This second edition of the N1FR, n+1‘s film review, is very late. Its lateness has nothing to do with n+1 or with any of the contributors, or with our generous sponsor IFC Films. It’s entirely my fault. I wish I could say the delay in the appearance of a new N1FR was the result of some kind of considered process, that it was an example of the kind of “Slow Criticism” practiced at De Filmkrant in the Netherlands. I wish I could say I’ve been spending all my time since the last issue carefully mulling over developments in the movies before committing anything to print. I wish I could say I had not made this issue’s excellent (and timely) contributors wait for me as I slid out of frame.
But I can’t. I have not spent all this time attending international film festivals with Dutch people. I have not been reconsidering and revising and trying to get things right. The difference between this Late (or Tardy) Criticism and other people’s Slow Criticism is the difference between taking your time and not having any time.
In the last year and a half my day job has taken over my life, and while it has brought me to fascinating places, from fortresses of the entertainment industry to video rental stores for truckers, it has not taken me to even one international film festival. It has provided me with a living, but not with enough time to edit and write.
My consumption of cinema has decreased proportionally. I missed dozens of new films last year. Did I see Martha Marcy May Marlene? I did not. Did I miss the entire New York Film Festival? I did. Did I see Melancholia on the Internet? I didn’t even see Bad Teacher on the plane. I’ve had a Netflix DVD of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Father of My Children sitting next to my TV since last June 4th.
Most of what cinema I did take in I got from DVR’ing movies on TCM and then mainlining them into my neck on my way out the door. White Shadows in the South Seas? I’ve got that covered. Abel Gance’s J’Accuse and La Roue are going to be on soon, too, I hear.
You can see I’ve only fallen about 95 years behind. Like an abandoned cineplex I visited in Indiana that had been turned into a church by an Assemblies of God splinter group, I have descended below the Cinema of Attractions into a pre-cinematic state. Even if I download an app that will let me watch the new Ghost Rider film on an iPhone in 3D, I’m not sure I could catch up.
Film producers in America, from the highest to the lowest, constantly tell us how much film critics don’t matter. Recently, via YouTube, Kevin Smith announced the debut of a new cable-TV reality show he hosts and shoots in a comic-book store he owns. During the video he took the time to remind viewers that film critics are irrelevant, and that nothing brings out their irrelevance more than explaining to them how irrelevant they are. If only it were that easy.
Since most working film critics don’t make enough money to feed themselves, much less the families they don’t have, it has become increasingly mysterious to me how they are able to watch what they watch and then write film criticism (of whatever speed) at all. One of the most telling cinematic events of last year came in the form of a letter: the reply David Denby sent to Scott Rudin last December after Rudin got mad at Denby for ignoring his command against publishing reviews of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which Rudin produced) until after the film was out, even though critics like Denby had already seen it in press screenings. Denby had agreed to this embargo, and embargoes like that are a common practice in the film industry, and then he went back on his word.
Rudin called the publication of Denby’s review in The New Yorker, which was a positive review, “a very, very damaging move,” and in a subsequent email to Denby told him he had “very badly damaged the movie,” and that he had done something “deeply destructive” and “immoral.”
In his email, Denby pointed out something that is true: “The system is destructive”—“the system,” not positive reviews of blockbusters. By “the system,” in this case, Denby meant the way studios release their serious, quality, or award-getting movies all at the same time, near Christmas, forcing film critics to madly rush from one film to another, in an attempt to keep up, seem professional, write long pieces on things presumably worth writing about, and take part in voting for yearly awards as part of whatever professional bodies they belong to.
“Grown-ups are ignored for much of the year, cast out like downsized workers, and then given eight good movies all at once in the last five weeks of the year,” Denby wrote to Rudin. (I’m not sure how he arrived at the number eight, I would have said twenty, because Denby is only thinking of big-studio releases here, when in fact a lot of worthwhile smaller films also flood the market at the same time.) Denby speaks the truth, and could have gone further: at the end of the year a horde of disenfranchised, semi-disenfranchised, and soon-to-be disenfranchised American film critics are forced to work overtime for film producers, people who do not sign their paychecks. They are not only forced to work for them by writing promotion for their films in the form of reviews, but by following their instructions to the letter about when they are allowed to publish—in essence, about when they are allowed to speak.
That is the system that is destructive. It’s destructive to the cinema, it’s destructive to film criticism, and finally and ironically, it is destructive, of all things, to Christmas. Film critics are forced to contemplate drear like J. Edgar and The Iron Lady instead of spending time with their loved ones and forgetting their cares at holiday parties and not letting old acquaintances be forgot. But for film producers it is an exciting time, the kind that makes life worth living—a time to worry about skimming the cream. Rudin can release two movies at almost the same time: a serious drama with Tom Hanks and a cute kid like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and a rape thriller like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and every possible person who could want to see a movie during the Christmas season should be happy—except critics, who, given the circumstances, naturally rebel. It is not immoral to agree to and then disregard an immoral command. More critics (and their editors and publishers) should just say yeah, yeah to these things and then do whatever they want. Critics are not Christmas elves working in Santa’s factory so the children of the world can see We Bought a Zoo.
If the Oscar season that is now upon us proves anything, it is that Scott Rudin probably should have asked critics not to write about Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, not The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. On the other hand, what does it matter? Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar even though critics didn’t like it, an honor it shares with two or three of the other eight nominees for Best Picture.
This new practice of over-nomination–couldn’t they have just rounded the number of nominees up to ten?—reflects what most Hollywood movies and other American culture products have become: dollar-store items piled in heaps, undifferentiable from each other, sold clear-wrapped together on skids, advertised the same way food is advertised in supermarket circulars, in little square color pictures you need a magnifying glass to see.
Until very recently you could go into a chain store and find a wire spinner-rack of discount DVDs for sale. Then the spinner changed into a trough, then a barrel, and now it’s the size of an above-ground swimming pool. This flood of discount DVDs overflowing its bin isn’t just at Wal-Mart or in home-electronics stores anymore. Now you go into a corner convenience store or a gas station on the highway and find them, too. The complete movie careers of everyone from Jennifer Aniston to Mark Wahlberg to Sarah Jessica Parker and Bruce Willis are bundled together into two-fers and three-fers as studios try to unload these unwanted pieces of plastic onto late-night potato-chip buyers and other people too confused to know what they want. I will never forget the time I saw a man in a parking lot scraping the snow off the windshield of his car with the DVD of Independence Day he had just bought.
The combined ages of James Franco and Anne Hathaway are a year less than Billy Crystal’s. Crystal’s return to the Oscar telecast as host this year after an eight-year absence reflects something beyond the failure of last year’s attempt to instill some youth appeal into the proceedings by using Franco and Hathaway. He’s there to remind the people in charge of their glory days, when Crystal could insert himself into parodies of blockbusters secure in the knowledge that those blockbusters were real and big. Kidding them proved how important they were to the culture-at-large and to the people who made them. Do we really want to see Crystal lovingly chiding War Horse?
During the last time of great cultural confusion in this country, the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Oscars had no hosts at all for three years in a row. Back then, there was also a three-month gap between the Superbowl and the Oscars. This year, there are three weeks between the two. That gives us an opportunity, if we watch them both, to recall all the commercials for upcoming movies that aired during the Superbowl—for movies like Battleship, John Carter, and The Avengers, which are not the Superbowl commercials people think about but ones they get anyway—and compare what Hollywood really is today to the face it puts on during the Oscars.
And if you watch the trailer the Academy made to advertise Crystal’s return to the Oscars, the one where Megan Fox and Josh Duhamel from the Transformers movies go to Mongolia Indiana-Jones-style to search for Billy Crystal, the ancient sage of the Oscar telecasts, this last human they have to bring back to digital Hollywood, you will see that the trailer is described on YouTube as “film-like.”
I’m not sure how that term is related to “life-like,” but I think, now, it is. “Film-like” means “the way films used to be” the same way “life-like” means “almost convincingly alive.” In this issue of the N1FR, which because of my lateness does not cover even one film nominated for an Oscar this year, we cover other, better films by disentangling the two terms, too slowly but here it is. In future issues we will move to a more regular online model, with pieces appearing one at a time, but that’s a story for later.