Sunday, December 7, 2008

What good are critics, anyway?


Jean-Luc Godard once claimed the best way to criticize a movie was to make another movie. Decades later, with criticism comprising its own flawed industry, Godard’s quote could use a little broadening: The best way to denounce any practice in media production, distribution or consumption is to supply an imitable opposing model (alas, we’ve lost most of Godard’s lyricism). I created this site as a rejoinder to the irresponsible, misdirected prose that threatens the integrity of modern film reviewing—to censure criticism itself, through fierce antipathetic commentary. Whether or not that’s viable, it’s reached my attention that these aims should be made more explicit; that a manifesto of sorts would help explicate my position in the critical community. And though I’m hardly qualified (and scarcely interested) in compiling a list of “thou shalt not”s for critics everywhere, a few musings on the role of the evaluator would do no one serious harm.


The toughest truth any practiced reviewer must face is this: Bad movies are critic-proof. People will see what they want to see. Last week’s box office champ was deemed unworthy of attention by five in six major critics (i.e., its “Cream of the Crop” score was 18). Popular franchises have built-in audiences, impervious to case-by-case reckoning. If Chris Nolan’s next Batman installment consists of penguins hurling Wiffle balls at a CGI Calvin Coolidge, it will recoup its budget in a week and Halloween parties will be dominated by our thirtieth president. (In fairness, Peter Travers will proclaim, “There’s magic in it!”) While it’s true that many disparaged movies fail, critics would be amiss to claim these as victories. Some concepts will simply never connect with sentient viewers (here’s looking at you, Baby Geniuses!) Others perish by word of mouth, which is reasonable; for all their wisdom and expertise, critics can only impart a sense of their own experience, not the customized briefing you get from a friend.


The bottom line is, we’ve lost our veto power. That’s not categorically a bad thing. In the recent past a myopic old fogey like Bosley Crowther could get a film blackballed with a few caustic phrases (Bonnie and Clyde: “as pointless as it is lacking in taste”). Viewers are more individualistic these days; a bad review is something to be chuckled over while standing in line to buy a ticket. So here’s my manifesto: Let’s expend our energy where it can do some real good. Certainly we should not soften our assaults on the mindless, the artless, the gratuitous; but come on, Rex Reed! We all know you’ve worn out your thesaurus dredging up synonyms for “awful.” Don’t dignify those movies with your (dubious) wit. Push beyond them. Write a hundred words on The Incredible Hulk and a thousand on My Winnipeg, a film to remind people why they pay to sit in the dark with strangers. Roger Ebert, for all his latter-day lenience, has never lost his alacrity or his willingness to take a movie on its own terms. Why did I drag my poor father across state lines on a weeknight to see a curio like My Winnipeg? Because Ebert recommended it “to anyone who loves movies in the very sinews of their imagination.” Indeed. Mission accomplished.


A few more points while I have your ear, concerning the unprincipled strain I hope to counteract. Professional reviews are not made to order like private ones, but they should be serviceable for more substantive impressions. Pedantic plot synopses conjoined with cut-and-dried binary verdicts are what we expect from our buddies, from our uncles, from Regis Philbin. Quite fine if you haven’t turned pro. Critics should ruminate on aesthetics, dynamics, ideologies and motifs. No movie is an island; why, then, do we omit all acknowledgment of influence—of films or filmmakers outside the purview of direct scrutiny? This implies artistic products stand alone, unburdened by technical or thematic debt. The sooner we concede the fallacy of that tacit assumption, the sooner we can start thinking about cinema as the cyclical, collaborative, polyvalent medium it has always been.

***


Oh, and critics who waste valuable column space on box office forecasting, awards speculation and trivia should be forced to run a three-legged race with Ben Lyons across a field of burning cash and molten Britannium. I’m just saying.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The lost year?


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The other night, perched on my regular stool at Heroes, two Guinnesses deep in my effort to forget that Will Smith films took a billion dollars this year, I caught myself outlining my ambitions to a gregarious barfly. “Movies, yeah!” he roared—an impressive exhibition of gusto from a man already hoisting 32 ounces of Bud Lite. “I go to movies all the time!”

Piqued as I always am by that confession, I inquired what he’s seen lately of interest. He pondered, squirmed a bit, ordered another round, and apologized for his failure to produce even a single title. No problem, I assured him, but just for conversation’s sake, what’s the last movie to leave an impression? Feel free to go back four, five years if need be. More pondering. A trip to the bathroom. Finally, at long last: “I really liked The Graduate.”

The Graduate. Drunks are funny. I mean, obviously a clearheaded, well-informed person could have cited ten or twelve masterpieces from last year alone, right?

Now that you mention it, I sort of want to watch The Graduate right now.
**
Ask yourself the same question. See what I mean? Was 2008 the worst year of all time for moviegoing? Well, it’s only 85% over; a half dozen or so promising efforts are still in the can. But now that submissions by sure-thing directors like Spike Lee, Ridley Scott and Clint Eastwood have fizzled and at least two Oscar hopefuls have been pushed back to the spring, how will this calendar year be remembered? Will The Dark Knight snare Best Picture by default? Where have all the treasures gone?

Fallen through the cracks, that’s where. Reviewing my catalog of 75-plus trips to the theater since last January, I arrive at two conclusions: 1) This year wasn’t such a wash after all, and 2) The gap between the meaningful and the popular has never been more apparent.

Take, for instance, Happy-Go-Lucky, the richest character study in recent memory. What a vibrant, layered, humanistic and utterly satisfying piece—a triumph for director Mike Leigh, who in forty years of distilling poetry from the plight of the British proletariat has never once stepped wrong. Its outlook is sunnier than we might expect from Leigh, but its incurably cheerful heroine (Sally Hawkins, in the breakout performance of the year) is no storybook fabrication like Amélie. Her buoyancy is less a neurosis than an ideology, cultivated that she might withstand encounters with raving drunks, classroom bullies, property thefts, morose relations, and one apoplectic, self-disgusted driving coach (the brilliant Eddie Marsan). And while the premise may invite Pollyannic glad-handing on the contagion of positive thinking, Leigh has something altogether different in mind. Each of us navigates the world strategically, he seems to suggest; we couldn’t get halfway down the block without a viable coping device. Optimism is just one alternative; many others are represented (and embraced) herein, some of them simpatico, others cacophonous. To Leigh’s credit, the locus of scrutiny could shift to any minor character (and indeed Scott the driving instructor aches for his own movie) without disrupting the ecological balance on display. The pluperfect finale imparts the sense of an ending without the false impression of closure—we joined the story in progress, and so we leave it. The interim has been our profound privilege.

Adventurous filmgoers would be loath to miss My Winnipeg, the latest tone poem from Guy Maddin, whose sensibility is as rapturous and beautiful as any in the pantheon. Using the lo-fi aesthetic of early narrative films in tandem with his distinctly postmodern infusion of surreal compositions, Maddin constructs a singular ode to the metaphysical tension between belonging and estrangement. Renouncing the city he’s never managed to escape, the narrator (Maddin) vows to “film” his way out, purging himself of crippling ties to local and familial lore by emblazoning them on celluloid. His film is a captivatingly unique yet universally relatable treatise on the love/hate dynamics we share with our hometowns. Featuring ‘40s noir icon Ann Savage in a lacerating turn as Maddin’s mother (“as perennial as the winter, as ancient as the bison…”), My Winnipeg surfeits the senses and massages the mind.

At this moment in cinema, are there two brands more debased than vampire movies and adolescent love stories? (I speak even as one who’s never experienced Buffy.) Did anyone expect the salvation to hail from Sweden? Has the year produced a more revitalizing hybrid than Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In? As the only webmaster west of the Pecos, I’m empowered to rule “no” on all counts. See it even if you deplore both genres. See it especially if you deplore both genres.

As quirky hitman-buddy films go (How quickly a conceit becomes a category!), the erratic In Bruges falls appreciably short of Pulp Fiction or any given episode of The Sopranos, but it’s still required viewing for Brendan Gleeson’s superlative performance. The eternal mentor/sidekick whose countenance shifts subliminally from puckish to doleful, and whose beguiling presence has bolstered many a mediocrity, reaches a career pinnacle as the sadder but wiser of two mismatched assassins taking cover in the title locale. More or less Gleeson’s Yankee analogue, the invaluable character actor Richard Jenkins takes center stage in The Visitor and offers an object lesson in film acting. He registers change microscopically from scene to scene, but by the end has limned a bone-deep existential overhaul. If I knew how he did it I probably wouldn’t tell, but anyway, the point is moot. Students of subtlety are further directed to Melissa Leo’s guileless inhabitation of Frozen River and Kristin Scott Thomas’ French-language mastery in Tell No One and—most unforgettably—I’ve Loved You So Long.
**
So how many have you seen? No apologies necessary, no excuses accepted. Get thee to a Netflix queue, your entire world will change. And more to the point, you won’t look foolish in the corner pub on a Friday night.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Gone are the Days...


Whenever a star of Paul Newman’s rank and goodwill passes on, the words “end of an era” can be expected to ricochet from corner to bereaved corner—a bromide to stave off the challenge of articulating loss in a meaningful way. But in this case the platitude carries rather more weight, because Newman’s departure sounds the death knell for that endangered species, the great actor-movie star. For over half a century Newman occupied the center of a Venn diagram whose overlap has grown sliver-thin, until at last he appeared to be the linchpin holding the two circles together.

Perhaps not in the strictest literal sense—we still have Peter O’Toole, Kirk Douglas, and a handful of holdovers, not forgetting the movie stars who’ve long since relinquished their great actor status (De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, etc). But mostly when discussing great actors and movie stars, we’re contrasting general practitioners and specialists. They have different qualifications, different customers. Some can inhabit both realms, but almost never at the same time.

A movie star is, of course, a performer who connects with a mass audience, and whose vehicles (as they tend to be called) generate consistently high returns at the box office. “Great actor” is harder to characterize, so I bow to two examples of the species. Michael Caine frequently points out a difference in approach: Movie stars tailor their parts to fit their personalities, while actors undergo image modification to suit the demands of each role. George C. Scott, one of cinema’s finest actors, looked for “a joy of performing,” which I take to mean a euphoric immersion in the skin and psyche of another person, regardless of that person’s temperament. By these and any other standards, then, Newman was a great actor.

Yet all the time he was eschewing vanity and altering his image, he was working in the mainstream and grossing bloody fortunes. How did he pull it off? Can it be ascribed to universal viewer identification, or to an arsenal of allegiance and good faith so vast that audiences would follow him anywhere? Frankly I reject both propositions. Looking over his body of work, I’m hard pressed to cite one character with whom I “identify.” Outlaws, hustlers and alcoholics are not generically relatable types. Like Cool Hand Luke, Newman never pandered for acceptance; that he secured it even in these roles signals a spellbinding internal commitment, an absolute authenticity. But moreover, it owes to an intricacy of construction underscored by an avowal of weakness. (This, if anywhere, is where recognition comes into play.) Despite our tendency to conflate pop cultural icons, Luke is not Dirty Harry, and the crucial difference lies in Luke’s vulnerability. A sublime scene with his mother (Jo Van Fleet) resonates with muted acknowledgment of failure and forgiveness, and his subsequent response to her death consolidates audience sympathy through sheer refusal to solicit it.

If The Verdict contains Newman’s finest performance, as I believe it does, it’s because Frank Galvin stands as his richest reservoir of flawed humanity. A scene where he consoles a client by phone, his tranquil tones facilitated by the liquor without which he’d lack the stability to speak, is a master sketch of desperation channeled into reassurance. His portrayal is so delicately mounted that the unknown contents of his cup in the last scene make no real difference. If it holds whiskey he’s still earned his redemption; if it’s coffee he’s no less prone to relapse. Which of today’s stars could project such equivocality?

My aim is not to disparage the cluster of contemporary headliners. But as I write these words the supreme movie star (in terms of bankability) is Will Smith, and the divergence there is marked. Each July moviegoers line up to watch Smith battle aliens or robots, and come December they pay to see him grapple with poverty and persecution. But what’s really at stake here? A working definition of the movie star as proffered by Caine, Smith exhibits overriding confidence in the face of inevitably outmatched adversity. Clooney and the rest of the latter-day Rat Pack, irrespective of forays into Oscar country, offer viewers the same thing John Wayne once guaranteed: Affirmation that no hardships are too messy to work themselves out in roughly the time it takes the human bladder to process a large soda from the snack bar.

I find myself especially rankled by the recurring submission of Tom Hanks as Newman’s heir apparent—the matinee idol with the stroke of genius. There’s no denying the man’s talent, but at the same time, his much-lauded humility confounds any hope of transcendence. Old Tom is always there, peeking out from behind his character to remind us he loves his wife and kids. His potentially image-altering turn as the contract killer in Road to Perdition was hamstrung by unseemly decorum. One need only witness his scenes with a blood-chilling Newman to note the disparity. And Hanks’s rollicking Charlie Wilson is drunk under the table by his obvious antecedent, Newman’s debauched governor Earl Long in Blaze. Newman cavorts with wild abandon, convinces you of his insatiable, innumerable hungers; Hanks’s portrayal suggests that Forrest has fallen in with a bad crowd and forgotten everything Mama used to tell him.

Great actors still exist, make no mistake. Daniel Day-Lewis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeff Bridges and a few other stalwarts keep moviegoing bearable, and once in a while a riveting turn seeps into the homogenous Hollywood harvest, like Heath Ledger’s Brando-esque tour de force in The Dark Knight. But, Paul, you natural born world-shaker, when you left you took the current from the mainstream. “End of an era” has never seemed more apt.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Acknowledgments


This website owes its existence to the ingenuity of Anne Shulock, without whose counsel I'd be facing the quagmire of a conventional thesis. Perish the thought. By now my plan to contribute to the academic discourse on Hitchcock would've run headlong into the discovery that Hitchcock scholarship warrants its own library call number (PN1998.3.H58). This would effectuate panic, despair, regrouping, withdrawal, disgrace, and ultimately my old Blockbuster job (and hours, and wages). The rest of the story would resemble a Bukowski novel, a Springsteen song, or some inconceivable hybrid of the two. Thanks, Anne. Seriously.


Thanks also to the eccentric and mostly delightful mélange of inmates and parolees of Pomona Penitentiary, especially Ash, Laura, Kiel, and a handful of others I can thank in person. Special mention to Dave Curtis, Lil Coyne, Wendy & Ed Gaither, Fred & Betty Mears, Dave Mears, Ron "Harvey" Stoops, Manfred Becerra, Edward P. Jones, Jerry Coyne (aka Uncle Scrooge), and the extraordinary Prof. James Morrison.

Not forgetting Maestros Hitchcock, Welles, Truffaut, Herzog, Wilder, Lean, and all their colleagues who've made cinephilia not merely defensible but imperative.

And an incalculable debt of gratitude to my parents and best friends, Bob and Susan Mears, whose acts of thoughtfulness across the years defy enumeration. Love you guys. You too, Mr. Gills.

This site is dedicated to the memory of my great-uncles, Bernie and Morley Frank, and especially to my grandfather and soulmate, Floyd P. Coyne (1918-2003).

"Death ends a life. But it does not end a relationship."

Miss you every day, Toadie.