Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The intellectuals and the masses

As we dangle on the tenterest of hooks in anticipation of the concluding episode of our resident Bandit’s run-in with the Smokeys, I invite you to pass some time by perusing a piece in The Guardian by Mark Lawson.


Four years ago, I faced an ethical dilemma. My duties as a crime and thriller reviewer for the Guardian had brought in a book by a little-known American writer. It was a matter of fine judgment whether the content (conspiracy theory) or the prose (making a crisp packet read like a sonnet in comparison) was more preposterous. I worried, though, about being too brutal to a new talent.

Unfortunately, even the traditional perjury for book reviewers trying to reduce the wound - this will make a great film - could not be applied to a work that seemed about as cameraunready as was possible. In the end, my review condemned the novel as tosh, balancing the barbs with some thoughts about why post-9/11 American readers might be drawn to fantasies in which events were shown to be meant. Even so, was the piece perhaps too nasty? A newspaper big-foot stamping on an emerging literary career? You will by now easily have broken the code of which book this was and quite how well the writer survived the savage judgment. And, by proving just as immune to hostile reviews on the screen as on the page, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code raises the question of whether printed and broadcast opinion matters at all. Has our culture now created a sort of genetically modified turkey - the critic-proof product?

…If you happen to own a company which trucks DVDs to the shops, you would be ill-advised to sell it before M:I3 and The Da Vinci Code come out. Only the most selfbelieving critic could deny the evidence from these events that - in cinema, as in most areas of culture - there is a significant gap between public and pundit opinion.

Movies that appear in hundreds of reviewers' top 10s - such as Michael Hanneke's Hidden and Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale - are unlikely ever to appear in box-office charts. This is because critics are giving marks for originality, acting, photography and scripting, while mass audiences are more drawn to familiarity of genre, stars they would like to have sex with or plots that are more likely to make their dates have sex with them. Reviewers are doing their day's work, cinema-goers are escaping from theirs: this leads to an inevitable difference of response.

[…]My suspicion is that even Dan Brown, wondering how to spend the next million as he sits in his New Hampshire mansion, would hand over the content of one of his accounts for a book-section front-page story acclaiming him as the new Edgar Allan Poe.

Occasional books, movies and shows may be critic-proof, but the egos and psyches of the people who make them very rarely are.





Getting lost in his thoughts about 'critic-proof' works, Lawson overlooks an important point. Upmarket broadsheet newspaper critics - which are really the only critics he's talking about in this article - and their regular readers are lovers of cinema, literature, music and theatre.

The Da Vinci Code movie is aimed at people who are interested in escapist movies, not in ‘cinema’, just as Dan Brown writes books for people who don’t like literature. And just as most West End musicals are shows for people who don’t like theatre, and Barbara Streisand sings for people who don’t like music, and Budweiser is a drink for people who don’t like beer.

The point of media critics is not to decide whether a movie sinks or swims, but to tell their readership whether it’s worth spending any hard-earned going to see it. In essence, Guardian readers want to know if it’s the sort of thing Guardian readers will like. That’s why the reviews are all quite different in The Sun, in Cosmo and in those increasingly dubious 'men's magazines'.

11 Comments:

Blogger Duck said...

The critic may be at work, but his work is to determine how suitable a work is for leisure reading or viewing, so in that sense he is judging it's escapist benefits from his own standpoint. I doubt that a critic would give good marks to a book or movie that he would not enjoy reading or viewing. Don't critics want to get their girlfriends to have sex with them?

What tends to gain critical acclaim nowadays are stories that I previously have described as posessing interiority. That is, they are intensely detailed accounts of the personal feelings, thoughts and experiences of their characters. It is a quality that women enjoy more than men, so these films are also, unsurprisingly, known as "chick flicks".

Conversely, the quality that best expresses the poular movie genres, especially the action/adventure genre, is exteriorality. The characters are usually one-dimensional, which, interestingly, is the kind of character that most people would like to escape into. They generally have little or no inner conflicts, all of the action occurs external to them, with their environment. James Bond comes to mind as the archetypal one dimensional, externally oriented hero. Men like him because he isn't conflicted, he does what he likes and he is good at it.

The best movies are able to combine both orientations. Think of Spiderman, LOTR, etc. Also Shakespeare mastered the synthesis of the external and internal worlds.

May 24, 2006 8:15 AM  
Blogger M Ali said...

I've learned to avoid anything recommended by the Daily Star.

To be fair to most critics - even nonprofessional ones - if my day job consisted of seeing five or seven films every week, my own tastes would move a lot closer to what the Guardian highbrows would consider to be stuff worth watching, rather than counting down the days until the Transformers movie comes out.

May 24, 2006 12:00 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Hmmm. As an actual reviewer who sometimes (though not lately) even gets paid to write reviews, I think the average level of navel-gazing among the fraternity is less than Mr. Lawson would have you believe.

There are, after all, no reviewer diplomas. A lot of reviewers are just pipsqueak ax-grinders. Clive Barnes, who was on record as thinking that American culture was inherently inferior, reviewed Broadway plays for The New York Times.

Go figure.

May 24, 2006 2:55 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Duck:

Interiority? Exteriorality?

I don't know if these are words, but if they aren't they darn well should be.

Question: If someone doesn't like chick flicks, does that mean they have an interiority complex?

I have frequently read reviews panning the dead tree version of "The Da Vinci Code." You could say that about many, if not most, examples of the genre. Tom Clancy, for instance, has made millions off of books containing characters that make cardboard fully fleshed out by comparison.

Why? They are page turners. Regardless of any literary shortcomings, their narrative pacing is brilliant.

BTW -- I found LOTR to be the most overhyped, leaden, plot-device plagued, perils-of-Pauline drek through which I have ever suffered. Physicists need to look closely at those films because of their time-dilation effects. So far as I know, there is no way to make minutes stretch into hours without traveling at relativistic speeds.

Your enjoyment may vary.

May 25, 2006 3:30 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

You can only generalise to a certain extent about what will garner critical acclaim.

There are plenty of 'exterior' movies beloved of critics - The Bourne Identity and Bullitt spring to mind.

Obviously movies (action or chick flick) that just follow a tediously predictable cash-cow, tick-all-the-boxes, preview audience-tested formula with no vestige of originality or respect for the intelligence of their audience will be hammered by the critics.

But even with out and out crowd-pleasers there are exceptions. Pirates of the Carribean was based on a theme-park ride of all things, but it was so witty, lovingly-made and entertaining that the critics liked it.

Casablanca was churned out by a studio system, one of a million movies off the production line, but it just flukily worked because each element - the script, acting, direction, pacing etc was perfect.

LOTR - contra Skipper (a rare lapse into insanity there, mate) - was both a popular and critical smash because it was a labour of love, driven by an individual artistic vision and an absurd attention to detail.

May 25, 2006 4:10 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

You can only generalise to a certain extent about what will garner critical acclaim.

There are plenty of 'exterior' movies beloved of critics - The Bourne Identity and Bullitt spring to mind.

Obviously movies (action or chick flick) that just follow a tediously predictable cash-cow, tick-all-the-boxes, preview audience-tested formula with no vestige of originality or respect for the intelligence of their audience will be hammered by the critics.

But even with out and out crowd-pleasers there are exceptions. Pirates of the Carribean was based on a theme-park ride of all things, but it was so witty, lovingly-made and entertaining that the critics liked it.

Casablanca was churned out by a studio system, one of a million movies off the production line, but it just flukily worked because each element - the script, acting, direction, pacing etc was perfect.

LOTR - contra Skipper (a rare lapse into insanity there, mate) - was both a popular and critical smash because it was a labour of love, driven by an individual artistic vision and an absurd attention to detail.

May 25, 2006 4:10 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

The one "interior" movie that I have seen lately that I enjoyed was "The Human Stain". It was well acted, with Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris and Gary Sinise. It helps also that Nicole Kidman gets naked, but it was a good balance between the interior aspects of Hopkins struggle with past demons and the interplay with the characters in his current environment.

The ultimate interior movie has to be Interiors by Woody Allen. This critical writeup is a good example of Lawson's brand of criticism and the reason that most people are bored stiff by these kinds of movies:

The first movie that Allen wrote and directed but did not appear in, INTERIORS is about closed spaces, both physical and psychological. Most of the scenes feature the intense cast standing by windows, looking out at the world that is going on outside without them. The opening shot of Renata (Keaton) reaching out to the window, spreading her fingers, is mesmerizing. Gordon Willis's photography washes the film in shades of black, white, and gray--the only color comes from Pearl (Maureen Stapleton), Arthur's new lover, who is vibrant and impulsive, everything Eve's family is not. The film also has no background music whatsoever; in fact, aside from one scene in which Pearl plays a jazz record, the only background sounds that can be heard are the quiet call of the ocean and the sisters' careful breathing. Slow-paced, bleak, and marvelously insightful, INTERIORS is a poignant film that should not be missed.

May 25, 2006 8:20 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

We old-fashioned critics have a few uses yet.

Years before the Frey 'Million Little Piedes' brouhaha broke out, a reviewer for The eXile (an odd paper in Moscow that M. Ali introduced me to) pointed out that it was a fake.

I have not read 'Da Vinci,' but about 25 years ago I did review 'Holy Blood, Holy Grail,' which I labeled as fake.

When my paper was printing the wire stories about the Baigent lawsuit in London, I kept trying to strike the description of 'HBHG' as a work of 'non-fiction,' without any success among the copy editors.

More recently, I reviewed an obviously (to me, anyway) fake book about a plot to nuke Honolulu, 'Red Star Rogue.'

May 27, 2006 11:14 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Hmmm. Odd bahavior by Mr. Blogger.

My post didn't show up for almost 24 hours, then only half of it did.

May 28, 2006 1:20 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Harry, I see the hand of Orrin Judd in that. He's everywhere.

BTW, did Judge Judy sentence Skipper to hard time?

May 29, 2006 5:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mark Lawton's incredibly patronizing and condescending dismissal of "Mass audiences" really showcases how pretentious too many film critics have become.

Critics such as Mark Lawton (and David Thomson, I might add) seem to forget that movies are actually meant to entertain people. The word "entertainment" is looked on as a filthy swear word by people like Mr. Lawton.

Forgive me if I'm sounding rather extremist, but I have developed very little patience with the sort of critic who believes that any movie with an unhappy ending is automatically "Great Art," and while I usually need to read several reviews by a critic to determine that, I need only to read a single sentence of Mark Lawton's review to know that he is exactly the kind of critic whom I find so distasteful.

Let's say someone makes a movie with no plot or point, just a lot of people sitting around being miserable and having random bad things happen to them. This kind of movie will ALWAYS draw immense praise from the critical crowd, often a movie needs no other qualification whatsoever to be labeled a "Masterpiece" by the critics (I am thinking here of "House of Sand and Fog"), particularly if the film is a black-and-white foreign feature ("L'Avventura").

Have a nice day.

December 07, 2006 11:11 PM  

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