by Raju Peddada
"Well, I certainly did not think that I could do worse."
(Swans - March 9, 2009) Most of us are critics in life, but cannot take criticism at any level -- we become defensive. It seems to leave a dour and sour taste in our contemporary American culture with typical reactions like "Oh, don't be so critical." Let us examine the morphology of criticism. Critic is derived from the Greek word Krino, which means "to judge." It is a noun that emanates from the verb Krites, which refers to a person who makes judgments. Judge is another word that engenders a certain amount of resistance and resentment like "who are you to judge?" or "I don't want to be judgmental, but..." Since the ancient times, a judge, a critic, or a reviewer could be anyone who is an arbitrator, a historian, an interpreter, or an aesthetic umpire who got lobbied by the creators of arts, quite fervidly and frequently for approbation. It is no different today. Critic is a term that today carries a societal-cultural panache and pedigree, hence the ubiquity; particularly, in the relatively new sphere of filmmaking. Here, I want to discuss the present "kitschy" state of film reviewing in our contemporary culture.
"Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn!" exactly echoes my sentiments when it comes to all the narcissistically deluded reviewers as well as filmmakers out there. One particular pair, Siskel & Ebert, burst on the scene in the eighties with populist movie reviews for the average escapist. They never really criticized any movie, and almost always gave their clichéd "thumbs up" to most movies, a gesture of up or down, that evolved over two millennia ago in the Roman culture. This first couple of "criticism" was wet-wired into the Hollywood crowd to objectively pass any creative assessment on their products. They, with their oeuvre, never really raised the bar for us, as any critic is obligated to do in that influential and pedagogical position. I certainly do not want my critic to be wired into the celebrity culture of the Hollywood establishment. I also loath any critic standing on the red carpet hobnobbing with people he is supposed to be critiquing. This is a huge conflict of interest. A critic we all can depend on is someone who remains independent and represents our, the moviegoers', interest; like an independent auditor who is incorruptible, one who offers an honest assessment about the film and doesn't pander to the advertising dollar or the glamorous friendships. This reviewer or critic works to enlighten us on the fundamentals like an investment counselor who coaches us with investment fundamentals so we can make better choices.
The ideal critic would be an industry expert from the UCLA film school, or a retired film cinematographer or director with no connections to that gravy train in Hollywood. Or somebody who is a film savant, with an acute knowledge of filmmaking fundamentals. Would you prefer commentary by Ebert or a Vittorio Storaro on a film like "Malena," "Schindler's list," "MatchPoint," or "In The Mood For Love"? Storaro happens to be the cinematographer for movies like "The Last Emperor" and "The Sheltering Sky." Similarly, would you rather like John Updike (who passed away recently) reviewing Orhan Pamuk or W.G. Sebald or your average schmuck who read a few books? An artistic creation must always be opined by someone who knows what to think and say about it, because they are well acquainted with the technology, terminology, expressions, and fine nuances of that creation, and themselves were once creators in that specific field, whether it is film, art, performing art or music. Filmmaking is a serious modern art, and for it to be commented and reviewed upon by every hack, without the basics, is presumptuous, trite, pallid, banal, and just plain narcissistic. I want an informed opinion, not just any opinion. And certainly NOT an opinion from someone who was born after "Saturday Night Fever" was released. You need a large production team to even produce a low budget film, which today is $20mm plus. There are simply too many aspects to film making to be just slap-dashed by some vain moviegoer who wants to be a reviewer or a critic. That said there are plenty of us out there who could do a better job than what they have at these major media networks and print media outlets.
A publication I would recommend to anyone interested in serious film commentary is the one from the Lincoln Film Center known as the "Film Comment," which I find infinitely better than all the tabloids available at your local grocery store. I also love Daniel Mendelsohn's work in literally all formats whether it is reviews, essays, shorts or a moving tome like "The Lost." But, his review of the movie "Alexander" for the New Yorker was an academic reductionism leveled at Oliver Stone for being historically inaccurate. Mendelsohn is a classicist of the first order steeped in Hellenic and Aegean history, but I am not interested in whether Stone's film was historically inaccurate, I am more interested in the film's narrative quality. All of history is open to interpretation, and every filmmaker out there is free to film their version of history as long as the film they are creating has great visual narrative, which is the actual issue here. For that matter I hated Stone's Alexander for its topical platitude, just another presumptuous and pompous Hollywood bomb. Film makers have skewed facts before, but it's the filmic narration with continuity in screenplay, photography and edits that creates beauty. I am aware of the vociferous furor over "The Last Temptation of Christ" in its historical context and blasphemy claimed by the theologians, but the film was a cinematic gem and so was "The Passion of Christ" denounced for being xenophobic, but sumptuously photographed by Caleb Deschanel. The mood, the color and texture, the performances and the seamless narration all made for a celluloid mastery for the ages. A movie, like a book is the personal expression of the film maker, we will react to its content and creative mastery, like we all did to Robert Mapplethorpe's photographic oeuvre. I had always admired Cecil B. DeMille's creative mastery in "The Ten Commandments" despite it being an overtly proselytizing and propagandistic film, like William Wryler's Ben Hur.
Interpretation of history and story line while important, it is the holding of my interest with the creation of beauty in this art that must matter more. Today's reviewers are M.I.A when it comes to talking about cinematic beauty -- why? Perhaps because most of them were brought up watching fast jump cuts and sound bytes of the network TV productions. Revert back to the turn of the last century and read those wonderfully penned criticisms and reviews on modern art at its infancy by Gertrude Stein and Andre Malraux, classic criticism by any standard. Let me bring to attention two present day critics and writers that would reinforce the point I am making. The first being Francine Prose, whose book "Reading Like a Writer" suggests the same I am suggesting, sees films like a filmmaker, every sentence is a scene and wonderfully connected scenes like sentences keep you watching and reading. You will enjoy the movies more this way, and it is the job of those who call themselves critics and reviewers, like Francine Prose, to enable us dimwits to see between the lines and cuts. Harold Bloom also fuels my argument by claiming that nobody ever learned anything by being a populist -- one has to raise the bar to transcend mediocrity. Unfortunately, most of the current film reviewers are just that, Kitsch populists.
Film, my friends, is a symbolic narrative where the "prose" of the film, the cinematography and editing, is more crucial than the storyline or historical facts. It is the execution of the story in a seamless way that defines a great movie. Atmospheric Film narratives, the aesthetic apex of visual storytelling, enrich our senses; we get transported into the story. It reminds me of Elia Kazan's "A Streetcar Named Desire" for its steamy atmosphere not only outside, but between the edgy characters played to perfection by Brando and Leigh, you couldn't help but feel the humidity in this film. Reviewing or critiquing just the story or a plot summary is missing the whole point. Treatment tells even the faulty tale tantalizingly in the celluloid medium, and here, the medium is the message. The demise of good filmic narrative is a sure sign of creative bankruptcy in this medium. Great film narrative is practiced by a few independent film makers and preached by a very few visually literate critics and reviewers.
I have been an ardent movie fan since my boyhood, having grownup in India, a rabid movie-going society for its melodramatic musicals. After migration to the U.S., I had wider access to movies that I really wanted to pursue. Movies that defined filmmaking had to be seen; I call them the "Foundational Films." I stumbled upon the latest technology in 1987 in the Laser-Disc format, which was actually a technology invented and used by NASA to record images from space. This was a "bulky" technology with large discs that looked like the 33 vinyl records of the fifties and sixties. I was in celluloid heaven, as I could stop and see films frame by frame, understanding the cuts and edits, like the one director John Ford made in "The Stage Coach" when he spliced the same shot with different exposures and cropping, morning to evening, at different points in the film without rendering it obvious. On the Laser-Disc format, most of these films were annotated by the directors, who spoke about the angles-moods-textures, montages, film types and color, cameras, quirks of people involved, edits left on the floor, nuances, improvisations, creativity sprung by budgetary limitations, directorial challenges, management interference and PR inputs, location limitations and creativity etc, etc. It was better than watching the film itself. This made me watch films religiously in a sequential order, starting with Griffith's two master classics, The "Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance," both annotated by Lilian Gish. I followed that with Eisenstein's "Strike," "Battleship Potemkin," and "October" annotated by G.V. Alexandrov, his chief assistant, and Flaherty's "Nanook of the North." Now, take "Nanook of The North," which I saw recently again, and found it to be profoundly moving, educational and magically entertaining. This classic is buoyant beyond belief; it captures humor in the existential struggle, as well as inspirational resolve despite hardships. All this exposure to the "gourmet films" improved my taste and engendered a craving for the asymmetrical film. It led me to films by Satyajit Ray and his Apu-trilogy, Jean Renoir, Akira Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, Terry Gilliam, Peter Greenaway and Alejandro Jodorowsky's mind bending cinematic mysteries like "El Topo" and "Santa Sangre."
What makes us car junkies? Just the body of the car or the internals...anybody ever watch MECUM Auto Auctions? The details they pour over you in such a lucid and lurid manner would have even a car hater become interested. It is the same here with films -- tell us how it was made, the fine nuances of its creation that might give us an insight into the objective of the filmmaker. Film is a sequence of symbols representing a metaphor. These symbols are spliced to represent narration of the human condition and our existentialism. Clint Eastwood's latest creation, the acclaimed "Gran Torino" is a film laden with evocative and forceful metaphors that shed light on our present societal conundrums in an immigrant society. Like the young teenage boy who is actually Eastwood in youth getting recruited to do the dirty work for someone else, like the older man did during the war. How about the boy's older teenage sister, representing the good in us, who survives brutality and breaks the specter of self-immolation, cranky mask veiling internal struggles, and the misanthropic tendencies of the protagonist, and forces him to reconnect again to the beauty of human spirit, in all its frailty. Another symbol was the allegorical organization and cleanliness of the protagonist's property disguising the chaos within, and his sons representing his dismal failures. Incidental humor oozed in the mirror character of the protagonist, the old woman next door, and the theological hypocrisy with its huge disconnect in the reduction of individuals to mere guilt laden beings. It also threw a spotlight on the doctrinal deficiencies in their lack of understanding of the potential of a human that can change and grow. I also noticed that they paid close attention to the film color in selecting a high-contrast film to create a grating mood and offer the subtle symbolism of the transparent and the opaque issues in our lives.
While almost all film criticism today focuses on performances and plot summaries, it misses out on the beautiful anatomy of filmmaking. A film is like a woman with clothes, the clothes being the plot and story, beautiful, but if you took the clothes off it could be far more interesting in seeing the beauty of the creation, its anatomy. Creation of the film is a story unto itself and I will bet you it will be more intriguing to watch how a box-office bomb was made than the film itself. In my opinion, the four most crucial Oscars given are a) Screenplay, b) Direction, c) Cinematography and d) Editing; then come the performances, but you never hear a critic or reviewer discussing any of these aforementioned categories in the mainstream media, as if the film was created in a vacuum. As a customer, if the movie had received Oscars or Cesars on cinematography or direction, it's a good bet I will collect it. My proclivity for the art of filmmaking does not preclude actors. There are some actors I will see despite the picture, like Olivier, Tracy, Olivia De Havilland, and Nicholson. Next time you see the Oscars, I would implore you look at the four categories I mentioned above, that is if you want be a reviewer. You cannot do an autopsy on a film and explain it entertainingly without becoming a fundamentals guru...you can take that to the bank.
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