Hey, hey, is anybody out there? Is anyone actually reading this column, and, more, paying heed to what I say? Several weeks ago, I made an urgent case for Takeshi Kitano's masterful Fireworks, the most exciting film in months. Did that send you scurrying to the Kendall Square, as I hoped? And did you scoot out of your house when, recently, I sang out in praise of Post Coitum at the Kendall and Gummo at the Harvard Film Archive?
Or did you just yawn, and bring your real attention to the Phoenix listings?
I'm thinking about the enormously gloomy column by New York Magazine film critic, David Denby, in the April 6 New Yorker, entitled, "The Moviegoers: Why Don't People Love the Right Movies Anymore?" Denby cited the overwhelming critical response to L.A. Confidential, and its utterly pallid box office, as the latest proof that, now, film reviewers are out of the loop: "...the most obvious sign of our sorry lack of sway. Clearly, the audience was not listening-not to us, at any rate." Nor, he might have added, have audiences responded recently to the fabulous reviews for Boogie Nights and The Sweet Hereafter.
What the crowds are genuflecting to instead, Denby asserts, is the all-pervasive media machine: "... (T)he marketing-and-promotion system is now less a means of bringing products to consumers than a law of existence, a metaphysics of momentum..." Denby is best as describing the kind of jaded postmodernism which links ad-driven Hollywood, its intentionally empty, crappy movies - "the merging of ransacked older styles in a play of surfaces - and an unquestioning younger audience which "wants the euphoria of weightlessness, of not feeling a thing."
If Seinfeld is a show about nothing making millions, than today's Hollywood is a place about nothing making mega-billions. Smirking all the way to the superbank.
"A pox on irony!" Denby writes with neo-Swiftian fury. "At the end of the twentieth century, despite such brilliant examples as Pulp Fiction, irony has become the refuge of the gutless and the accomodating. It functions not as a way of provoking and cleansing but as an attitude of solidarity among consumers who would like to feel hip while they are doing what everyone else is doing. And corporate irony effectively disarms criticism. Anyone who gets too angry at self-mocking triviality risks looking stiff-necked or merely out of it."
So what's an honorable critic to do? "...(A) critic may suffer a kind of internal collapse and simply go with the flow of commerce - or, flowing in the opposite direction, he may become a haughty contrarian, retiring from mainstream movies in favor of Kazakhstani cinema (or whatever) that he encounters at film festivals."
Here, Denby and I part company. What he considers tossing in the old towel, retreating to esoterica, that's what I think needs desperately to be done. The film critic as social worker. Fight the power! We are the ones who need to find the weird little films of worth - low-budget, foreign, subtitled, experimental, political, whatever - and inform our readers about them. That's how Iranian cinema has come into an almost-arthouse mainstream, from raves by obsessive, determined film critics.
A good critic today must attend foreign film festivals because that's where lots of the best cinema in the world is found. Years ago, I shuttled Denby around the Berlin Festival. Today, I recommend a trip to something like the Rotterdam Festival, because Denby would see hundreds of unusual movies. Movies to write home about!
Why don't "the people" trust film critics anymore? Denby points to those whorish poseurs who appear in the quotes. I point more to qualified reviewers who know better and yet are disarmingly easy on mediocre movies, bending over to find merits when there aren't many. "The people" feel burned by putting all that money down on reviewer-recommended pictures which mostly suck. Meanwhile, the marketers at the big studios are placated: at the paper of record in every major American city the chief critic is someone who is known as being soft in his/her judgments, from the New York Times to the LA Times to the Boston Globe to the Chicago Tribune.
When I talk to my friend Michael Wilmington, the brilliant critic for the Chicago Trib, I always say, "I have only one complaint. I wish you didn't write kindly about so many movies."
And that's why I'm going to recommend Cinecism: A Quarterly Film Report, a one-person mini-magazine of film opinion by Max J. Alvarez, a former Milwaukee Journal freelance arts writer. Alvarez knows his movies, but what he writes about them is obstinately unconventional, skeptical, anti-corporate, political, and damned refreshing after the "They're all OK" vantage of our daily critics.
Whether recalling seeing Star Wars at 17 ("In fact, my intial reaction was one of intense dislike") or blindsiding James Cameron ("the massive ego behind the right-wing Schwarzenegger bloodbaths"), Alvarez is a fascinating read. A contrarian!
(Boston Phoenix, April, 1998)