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February 24, 2012

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David Ehrenstein


Asshat writes film criticism for "The National Review" -- a publication I do not read.

He is also an op-ed columnist fro the NYT --a publication I DO read.

Writing critically of Buckley and the world he created is not writing about film criticism but ideology.


How fucking DENSE are you anyway?

Jim Gabriel

COMMENT, PART 1

Tom,
This is going to sound much harsher than I intend, but (if I may borrow from your query of Ehrenstein) I'm having trouble parsing what you're getting at. It's nice you warn us that you're going to do a Douthatian flip but it's hard to make it through to your promised land of severe critique when your subject's powers of observation are wobbly as hell - and you praise him for it! I'd very much like to separate ideology from the examples I'll cite, but Douthat can't or won’t, so I don't see how I can.
--Douthat's bit in his ALL THE KING'S MEN review about the camera being anti-democratic, which you cite as "poetic", is really just a fancy sounding turn which masks what he's really getting at. The camera, yes, is nothing without the will and expression of the person using it, blah blah, but what *he's* expressing is his frustration that this dumb beast isn't being used at the service of exposing Willie Stark as a fascist (you know, building those free hospitals and all). Well, okay, if that's what he wants. But his engagement with the source material is so shoddy that all we're left with is the ideological yearning. That he derides Stark’s speech as “quasi-Biblical patter” shows a tin ear for time, place, people, politics, culture. He actually says that the speech of a Southern politician in the Thirties should not be so thick with Biblical cadence! Kind of an ivory tower thing to say, isn’t it? And his obsession with THE GREAT GATSBY has obviously destroyed his close reading skills for anything else. An incomplete quotation he employs reveals much – Stark tells Jack Burden when sending him to dig dirt on a political opponent that "Man is conceived in sin and born of corruption, and he passes from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud" but Douthat leaves off the capper. “There is always something,” is the way that line ends. It’s one I’ve always been fond of because it *works.* It’s in character, it directs the story toward its tragic end, and it’s illustrative of all that stuff about aristocracy and time and regret that gets in the way of Douthat’s (stated!) wish for propaganda – all the stuff that the book is, you know, ABOUT. You don’t have to agree with my slant on the material to ponder if the Heir to William Buckley’s Legacy simply cannot read, and if, perhaps, one should demand more of criticism. Not to mention poetry.
--He’s incapable of praising a film like “Letters From Iwo Jima” without giving Hollywood, Demon Hollywood, the back of his hand for not making films about the bravery of fighting men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan – essentially, an upbraiding for making THEY WERE EXPENDABLE instead of DER FUEHRER’S FACE. He also prisses it up about how queasy it makes him to watch a film which humanizes the Japanese. I know how he feels. Nothing can induce certain rumblings like reading Ross Douthat fail to contend with the objective reality that if Demon Hollywood thought It could make a buck off a film that was utterly in the tank in favor of Gulf II, then It, like It has done so often, would do that thing. But, like ideologues of all stripes, and toddlers, he wants it NOW. Remember, the camera is only good for rhetoric and propaganda; Douthat’s not even triple dealing there, he’s telling you exactly what he’s about, dealing right off the top of the deck. I’d also ask that anyone reading his review note the part where he describes IWO JIMA’s cinematography as “shot in a palette so dark it might as well be black-and-white.” Finished? Good. You have now read the extent of Dauthat’s powers to describe what artists can make stupid cameras do. His thoughts on every other aspect of cinema, whether dramatic or technical, are about as sharp.

Jim Gabriel

COMMENT, PART 2


--Your take that “It's not completely outrageous to say that blunt anti-communism offers a "more accurate depiction of Soviet Communism" than more sympathetic takes” in a paragraph which compares RED DAWN to REDS is, to my mind, completely outrageous, and no references to Susan Sontag can gussy it up. Again with Dauthat, ignoring what’s in front of him - and you do it, too. Does it make one an unreconstructed Stalinist to note that the entire last half hour of REDS is devoted to John Reed coming up hard against the reality of ending up a propagandist for a cause whose reality in no way resembles his romantic vision? Maybe, if *your* romantic vision doesn’t allow for the possibility that somebody else’s might be at all nuanced. The extent of Douthat’s nuance as far as I can see is giving the Bourne movies a pass because, even though they’re leftist tripe, they deliver the goods; they get him off.
--Also the description of Abigail Breslin you find so expressive, that she was “radiantly buck-toothed”… call me a hater, but I can’t even hang with that. To my eye, the set of her jaw revealed a grin that could be called at best “toothy.” Anybody else, I’d let it pass, but it is an observation by Ross Douthat, and after spending a DELIGHTFUL couple of hours reacquainting myself with his film writing (can a volume called DOUTHAT ON DOUTHAT be far behind?) I’d trust his telling of what he sees about as much as I trust a vision of my future imparted by someone in a mu-mu at the other end of a psychic hotline.
This whole thing might be an over-the-top response to what may have been a little thought experiment, but in the end I do agree with you that Douthat is a figure to be grappled with, if for no other reason than he’s suckered a few name brands out of their cash, and you know the old saying - steal a little, etc. You are the one who gave him a fair amount of credence and I’m still trying to figure that out. I look at him and see a dilettante, filmwise, someone with little to offer me. Again – what were you getting at?

Jim Gabriel

And he just keeps posting...

In fairness, I have to note an error I made in haste. The KING'S quote is incorrect; the word is not "passes", but "passeth". Be cautioned - NEVER cut and paste from anything Ross Dauthat writes lest you be dragged into his personal hell of textual inferiority.

Evelyn Roak

Just to pick up on a sub strand here: There are insufferable, uneducated ideologists in academic film studies, just as there are the same in popular criticism. I don't think it is fair or accurate to paint all academia with this brush. There seems to be a recurring position of dismissal of academic film work, often coming from educated, smart critics. I've never understood this antagonism myself and it oft comes across that outside of a Robin Wood or David Bordwell there is very little reading done or attention given to work coming out of an academic environment, and much broad dismissing (which seems to find the whole domain faulty).

Writers like D.N. Rodowick, Robert Stam, Kaja Silverman and William Rothman, to name but a few, are most certainly tuned into the relationship of aesthetics and ideology, how they function together and are absolutely concerned with form and construction. Importantly, they should be read and engaged with. There are just as many crummy aestheticians and popular critics but let us not dismiss an entire field for the failures of the untalented.

Shamus

Jim G, wasn't Tom M. being sarcastic in noting that "radiantly buck-tooth" thing? Like he was when he was repeating that marvel of sociological and psychological insight: torture "exists only to exist" as a "self-conscious spectacle"? Like Glenn Kenny, I had a hard time detecting sarcasm at several places. Ultimately, I DID find the critique funny, but not nearly as funny as the subject.

Re: social content- surprised no-one yet mentioned Thom Andersen and Noel Burch who made an entire movie, RED HOLLYWOOD, about the social content of 30s and 40s Hollywood pictures, specifically how Communist screenwriters managed to sneak in their ideas into studio products (including those of MGM). Andersen followed this with LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF, which combines both formal and political analyses of filmmakers from Sennett to Polanski. For the record, I did not find either of them boring.

Jim Gabriel

Shamus, I read Tom's piece backwards and forwards, God help me, very much wanting to give it a break and find the funny, because I do love the funny. If there is comedy to be teased out of the examples I cite, I can only quote what a dealer of (long-past) acquaintance said to a guy who was doing rhetorical flips to avoid paying a debt - "THAT is some esoteric shit."

Thank you for mentioning RED HOLLYWOOD, a film I haven't seen. If it's anything like LAPI I'm in for a treat.

Shamus

Jim G., You're welcome. RED HOLLYWOOD is a little more serious, more objective and probably less funny, but Burch-Andersen take the trouble to interview some of the (then) surviving Ten and discuss and criticize their ideas (Abraham Polonsky, in particular, makes a fascinating interviewee). And like LAPI, the movie is gripping in its own odd way. Well worth the trouble to find and watch it.

Josh Z

It seems to me that most film critics avoid talking about politics for the same reason that they avoid talking about the intricasies of quantum mechanics. It's a subject that, if they're honest with themselves, they're just not qualified to discuss. When they do make the mistake of trying to talk about it anyway, they inevitably get called out on their ignorance by a bunch of raving loonies from all sides. Better just to let the subject lie and talk about something they do understand instead (i.e. aesthetics, storytelling and so forth).

It also helps that most filmmakers don't know a damn thing about politics either. That being the case, what's there to discuss about it anyway?

The IDEOLOGY of a movie like Red Dawn is so simplistic, that criticism of that aspect of the film merits only a commensurate amount of thought or analysis.

Shamus

"...most filmmakers don't know a damn thing about politics either. That being the case, what's there to discuss about it anyway?"

That's kinda missing the point; movies can still reflect some of the dominant mores, whether intentionally or not. For instance, Jason Reitman's last couple of movies basically service the conservative ideology, in a rather crass and disgusting sort of way. If you place UP IN THE AIR in the context of the financial crash, you will see how much "politics" is contained in even a bad studio programmer.

Odd that anyone would deny that movies are political, especially these days when filmmakers are more self-conscious than ever and deliberately construct narratives around "big" and "important" events (eg. O. Stone and his redundant Wall Street sequel).

Josh Z

Even films like Stone's that are ostensibly "political" in subject matter are only such at the most base and simplistic level (i.e. "My views are correct and everyone else's are wrong"). The more overt the political message in a movie, inevitably the more naive and unsophisticated it will be. Other than acknowledging the viewpoint that the filmmaker is trying to espouse, what's the point in debating it further? To Glenn's point, doing so quickly turns boring, excruciatingly so, especially when both the critic and the readers are all just as ignorant about politics as the filmmaker, which is the case the vast majority of the time.

An honest critic will acknowledge his limitations and focus on the things that he actually knows something about, which so happen to be the same things that his readers actually care about: Is the film well made? Are the performances good? Does it tell an interesting story? Etc.

I'm not saying that there are NO critics that know anything about politics. But c'mon, how many of them are really out there who aren't idiot ideologues like Douthat? Does it even require all of your fingers to count them all?

If the question is why more film critics don't try to analyze and discuss the political messages (whether intentional or not) of the movies they're reviewing, the answer is quite simple. We have a bunch of critics who neither know nor care about politics writing for an audience of readers who also neither know nor care about politics. In short: Nobody gives a s***.

Jim Gabriel

Josh - I'm not sure I'd put a layman's knowledge, an engaged citizen's knowledge, really, about the cultural lay of the land on a level with quantum mechanics. But, hey, horses for courses. I tend to like people who put themselves out there, if their gigs allow it. I like the give and take. And as far as raving looniedom goes, I'll just say that I'd be much more favorably inclined toward Douthat if he knew more about the practical mechanics of filmmaking and got it across every so often. There are plenty of people who are in the same ballpark as him ideologically whose work I enjoy very much. Can't say the same for RD.

Joel Bocko

Again, the distinction that needs to be made between engaging with ideology and simply bellowing your own. That's not to say someone with an axe to grind can't offer pointed and cogent criticism but too often (as Rosenbaum notes in that passage I quoted) the ideology-first types have two strikes against them: what they are expressing is a limited view to begin with, and they don't express it very interestingly.

Red Hollywood sounds great - I find that period endlessly fascinating. But again, it's an example of investigating (it sounds like) rather than merely propagandizing. In my experience, a lot of cultural studies types lean toward the latter (and Evelyn, you're right none of us should paint with too broad a brush, and I definitely know & know of many generous, thoughtful, and genuinely enthusiastic academics, though I will note that on the meta-level most of the great ideas and approaches of film criticism/theory seem to have emerged in a pre-academic context...)

Zach

As far as writing/discussing film in terms of politics and ideology being "boring" - Zizek manages to make it pretty damn zesty, I must say. Not to say that you said it was impossible, Glenn - your point is well taken. But he's an interesting example - coming to film, as it were, through philosophy, and not the other way around.

And if I can push it a wee bit farther - isn't the fact that it's perceived as boring indicative of a certain complacency - similar even to the one you point out in your review of Wanderlust? It's a delicate balance, to talk about aesthetics and politics both, but there's those who would say that aesthetics itself is political, not that this is the time or place for that argument, even though it is an important one.

Shamus

Josh, at the risk of repetition, it's not what movies tell, it's what they reveal: their attitudes, their codes. [Like you, I consider Stone a mediocre (at best) filmmaker.] How did Hollywood react to the financial crash of 2008? Well, the two examples I gave you started emphasizing family (or rather, FAMILY) in an incredibly, astonishingly unsubtle way.

At the end of WALL STREET 2 (Jesus- what an imagination to come up with that title), M. Douglas stares at his bank account and then looks at the sonogram of his grandchild. Guess what he "chooses". FAMILY. The movie ends with a tacky montage of the birthday celebration.

UP IN THE AIR basically tells us (esp. in that obnoxious scene with JK Simmons) that it's alright if you're fired, because the suits know best and it's really for your own good and because they care, now go home and fuck your wife. Clooney's character is a person who lays people off, but in a caring sort of way: but imagine, there are uncaring people who want to start firing people over the internet! THEY are the villains. It also includes a tacky montage of people who REALLY got fired, telling us about how wonderful it is to be fired because they have a family. Isn't it great? FAMILY.

You can judge for yourself the crassly stupid techinque the filmmakers use to showcase this vacuous "moral". As Joel Broncko notes, the disintegration of any meaningful critique or political content is closely aligned with a simple failure of aesthetic imagination.

I've chosen these two films because they are the ones that readily come to mind, and if there are any others, I quite frankly am too fed up to give a fuck, and I'll readily consent to being roasted over slow flame than be subjected to another Reitman film again.

I.B.

I friend of mine recommended UP IN THE AIR solely on account of the peaceful nap he enjoyed during the screening.

Dan Coyle

My issue with Up in The Air is that it didn't end; it stopped.

Joel Bocko

For some reason that new version of my name makes me think of the SNL skit with Jimmy Smits where everyone insists on calling stretching out the vowels in every vaguely Spanish-sounding names (including only vaguely Spanish-sounding teams like the Broncos...) You are right about Up in the Air's lame attempts at relevance though - the worst thing about that movie was its attempt to "feel America's pain" (although the particular way it failed made it inadvertently interesting). The best thing about it (a vacuous but, I found, mildly enjoyable movie) was its literal depiction of living in the clouds, on a kind of perpetually sleek yet shallow joyride - pretty much the Hollywood mentality in a nutshell.

Shamus

@Joel: Oh, damn, so sorry man. I was tired and pissed and the alphabets started to conjugate themselves, if you know what I mean. I'm sticking to first names from now on. And you're also free to misspell my name in any way you see fit...

Betttencourt

In half-hearted defense of Oliver Stone's WALL STREET sequel, the title (at least in the U.S.) was not WALL STREET 2 but WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS, so Shamus scolding the filmmakers for an unimaginative title seems a little unfair.

Joel Bocko

No problem, Shameus.

Betttencourt (on the subject of usernames, you're just asking for trouble aren't you?), this is true but if I detect a bit of tongue-in-cheek there, well-played.

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