Musings inspired by the May/June ’11 issue of Film Comment: thoughts on Woody Allen, Francis Lawrence, and genuine populism in film criticism

The new issue of Film Comment is out; though it hasn’t yet arrived in my mailbox, some of the goodies are available online.  I’d like to comment on three of the articles.  First and foremost, David Bordwell contributes an article on how the divide between ivory tower intellectuals (my term, not his) and amateur film buffs (ditto) is bridged by his own innovative work.  My summary of his thoughts may cast him in a bit more of an egocentric role than his own words, but given how much I esteem his work, I won’t begrudge the man a little egocentricity.  He’s earned it.  On a basic level, it seems to me that his argument is thus: there needn’t be a sharp, hostile divide between highly theoretical analysis and less analytical celebrations.  He ends the article by citing the Web as a place where that divide can be bridged constructively:

Today every article about film criticism must end by mentioning the Internet. It certainly makes cinephile criticism more accessible, but it has special advantages for academics. Readers who would never pick up one of my books have engaged with ideas on my website. The more enthusiastic responses to the blog entries that Kristin Thompson and I post have convinced me that the Web can help us mandarins illuminate the art that stirs so much ardent intelligence in its audience.

By coincidence, minutes after reading this article, I caught up on what Craig, The Man from Porlock, had to say about Ebertfest.  His post from April 30th concludes thus:

Having just seen eight movies over an exhausting three days, I can truly say that I respect what film critics do more than ever, and I’ll be more understanding the next time one of them makes a mistake. But I also believe that film critics continue to be their own worst enemies, that if they would stop whining about Rotten Tomatoes and circling the wagons every time a gaggle of immature prepubescents takes umbrage at something they’ve written — that if they’d stop embracing martyrdom and start connecting with a potential audience, then Yes, Virginia, some of them just may find their voices too.

Earlier in the post, Craig briefly recounted the comments at a panel in which Dann Gire and Matt Zoller Seitz jousted over the Meaning Of Internet Criticism (or something to that effect), later circling back to ruminations on Ebert’s health and how he has always been on the cutting edge of new technology (Ebert’s actual voice vs. his digital “voice”).  The upshot is that Ebert embraced the Internet as another way to get people excited about movies by sharing his own enthusiasm for them via what was, when he first started, uncharted technological territory.  Having exposed the false dichotomy between Ebert’s old voice and “new voice,” he concludes with the quote above.

The tantalizing overlap between Bordwell’s FC article and that quote is that when Craig encountered Kristin Thompson at Ebertfest and asked her why she and Bordwell wouldn’t simply enable comments on their site so that they could see just how much of a positive impact they’ve had, she demurred in the most explicit terms.

I understand that Thompson and Bordwell are separate individuals with their own pursuits, concerns, and opinions, so I don’t want anyone to think that I’m simply mistaking or substituting Thompson’s reaction for Bordwell’s (or implying that Bordwell speaks for both of them in his essay).  But Observations on Film Art is run by both of them, and from what I’ve read, they seem to be almost entirely on the same page, if not of the same mind.  So I’m going to make an assumption here.

Bordwell and Thompson have done more than most critics to make the high-level film criticism as accessible as possible, and the way they’ve integrated their blog with their Film Art textbook is, put simply, wicked awesome.  But the “common ground” gospel Bordwell preaches in “Academics vs. Critics” seems directly at odds with the separation he and Thompson maintain on their blog between the criticism (the blog posts) and the discussion (the comment threads).  What’s being neglected is the one thing in criticism that ought to be paramount: the conversation.

The way I always thought of genuine criticism (as opposed to the consumer reports frequently cobbled together for the Friday editions of daily newspapers) was of one big, messy conversation between loads of individuals, each with a unique perspective.  At times, this conversation could devolve into polemical shouting matches, but I loved that whenever I read a serious piece of criticism, I’d see the writer frequently consider the viewpoint of someone else.  Whether it was in agreement or disagreement didn’t matter much.  The point was that the thoughts of one person had directly affected the thought process of another person, and the criticism of that second person was essentially a continuance of, a response to the first.  A public conversation, in other words.  Up until the 21st century, this conversation could only be carried out over long periods of time, in new editions of magazines, journals, newspapers, newsletters, or what-have-you.  Occasionally, you might catch snippets of the conversation on radio or TV programs.  But the reading public would never be able to watch the conversation evolve in anything close to real time.  It never had the kind of reactive or innovative flow of a real conversation.

With the advent of the Internet, that changed.  Critics like Dave Kehr, Glenn Kenny, or a dozen others maintain Web sites that are open to the general public.  Anyone who wants to comment constructively can, and often, the critics will engage directly with the people who respond.  Sometimes, the respondents are peers and colleagues; other times, they’re just amateurs.  In any case, a genuine discussion can be held.  Many times, you will find a blog post that links elsewhere — not to another blog post, but to a single comment, perhaps even on that same blog, perhaps elsewhere.  This is an international, authentic conversation that evolves on a minute-to-minute basis.  I think it’s wonderful; utterly invaluable.

Never let it be said that Bordwell and Thompson are “embracing martyrdom” or “whining about Rotten Tomatoes.”  This isn’t what I’m implying (and just to be clear, this is not at all what Craig was implying, either).  Yet it struck me that even among the most progressive intelligentsia, there is a hesitation to engage directly with the unwashed masses.  My rhetoric may be a bit crass and unfair, but the readers Bordwell talks about who might never pick up one of his books don’t want just to engage with his ideas; they want to engage with him, which hearkens back to the quote with which Craig opened his post:

“I don’t think people read film criticism. I think people read film critics.” – Matt Z. Seitz

Bordwell spends a lot of time parsing the battles between critics and academics, but rather ignores the larger group of film-lovers who may only have enough time to be more “casual” film buffs by the standards of professional academics or critics — or even by the standards of amateurs who, by the power of Grayskull, seem to have more time than others to devote to their passion.  There are really only two kinds of film lovers in the world: those who know what they’re talking about, and those who don’t.  The ones who know what they’re talking about are worth reading.  They’re worth agreeing and disagreeing with.  This classification encompasses pretty much everyone on the film expertise spectrum, from high-level ivory tower denizens to effusive print critics to the lowliest amateur film buff, who may be a 15-year-old who has seen The Seventh Seal for the first time and was totally blown away.  The key is to recognize the limits of one’s own knowledge, ardently to seek more, and to express oneself with clarity on any subject about which one possesses any knowledge at all.  But expressing oneself isn’t much good in a vacuum.  Wagon-circling elitists may hurl snark and invectives at the blogosphere for its total lack of journalistic standards and the paucity of original and informed thought, but Bordwell is right: it provides the kind of freedom to academics, critics, and amateurs that is simply not possible anywhere else.  What this means is that, despite all the dreck out there, the people who know what they’re talking about get to talk even more about the things they love… with the people who share that love.

The second FC article I wanted to highlight is a review of Water for Elephants by Scott Foundas.  He’s a crackerjack writer, and it’s worth reading if only because he wrote it.  But here’s the main thing I wanted to highlight:

[Francis] Lawrence, who previously directed the excellent I Am Legend, doesn’t bring the same surprising depth to this pop material that he did there, but he’s a superb visual craftsman, and Water For Elephants is never less than a pleasure to look at, wrapped in a warm, amber radiance by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros, Frida) and meticulously designed by Jack Fisk, whose credits include There Will Be Blood and the films of Terrence Malick. They manage the feat of making the circus itself seem at once human-scale yet mythic, with lots of loving attention lavished on details like the raising of the tents, and the train traveling through the starry night, billowing smoke. Lawrence, too, seems more drawn to the background than foreground action, making affectionate business out of the late-night gatherings of show people, the gentle prodding of potential ticket buyers through the turnstiles, and the way great performers turn accidents into opportunities on a dime, without the audience so much as noticing. In moments like those, you sense the hand of a real director, biding his time with sub-par material, who might really surprise us someday.

Reading that warmed my heart like a tea cozy.  Constantine was more or less a flop when it came out in 2005.  It made a bit of money; it didn’t totally alienate the critics.  It was, nevertheless, not the kind of movie that earns an automatic green light for a sequel.  Nor was it the kind of film that most people were still talking about after a year’s time… Unless you happened to be one of the minority of folks who were impressed with the visual flair of a film that, upon first glance, is a muddle of blacks, grays, and brown.  In actuality, it has some fairly sharp editing, some wonderfully observed compositions, and a surprisingly compelling set of performances — an ensemble that might even be considered tremendous, if not for the gaping gravity well that is Gavin Rossdale.  Ah, well.

Then there was the theological content.  Sure, it could’ve been “deeper” (for what it’s worth), but for a film that the producers probably hoped would cash in on Keanu Reeves’s Neo cachet, the script was pretty good, and Reeves gave a decent performance.  I Am Legend followed along similar lines in 2007, both in color scheme and in the trenchant theological underpinnings.  These are the kinds of movies that can be made either by a craftsman who simply knows how to bring out the best in his material, or by someone with a genuine investment in these themes.  In either case, both films were quite good.  Lawrence has gotten props for a lot of critics since his feature film debut, but the stench of his music video career seems to cling to him like David Fincher’s clung to him up until he directed… well, I was about to say Se7en, but the truth is that he didn’t quite shed the stigma of coming up through the advertisement/MTV ranks until Zodiac.  My impression is that Water for Elephants is coming at that point in Lawrence’s feature film career that is supposed to prove that he’s more than “the music video guy who makes above-average action-horror flicks.”  For that reason alone, I’m interested in seeing it, and I was very gratified that Foundas seems to have picked out the things in this film that I am hoping to see.

At the very least, I’m hoping that the film does well enough that he can give up Aerosmith and Britney Spears videos as his day job.  He’s got way too much talent to be lavishing it on Lady Gaga.  If you’re going to throw away your talent, Mr. Lawrence, at least do it on something that will get you somewhere.  Maybe a remake of Defending Your Life?

Last, Woody Allen gives another interview; this time to Kent Jones.  Allen was, for years, the man I pointed to as my favorite film director.  After a while, he became my favorite living director.  Then he became my favorite living American film director.  Then I realized that, no matter how much I parsed my distinctions, Allen was not on top of the list anymore — any list.  I still adore most of his work, and I try to see his newer films (like Whatever Works, for instance, which I reviewed for Playtime), though I’ve missed a few in the last couple years.  If Midnight in Paris opens nearby, I might make the effort to see it.  One of my regrets is that I’ve yet to see a Woody Allen movie in a theater, and I’d like to do that before he’s not making movies anymore.

In an unintentional bit of ironic meta-commentary, here’s Woody on Saraband, Ingmar Bergman’s final film:

I did think that he was running out by then. But sure, I liked it, because I had a sentimental feeling for those actors, and I always like what he tries to do.

That’s pretty much how I feel about everything Allen has done post-Deconstructing Harry.  Films like Match Point, Vicky Christina Barcelona, and Whatever Works are fine.  But they don’t really hold up to the likes of Manhattan, Broadway Danny Rose, Radio Days, September, Purple Rose of Cairo, Take the Money and Run, or several other films from Allen’s peak period.  Here’s a revealing quote from Allen’s New York Times tribute to Bergman, published after the Swedish master’s death in 2007:

He couldn’t have influenced me, I said, he was a genius and I am not a genius and genius cannot be learned or its magic passed on… I learned to try to turn out the best work I’m capable of at that given moment, never giving in to the foolish world of hits and flops or succumbing to playing the glitzy role of the film director, but making a movie and moving on to the next one. Bergman made about 60 films in his lifetime, I have made 38. At least if I can’t rise to his quality maybe I can approach his quantity.

In recent interviews, Allen has said words to the effect that he’s basically just continuing to make moves to kill the time until he’s dead.  For him, they’re a diversion — as opposed to art or entertainments for his dwindling audience.  Even his recent NYT humor piece about how he got the title for Midnight in Paris lacks the mordant sparkle of his earlier, funnier essays — it’s sort of an embittered, privileged in-joke that has the form of his previous writings, but none of the style.  It’s an artist’s right to choose his career path, and Allen has already contributed so much to cinema that it probably seems ungracious to chide him for resting on his laurels.  But the gulf between modest ambition and lack of ambition is immeasurable.  I appreciate that he calls his prolific production schedule “discipline,” and I’ve read nothing but lauds for his work ethic.  But the tone of the way he phrases the last few paragraphs in his Bergman tribute, coupled with the way he speaks about his own current output, doesn’t sound like a person striving to improve himself.  In the choice between modest ambition and lack thereof, Allen has chosen the latter.

Look at that quote from the Bergman obit again.  Think of what would happen if someone in any other profession than the arts chose that as a maxim.  “I may not be able to make ‘em as well as he did, but I can sure make more than he did.”  In raw terms, we’re talking quantity over quality.  If a manufacturer of, say, airplane parts neglected quality control in order to maximize volume, the level of productivity may indeed be noteworthy — but only because airplanes would be dropping out of the sky.

Allen has always been prolific.  I suppose it’s possible that he simply isn’t capable of achieving the greatness of his 80s period again, but I doubt it.  Instead, I think he simply reached a point in his career where he stopped caring about impressing people.  This in itself isn’t a bad thing, but being comfortable is not always a boon to artists; especially artists who, like Allen, have always mined their best material from the vagaries of modern existence.  Allen is not much of an explorer.  His life philosophy — “It’s all meaningless… and it sucks, too.” — is pretty basic and almost irredeemably pessimistic.  But he did redeem it for quite a long while by exploring different styles of expression and by trying to write characters that didn’t necessarily align with his own perspective.  They were variations on a theme, but variations can be sublimely rewarding if crafted by a skilled hand, and Allen possessed enormous talent and skill.  He earned a bit of an unfair reputation as an imitator by channeling the influence of idols like Bergman and Fellini, but the way he deployed these influences were distinctly his.  If nothing else, he owned his milieu: New York bourgeoisie (often pseudo-) intellectuals, beset by their own neuroses.  Like it or not, the “Woody Allen film” is its own unique subset of cinematic Americana.  For a long time, he found interesting ways to tweak his own formula.

Different Woody archeologists would place the precipice of his decline at different places.  I place it at Deconstructing Harry, his 1997 homage to Wild Strawberries.  I’m not entirely sure why, but the timing of that film’s release, coupled with Wild Man Blues, a documentary about his European tour with his New Orleans jazz band, seemed to signal a kind of exhaustion.  Maybe it was the viewing public, exhausted and disillusioned by the Soon-Yi Previn scandal, that walked away from Allen; maybe the same tumultuous period led him to walk away from the public.  When Celebrity came out a year later, the creative navel-gazing of Harry came across as tired, pretentious, and bitter.  Bitterness was nothing new to Allen’s films, but perhaps the tabloid affair tainted the self-reflexive commentary.  Perhaps it was just that, after the John Cusack experiment in Bullets Over Broadway, people developed a sudden aversion to Woody Allen substitutes, even one as pedigreed as Kenneth Branagh.  His straight dramas weren’t well-loved, but audience perhaps expected Woody Allen to at least appear in his  comedies.  It’s possible that with Celebrity and Sweet and Lowdown, in which Sean Penn was passed the baton from Branagh, we sensed that Allen was deliberately trying to distance himself from us.

That would make sense.  A huge part of his popularity was the success with which he cultivated that particular persona.  Those big glasses, that feathery hair, that poignant half-smile, the hand gesticulations — “Woody Allen” was Woody Allen.  But not anymore.  Now Woody Allen was a filmmaker who married his stepdaughter and made trenchant tragi-comedies about creative types with intractable psychological problems.  “Woody Allen” was being played by the most respected thespians in the world, none of whom was an adequate substitute for the real thing.  The more Allen divorced himself from his work onscreen, the more he seemed to drift from his creative impetus.

His more recent comedies have their defenders.  I, for one, happen to really dig The Curse of the Jade Scorpion; obviously, I enjoyed Whatever Works.  Small Time Crooks has its apologists, though I found it to be pretty dreadful.  His dramas have generally met with more success, but as polished as they are, they don’t seem engaged.  Allen on autopilot may write and direct compelling films, but they’re not the work of someone trying to push himself to do his best; they’re the work of a supremely talented craftsman having a bit of fun.  No more, no less.

Allen’s self-deprecating streak has always been half-sincere.  I’ve no doubt that he does grapple with fears of inadequacy and failure, but he has also always been aware of his own talent and achievements.  Sure, it’s hard to look like a genius compared to Bergman, but compared to Knocked Up, even Whatever Works looks like Cries and Whispers.  In most of his previous films, the modesty of Allen’s characters — especially the protagonists played by Allen himself — has always been a bit twee, if not outright false.  Allen’s humor and perspective are both heavily sardonic: a man of average intelligence will say that he’s got common sense; a man who wants to be perceived as brilliant will say he’s not a genius.  This has always been Allen’s strategy.

I only recently started watching Wild Man Blues.  I’m about halfway through it, and it’s fascinating to me that “Woody Allen” and Woody Allen really are quite similar.  Allen isn’t as quick with the snappy one-liners as “Allen,” but he gets his material from the same source.  This line in Kent Jones’s Film Comment piece wraps up the interview:

Oh, it’s time for my band practice. [Points] That’s my clarinet. I have to practice every day in order to be mediocre.

I laughed.  But I also thought of the footage of Allen onstage in Wild Man Blues, jazzing out with his band.  It’s true that he may not be a pre-eminent clarinetist.  He’s not going to rewrite the history of New Orleans jazz in his own image.  But he holds his own, no question.  And despite his protestations and demurrals, he knows exactly where he is: center stage, in the spotlight, packing concert halls across Europe on the strength of his name.  Not too shabby for a guy who practices every day to be “mediocre.”  Think of what he’d accomplish if he’d apply that work ethic to his filmmaking.

Oh, wait.  We don’t have to.  We’ve got Scoop and Midnight in Paris to illustrate it for us. ☕

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About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

2 responses to “Musings inspired by the May/June ’11 issue of Film Comment: thoughts on Woody Allen, Francis Lawrence, and genuine populism in film criticism

  • Craig

    I’m late to seeing this, but thanks for your perceptive thoughts and kind words. Bordwell and Thompson do such great work that I almost feel petty dinging them for what is, after all, a personal choice. I’m just not clear exactly what they’re afraid of — and “fear” seems the appropriate description based on Thompson’s reaction to my suggestion. Yes, there’s some trolling and other silly stuff that occurs in comments sections, and I suspect, being academics, they may be extra sensitive to that sort of thing from student evaluations. On the other hand, as we all know, a blogger has quite a bit of power in determining or filtering what goes on his or her blog. I think it’s a blind spot; I think they’d be pleasantly surprised.

    • mjschneider

      “Blind spot” is a good way of putting it. I’ve criticized them in a previous post as well as this one, and it occurs to me that maybe I’m being a bit unfair. Sort of like holding them to an ideal standard that no one could meet, even if they are as awesome as Thompson/Bordwell. Ah well.

      Thanks for the comment. It’s much appreciated.

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