What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Movies

| 11 Nov 2014 | 01:59

    There’s more writing about movies these days than ever before. In print and online, it’s never been worse—especially on the Internet where film buffs emulating the Vachel Lindsay-Manny Farber tradition are no longer isolated nerds but an opinionated throng, united in their sarcasm and intense pretense at intellectualizing what is basically a hobby.

    Although criticism is everywhere, and some online reviewers prove themselves honest and less beholden to the power elite than print critics, the problem is this: So many Internetters get to express their “expertise,” which essentially is either their contempt or idiocy about films, filmmakers or professional critics. The joke inherent in the Internet hordes (spiritedly represented by the new REELZ-TV program The Movie Mob) is that they chip away at the professionalism they envy, all the time diminishing cultural discourse—perhaps as irreversibly as professional critics have already diminished it themselves.

    Recently, professional critics have felt a backlash from this Internet frenzy. Print publications restructuring to keep up with the web have dismissed or offered buyouts to noticeable numbers of employees, including critics. Trimming these fatted ranks is a result of basic disrespect for criticism as both a true journalistic profession and a necessary intellectual practice.

    This backlash follows a perfect storm of anti-intellectual prejudice: Movies are considered fun that needn’t be taken seriously. Movies contain ideas better left unexamined. Movies generate capital in all directions. The latter ethic was overwhelmingly embraced by media outlets during the Reagan era, exemplified by the sly shift from reporting on movies to featuring inside-industry coverage. Focusing on weekend box-office totals—now a post-Sabbath religious habit—first legitimized movie-talk for that era enthralled with tax shelters, bond-trading and pro-trust legislation (peaking with Reagan’s regressive repel of the landmark 1949 Paramount Decree, giving back monopolies to the studios). This sea change in media attitude was typified by the American launch of Premiere magazine (finally trimmed away two years ago), which perverted movie journalism from criticism to production news. It familiarized the production of movies, not like the trade publications Variety and Hollywood Report do for industry participants, but by simply jettisoning exegesis and replacing interest in content with production stills, personality profiles and a humor column that witheringly trivialized the critic’s pursuit.

    This disrespect for thinking—where film criticism blurred with celebrity gossip—has resulted in today’s cultural calamity. Buyouts and dismissals are, of course, unfortunate personal setbacks; but the crisis of contemporary film criticism is that critics don’t discuss movies in ways that matter. Reviewers no longer bother connecting movies to political or moral ideas (that’s was what made James Agee’s review of The Human Comedy and Bosley Crowther’s review of Rocco and His Brothers memorable). Nowadays, reviewers almost never draw continuity between new films and movie history—except to get it wrong, as in the idiotic reviews that belittled Neil Jordan’s sensitive, imaginative The Brave One (a movie that brilliantly contrasts vengeful guilt to 9/11 aftershock) as merely a rip-off of the 1970s exploitation feature Death Wish.

    If the current indifference to critical thought is a tragedy, it’s not just for the journalism profession betraying its promise of news and ideas but also for those bloggers. The love of movies that inspires their gigabytes of hyperbole has been traduced to nonsense language and non-thinking. It breeds a new pinhead version of fan-clubism.


    What we don’t talk about when we talk about movies these days reveals that we have not moved past the crippling social tendency that 1990s sociologists called Denial. The most powerful, politically and morally engaged recent films (The Darjeeling Limited, Private Fears in Public Places, World Trade Center, The Promise, Shortbus, Ask the Dust, Akeelah and the Bee, Bobby, Running Scared, Munich, War of the Worlds, Vera Drake) were all ignored by journalists whose jobs are to bring the (cultural) news to the public. Instead, only movies that are mendacious, pseudo-serious, sometimes immoral or socially retrograde and irresponsible (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Army of Shadows, United 93, Marie Antoinette, Zodiac, Last Days, There Will Be Blood, American Gangster, Gone Baby Gone, Letters From Iwo Jima, A History of Violence, Tarnation, Elephant) have received critics’ imprimatur.

    That there isn’t a popular hit among any of these films proves how critics have failed to rouse the moviegoing public in any direction.

    Critics customarily show their allegiance to Hollywood blockbusters, granting them inordinate attention in the entertainment pages, but that’s not the way to build an enlightened public or a healthy culture. You can’t praise the Pirates of the Caribbean movies or the Bourne movies and then expect benumbed thrill-riders to sit still for A Prairie Home Companion, Neil Young: Heart of Gold or Munich. The critical consensus toward denial forsakes what really inspires passion in moviegoers—those priceless moments when a movie addresses personal emotion (Dakota Fanning asking “Are we still alive?” in War of the Worlds) or informs some confounding social experience (Broken Sky’s young lovers alienated by soulless disco beats).

    Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories is a perfect example of what critics don’t talk about. Shotgun Stories should have rocked film culture. Ideally complementing the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, it questions the temperamental and social sources for modern behavior. Nichols tells a Faulknerian, Snopes-like story of male fecklessness and the reality of frustration in the American working class. We are introduced to three Hayes brothers in Arkansas: Son (Michael Shannon), Boy (Douglas Ligon) and Kid (Barlow Jacobs) are totally rudderless—gambling, coaching basketball, womanizing—yet succumbing to the instinct for vengeance passed on to them by their bitter, resentful mother. This recognizable sense of family isolation (the flipside of The Darjeeling Limited) reveals a warped masculinity that goes to the heart of American experience. Shotgun Stories is set in a Red State community, but the truth of its ineffectual, slatternly men can be seen across the country, even in Blue State parochialism.

    Its story of warring clans (sympathetic reprobates mirroring sympathetic churchgoers) confirms a concept of brotherhood that has wide-ranging application, but it is primarily, stunningly empathetic. Like last year’s family drama Black Irish (another good, modest film that critics lost), Shotgun Stories deals with fundamental experiences that media consensus ignores. When Son and his siblings crash the funeral for their father (who left them behind when he remarried to begin a second family), it starts a stupid, unstoppable feud. Things get nasty and then work out tragically: It’s the opposite of There Will Be Blood, where things begin tragically then work out nastily—a trajectory that slakes the dissatisfaction and lack of control that spooks our everyday lives. Yet Shotgun Stories dramatizes human compulsion.

    P.T. Anderson creates aestheticized tension and a floridly melodramatic, false sense of history that’s easy for critics to endorse. Blood is meant to impress, while Shotgun Stories is meant to be felt. Director-writer Nichols shows a weird yet authentic sense of classical style. This doesn’t feel like a regional work, nor is it a movie-soaked movie like The Darjeeling Limited. It’s between the two. Nichols understands countrified living and American habit that may repel urban reviewers: But it allows him to jump off from Hatfields-McCoys legend into a non-condescending vision of how slackerdom really manifests itself. He counters the meretricious tendency of Richard Linklater, Gus Van Sant and Judd Apatow films whose celebrations of American sloth have blunted the sensibilities of critics trying to keep up with industry fads.

    There’s hardly language or space in our class-based, Hollywood-pledged film journalism to deal with the way Shotgun Stories keeps its Faulknerian roots while branching out to a new sense of American behavior. (When Boy’s car radio blasts a Ronnie Montrose song, suddenly reminding him of Kid, it’s the kind of richly authentic moment we used to only get in documentaries like Joel DeMott’s Seventeen.) Nichols’ lyric sense of location—of men and women keeping their own balance as they walk, argue and clash—conveys a complicated spiritual agony. Being a non-hipster film meant that Shotgun Stories was off established critics’ radar screens. Even I, shamefacedly, only caught up after it had opened; but it’s been the most resonant American movie so far this year.

    Son, Boy and Kid’s actions (you have to be in touch with your own American roots to feel the humor in those names; the only thing left out is Phil Morrison’s Junebug) point toward a common, unknowable future. Nichols uncannily combines hope and despair. On appearance, Shotgun Stories is a world away from the attention-grabbing topicality of critics’ faves There Will Be Blood, In the Valley of Elah, Redacted, Rendition and The Kingdom; it’s quiet, almost elliptical like George Washington (David Gordon Green is the producer). Yet this terse family epic may be the Iraq War movie we’ve waited for without being able to articulate exactly what we wanted. Nichols’ complex mix of native resentment and culturally bred fury also contains knotted-up affection and pride. Shotgun Stories is genuine. When it ends, it isn’t over. It’s something to talk about.


    To discuss movies as if they were irrelevant to individual experience—just bread-and-circus rabble-rousers—breeds indifference. And that’s only one of the two worst tendencies of contemporary criticism. The other is elitism.

    This schism had an ironic origin—the popularization of film criticism as a consumer’s method. A generation of readers and filmgoers were once sparked by the discourse created by Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris during the period that essayist Philip Lopate described as ìthe heroic era of moviegoing.î The desire to be a critic fulfilled the urge to respond to what was exciting in the culture. Movie commentary was a media rarity in those days and relatively principled (even the Times’ Arts & Leisure section used to present a forum for contrary opinions). And then the television series At the Movies happened. Its success, moving from public to commercial broadcast (who can tell the difference anymore?), resulted in an institution. Permit an insider’s story: It is said that At the Movies host Roger Ebert boasted to Kael about his new TV show, repeatedly asking whether she’d seen it. Kael reportedly answered “If I want a layman’s opinion on movies, I don’t have to watch TV.”

    Kael’s cutting remark cuts to the root of criticism’s problem today. Ebert’s way of talking about movies as disconnected from social and moral issues, simply as entertainment, seemed to normalize film discourse—you didn’t have to strive toward it, any Average Joe American could do it. But criticism actually dumbed down. Ebert also made his method a road to celebrity—which destroyed any possibility for a heroic era of film criticism. At the Movies helped criticism become a way to be famous in the age of TV and exploding media, a dilemma that writer George W. S. Trow distilled in his apercu “The Aesthetic of the Hit”: “To the person growing up in the power of demography, it was clear that history had to do not with the powerful actions of certain men but with the processes of choice and preference.” It was Ebert’s career choice and preference to reduce film discussion to the fumbling of thumbs, pointing out gaffes or withholding “spoilers”—as if a viewer needed only to like or dislike a movie, according to an arbitrary set of specious rules, trends and habits. Not thought. Not feeling. Not experience. Not education. Just reviewing movies the way boys argued about a baseball game. Don’t misconstrue this as an attack on the still-convalescent Ebert. I wish him nothing but health. But I am trying to clarify where film criticism went bad. Despite Ebert’s recent celebration in both Time magazine and The New York Times as “a great critic,” neither encomium could credit him with a single critical idea, notable literary style or cultural contribution. Each paean resorted to personal, logrolling appreciations. A.O. Scott hit bottom when he corroborated Ebert’s advice, “When writing you should avoid cliché, but on television you should embrace it.” That kind of thinking made Scott’s TV appearances a zero.

    Unfortunately, it is this very process of affirming the Ebert institution that contributes to confusion about what film criticism has lost. Time marvels that Ebert “typically would give thumbs up to two or three” of the “four or five films up for review on his weekly TV show” without asking if it’s credible or disingenuous. (It will take a separate article to expose the absurdity of a TV show bearing Ebert’s name without his presence, whose interchangeable roster of ineffectual reviewers loyally prevaricate in Ebert’s manner—a “criticism” show owned and sponsored by the Disney conglomerate!)

    In the Ebert age of criticism, the Aesthetic of the Hit dominates everything. Behind those panicky articles about critics losing their jobs (what about autoworkers and schoolteachers?), lurks the writers’ own fear of falling victim to the same draconian industry rule: Most publishers and editors are only interested in supporting hits in order to reach Hollywood’s deep-pocket advertisers. This is what makes traditional criticism seem indefinable and obsolete, leaving web criticism as a ready (but dubious) alternative.

    The Internetters who stepped in to fill print publications’ void seize a technological opportunity and then confuse it with “democratization”—almost fascistically turning discourse into babble. They don’t necessarily bother to learn or think—that’s the privilege of graffito-critique. Their proud non-professionalism presumes that other moviegoers want to—or need to—match opinions with other amateurs. That’s Kael’s “layman” retort made viral. The journalistic buzzword for this water-cooler discourse is “conversation” (as when The Times saluted Ebert’s return to newspaper writing as “a chance to pick up on an interrupted conversation”). But today’s criticism isn’t real conversation; on the Internet it’s too solipsistic and autodidactic to be called a heart-to-heart. (Viral criticism isn’t real; it’s mostly half-baked, overlong term-paper essays by fans who like to think they think.)

    And in print, “conversation” is regrettably one-sided. Power-sided. This is where the elitist tendency sours everything. The social fragmentation that fed the 1980s indie movement, decentralizing film production away from Los Angeles, had its correlative in film journalism. Critics everywhere flailed about for a center, for authority, for knowledge; they championed all sorts of unworked-out, poorly made films (The Blair Witch Project, Gummo, Dogville, Southland Tales) proposing an indie-is-better/indie-is-new aesthetic. The sophomoric urge to oppose Hollywood fell into the clutches of Hollywood (i.e., Sundance). Similarly, the decentralized practice of criticism now scoffs at former New York Times potentate Bosley Crowther, while crowning a network of bizarro authorities—pompous critics who replace Crowther’s classical-humanist canon with a hipster/avant-garde pack mentality (from The Village Voice to Time Out New York to IndieWire).

    The new inclination is to write esoteric criticism. Post-Tarantino cinema has wrung the pop aesthetic dry, so the new gods of criticism have made totems of movies so unwatchable and so unappealing that they prohibit the basic pleasure and amazement of moviegoing. Critical babble doesn’t talk about what matters, but it sustains Ten Current Film Culture Fallacies: 1)“The Three Amigos” Iñárritu, Cuarón and del Toro are Mexico’s greatest filmmakers while Julian Hernandez is ignored. 2) Gus Van Sant is the new Visconti when he’s really the new Fagin, a jailbait artful dodger. 3) Documentaries ought to be partisan rather than reportorial or observational. 4) Chicago, Moulin Rouge and Dreamgirls equal the great MGM musicals. 5) Paul Verhoeven’s social satire Showgirls was camp while Cronenberg’s campy melodramas are profound. 6) Brokeback Mountain was a breakthrough while all other gay-themed movies were ignored. 7) Todd Haynes’ academic dullness is anything but. 8) Dogma was a legitimate film movement. 9) Only non-pop Asian cinema from J-horror to Hou Hsiao Hsien counts, while Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou and Stephen Chow are rejected. 10) Mumblecore matters.

    These delusions derive from an elitist, art-for-art’s-sake notion. It’s the “Smart About Movies” syndrome allowing bloggers and critics to feel superior for having suffered through Dead Man, Ye-Ye, Gerry, Inland Empire—movies that ordinary moviegoers want no part of and that hardly reflect a community of citizens or the New Millennium’s political stress. It may be a coincidence of social class that most movies are made by people espousing a liberal bent, but it is the shame of middle-class and middlebrow conformity that critics follow each other when praising movies that disrespect religion, rail about the current administration or feed into a sense of nihilism that only people privileged with condos and professional tenure can afford.

    Routine reporting from Cannes and Sundance is another expression of journalists’ perks that encourage a sense of elitism. Fact is, those fests are remote from how most people experience or relate to film culture. Like the weekend grosses list, it promotes a false sense of being informed—not art interpretation or feeling. And festival favorites aren’t discussed in fundamental terms. Critics talk around what’s happening inside Pedro Costa or Apichatpong Weerasethakul movies. Instead, they call the latter “Joe”—proof of their in-group shamelessness. They’d rather make xenophobic jokes about Weerasethakul’s exotic name than actually deal with the facts of his Asianness, his sexual outlawry and his retreat into artistic and intellectual arrogance that evades social categorization. Such hipoisie canonizing is as unhelpful as TV’s pop reviewers who only respect banal Hollywood blockbusters. They also, consequently, discuss the Oscars as a plebiscite that readers must dutifully and mindlessly observe. It’s entertainment—weakly.

    Avoiding the substance of movies in film discussion has worsened beyond Ebert’s TV glibness. Recall how few critics were able to apply standard Judeo-Christian readings to No Country for Old Men (let alone The Passion of the Christ) but remained perplexed or aggrieved. Contemporary criticism doesn’t deal with politics, morality or history. That’s why critics wrote head-in-the-sand responses to the obvious Clinton censure in David Mamet’s The Winslow Boy and praised socialist Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy as if it were an Anglophile’s Merchant-Ivory pageant. They even let pass the Paranoid Park scene of a security guard’s vivisected torso crawling across railroad tracks—surely the most egregious movie moment of the decade. Critics say nothing about movies that open up complex meaning or richer enjoyment. That’s why they disdained the beauty of The Darjeeling Limited: Wes Anderson’s confrontation with selfishness, hurt and love were too powerful, too humbling. It’s no wonder that the audience for movies shrinks into home-viewership; they also shrink away from movies as a great popular art form.

    These desperate stakes became even more alarming with the recent announcement of the Museum of the Moving Image’s Second Annual Institute on Criticism and Feature Writing—a project seemingly designed to further confuse the profession. Offering a session on marketing and publicity, the MMI’s Institute implies that flackery is part of critical journalism, and that’s really the root of the problem—sanctioning the way in which critical journalism has blurred its mandate into promoting the industry, not the art form. It overlooks any chance for criticism to unite while enlightening the audience, keeping it divided. There is no “conversation” when what we say when we talk about movies is driven by elitism or commerce, both now horribly combined in Queens. Hollywood’s emphasis on impersonal product then holds sway over art. Ideas get smothered in formula, and hype becomes the language of so-called discourse.

    Does the training of movie critics matter if they aren’t taught to preserve the idea that movies must affirm our humanity? The public deserves critics who appreciate when an audience wants to be moved, encouraging them to experience catharsis at World Trade Center or War of the Worlds. But when people walk out of Paranoid Park feeling bewildered and unedified, where do they turn? What do they talk about?