This last Tuesday to the Tuesday before represented the single busiest public speaking period for me since Denver Film Festival week last October – I spoke in Beaver Creek twice for the last two films of their summer film series (Dark City and Spirited Away), completed a classic science fiction series for the Gilpin County Public Library (Wolf Rilla’s Village of the Damned), and subbed once, as a favor, for local NPR critic Howie Movshovitz (away at Telluride) for his monthly “Tattered Cover Film Series” at the Starz Filmcenter: a presentation of Mark Sandrich’s 1935 Top Hat. Four different presentations of four very different films, complete with notes (and sometimes handouts), to four different audiences in the course of seven days. It takes its toll on a guy in surprising ways.
But the most surprising thing when I first started doing this critic thing professionally (besides every other thing about this critic thing), was the amount of public speaking that you were expected to do in the course of your job: introducing films, conducting on-stage Q&A sessions with visiting talent, teaching the occasional course, lecturing the occasional captive audience. In the course of the last five years, I’ve spoken to groups of “at risk” high school kids about foreign films, gone to speak at a career day, and done something like two hundred post-film discussions – I’ve been on panels of film critics (sometimes with hostile filmmakers in the audience and on stage), facilitated post-screening discussions with Vincent Gallo, Cory McAbee, David Cronenberg, Bob Rafelson and others, moderated panels, been publicly slandered by a minor Canadian producer, served as a judge on a couple of festival juries – and, in the last couple of years, even been asked to program my own series. It’s fun if you like that sort of thing, I guess.
Anymore, it’s the only real pleasure that I take from the job.
The interaction with people immediately following one of these screenings is amazingly gratifying. You make a lot of assumptions about audience when you’ve experienced, first hand, dispiriting cinema only to have it gross into the nine-digits. The new wrinkle this summer was having to suffer some of your peers writing op pieces about how critics are “out of touch” when they slam some happy horseshit like Meet the Fockers only to have it go on to be the top-earning comedy of all time. When I chimed in with a two-star review of Million Dollar Baby, in fact, the vast majority of the hate mail had something to do with how did I dare to deviate from the (at one point) 99% of the rest of the critics (call it 100%, I was the 1%), and diss the best American movie ever made? Something about the rule of consensus – about mob think, yes?
Yet lost in that is the fact that right after the screening, I got into an argument with one of my colleagues – I said that it didn’t matter what else was released this year, Million Dollar Baby was going to win the Best Picture Oscar because, and I quote myself, “Oscar eats this shit with a spoon”. I went on the record in my Oscar predictions, for what it’s worth. I don’t know how that makes me out of touch, exactly; if you asked me after the aggressively mediocre (and timid, and conventional) The Wedding Crashers if it was going to do boffo business, I would’ve told you without reservation that it would. Gangbusters, in fact. It’s not so much that I’m out of touch as it is that I have a pretty good – and pretty cynical – idea about the kind of stuff that’s going to pack ‘em in.
If I get drawn into playing that game too much, I’d never leave the house. Maybe that’s what they mean by being “out of touch.”
It’s a tradition, one stretching all the way back to Gone with the Wind, that films that are mediocre in just the right way for just the right time, will rake in the bucks and draw in the awards. A truism as staunch as the one that states that the truly exceptional films from any era are doomed to be discovered in subsequent eras – fodder for wise-asses like me to later point back to their anemic grosses, arms crossed, nodding in insufferable self-satisfaction for the delight of the few people who never would have argued the point in the first place. Zero sum outrage: a policy of solipsism that infects a lot of criticism and, more troubling, the majority of American “prestige” cinema. I say this, he says cryptically, after screening Proof this week (starring Apple's mom and Donnie Darko). Too often, though, I’m just preaching to the choir – enough so that when I was asked recently what it was I hoped that my writing would accomplish, I said “nothing, I just want to be on the record, for right or for wrong, when the buzz fades.”
Last man standing, holding his junk in one hand and a tattered flag in the other: Dante would have a field day.
Anyway – you make a lot of assumptions about audience when you don’t meet the portion of the audience that very seldom goes to movies anymore. These are the folks, for the most part, who show up for moderated discussions at public libraries – in part to escape mainstream audiences, and in part to participate in a guided conversation about what they still perceive as a work of art designed to inspire instead of a piece of commerce designed to rob. The questions are almost always not what you expect – and the level of perception is almost always startling. (Like the near-universal suspicion of the happiness of Dark City’s ending, the offense taken from Klaatu’s dire ultimatum in The Day the Earth Stood Still, and the almost universal disapproval that I told the story about ostrich feathers flying off Ginger Rogers’ dress during the “Cheek to Cheek” number in Top Hat.) Hard to call the culture war at an impasse, it’s the enthusiasm that greets these gigs that makes me think that a similar program attached to new release films (something that I did for a period of four months last year for the now-defunct Madstone Theaters – who folded up still owing me over 1,500 bucks – ah, the joys of freelance) might actually begin a trend of people talking about movies again in a way that might change, at least, the way that we approach films and, ultimately, the way that films are made.
As dreams go, it’s more likely to happen than the one I have involving Mary Louise Parker and Alison Elliot.
Appropriate to nothing, went shopping in my semi-affluent Denver suburb tonight when I hear a woman tell her child to "stay away from japs like that" referring to my clearly chink self. Fight the fight and there are still so many idiots in the world. And all we got to show for it is a simpering piece of moralizing crap like Paul Haggis' Crash.