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Now and Then: With Recent Controversies, Maybe Critics Matter?

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! December 5, 2011 at 11:22AM

Something changed this week. As the days passed, each became part of a snowballing narrative about critics that seemed to me to portend a future less than bright. The New York Critics pandered to the Oscar horse race and ended up muffing the whole deal, losing their one chance a year to go out on a limb. AT’s criticism of the latest incarnation of “At the Movies” ignited the usual mixed bag of fury. And now David Denby’s gone and broken Sony’s review embargo on “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”
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Rooney Mara stars as Lisbeth Salander in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"
Rooney Mara stars as Lisbeth Salander in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"

Something changed this week. As the days passed, each became part of a snowballing narrative about critics that seemed to me to portend a future less than bright. The New York Critics pandered to the Oscar horse race and ended up muffing the whole deal, losing their one chance a year to go out on a limb. AT’s criticism of the latest incarnation of “At the Movies” ignited the usual mixed bag of fury. And now David Denby’s gone and broken Sony’s review embargo on “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”

Moving its voting date forward as though it were a GOP primary, the NYFCC ended up playing the fool. Not only did it have to compete with the Spirit Awards noms; it also, by choosing “The Artist,” Meryl Streep, and Brad Pitt as winners of the three marquee awards, ceded the field of actual thought about movies as art to… the Gothams? As it turns out, yes. The Gothams awarded best feature to two films, the year’s most genuinely heartfelt (“Beginners”) and the year’s most genuinely audacious (“The Tree of Life”). The NYFCC just copied a page out of the Academy playbook.

This doesn’t speak very well for what critics can and should do, which is ignore awards season fever as much as humanly possible and spend the end of the year debating about and advocating for the films that really deserve it. “Weekend” will be on my top ten list, probably very high up, because it is a work of accomplished technique and authentic emotion — not because I want to place it in the Oscar dialogue. To think otherwise only supports the view, in Hollywood and elsewhere, that monkeys could do this, that every fanboy and fangirl should have a column, and that opening-weekend box office replaces critical consensus as the prime measure of a movie’s quality.

The “At the Movies” discussion reflected a tendency to read past the point of the post as a whole. AT argued that “At the Movies” has tried every which way to recreate itself since Ebert left, that none of these have been successful, and that he should not waste time with it any longer. Along the way, she phrased her criticism of the current hosts, Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, in perhaps an unnecessarily personal way: the former a “perky eager-to-please blonde” and the latter a “smug gap-toothed upstart.”

If I disagree with the way she put it, I take AT’s point wholeheartedly. Vishnevetsky’s style — note, in this review of “The Tree of Life,” the erudite riffing and densely allusive approach — doesn’t translate to charisma onscreen. Instead, it seems like he’s browbeating Lemire, who may be agreeing with him just to get him to stop. It doesn’t play, not because either is (as far as I know) a bad person or bad critic, but because they seem to lack intellectual chemistry.

The general air of vitriol in the blogosphere is tiresome: too often, posts and comments fired off without close reading, fixating on the sound bite rather than the thesis. My own experience of this includes being called a racist for not tagging Viola Davis in a review of “The Help,” when I spent the last two paragraphs claiming that her performance makes the film. When film critics, buffs, and readers talk past one another like this, all we do is provide fodder for those who think we’re spoiled brats who, rather than critics, are just self-important people with an opinion about movies.

As for Denby, his move played as arrogant, unnecessary, but in the end not all that egregious. It’s not like he gave away the ending! The scary thought that came to mind had nothing to do with what I think he wrote (haven’t read it yet, subscribers only) and everything to do with whether it matters. “Tattoo,” like other tentpole franchises, has a built-in market of fans for this very reason — it’s risk protected. And the rest of the critics? I think we’d best stick to our strong suit, which is to argue over which movies matter and why, to tell everyone we know to see “Weekend.” I’m okay to leave it at that.

This article is related to: Critics, Critics Groups, Now and Then, Awards, David Fincher


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