MCN Blogs
David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

The Palette Of The Modern Movie Critic

When I watch Gordon Ramsey or Top Chef or some similar show on TV, it often occurs to me that as much as I enjoy cooking, my palette is just too simple for me to ever become a great chef. I can make really tasty things inside of my palette.
Filmmakers often struggle when they have expended the breadth and width of their palette and still want to work. A guy like Robert Zemeckis has a taste for endless variety and keeps using his long-honed skills in a variety of genres. Oliver Stone is still struggling to get out of the Vietnam era. He knows how to direct, but what does he have left to say?
Critics cannot reasonably afford themselves the luxury of a narrow palette. Yet, someone like Pauline Kael is remembered for the details of his palette and her inflexibility. Anthony Lane is revered for being acid-tongued and generally uninterested in films themselves aside from the platform they afford him for his witty craft. And Armond White has become nearly legendary for his gift for narrowing a film down to a strong political position that often has nothing to do with the film itself.
Like Political Correctness, Cinematic Correctness is both heroic and villainous. Hurting films, like hurting words, must somehow be both protected and destroyed by the keepers of the flame.

The rest…

38 Responses to “The Palette Of The Modern Movie Critic”

  1. Eric says:

    Perhaps film criticism is narrowed and polarized most by the emergence of tools like Rotten Tomatoes and MetaCritic, which mechanically removes all nuance and argument from a review. Only “good” and “bad” remain.
    And maybe it all started with “two thumbs up.”

  2. Joe Leydon says:

    Eric: And stars! Don’t forget stars! I fought tooth and nail NOT to have to rate films with a star system long ago at The Houston Post, but I was overruled. And sure enough: Every time I walked out of a promotional screening after that policy started, people would walk up to me and ask — not “Did you like the film?” or “Did you appreciate what the director was doing?” or “What did you think was the theme?” — but always, always: “How many stars?”

  3. martin says:

    Well, Zemeckis has had nothing to say for a long time. And I would argue that Stone has a lot to say, but his filmmaking ability has left much to be desired in the last decade.

  4. David Poland says:

    I would argue that Zemeckis has never been a director with soemthing to say… but has always been a craftsman with sensational skills.

  5. JPK says:

    “but always, always: “How many stars?”
    What amazes me, Joe, is when I have conversations with friends and they reduce their comments about a recent film down to, “Eh, it was a two star movie.” I’ve grown to think that the average moviegoer cannot fathom an opinion beyond stars or thumbs.

  6. Direwolf says:

    Well, one thing that all the critics would do well to remember is that it is those average moviegoers that drive the economics of the industry and pay the salaries of everyone form stars to writers to production folks to critics.
    What I’d like to see is special part of each critcial review which discusses whether the average viewer will feel that they go their monies worth.
    I respect films as an art form and therefore enjoy good quality critical reviews but lots of regular folks just want to know if spending $10 is worth it.

  7. jeffmcm says:

    That’s why Ebert was always so important – because he could bridge that gap.

  8. Joe Leydon says:

    With all due respect: He is important, Jeff. He’s not gone yet.
    Direwolf: You bring up a good point. I know it’s considered terminally uncool to admit such a thing, but I’ve always said that a large part of your job as film critic for a mainstream publication (or a mainstream website) is being a consumer reporter. Yes, you also serve as an advocate for the art, a connoisseur of pocorn flicks, and a guide through unfamiliar territory. But you should also keep in mind that the overwhleming majority of folks reading you want to know: Is this going to be worth the price of admission?
    Having said that, however, I am deeply dismayed by current trends that point to the dumbing down of film criticism. Of course, there’s always been a push in that direction. As I told David (I think) a long time ago: I once had an editor chided me for not “warning” (his word) readers in the first paragraph of my review of Eat Drink Man Woman that the movie was subtitled.

  9. White Label says:

    Joe, I don’t know how long you’ve been reading DP for, but I recall the old Roughcut days when the site film reviewers would rate movies on a “What it’s worth” scale ($0.00-$7.50… sigh, when a full price movie cost $7.50…). I always found it a way to help me to decide whether it was worth seeing at the first run or second run theater. There’s no concept of art vs. entertainment on a strict dollar scale, it’s simply a matter of is it worth your time and money. (At least that’s how I viewed it.)

  10. lazarus says:

    Two things.
    1. I’m glad DP posted this on the blog because I read The Hot Button this morning and thought this is one of the best 2 or 3 things he’s written in my opinion. It says something about the market, the way films are viewed and reviewed, and causes us to think about our own genre/pedigree prejudices we bring with us each time we enter a theate. Great stuff.
    2. Zemeckis may be talented, but Stone is so much more than a “craftsman with sensational skills”. As for him not being able to get out of the Vietnam era…were there parallels in Alexander that I’m not aware of (those that don’t apply to warfare in general)? And how do World Trade Center, Any Given Sunday, U-Turn reflect it?
    I’m a hell of a lot more interested in Stone’s next film than anything Zemeckis puts out, for better or worse.

  11. Joe Leydon says:

    I know David is a big advocate of second-run theaters, but I have to ask: When was the last time any of you guys actually saw a movie at a second-run house? Because I have to tell you: By the time a print of a movie gets to one of the two Houston second-run houses that I occasionally attend — well, it’s not a pretty picture. And you think first-run houses try to pinch pennies by dimming the projector bulbs, well…

  12. martin says:

    Laz, DP was referring to Zemeckis not Stone. And of course most would agree that Zemeckis has great cinematic skills – it’s just that he generally puts them to use on generic projects, with a couple of exceptions. I used to be excited about Stone’s next project, but not so much anymore.

  13. martin says:

    I’ll start going to 2nd run houses when digital projection has taken over. Watching a scratched up print with a shitty projection lamp is not my idea of a good time.

  14. Direwolf says:

    Thanks for responding directly, Joe. I think there is a happy medium between pure criticism of films as art and whether the average Joe will get his money worth. Most critics are good writers and could easily incorporate a few paragraphs in a sideline comment about the film from an average viewer’s perspective. In fact, my opinion of a critic would be enhanced where the two conflicted and it were easy to see why just from reading both comments.

  15. Direwolf says:

    Thanks for responding directly, Joe. I think there is a happy medium between pure criticism of films as art and whether the average Joe will get his money worth. Most critics are good writers and could easily incorporate a few paragraphs in a sideline comment about the film from an average viewer’s perspective. In fact, my opinion of a critic would be enhanced where the two conflicted and it were easy to see why just from reading both comments.

  16. Wrecktum says:

    “I’ll start going to 2nd run houses when digital projection has taken over. Watching a scratched up print with a shitty projection lamp is not my idea of a good time.”
    A print’s only as good as the house it runs in. If a theater or projectionist doesn’t care about quality, the film will suffer. If they do care, it won’t. Always, always, ALWAYS complain if a film is dirty or scratched.
    Digital requires brighter lamps than regular film, so don’t expect a dumpy second-run house to be running SMPTE brightness standards whether it’s celluloid or D-cinema.

  17. Cadavra says:

    One thing about BABEL that needs to be repeated is that it’s the latest example of what colossal horsecrap the “star system” is: if Brad Pitt is one of the biggest stars in the world (so they keep telling us), his fans should be flocking to see him in this. But they ain’t, just like they didn’t flock to see Cruise in MAGNOLIA or Hanks in LADYKILLERS or Roberts in FULL FRONTAL or Carrey in ETERNAL SUNSHINE or any other number of twenty-million-buck players when they do something more challenging than a dumbass comedy or a car-chase-and-explosions thriller. (Yes, I know they all work for peanuts in these pictures, but their salaries shouldn’t make a difference.)
    Not asking a question or offering an explanation; just needed to vent.

  18. martin says:

    Actually Sunshine made OK money, which I think can be highly attributable to Carrey. But people are not gonna see a movie JUST because of a star. They’re selling you a package, and a star can make that package more attractive. But if the content looks horrible or very arty people wont go for it.
    As for digital projection – even with dimmed bulbs, digital projection doesnt tend to get those awful film artifacts of bad projection, like flickering whites, etc. So my guess/hope would be that even the 2nd run digital proj houses have reasonable quality. But who knows, maybe they’ll be running out of date projectors with dead pixels and crap, so it will be the same old lackluster presentations.

  19. Clycking says:

    Wrong, Cadavra. The star system works, but it doesn’t work as brainlessly as you suppose it to. Firstly, not all movie celebrities are stars. The most prominent beneficiaries of the star system are Tom Cruise, Jim Carrey, Will Smith, and Captain Jack Sparrow (because Johnny Depp isn’t the draw). It’s all about a mixture of charisma, trust in the actor’s choices of project, and acting skills, in that order. (“Stars” like Nicole Kidman and Brad Pitt are nothing compared to them.)
    Secondly, with that trust comes a certain expectation that must be fulfilled. ETERNAL SUNSHINE didn’t do too well because it flouted the expection for a Jim Carrey movie: when audiences saw the trailer, they thought they were looking at a rubberface comedy in the likes of BRUCE ALMIGHTY, which set up heavy disappointment in viewing, regardless of the film’s actual quality. Incidentally, most people who don’t like the usual Jim Carrey seem to be the ones that loved ETERNAL SUNSHINE.

  20. How about a discussion about how film criticism really isn’t worth serious discussion because it is one of the most unnecessary professions in the modern world?
    Seriously.

  21. Wrecktum says:

    “As for digital projection – even with dimmed bulbs, digital projection doesnt tend to get those awful film artifacts of bad projection, like flickering whites, etc. So my guess/hope would be that even the 2nd run digital proj houses have reasonable quality. But who knows, maybe they’ll be running out of date projectors with dead pixels and crap, so it will be the same old lackluster presentations.”
    What you lose in strobing you gain in blurring. Six of one, half dozen of another. When it comes to perfect presentation, film is still better than digital. For now.
    You definitely will have to worry about dead pixels and crap, because there’s no way to expect shitty second run houses to keep up their equipment any better than they currently do.

  22. jeffmcm says:

    Hey Kris, the discussion you suggest would, in fact, be criticism.
    And aren’t you a film critic (more or less) yourself?

  23. T.Holly says:

    I’m not sure why it’s called “Bobby Baby emBraces Bs” on the home page, but I like the story, especially the lead in:
    “I’m not trying to do any populist pandering here. Really, check it out: at least eight of the titles on my top 10 movie list for 2006 are what ‘Good Morning, America’ or your skateboarding nephew or Richard Roeper would probably label too highbrow.”
    I’m sorry, why did Roger pick him??? Don’t bother, I know why, it just makes my blood boil.

  24. A decent point, Jeff. The first one.
    But no, I definitely don’t consider myself a film critic. I write about movies I like more often than the movies I don’t like. But my site is an awards-watching based venue. I don’t get paid to dissect the work of others. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a hankering to do so. But my livelihood it is not.

  25. David Poland says:

    The thing about second run is that it is a dying business now. Thirteen years ago, when I went to every single screen in the Chicago area and rated each one for projection, sound, cleanliness, etc, I was amazed at how nice many of the second run houses were. Back then, they could make a very nice living on Jurassic Park and Hot Shots: Part Deux all through the summer and into the fall. And many were family operated and the families took pride in the projection, the food, and the hospitality.
    If second run were to come back, studios and exhibitors would have to invest together in the concept.

  26. Eric says:

    Holy cow Tapley, if there’s any less essential profession than film criticism, it’s film industry award show prognostication.
    That’s not meant to be a personal shot, but yeah. Seriously.

  27. Joe Leydon says:

    Cadavera: Star power has never bee a guarantee of boffo b.o. Humphrey Bogart couldn’t draw folks to see “Beat the Devil” (which, in its time, was a flop). Clark Gable couldn’t draw audiences to “Parnell.” Cary Grant wasn’t able to convince people they should buy tickets to “None But the Loely Heart.” And so it goes…

  28. Joe Leydon says:

    Er, “None But the LONELY Heart”

  29. ben151 says:

    Really, I’d never call DP’s palate or palette simple. I’ve been thrilled to find myself reading someone who gave props to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, Little Children, and Dreamgirls. But it’s not a fair criticism of Pauline Kael to call her palate narrow (at least I think we’re talking palate, right?, unless we’re taking her writing voice to task.) And even though Armond White sometimes reads like crazy Dorothy Dean, he’s not very predictable, is he?

  30. Blackcloud says:

    I think I said something here before about the irrelevance of film criticism (it wasn’t that blunt), but I can’t remember where or when.
    Great column, Dave, nice to see you’re not taking it easy at the end of the year.
    Resurrecting second run would be great. But the shrinking theatrical windows makes that well nigh impossible, I’d reckon.

  31. Perhaps true, Eric. But, you know…in and out.

  32. Joe Leydon says:

    OK, a serious question (which is always dangerous to ask on this blog: I am still drawing up my Top Ten of 2006 list. And I’m wondering: OK, I guess I shouldn’t limit my choices to films that have opened theatrically here in Houston. I mean, I guess I’m supposed to include movies that opened only in NY and LA before year’s end. But why should I stop there? Seriously: What if a movie opened during 2006 in, say, South Korea? Or Canada? What if it was screened in international film festivals, but had its US debut on HBO? What if it screened at many film festivals throughout North America, but didn’t get released in theaters (and likely won’t)? Decisions, decisions…

  33. David Poland says:

    We just posted one from Ft Worth that actually notes which films had not been released in her market.

  34. Joe, for your publication you’d probably just write about what came out in Houston, but on places such as this it’s different. Most critics in Australia had films like Brokeback Mountain and The New World in their Top 10s because they came out here in 2006, but if I’m on places such as here I’m not going to discuss them as being the best of 2006 (which, to be pedantic, they are).
    Film criticism, and it’s been said before, started to go down when ever Tom, Dick and Harry on the internet started to be a reviewer. I discuss films on my blog but only occasionally do a full lenght review (and I have no delusions of being a good writer).
    A lot of readers just can’t read professional critics because they sound like pompous dicks. I’m always reminded of the film critic in All That Jazz and how Fosse plays her for laughs cause they are laughable a lot of the time.

  35. movielocke says:

    Kami, that’s a copout answer–the web is never entirely to blame, because people are fundamentally the same, critics and audiences. What the web has done is transformed the manner in which people represent themselves (myspace is one example) and, in some ways, it has democratized the elite qualities of authoritative voice. However, even with the web, people gravitate towards consensus and consensus leads to authority and you have people like Drudge arise to fill the vacuum. You sound (to me) as though you are expressing an abhorence of the ‘unwashed masses’, as you say “ever[y] Tom, Dick and Harry,” stepping outside their caste (or class).
    Much of the art world has and always has been about protecting elite sensibilities. In our modern era that means eschewing historical roots of narrative (epic, myth, archetype, cultural ideals, fantasy etc) which often entails claims that speculative fiction needs to remain in the ‘B movie ghetto’ where it belongs, that its very genre prevents it from serious, equal consideration with dour war movies and dramas about adultury. Those are the sorts of subjects real art should investigate–saying particular and mindlessly relevant direct commentary on something as minor as today’s world. Right?
    Unfortunately, when it comes to narrative, and particularly a communal form of narrative, ‘direct commentary on today’s world’ is not at all what people are interested in. They’re interested in more abstract concepts such as heroism and sacrifice (which are relevant to today’s world but don’t pound you quite so obviously with their point like artistic movies do). That’s why Michael Bay movies are often a success, they tap into archetypes and cultural ideals, creating good, relatable heroes. No matter how bad or nonsensical the script is, audiences respond to the underlying cultural aspects of the characters and narrative–and if setpiecesget the blood pumping and adrenaline flowing, it makes it an even better experience for the audience as a whole. A critic is trying to be objective at all times and sets themselves outside of the experience… and I think that’s where the disconnect between audience and critic comes from. The audiences experience a movie, critics often only see it.
    😀
    I loved most of Dave’s column, the concept of Cinematic Correctness is one that should be faced–the literary world stopped facing it years ago and the artistic output now has the equivalent of an ‘inbred’ reputation in my mind.
    And I saw Marie Antoinette today at a second run theatre, good bulb, good projection, print had one glitch and one shot that was a little bit yellow. Sound was only stereo, but that’s because it’s an older multiplex and only a couple of the theatres were wired for surround sound back when it was first run before the new megaplex opened. for a buck fifty it was almost worth two hours. The print was still quite good.
    Honestly everything looks good when you’ve seen Sergeant York or Treasure of the Sierra Madre in beat to hell, scratched up prints that break three times in projection because they’re so worn out. And you know what? it still doesn’t really matter because a good film will still transport you and it’s a hell of a lot better than a muddy VHS or DVD handicapped by 400 lines of resolution.

  36. EDouglas says:

    Just got around to reading the whole piece and I concur that it’s one of your better editorials. Very interesting stuff, and had no idea that part of this came out of my question re: Children of Men being “fresh/rotten” on RT.. No idea that it required such a complicated answer :)

  37. Cadavra says:

    Joe sez: “Star power has never bee a guarantee of boffo b.o. Humphrey Bogart couldn’t draw folks to see “Beat the Devil” (which, in its time, was a flop). Clark Gable couldn’t draw audiences to “Parnell.” Cary Grant wasn’t able to convince people they should buy tickets to “None But the Loely Heart.” And so it goes…”
    True, but in the good old days, when stars were cranking out three or four films a year, there was a uniformity to the product, and it was expected that some would do better than others. My point is that if someone really, really loves a star, they should at least be mildly curious about anything they do, regardless of whether it fits into a certain commercial mold. There is a HUGE gap in the difference in grosses between PIRATES and THE LIBERTINE and, say, PARNELL and BOOM TOWN.

  38. jeffmcm says:

    ^^^The other difference is marketing; today, the vast bulk of people who say they’re “Johnny Depp fans” probably never even heard of The Libertine, let alone had it play somewhere near them.

The Hot Blog

Quote Unquotesee all »

“Well, actually, of that whole group that I call the post-60s anti-authority auteurs, a lot of them came from television. Peckinpah’s the only one whose television work represents his feature work. I mean, like the only one. Mark Rydell can direct a really good episode of ‘Gunsmoke’ and Michael Ritchie can direct a really good episode of ‘The Big Valley,’ but they don’t necessarily look like The Candidate. But Peckinpah’s stuff, even the scripts he wrote that he didn’t even direct, have a Peckinpah feel – the way I think there’s a Corbucci West – suggest a Peckinpah West. That even in his random episodes that he wrote for ‘Gunsmoke’ – it’s right there.”
~ Quentin Tarantino

“The thought is interrupted by an odd interlude. We are speaking in the side room of Casita, a swish and fairly busy Italian bistro in Aoyama – a district of Tokyo usually so replete with celebrities that they spark minimal fuss. Kojima’s fame, however, exceeds normal limits and adoring staff have worked out who their guest is. He stops mid-sentence and points up towards the speakers, delighted. The soft jazz that had been playing discreetly across the restaurant’s dark, hardwood interior has suddenly been replaced with the theme music from some of Kojima’s hit games. Harry Gregson-Williams’ music is sublime in its context but ‘Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots’ is not, Kojima acknowledges, terribly restauranty. He pauses, adjusting a pair of large, blue-framed glasses of his own design, and returns to the way in which games have not only influenced films, but have also changed the way in which people watch them. “There are stories being told [in cinema] that my generation may find surprising but which the gamer generation doesn’t find weird at all,” he says.
~ Hideo Kojima