Dear David, Charley, and Stephanie—
Here goes: I don’t think the Movie Club should sound like an “in” club. I cringe at the inside-baseball aspect of Pauline stories and Paulette defenses. What I want from any critic—and what I get from any of them at their best—is erudition, open-mindedness, and a bullshit detector (the latter two things being what’s most frequently missing from film criticism this century). A review should be judged by its substance. Its argument should be engaged. Name-callers who ignore the argument are just being insulting; it’s a feeble attempt to simply dismiss the argument.
I’m way past Dogville. I also think I’m way past seeing any more Lars von Trier movies unless he can rope some pop star, Ricky Martin or Mary J. Blige, into his circus tent. (Wow! Imagine what an interesting movie Bad Education would have been with Sr. Ricky instead of being an Almodóvar retread! Imagine if Mary J. Blige or Iris DeMent had busted the conceit of Dogville with some soul-singing or gospel!) Still, I thank Charley for using Dogpatch (anybody remember Robert Downey père’s far more daring 1970 film Pound that satirized human beings as canines?) to call out the Village Voice brand of self-righteous liberalism.
Here’s where ‘04 film criticism crapped out: But before saying so, I must acknowledge that the Voice poll indeed printed my own skepticism (“Fahrenheit 9/11 can rightfully be blamed for costing the Democrats the election. Michael Moore’s divisiveness worked to achieve an anti-American schism. The fact that it was a lousy movie and not a work of art seems almost secondary. And oh, yeah, it suckered lefty film criticism, too.”) Fact is, throughout the rest of the year, the Voice’s arts pages practiced the most biased, propagandistic (anti-Bush) pseudojournalism. (Its lack of objectivity was only matched by Frank Rich’s witch hunt against Mel Gibson in the Times.) The poll was a small effort at being “fair and balanced.” It was a hoot last spring when the Voice’s cover headline announced Dogville as the year’s most polarizing film (no doubt the headline writers were attempting to scoop The Passion of the Christ) while, inside, printing a handful of valentines to von Trier.
Only one thing became apparent from all this: The passion of the hipster. And it’s this, I submit, that ruined most criticism during ‘04. A good movie like Sideways may be weak rather than great; even its quasi-humanism can be disputed. But let’s face it, Sideways is a lot more humane, considered, crafted, and accomplished than that piss-ant vanity production Before Sunset. Any class of journalist (or wannabe film critics in the Voice poll) who can contribute matchsticks to erect an edifice saluting Richard Linklater is unworthy of the art form that produced Griffith, Welles, Godard, Kael, and Sarris. Remember, Linklater in Before Sunset shot Paris like it was Hoboken—or Williamsburg!
Hipster self-righteousness has become a blight on film culture. The Voice poll revealed (or constructed) a disappointing, nationwide urge among film journalists to outsmartass each other. (Yes, I write for New York Press, which some people think of as the Voice’s opponent, but these thoughts are not born of competition. I’m aiming at a problem bigger than one publication or institution.) The “victory” of a cliquish, solipsistic—and drab—film like Before Sunset is indicative of a dead-end culture. Coterie thinking passing for free expression. Too many critics—and filmgoers—are now smug about movies without being curious, honest, or imaginative. That’s what Before Sunset celebrates. And that’s why ‘04, which I think was an astonishingly rich year for movies, saw so many, many unique films drop out of the marketplace (that’s Cineplex to you die-hard romantics) while so many, many mendacious and unsurprising films held sway in the culture.
I blame the specious passions of hipsters so in love with the idea of being film reviewers that they happily go along with numerous big-budget Hollywood and high-concept indie films garnering critical notice (thus public attention) while beautiful, less-hyped movies languish unseen and unreviewed. If you think I exaggerate, recall the shockingly naive reception given to Jonathan Fraker’s Birth, a humorless, dim—and grim—pseudoparable by a music-video refugee. Hipster critics mistook Birth for art because they didn’t question, face, or imagine what was glaringly, obviously wrong with it. (The other problem is the movie shills who praised it just because—but that’s a subject for another screed.)
All this is my way of joining in the Movie Club discussion without a 10-best list. (I’m still thinking it through.) I want extend to y’all an alternate way of thinking about this very good movie year as in my published 12-worst list that featured 12 alternative movies that accomplished what the overpraised garbage screwed up. (De-Lovely versus You Got Served. Finding Neverland versus Bear Cub. Before Sunset versus Mr. 3000.) Call it lighting a candle instead of cursing the dark, bucking the tradition, or just plain fighting back. Until critics—our colleagues—start paying attention to movies without million-dollar ad budgets and big-name icons attached, more and more good films will be ignored for junk. I’d be pleased to discuss how critics failed to support Patrice Chéreau’s Son Frère rather than hash out the very dull, very conventional Million Dollar Baby. Chéreau’s film is superior; why give Eastwood’s even more publicity? Moviegoers should be encouraged to seek out the unique pleasure and challenge of a film like Son Frère. This might be a way to carry on the best traditions of the profession, to help readers become more catholic and opened-minded in their taste and develop a bullshit detector constantly switched to “On.”