By David Poland firstname.lastname@example.org
On Film Criticism… On Sarris’ Passing
I will let others more qualified than I reflect on the work and life of Andrew Sarris. Suffice it to say, he was my favorite working critic, while he was working, in my post-college life. His work drove me crazy while I was at NYU in the 80s, but he seemed to be less concerned with defining film in his later work and more of a normal film lover, albeit loaded to the gills with historic perspective.
But the passing of Sarris – like Sarris being let go by the NY Observer a few years back – causes me to wonder about where we are in film criticism. Arguably the only name power in film criticism left is Roger Ebert, a thoughtful, earnest writer who loves movies and got his Pulitzer for film criticism before they started handing them out by rote, but also of a certain age, physically vulnerable, and while louder and brasher than ever in some ways, literally silent.
I applaud both Dargis & Scott, but it’s been over 30 years since any critic employed by the NY Times has risen beyond the shadow of the paper’s majesty. And I don’t know that either of those two want to do so. I think they have the great luxury, in this time of cutbacks, to just do their jobs… to be pure critics… to stay above the fray (playing verbal ping pong with David Carr in an exercise that plays to both of their weaknesses not their extreme strengths aside).
The trades are only relevant these days when Todd McCarthy brings his personal weight to something. This is not a rip of (all) the trade critics, but they work for outlets that define status and neither trade has any serious status anymore. The only power they have left is being “first” when they can con some studio into letting them print first. And indeed, the inability to build a relationship with a single, central critic at the trades makes them unreliable to readers. Eric Kohn may be ass backwards most of the time, but at least indiewire is trying with the right idea.
The LA Times is worthless, critically. One critic’s ship has sailed and the other’s hasn’t landed. The Tribune Company has raped the rest of their line-up and while I like Michael Phillips (in Chicago) and think he is a smart guy… non-entity in the big picture. Roeper is the airline magazine of criticism.
Time and Newsweek are the heads on the spikes in front of the media castle, warning others what could happen to them. Slate was never much critically and is now worse. And Salon, which used to be fun, is not fun anymore.
Love Joe Morgenstern, but does anyone outside of core readership really care about criticism at the Wall Street Journal (or The Boston Globe, btw)? USA Today remains USA Today and EW remains a marketing outlet… which they do with style and aplomb.
Am I missing anyone? Do they do criticism on any of the morning shows anymore? Do I have to pretend that the Kevin Smith show has anything at all to do with film criticism? (I LOVE watching Kevin Smith talk… but watching him nod and make faces and say, “Yeah, man, I agree!” is just f-ing pathetic. He is smarter than the mob and always has been… about everything but himself.)
So my point… yes, I have one… is…
How many critics are there left on the planet whose argument over a movie you think would be interesting to hear or read? Can there ever be a Kael vs Sarris again… not because there aren’t plenty of people who love to argue, but because few are as able to focus their beliefs in a way that is really worth fighting about?
Sarris and Kael… just two people who seem to have sincere, passionate believes and the ability to have the fight in public without it becoming too self-reflexive.
Why can’t anyone recreate Siskel & Ebert? 1. Because they were never meant for TV, so no new program wants two modestly attractive, smart white guys, 2. They weren’t defining themselves by their television personas (at least not in the early years), and 3. They had genuine, defined beliefs about movies from the start and were neither pandering to other critics or the studios or filmmakers or trying to make a name for themselves by crushing easy targets.
They were a “eureka” moment… whatever you think of the role the show had in the history of criticism. Honest yin and yang.
These days, every f-ing tweet seems like an exercise in posturing for most of the critics on the web. Jockeying for position… trying to get a job… trying to keep a job. And yes, some do come by their passion and/or rage honestly. Absolutely. Some even come by batshit crazy honestly.
But the discourse always seems to come down to likes and dislikes and not a lot more than that. Or there is something more serious going on, but it gets overwhelmed by the posturing.
And of course, Kael & Sarris & Ebert & Siskel were full of quirks and personal kinks. We all are. But the idea they were arguing became clear. Their Ideal.
I don’t know that I have said this publicly, but the failure of the combination on the last Ebert show was that – however true or untrue in fact – Ignaty never said to Christy, “You sound like a provincial burnt out housewife whose critical thinking is as limited as the outlet you work for” and Christy never said, “You sound like an overpraised child who has watched too many damned Criterion Collection movies and has lost, at your tender age, the ability to appreciate what normal adult Americans love about the movies.”
Or something like that.
Again, not saying that either comment would be fair or accurate. But those are, kinda, the two sides those two people are playing for. And they were never very well defined by one another. And that is the difference between good television and boring television. (AO Scott and Michael Phillips suffered the later… two smart guys who had slightly different perspectives and… who gives a fuck?)
People have wanted me and Jeff Wells to get into it on some form of media. And I have always refused the notion, primarily because I know his weak spots and would crush Jeff in an intense argument, not necessarily rhetorically, but personally. I would find it hard not to stick in the knife. No matter how severe his opinions, I would look like a mean, cruel person. And I would be, for a moment, a mean, cruel person. I don’t want to be that… even if it paid well for a season before everyone moved on to some show featuring some critic who was in a sex tape.
But i digress…
It seems like there are a lot of people out there with a lot of smart things to say… and as we all do, sometimes think dumb things. But aside from “I hate 3D” or “I hate digital” or whatever, is there philosophy left? Are there great arguments left?
Actually that’s wrong. I know there are arguments to be made. But do we have the right people to make the most of the arguments?
It’s not just the movies. Can you imagine an argument as real and demanding as Mailer vs Vidal or Mailer vs Women right now? There are more people fighting than ever… and less real impact. Fox News lies. Jon Stewart counters with comedy. But there is so little really good, juicy, smart, head-turning fighting. I want 30 minutes with Stewart and O’Reilly across from one another every single week, so they can stop being cordial and get down to it. Or Rachel Maddow and Hannity. No hiding behind one host in control and pre-programmed arguments. Let’s call bullshit in real time.
I love Tony Scott, but I want to see David Carr do a weekly videocast with Mark Cuban, who will push back with authority and will be wrong too, which we would know because Carr could fight that fight. Likewise, I’d be interested in Tony vs Manohla (not that she’d ever engage on camera) or Tony vs Armond or Tony vs Glenn Kenny or Glen Kenny vs Dan Kois. If they are going to tussle, I want to see a good, fairly even heavyweight match with one power fighter and one finesse fighter who are all about the fight, not about the endorsement deals.
And though I mention all well-known figures, I am sick to death of The Pulpit Of Big Media. Richard Brody is an interesting, intelligent guy… but being at The New Yorker as a critic does NOT make you right. Not close. Almost insistently the opposite much of the time. (Denby being the “regular” guy on the team.) And being a feature reporter at the NYT makes you about as much as an critical authority to me as it does to your significant other. Etc, etc, etc.
I know I am opening myself to a cascade of the same old whine about me… that I am all about me. But I am as guilty as anyone of arguing about the char, not the meat. And though people seem to misunderstand this, arguing a side of an argument with passion and vigor does not mean that you have, necessarily, lost perspective on the fact that there may well not be a “right” position. People must be allowed to disagree at a level higher than “fuck you” or polite nodding… but still understand that there is rarely a Truth. For me, engaging someone in an argument is a show of respect. I would be so much easier just to ignore those I disagree with. But then, I would be a Tea Partier.
Film deserves better fighting.
Fighting deserves better film.
The first rule of Fight Club isn’t that you don’t talk about Fight Club because it’s a secret. It’s because Fight Club is about acting, not intellectualizing action.
The second rule… that’s probably about the secrecy.
You tell me.