Suicidal or Just a Whore?

The Year in Movies

Suicidal or Just a Whore?

The Year in Movies

Suicidal or Just a Whore?
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 8 2004 4:02 PM

The Year in Movies

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Hello, my friends,

For those who care, last night the Los Angeles Film Critics Association held its annual vote for the best movies and performances of the past year. You can read the results at www.lafca.org. It's incredible to me that anyone could believe that American Splendor is superior to, say, Mystic River or Elephant (much less Unknown Pleasures and Platform), but, hey, as the very smart Matt Zoller Seitz recently wrote in the New York Press: "I've gotten to the point where I now read critics not because I trust their opinions, but because I feel that I've gotten to know them well enough to be able to split the difference between their opinions and mine, and make a decision on whether to see a particular movie (or watch it again). When a critic steers me wrong, or fixates on particular details for reasons that strike me as counterproductive, I don't feel mad or betrayed. I remind myself that everybody is different and every day and every week is different, and that if that critic had written the review in a different frame of mind or experienced a different upbringing, his verdict might not have been the same. (If you think critics don't occasionally pan movies because they saw them after having a nasty fight with their significant other or writing a big check to the IRS, you are naive indeed.)"

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Anyway, Jim, you wrote yesterday, "Elsewhere on the correctness front, I'm wondering what y'all thought of the front page piece in last Sunday's 'Arts & Leisure' section—a perfect trifecta, dissecting the exploitation of Japan and Japaneseness in The LastSamurai, Kill Bill Vol. 1, and Lost in Translation. The writer made many good points but, unless I missed it, failed to note that, judging from these examples, American cultural superiority is quite tenuous." You're right, of course, that the article didn't note that American cultural superiority is tenuous, but, as we know, these kinds of daily paper pieces are generally stripped of opinions, which are seen to be the provenance of critics. Sure, the article felt worthy and correct, almost dutiful, in how it approached the issue. But someone has to write pieces like these, in part because the overwhelming majority of film critics are white, male, and come from (I assume) comfortable middle-class backgrounds. As such, these critics may not be interested in or even notice if, say, Lost in Translation is mildly if unintentionally racist (or, more charitably, just offensive), because they may not be looking at the film through the eyes of the Japanese characters/caricatures. That's cool. We each place our identification with different characters (or not); there are many movies that hold no point of character-identification for me but that I dig nonetheless because I'm grooving on the theme or the camerawork.

As it happens, I identified far more with Murray's character—his regret, desire, absurdity, and exquisitely sad-funny alienation—than I did with Scarlett Johansson's self-indulgent mope. (I kept thinking, "Get out of the hotel, you idiot!") Still, despite my love for Murray's deep waters and my appreciation for how young Coppola has absorbed the influence of Wong Kar-wai and his talented cinematographer, Chris Doyle, I was bummed by how often she trotted out the wacky Japanese stereotypes. Yes, other people's accents are funny (my Manhattan accent is a hoot after a few glasses of wine), but after the third, fourth, ad nauseum, gag about funny "R's" and "exotic" behavior, the whole thing just didn't seem funny. I don't think that's a "politically correct" reaction, by the way; it's just my personal reaction, one partly formed by some familiarity with Japanese culture and an ability to identify with both Japanese and American characters, even in the absence of fully rounded Japanese characters. I understand what Coppola was trying to do—to convey the sense of estrangement in a foreign country and so forth, mixed in with a loose (and, again, very Wong Kar-wai-style) narrative about a dissolving marriage and roads not taken—but it just didn't work for me. My guess is that a lot of critics—who rack up many lonely hours in hotels because they attend film festivals abroad—went easy on the film because they too have stared into a television at 3 in the morning, missing home. And I bet more than a couple critics dug the film's older sensitive man-younger needy woman fantasy, especially since it was, finally, such a guilt-free trip.

Which isn't to say that Lost in Translation isn't good. It's a nice movie and I look forward to her next one. But I still think it has been overrated. Let me be clear, Tony, I was not thinking of you when I mentioned how Mystic River (a film, remember, that I love and put on my top 10) had been terribly and unfortunately overrated. I was thinking about another critic I admire (OK, David Denby), but I was also thinking about myself. (Solipsism seems pretty forgivable in such a solipsistic forum as this one.) When I talk about critical hyperbole, please understand that I am also always talking about myself and my uses and occasionally abuses of all manner of adverbs and adjectives. I have banned the word "stunning" in my own reviews for this coming year, for instance; I used it and abused it last year, and I just need to remove it from my vocabulary for a while. After all, how many times was I really stunned by a movie last year or any year? (Stunned: "1. To make senseless or unconscious, as by a blow; 2. To daze or stupefy; shock deeply; astound; overwhelm ...") When I read those definitions I have to admit that I haven't been stunned all that often at the movies; so, I was stunned—no, taken aback—that I used it in a few reviews. (I did almost faint while watching the creepy French feature Under My Skin, so I guess that film did almost stun me in a second definition sort of way.)

The larger, more important point is whether we serve the films we love by overselling them. When I re-read the likes of James Agee or Graham Greene, I am stunned, stunned I tell you, at how temperate their language seems, specifically their praise. Of course, one big difference is that when they were writing they didn't have to compete against the din of the entertainment industrial complex. Every week and month, we struggle to be heard through the roar of the publicity and marketing machinery, competing for attention (and respect) against a celebrity-saturated media that we are (irony of dreadful ironies!) also a part of. So we jump up and down, wave our arms in the air, and shout, "Hey, here's a wonderful Iranian or French or Taiwanese movie you will love, I promise!" (It's sad how much harder we now have to work when it comes to foreign-language films.) We shout with intelligence, grace, and talent, but there's always an element of hustle when it comes to reviewing. But do we do our beloved movies any good with this shouting? Among the perils of selling movies too hard is that we set up false expectations in the audience and ignite reaction formations among our peers. I now think that Clint Eastwood and Mystic River have been denied awards by a number of prominent critics groups because of the praise the film received on its release. And I say this as someone who was part of the hard sell at Cannes and afterward.   

Last but not least, to answer Sarah's question about why I'm feeling less-than-cheerful about women both in front of and behind the camera: I liked Sylvia, too, and was happy to see Gwyneth Paltrow actually working again rather than just smiling and swanning through a role. It's worth noting, however, that film was produced by British companies; and director Christine Jeffs, who made a fine feature debut with Rain, is a New Zealander (like ... Jane Campion). What really bothers me is the representation of American women in film. I would much rather watch a movie about a brilliant poet who put her head in an oven than sit through another movie about a heart-of-gold, ass-of-alabaster prostitute (unless the prostitute movie was a better work of art), but what a choice—we're either suicidal or whores? I still see too many movies in which the women characters are either a side attraction (Jessica Lange in Big Fish, among others) or on tap for visual booty call (insert Eva Mendes movie here, though she was fairly delightful in Stuck on You). As to directors, if the best we can come up with is a sprout like Sophia Coppola and a hack like Nancy Meyers (and I say this as someone who enjoyed Something's Gotta Give), then that is bleak.

That's it for now. I'm going to ponder the various comments on Elephant, yet another movie I loved (and probably oversold), and maybe I will go see Peter Pan, though I once swore I would never, ever watch another shrieking P.J. Hogan entertainment. To paraphrase Armond White again, I don't need that in my head. Speaking of not cluttering your head with nonsense: Jim and David, rest assured that I stopped reading the Fray when I saw posts that called me PC-fascist or some such silliness. It's been my experience that the people who accuse me of being politically correct—a designation, mind you, that I try to employ only with ironic derision—are those who want us to shut up, sit back, and pretend movies have no meaning beyond their entertainment value. If they really believe that, why are they reading Slate?

Love,
Manohla

Each year, film critics gather in the "Movie Club" to chew on the year in film. This year's group includes Manohla Dargis from the Los Angeles Times, David Edelstein from Slate, J. Hoberman from the Village Voice, Sarah Kerr from Vogue, and A.O. Scott from the New York Times. Hoberman is the author, most recently, of The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties.