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Critics Faves: Arty or Artful?

by Anne Thompson
August 31, 2009 8:58 AM
12 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood

In the fall season, as hundreds of movies are launched and weighed at film festivals, critics come into their own. They don't hold much sway with audiences in the summer. But in the fall, suddenly, what they think does matter.

Going into Telluride and Toronto, I am reminded that I am a strange hybrid. While I know far too much about movies and studied film at NYU, I never adopted the mantle of film critic. (I married David Chute instead.) I've worked at film mags and written about film my entire career, but always from the perspective of an industry insider. The blog encourages opinion and analysis, but I tend to keep my reviews short, as blogs demand. And while I like smart-house movies, I tend to be less highbrow than most critics, and more in tune with popular taste. My single father raised me on westerns, war movies and James Bond; I love epics and action as well as intimate relationship films. Like Roger Ebert, I want to like movies. And one of my missions for this blog is to rail in support of what makes movies better, and against what makes them worse.

My pet peeve since college is obscurantism. Just as I resist semioticians who make their arguments as difficult to parse as possible, I balk at movies that leave me out and fail to satisfy. I prefer filmmakers who seek to reach an audience and pull them into their movie, who don't stare at their own navel. Quentin Tarantino, for one, knows exactly who his fans are. While his films are as intellectual, referential and narratively unconventional as the next Cannes Palme d'Or competitor, they are utterly accessible. (His surprising Inglourious Basterds box office proves that point.)

When Film Comment's Amy Taubin and the NYT's Manohla Dargis praised Richard Kelly's Southland Tales at Cannes a few years back, my jaw dropped. Did they see the same meandering, meaningless mess that I did? After John Huston's head-scratcher Beat the Devil, Humphrey Bogart said, "Only the phonies think it's funny. It's a mess."

At Cannes this year, I was taken aback when Taubin, a critic I have respected since I first started reading her in the early 80s, told me she was angry at me for using the word "artsy" in a blog post on Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control. I actually used the word "arty" to describe his music and visuals, and later went on to describe the film itself as "maddeningly indulgent" and a "travelogue." (In a comment, Glenn Kenny, who loves the film, also objected to the word "arty," preferring "artful.")

Thompson on Hollywood

What does it mean to call a film arty? Is it a negative? For me it simply implies a narrow, sophisticated audience. Most critics seem to agree with me on The Limits of Control, which earned a 44% ranking on Metacritic. Is there much to admire in the film? Sure. But Jarmusch doesn't seem to care if he leaves most audiences scratching their heads and asking, "Say what?"

On the other hand, I'm not talking about pandering to audience tastes or talking down. I utterly support filmmakers who enlighten and enrich audiences by showing them something they haven't seen before. While I had some problems with Tetro, Francis Ford Coppola has earned the right to tell a personal story in whatever way he likes, especially if he is spending his own money. Check out this UCLA interview about Tetro:

Q: But when you're writing something like this, is there anxiety about making it too indulgent in terms of what you want to show an audience?

A: What does that mean? Is self-indulgent different from heartfelt? Maybe self-indulgent is when you're imposing on the audience. Like, if I’m cooking you dinner and I gave you lots of stuff I knew you don't like, because I like it. But maybe even that can be good, in a way. I know that if I invite 30 people to lunch, a lot of them would probably prefer that I just order in Kentucky Fried Chicken. Instead, I'm going to try to make some real interesting regional dishes that you've never tried before.

I don't mind if a brilliant intellectual movie lacks wide audience appeal. I've never understood why Scott McGehee and David Siegel's films, for example, don't play better. I can throw down my own list of obscure favorites with the best of them (I do, at The Auteurs.com). But I also defend the likes of Tarantino, Joel and Ethan Coen, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, and John Lasseter. While they don't always pull it off, they know what it means to merge art and commerce, vision and accessibility, challenge and entertainment. What they do is really, really hard. And it's often artful--not arty.


12 Comments

  • Bob Bill Huskiwell | September 2, 2009 10:03 AMReply

    Only in America can such STUPID none-debates be peddled to me as an actual "discussion." Boring as hell. You are the self-indulgent one. Jarmusch is a fool, but that's because he's untalented, not that he's "too artistic." Typical...NYU produces all sorts of crazy, sad people like you. If a film is bad, it's bad. Surely there are many reasons beyond "willfull obscurantism."

    And Ryan...Mamet is a fool too!

  • Anne Thompson | September 2, 2009 4:59 AMReply

    Gavin, I remembered a conversation we had about Southland Tales at Cannes at the time. And Film Comment published several pieces favorable to the film by Taubin and Mark Olsen. I am sorry if I misrepresented your view of the film.

    I was shocked when Amy Taubin attacked me, in front of another critic, I might add. Our conversation has stayed with me. What made her so spitting mad? My use of the word arty was intended to mean, "aimed at a narrow, sophisticated audience."

    I'm the last person to promote anti-intellectualism. I do decry pretentiousness, vacuousness, and purposeful obscurantism. And I am well aware of the difference between arty and artful.

  • DChute | September 2, 2009 4:43 AMReply

    They truth is, Ryan, The Cool Kids were always the most frightened and self-conscious of us, the most insecure, the most compulsive about striking the correct pose. And they still are.

  • Gavin Smith | September 2, 2009 4:20 AMReply

    Anne, it's not enough that you put a line through my name - that simply makes things more ambiguous or conditional. Remove all trace of the reference to me asap please, okay? Thanks, have a GREAT night.

  • Gavin Smith | September 2, 2009 3:38 AMReply

    Anne, where exactly did you see me praise Southland Tales? Because as a matter of fact I didn't care for it. I didn't think it was very funny and I thought it was a mess, albeit interesting and ambitious. If you'd bothered to check the Cannes Critic's Choice for Jul/Aug 2006 issue (p. 63) you'd see I gave it a two-star "of interest" rating - in my view the film is "of interest" even if it was a failure. Of interest, that is, to the kind of people who read Film Comment. Except you apparently - if you actually read us anymore. Still, you can't have failed to notice that we didn't put it on our cover or do a big feature on it, although we did publish Amy's favorable review. So please retract/correct your statement that I "praised" the film asap - thanks!
    If I may add: It saddens me to see you descending to critic-baiting and promoting anti-intellectualism. I thought you knew better, even if, as you say, you don't consider yourself a critic--you'll get no argument from me on that point. I grew up on war movies and James Bond films and went to film school too - so what? We proudly put The Limits of Control smack in between our Tom Hanks and Inglourious Basterds covers. As you know very well, Film Comment has a tradition of appreciating the entire continuum of cinema, from mainstream pop-culture movies (this time last year we had WALL*E on our cover) to the kind of avant-garde cinema that you would doubtless label "obscurantist."
    Now, to describe a film as obscurantist is to suggest that a filmmaker consciously makes their work "deliberately vague and abstruse" (per Websters), i.e. inaccessible to all but a minority. It also implies that you know what motivates those filmmakers as artists - which is of course impossible and presumptuous. In my experience, most good filmmakers make their films the way they do because it's the only way they know how to, not out of caprice or calculation. They hope for the best and if they're lucky will connect with open-minded and open-hearted viewers - among whom I'm sure you number yourself.
    And sorry to be pedantic, but in my book, and Webster's, "arty" is a putdown while artful is neutrally descriptive. (Webster's: "arty" = "showily or pretentiously artistic"; "artful" = "performed with or showing art and skill.") To paraphrase Reagan, words are stupid things aren't they? But since you don't consider yourself a critic I wouldn't worry too much about precise usage.

  • Larry Gross | September 1, 2009 8:30 AMReply

    Just for the record Anne:
    Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman opens this friday in La and I will be surprised if it isn't about the best film that will be released all year. It will probably be seen by six people since STRAND has no bucks to release it. It's a difficult film, albeit made with consummate art, the difficulty is intrinsic to what it means. Amy Taubin's piece in it on the July-August Film Comment and on line is definitive and brilliant

  • Use it or Lose it | September 1, 2009 7:28 AMReply

    I agree with the person (above) who said they would like you to use your film school and "insider" background to go deeper into the production aspects of filmmaking. Too often critics who don't know any better, who don't investigate or do research to back up their reviews, or who haven't gone to film school nor worked on a movie, give all the credit to a film's director. While that's an important job, oft times that person is also just a "gun for hire" and is always just one among many collaborators, including screenwriters, film editors, cinematographers, production designers, visual effects artists, animators, composers, sound recordists, costume, casting, makeup, etc. It takes an army to make a movie. It has never been a "one man" job. For some reason though, after the "auteur theory" which was established to explain Hitchcock and Hitcock alone, every director is spoken about as if they are the ony ones who made a film. It borders on ridiculous!

  • Joe Valdez | September 1, 2009 6:57 AMReply

    A couple of concise paragraphs about what went on behind the scenes of a film makes me a much more informed moviegoer than enduring 30 artful paragraphs on what the subtext of that film was, per some academic.

    The story of how the movie was made provides a context for what it's trying to say. This is why your blog is one of three I check in on daily, Anne. And when people start questioning your suffixes, you must be hitting a nerve.

  • Brian | September 1, 2009 5:11 AMReply

    "The only thing the audience cares about is 'What happens next?'"

    This happens to be true, but it bothers me more and more as I get older and care less and less about WHAT happens than the WAY it happens or the WHY it happens. I like exploration rather than plot points. I like it when films capture the experience of a character rather than a succession of twists and turns. So many of the great movies, when you stop and examine them, are about the WAY things happen and how characters react and how they bond with other characters. Think: GRAND ILLUSION, CITIZEN KANE, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, THE AFRICAN QUEEN, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, RIO BRAVO, etc. None of those are particularly plot-driven. THE BIG SLEEP depends more on the way the characters relate than on any actual "clues" or "solutions" to the various crimes. It's the way Bogart moves and the way he talks to everybody else that is the stuff of that picture.

    I see this a lot with anime fans. They're more concerned with how a TV series ENDS, than with the style of artwork, the brilliance of design, or the experiences of the characters and the emotional honesty portrayed. NEON GENESIS EVANGELION is a masterpiece about adolescence, couched in a future apocalypse/giant robot/alien combat sci-fi story. The famous ending of that series when it played in Japan came completely out of left field and is one of the most avant-garde works of commercial animation ever made, yet it outraged fans there and, eventually, in the U.S., to the point where the director had to go back and make a new narrative-driven movie out of it to give the series a "proper" ending. I like the original ending just fine. But I don't know how many times I've tried to discuss style and artistic strategies with fans and get an "I only care about the story" response.

    This is what schools are for, to teach kids that it isn't only just the story.

  • Glenn Kenny | September 1, 2009 4:04 AMReply

    And as it happens, H.B. notwithstanding, "Beat the Devil" is a helluva lot better than "Southland Tales..."

  • Ryan Sartor | August 31, 2009 12:56 PMReply

    This is a great post, Anne. I've always been really conflicted about my feelings regarding mainstream vs. artful films. I think what it ultimately comes down to is that even as an adult, I'm still struggling with the same desire to be one of the cool kids.

    In elementary school, I recall that every few months there would be a new fad. (pogs, tamagotchi, pokemon, etc.) And if each student didn't have the latest item they were frowned upon. I think the same thing applies to the art world, and particularly film.

    At a certain point, one can either decide to sit down and watch the Michael Haneke box set or go see (500) Days of Summer. And while I love Michael Haneke films, and didn't really love (500) Days of Summer, I also understand that people are bad, and would rather watch people be pleasant towards one another in an interesting way.

    David Mamet's book "On Directing Film," for me, really hit it on the head. Since Aristotle, he argues, people have attempted to use the dramatic form for personal expression, to shock people, for anything that is not the simple act of telling a story. What is a story? Mamet writes, "A good writer gets better only by learning to cut the ornamental, the narrative, and especially the deeply felt and meaningful. What remains? The story remains. What is the story? The story is the essential progression of events that occur to our hero in pursuit of his one goal."

    Mamet goes on to argue that a filmmaker has to get into the scene early and get out early because the only thing the audience cares about is "What happens next?"

    I think people often think of films as either studio or independent. It should come down to telling a story as succinctly as possible. In the debate between making money or winning over critics, I think a perfect film might just do neither.

  • Craig Kennedy | August 31, 2009 11:42 AMReply

    I hate to open with a negative because I agree with 90% of what you've said here, but how is what Jarmusch did any more indulgent than what Coppola did other than that you liked Tetro more? Jarmusch wasn't spending his own money, but he wasn't spending much money in the first place and it was freely and knowingly given.

    It's probably obvious I loved Limits of Control. There are a select few filmmakers that I just want to surrender to and see where I end up. Jarmusch is one of those. David Lynch is another.

    Anyway, you might not consider yourself a true critic (whatever that means anymore), but I like your sensibility and the fact you seem to approach movies from a positive place. I wish you'd use the freedom you have in this format to get into movies a little deeper.

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