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March 09, 2009


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So, like most mainstream critics, he's damned if he doesn't pay attention to what is going on outside the mainstream; but you go ahead and damn him because he *does* pay attention. That's just pissy, sorry. Denby's article on mumblecore is actually receptive, generous, and interesting. You seem to have it in for him because, as an old guard critic and the author of a recent chiding book on "snark," he's so darned uncool these days. But that standard in itself is pathetic.

Glenn Kenny

If I may, topbroker: you seem to confuse "damning" with what the British call "taking the piss." I've enjoyed cordial relations with Mr. Denby in the past and expect to continue doing so. I don't "have it in for him;" I have objections to some of what he writes. The "Snark" book was a potentially valid idea, sunk by choppy research and a finally diffused focus. The article on "mumblecore" is, as you say, "generous," but, I would argue, not in an entirely innocent way—rather, in much the same way as his writing on Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing" was cravenly class-and-race disingenuous. Wow, whaddya know, the problems of young arty white people strike a chord with the guy; really, who woulda thunk it.

It's also telling that when he summons specifics to justify the not-quite-genre, he goes to Bujalski and Katz, and not Swanberg, the article's putative subject. Then there's his whole marveling that the works of Bujalski, Katz, Sawnberg, et.al. can be bought on DVD, through the Internet. Wow, what'll these kids think of next.

I don't care about "cool" and "uncool." I never have. But seriously...


I appreciate your thoughtful response, but I stand by my basic point: damned if he does, damned if he doesn't. That doesn't constitute encouragement to critics like Denby to pay attention to subjects like mumblecore. I don't care so much if his hands are clean and "innocent" (whose are?), but that he took the trouble to write the piece and publish it in The New Yorker at all. That's something. Plus, he didn't make any knee-jerk assessments about subject or style -- in fact, he was careful to grant the directors both their subject and style, without fuss. I seriously doubt that those directors would prefer being ignored by a respected mainstream outlet, as opposed to getting a careful, non-dismissive appreciation there.

I haven't read Denby's book on snark yet; the reviews, both snarky and non-snarky, basically agree with your assessment. Garth Risk Hallberg wrote a post in "The Millions" blog that I thought went a long way towards a workable definition of snark (in one page, no less), the lack of which almost all of Denby's reviewers faulted him for.

Glenn Kenny

topbroker, when you're right, you're right. That is, you are completely correct when you say that Denby "didn't make any knee-jerk assessments about subject or style" and that "he was careful to grant the directors both their subject and style." Both absolutely true, and things I ought to have taken into account before indulging in my piss-taking. Mea culpa.


You are very gracious! I enjoyed the exchange. These are subjects worth talking about.

John M

Speaking of piss-taking, might I point out that the very existence of this article in The New Yorker speaks once again to Swanberg's insane promotional talents. Though 9.9 people out of 10 have never seen any of his movies, and many of the people who have seen them don't really like them, he's getting a full-length mention by the most rootin'-tootin' tasteful magazine there ever was.


Or maybe it's just because Noah Baumbach likes him now?

Also, nitpicks etc., but no mention of Frownland, which is the only movement film I've seen that truly justifies the whole mumblecore mishegoss. Admittedly, I haven't seen Quiet City yet--interesting that the moment described by Denby is, at least in description, very un-mumblecore, as it circles around a past remembrance, rather than the stammering here and now.

Glenn Kenny

Well, John M., as we've discussed on another thread, that is a whole other kettle of fish, ain't it. It's not just Swanberg's adeptness at self-promotion, but that's a big factor. "Frownland" is a particular sticking point, partially because it's so uncompromised that it represents a serious challenge to even the most adventurous DVD marketer. The question of whether it would get more respect if it got more market exposure becomes a snake eating its own tail in a certain way; whoever takes the risk is likely to both reap critical glory AND go out of business. I also chafe at the short shrift Preston Miller's "Jones" got, for similar reasons.

As I commented elsewhere, it gets to the point where you feel like you're banging your head against the wall. It's all about films and filmmakers, not movements, but the tendency to identify movements is attractive for many reasons, one of which is that no one can keep up with EVERYTHING that's out there. Did France's so-called New Wave leave behind a good number of excellent French filmmakers who were contemporaneous with it but no identified with it? Yes, in fact. Not a whole lot, but enough to be regretted.

Boy we really DO work in the dark, as Henry James says. At any rate, John, do check out Mr. Katz's stuff, it's real good. And I hear he's got backing for his next film, which is gonna be, if not a departure, a genuine expansion.

John M

I will check out QUIET CITY...enough good recommendations have tempered my fears of the film's apparent (in the trailer, anyway) smooshy emo-ness.

It will be interesting to see the whole Mumblecore thing play out, I admit. Especially now that the filmmakers are diverging a bit. Who will sell out?!? Who will keep it real?!? Stay tuned, small percentage of America!


I really appreciate Glenn's update to the post based on our back and forth, and I totally take back the words "pissy" and "pathetic" in my original comment, as well as the suggestion that GK would base a negative comment on any artist's or critic's "coolness" or lack thereof. In debate, he proves himself a gentleman and a scholar. The blogosphere and discourse in general needs more of that.

By the way, I just discovered Ebert's February 25 piece on snark (in Roger Ebert's Journal), and it's a keeper. One key element of the phenomenon that Ebert and Hallberg underscore is that, given a basic cleverness, snarking is easy as pie; being fair-minded all the time, on the other hand, is a bitch. Ebert notes:

"This process of reevaluating snarking has been good for me. It is easy to snark, and I am a clever writer. I must resolve not to take cheap shots, except in those cases of truly bad movies; in such reviews, I believe readers understand the rules can be bent."

Cheap shots are easy temptations, and I don't think any of us are immune. Really great snark is absolutely hygienic, especially in a craptastic culture like ours, but I think that to an unusual extent, snark does have to be really great in order to be any good at all -- perhaps because it assumes a superior posture that had better be pretty self-evident for the snark to be effective.


One more thought: If I'm Joe Swanberg, I'm in heaven. Any day you're compared to Eric Rohmer is a very good day.

The Denby piece is drawing plenty of attention. A discussion is also in progress at Hollywood Elsewhere, where one commenter seems baffled: "...somebody list a bunch of mumblecore movies for me, please...the ones they list on wikipedia are a bunch of films no one has ever heard of."

Small percentage of America, indeed!

Dan Coyle

When I was like sixteen I thought David Denby was the finest movie critic working.

I can't help it, he was really mean about Oliver Stone, and I hated Stone during that time!


I wonder if Denby has ever sat his colleague Anthony Lane down for a stern talking to regarding snark. Might do the both of them some good. Lane's custom brand of snark has a particularly British flavor that sometimes makes me want to storm the New Yorker offices and throttle him with his ascot.

Then again, it can be ripping good fun to read when he shreds a movie you also happen to hate.


Why was Frownland left out of the piece? The more operative question is: why was it ever grouped in with this puerile cine-clot to begin with? Denby's clear encapsulation of the overriding concerns of the 'movement' ("you’re about twenty-five years old, and you’re no more than, shall we say, intermittently employed, so you spend a great deal of time talking with friends about trivial things or about love affairs that ended or never quite happened") really has no bearing on what Frownland is exploring.

Glenn Kenny

Aaron, to address your "more operative question," I think it's largely a matter of guilt by association, largely stemming from Ronald Bronstein's grievously ill-advised collaboration with Swanberg, "Butterknife."


That may be true, Glenn. I figured it was more the South by Southwest connection. Either way its a pretty thin and specifically blogospheric kind of reasoning, grounded more in behind-the-scenes knowledge than a stolid study of the work itself. Interesting to note that the non-blog reviews of Frownland (NY Times, Village Voice, the New Yorker, the Cahiers, etc.) all wrote about the movie without even a tertiary reference to the other filmmakers under discussion here.

Tom Russell

I hope someone is adventurous enough to put Frownland on DVD, threat of going bankrupt be damned-- because I, for one, would like to actually see it. Ah, the plight of the Michigander cinephile...

Let me just parrot, however, what Glenn said: it's all about filmmakers and not movements. While my opinion of certain filmmakers currently under discussion are higher than Glenn's, I agree that each filmmaker should be considered on their own merits. The French New Wave is a perfect example of this, with its two heavies, Godard and Truffaut, arguably being diametrically opposed in their themes, style, and their whole approach towards filmmaking. They and the other Cahiers critics weren't really a movement; they were friends. There was nothing unifying them together as a "movement" except their desire to make a different and more personal sort of film. You could say the same thing about the New Hollywood or Movie Brats generation-- is there really that much similarity between, say, Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, or DePalma and Friedkin?

I see these filmmakers-- hell, all filmmakers with an identifiable style(whether tactile or thematic)-- the same way. Because their films are personal, they are inherently not the result of hot buzzword marketing but rather the filmmakers themselves and so each one must be grappled with and evaluated on their own merits.

Speaking of extremely personal filmmakers about whom there is room for some argument and discussion, I'm dying to know, Glenn: what do you think of Tom Laughlin?


I disagree that this is a "specifically blogospheric kind of reasoning." Surely artists have always been partially grouped in "movements" not just by shared subject and style (although that counts for a lot), but by who was hanging out together and working on (or in the vicinity of) each other's projects.

There is a generationally self-righteous commenter at Hollywood Elsewhere who grumbled, "Denby's piece continues a recurring obsession among writers of his generation: to fit our existence within rigid categories, to segregate and congeal, to organize the world into separate, artificial tranches. Self-ordained "baby-boomers" cannot simply let the world exist in undefined form. They find comfort in "best of" lists, they discuss art in terms of cliched posturing. They affix labels where none are deserved, and expand anecdotal data into "social movements." And they assign causation where none is deserved."

I don't think anyone, ultimately, can "simply let the world exist in undefined form." There is nothing new about generalization; it is a problematic tool, but no one can live without it.


I'll give Denby credit for stretching, but "Snark" was an awful, awful book. It's difficult for me to respect a man who thinks human beings being smart-asses behind each other's backs is a modern phenomenon. And now because of it I'm seeing intellectual discussions of smart-ass remarks cropping up everywhere. Where's Groucho when you need him!


Jeff Wells just gave Alexander the Last a flat-out rave at Hollywood Elsewhere and compared him favorably to Antonioni. Rohmer and Antonioni, wow, what a week for the Joe-man. Some serious Joe-mentum going now!

c mason wells

Just to reiterate Glenn's comment above -- the new Aaron Katz film is going to be very special, indeed.

John M

Per topbroker, who seems like an awfully big fan of Swanberg's, I read the Jeff Wells thing--man, can this guy write!!!

"And Swanberg is as good as it gets at this sort of thing, i.e., movies in which nothing happens except random attractions and couplings that aren't quite right or holy and need to be kept under wraps. I just thought of something. You know who was also quite expert at making films about interesting, attractive people with wandering libidos in which nothing really happens? Michelangelo Antonioni. Swanberg isn't close to his level, but the last time I was this absorbed by a film of this general type with almost no "story" was L'Eclisse. Which I'll bet Swanberg has never seen."

Speaks for itself, don't it?

Also, topbroker, Denby compared the plotting in Alexander the Last to the plotting of a Rohmer film--pretty much any movie with symmetrical love roundelays could get that comparison. I think you're seeing a bit more favor from Denby than is actually there. Just sayin'.


First, I can't be that big of a Swanberg fan yet, since I haven't seen his films. I'm just discussing the reception, which fascinates me. But as I said over at Hollywood Elsewhere, my interest in seeing the films has definitely been spurred by all the attention -- including Glenn's take-down, of course -- and I do approve on principle of Swanberg's self-promotional talents. Hard to make it in the arts without such talents.

I agree that neither the Rohmer nor Antonioni comparisons are along the lines of, Swanberg is as good as those guys. But just to bring them up...it's still a wow. The Kate Hudson comedies that Denby mentions don't evoke those sorts of references, do they?

John M

To be mentioned with Antonioni and Rohmer is indeed neat. Whether or not you trust Wells' opinion--or even knows what he's talking about at all--is a whole other matter.

And of course, all artists must be self-promoters to some extent. But once the art itself becomes self-promotion--for example, turning the casting process into a clubby friend network, at the expense of talent, depth, or plain plausibility, so that your "movement" can grow--I, um, do not approve.

Glenn Kenny

I have not yet seen "Alexander The Last," but since Denby and Well's notices I feel I need to look at it sooner rather than later. That said...well, Denby's evocation of Rohmer with respect to the Swanberg film is measured, and careful: "The story, in its formal symmetries, suggests one of Éric Rohmer’s narratives of advance and retreat in 'Six Moral Tales.'" Do note the word "suggests," a writerly, but apt, hedge. Again, I haven't seen "Alexander," but for me, Swanberg is, if anything, the Bizarro-World Rohmer; he treats a very similar subject matter, but completely without the consideration, calibration, and, perhaps most crucially of all, mise-en-scene (or, for those who dislike the term, camera-sense) that Rohmer brings to bear on his films. Which, you know, makes all the difference. I'll weigh in more definitively on "Alexander" once I've seen it, but even without seeing it, I can strongly implore my friend Jeff Wells to look at "L'Eclisse" again, as soon as possible.

don r. lewis

I've been trying to see "Frownland" for like, two and 1/2 years. I even grabbed Ronald in the street at SXSW last year and demanded he get me a copy (dammit!) and still, nada. So bag on Swanberg for being a "good" self promoter, but then bag on Bronstein for flat out SUCKING at it.

I'm also excited for Aaron Katz's new one if it ever gets going.


I have mixed feelings about Denby. I once attended a talk he gave about the decline of movies and I kind of dug his pessimism. But ultimately it was rather unconstructive, and I also wondered if critics weren't partly to blame for the decline in taste - if they gave too many breaks to okay or even simply ambitious movies out of a sense of desperation and desire to be relevant.

When it came time for the Q&A, I asked him about King Kong - a film he had specifically singled out, and which I also despised, but which many critics had reviewed positively. Perhaps I phrased it poorly, but he got rather prickly and defensive when I brought Kong's acclaim up; he denied that it had received much praise from critics, saying that no one had mentioned it at the recent gather of the New York Critic's Circle (not that this disproved my point). Persevering, I pointed out that Ebert had named it one of his top ten films of the year.

"Well, that's Roger's problem," Denby replied before moving on, to chuckles all around. This answer was admittedly kinda funny, but also evasive, indicative of his doom-and-gloom but no professional responsibility (and hence, not much room for improvement) attitude and truthfully, rather dickish.

And come to think of it, pretty damn snarky.


It seems offbase to praise OR condemn Swanberg for the recent press glut surrounding his work. Much more sound to assume that the promotion of his last three movies has been in the hands of the PR department at IFC Films. So blame or praise the economic engine behind the guy. They're certainly doing their job. Frownland on the other hand - and I say this in response to Don R Lewis' post - has managed to get a pretty impressive amount of national press it seems despite the fact that it has no distributor, no PR company behind it, no nothing. And despite the fact that it's a brutal piece of work that makes zero concessions towards cheap notions of saleability or even likeablity. No more than L'Eclisse come to think of it. If you or I can't get a dvd of the movie, blame the distributors for being such servile pussies and continually neutering our film culture. I mean wtf? Did anyone blame Monte Hellman when Two Lane Blacktop wasnt available on video or dvd for decades? When the critics and the cinephiles start sympathizing with the businessmen, god help us.

c mason wells

Don, the new Katz has gotten going; it's in pre-production now and starts shooting later this month.

FROWNLAND's lack of availability may, in the end, only make its cult reputation even bigger. I'm sure Ronnie is aware of this; in his own way, he's also a shrewd self-publicist, and great at discussing his work. In fact, I'd say his Q&As are far more entertaining and insightful than the film itself.

David Denby

Glenn: I did express my thoughts on a young, New York based director named Martin Scorsese--in 1973, at the length of five thousand words, in a review of "Mean Streets" published in "Sight and Sound." You can look it up. Your crack is, um, a case of failed snark.


David, in Glenn's defense (aside from the obvious fact that he was joking) wouldn't a better analogy be reviewing Who's That Knocking At My Door? in the late 60s (which, if I'm not mistaken, Ebert actually did review when it came out?). It's my understanding that Swanberg is not quite in Mean Streets territory yet - though I can't say for sure as I have not seen any mumblecore films (a fact which will be rectified before within a few days...)

Anyway, just 2 cents from the cheap seats. Snark on...

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