By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
|Illustration by Peter Bennett|
BACK IN THE 1960s, THE SITUATIONIST THINKER Guy Debord declared that modern society is built around spectacles that create mass passivity. I always thought this was laying it on a bit thick, but lately I'm not so sure. I'm not talking here about how we're letting our leaders frog-march us into war with Iraq. I'm talking about something more prosaic: the way the public puts up with the rotten projection in our movie theaters.
Over the last few months, I've seen whole films shown out of focus, films where the bottom half of the image was steeped in murky darkness, films whose soundtrack hadn't been turned on. In each case, I was the only one to go out to the lobby and complain. The rest of the audience (who'd also paid $8.50) just sat there, quietly settling for the shoddy service they were being given by Mann or Pacific or UA. They'd come to the theater to be passive consumers, and by god, that's what they were going to do.
This same attitude carries over into the popular preference for pictures such as Spider-Man, XXX or My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which wash over the audience without making any real demands on anyone's attention. Whenever film critics discuss this state of affairs (I've been hearing such conversations for two decades), they invariably start muttering about "the decline of film culture" -- the dumbed-down audience, the studios' blockbuster complex, the obsession with box-office grosses, the pernicious power of advertising. They talk about everything except their own passivity and how it contributes to the problem.
Consider the treatment of In Praise of Love, one of Jean-Luc Godard's finest films in the last 35 years -- an exquisitely photographed meditation on love, memory, history, narcissism, Hollywood and the importance of resisting a culture that prefers lucrative images to life itself. Although this difficult film did get some positive notices, it was neglected by Time and Newsweek, chastised for being anti-American by The New York Times, dismissed by New York (wearily) and The New Yorker (suavely) for having no interest in characters, and given a "C" grade in Entertainment Weekly by a critic who wrote it off with the cocksure philistinism of Bill O'Reilly passing judgment on Finnegans Wake.
What these negative reviews shared was an unwillingness to grapple with the film itself, to explore what Godard is trying to do by telling the two halves of his story in reverse order or using both gorgeous black-and-white film and color-saturated digital video. Instead of helping the reader understand a complex film that one might (or might not) like, they made it okay simply to ignore it. It's ironic. To judge from their obvious exasperation with Godard, you'd think our critics spent their lives arduously interpreting tricky works like In Praise of Love rather than grousing about having to go see Scooby-Doo.
OF COURSE, THESE ARE DISILLUSIONED DAYS FOR film critics. I don't mean the happy hacks and quote whores who scarf shrimp at press junkets, refer to "Gwyneth" as if they actually know her and repay studio freebies with idiot blurbs ("XXX is Triple X-citing!"). I mean the serious folks, to adopt the Bushian locution, who remember when being a film critic wasn't just a cool job (it still is) but the catbird seat in an era when movies electrified the culture, Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael battled for the souls of the young, and preferring Godard to Truffaut (or vice versa) was a way of announcing who you were. Now, critics seem shell-shocked that they've lost this privileged status -- their space is being devoured by articles on digital media or no-carb diets -- and they must actually fight to make themselves heard.
Sad to say, most film critics are better at feeling beleaguered than at fighting (what would you expect from people who spend their lives in the dark?). Hanging out with other critics, I'm always startled how many actually grumble about having to go to Cannes (ah, the horrors of the Riviera), feel personally insulted at having to write about Adam Sandler, or sink into clock-punching passivity -- they only want to review the big movies that are put in front of them. Terrified of appearing to care too much (which can get you fired), most critics have been cowed into aiming low.
A few weeks ago, a group of them showed up on Charlie Rose to anatomize the summer films. They spent their time serving up the sort of consumer-guide pap (The Bourne Identity is worth seeing! Attack of the Clones sucks!) that one associates with Roger Ebert's pudgy thumbs. Although I personally know them to be intelligent people, their discussion was so shockingly bereft of ideas that even Minority Report -- a film by the most popular artist in history -- couldn't provoke any discussion about, say, Spielberg's style or the meaning of his career. The show was mortifying and seemed all the more pathetic a few nights later, when a panel of art critics, including The New Yorker's Peter Schjeldahl, occupied those same chairs. They talked with confident lucidity about the career of Thomas Eakins, the layout of MoMA Queens, changing conceptions of the museum. Aware that theirs is an elite field, they took care to talk in detail about history, style and meaning. Which is to say, they talked like genuine critics.