Armond Swats Us All with a Late-Summer Honor Roll

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Once again it's worthwhile, at the year's two-thirds point, to set the culture on a sensible track by counting down the best movies so far. Doing so requires you to recall through the summer swelter those terrific films that didn't get much favorable press because critics were busy toadying to the marketplace. It is, of necessity, an almost esoteric honor roll:

A.I. Artificial Intelligence, The Day I Became a Woman, In the Mood for Love, Faat-Kine, The Adventures of Felix, The Circle, Town & Country, A Summer's Tale, The Road Home, The Gleaners and I, 3000 Miles to Graceland, Smell of Jasmine, Fragrance of Camphor, Tomcats, Eureka, Our Song, Planet of the Apes, Vertical Ray of the Sun.

Only six of these are American movies, which shows how insufficient U.S. filmmaking has become. The only other tolerable films were those distinguished by actors' charms: Ghost World, Love, Honour & Obey, Sexy Beast, Jurassic Park III, The Anniversary Party, The Million Dollar Hotel, All Over the Guy and the oft-dazzling Osmosis Jones.

Low points of the year have been the shallow The Deep End and Memento?an indie hit that appeals to people who like to think they think. They aren't familiar with Chris Marker's La Jetee or Betrayal (and critics have not reminded them) so they feel it's doing something original. Like Chris Nolan's previous film, Following, it's so mind-numbingly obvious that only diehard film noir nuts can tolerate its vapidity. Mexico's Amores Perros works the same way?narrative trickery passes for novelty and substance when there is none. It's Pulp Fiction for xenophobes.


It's Only a Movie!, a history of American film criticism by Prof. Raymond J. Haberski Jr. (University Press of Kentucky), arrived with the heatwave, at the peak of the most peculiar movie summer I can remember. The reductive sentiment of Haberski's title expressed most people's blase attitude toward film, even though one movie this summer should have reinvigorated everyone's interest.

Peculiarity came from the general media disparagement of that movie?Spielberg's A.I.?a critical breakdown that reflected the poor health of film culture. It proved Haberski's thesis that "the movies are in a state of crisis. Not a financial crisis, but, more shockingly, a spiritual crisis." His observation comes from gauging the "waning power" of critics on the habits of moviegoers, a startling decline of influence since criticism's peak period ("a little over thirty years ago"). Haberski notes, "When movies mattered to the public, then the critics, too, seemed to matter." But the appearance of Haberski's book, coinciding with the drubbing of A.I., underscored the summer's spiritual crisis. If a movie as sublime and serious as A.I. doesn't matter, what does? There was something undeniably wretched about the mass indifference to a movie that explored universal human emotions; to audiences preferring the shallow distractions of The Fast and the Furious, Rush Hour 2, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Pearl Harbor and Swordfish. And critics, failing to encourage the artistry and technique risked in A.I., seemed the ringleaders of that cultural insensibility.

Haberski's book shows how we got to this state. He spotlights a decline of public interest in critical issues and standards, starting with Susan Sontag's "Death of Cinephilia" broadside, then going back through the history of U.S. film punditry from early visionaries like Vachel Lindsay to recounting Theodore Dreiser's suit against Paramount Pictures over a traduced version of An American Tragedy, from Gilbert Seldes' distinction of film as a lively art on to the Andrew Sarris-Pauline Kael rift in the 1960s (the book's best chapter, a balanced, thoughtful precis of a central moment in movie appreciation). Haberski traces the exciting, conflicting 60s debate over classical and modernist theory that accompanied "the heroic age of moviegoing." An informative chapter on the creation of the New York Film Festival describes a period when "many people had come to accept movies as perhaps the most vital art of the day." Haberski holds that critical enthusiasm was largely responsible for widespread passion. But that contrasts the unprecedented disregard for film art that took place this summer.

Audiences didn't simply resist going to A.I.; critics discouraged them from going. (Oddest critic's blurb in history was the Newsweek declaration, "Frustrating.") A new, maddening mandate was clear: critics only appreciated trivial movies. Capitulating to more than summer fare, critics now sanctioned inanity. Most exasperating comment of the summer was The Daily News' review of Jurassic Park III: "This is even more of a Steven Spielberg movie than the [first two]?it's a better movie than the [first two]. There are more dinosaurs, more action and less scientific hooey trying to justify the whole thing." In other words, everything that made the first two films interesting?the meditation on bioethics, the uncanny sociological satire, the visual genius?was negated. Dumb, corrupt critics actually flaunted their preference for a sequel without ambition or vision. Ultimate irony is, they showed themselves incapable of assessing the film's (lower) level of wit?screenwriters Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor's Spielberg-faithful play with Family (two pairs of loving divorcees, two father-son teams) and their spoof of man's childlike intrepidness?from a toddler transfixed by tv's Barney the dinosaur to Sam Neill outlining, "There are two kinds of boys, astronomers and astronauts," to describe the difference between adventurous and safe credos.)

The Daily News double-talk?insisting that Spielberg makes bad movies but castigating him for trying to do other than that?passes for rational thinking among children. All it really says is Spielberg can't win with philistines or snobs. These critical mishaps define a culture that has rejected the idea of film art. It downplays the important advance in film criticism by Gilbert Seldes in the 1920s, which Haberski describes as "not merely an alternative to the genteel tradition, but a bridge between an era when great art was popular and a later period when mass culture was great art." A.I. was more proof that Spielberg is the one contemporary filmmaker capable of sustaining that bridge. He has that old faith in giving the public his best, respecting and challenging their intelligence, their hearts, but few critics backed him up. Instead, the worst of them used Jurassic Park III as an opportunity to bash Spielberg twice in one month. They completely failed to see the sequel's significant affinity with the first two films (and A.I.) in the way it showed that mankind's greatest threat is not the unknown (death) but technology, ingenuity?soulless creativity?with love idealized as the only safety zone.

Haberski's book helps to outline how this critical failure came about?result-ing from the 60s-70s period of enthusiastic/serious filmgoing and film criticism. With the passing of that era, a new phase of buffdom took over. "One could be highbrow about a lowbrow medium without really explaining why," Haberski quotes a 1963 observation by Marion Magid that, remarkably, also describes the state of current, post-Tarantino critical practice. The perverse use of JP3 as a Spielberg whipping post shows how the 60s tradition of seeking value in trash has evolved into a culture appreciative of only trash, a culture of topsy-turvy critical values. Or as Sam Neill's JP3 anthropologist puts it, "Reverse Darwinism?survival of the most idiotic."

There are critics whose imperative is to keep movies trivial (they call it "entertainment"), but David Mamet articulated a rebuke for them with two good instructive lines in the otherwise smug State and Main: "Everybody makes their own fun. If they don't it's not fun, it's entertainment." This summer, insightful criticism has been replaced by insider (E! Channel or Entertainment Tonight) dope?such as knowing Kubrick's involvement on A.I. That info actually tells you nothing about A.I. as a movie experience?only how drastically Kubrick-lovers bend interpretation of the film to assuage their guilt over drop-kicking Eyes Wide Shut. (That's bad hindsight and foresight.) It's a fatuous?and clueless?critical enterprise to use the Kubrick connection as a key to A.I.'s meaning. Such inside dope is truly dopey?and irrelevant. Many critics always have trouble realizing Spielberg's serious intentions, because they only take him seriously when he's addressing the Jewish Holocaust. That's not just a crisis of intellectual dishonesty but a spiritual crisis, too. The entire legacy of art about mythology and human experience?films and stories that taught us how to feel and how to understand?is castigated in the disrespect shown A.I.

In this increasingly infantilized age, moviegoers and critics are alienated from their own feelings, they disrespect them. And they dislike Spielberg for reminding them how cold is their super-sophistication. He insists that they have a heart, and this strikes emotional dullards as "cloying." Critics favor X-Men over A.I. or else prefer tv's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then complain that Spielberg is unrealistic and sentimental. This inanity reveals the crux of film culture's current spiritual crisis. People undervalue their own feelings?if they have feelings. It's ironic, since it's adolescent fear of emotion that makes people disparage Spielberg. Preferring films that ask nothing of them beyond a visceral, or cynical reflex, lousy critics forget how rarely it's only a movie they're passing judgment on. Criticism is mainly about the importance of art in helping us understand life. That's why it's worth writing and worth reading.

Throughout its history, film culture?and our sense of the best and worst, most- and least-enlightening movies?has been interfered with by the arrogant, nattering certainties of pundits posing as film critics. (Despite such infuriating lapses as always misspelling Jean-Luc Goddard [sic], Haberski does honor to the tradition Kael and Sarris ennobled.) Name the great film and it was probably excoriated in its day by the majority of opinion-brokers, tastemakers and gatekeepers who felt "It's only a movie." People who are certain A.I. is worthless or ruinously flawed, or that The Deep End is better than Adventures of Felix, are in the same doomed position as 1958's know-it-alls who swore Touch of Evil and Vertigo were bad. Time will bury their dumb assessments.

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