Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The notoriety of contrarianism

Over at the always interesting blog Thrill Fiction, A.Jaye concludes his examination of the new film Black Swan with this devastating paragraph:
The art house Nazis who grovel in Black Swan’s pretentious tide can cheer for the celebration of their beloved ballet in the cinema. Ballet is patronised by the elite. It is exclusive and anti-proletariat. Cinema is for the masses. Film critics should serve as a filter between the film companies and the consumer. Their mass hysteria over Black Swan is a further example of the homogeny of opinion in the mainstream and their desperate elitism.
He also notes that the film currently stands at 88% on Rotten Tomatoes (actually, it's up to 89% now), and at 8.6 on Metacritic (8.2 now among users, and 79 among critics). High numbers. The film has been almost universally praised; a not uncommon phenomenon in the world of film criticism bandwagon-jumping, in which critics often seem to be trying to outdo themselves in heaping praise upon those films they just know are good -- or at least, those films that they know they should like -- to show how smart they are.

Attractive young actress playing a sexually repressed, hypertense ballerina who might be losing her marbles and has a lesbian makeout scene? Well, unless Tyler Perry directed it with Adam Sandler, that is critical catnip.

There has been a lot written about the fact that just anybody can start up a blog now and call himself a "critic." And it's true. There are a lot of film criticism blogs. Some of them are very good. Some stink. Most stink. Probably 90% of them stink, as Theodore Sturgeon might say. But you know what? 90% of all film criticism stinks.

Last month, at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards Dinner, there was a minor brouhaha or kerfuffle or dustup or something between the director of the critically-anointed Black Swan and the chair of the NYFCC, Armond White. In a blog post, Entertainment Weekly film "critic" (yes, those are sneer quotes) Lisa Schwarzbaum gave her version of events.
The New York Film Critics Circle awards dinner is traditionally a festive, elegant affair honoring the filmmakers and actors voted best in their category each year by one of the most prestigious critics’ groups in the country. But after last night’s edition — the 76th in the group’s proud history — all talk of the pleasures of Colin Firth’s charming acceptance speech as Best Actor or Michelle Williams’ sweet presentation to Mark Ruffalo as Best Supporting Actor was drowned out by chatter about critic Armond White and director Darren Aronofsky.
There is so much *s*m*u*g* in that paragraph that one must splash water on one's face after reading it. This awards dinner is traditionally (they've done it so many times in the past!) a festive and elegant affair (they party, but they do so with style!) -- and did you catch that Colin Firth was there (and so, so charming!)? And Michelle Williams and Mark Ruffalo? What a perfectly charming life Ms. Schwarzbaum leads, getting to engage with such fascinating people! Except...

Oh, it was just so ruined by that incident between Armond White and Darren Aronofsky!

Consider this for a moment. A society of film critics (really? do they have to have a club like that? why?) not only hands out "awards" to honor filmmakers and actors (why are film "critics" handing out awards? it is not the job of film critics to give out awards, nor should they be "ranking" films with "top ten lists." that is anathema to art), but this society of film critics invites to such a ludicrous event the very people whose work they are to dispassionately critique. Do you suppose that Ms. Schwarzbaum realizes the absurdity of her position? No, she does not. She is clearly incapable of self-awareness.

Consider also: Ms. Schwarzbaum is a "critic" for Entertainment Weekly.  This is a magazine that is part of the Time-Warner megacorporation that exists as an advertising/promotional pamphlet for TW and the other major entertainment companies. Who buys EW?

When I worked in the marketing department of one of the major studios, one of my jobs was to buy and distribute magazines that featured stories on actors and actresses who were working on films for our studio. We bought hundreds of copies of each issue. Especially if said actor or actress graced the cover of the magazine. Even if the film they happened to be promoting at the time was not our studio's film, we'd still buy hundreds of copies.

Now consider how many studios there are, how many record companies, how many production companies, how many television stations... you begin to get some idea of how many copies of EW are sold to industry people. If you've ever wondered, "How come X musician I love never gets mentioned in EW," or "Why does Y get yet ANOTHER cover, while Z gets nothing?," there's your answer.

That's why I put the sneer quotes around the word "critic" when describing Ms. Schwarzbaum's title at EW. She is a cog in the promotional/advertising machine that encompasses the major media companies.

And, she's part of the New York Film Critics Circle. And she just can't believe how that Armond White is sullying the name of this amazing group that would have her as a member!
White, the notoriously contrarian film critic who publishes in the free weekly New York Press, was the 2010 chair of the NYFCC (of which Owen Gleiberman and I are members), and therefore, by custom, the emcee of the event. And reliably contrary to most of his voting colleagues, he didn’t like many of the choices made by the rest of the group: He disdained Black Swan, The Kids Are All Right, and The Social Network, among others, in reviews that coincidentally have whipped up publicity and generated page hits for his publication even as they have confounded or infuriated or amused readers. Aronofsky, of course, is the director of Black Swan. And in presenting the NYFCC award for cinematography to Black Swan‘s Matthew Labatique, Aronofsky couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a verbal swipe at the evening’s host, saying, “I thought I was giving White the compassion award because if you don’t have something, you should get it. Seriously, keep it up because you give all of us another reason not to read The New York Press.”
He is "notoriously contrarian". The use of the words are deliberate -- notorious meaning "generally and unfavorably known," and contrarian meaning that he takes a contrary position. Both words have negative connotations; the implication being that Mr. White is unfavorably known to take opposing positions. He does this to "whip up publicity and generate page hits." This from a writer for EW.

Again, the woman has no self-awareness.

But she's saying that Mr. White takes his contrarian positions in order to generate web traffic. She says this because she hasn't the inclination to debate Mr. White's positions on their own merits. Whether she doesn't think it's worth her time, or she is incapable of doing so I don't know. Maybe she thinks that because Mr. White has gotten death threats from the RottenTomatoBots that she doesn't have to. But she clearly has a low opinion of the notorious contrarian. She is not a notorious contrarian.

In fact, have you ever read Ms. Schwarzbaum's criticism? I have, on those occasions when I am in medical waiting rooms, and I have already flipped through the copies of TIME, Newsweek, Popular Mechanics, McCall's, Reader's Digest, the local paper, Cosmopolitan, Highlights for Children, the Racing Form, and whatever stray medical-themed pamphlets might be laying around. She is most certainly not a notorious contrarian. In fact, when you want to have the conventional wisdom verified, she is the one to which to turn.

There can be no greater insult for a critic.

Reading Ms. Schwarbaum is like reading 90% of the film critics out there. The same cannot be said for Mr. White. His writing is sharp, witty, unexpected and challenging. He has very specific standards from which he does not waver. I don't always agree with him (for one thing, he's part of a critics society that hands out awards to filmmakers), but why oh why would you want to read a critic with whom you always agree? Critics should shake things up. Critics should challenge. Critics should be contrary.

 Unfavorably known to take a contrary opinion.

As for Mr. Aronofsky's criticism of Mr. White: It is poor manners to accept an invitation to a party and then spit at the host. "Compassion"? Because he did not like your film he lacks "compassion"? More an more, filmmakers are expecting critics to help them push their product -- to act more as arms of the studios publicity departments, and less as arbiters of quality art. As the amounts of money involved increase (in terms of budgets and in terms of ticket prices),  and the economy sinks further, this pressure is only going to increase.

But I don't expect Mr. Aronofsky to behave as anything other than an artist, which is what he is. Ms. Schwarzbaum is supposed to be a critic. She should be held to higher standards of decorum. As for Mr. White, by Ms. Schwarzbaum's own account, he handled Mr. Aronofsky's verbal assault with admirable and gentlemanly restraint:
Then White couldn’t resist the opportunity to respond: “That’s all right. Darren reads me. That’s all I want. And because he reads me, he knows the truth.” The proceedings became ruder from there, more self-referential, more uncomfortable. Introducing Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner to present the best picture award to The Social Network, White offered, “Maybe he can explain why it won best picture.” And closing the evening — his final moment at the microphone  – the emcee threw in a gratuitous swipe at director Noah Baumbach, another filmmaker on his s— list, saying, “I thank the Circle for not awarding a single award to Greenberg.”
As for the rest of that paragraph, one can read Mr. White's response to Ms. Schwarbaum here. Among other things:
Cowed by editors and publishers who have relinquished truth and intelligence to the promotion of power and money—resulting in the overweening tabloid nightmare that is today's mainstream—some reviewers prefer the tired, poisonous myth that critics are hostile and inferior to filmmakers and performers. They forget that it's up to critics, not film producers or publicists, to maintain critical authority and standards and not bend to the will of marketers.
And there's also some dish about Ms. Schwarzbaum and another film "critic," J Hoberman. If you're so inclined, read the whole thing.

Film awards programs are publicity tools, nothing more. Check the commercials and print ads in December and January of any year. "Nominated for X awards," "Winner, Best X, the New York Film Critics Circle." These programs are part of the Hollywood publicity machine. Ms. Schwarzbaum is also part of that publicity machine. She shouldn't take herself so seriously.

No one else does.

1 comment:

A.Jaye said...

One of the things I've learnt since I started writing Thrill Fiction came from reading this post:

I may not be fully aware of my place in life but I am comfortable with my position: I will utter honest words without fear regardless of the consequences.

I'm not the only one.