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Atwater Village Newbie on: Handle With Care: Can Filmmakers Deal With the Truth?

The Reeler Blog

Handle With Care: Can Filmmakers Deal With the Truth?

A few days ago, David Carr wrote an interesting item on The Carpetbagger relating "Oscar ninnies" like himself to their critically minded counterparts -- the writers who do the ostensibly heavy lifting in evaluating (and re-evaluating) upwards of 150 films annually. Carr exercised tremendous care and patience in inoffensively illustrating this distinction, so much so that he buried perhaps the essential unspoken questions attending any serious film writing, be it journalism, criticism, both or otherwise: How and when do we get filmmakers involved in a serious discussion of their work, and who is responsible for doing so?

Carr got me thinking about all of this with a not-so-innocent anecdote and analysis, which is worth retelling in its entirety:

Not long ago, the Bagger was at an event with a major film writer and director and ended up in a booth with him for several hours. He admired the man tremendously, did not like his last project. Finally, the subject came up and the Bagger told the truth, after which there was suddenly very little to say.
Later, he asked a colleague with more experience if he had been wise to speak his mind. “No, that was profoundly stupid,” he was told. “They really don’t want to know the truth.”
The Bagger can understand why. He has covered enough real filmmaking to know it is arduous, tedious work. After five years of cobbling together financing, writing and rewriting scripts, dealing with inane notes from the studio, and then shooting through all sorts of weather and lighting, what’s done is done. To him, bashing the finished product is a little like telling a friend that the book he has labored over for years was not quite all that. It just isn’t done, except by trained, sincere critics.

To which The Hollywood Reporter's Anne Thompson replied:

(Y)es, David, you do not tell Hollywood talent, no matter how accessible and charming they may be, that you don't like their work. They are praised to the skies, constantly. Told they are geniuses. They aren't used to hearing criticism from anybody. They can't take it. Besides, critics do their writing in the dark, without expecting to socialize. That's one of the reasons why it's important for critics NOT to socialize. If you have a close personal relationship with someone, how can you diss their movies? But for those of us on the Oscar-schmooze circuit, sheer fakery is the only way to go. Hollywood folks can't get enough gushing praise. "I love your movie!" keeps the skids greased for future encounters to come.

I don’t know the level to which Thompson intended her comment seriously, and maybe I'm a tad overearnest about these things, but there has to be a better way of stalking this part of the film beat. How can the access assured by "sheer fakery" be worth the compromise passed on to your readers? These are artists, after all; at its best and worst, their work is intended to provoke, inspire and fuel conversation -- especially if you know them.

And as a journalist, my primary problem with criticism in general is its nature as conversation to the exclusion of the artist. I mean, I like reviews; I often learn from and am entertained by them, and I'm proud to feature what I feel are among the best in the business on my own site. Nevertheless, as invasive and cruel a practice as journalism can be, it is ideally the beginning and often, in an era of 400+ annual releases, the end of what we can really know about individuals, their acts and their motivations. As good critics apply painstaking rigor to the execution of their work, so, too, should good arts journalists; even if that work isn't quite Watergate, it doesn't preclude or excuse them from serving a readership that relies on them to know what 90 percent of critics never will (at least not publicly) -- namely intent, reaction and perception.

Too often, filmmakers use journalists (and vice versa) as conduits to pass along less trenchant insights about criticism. My favorite default defensive reaction is, "Well, Mr. Film Critic, where's your movie?", which used to amuse me until a well-known filmmaker said it to my face, and since then it's just seemed kind of disturbing. The context actually applies well here; like Carr, I was at a benign enough premiere party in Tribeca. I had written something or other on the blog about one of its principals, and word got back to me that said principal, who was also in attendance, had expressed his displeasure to a mutual friend. So, with my J-school ethics training prodding me, I approached him outside the bar and introduced myself. He nodded with contempt, dragged on a cigarette. We continued a brief exchange before I asked, "Look, if you think I'm being unfair, do you want to respond?" I acknowledge some measure of self-servitude in the question, but I swear I really did ask in the interest of fairness -- and certainly not under the influence of naiveté (or any less noble substance). I was a reporter doing my job; not a critic hiding behind a blog and a byline.

It didn't really matter; our chat deteriorated over about 20 minutes into that A-bomb of self-defense, at which time I sensed a vacuum of critical arts reporting that might need closer attention. I've tried to address it with varying levels of success and failure, as have consummate crossover pros like Dennis Lim (mostly in The NY Times) and, in this recent piece, Jim Ridley. But it's not really about us, because the hard question is not the key -- anyone can ask it. What's fascinating is the hard answer, for which -- let's face it -- there's a proportionately higher demand from the responsible artist than from even the most influential critic. At best, they're symbiotic (you could stack a hell of a Netflix queue with all the filmmakers Pauline Kael alienated); at worst, they're parasitic (see next week's Top 10 of Top 10 Lists on this very site). The majority of the rest settle for the anonymous, impermanent inbetween -- just as good a place as any to start a chat, but hardly a finite boundary to its continuation.

Which is why I'm so troubled by Thompson and worried about Carr, a couple of vets whose combined job experience exceeds my age but whose combined repertorial cynicism defies expectations for journalists of their stature. I've had obvious, explicit issues with Carr in the past, but his charming self-deprecation as The Carpetbagger belies a more resolute confidence: Despite his shortcomings as an aesthete, he's not generally one to second-guess himself as a journalist -- especially with this kind of epic, mealy-mouthed deference to convention. Practically speaking, sure: You do have to take down people you like, but you don't want to cut off your access. But for Christ's sake -- he writes for The New York Times. I wouldn't buy that excuse if it was on sale, nor will I buy the excuse that someone you'd just as easily praise for his or her triumph is pardoned from rational criticisms in person. I mean, where do you you draw the line? Junkets are OK, parties are not? What about red carpets? Seriously, when and where am I allowed to do my job? And when can we give our subjects a little more credit?

If only things were so black-and-white. I wish I were a critic.

Posted at December 22, 2006 3:28 PM

Comments (1)

If a critic is that worried about an uncomfortable silence or a hurt feeling, then that's not much of a critic.

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