Dear Dana, Dan, and Michael,
OK, I really am going to do my damnedest to try to cheer you up, Dana. But first I have to say that the bummer news that J. Hoberman has been dismissed from the Voice speaks to a much larger issue that’s been bothering the hell out of me. Forget the “death of criticism” angle. It’s more that so many companies, of all stripes, don’t care about keeping their veterans around so that younger people can learn from them. Hoberman’s dismissal isn’t just a case of publications undervaluing film critics, it’s a case of employers undervaluing everyone.
Companies are always happy to attract young (and often inexpensive) talent, but the idea of trying to retain talent is a thing of the past. As fledgling writers, or fledgling anything, we’ve all learned from older, groovier people we’ve worked with, or even older, crotchety ones. Maybe they just showed you how to be generous, how to be cool. I remember temping at Harvard Law School in the late 1980s for the then-octogenarian Clark Byse—the Paper Chase professor! I was probably in his orbit for two weeks total—I think I typed one letter for him and did some filing—but he asked what I was interested in, what I might ultimately want to do. That curiosity and kindness was second nature to him, and I remember it to this day. Newsday made a place for the great Murray Kempton till he drew his last breath, in 1997. Obviously, even just 15 years later, we’re living in a different world.
Young people today desperately need jobs. But the way most workplaces now treat their veterans, even their midcareer employees, doesn’t bode well for anyone, young, old, or young-old. It’s good, at least, that Hoberman came around when he did and got to stick around long enough to reach so many people, us among them. No amount of Voice Media cluelessness can erase that legacy.
Oh, wait a minute—I was supposed to be cheering us up. OK, I’m going to go back and reread Dan’s anti-Shame manifesto (not to be confused with Michael’s astute anti-shame manifesto). Dan, you’re what those old-time newspaper guys we all love so much used to call a wag, and I mean it as high praise. I liked Shame much better than you did, maybe because, for me, Fassbender’s performance transcended the polished-granite self-seriousness of the direction. In fact, I was so fixated on Fassbender’s face that the first time I saw the movie, I totally missed his schlong. Honest to God! (The second time, I knew where to look.)
But I don’t share Dan and Dana’s enthusiasm for Bridesmaids, despite my overarching love for the genius that is Kristen Wiig. I found the picture overlong and sprawling, but my chief problem was the conception of Wiig’s character: Why does she have to be a pathetic, failed baker-person with low self-esteem? I’m not looking for “strong women” or “empowered characters,” whatever those are. But I love Wiig so much more when she’s cutting loose, playing that strange, bug-eyed compulsive fabulist in the SNL skits, or in bit parts like the spray-tan obsessed doctor in David Koepp’s wonderful (and sorely overlooked) 2008 romantic comedy Ghost Town. (Dana, I share your frustration with the genre, and Ghost Town bolstered my hopes. It broke my heart when it tanked, but that doesn’t make it any less great.) I did like the scene you mentioned, Dana, where Wiig and Rudolph blacked out their teeth with frosting to make each other laugh. I loved that moment because it was casual and spontaneous and throwaway. But so much else in the movie seemed like a betrayal of that spontaneity, as if the performers were set on amusing one another at our expense. And they just kept going on and on and on. A little judicious editing of their relentless girl-genius routine might have helped.
And speaking of editing: How about that Margaret? Just because a filmmaker has lots of ideas, doesn’t mean he has to put them all in one movie. The Margaret trilogy, maybe? I too loved You Can Count on Me, and Lonergan is wonderful with actors, particularly, as you said, Dana, when he’s shaping those small, unspoken moments. But Margaret seemed to be slipping on ice every minute, careering from one semi-formed notion to the next: Just look at this self-centered girl, who causes an accident because she wanted a cowboy hat! But wait—let’s throw in some moral ambiguity: Maybe the bus driver really is somewhat to blame—he wasn’t watching the traffic signals. Hang on a minute, while we check in on these students bringing their personal beefs about Islam into the classroom. And so forth. Margaret is a broken-TV-set of a movie, rattling between too many stations. I want to admire it despite its messiness, but I just can’t.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that when two or more critics get together, they’re going to talk about either Melancholia, The Tree of Life, or The Artist. But looking back over a year of doing this job, I don’t just think about the movies I’ve seen; I also think back on the time spent writing about them. And really, what percentage of our writing time did we actually spend on the movies I just mentioned? As great as it feels to have ambitious, interesting movies to dig into, sometimes I think I get more pleasure—at least of the day-to-day sort—from writing about the movies that, to paraphrase Dan’s neighbor, people are actually going to run out and see that weekend. Is it just me, or did anyone else take the delight I did in the placenta-splooge craziness of Twilight: Breaking Dawn-Part One? The more I think about it, the more I admire the masterminds behind the franchise for letting Bill Condon take it right off the rails, especially with that Dario Argento childbirth scene. And the wolves talking to each other in those growly old-phonograph voices. I’m actually looking forward to Part Two. Bring on 2012, and more of Renesmee!