I had meant to do this feature every week or so, but with film festivals and other commitments, I haven’t had very much time to read other sites or gather good links. That being the case, some of these are several weeks old and you may have already read them. But in case you haven’t, I still think they’re worth taking a look at.
The Cultural Vegetables Debate – Dan Kois, A.O. Scott, Manohla Dargis, Jim Emerson, Glenn Kenny, AND MORE
It all started with this article in the New York Times Magazine, when Dan Kois admitted that he has a tough time watching certain critically-acclaimed movies (especially slow-moving ones like Solaris or Meek’s Cutoff) and terming them “cultural vegetables.” Fellow NYT critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis responded with “In Defense of the Slow and Boring”, arguing that slow and boring isn’t necessarily bad, and what’s more, often mainstream films like The Hangover Part II are far more boring than arthouse slow cinema like Meek’s Cutoff. Soon, other critics and bloggers put in their two cents as well, including Glenn Kenny, Jim Emerson, Richard Brody, Matt Singer, Bilge Elibri, Vadim Rizov, etc. Andrew O’Hehir’s article in Salon may summarize things the best. Then Kois, Scott, and Dargis all got together for a follow-up article. And now Glenn Kenny is tired of the whole thing. In a way, it’s gotten blown out of proportion from Kois’s original personal and sincere article, but the various points brought up by various authors are all very interesting and enlightening, to one degree or another, in a culture where both critics and laypeople can feel marginalized by the other.
The last frame of Jean-Luc Godard’s lastest film is the text “No Comment,” which many have interpreted as Godard’s sort-of playful, sort-of standoffish way of deflecting criticism, a way of tossing a bunch of seemingly nonsensical images up on screen for 90 minutes and then refusing to respond to questions or criticisms of them. Vishnevetsky argues that instead, Godard is declining authorial control, inviting the audience to participate in making meaning of his film. In short, it’s not a dismissal, but a deferral, and rather than being standoffish and closed, the ending slide is open and welcoming. This fits with how I see Godard’s early films, as well as his tendency to make films about the death of cinema as well as the death of language.
I see I’m not alone in my belief that Michelle Williams is possibly the best Hollywood actress of our generation, and Kevyn Knox has gathered together a slew of performances that prove it. I’m ashamed to admit that I have only seen a handful of these – looks like I’ve got a lot more Williams to discover, which is a wonderful thing.
Bordwell outlines the somewhat tense relationship between what he terms “cinephile critics” and academics – the difference between someone like Andrew Sarris, who popularized the auteur theory in the United States and had a deep understanding of film history and art that showed through his weekly reviews and columns at the Village Voice (and later the New York Observer), and someone like Christian Metz, who used linguistic theory to probe how audiences process visual narratives. It’s a line that I’ve struggled to understand myself, as I have just enough academic in me to want to sometimes use esoteric theory or historical minutiae when thinking about film, but I also identify strongly with the Sarris-style cinephile critic. Bordwell actually argues that the twain can and should meet, noting the different purposes each type of criticism is for and how the two can be complementary.
Kenny runs through an amazingly long list of Blu-ray releases, with a paragraph on each talking a little bit about the film and whether it’s worthwhile, but mostly about this particular blu-ray release and what it does or does not bring to the table. It’s a daunting post even to read; I pale at the amount of work (both writing and viewing all the discs) that must’ve gone into it, but the recommendations or warnings are very welcome. Discs discussed include: A.I., All the President’s Men, early Antonioni, The Black Pirate, Blow Out, The Comancheros, Diabolique, Great Dictator, Kes, Lolita, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Flower, Senso, Some Like It Hot, El Topo, Topsy Turvy, and a lot more. A lot of Criterions, but that’s fine with me!
Kiss Me Deadly just came out on Criterion DVD and Blu-ray, and J. Hoberman looks at the film in its historical context – especially the way it uses and modifies Mickey Spillane’s basically amoral “hero” Mike Hammer as a comment on modern society, and the relationship the film and its director Robert Aldrich had with the McCarthyism running rampant at the time of its release. The film is a great one on a straight crime noir level; I’m looking forward to rewatching with more of a historical context in mind.
Whenver a Hollywood blockbuster comes out and film critics lambast it, there’s always a chorus of “but it’s just supposed to be fun, stop bashing it” from commenters and fans of Hollywood blockbusters. The latest round is in relation to Transformers: The Dark of the Moon, and Empire Online put up this piece in response to the comments they’ve been receiving on their review of the film. O’Hara makes a lot of great points, and so do several of the commenters on this post, about critics responding to blockbusters, and how it’s okay to want more from blockbusters – not necessarily that they be Citizen Kane, that would be silly, but that they aspire to the greatness of blockbusters like Back to the Future or The Terminator, which had good scripts, storytelling, and acting, and were also a whole lot of fun. As O’Hara puts it, why wouldn’t you want “a film that has giant robots but is also a good film?” (her emphasis) Amen.
Although Kevin put up a full review a few days after this initial post, I love this stream-of-consciousness approach to Tree of Life. The film itself follows an associative logic rather than a linear narrative logic, and as Kevin points out, it’s difficult to talk about such an unconventional film in a conventional writing style. I think this bulleted list of things the film made him think about and associations it drove him to make is possibly the best way to talk about Tree of Life.
It’s something I’ve said time and time again, but Emerson explains quite well how the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer works – that 75% Fresh means 75% of critics gave it a positive review (that is, somewhere between 5 and 10 on a ten point ranking scale), not that all critics gave it a 7.5 out of 10. You could theoretically have a movie that’s 100% Fresh because every critic gave it a 6 out of 10 – that’s an extreme and unlikely example, but the system is highly imprecise. He also goes into the difficulties of assigning a positive/negative score to mixed reviews that don’t use a star or numeral ranking system. There are good ways to use Rotten Tomatoes (like as a portal to actually read a bunch of reviews), and the Tomatometer score isn’t always a bad indicator of general critical climate, but it needs to be understood properly to be very useful.