This has come up a number of times. Often with people I know more than on the boards, but such is life. People think I’m super, super critical.
When this happens, I think about it, I reflect on it, and I question my own critical nature? Am I too negative, am I just being a dick? Perhaps because I have a critic’s mind, I wrestle a little with this criticism, especially when it’s delivered by people I respect, or have to deal with on a regular basis. I hate the idea that my opinions are dismissed simply because I don’t find a lot of things that great. Though some critics don’t get to a second draft, and shooting from the hip is part of the deal. I often find myself having conversations in my head, playing chess with ideas. I think part of this comes from being a writer. I find it sort of pretentious to suggest even that much, but I think it’s fair to say I write, and there’s a difference between being someone who does some typing and expresses an opinion and being a writer. Some might argue semantics, but there you go.
(To understand my thoughts on what it means to be a writer, please see David Foster Wallace’s E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction. And so, by that, I admit a level of pretension. I have thought enough about writing to reference something most people haven’t read, but also something by a dead writer. Such is life.)
I generally don’t spend a lot of time addressing this concern of being highly critical, as I see no point to it. There is the personal reaction to things, the popular wisdom associated with a thing, and the long term. And, to a certain extent, the long term has been screwed. If you look at the IMDb’s top ranked films, well… yes, it’s not a bad list, but it’s a populist list. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But the IMDb is a recent phenomenon which will surely be modified and changed through history, which lower certain films standings that are overly inflated by the immediate. We’ve also crossed the 100 year threshold of cinema, and expecting people to know the history in its entirety is beginning to be a fool’s errand. Some films are gone (though not that many), and some films will never have champions, whilst some films will remain in the pop consciousness for decades because they have been codified as great. Wizard of Oz is a very strange movie, but for a generation of now, it’s hard to remove the ember that encases it, just as is the case with a lot of films of that era. Citizen Kane, etc. They have been so long championed and appreciated that it’s possible that their very acceptance is such that it’s common nature. And the goal of anyone should be to have both a learned perspective when watching these movies, but also a sense of fresh eyes.
I have said this before, and I will surely say it again, the two critics who taught me the most about film were Pauline Kael and Joe Bob Briggs. Kael taught me that passion is everything. You don’t have to read too many of her 80’s reviews to see how the decade was wearying for her, but when you read a review of a film when she is engaged, it soars. And she taught me that films are like fucking, and if you love it, you better moan in pleasure for those around you. When Kael had a film orgasm in print, your fingers can tremble reading her prose. Joe Bob Briggs taught me the second most important rule of criticism: You have to judge a film for what it is, not what you want it to be, and if it succeeds on those terms, then it is good. I recently had the pleasure of seeing Dave Parker’s THE HILLS RUN RED, and rather enjoyed it, because it was a slasher movie made for a limited budget. I had a great time with it, because the film knew what it was and it delivered on its premise with a level of wit. Such is why films like Wrong Turn 2, or Bloodsport can be like mother’s milk. That doesn’t mean a film can’t exceed expectations, and when they do (arguably those films do), when they take it to the next level, then you can have a transcendent genre work. But most cinema is genre trappings, especially of the Hollywood variety. And there’s nothing bad about enjoying a genre film that works on the level its intended to. It’s just so much easier for to make apologies for the cheap and well intentioned than the expensive and flawed. Call it a class thing, but I feel you should save your best intentions for those who have only limited means to work with than Hollywood product, and such gets me in trouble.
And that I think is one of the critical differences between being a critic of some sort, or a scholar, or a filmmaker, and being a general movie goer. I don’t watch films for escapism. Or at least, that’s not the only reason. I watch films to get something, hopefully unexpected, or at least the sum of its parts. I will settle for craft, which is why I like something like Deep Blue Sea, though I can’t imagine intentionally throwing it on again. It took me ten years to watch Eyes Wide Shut again, but not because I disliked it, whereas there were a number of films from ten years ago I had seen numerous times that left a much smaller impression.
But then it gets interesting. I do not like Boogie Nights. This has been discussed ad naseum, but I
have reasons for not liking it, jut as I have for not being truly
impressed with Paul Thomas Anderson until There Will Be Blood. TWBB is
a masterpiece, and I felt the man had that in him. But that was the
first film of his where he didn’t feel the need to indulge himself at
the expense of story, and fully ruminated on his characters to create
something that more rounded. That said, even though I found Magnolia to
be insufferable (it reminds me of Peter Biskind’s description of Bob
Raeflson’s Head, in that it’s a young man’s stab at saying something
whilst having nothing to say or express) Anderson is obviously a
talent. I can’t stand The Life Aquatic, but there’s no denying Wes
Anderson’s craft. It just felt like re-runs. But on some sort of cosmic
scale, I would argue that I was happier to suffer through Magnolia than
enjoy the pleasant craptitude of Deep Blue Sea, because I don’t think
I’ve thought about the latter, but I can still argue why I don’t like
the former. And that’s why a filmmakers history is important. You might forgive early efforts from people like Kevin Smith, or Robert Rodriguez, but if they don’t develop their skills, than those apologies for initial awkward craft mean nothing.
On to the modern blockbuster. I am not opposed to these things, nor am I an Armond White type. I don’t care what other people think. That said, though I don’t actively root against films like Iron Man, The Dark Knight, or Star Trek, I can see what works and what doesn’t. Iron Man has a fairly terrible third act, punctuated by a scene where Gwyneth Paltrow has to psyche out Jeff Bridges. There are no stakes to that scene, and the conclusion is not set up as narratively satisfying, which is the problem with two machines clobbering on each other. We are in the final act, and we know the conclusion by the nature of the title. and yet I like that film okay because Robert Downey Jr. delivers such an entertaining performance that I look forward to the sequel. I just don’t plan to watch the original again. The Dark Knight introduces two boatloads of characters we’ve never met before to raise the stakes, and has a fairly pedestrian action set piece in its conclusion. Though I love Christopher Nolan, and walked out of the film jazzed, I have to say I’ve fallen asleep twice during the third act at home. It’s a good film, but masterpiece? Not on your life. Memento remains Nolan’s greatest film, though I have a soft spot for The Prestige.
Star Trek is an even stickier wicket for a number of reasons. I get why people like it, and I respect that. But the film doesn’t advance the ball at all. The new Star Trek is about resetting the universe with new characters, but the same characters we know and love who have all the same catchphrases. What was accomplished by its makers was lensflare, and reminding why you liked these guys in the first place, while resetting them for new adventures. This get complicated because, obviously, films like Ghostbusters 2 and hordes of other requel, sequel, prequel films have failed at recapturing any magic of their predecessors. I get that. My problem is that the filmmakers only set about to do that, and did so by the skin of their teeth (there was a lot of post time on the film, and it seems to have served the film well, as the narrative is shit). Is it mean of me to acknowledge that some dialog seems to have come about because of a different draft, or to suggest that the villain’s motivation, plan, the whole magilla kinda sucks? Is it also assholish to suggest that settling for shitty movie means that we will only see more of the same? I say all of this while knowing that every single Next Generation Star Trek film was and is terrible, and worse than JJ’s film. I get into controversy because my favorite of the bunch is Insurrection, and only that because it’s the only one that punches its weight class. So the Abrams Star Trek is good at best, but less than the sum of its parts. McCoy is great, and it’s great that Karl Urban does a good McCoy, but this McCoy shows up, lets us know who he is, and acts like old McCoy. Slightly different Kirk and Spock settle into their old roles. People have said they don’t understand how I can describe this as a pilot, but what a pilot does it put characters in place for their furthering adventures. When the film ends with everyone on the bridge ready to do what we know they’re going to do, how is that not pilot-esque? I’ve raised this question before, but no one’s suggested to me how I’m wrong. i’ve described it as an act, and the movie reminds me of the first episode of Eastbound and Down, how it establishes the characters, their relationships, and then sets them up for their further adventures. That’s what I got out of this. I would love to know how I misinterpreted this film, if I did. And that’s honest, I love to hear new perspectives on things.
But, also, when it comes to this, I feel it’s fair to say I’ve seen more movies than the average bear. Shit, outside of old critics, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, I’d argue I’m of a rare lot. I thought that wouldn’t be the case, that there would be more movie mad people like me, but most people stop, and don’t keep going. In some ways, the worst part of living in LA is that video stores aren’t as much a part of the life style. Netflix is the way to go, I guess. But even with Netflix, I don’t think that many people bother with Lola Montes, Partner, The Long Goodbye, Ball of Fire, etc. etc. The Apu trilogy. And for that, when I see a film that is slightly above mediocre, that delivers on its premise, it’s hard for me to go buck wild about a film like The Hangover, which is inarguably successful at what it does, and gets by on craft. And I respect craft. On some level I was more excited by Land of the Lost, which took chances, and made transgressions. I saw both opening weekend, did expectations play a part? Maybe. But I can’t get too excited about films that manage to live up to certain expectations. Transformers 2 is the most successful film of the year and has a lot of robot fighting, but the story is garbage, and few scenes actually build on the next. Where a film like District 9 succeeds by being slightly bigger than the sum of its parts, whilst also not having a very deep metaphor at its center. I like the latter a lot, but acknowledging that it’s drawn from the treatment of blacks in South Africa as its central thesis, while using it for a genre exercise is fair. It’s stile excellently crafted. Up will probably be in my top ten of the year, but I wish that there hadn’t been the end credit montage without the passing of the main character, as showing the passage of time at that point would suggest that Carl would be comfortable with his own death, as should the narrative. Talking about small things that tweak you, or what have you is never an out and out dismissal, the problem is that mitpickery on the Internet, along with contrarian takes, have become so commonplace, and often misguided attempts at getting attention.
One of the best things I’ve participated in at CHUD was the You’ve got it All Wrong lists, partly because I love the idea of taking on sacred cows. Not that the Internet leaves many. But the idea of someone putting forth an argument to why a film is loved or loathed for the right or wrong reasons, if that thesis holds water, is one of the great parts of criticism. I have never always agreed with anyone. And I never want to. I think that goes to the Boogie Nights thing. I love to argue about it. I didn’t like Raging Bull for a long time, until I saw it uncased from amber, until I saw it as a black comedy/tragedy. Once I saw that I could love the film. And I will admit my opinion of that film has changed. and I love that it has. Because I always saw merit in it. But that’s the difference. The difference between something worth struggling with, and pepperoni pizza.