Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Are there movies after Movie Reviews?

It was a peculiar honor and pleasure to have taken classes by the late and revered film critic Manny Farber while an undergraduate at the University of California San Diego, where he taught. It was he, first among a host of serious film pundits, who convinced me that a critic was someone who's copy a smart editor left untouched. So long as the critic could write well, knew his or her stuff regarding the art and history of cineman, and who could meet deadlines without hassel, the editor was wise not to try to change or modify a critic's opinion,let alone tamper with the prose style. A readership distrusted reviewers who seemed to write great praises for every film a studio released, and were drawn more toward that critic they were sure they'd an honest and well argued opinion from. One also would look for that critic who'd managed to alert you to things in movie making that you hadn't been aware of, or only had a vague notion about. The blessing for lovers of movies and readers of quality film criticism was the 2009  publication of
Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber from Library of America. Farber, a painter of note as well as a film critic, brought to the task of reviewing the artist's eye; he could take in the entire canvas and was able to discuss the visual styles of directors, photographers and lighting technicians who could create a distinct set of techniques to get across a broad and subtle range of emotions. The wonders of the collection is that one finds that while Farber broke with the pack and wrote about movies as a fully developed art in itself  and not an adjunct or subsidiary form to another--film is no medium's poor cousin--he wasn't a strident formalist. The social uses of film concerned him as well, and through out this anthology one finds the juiciest of tidbits that clarify what's confused, puncture what's pretentious, highlight what his not discussed:


"The robust irrationality of the mouse comedies has been squelched by the syrup that has been gradually flowing over the Disney way.”

"Good work usually arises when the creators... seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn't anywhere or anything... It goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity."

"Masterpiece art, reminiscent of the enameled tobacco humidors and wooden lawn ponies bought at white elephant auctions decades ago, has come to dominate the overpopulated arts of TV and movies. Three sins of white elephant art are (1) frame the action with an all-over pattern, (2) install every event, character, situation in a frieze of continuities, and (3) treat every inch of the screen and film as a potential area for prizeworthy creativity. "
Movies were the issue at hand, and discussing them Farber was able to slice through the distinctions that kept low , middle and high culture segregated and their respective audiences apart. Movies were a vehicle anyone who'd seen them could have an opinion of--all of us had seen the same film, all of us had seen and understood, the same plot and motivations, and all of us, with no specialized training nor advanced degrees, could bring our interpretations to the discussion; anyone who cared to participate could have a say. As often as not, the long range conversations and disagreements over movies and their meanings, directors and their directions, was itself criticism, much of it sparked by the concise, pity, perceptually brilliant musings of Manny Farber.

I realize, though, that this great period of American film criticism is largely behind us, giving way to a consumer guide ratings that are pithy, if not artful. A large part of the problem might well be that critics, so called, are bored with a preponderance of movies that bleed into one another--how other movies does this stinker remind me of?-- but there are those who fight the good fight none the less. I am thinking of Duncan Shepard of the San Diego Reader, a Farber protege, who seems not to care for the majority of  releases he's tasked with evaluating and yet who is among the top movie essayists in the country: his writings on the Coen Brothers and Clint Eastwood are the finest and subtlest I've come across. Still,the trend is not good.
There was a funny 2005 piece by former Slate film critic David Edelstein about those film reviewers who seemingly are willing to whore their good names in order to be quoted in big movie ads. Edelstein gets to heart of the matter that film criticism has become a game of dodge ball rather than a reasonable case for why a movie is good, bad, or stalls somewhere in between. Critics will flee or produce more colored smoke if someone presses them to back up the original opinion; Peter Travers, Rolling Stone's shrill shill for mediocre work, would evaporate like slight rain in Death Valley if he were grilled. Film criticism used to mean, not all that long ago, an exercise in establishing movies as a rich and unique narrative art form, with a critical vocabulary and working theories used to establish criteria for good, bad and indifferent work.
Impressionable as a twentyish critic , I applied the thinking to what reviews I did for some local publications and, truth be told, I was a bag of wind much of the time, grandiose and prolix, but the readers got an honest and considered opinion. Yes, I know that I was read; I still have both my hate and fan mail. All this worked as long as their was a constant stream of good films to parse, but as film production became the province of corporate interests, and as more independent publications became property of overgrown media combines, criticism became cheer leading for company projects, good , bad or worse.

Time magazine, for example, is in charge of reviewing the product of Warner Brothers Studios. However loud the chant goes that there is no undue influence put upon Time's assigned scribe, it remains a rotten situation. You wonder just how badly Richard Schickel could maul a particularly odious WB release without the worry of getting pink slipped. The consequence of this is that nearly every mainstream reviewer reads like Peter Travers, manically upbeat, cheery, positive, and utterly, completely unreliable. Critics, as such, are little more than musicians who can play only one song. Their answer to that charge would be, naturally, a variation of witlessly up sided spin: "Well yes, and what's more, we can play "Happy Birthday" in every key!” It would be a nice party trick, but it doesn't cut for discussion when you most desire one.





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