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February 24, 2012


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Tom McCormack

This is an interesting post.
But when you call my line a "howler," I assume you mean "A laughably stupid blunder" - is it really not obvious the line is a joke? Especially given all the overall tone of the piece?
As for the line about politics. I think you picked up that I was being a little polemical there - obviously I'd like to see more politics in film criticism. I'll note that I certainly wasn't singling out White for praise - he's great illustration of why critics tend to avoid politics.
Incidentally, we both think Robin Wood is a good model for political criticism - and he's way, way, way less BORING than the great majority of film reviewers.

Jim Gabriel

My vote for money shot in that piece: "There is, at times, a poet in Douthat."

Yes, there is, and his name is Rudyard Kipling. And when the day arrives that he carves his way to sweet freedom with an India pattern bayonet I hope that Eli Roth is there to film it.

Glenn Kenny

Well, TM, as Stan Demeski said to Doug Harvey at a post-gig band meeting in the early 80's, after Harvey played bare-legged in an overcoat, "If that was a joke, quite honestly I didn't get it." I'll cop to some obtuseness here and say the drollery wasn't self-evident. I'll check the piece proper again when I get home. Also, to clear up an obtuse commission of my own, I did not, in my remarks re A. White, intend to imply your commendation of him. Sorry.

Mark Asch

Hi Tom!

Though "infra dig" hardly rankled me to the extent than it did Glenn, I tend to agree with his explanation of why ideological parsing isn't, except it certain quarters, a consistent feature of first-run film reviewing.

Although I would actually blame readers/audiences, frankly, who tended to react with indifference or outright hostility to The L's own attempts at "the ideological analysis of mainstream movies" (which I need to figure out how to continue doing now that Sutton's gone). That's not a very politic thing for an editor to say, I suppose. Maybe I should have been more aggressive about framing it with Slate-style headlines. "What 'Bridesmaids' REALLY Says About the Commoditization of Female Friendship." That would have built a receptive audience, surely.

Since you're here, I actually had a question about Douthat's consistency vis a vis praising the simplifications of RED DAWN and damning the simplifications of THE CONSPIRATOR. A case could be made (and this has to do with the "ideological water," I suppose) that the former, as a genre film, can be commended for its underlying worldview without being docked for not examining it thoroughly; while the latter's an adult drama that engages explicitly with American history and culture and should be graded on a different curve.

I don't really buy that, I suppose, but then again I publish the occasional bit of stridently political genre-film criticism; clearly not everyone agrees that everything is always fair game, which is why Douthat can get away with it.

Joel Bocko

I think the problem is that ideology and aesthetics are seen as opposed, and not only by those who uphold the latter. Jonathan Rosenbaum (surprised he hasn't come up in this conversation yet) said it well in a comment thread a few years ago:

“It’s true that a lot of academics of all stripes write poorly and inelegantly, including those who depend too much on jargon (although there are fewer of these around now than there used to be), but you might say that the rejection of aesthetics in the study of both film and literature has been wholly compatible with the lack of any sense of necessity on the part of many academics of writing well about ANY subject.

To the best of my knowledge, the U.S. is the only country in the world where art is actively hated by many intellectuals, and this bias is, alas, fully apparent in their work.”


Personally, I loathe politically moralistic judgements of art, but I feel that political/ideological analysis has a definite place in film discussion, better integrated with aesthetic reactions (because I think the emotional responses get closer to the actual phenomena of movies than intellectual deconstructions) but not to be disregarded. It just has to be seen from a holistic perspective - not something added on, or "on top of" other reactions - but a part of the big picture.

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Glenn Kenny

Interesting points, JB, that underscore some continuing-to-run-rampant symptoms in our discourse. Althoigh I will add that for as much as I respect and admire Rosenbaum, I do think his politically committed approach has led him up some blind alleys. I think he misreads Soderbergh rather thoroughly, for instance. Robin Wood's hostility to Cronenberg is another interesting case in point. Cronenberg himself allowed that his own brand of pessimism likely abraded Wood's revolutionary utopianism (for lack of a better term).

Tom McCormack

Mark! We've got to stop meeting like this.

I understand way less of the cost/benefit decisions editors have to go thru re: politics. J. Hoberman seemed to me to draw a crowd (though I guess someone decided that wasn't profitable).

I think Hoberman is a good example for a lot of reasons. Being snarky, getting a few good jabs in there, and noting maybe a good performance-- that seems to me easy work. Being smart and interesting about politics and not defaulting to cookie-cutter cult. crit. generalities is hard, especially the shorter the word count, and especially if you want to win over some kind of general audience. Given the limited supply of people who are good at the latter, and the seemingly unlimited supply of people who are at least OK at the former, what would I do as an editor?

On the other hand, as Slate, and Armond White, show, politics can draw in readers, even if trollishly. My suspicion is that less trollish writing could do this too - it depends, obviously, on the sort of audience a magazine already has. But I'll put it this way - I see some film critics and editors willing to take risks in certain directions (talking about more arcane formal matters) and not willing to take risks in other directions (talking about politics). And (and this isn't directed at either M or G, who are both more subtle) people act as if what they're doing is in the interest of readers - like I have to talk about "shock cuts" and "mise-en-scene" because people living thru a war-exacerbated recession wouldn't be interested in the fact that the military underwrites Michael Bay's movies. This seems to me to be passing off a personal preference, and one I guess I'm suspicious of, as some sort of market-driven one.

I realize a whole lot of people resent talking about "entertainment" in any terms other than how entertaining it is. But I think writers are willing to alienate some readers doing certain things, and not willing alienate them doing others.

Re: you last comment - I do think that certain movies frame themselves as fantasy while others don't, and we should keep that in mind when we talk about them. I note that Douthat is *more* critical of historical dramas. But what's frightening about the passage on Red Dawn is he *doesn't* praise it as fantasy, he praises "geo-political realism."

Joel Bocko

Rosenbaum, I think, is the rare case of the ideological judge (rather than analyst) whose rants & broadsides I find enjoyable and illuminating - and individual - enough to accept (despite frequent frustrations). And, as his quote indicates, he wraps ideology up with aesthetic judgement (as do most critics coming out of the 60s, in my perception) rather than just impose a simple-minded political judgement of narrative content in a Bizarro World version of Big Hollywood. That's an important distinction I forgot to mention - I think the better ideological analysis foreground form in their critique, rather than just picking apart the screenplay. That's something that bugged me in the recent brouhaha over The Help - I would have like to see more critics (deservedly) pick apart HOW it tackles its material rather than just what that material is, though I'm sure did.

Your highlighting of Wood in the book meme a few years ago led me to check out that chapter on Spielberg/Lucas. It's another example of very entertaining and informative ideological criticism, though I like the filmmakers more than he does and the consistent references to "Obi-One" drifted into facepalm territory.

Joel Bocko

*though I'm sure SOME did.


Joel Bocko

Tom, see above: I think in an ideal world (or even a realizable one) one could discuss shock cuts/mise en scene in relation to the fact that the military underwrites Bay's film (which I'll admit is news to me but I'll admit I haven't been paying much attention to his career) and present it in a matter-of-fact enough fashion that it doesn't seem like political fore-feeding or desperate connect-the-dots. Not that that's what you're doing, mind you; I mean these comments more generally. Besides, I'm still splashing around in this SCR thread and haven't read the Douthat piece yet, which I will do promptly.

Tom McCormack

Joel, I agree that, most of the time, political discussions can and a lot of times should be wedded to formal ones. But with movies like The Help - granted, I haven't seen it, but it seems justifiable to object to a movie on grounds that don't even have to do with form (insert Griffith reference). Form is one interesting thing to talk about, but as long as movies also have plots and ideas that are abstractions, there will be other interesting things too.


"*Late* capitalism"?

If only.

Joel Bocko

Definitely, but that's my point (sorry if I didn't make it clear): not to remove plot from the equation, but rather to include mise en scene as well (and, I'll admit I think it's wise - with the caveat that I've hardly ever managed to do it myself - to foreground the formal qualities in relation to the content, to give them a slight privilege). Obviously what's objectionable about the The Help begins with the fact that it's another "Bourgeois white person liberates black victims" story - but it doesn't end there: the slick, quasi-Mad Men way the story is presented, in the advertising campaign and the film itself, the particular generalizing touches used throughout to suggest poverty, race, etc. can be taken alongside the bizarre narrative choices (aside from the primary one, how about the fact that the film depicts Poor White Trash as being more, not less, sympathetic to the oppressed minorities - an interesting reflection of the time the film/book was made, rather than when it was written). I truly believe that a more gifted or adventurous (or free from studio oversight) filmmaker could have taken the same story, heck maybe even the same screenplay, and drawn out a far more interesting and complex film. That's why the Griffith reference would be pertinent: The Birth of a Nation is a far more objectionable film than The Help but it's also far more compelling, resonant, and even beautiful. And I don't think that's because of the story...

By the way, just visited the article which made for a great read (and, whether or not it was the intention, made me want to check out Douthat further - I'm familiar with the name but not, I think, as a film critic). Many of your ideological observations hit home, though I think you lend contemporary American conservatism more coherence than it actually contains, even in criticism.

Lately I've been engaged in a lot of disputes with conservatives online, and it's amazing to me how even the intelligent, thoughtful ones (and a cursory visit to a Big Hollywood thread on gay marriage, Hollywood celebrities or, God forbid, both will demonstrate that they tend to be in the minority in online conservative forums) take for granted so many derogatory generalizations about liberals. Granted, there's a similar impulse on the left, and I've indulged in rancorous generalizations myself at times (from both angles, as I've been politically promiscuous in my time, albeit serially rather than simultaneously), but there's a special quality of brusque certainty in the way that even intelligent conservatives will write things like, "liberals are hypocrites who want to control everyone's lives" or "liberals react to everything on an emotional basis and don't think at all," etc. as if these notions were simply self-evident. There seem to be few examples of, say, a right-wing New Republic in which moderate or even dedicated conservatives actively deconstruct liberal memes rather than offer up insulting cliches. It sounds like Douthat approaches that but still falls into a more clever version of the Standard Line.

Ultimately it all relates to the haphazard way American political identities have been assembled - there simply aren't commonly held definitions of left/right, liberal/conservatives so that people don't even agree on the very terms of the debate. The "Nazis = left-wing" meme (which is mostly what I've been engaging with on these recent occasions) is a great example. The traditional left/right axis emerged in Europe 200 years ago as a way of discussing differences in values (and concomittant institutions or governing styles one desired/opposed as a result) but lately in the U.S. it's been reinvented as purely applied to governing strategy, by which fascism is on the left and anarchism is on the right. At this point both left and right discourse is up to its neck in postmodern worldplay, whether or not the right wants to acknowledge it, and I think it's left political discourse for the worse.

This was quite the ramble but your piece, Douthat's quotes, Glenn's post, and the subsequent comments have opened up several interesting cans of worms and this fish has bitten...

Joel Bocko

Oliver, it reminds me of how positive the early Christians were that the Apocalypse was just around the corner...

David Ehrenstein

It's a nicely written pice by at the end of the day Ross Asshat isn't worth talking about.

Here's a teriffic pice on film and politics by J. Hoberman



Seems to me that THE HELP could have avoided a lot of criticism by having one of the maids approach Emma Stone's character about doing a book, rather than the other way around. That way, you acknowledge the maids' lack of power but make at least one of them a more active character, while still staying true to the reality that such a task would require the added assistance of a white character.

That said, I generally liked the film.

Tom McCormack

David E., he's one of the most widely read political pundits in the country. It makes no more sense to say he "isn't worth talking about" than it does to say Mitt Romney isn't worth talking about. You could say his film criticism, which is marginal, isn't worth talking about, but I think it's pretty clear that in the piece I try to make more general points about him as a writer and about the conservatism he represents more generally.

Joel Bocko

That would be a start. But it brings up why the film/book exists in the first place. From what I gather it's more or less conceived to assuage white guilt and project into the black experience than to actually empower black women themselves. Which, you know, is legit. What's less legit is that it's only movies like these get made & especially seen - but I don't have much use for the people who whine about this and demand justice from Hollywood. Hollywood will never listen because they're in the business of profits and self-expression is decidedly not a consideration. The answer for film-lovers, writers, makers, and financiers who don't like the situation is to seek out/discuss/create/finance (in reverse order, I suppose) movies that DO cast the net wider. Cheaper technology & online distribution certainly makes that feasible, and I suspect that's the path most interesting movies, not just those about race or politics, will end up taking in the coming years.


Even a fictional film about that era in the South is hamstrung a bit by reality. As you sort of suggest, one path is simply not to make films/write books on the subject. I give the makers of THE HELP props for 'going there,' with their hearts clearly in the right place. I have no idea if those involved conceived the project as a way to 'assuage white guilt' (I would guess not intentionally), although I can understand how a good liberal writer might concoct the plot as a wish fulfillment sort of thing -- "If only I had been there to help these poor women!" But at least the film (and the book, I assume -- haven't read it) does give more or less equal time to the white and black protagonists, and the Viola Davis character does come into her own after deciding to do the book. The Emma Stone character may be instrumental in this to the extent that she facilitates the possibility of it, but she doesn't write the Davis character's words.

I agree that the bigger issue involves the 'wider net' you mention. Frankly, it's a bit of miracle these days when even something like THE HELP gets a green light, because it's a story about people and issues and history.

David Ehrenstein

I don't care how "widely read" Ross Asshat may be.

Should Barbara Taylor Bradford have gotten the Pulitzer Prize? Or maybe you prefer Alice Rosenbaum.

The "Conservatism" Asshat represents is as a "seat-filler" for the thankfully six-feet under William F. Buckley Jr. -- one of the most loathesome carbon-based life forms to ever draw breath.

"Even a fictional film about that era in the South is hamstrung a bit by reality." Oh not really jbryant.


Far more to the point than "The Help" don't you think?

Tom McCormack

I'm having trouble parsing your comment. Are you suggesting that trying to destroy a political ideology and the person who professes it is somehow comparable to rewarding a writer with a Pulitzer Prize? A better comparison would be: do you think no one should write critically about William F Buckley? I'm sorry, but what you're saying doesn't make any sense.


"I try to imagine what my life would be like if I spent it, say, pointing out how hetero-normative almost EVERYTHING was."

Perfect quote. When I was finishing my PhD I didn't have to imagine this. I lived amongst these people. As someone who was always more of a cinephile than "theorist" I certainly had difficulty getting along with the "only ideology" matters type of grad student. Although perhaps their real problem was their grasp of ideology was painfully obvious and sincere in its refusal to consider ambiguity or contradiction.

That Fuzzy Bastard

What's so annoying about the all-ideology film studies types is that their ideology is so dull and straightforward (unlike form/aesthetics, which are often surprising and complex). I've suffered through way too many lengthy pieces that boil down, after long simmering, to "This is how this movie speaks for good, and condemns bad" or vice-versa. Yawn.
Obviously, it's valuable for a critic to publicly attack a crappy fake-critic like Douhat (almost as obvious as the line about "a vast knowledge stretching back to the 70s" being a joke), so no worries there. What makes Douhat so very, very awful is his tendency to seize ground with crazy unsupportable assertions about movies (and people) without even understanding what it is to demonstrate the existence of an ideology within a work of art, and anyone who musses him up is doing (the real) God's work.

David Ehrenstein

I'm saying EVERYONE should write critically of Buckley and the world he created -- of which Asshat is a strategically important part.

Does THAT make sense?

What do you need? Flash Cards?

Tom McCormack

Somewhere between saying a topic "isn't worth talking about" and then saying "EVERYONE" should write about it - yes, a flash card would've helped.


Personally, I'd love "Ideological Criticism" flash cards, though I'd probably end up throwing them at students.

@That Fuzzy Bastard: That was my problem too. The all-ideology types were simple moralists which is fine if you want to be a moralist. However, I don't understand why one would study aesthetic objects to arrive at simple morals. As a related point: most of the all-ideology types I would encounter wouldn't like, say, films by Godard or Chantal Akerman or directors who very much tried to express ideological criticism through formal innovations. Nope, they preferred to discuss transparent representations or plot resolutions.

Joel Bocko

ZS, another one of their real problems is that they tend to hover together in universities chanting "Four legs good, two legs bad" instead of you know, actually doing something about their ideology. But then they might have to rub shoulders with the rubes in flyover country, God forbid.

It's highly ironic...while imposing irrelevant ethical standards on aesthetics, they simultaneously corrupt ethical concerns with aesthetic grandstanding (since the forms of their political expression seem to be more about satisfying their own feelings of self-righteousness and indignation rather than actually winning undecided people over to their point of view).

Joel Bocko

jbryant, I didn't quite mean why this book exists as why it exists in this particular form (which, admittedly, may amount to the same thing; would it have been written without the particular motives?). The book definitely had a genesis in a sort of white guilt (here's an interview/article that goes into it a bit: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/5844739/The-maids-tale-Kathryn-Stockett-examines-slavery-and-racism-in-Americas-Deep-South.html). & like I said, any route an artist takes has some validity to it (which doesn't mean it can't be criticized); its the overall cultural pattern that irks me most of all.

Dan Coyle

Ross Douthat is a film critic?!

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