You know how, every once in awhile, a movie comes along that hits you right where you live, and inspires such intense affection that you find it difficult to respond to negative criticism about it in a rational way? This is one of those movies for me.
--Matt Zoller Seitz, in a comment (scroll down) about Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic, at The House Next Door.
But you do respond rationally, Matt. You address two things in your comment that I suspect will be lost on some: 1) a discussion of performance; and 2) an acknowledgment of flaws. Both, for me, are a large part of what's missing from a pervasive strain of film analysis, the kind that tips over into auteur-worship.
For as long as I've loved movies, I can't remember ever adoring the work of a particular filmmaker for an extended length of time. My man-crush on Spielberg fizzled sometime in the late-80s with Last Crusade, Always, and Hook; and a brief infatuation with Soderbergh in the 90s ended abruptly with a cold splash of Oscar Bait called Erin Brockovich. Since both episodes, I've liked some of the efforts of each director and disliked others, but I always go into their films the same as I do with anyone else's -- hopeful and open, but not blind to the prospect of failure.
Failure is, evidently, not an option for legions of fans of contemporary filmmakers. My first significant encounter with this was in the late-90s with regard to television-auteur Joss Whedon, whose Buffy the Vampire Slayer I had recently praised in a piece for The Chronicle Review (which can also be perused here) right before a sixth season I found dismayingly atrocious. Yet on one of the show's many online forums, its defenders did not take well to anything less than unanimous praise. Rather than responding rationally, they tied themselves in rhetorical knots justifying questionable plot developments, made appeals to emotion, and trotted out straw men. (My favorite gambit was something along the lines that young adulthood is a bad experience, and that therefore Whedon and his creative team had devised a brilliant metaphor in deliberately making watching the series a bad experience too.) Jamie Rich's review of The Life Aquatic isn't nearly so egregious; there is a genuine thought process behind the author's passion. Yet still it reflects a trend I find increasingly troubling-- a blurring of the lines between film criticism and fanboyism.
The first thing that strikes me about the Rich piece on Life Aquatic is, for all its length, a complete absence of discussion about (and seeming lack of interest) in actors. This is pretty much the case in his pieces on Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums as well, strange for a trio of films with marvelous ensembles. Or maybe not, considering the argument that Wes Anderson, the director of all three, fits in the Kubrickian tradition of caring less about actors than cinematography and production design. This frequent criticism of Kubrick was always somewhat unfair, as it is toward Anderson: what David Edelstein once wrote about the Coen brothers -- "They love them some weirdos" -- also applies to Anderson's palpable affection for eccentrics in all his pictures. Yet all three filmmakers (or, counting both Coens, four) give the impression of treating their characters as pieces to be moved across a chess board, a valid worldview but one that their fans generally refuse to challenge or even address. Essays like Rich's eagerly talk about everything else, namely all the rich thematic material and visual motifs, as though these are evident without the need for effective actors to serve as conduits between the director and his audience. While I suppose it's possible to achieve such a connection, I'm more inclined to agree with Clarke Peters' Detective Lester Freamon from The Wire, who astutely noted in an early episode that "all the pieces matter."
Additionally, you'd get the impression from admirers of Anderson (and other auteurs) that the guy is incapable of making a mistake. Nary a single flaw is highlighted in any of Rich's pieces on Life Aquatic, Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore -- also rather odd given the volatility of art, its near impossibility of perfection. Often young critics appear to believe that addressing a subject's failings weakens their arguments (though many veteran critics seem to think this too). Matt's same aforementioned comment proves, however, that an assessment of flaws strengthens the writer's position because it allows room for nuance.
Steven Santos, another regular commenter at The House Next Door, has forcefully spoken against the lack of nuance in contemporary criticism. I concur with his argument, because the flip-side of every gushing mash-note is a brutal pummeling. Both can be fun to write; but without variance the end result is unflinching extremism, with no room for the kind of discussion and debate that characterizes the Internet at its best.
A recent "Quote of the Day" at The House (again, scroll down) featured Ted Williams' observation that "Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer." Five-out-of-ten might be an accurate assessment of a great movie director, as Pauline Kael observed in her review of Images, one of Robert Altman's early-70s failures. Altman was very prolific at the time, cranking out a new movie nearly every year; and Kael noted in her negative review that he was nonetheless batting "an astonishing fifty percent."
With a handful of films to his credit, I would rate Anderson's track record as about the same: 2-2-1. I've liked two of his movies (Rushmore and Royal Tenenbaums), disliked two others (Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited) and found his first effort (Bottle Rocket) a promising trifle. What's fascinating about his work are the polarizing reactions it receives -- the vigor with which his detractors try to dismiss him (especially the Paulettes, who still resent his 1999 account about meeting Kael), as well as the sense that others can't seem to agree on which of his movies are good and which are bad.
These are signs of a filmmaker worth discussing. I just wish that more of the participants in the discussion -- whether fans or detractors of Anderson or any other director -- were less entrenched in their positions and more open to what Glenn Kenny expressed about the late David Foster Wallace. "There’s always this kind of doubling-back, always a reexamination of his position," Kenny said. "....not as an attempt to undercut anything, so much as it really is a search, a quest."
Time to get off our knees and leave the temple. Make a distinction between geeks and gods.