Sunday, April 12, 2009

Geek Orthodox: Musings on the Unholy Trinity of Filmmakers, Their Critics, and Their Fans

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.


Jason Bellamy said...

Great musings! I'm with you entirely. A few specific responses ...

This frequent criticism of Kubrick was always somewhat unfair, as it is toward Anderson.

One of the reasons it's unfair is because it's legend, and most of the time the legend is bullshit. I worked in sports media for years, and it's amazing how new reporters would blow into town and buy into to the legends they'd heard from, say, John Madden, who'd heard it from someone else, who'd heard it from someone else who started it 10 years ago and kept retelling it. People get labeled, and that's that.

I just wish that more of the participants in the discussion ... were less entrenched in their positions.

Most of the time I think the problem is that people think admitting 'defeat' in one area means admitting defeat in all areas. Fanboys become like George W. Bush a few years ago, pausing to ponder whether he'd made any mistakes and deciding that he couldn't think of any. (Really? Not one? Nothing?) I don't get this. I love Charlie Kaufman, but I think Synecdoche, NY is crap and that to argue otherwise is to work harder at the film than Kaufman did. I have no problem admitting this, and doing so doesn't undervalue Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which I love.

In a similar vein, it drives me crazy when a film like Crash or Slumdog Millionaire gets a post-Oscar backlash to the point that people trash the films as if they are affronts to humanity, rather than simply evaluating the film on its own merits and then evaluating the Oscars process on its merits.

Craig said...

Good points, especially about "Slumdog," which isn't a great movie, but jeez. I love what Nick Hornby wrote on his blog sometime around the Oscars. Responding to the charge that the movie was "calculated," he wrote, "Yes! Because if anything is guaranteed success, it's a digitally-shot musical dramedy spoken half in Hindi with English subtitles."

Unknown said...

Sorry this will seem long, but, obviously, I've had a lot to say on this subject. As you can probably guess, I felt this well-written piece was necessary, addressing what I feel is a problem with film criticism today (and not just because I was cited). Thank you for writing it.

I would add that I usually distrust criticism that doesn't discuss both the strengths and weaknesses of a filmmaker. My favorite filmmakers each have a few movies that don't work for me. I simply don't buy into the notion that a great director is capable of making a masterpiece every time out.

It is a given in life that you will miscalculate and fail at some endeavor. Great filmmakers, by nature, take more chances with high likelihood of failure. So, to ask me to believe, a director is touched by the hand of God every time he yells action is a sign of unserious criticism.

What is weird about being cited in this article is that I'm not a film critic. I'm coming at this from the angle of being a freelance editor and aspiring screenwriter/filmmaker. Sometimes, I wonder if film critics understand enough about the process.

As an editor (although not of features), I spend time trying to cover up directorial mistakes and trying to make a piece work. I'm not working with exceptional filmmakers, mind you, but I assume with higher budgets and bigger crews that just as much can go wrong even on the set of a movie made by a director with the best of intentions. A crucial line of dialogue can be worded wrong. A performance could be off. A shot isn't framed as well as it could have been. More often, the problems are more widespread than that.

Most of the time, flaws in movies I love are glaring. But, I'll, at least, acknowledge them and tell you why other aspects of the film outweighed the flaws. Of course, my reactions to film are going to be emotional to the point where I may favor directors whose perspective I truly am in tune with.

However, there's a line between love for a director's work and a straight-out fanatical devotion to it. This is an art form, not a religion. Art is messy and complicated while religion is, unfortunately, often about being assured in one's beliefs. Art promotes asking questions while religion thinks there's an answer for everything. That Glenn Kenny quote about David Foster Wallace is spot-on. It's about the quest. In both the art and the criticism of that art.

As an aspiring screenwriter/filmmaker, when I push hard for something a little more nuanced in criticism, I admittedly am asking a critic to respond to someone else's film as I hope they would respond to mine someday. Just don't tell me how much you liked it or hated it, but show me that you put some thought into it even if you're telling me something that I may not want to face about my work.

I tend to think film critics have become a little clubby, which is maybe why you're citing me when other critics should really be speaking up on this matter. Criticism today has become more about taking a side than starting a discussion, particularly the last couple of years. As Jason suggested above, film criticism has devolved into the same polarizing (and often shallow and ugly) debate as political discussion. Either you need to build something up or tear it down. And, after years of this nonsense in politics, exactly what did that accomplish? During this time of change in film criticism, the community may want to start asking itself the same question.

Brad East said...

Great post. What you describe seems at least partially related to the effect of the internet as a tool of immediate praising/bashing (to make fall or succeed a movie/actor/director/whatever), rather than a medium of nuanced criticism.

I wonder, though, to what extent there ought always to be a role for "fanboyism." That is, someone like Harry Knowles (AICN) or even Bill Simmons (ESPN) made it big by being up front about their biases as "fans" of the art/sport rather than falsely attempting some kind of unattainable objectivity. This isn't in contrast to your post, which is about intentionally addressing strengths and weaknesses in anything we watch (whether we love the director or not), but only to say that when I read film criticism that is highly nuanced but devoid of the kind of passion that evinces love for film qua film -- that might sometimes be irrational about love for a certain artist or work -- I flee, uninterested and unengaged. Who wants to read an objective bystander who doesn't work out of love for his or her art?

Just a thought. Great article.

Jamie S. Rich said...

I would actually cop to my greatest failing being that I get more caught up in story than I do the process. I am more conscious of correcting said failing when doing a more straightforward review, but let myself get the better of myself when writing for my own venue. Funny thing is, in my other job, I am part of the camp that is dismayed that comic book criticism quite often fails to engage the art.

So, fair enough, words for me to think about. Thanks for the mention!

Fernando F. Croce said...

Exceptionally lucid article, Craig. Can't say my hands are clean regarding the slash-and-burn/coo-and-gush type of writing you so thoughtfully criticize, though I've grown more limber (I hope) in recent years. And Jason's linking of fanboys to W. is right on the money.

Edward Copeland said...

I'm with you on Anderson. On Buffy though, I liked Season 6 a lot but didn't care much for Seasons 4 or 5. X-Files fans think I'm nuts for liking season 6 the most because I preferred the show when it was funny and most of that season was funny plus it seemed to wrap up the mythology episodes satisfactorily. I have favorite filmmakers, but if they pull a misfire, I'm not afraid to call them on it and I don't try to make excuses. I love Scorsese, but New York, New York is a mess, no matter how many acolytes try to paint it as a misunderstood masterpiece. What it is is the result of doing too much cocaine while sleeping with Liza Minnelli. Of course, the idol worshippers that always puzzle me are the followers of the Church of Terrence Malick. Badlands was alright, but for me it's just gone downhill since. I really don't see why he goes to the trouble of hiring actors. Just make a three-hour film staring at nature and I'm sure someone will call it brilliant.

Craig said...

First, Jamie: My apologies for putting your essay at the crux of my argument. This post has been percolating for several months, long before I ever read anything with your byline attached, and it came out rather harsh. I truly admire your passion for film.

Brad: Absolutely there's a role for it. I don't read Harry Knowles, but I have no problem whatsoever with him being out there. I've done my own share of swooning from time to time -- "Adventureland" the most recent example, which objectively probably isn't a great movie but hit me, as Matt Seitz would say, where I live.

Fernando: I hope you take it as a compliment when I say that nobody writes film criticism quite like you. (I still fondly recall the opening sentence to your review of Darjeeling Limited: "The deeper Wes Anderson crawls up his own ass, the cleaner his movies become.") You're one of the best and most original voices out there -- and one of the few who has responded to Steven's repeated invitations for critics' engagement on this topic -- so please keep doing what you're doing.

Steven: Although I talked at length about actors I neglected to discuss the ensembles who assist filmmakers behind the camera, so your insights into editing are especially valuable. I have no problem with referring to a particular director as "the author" of a film when it's done as an academic exercise, like Matt's ongoing video essay series; but I do think it's interesting that one of the influences he cites, Orson Welles, famously said, "A writer needs a pen, an artist needs a brush, but a filmmaker needs an army." Additionally, you may not be a film critic but you are one hell of a writer who should have at the least have his own blog devoted to these subjects.

Ed: Yeah, I like Malick fine, but I find his canonization amusing and rather silly. It bugs me a little too, for reasons already stated.