Saturday, January 10, 2004

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The joys of movie criticism

Louis Menand has a thoroughly odd essay in The New Yorker about movie criticism and the year-end ritual of top-ten lists. He does make a resonant point about the thinking that frequently goes behind such lists:

[B]est-ness isn’t the only factor that goes into the making of an annual ten-best list. After all, what does every critic who makes a ten-best list secretly wish? That his or her list will be the best ten-best list. The list itself has to be fun, interesting, good....

Uniqueness is the desideratum here. A critic does not want to see his or her “surprise” item turning up as the “surprise” on another critic’s list. Conversely, in an “alternative” or highbrow publication the movie list needs one blockbuster—one film the critic liked despite the fact that everyone else liked it. The chief thing is to run an item or two against the grain of the readership.

However, Menand also seems way too willing to relinquish his own formidable critical faculties in order to accept those of the movie critic:

The fact of the matter is basic and ineluctable: we need these lists. The year would not be complete without them. The year would not make sense without them....

Above all, a good top-ten list should convey authority. Not quite Olympian authority, maybe; readers should be able to argue with it, to dissent a bit at the margins. But, ideally, the list should suggest a finality of judgment: life is short; your time is precious; spend it on these....

Pluralism and democracy are fine things, but they have no place in the evaluation and consumption of pop culture, especially today, when, all around us, the sea is rising. The critic is the dolphin who can take us over the waves.

As someone who loves movies, this judgment strikes me as downright bizarre. Part of the joy of seeing films is the discussions that the good ones and even the flawed ones generate among one's circle of friends and associates (last week, I had to defend Mystic River against a charge by two left-wing colleagues that the movie was really a veiled endorsement of American imperialism). True, most of them don't generate the kind of obsessive interaction that cult television shows can generate. However, an important part of the moviegoing experience comes in the talking after the watching.

Menand also fails to acknowledge that critics themselves are fallible creatures, vulnerable to their own forms of peer pressure and changes of mind. Which is why I heartily recommend Slate's online debate (which started last Monday) among David Edelstein, J. Hoberman, Manohla Dargis, Sarah Kerr, and A.O. Scott about the year in movies. Ostensibly it's about the best movies of the year, but for the layman it's also a welcome peek into what it's like to be a movie critic -- a job that many Americans, no doubt, would take in a heartbeat (except for Roger Simon).

Wednesday's entries were particularly interesting -- an entry by Dargis was particularly revealing on this front, in response to a claim by Sarah Kerr that Mystic River was overrated:

What people may not know is that a surprising number of film critics are friends or at least friendly; some, of course, are sworn enemies, but a number are engaged in regular discussion. The only reason that this is worth sharing is that it helps explain, if only a little, how criticism works in this country. (I'm fond of showing people what's behind the curtain.) There are all sorts of pressures, many unspoken and unacknowledged, that come with being a movie critic. There are agendas, ideologies, career factors, grudges, et cetera, at work....

I loved Eastwood's movie when I saw it at Cannes and wept copious tears (while sitting next to the N.Y. Times boyz, let me add gratuitously), but when the reviews and the gush started to pour forth, I just winced. What movie—even a movie as fine and as occasionally powerful as Mystic River—could live up to that hype? I understood when my non-critic friends started complaining, "Well, it wasn't that great."

Exercise your own critical faculties and go check it out [Couldn't they exercise their critical faculties by deciding that you're full of it, and not check it out?--ed. Well, yes, but that would just be... wrong somehow]

UPDATE: Some readers object to the vaguely leftish politics of the Movie Club participants. If that sort of thing truly puts you off, go read Julia Magnet's essay in the latest City Journal about the films of Whit Stillman.

posted by Dan on 01.10.04 at 02:55 PM


I don't know about "a surprising number of movie critics," but the participants in this year's Slate Movie Club sounded as if they spent most of their leisure hours sipping Chardonnay together in the same hot tub.

I like movies, personally, but current movies aren't really my thing. This is mostly because I am cheap, but it may also be a political statement. According to the Movie Club, nearly everything about the movies involves a political statement. For a movie to have no discernible political context is itself a political statement. By logical extension this implies anything that anyone does involves a political statement, which as a theoretical matter is a depressing thought.

As a practical matter it is obviously absurd -- politics in any form are among the many things most people who are not movie critics go to movies to escape from. Even real, direct political statements are likely to go right over the heads of the audience. This may be just as well if the people who make movies have the same idea of what politics is about that Slate's critics do.

What is that? Judging from last week's discussion, mostly it is about sex. This means sex for procreation and pleasure, sex as an expression of gender roles and power relationships, sex at all times in all forms in all places. My Labrador retriever doesn't think about food as much as the Movie Club thinks about sex.

Their view of the role of sex in politics, not to say existence, is a minority one, something suggested by their secondary theme. This is alienation. To be fair, alienation is a real theme of many films, especially though not exclusively the boring ones from Europe. But the Movie Club critics, or at least some of them, are quick to claim alienation as their own; this is the most likely explanation of the sniping the movie "Cold Mountain" -- a story of love in wartime -- took because it made no effort to show the Civil War "from an African-American point of view." O! The injustice! The oppression! It is as good an explanation as any also for the frequent references in their dialog to Marxist theory, all but irrelevant to the political culture of this country except as a symbol of alienation from it.

Well, as Dan suggests, read the Slate feature yourself. You may find it meaningful even if you are not sex-obsessed or chronically alienated. I would suggest one thought, though: there are a number of real, fairly significant political issues surrounding the movie industry, involving subjects as varied as copyright protection, foreign cultural ministries' zeal to funnel public funds to politically favored film makers, and the influence of western and non-western cinema on peoples whose knowledge and views about other countries may come mostly from movies (and perhaps popular music). The Movie Club critics said not one word about any of them. What kind of statement were they making?

posted by: Zathras on 01.10.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

I'm with you on the Slate movie hacks. Individually, they can come up with passable commentaries; together, they are less than the sum of their parts. I can't say why this is, precisely. Reading their give and take is like watching a (semi)witty dinner party on tv--you're not invited, so why watch?

No offense, but you got Menand's wry piece all wrong. Of course these things are far from definitive (his point exactly--why does the NYTimes have four of them? they scarcely overlap, even). And he hit the nail on the head for me when he said that we want to have a seen at least a few of them (even if we say, phshaw, that wasn't THAT good) but not all, we want one or two "mainstream" but no more. In other words, we want to see part of our selves reflected there, but we don't want a mirror image, do we?

And Mystic River was overblown, but better than mediocre. Your friends need to lighten up.

posted by: Kelli on 01.10.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]'s my mini review of 21 grams. cheers.

posted by: jason on 01.10.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

Well, here's one American who has been offered the job of movie critic (more than once) and would not take it. Two reasons: 1. That's the end of writing or making movies myself, far more interesting (and erratic, alas) than criticizing them. 2. I know several film critics well and do not in the slightest envy them the task of seeing all those movies, the vast majority of which are truly bad. It's like submitting your stomach to a non-stop diet of cold, stale Big Macs with maybe one ration of fresh tuna sushi every three weeks.

posted by: Roger L. Simon on 01.10.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

“(last week, I had to defend Mystic River against a charge by two left-wing colleagues that the movie was really a veiled endorsement of American imperialism)”

Wow, Dan Drezner sure works with some strange folks. And some people actually wonder why I often insult people with advanced degrees behind their name. Where’s Mark Kleiman when you truly need him? I guess I was also mistaken to believe that the University of Chicago prohibited the use of hallucinating drugs on the campus grounds. Patton probably caused these individuals to have a nervous breakdown. Are they advisors to Howard Dean or any other Democrat presidential candidate? These academics definitely should not be allowed to play with matches.

Mystic River was well worth seeing. Clint Eastwood deserves much credit for putting together a insightful story concerning blue collar, New Englander Catholics and their lack of faith in the authorities to solve a tragic murder. Both Sean Penn and Tim Robbins were magnificent. I guess that they have decided to join the American imperialist conspiracy. Sean, in particular, was very impressed when I told him that we serve roasted babies covered in a delightful orange sauce at our banquets.

posted by: David Thomson on 01.10.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

It's actually referenced in the Movie Club discussion, but there's another take on the whole "Best of" issue here:

Well worth reading, if for no other reason than to get an idea of how impossible trying to determine a "Best Movie of the Year" is.

And actually, I'd like to have seen all of a critic's top 10 list, especially if it's a critic I've read regularly, although of course it never happens. But one thing I've noticed with a lot of people is that they don't seem to like movie critics much, because the critics' tastes are often very different from theirs. Of course critics' tastes are going to be different from the average moviegoer, for many reasons; it's the requirement of the reader to take that into account.

And it's silly to think movies don't reflect and comment on the society that produces them. That doesn't mean that it's required of movie watchers to look for these things and comment on them; on the other hand, it doesn't mean you have to ignore them, either. I suspect the readers of this site would find very different "political statements" than the Movie Club critics, which isn't a bad thing.

posted by: Devin McCullen on 01.10.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

OK, I'll bite. From the reviews, I thought that Mystic River would be to the Brothers Karamozov as Appoclypse Now was to the Heart of Darkness. As I left the theater, I said to my wife, "Well, it was a good procedural, but it did not have any larger philisophical or tragic point."

posted by: Robert Schwartz on 01.10.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

I don't think you have to ignore political statements (intentional and otherwise) in the movies. I think that most people do ignore them, so that even if the Movie Club critics are right you have a "tree-falling-alone-in-the-forest" situation. If no one notices one is making a political statement -- and especially if one did not actually intend to make a political statement -- why is the statement worthy of comment, least of all from a movie critic whose connection with politics in the real world is somewhat tenuous?

Kelli: In fairness to the Movie Club, Slate does provide a forum for reader participation in discussions like theirs, the Fray. I noted a couple of the critics were dismissive of the comments posted therein, and I can't blame them. Slate has allowed the Fray to deteriorate into a somewhat more elaborately set up AOL chat room, but some of the critics did respond to e-mails sent directly to them.

posted by: Zathras on 01.10.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

Robert, I didn't go in (to Mystic River) with your expectations, but I came out with a similar feeling, except I don't think I could have put it as sucintly as you have.

I simply can't believe anyone 'wept copious tears' in that movie.

Haven't seen much this year I like myself, maybe Dirty Pretty Things and Dancer Upstairs. Saw Bad Santa last week, I enjoyed that.

Mostly I've been trying to watch 70's movies that I didn't see when they came out (because I was under 10). The highlights have been China Town and the Candidate.

posted by: Scott on 01.10.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

I actually enjoyed Menand's article. I believe it was a somewhat tongue-in-cheek, British wit à la Oscar Wilde-style piece. His point that publishing three lists of the ten best whatevers in one paper was well taken; it is ridiculous, and amusing. Three top ten lists? Isn't that really ... a top thirty list? It's have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too syndrome: striving to cover your bets with 30 choices while supposedly exercising judgement and choosing 10. Menand is, I believe, poking fun at the very idea of top ten lists in general, with which we are indeed innundated at the end of every calendar year.

"Pluralism and democracy are fine things, but they have no place in the evaluation and consumption of pop culture, especially today, when, all around us, the sea is rising."

Couldn't Algernon have spoken those very words?

And speaking of The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell's article "Big and Bad" on SUV's and the perception of safety is excellent! (It's in the same issue.)

posted by: Lisa on 01.10.04 at 02:55 PM [permalink]

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