August 24, 2005

Notes from the Trenches

Stuck in the middle of the worst year so far in the five years or so that I’ve been reviewing professionally – the first that I’d actually classify in print and public as wretched – the question arises as to whether the movies are actually that much more profoundly poor or if I’ve just had it. I’m aware it’s not like digging a hole or working at WalMart, but film criticism is maybe as brutal a profession emotionally – made worse because as it’s not physically taxing (if you don’t count the thirty-pounds I’ve tacked on while sitting on my ass “physically taxing”), it also doesn’t provide those essential depression-stalling endorphins that comes from hard labor. But if you care about your job, then you watch all the movies that are released and, should you miss the press screening and your deadline, you catch them at the dollar theater in a couple of weeks because the shelf life of 90% of today’s cinema is around two weeks – less if it’s complex arthouse fare. If you don’t watch everything, then you don’t get to have an opinion at the end of the year. How, after all, do you know what’s good if you only have other peoples’ carefully-cultivated “buzz” to influence your viewing choices? If you don’t watch everything, you’re a tourist and you’re too, too influenced by which way the wind is blowing.

The first casualty of this calling is the belief that your opinion matters; the second is that film criticism matters; and the last, if you stay in too long, is the feeling that film itself matters. I see it in the slouch and expression of colleagues who’ve been in the game for too long, and I see it poignantly lacking in the idiots hired as stopgaps to provide press kits masquerading as vacuous creative writing exercises: only the obvious targets get bad reviews – the rest? three stars or better to avoid any sort of controversy from advertisers and subscribers. What’s the point anymore of fighting a fight that you hear others refer to with mild condescension? Who’s that steadfast in their passion when so much of the hate mail nowadays begins with a “who are you to deviate from the consensus?” It’s existential after a junk cultural fashion: Yoda’s (Empire Strikes Back Yoda’s) kitchen sink Romanticism disdaining effort in favor of hanging your vitals over the breach. Do or do not, there is no try: the battle cry of a generation squandering their options on glib pronouncements and a sloppy, at least misguided, application of democracy to art.

So it’s possible both that the movies are bad and that I’ve just had it in just the right combination to catalyze a minor meltdown. A shame that it happened last week after a screening of Election in the Colorado mountain resort of Beaver Creek. I hope I’m redeemed for being such a gloomy bastard after tonight’s largely ebullient, productive chat about the endlessly tricky The Truman Show. If any exclusive to that first audience happens to stumble in here – sorry about that, I feel as though I abused the privilege of your attention and I hope that you’ll come back next week for Dark City – I’ll foot your bill if I try to wage my own battles against my personal demons again in your foyer. I know that not everyone sees the luster worn off the magic of going to the movies, I do not mean to disabuse others of the bliss, should it still be fresh, of going to the theater and watching a flicker – I did not mean to suggest that you were wrong to like March of the Penguins, just that March of the Penguins is wrong for taking you for granted. I’d offer as Versailles that you most certainly would have still liked the film even if it hadn’t treated you like an idiot.

But I want to tell you what it’s like to go to a press screening in the evening. You go in the morning and the screenings, for the most part, are closed to the public – credentialed professionals only or so the theory goes. You go in the evenings and they’re focus-group packed with radio listeners and shop-shoppers with a few seats taped off for the working press. We’re asked to show up fifteen minutes beforehand but most of us don’t show until the lights are almost down. We’re asked to show up early so the PR reps (you might as well paint giant red targets on their chests: the critics talk down to them, the public eviscerates them) can release the seats to professional screener-goers (seniors who through some complex jungle communication network always hoard a lion’s share of the free screening passes – some of these people see more films in a year than people paid to do so) and thus avoid ugly scenes where folks attending a free. . . a free. . . screening for members of the press (For. Members. Of. The. Press.) have developed big enough balls to ask members of the press for their “press pass” (as though we wear fedoras with “Press” cards stuck in the hatbands) and, failing that, to ask for a list of publications to verify that these seats saved for the people who must make their living watching this treacle aren’t freeloading assclowns.

Unlike, for instance, themselves.

Not everybody, mind you, just the ones that shove around the PR reps, speak in stage whispers about who does and does not look like a member of the press, and refuse to move when they’re caught stealing seats. It follows, then, that we don’t show up early because we don’t want to start the evening being interrogated by idiots with a bloated sense of entitlement who suspect that we might be attending this over-booked screening of Must Love Dogs because we, like them, for some unfathomable reason want to.

It’s bad, believe me, because since it’s a free screening, people feel more like they can talk and kick and make phone calls and bring their toddlers. It’s just as annoying to check your messages and send text messages – the human eye is extraordinarily sensitive to light, you see, and when Mr. Popular decides to mash-in a note to his baby-mama in the middle of some film – hey, I’m noticing. Children run up and down the aisles of R-Rated sex comedies and since there aren’t trailers in front of press screened films, at least a dozen people a show, show up a good half an hour into the picture and then talk, in normal voices, as they try to find a place to sit. (Either next to you or behind you so as to proceed to kick your chair ten-to-fifteen times in the next ninety minutes.) The projectionists at certain multiplexes hosting these events don’t ever seem to know what lens to use on what print and how to center the film in the middle of the shutter – and it’s a rare night at the job, anymore, that doesn’t start with a pat down and a wanding (against the possibility that one of us wants to record Bewitched on our cell phones) before progressing into none-too-subtle intrusions by security staff outfitted with night-vision goggles – making sure surreptitiously that no-one’s taking home a free, crappy copy of Because of Winn-Dixie. But the worst is the reactions of the crowd who, primed by its freeness and emboldened by their run-ins with the beaten-up PR reps and the grilled press, proceed to love the film unconditionally because, hell, it’s free. This makes for very positive crowd survey reports filed with very happy studio executives who will all later wonder why no one who raved about Cinderella Man when it was free, decided to go back with their pals when it was not.

But it's not a problem, see ,because the only reason that there are evening screenings at all is because the studios that set them up know that the conditions are not optimal for critics to critique their product and, in fact, hope that the invited crowd will sway the crix opinions positively – or confuse them utterly (see
Ebert on The Longest Yard or Owen Gleiberman on The Dukes of Hazzard). The only reason that most of these screenings are booked late on Tuesday nights is because most major dailies have a Wednesday afternoon deadline for the Friday entertainment sections and it doesn’t behoove them to give the smart ones enough time to really mount an effective counteroffensive. (That some of them do anyhow is a remarkable testament to their dedication.) And the only reason that a lot of us do this anymore, having digested how much a part of the machine we’ve become just by dint of agreeing to do it professionally (particularly when most of the fringe benefits of the job involve being savaged by pinheads and fanboys while slowly losing your love for the medium you love the most), is because like anyone dangerously obsessed with an object of desire, you hold out hope every single time, for every single movie, that a connection, vital and vibrant, will be made and we can be reminded, even if it’s only for a hot second, of how film can harbor the secret of living in its simulacrum of life.


The Captain said...

Beautifully, painfully written. I'll just say this; as a fellow critic and film lover, I feel that this has been the worst year for film in a long long time. But still there remains that thrill to be found: Sin City, 3 Iron, Batman Begins, Oldboy, Unleashed - never give up.

The Captain
~ On my way to Advance Screening of Joss Whedon's Serenity

Barry Wood said...

I like old movies -- particularly black and white ones. My favorite is Psycho. I like it because it's uncluttered and I can use my imagination.

So I understand why it's harder and harder to review movies of today. I'm not a film critic, by the way.

Walter_Chaw said...

Psycho is a film that I find myself constantly resurrecting in any number of contexts. Exploitation and art seldom found themselves more comfortable as bedmates.

Keith Uhlich said...

Hey Walter-

Fellow critic Jeremiah Kipp just sent out a link to your blog entry about the state of the cinema union. Thought you could use an electronic hug and this Renoirish optimist's belief that things'll balance out and get better. :-)

Look for Ira Sachs' "Forty Shades of Blue" - my fave of the year so far; Neil Jordan's "Breakfast on Pluto" is a mess, but an earnest and endearing one. New York Film Festival looks interesting with a new Sokurov (on Hirohito), Soderbergh (returning to his low-budget roots), and Winterbottom (riffing on "Tristram Shandy" with my "X-File" love Gillian Anderson). Also got a Hou, new Patrice Chereau and Michael Haneke, and a new print of Antonioni's "The Passenger."

A lot of the movie industry has become about the bottom line, but it's my personal belief that that - like Yeats' center - doesn't hold. To me the good and the bad of the art form always balance out (the trick being that we mere mortals can never see that balance in its totality.) So we search on simple faith, out of a belief that there is some kind of transcendence to be had out there, and I hope you'll not become disillusioned with the journey: it's worth it, and yours is a voice worth hearing and having. Always question, feel uncertain, but never give up.

Best to you,
Keith Uhlich

Barry Wood said...

Hello Keith: What a post! Wow. I like your words "Always question, feel uncertain, but never give up." I'm going to take that advice myself, but I realize those words were for the unstoppable Walter Chaw, who, obviously, I admire greatly.

Vikram said...


I agree with you completely about the recent slate of films. We are definitely on the downward curve and I think that there is no question about that - sort of like how popular music and journalism are on the same downward slope, just on different slides - and this lockstep slippage in popular arts and media isn't coincidence but is likely a result of the centralizing, and consolidation of media companies - fewer boobs controlling more buttons.

Anyway, I am an optimist and I hope that the expression "it's always darkest before dawn" is the truth.
You should keep the faith. This period of darkness will only serve to make your star shine brighter.


Alex Jackson said...

Not to beat this in the ground, but I've found that the greatest strength and weakness of contemporary films is that anybody but anybody can now make a movie and it's now easier then ever to make them techinically brilliant; to join sound and image into a visceral powerhouse.

The two most important bad films of recent years are Van Helsing and Red Dragon.

Of the former, it's amazing to me how much sheer work and energy could be put into a film without it ever having any significance whatsoever. It's "a tale told by an idiot" indeed. I mean, dear God. You see, I would have previously thought that anybody with the will to put those images and sequences onto film would have a burning desire to share them. Not anymore. There is such a glut on brilliant filmmaking that it can be easily wasted.

Of the latter, Ratner is like a four year old with a shotgun. He knows how to produce an effect, but he doesn't have the moral intelligence to use these effects fruitfully. He's a very talented filmmaker and an utter moron with a hatred for the intelligence of his audience. I felt so skillfully manipulated while watching Red Dragon that the manipulation turned into a feeling of molestation.