Oct. 03, 2012 - Issue #885: Fall Style 2012
A critical decade
One of Vue's film writers reflects on 10 years of criticismAnniversaries offer a convenient numerical excuse for self-reflection. And I wouldn't be much of a critic if I didn't review myself occasionally. Ten years now, writing for Vue (FLASHBACK: my devirgination was the now rightly forgotten Mira Sorvino-Sophia Loren vehicle Between Strangers in October 2002), and what have I learned? Has my sharp tongue softened? Who cares about wanna-be Eberts as we snarl back at the flicks grinding us down or praise obscure beauties flitting past cineplexes?
There's a nagging concern among silver-screen scribes (JUMP CUT: my only advice to would-be reviewers—it's not about liking movies; you have to like writing about movies) that the print era's thoughtful criticism is fading in the blank-screen face of chatboards, online comment sections, discussion pages, etc. I've found, because of the strange sound-off-board that is the Internet, any criticism-gone-viral gets more noticed, yet less respectfully.
It's one thing to be told you're "Saddam Hussein" amid emails shot north from a clutch of crazed Cuban-Americans in Miami after you pan the Andy Garcia-directed The Lost City (June 2006), set in '50s Havana. (Apparently—thanks, Internet!—77 percent of Rotten Tomatoes' "Top Critics" agree with me, but not Ebert, typically soft-as-runny-Brie.) Although I never mentioned the cigar-chomper, the e-missives not only tried to Castro-hate me—one accused me of being socialist-funded by the University of Alberta.
It's another thing—"progress"?!?—when one of hundreds of responses, at RT and Vue, to my two-star review (BACKSTORY: I dislike stars—they're a snappy visual for people too lazy or busy to read 200 – 350 words of actual criticism) of the thankfully final Harry Potter film didn't liken me to Gadhafi, at least, but accused me of "trolling." And there were a few thoughtful comments sprinkled among the cyber-heckles. Still, if comment boards and other web-features keep people reading reviews, good, but I'm skeptical that, given the Net's speed and rant-and-rave-iness, any more people are embroiling themselves in critical, contextual, and historical discussions of films. Only a few commenters actually grappled with any of my 12 specific evaluative points about the HP8 movie.
A review's an informed argument—as grounded in the movie's genre and socio-historical context and supported by evaluative analysis as can be, given its word count. Online, where everyone can pretend to be a critic, there's little point throwing out credentials to deny "trolling" status. (QUIRKY ART-FILM TANGENTIAL SCENE: Technology's also changed studios' faltering fight against piracy. A few times in 2004, I remember being wanded over with a metal-detector, airport security-style, outside the theatre, to ensure I had no recording electronics; this year, at last, a film's distributor provided me with a one-view-only screener I could upload.) All I can do is keep writing playfully thoughtful, in-depth analyses of films' esthetics and subtext—especially their politics—while avoiding much talk about actors (since celebrity-image becomes part of the mix and you risk turning off a reader who's, say, anti-Tom Cruise for whatever reason).
My enthusiasm for film hasn't waned (I still eagerly await the next Studio Ghibli film or the year's truly smart blockbuster) but my skepticism about the Hollywood formula-machine's deepened (CASE-IN-POINT MONTAGE OF CLIPS from copycat fairy-tale and vampire-hunting flicks, 2011- ). I hope my critic's pencil hasn't lost its pointedness—with Tinseltown spending so much money on its products (which influence our language, attitudes, stereotypes and "liberal values" in all sorts of insidious ways), it's up to we critics to take them to task for lazy humour, clichéd writing or inane politics. Call me lofty-minded, but that's why I don't subscribe to the fashionable notion "so bad it's good." Or, as film editor Walter Murch puts it, "The danger of a well-made bad movie [when it's unambiguous or too literal] is that it crushes the imagination of the audience."
So I distinguish a "movie" from a "film" and try to reflect the mood or tone of a flick as best I can to give its flavour to a reader without being snotty or dismissive (and apt puns allow me to whimsically tweak my language to reflect the movie's preoccupations). In the past decade, some base Hollywood obsessions have continued (the man-child hero, gay-panic, comic-book adaptations, few roles for 40+ women, shockingly few female directors) even as VOD and the WWW make it easier to see more challenging, artful cinema outside major cities. And there's been a surge in top-drawer documentaries (from Capturing the Friedmans to Exit Through the Gift Shop), some exciting newcomer-directors (Andrea Arnold, Cristian Mungiu, Jeff Nichols, Andrei Zvyagintsev), promising filmmakers reaching maestro-status (PT Anderson, the Dardennes, Michael Haneke), and leading lights who've faded away (David Gordon-Green, Lukas Moodysson).
I still remember the best films, especially one lustrous masterpiece I finally caught up with—Shinji Aoyama's Eureka (2000)—and I still hear, every month, the forsaken cries of three Chechen children who suddenly realize their mother's dying and they'll never see her again (in the documentary 3 Rooms of Melancholia). Those cries, and rending moments from other films, remind me that cinema must show us the difficult, even unbearable, moments that so many real people beyond the screen are simply, unartfully, living—the least we can do is bear witness.
By contrast, my reviews are slight. But I hope, reader, you've been critically entertained by them; as much as I love the writing of them, I rarely end up liking them later (I'm proud of maybe five of my Vue reviews and columns over these 10 years). I hope, as Daniel Mendelsohn put it in an excellent contemplation of the critic's role, that I offer some passionate expertise and a clear sense of taste, adding up to a "meaningful judgement"—maybe even a gentle instructiveness, too, as Mendelsohn recalls from reading criticism when young: "I thought of these writers above all as teachers, and like all good teachers they taught by example; the example that they set, week after week, was to recreate on the page the drama of how they had arrived at their judgments."
I can only trust that, in the strange, fleeting world of film reviews—where a brief criticism of a film, "new" for a week, appears in our little corner of the Net or newspaper page, soon to yellow and be blue-bagged—my analysis can, for a moment, jump-kick another insight, introduce a new favourite, or hair-trigger a thoughtful discussion. And that the best of my critiques can, somehow, honour the best of the cinema I've been lucky enough to view weekly.
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