The Movie Club

My Manny Farber Tattoo
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 7 2008 3:37 PM

The Movie Club

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Diary of the Dead. Click image to expand.
Still from George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead

By coincidence, Dana, I read your latest post just after catching up with Tracy Letts'August: Osage County, which could be considered the There Will Be Blood of Broadway: It's three hours long, descends into madness at the end (complete with a ta-da! revelation about one character's parentage), and has, for the most part, been praised by critics as the Second Coming of a bygone type of classical American family drama. Whereas Anderson's film earns comparisons to Griffith and Welles, Letts' play gets mentioned in the same breath as Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams—in other words, the biggies. And there's no question that Letts (whose paranoid, mordantly funny two-hander Bug was turned into a pretty terrific movie last year by William Friedkin) is driven by that sort of crazed, all-or-nothing ambition: He aspires to a place in the canon. (There are even official August T-shirts with choice snatches of dialogue printed on them.)

And here's the thing: I think Letts has almost but not quite done it—that his show is two-thirds brilliant and one-third a shapeless heap of half-formed Big Important Ideas about America and American families, most of which land like lead ballasts dropped from the top of the towering, three-story set. Particularly when the character of the eldest daughter arrives at her climactic monologue about why dissipation is more tragic than cataclysm (which serves roughly the same summary function as There Will Be Blood's "Draaainnnage/I drink your milkshake" scene), it feels as if Letts himself had walked out onto the stage to say, "Thanks for coming folks. Now, please stay in your seats while I explain to you the significance of what you've just seen."

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In the grand scheme of things, that's a minor quibble, especially because August contains a central performance, by a Broadway neophyte named Deanna Dunagan, that will be talked about for many years to come in the same reverential tones that are being applied to Daniel Day-Lewis' work in Blood. My point is simply that third acts are tricky bits of business and—as we've already discussed in this year's Movie Club—the point at which a given book/play/movie either convinces an audience of its merit or loses them altogether.

In the case of There Will Be Blood, Dana, you argue your case very well, and you touch on a number of concerns that other reviewers (including many, like you, who are favorably disposed toward the film) seem to share. But while I follow the logic of your argument (that the film makes an abrupt tonal shift for which it doesn't lay the adequate groundwork), I still feel like you're talking about a different movie than the one I saw. You say the film began to throw you a bit in the long dialogue scene between the Daniel Plainview character and his half-brother, but to me, that feels like one of the key scenes in the picture—the one where Plainview, who explicitly says that he doesn't like to explain himself, does exactly that. He lets his guard down and more or less articulates his entire view of humanity, and everything he says feels like a confirmation of what we've come to feel, implicitly, about the character up to that point in the film. Likewise, the 1927 sequence, with Plainview's confronting of his now-adult son and what you so memorably termed the "bowling-alley beatdown," seems to me like the logical culmination of what has preceded it—namely, Plainview's systematic suspicion and/or betrayal of those closest to him, and his decades-long battle of wills with the hellfire-and-brimstone evangelist played by Paul Dano. Plainview has more money than God by that point in the story, but he's effectively dead inside—a frontiersman with no new frontiers left to conquer. And so he acts out in a spectacular, self-destructive way, settling old scores and smiting those who would dare to oppose him.

But, as they say, that's what makes horse races, and I for one am glad that in the film-criticism business—unlike the oil business—we're more apt to bat our differences of opinion around in a forum like this rather than attacking one another with sporting goods (although there was that one time Nathan cracked me on the noggin with a Nerf ball, but I digress). Even more important, if I may veer on to a subject—the nature and purpose of film criticism—that is even more irksome to some of our readers than the discussion of "obscure" art movies, I feel like one should always bear in mind that any film reviewis part of a larger conversation, not just among critics talking about that movie, but between the critics and the audience, and hopefully between movies and the broader spectrum of popular culture. Famously, the great American film critic Manny Farber found the role of "evaluation" in film reviewing—good/bad, up/down, four stars/no stars—practically worthless, and there's one particular adage of his that I've quoted so many times I should probably just have it tattooed on my forehead:

The last thing I want to know is whether you like it or not; the problems of writing are after that.

Now, I know from reading the comments in the Fray here, and those that regularly get sent to our letters box at the L.A. Weekly, that there are a lot of moviegoers who would beg to differ with Mr. Farber's immortal words. They may think a film review should be a kind of consumer guide: Is this movie suitable for my children? Will it make me laugh/cry/feel warm and fuzzy inside? Or they may simply want to read a review that affirms their own opinion of a particular movie, that says they're "right" for having felt the way they felt about it. (I was quite alarmed when one colleague recently told me she received a death threat from a reader in response to her negative review of a popular film currently in release—which, really, is taking things to extremes.) Of course, it's not the responsibility of the critic to provide any information of this sort—it's what Web sites like Moviefone.com and TV shows like Access Hollywood are for. And, the more such entities come to be accepted by the mass audience as the standard-bearers of film journalism, the more endangered film culture in this country gets.

Indeed, if 2007 was an agreeably great year for movies, it was a pretty distressing one for movie criticism, in that a number of talented critics found themselves out of work or assigned to different beats, while many who did manage to hold on to their jobs were faced with ever-diminishing column inches and editors who often seemed more interested in playing the awards-season guessing game than in devoting significant amounts of space to the discussion of significant films. And at a time when the films that can really benefit from the support of critics are having a hard enough time finding an audience, consider this one more nail in their respective coffins.

Having said that, I should add on a note of cautious optimism that there's quite a bit I'm looking forward to in 2008, even if the odds are against it being the annus mirabilis that 2007 turned out to be. As Nathan mentioned, there's Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon, to which why not add the entire IFC First Take release slate, including Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park, Catherine Breillat's The Last Mistress, and Jacques Rivette's The Duchess of Langeais. Plus, the Weinstein Company has George Romero's kickass Diary of the Dead on tap. And thanks, Wesley, for mentioning Michael Haneke's shot-for-shot Funny Games remake, which I actually prefer to the original, Austrian version; and also Edge of Heaven,which got unfairly thrashed by some higherbrow-than-thou critics in Cannes last year. But how could you have neglected to mention the one we've all really been waiting for: The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2.

Finally, while my natural instinct remains "iPod, shmypod," Nathan's reminiscence of watching The New World on his laptop reminded me that, at Cannes this year, no less august a cinematic eminence than David Cronenberg rhapsodized to me about how much he enjoys watching movies on his laptop, propped on his stomach as he lies in bed, perusing a few chapters at a time the way one reads a book, and having an altogether different—but by no means illegitimate—experience of cinema than one has in a proper theater. I'm tempted to say "Long live the new flesh indeed," but of course, while the technology allowing for all these portable, individual movie-watching experiences may be relatively new, the thinking behind them is as old as movies themselves. After all, it was Thomas Edison who first envisioned movies as single-user entertainments, to be viewed privately via coin-operated boxes. Meanwhile, halfway around the world in France, the Lumière brothers held firm to their belief that moving pictures should be projected on large screens before many people at once. So the debate continues to rage from beyond the grave. My only question: If Thomas Edison had a milkshake and the Lumière brothers had a milkshake and ... oh, never mind.

Scott

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