Over on the formidable movie blog, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, writer Dennis Cozzalio has posted a long, and articulate article about the Christopher Nolan blockbuster, Inception, just released on July 16, and the mass of pre-critical buzz associated with the film and with Nolan’s previous movie, The Dark Knight. Mr.Cozzalio argues that in the case of The Dark Knight, all of the build up from fans, bloggers and pre-release reviews from critics created a backlash against those who wrote in dissent of the film.
This article got me thinking about the role of film critics in shaping the success of a movie and what responsibilities they have, if any, to the general public. More often than not, initial buzz initiated by the studio marketing department, fans etc, creates unreasonable expectations, expectations that may or may not be in line with film itself. Granted this all comes down to opinion, to taste, but I think the argument is also valid that all of this goodwill may be undeserved and simply camouflages the obvious flaws of a film. And in a world where You Tube, blogging and viral videos have made this sort of unstoppable, 24-hour hype machine a given, where does the hyperbole end and the movie begin?
Now, it would seem that the same controversy is brewing once again with Inception, and Mr.Cozzalio uses a recent article by Los Angeles Times reporter Patrick Goldstein lambasting New York Magazine’s David Edelstein—who wrote a negative review of the film— to frame his argument. Here is a quote from Goldstein in his article regarding Edelstien’s review:
I give Edelstein points for lively writing, but in an era where critics have enough credibility issues as it is, the last thing we need is a critic thrashing a film because, in part, he’s chagrined to see it get so much open adulation. If you want to write that after the movie has opened, fair enough. But it’s the wrong stance to take before people have even had a chance to make up their own minds.
This is a ridiculous statement for many reasons, least of which is that Goldstien argues that the only reason Edelstien gave Inception a negative review is because it has received some much attention and good press, and foremost he claims that giving it a negative review is “the wrong stance” to take because the movie is not even out yet, and this could very well cloud the public’s judgment of the film. But isn’t the same true for a positive review before the movie has come out, specifically Peter Traver’s glowing review that is highlighted in the TV ad campaign for Inception, a campaign which has been running constantly for the last several weeks (more on that later)? You certainly can’t have it both ways and this, it seems, it what is most troubling to Mr.Cozzalio, as well as myself. Everyone wants to be right, no one wants to be wrong, and the very value of film criticism is undermined because everything seems to boil down to what will help or hinder a movie’s chances raking in gobs of money. David Edelstein is clearly not interested in whether or not Inception with do well money-wise, that is not his job. His job is to give his own assessment of the film’s ultimate value, which, according to Edelstein, is questionable. Yes, he can be rather snarky, which sometimes undermines his position, but it is clearly his writing style, and his past insights into other films have been thoughtful and well-reasoned albeit with a heavy dose of sarcasm. Edelstein closes the review by saying this:
For the record, I wanted to surrender to this dream; I didn’t want to be out in the cold, alone.
Cleary he went in wanting to like the film but, in the end, gave his unbiased opinion, about the actual picture. And ultimately this is what Patrick Goldstein finds fault with. But what is most disturbing is Goldstien’s unabashed defense of the film, especially since he’s a reporter. Even an industry reporter, as he is called, should be neutral, but Goldstien is operating as if he has something at stake if this is not the most beloved movie of all time. I would say that it is Goldstien’s entire stance that is suspect, and negates any true debate over the merits of a particular film. And really, isn’t this the kind of ridiculous debate that the studio would want anyhow? What’s going to grab the public’s attention even more than uniformly glowing reviews? Maybe a reporter creating needless controversy around a dissenting review? Again, it’s an assertion as pointless and stupid as the entire “controversy” itself. Of course all this posturing might be a moot point anyhow; as the film has just opened, public opinion is still out, at least for another few weeks.
So, again, the question becomes where do movie critics fit into all of this? It’s a sticky proposition at best, one that can be perilous to navigate these days. Ideally film criticism should argue, with distinct clarity, for or against a certain film, all the while illuminating the movie’s virtues or transgressions. Criticism should provide a new view into the picture at hand. Group think, should be abandoned. There is no room for the writer that simply follows the views of other writers in the field. The film critics I have always admired, Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, David Bordwell—while I have not always agreed with them—have always given me something to think about. They have provided me with a method of looking a film anew, and have never shied away from controversial remarks about how terrible a film may actually be. Yes these are lofty goals, I did say ideally, but in an age where lines are becoming blurred between what is actual film criticism and what is simply bullshit—a quote emerging from a traveling press junket and used heavily in an TV ad for a film, for example—it becomes easier to wade in with everyone else rather than be he lone voice against a film, especially when there seems to be so much positive criticism surrounding it (particularly when it comes from someone as well-respected as Peter Travers). When is a positive review simply a positive review? I’m sure many of the critics that have seen Inception really enjoyed the film, and found it be a nice change from the usual mindless summer blockbuster, hence all of the stellar reviews. Memento was a taut, well-made thriller and, I can’t believe I’m still saying this, but I really enjoyed The Dark Knight*, so when I began seeing trailers for Inception I have to admit I was not put off by how grandiose it all seemed, in fact, given Nolan’s track record, I am actually very interested in seeing it. But as a Kubrick fan, I bristle at quick comparisons, even when attached to a competent director such as Nolan. Take for instance this review from Anne Thompson, with the title, Inception Early Review: Nolan Delivers Kubrickian Masterpiece with Heart:
As intricate as the script is—Nolan worked on it for a decade—the movie is not just a feat of cinematic wizardry, even though it comes close to the level of technological derring-do carried off by the likes of Stanley Kubrick. (Indeed Nolan works in repeated homages to the late great auteur beyond the obvious use of moving sets on gimbles to allow athletic Gordon-Levitt to bounce weightless and walk on walls and ceilings.) The movie also has heart. So that even if you do get confused (as I did in the James Bond snow section, filmed in the Canadian Rockies), the emotional through-line pulls you along. It’s as simple as The Wizard of Oz: The Extractor wants to go home.
Now, not having seen the movie, I can’t really say otherwise, and it may not really be hyperbole in Thompson’s view to compare Nolan to Kubrick. But if you ask me, comparing a film, not even out of the gate, to be on par with the cannon of Stanley Kubrick is not only incredibly premature, but unduly persuades a moving going public, and hardcore film buffs, more so than a negative review ever could. Much of the reason that directors like Stanley Kubrick are highly regarded is that enough time has gone by, enough writing has been done, and enough clarity has evolved to permit that sort reverence. Some of Kubrick’s films, which are now seen as masterpieces, to use a buzz-word, were first released to luke-warm reviews, and or out-right controversy and hatred, as in the case of A Clockwork Orange. In fact, Pauline Kael bestowed a scathing review upon the film, denouncing its extreme violence, concerned that it would have a de-sensitizing effect upon audiences . It is an articulate, well-reasoned review, which, written by someone as highly regarded as Kael could have been disastrous for the film( in addition to being branded with an X-rating when it was first released in the United States). Of course, it has become a cult favorite, and considered one of Kubrick’s best. Make no mistake that A Clockwork Orange is a difficult film to watch, and it is not a film that can be well-received by everyone because the material itself is so aggressive. Pauline Kael did her job as a film critic and gave her honest impression of the film without regard to its box office or its future place in film history. And I this is the ideal situation I spoke of earlier. One without regard for ridiculous Rotten Tomatoes ratings and they’re impact on box-office, or what the denizens of some fan sites might say.
It is worth noting that there has always been a disconnect between what critics enjoy and what the public at large likes. Film critics often get a bad rap for hating everything mainstream and only liking “arty films” (outside of film critics, historians and film students, I have been hard-pressed to find someone who would count Citizen Kane among their favorite films). While there may be some truth to this, as a whole, I think film critics are really film lovers first, writers and critics second and third, and probably, for the most part, want to go in liking a film. After all, if it is your job to write about films wouldn’t you rather write about what works in a movie rather than what doesn’t? (OK, maybe some critics really enjoy writing scathing reviews) So when public and critical opinion actually converge with unanimous admiration of a film, should it be that any reaction against be met with skepticism or at worst some sort hateful backlash?
In the end debate is good, it is always good, and in this case, with film criticism, it is necessary, and even helpful in the ultimate enjoyment of a film. Everything released can’t be a masterpiece, it can’t be directed by the next Kubrick, because, in reality, those sorts of films, and directors are ultimately few and far between. Just think about how many movies are released every year, in the United States alone (and I mean everything from straight to DVD to festival circuit fare), and of the really good ones, can they truly be called masterpieces? We all know hyperbole is what get’s asses in seats, for lack of a better, and studios use it all the time, so why not bloggers and critics? It becomes a problem when there’s no room for a second opinion, when that opinion is dismissed as simply disliking anything that may have a whiff of mass appeal. This, I would say, is the downside to the internet (one of many). With so many voices trumpeting so many opinions, often with such rancor, truly good film criticism becomes few and far between, trying to etch out a place amongst the din of mediocrity.
*OK, OK, I know how bad that sounds, but given my utter disdain for blockbusters in general, The Dark Knight was a bit of a revelation. I liked The Dark Knight; I liked it a lot, more than I wanted to. In fact I went in not wanting to like it, as my exceptions were incredibly low given the track record of the movie franchise (I went to a free screening, and even with that as an incentive, I almost didn’t go). There are problems to be sure with the film; a throwaway, hammy monologue by Gary Oldman in the final scene of the film served to end the picture on a bad note; Heath Ledger’s performance, mostly riveting, sometimes teetered on the edge of the ridiculous, in way that could have undone the entire character; and yes, had there been another absurd scenario that followed the people-on-a-boat-with-a-bomb plot device, the movie would have collapsed under the sheer weight of itself. However, the film in general, was thrilling to watch, in way that only pure entertainment can be, thrilling because blockbusters usually remind me of the ridiculous plotlines they’re trying to camouflage, and The Dark Knight didn’t. With a different director at the helm, one with not as much obvious confidence in the source material as Nolan, The Dark Knight’s endless plotlines and characters, and it’s three-four movies shoved into one, would have surely failed. But Nolan makes it work for the most part because he is able to maintain the momentum; the tension is omnipresent and by the end of the film it feels as if you’ve run a marathon, but in a good way I suppose. The Dark Knight is nowhere near a perfect film as some would believe, but it finally did the character justice. The film, in many ways, emulated Frank Miller’s dark vision of the character, which is perhaps one of the most compelling in the comic book’s history. Nolan’s first stab at Batman, Batman Begins, while not the worst movie version of the comic book (that goes to the Joel Schumacher atrocities) was a ho-hum start, it was an origin story, it went through the paces, but did nothing to really elevate the character. With The Dark Knight, Nolan turned a corner to be sure. He was more assured with his vision for the franchise, and finally, finally a movie version of Batman appeared that wasn’t campy, that wasn’t throwaway, that wasn’t completely forgettable. I would hate to think that I’m a part of anything labeled, “group think”, but there you are, a blockbuster that’s likeable, that’s entertaining, that at the very least gives you your money’s worth.