In Friday’s “Read On” column, Matt linked to Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty’s much-talked-about column about whether 2013 was really as great a year for movies as many critics seem to believe. McNulty used this year’s overrated (in his opinion) Oscar-nominees as examples of how critics in the social media age feed off each other and inflate expectations for films that can’t bear them. Understandably, our readers took issue with McNulty’s reasoning. The whole thread is worth reading, but here are a few highlights:
Adam Bernstein: Who judges a year’s quality by its best picture nominees? There are hardly any years where I’d want to watch more than one best picture nominee again. Heck, 1999 might be the best year for cinema in the last two decades, but you wouldn't know it by the nominees that year (The Green Mile, The Cider House Rules, et cetera). 2013 was a great year primarily because of the depth of great work, not because of which movies were nominated for best picture. Did McNulty see Wadjda, The Selfish Giant, The Past, The Great Beauty, The Hunt, The Spectacular Now, Drinking Buddies, The World’s End, Laurence Anyways, A Touch Of Sin, In The House, The Act Of Killing, Stories We Tell, 20 Feet From Stardom, All Is Lost, Gimme The Loot, Frances Ha, Short Term 12, Inside Llewyn Davis, Upstream Color, and on and on (and on)? Then again, he only has “qualified praise” for Her, so maybe he just has bad taste?
Roger’s Aching Ticker: McNulty isn’t looking for seriousness. He found groupthink and contrarian trolling because that’s what he went looking for. For example, he thinks “slow criticism” is dead online, “banished to the quarterly fringe.” Meanwhile The Dissolve’s featured article today is criticism of a four-month-old movie—and such long-tail discussions are the online norm everywhere except for outlets that used to be newspapers or magazines. The big problem with pieces like this isn’t that I disagree with the the contrarian critic on the movies. It’s that the contrarian critic always feels the need to insist that his fellow critics don't simply disagree with him as to the quality of the movies—there must be some nefarious intent behind it. They’re all sell-outs for the industry! They’ve been brainwashed by the unwashed masses! Twitter trolls have drowned out all dissenting voices! The critical establishment has been taken over by weak-willed bloggers who were never trained in the arts of criticism! And that makes sense, because honestly, who could disagree with McNulty (or Armond White, who frequently deploys the exact same attacks) unless they were hopelessly corrupt, dishonest, unqualified, brainwashed, or cowardly? More innocent explanations—maybe the last few years of cinema have been really bad, and film critics as a group are overreacting to a slightly better crop of films?—never get consideration. Those explanations wouldn’t offer the contrarian the opportunity to tell all those Twitter-Bloggers with their groupthink and their Rotten Tomatoes to get off his lawn, which is the real purpose of the essay.
Mike Mariano: McNulty is definitely offering shallow summaries of the nominees while kvetching that he can't find any deep criticism. And it didn’t take me much effort to find the Gravity criticism that eludes him, but I wonder if I could have found it if my starting point was Rotten Tomato scores and pithy tweets. It’s a hysterical freakout of an article, but I'm really sympathetic to it. He’s a little kid in the grocery store asking, “But why is 12 Years A Slave good?” And since Rotten Tomatoes is a lousy parent, the only answer he gets is, “Because I said so.”
I agree with Mike that there’s more to McNulty’s article than just a curt dismissal of the Oscar nominees. McNulty has some legitimate concerns, not just about the “echo chamber” aspect of social media, but about the tendency of people who write about movies (or television, or any other form of modern entertainment) to inflate the significance of the subject at hand, in the interest of making themselves seem more essential to the culture. It’s something I’m guilty of more often than I’d like to admit. While trying to cut to the heart of why I’m writing about a movie, I decide that it’s because the movie really matters, maybe more than it actually does.
But as Mike also points out (and Roger’s Aching Ticker to boot), it’s not that hard to find “takedown” pieces on the Internet, actively working to serve as a corrective to hype. It’s also not that hard to find beautifully written, persuasive criticism that puts those “overrated” Oscar-nominated movies into context. That’s what bothered me most about this piece, and about the countless, “Why do people think [insert title of movie] is awesome?” columns and comment-board posts that have preceded it over the past decade or so. These shruggers rarely engage with the actual reviews, or try to counter any particular points therein. It’s all “critics say,” as though critics were a faceless mob, and not individual writers with individual insights, who spend an inordinate amount of time bickering with each other—often eloquently—about the very things that McNulty believes aren’t addressed with any seriousness any more.
Like Adam, I was also disappointed by how McNulty was drawing his lines: sticking with award-winners and list-toppers rather than taking a wider view. Then again, if McNulty had watched all the films on Adam’s list, I don’t know that he would’ve changed his mind, because he clearly has a standard of “great” that demands immediate, incontrovertible, obvious masterpieces, not an impressive assemblage of well-made, personal films. Maybe that’s a failing of critics and cineastes: Because we see so many movies, we’re overly attuned to a general uptick in the “good,” and we enthuse accordingly. But what are we supposed to do? Give out only 5-star reviews and 0-star reviews, and only get excited about perfection?
This relates to another “uncomfortable truth” column that’s been making the rounds over the past several days, by Beanie Barnes at Salon, arguing that the glut of independent films—fueled by the festival circuit and VOD—makes it harder for movies to stand out, and harder for the people who work on these movies to get paid what they deserve. Again, as with McNulty, Barnes isn’t entirely wrong. Just look at what’s coming out on DVD and Blu-ray in an average week and you’ll see dozens of horror films, romantic comedies, faith-based melodramas, and low-budget cartoons that seem to exist only to fill out a Redbox. But also as with McNulty’s column, Barnes seems to be defining a problem that doesn’t have a solution, because it’s not really a “problem.” As I understand it, a lot more people are getting to make movies these days, and then those movies are being seen by critics who are finding something worthwhile in many of them. And this is… bad?
Overhype is an issue, yes. And it’s also true that if everyone gets a gold star, it’s harder to single out the truly worthy. Also, let’s face it: It’s easier to decide that the vast majority of work being produced in any artform today isn’t worth the bother, and that the canonizers are getting it wrong. Who among us hasn’t dragged our feet on catching up with the latest must-see TV series, and then been relieved when the inevitable backlash pieces start popping up? (“See, it turns out I was right to not start watching Homeland.”) Who hasn’t demonized solidly entertaining films like Argo and American Hustle just because they’re winning prizes?
But it’d be even more detrimental to the artform to be stingy with encouragement, and to limit “essential viewing” only to a very small handful of impeccably tasteful art-films each year. That capriciously puts a limit the number of worthy voices that get heard. Rather than holding up social media as a factor in the decline of useful criticism, I’d rather see it as a mirror to this explosion in distinctive independent filmmaking. When I scroll through my Twitter feed each day, I’m exposed to the lives, jokes, tastes, and opinions of hundreds of people, from all over the world. Lately, when I go to a festival or get a package of DVDs in the mail, I’m encountering the same. And that, I have to say, is great.
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