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November 02, 2010


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Welcome to the NEW new criticism.

The Siren

At last, critical analysis that makes Jeffrey Wells look like F.R. Leavis.


Watching Rightist factions disagree so profoundly about Pixar -- either quintessential capitalism, with its stories of advancement and empowerment; or a source of liberal and pro-homosexual propaganda -- has sometimes been more entertaining than the films themselves.

Kent Jones

You read it and wonder about all the levels of idiocy involved: the thought balloon pinging to life over Klavan's head; the 30-second mulling over period ("will it really work? SURE it will!"); the moments of lunatic confirmation ("...and the country is the Day Care center...no, the country is a Day Care center...or it will be if..."); the research period (skipping through an advance DVD as he washes down his pizza with a bottle of Pinot); the excited editorial confirmation at the paper ("Oh great, Andy - my kids loved that movie...and you know something, I actually liked it too"); the bemused reactions of the copy editors ("Oh my god...you HAVE to read this"); the actual publication.

And now, just in time for election day, the controversy rages once more over a certain Oscar recipient and his own political rhetoric.


I think you're all missing the obvious fact that this editorial is not about Obama but is in fact arguing in favor of Prop 19 (obliquely, granted).


Lee Unkrich responds:


Incredulously, of course.

Victor Morton

I am SO looking forward to identically contemptuous and content-free dismissals from all the folks here (at least Glenn and Rob make a good joke) the next time some liberal makes an identical argument about political subtext in a popcorn movie. Jeez ... if you couldn't do that, half the academic Departments of Film Studies would implode in a nanosecond and Jonathan Rosenbaum would be holding out a ragged hat begging folks for coins.

If Klavan had laid off the daily-topicality (which never doesn't come across as strained; and the more immediately topical, the more strained), it might have been clearer to note that what he says about the film(s) is simply or largely true -- the different way TS3 constructs the home-family and the day-care center, the different generation of toys and what they say about social ideals, the theme of loyalty to Andy versus autonomy, etc.

And heck, if Klavan had written the identical article but reversed the adjectives' normative judgments (rather than "these virile, lovable archetypes are anachronisms" about Buzz and Woody, that they are "outdated patriarchal modes are presented unproblematically"; or indicted the representation of the Ken doll as "homophobia," say), he could practically submit this article in his tenure application.


I don't know about "homophobia", Victor -- when that Smurf-thing got whacked in the butt with a rainbow during 'Day and Night', didn't YOU suddenly crave the thrust of another man?

Victor Morton

Um ... are you denying the per-se existence of homosexual subtext in popular art, or is this your idea of a pickup line?


"If Klavan had laid off the daily-topicality..."

--which he can't, any more than Hoberman or Rosenbaum can; it's their stock in trade, and we're sick of it whether from the left or the right. Really, aren't there better things to do with works of art than to cut them down to old-style political cartoons complete with labels pasted on the characters so you know who represents what? People who do that do not deserve our respect as critics.

Victor Morton

Hey ... I agree 100 percent. For a time in the early-00s, I would deliberately stop reading a Rosenbaum review at the first such reference. I never got to the end. I also let my Film Comment subscription lapse because I just got tired of the smug political asides in discussions of movies or directors that didn't need them.


Yes. Movies are better than this shit. I wonder if this kind of thinking doesn't actually make people dumber. How many more horror film documentaries have to be made in which we're told that TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE was made because of Vietnam? And every time it's uttered as an epiphany, as a fascinating cultural discovery. Meanwhile, nobody's trying to say something that's actually new or interesting or relevant, because they figure "Well hell -- how can I top Vietnam???"

Well, all y'all can just cram it with walnuts, is what I say.

NOTE: The "y'all" refers to those people who would say such things.

Glenn Kenny

@ Victor: As per your first comment...boy, that's a lot of "if"s. But as I'm a sporting man, I'll make you a proposition: next time you find some piece of lefty cultural criticism that you believe attains the comedy level of Klavan's "Toy Story 3" rumination, bring it to my attention (e-mail me, or DM me on Twitter, whatever). I'll post on it, either concurring with you, disagreeing with you and laying out why, or admitting my own hypocrisy, whichever applies.

The questions of ideology and topicality in film criticism are ever-fascinating ones. As for Mr. Rosenbaum, I am an admirer, and as many of his admirers allow, I think that he on occasion climbs out on some rather unprofitable limbs. That being the case, I still insist that every cinephile owes him a debt of gratitude for his Welles scholarship at the very least.

And I disagree with BGN on Hoberman. I don't think he has an axe to grind, as he puts his prejudices/sympathies upfront, and then more often than not outlines the ideological incoherence of much Hollywood product. (My own favorite instance of this—the ideological incoherence, not Hoberman's dissection of it—is "DIe Hard 2," the outlook and attitude of which is reactionary to the bone, but which nonetheless takes a decidedly leftist/conspiratorial view with respect to Banana Republic dictators and U.S. government collusion with them.) And his "The Red Atlantis" is a supremely ironical study of Communist culture that's free of starry-eyed cant.

My own perspective on "Toy Story 3" was that its big theme, such as it was, was about play and how it helps us construct not just imagination but empathy—moral imagination, if you will. And also the importance of, when you're giving up something you love, making sure that it's left in the hands of someone else who will love it just as much. I am inclined to doubt Mr. Klavan got that from the picture. And I'll be upfront about my prejudice: I don't like Andrew Klavan. I don't like the way he writes, I don't like the way he compares being a Democrat to committing rape (here you go, enjoy the laughs: http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/2009/10/conservative_co.php), and I don't like his smug, supercilious face.


Mr Klavan, keep your ugly goldbrickin' ass out of Pixar's beach community!


Just read it. My head hurts.


A few points, if I may --

If "Toy Story 3" is a critique of "diversity," then why does Buzz Lightyear need to turn Hispanic in order to express his love for another toy? (Of course, the 'passionate Latino' is stereotyping, but that's another thing.)

When is Klavan going to stop using words like "sissified" and "unmanly" so he can jump straight to "fag?"

Didn't Buzz Lightyear have to accept that he's not an astronaut in the first film? How is that "Space Age optimism?"

And, finally, the alternative to the daycare center is a world where indifference from your owners leads to you being chucked into a furnace; where you must be passive and subject yourself to the whims of children. Does Klavan really intend that to be a metaphor for freedom? Would Ayn Rand approve?

Embarrassed Anon

@Victor Morton:

Is this a suitably laughable liberal argument regarding a popcorn film? http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/cultural-capital/2010/11/jackass-movie-iraq-another

Tom Carson

I've got no sympathy for Klavan, and it's pretty clear he's operating as a partisan hack (what a clever way I've just thought up to get Pixar on my side) and not a culture critic (huh, this hit movie has kind of an interesting layer of topical applicability). But a lot of the scorn coming his way from people professing to be outraged at the lunacy of finding a political subtext in Toy Story 3 does sound to me like the pot calling the kettle black. Geez, I've written about the first STAR WARS as a prefiguration of Reaganism -- and GK ought to know, since he's the editor who printed it. And it wasn't so long ago that everybody from A.O. Scott on down was remarking on the Ayn Rand side of THE INCREDIBLES. If you think that hit movies get that way partly because they tap into the zeitgeist at all sorts of levels whether the filmmakers meant 'em to or not, none of this is out of bounds. It's only reductive and/or tendentious if the writer singles out that dimension to the exclusion of all others, which I agree Klavan's piece most certainly does.

Kent Jones

When people go to the movies looking for ideology or ideological bias, they usually find it. When THE DARK KNIGHT came out, I read all these interpretations of it as the perfect expression of neo-conservative thought. I guess I saw the point, but I could also see about a million things that complicated the point and basically nullified it. When Robin Wood wrote that Cronenberg was a reactionary filmmaker, I had to wonder: for whom? How was it supposed to work exactly? Again, I see the path that someone can take to get there, but the path leaves out enormous stretches of the surrounding landscape - as Mr. Carson points out above. It's the same thing when Armond White describes Steven Spielberg as a visionary artist or Clint Eastwood as the devil incarnate; or conversely, when SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is held up as a blatantly immoral film, as it was by countless people. I think movies and politics have an extremely complicated relationship. When movies carry or embody a political mood or position, it's usually side by side with thousands of other impulses and phenomena that the movie has caught in its nets, as Olivier Assayas puts it. The term "ideological incoherence" means absolutely nothing to me, and I don't believe it means much to anyone working to create a real, living work of art.

Short version: I don't think Andrew Klavan is an idiot because he's a neo-con. I think he's an idiot because he's crafted an overly rigid interpretation of perfect ideological coherence that has next to nothing to do with TOY STORY 3 or what makes it tick. I would imagine that the people at Pixar are having a nice hearty chuckle over his "think piece."


To Tom Carson --

I didn't find Klavan's arguments so much "reductive" as simply weird. If Woody and his crew really wanted to be 'free,' then they would reject both the Daycare center and the passiveness in Andy's house.

But, you might say, they're toys, for chrissake. Which is kind of the point, I think, others are trying to make here. If you want to talk about metaphors, you have to deal with the literal story elements and their particular logic.


Aaaaaaaaaannndd I should point out that Klavan doesn't even explain what does any of his points (such as they are) have to do with Obama and his current political downturn. So it fails even at hackdom.

Klavan should have just cut to his main argument, like he did when he compared Obama to King Xerxes from "300." Helpfully, he explained that they're both "dark-skinned" and "narcissistic meterosexuals." 'Cause no dog whistle is too loud enough!

Stephen Whitty

I would, first, agree with Tom C. I completely believe that movies are freighted with all sorts of socio-sexual-political-personal baggage, whether the artists are fully aware of them or not.

Did Hitchcock ever sit down and announce, "I'm going to make a motion picture about voyeurism, doppelgangers, dominating mothers and Catholic guilt." I don't think so. Did Walt Disney consciously decide, "We need more movies exalting authoritarian rule and feminine submission!" Um, nope. But the subtexts are there (and not particularly sub-) and teasing them out of pictures is part of any movie lover's fun.

But I would also agree, as Kent J says, that when you go to the movies already looking for a particular ideological bias, you can find it, whether it's there or not. And all sides are guilty of this.

I could -- any real film fan could -- this very minute write two separate essays on "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," one discussing it as a warning against Fifth-Column Communism, and another talking about it as a parable of forced McCarthy conformism. And both could be vigorously defended.

The entrail-reading can get tiresome, particuarly compared to the pure joy of the movies themselves. Frankly, I'm getting awfully weary of op-ed folks taking simple, consciously apolitical pop-culture and using it to "explain" complicated political problems. (A trend I think Maureen Dowd began, or at least popularized, and has run rampant ever since.)

But however you feel about that, the ultimate question -- the only question, in fact -- is, once he or she has taken on the task, can the writer make his or her argument, calmly, logically, entertainingly. And I think the Klavan story fails on all three counts.

Glenn Kenny

Firstly, just to clarify: although it might sound that way, I don't mean "ideologically incoherent" as a sweepingly pejorative or condemnatory characterization; it's a handy phrase (for me) to describe the tension between what a given work of art and/or entertainment commodity is trying to or thinks it wants to say versus what it actually comes out and says. I should also note that I mean ideology not in the sense that Zizek frequently uses it, which is practically synonymous with "dogma" and IS meant pejoratively, but rather in a more Eagletonian sense, that is, that which underlies the production of meanings and value in social life and all that. And this is part of what I was thinking when I asked Olivier Assayas in an interview recently whether he believed that one could make a work of art that was competely free of some kind of ideological determinant.

@ Tom: You write "it's only reductive or tendentious if the writer singles out that dimension to the exclusion of all others." True, but you forgot, "and shamelessly cherry-picks his material to suit his thesis." Lots-O doesn't really make it as an Obama surrogate, don't you agree? Now if Tip O'Neill was still around, it'd be a different story...

I gotta give Klavan credit: had he not made that ridiculous reference to our "heroic cowboy past," it wouldn't have ocurred to me to watch my DVD of "Fort Apache" tonight. Not that I don't have a lot of other shit to catch up with. It just seemed right somehow...

Tom Carson

@Glenn: oh, sure. If I didn't make it clear, I think Klavan's piece is badly argued, meretricious and not worth taking seriously. I just thought there was some (cough) "ideological incoherence" in the comments suggesting he was silly for claiming there could be such a thing as political subtext in a movie like TS3 to begin with, since -- as Kent Jones said -- that stuff is always there if you're looking for it. And sometimes even if you're not, my own situation when, at a tender age, I found myself wondering exactly what Hitler would've disliked about The Sound of Music. Yes, I was an odd child, but still.

Jeff McMahon


I think Hitchcock did set out to consciously make films about dominating mothers and guilt - but only after the French critics told him that was what his movies were about, and Marnie was the result (and don't get me wrong, I very much like Marnie).

My take on the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers is that it's neither about Communism or suburban conformity, but simply and broadly about the dominating effects of modernity on the whole - it's not about an ideology but simply about falling under 'tyranny' in general.

Klavan seems to not notice that in the post-Lotso Hugs Bear day care center, the toys have reformed their society in such a way that they share equally in the stresses and rewards of the place. Indeed, it could be defined as a post-Stalinist socialist paradise... if you wanted to make such an argument.

Also, 300 didn't set out to be both homophobic and homoerotic, but subconsciously it ended up being both. Nice trick!

Tom Carson

Sorry, I didn't mean to put words in Mr. Jones's mouth. That should have been "suggested" or "implied."

Kent Jones

No problem, Mr. Carson.

Mr. Kenny, even though you employed the term "ideological incoherence" to describe Hoberman, that wasn't really on my mind when I invoked the term - just seeing the words spurred me on. Every time I hear or see "ideological incoherence," a red flag goes up and I imagine terrifying nightly triple bills of SALT OF THE EARTH, TRIUMPH OF THE WILL and AMAZING GRACE AND CHUCK.

I think movies always reflect the moment that generated them - how could they not? - but when it's interesting, it works in extremely rich and complex ways. Even when it’s not interesting, it’s still richer and more complex than your average ideologically driven “reading.” Today I glanced at a Times article about the Swiss super-collider, and the description of all these physicists picking up information from glimpses of various sub-atomic particles racing in and out of vision reminded me of watching films or reading novels, and apprehending instances in which the moment of their making has imprinted itself. Last year, I became really excited by Mulligan's THE STALKING MOON. I was writing about it, looking at some other Mulligan films, doing some reading, and it occurred to me that it was a powerful choice to make a movie about two adults protecting a child from a chaotic life with his father in 1968. I don't think Mulligan and Pakula and Sargent thought to themselves, "Let's tackle the youth movement metaphorically in the guise of a suspense western." In fact, Mulligan really did make his youth movie, unmetaphorically, a couple years later with THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS. But the urgency of it, the precise manner in which Gregory Peck tries to be fatherly, is pretty striking. Or, you look at early 30s Warner Brothers movies and see the life of the moment taking shape in a million different ways, which includes the "micro-politics" of the neighborhood, the street, the stoop, the apartment building, the family; and the workplace, the jailhouse, the amusement park, all of which bounce off certain key "issues" (homelessness, job shortages, delinquency, the inhumanity of chain gangs) in endless, beautiful variations.

Evelyn Roak

"Short version: I don't think Andrew Klavan is an idiot because he's a neo-con. I think he's an idiot because he's crafted an overly rigid interpretation of perfect ideological coherence that has next to nothing to do with TOY STORY 3 or what makes it tick. I would imagine that the people at Pixar are having a nice hearty chuckle over his "think piece.""--Kent Jones

Kent writes above quite perceptively. It is the rigidness that is wrong, not the end result (though the end result is wrong, as a result of the earlier rigidness). The broad strokes and cliches, the painting of parodies, the caricatures as critique.

Victor, you wish to counter the hands covering mouths, the aghast appraisal of Klavan's article but it becomes the same thing:

"Jeez ... if you couldn't do that, half the academic Departments of Film Studies would implode in a nanosecond and Jonathan Rosenbaum would be holding out a ragged hat begging folks for coins."

Perhaps I am just a curmudgeon, but lazy generalizations like that add nothing to the discussion. All it does is perpetuate the generalizations and sweeping statements like that Klavan puts forth. And as someone interested in academic film writing that is such a bullshit statement it really pisses me off. This is a tangent but I am often shocked by the amount of antipathy towards the academic world in film criticism circles. In many ways what should be an ally, in the focus on concrete analysis of films and how and what they do, is made out to be the enemy. Frankly I don't understand the antagonism and it seems counterproductive and against the ideals of what film criticism should be. The counter to Klavan's lazy thinking and writing shouldn't be "this is what academics do too" but rather "this is what we academics avoid." Profoundly perplexed. Not just by my tangent but by how ideology trumps the ability of many to judge bad writing. Picking on the ideology is almost too easy. Pointing out why it is shitty is more important.


I love parsing out the ideological/political/cultural components of a work as much as the next guy (I'd call this a sociological critique rather than an aesthetic one). What irritates me is when the writer strikes a moralistic tone regarding those components - or I should say, a relentlessly moralistic tone, as some shade of moral approval/approbation is probably inevitable (this applies more to pieces tearing down a film ideologically than pieces praising one in the same terms - i.e. not so much Klaven on Toy Story 3). I think a cinematic universe which only expressed points of views I agreed with would be thoroughly boring - but you read some of these critiques and you think the writer wants only "virtuous" cinema. The only thing I can't stand in a movie (ideologically speaking) is hypocrisy - when the incoherence Glenn speaks of takes the form of having one's cake and eating it too. And even then, the hypocrisy can be somewhat fascinating - and revealing - as well.

As for Klaven: I haven't seen TS3 so I can't comment on the accuracy of his reading. As cultural criticism, I enjoyed the piece though the language is too simplistic, the analogies too pat - as if he were writing for bright but shallow 14-year-olds. The real problem however, which I'm sure he could care less about (much as he could care less about his prose lacking sophistication) is that his point isn't valid. But that's a problem with the tea partiers in general - Obama's tenure has not been particularly radical economically (not much more than Bush's last few months anyway), and it hasn't been at all radical culturally - social issues haven't been on the agenda and to the extent they have Obama's been lukewarm at best (cold to gay marriage, slow-moving on don't ask don't tell).

Reading Klaven and his ilk you'd think that Barack Obama had governed like some Californian ex-SDSer turned state legislator in the early 70s. Yeah, I know he hung out with some old Commie in Hawaii and shared hors d'oeurvres with the Weatherman or whatever, but he also chilled with Federalist Society members at Harvard Law and befriended conservatives at the University of Chicago, so what's the point of this "Guilt by Association" bs again? But I suppose that's another argument altogether and I doubt Klaven cares. The real issue is how Obama has governed, and Rainbow-Colored Gay Dinosaurland (or whatever that daycare's called) it ain't been. To bring the conversation back around to movies it's like Chris Matthews said to Ann Coulter a while back, when she tried to claim that George C. Scott refused to accept the Oscar for Patton because he objected to conservatives idolizing his portrayal (not because he thought the Oscars was a "meat parade") - "facts mean nothing to you, do they, Ann?"

mens health

I just don’t see how the right solution can be so tightly disciplined to a dollar figure. By all means, recognize that a problem has a cost attached to it, and therefore the solution must be limited by that financial context.

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