Oscar nominations came out, so did the rage--it was as if the reviewers had coarsened and cheapened their own views, so that Dana Stevens, for instance, summarized the film as "Boo hoo, I slept with an illiterate Nazi."  Wow.  (sorry, I can't find a working link on Slate for this piece.)

Okay, I thought there was another exhibit, but maybe not.  I have been a little overly-exercised about The Reader.  I wouldn't have nominated this film as a Best Picture (ditto Frost/Nixon, at which I had a perfectly good time, but come on), but I don't understand the hate.  I heard someone talking on NPR in the most glib way imaginable about how Holocaust films are Oscar-bait, arguing that perhaps there should be a moratorium on Holocaust films. 

Right.  Because at the point when most of the people who were around during that period of time, in some way involved in that historical moment, are gone or going, it's good to stop trying to figure out what it meant.  Surely by now we've figured every single thing there is to understand about those events.  And surely, therefore, a film that might in fact be seeking some prestige can be nothing but that, a prestige-seeking artifact, rather than another story that tries, in a flawed way, certainly, but tries nonetheless, to imagine what it might be like to grow up in the generation after the Holocaust, in Germany, surrounded by people who aren't all that interested in talking about any of it.  That project would be a specious one, because there are too many Holocaust movies.

Smug, snarky movie reviewers, so so cynical . . . they make me so mad.

Just this week, I read a reconsideration of Waterworld.  Did any of you see this movie?  I sure did, and I wondered about that one, too--why there was so very much hate of it when I thought it was actually kind of cool and certainly interesting.  Well, now it turns out that the film may have been an eco-parable, ahead of its time.  So what if Kevin Costner was full of himself back then?  Isn't every artist (yes, I said artist) kind of full of him or herself sometimes?  If they weren't no one would ever make a thing--you have to trust me on this.  

Ditto Ishtar.  I saw that movie later, after the burnings-in-effigy were over, and I laughed. What the hell?  

Finally, let me say that I checked in, as I do from time to time, to Joshua Clover's blog, jane dark's sugarhigh!  He may be a smarty-pants extraordinaire--but he did admirable critical work in this post on Che, and this post on the SF MOMA.  Also, this post, where he discusses M.I.A.'s song "Paper Planes" in a way that completely altered how I understood the song. (If you dig around a little, you can find high snark passing as film criticism--but it's pretty good snark:  he suggests that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is really Meet Joe Blackward. Ha.)

Basically, what I really want in a critic--and maybe that's the difference:  who are the actual critics, as distinct from reviewers?--is someone who will help me be more thoughtful about what I am seeing, what I have seen, or what I am about to see, or hear, or view.  Someone who might take just a moment to give a film more than a passing thought.  Someone who might let the ideas of the film play in the mind long enough to hear what it has to say.  And maybe a movie reviewer doesn't have time to do this.  But I hope there are critics who can and who will.


  1. Waterworld! I have a whole essay about Waterworld. No one would publish it. Now, I see I'm being scooped. I'm going to send you the (flawed) essay so you too can see that I knew....Damn it. This plus the $40 million for education cut from the stimulus bill. I might not make it through the night

  2. And maybe, this snarkiness is what often creates disdain for what we do and teach as English teachers. Students pick up on it in more popular critique genres like movie reviews and figure they don't want anything to do with analysis and critique. They sense its often dismissive rather than engaging spirit and they flee.

  3. Yes, I think snark about a Holocaust film is particularly evil. As if we are over it. Oh well.
    I want to see a lot of movies. Why oh why am I so busy?

  4. Interesting. I have not seen either of this season's Holocaust fare: The Reader and Defiance. However, I did read A.O. Scott's review on Defiance, and I wonder what you would think of it. After reading it, I decided not to go see it, even though Daniel Craig is a badass. Like what you describe about criticism of The Reader, Scott immediately sorts out Defiance relative to all other Holocaust movies. He said that there was a not-so-subtle suggestion in that movie that if more jews would have fought back like the ones in this movie, then more could have survived. He said it just reinforced the view that Jews are passive and docile by default. I guess this is a redeeming aspect in comparison to what you cite was said about The Reader: At least they were saying something about the holocaust, rather than just invoking the idea of it for added emotional bite.

  5. Yes, Scott's review of Defiance was another that I found absurd. Because this story happened, the Biely brothers (I think that's the name) actually did this and these people, these 1200, were saved. It's absurd, in my view, to suggest that somehow a story of something that did happen is a referendum on all the other stories about what happened. Honestly. It's like there are only two allowable movies about the Holocaust, Schindler's List and The Sorrow and the Pity. And maybe Shoah.

    I thought Defiance was really quite good, more successful in its way than The Reader, because it was more modest in its aspirations. Daniel Craig was great, but so was Liev Schreiber, who I think is almost always pretty amazing.

  6. 1. I agree that Ishtar is a hilarious movie. I revisited it a few years ago and laughed all the way through it. Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, and Charles Grodin. Unbelievable! Why this was savaged I'll never know.

    2. I remember a film studies prof named Ray Carney who called Shindler's List "Indiana Jones and the Gestapo of Doom" and was met with outrage. His gripe was that Spielberg used the same usual cartoon heavyhandedness on this movie as on Jaws or Close Encounters. He argued that a real director would actually try to get inside the heads of the everyday people who contributed to the Nazi menace in order to understand how sympathetic humans can become terrible in certain circumstances. Whenever I discuss Schindler's List with people, however, I find that relating Carney's point of view gets me in trouble, as if a lack of sympathy toward the film and filmmaker equate to a lack of sympathy about the subject matter. Which is ridiculous. Can we not extricate the material from the criticism of it?

    I remember also getting into trouble for saying that if Murderball weren't about quadrapegics in wheelchairs then it never would have been distributed. This is indisputible; their physical challenges are the center of the movie and what makes it/them remarkable. And yet I was criticized for my "insensitive" commentary.

    3. I think the act of being moved is a little act of bravery. When you are emotionally affected by an event, or an art event, you are giving part of yourself to the experience and putting yourself out there. Which is why it feels so hurtful when others ridicule things that you care deeply about. It is easy (and fun) to be snarky about cinema. It is far more difficult to be earnest and admit (and defend) that something like a movie could affect you deeply. Anthony Lane's best reviews were always his snarky ones. I suppose the opposite would be Michael Silverblatt who does an NPR show called Bookworm, wherein each week we fawns obsequiously over each guest and gushes about how moved he was.

    Maybe we need something in the middle.

  7. I think Anthony Lane is a wonderfully talented reviewer and sometime critic, and I have loved his funny reviews. I often think, however, that he spends his prodigious gifts in mocking movies that barely even need to be noticed (Spiceworld? Charlie's Angels?), because it's super easy to come up with puns for those films, which I sometimes think is the only reason he likes to write.

    However, I love more the reviews where he gives himself over to a film with more guts to it. He gave good reviews to films that other people have mocked and I liked him the better for it (Titanic, for instance; The English Patient, for another). Lane is, or can be, a worthy critic--but when he snarks away to no real purpose, it bugs. It's a waste. Who cares.

    There probably should be all sorts of writing about the movies--I do need to decide, after all, what I'm going to see weekend after weekend. I'm grateful, though, when I find a critic who does something more than snark.

  8. I think Anthony Lane is simply bored with reviewing movies, which is why he tries to amuse himself. His articles and essays about other topics are earnest, superb.



Related Posts with Thumbnails