clap clap blog: we have moved

Wednesday, January 05, 2005
Reading the Slate movie club is just too depressing for words. But I guess I'll try and summon some.

Just as an introductory aside, all the Kael bullshit really is annoying. Folks, I just don't care, I'm sorry. It seems a bit like Ginsberg or Ferlinghetti (and if I've spelled his name wrong, good, the cock-knocker deserves it) to me--I can recognize how for a certain generation the work had a very salutory effect, but in a modern context it just seems superfluous. And Jesus, her main effect was to make you feel free to say what you wanted? What the fuck is wrong with you that you didn't feel like this before? I mean christ. But I don't really know my shit about Kael so I should probably shut up, and besides, I can certainly recognize the effect Kael's stuff had on the criticism I actually like today,so bully for her.

At any rate, although you would think it would be Charles Taylor that would finally, irrevocably crush my will to live (although his addle-headed repetition of the "About Schmidt was insulting to midwesterners!" criticism makes me want to throttle him), as it happens it was actually Armond White that did the trick, and specifically the weird, sneering anti-Voice rant he gets into, which apparently is like a prereq of working for the Press. I'll quote the main bit here:

Fact is, throughout the rest of the year, the Voice's arts pages practiced the most biased, propagandistic (anti-Bush) pseudojournalism. (Its lack of objectivity [An objective film review?!?! -ed] was only matched by Frank Rich's witch hunt against Mel Gibson in the Times.) The poll was a small effort at being "fair and balanced." It was a hoot last spring when the Voice's cover headline announced Dogville as the year's most polarizing film (no doubt the headline writers were attempting to scoop The Passion of the Christ) while, inside, printing a handful of valentines to von Trier.

Only one thing became apparent from all this: The passion of the hipster. And it's this, I submit, that ruined most criticism during '04. A good movie like Sideways may be weak rather than great; even its quasi-humanism can be disputed. But let's face it, Sideways is a lot more humane, considered, crafted, and accomplished than that piss-ant vanity production Before Sunset. Any class of journalist (or wannabe film critics in the Voice poll) who can contribute matchsticks to erect an edifice saluting Richard Linklater is unworthy of the art form that produced Griffith, Welles, Godard, Kael, and Sarris...

Hipster self-righteousness has become a blight on film culture. The Voice poll revealed (or constructed) a disappointing, nationwide urge among film journalists to outsmartass each other. (Yes, I write for New York Press, which some people think of as the Voice's opponent, but these thoughts are not born of competition. I'm aiming at a problem bigger than one publication or institution.) The "victory" of a cliquish, solipsistic—and drab—film like Before Sunset is indicative of a dead-end culture.

And it's know, I just don't care. Maybe it's the tone (a bit later he says, "Call it lighting a candle instead of cursing the dark, bucking the tradition, or just plain fighting back" and, I dunno, it just makes me want to kill a puppy it's so goddamned self-righteous) or maybe I'm merely cringing at my own sort of critical provincialism, but it seems like such a silly thing to focus on, such an absurd thing to be wasting your energies with when there's real work to be done. (Although--in fairness--I think I backed up many of my jerimands with a legitimate argument that the criticism I was trying to knock down was having a negative effect on the actual making of music, not just on its consumption, but I could certainly be as delusional as Mssr. White in that regard.) The Village Voice simply does not have a significant effect on the film industry, nor does the kind of criticism it, apparently, promotes, although I admit I'm at a loss as to what that is--didn't they review as many slow-moving Iranian films as the next chappie? And sweet lord, can we please stop complaining about hipsters? They're like bad smells--unpleasant to be around, but making no actual impact on your life.

Look: nothing is preventing you from seeing a movie. The technology is just there now, and in terms of criticism the freedom that apparently some people needed Pauline Kael to grant to them already friggin exists. If you don't think it does: there! Poof! I'm giving it to you! Go watch whatever the fuck your heart desires now! If you don't, stop goddamned complaining!

As for distribution: look, if a film fails, it fails. It's not like an AIDS drug not getting to patients who need it. It's a goddamned movie, and, let's be honest here, there are many more productive things to be than a goddamn filmmaker. If your film career doesn't work out, go start a free clinic in Thailand. I mean sweet jesus.

What I'm trying to say, I guess, is that while 2004 was a great year for music (just like every year), it was just a horrible year for criticism. The three best critics working were Chuck Klosterman, Alex Ross, and Heather Havrilesky[1], one of whom doesn't review anything, one of whom works with classical music, and one of whom reviews TV, which is to say that none of the best critics are working in the big 3 genres of novels, rock music (sad but true), and movies. I don't know if this is worrisome or predictable or both. What it speaks to is the stultifying provincialism of criticism today, its unwillingness or inability to embrace a wider culture, to engage with culture as it's actually experienced rather than attempting to create your own little artificial cultural biosphere where only things you like are successful, which, for all his fire and brimstone, White's trying to do as much as any Voice critic (or Pitchfork critic) is.

Culture is interesting to me because it's so complex, because it's the result of millions and millions of independent actors, from viewers to editors to lawyers to marketers to (er) actors to directors to writers to musicians. It's the finely-wrought and nearly infinite universe created by these tiny decisions, and the simple fact is that even the smartest critic can't create something more interesting than that. The reaction many critics have to this sea of choices is to try and create a restrictive little bubble in their own image and then only allow access to people who can conform to that shape. Bubbles are OK, but it seems more useful to make 'em in the image of the world itself, a map rather than a model, and to have a little bubble-door where anyone can come in, and the bubble will grow and stretch and...OK, I'm trying to do too much with this metaphor, but you see what I mean.

Just as there is a finite-but-ginormous ocean of culture out there, so is there a similarly horizon-kissing dead sea of opportunities for criticism. But aside from a few folks who've been plopped out in the middle, we're mainly sticking close to shore.[2] There are so many things we can do with what we've been given, and criticism's very youth as a genre is a huge boon. It really isn't an accident that the best writing's being done in fresh territories, because there aren't any expectations there, and when there are no expectations, there's no responsibility, which is exactly what you want out of criticism. Good TV criticism is so good in part because you simply can't take the subject that seriously--as great as America's Next Top Model may be, you can't ignore those indescribably crass, campy Jay Manuel Cover Girl commercials that interrupt every episode. The artform comes to you debased, and it is this lowering that promotes a higher criticism. The more seriously you take the artform, the worse the criticism will be, and it is the criticism that matters here, not the art itself, which will after all survive with or without us. If we can manage to be passionate while laughing at what we're doing, which I think is most people's experience of art, we can make something truly wonderful.

These petty battles and limitations of scope do nothing for criticism. They are boring, the worst thing you can be when you're already at least one level of symbiosis down. We have been given a challenge and we are failing it. Criticism has a real capacity to entertain (and by entertaining illuminate) that is simply not being explored.

My favorite film of the year was unquestionably Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and one of the things I really liked about that[3] was the banality of it. The gorgeous scenes have stuck in my mind, of course, but I find myself returning more to the images of the two in the car in their winter clothes, or on the LIRR, or in the apartment building. They manage to depict everyday life without beautifying it or debilitating it, which is what makes the gorgeous scenes so affecting, because they fire here like a good song or a good movie does in the context of driving in a car or walking on a sidewalk or sitting in your messy room. Art is our waking dream, the epic battle that takes place only in our heads, the interruption of pleasure in the middle of banality, thus becoming banal itself. Art is beauty, and as such it is the presence of the sublime in our lives, making our lives, again, sublime themselves.

But we forget this. We treat art as politics or lifestyle, and while these things can be wonderful too, they are not beauty. Arguments about art can be lovely, but they must be expansive to be truly worthwhile, they must take us somewhere else besides where we currently are. What I want from criticism is nothing fucking less than what I get from Renoir or Kurosawa or Flan O'Connor, and you motherfuckers are not giving that to me. So give it to me, or go away. I don't have time for your bullshit anymore.

[1] You wanna talk "freedom"? Freedom is not dissing Dogville and promoting Asian cinema. Right now, freedom is using the phrase "the strange postmodern twists and turns of 'The Joe Schmo Show'" with complete and utter sincerity, not even acknowledging that some people might read it as ironic, as Heather does. [4]
[2] "Again with the metaphors!" OK, I'll stop.
[3] I wanted to do a full post on the movie after my initial viewing, but it seemed to be adequately covered elsewhere; maybe I'll rent it at some point and attempt another go.
[4] Incidentally, this article is pretty much the most essential year-end wrapup you'll read anywhere.