Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Return of the Son of the Death of Film Criticism, IN THREEEEEE-DDDDDDD!!

It's been nothing short of a wacky week for films and the people who love them, and it's only Wednesday.

Yesterday, I checked my email and found a news story on Yahoo! that discussed the rise of 3-D technology in films, sparked off by a quote from Martin Scorsese, who asked, "Why couldn't a film like Precious be in 3-D? It should be." Now, I'd like to think that Marty asked this because Precious was so shameless in its exploitative structuring and direction that Lee Daniels probably would have used 3-D if he could have. Imagine: Precious' greasy vomit hurled at the audience, a thrown pan whizzing past Precious' head as the audience cowers, thinking they're about to be hit by cast-iron. Perhaps the addition of a perceived extra dimension could allow the filmmakers to cram even more horrors into the frame.

But Scorsese's expressed curiosity with the 3-D craze reignited by the wild success of Avatar reflects a larger issue within Hollywood: suddenly, everything is being retooled for distribution on 3-D screens. Alice in Wonderland, Toy Story 3, even the Drew Goddard-Joss Whedon horror flick A Cabin in the Woods were all shot on normal cameras and are now in the process of conversion to 3-D. The progenitor of this renewed fad, James Cameron, has himself shot down the movement to retroactively convert every film to 3-D:

We do a film that’s natively authored in 3D — it’s shot in 3D. So they assume from the success of that, that they can just turn movies into 3D. In 8 weeks. You know, just throw a switch on 3D and that’s gonna work somehow. If you wanna make a movie in 3D, MAKE the movie in 3D. It should be a filmmaker-driven process and not a studio-driven process.

Avatar was such a visual revelation because Cameron spent over a decade working on the technology for the film's innovative use of 3-D. It was not a film that "threw" stuff at the audience or existed as a prop. While there were certain drawbacks to the film -- its penchant for inducing headaches, the clear valuing of its tech over storytelling -- it clearly made good use of technology it used from the start. To move in and slap a stereoscopic effect on a film that was already made is just a gimmick.

That is not to say that I wouldn't be fascinated to see a drama in 3-D, particularly if Martin Scorsese made it using proper 3-D cameras from the start. As Jim Emerson recently noted in his terrific article, "Artifice and truth: From Mean Streets to Shutter Island," Scorsese has always been fascinated with the artifice of cinema and how he can mold it into something believable, such as placing post-Brando naturalistic acting in the visibly manufactured, old Hollywood world of New York, New York, or how the projected backgrounds in Shutter Island not only serve as a tribute to the old genre thrillers of Hitchcock and co. but also a commentary on the ultimate truth of the film and its point of view. The genuinely stereoscopic depth afforded by Cameron's 3-D cameras could prove ripe for Scorsese's uncanny ability to draw verisimilitude from cinema's fundamental artificiality. I would also be interested to see De Palma work with the technology, likely to turn it against itself. Yet this movement to 3-D reminds me of a quote that floated about during the resurgence of the so-called "Late Night Wars" at the start of the year.

It's all about the money.

Despite enjoying its most financially successful year in 2009, Hollywood maintains that it's dying out because of movie piracy and the rise of home theater systems. A mass conversion to 3-D could, in the minds of the suits, curb piracy, as a laptop cannot support the technology. Blu-Ray prices have been kept too high for several years now when anyone who truly wanted to push the format would have dropped nearly all Blu prices to what DVDs sell for now, especially in a bum economy. Blu-Ray requires the purchase of new players, a high-definition television and a surround-sound system, yet a number of people still latched on despite the costs because the upfront payment appealed to people who A) didn't want to leave the house and/or B) hate the current theatrical atmosphere.

3-D throws a monkey wrench into the home theater setup. 3-D-capable TVs and players are on their way, but who will have money for them when they arrive? As much as people bitch already about ticket prices, the $7-10 paid for a movie ticket already marks the movies as the cheapest form of entertainment, far less than any high-profile rock concert, to say nothing of live theater and opera. 3-D not only permits the studios from further bumping up prices, it ensures loyalty in the theater chains once more. And as cynical and constrictive as that is, in a way I support the move back to the theater, provided one of two things occurs:

1. Eliminate the 3-D surcharge. If every other film now is going to be in 3-D, then stop the bullshit price-padding. If there will always be a 3-D film waiting in the wings to take over for any screen(s) adapted to the technology then theaters will be practically guaranteed to turn a profit from the conversion. What the studios and chains are doing already is price-gouging. If 3-D becomes the norm and it actually increases theatrical viewership, there is no justification for the price hike. However, I would be fine to pay the extra few bucks, even across the board for all tickets, for the following:

2. Keep the higher prices, and use the extra money for better amenities. If I'm expected to pay more money for a film ticket, I don't want it lining the pocket of billionaires; I want it to help me in some way. (Incidentally, this is why I would prefer tax dollars to go to national healthcare and not Blackwater, or whatever Blackwater is calling itself this week.) Some theaters, such as the Arclight in Los Angeles, already charge extra for tickets, but with that extra money comes perks, such as the guarantee that parents cannot bring extremely young children into R-rated films, thus eradicating the burden of dealing with a screaming baby in a film meant for adults. Further, the Arclight Hollywood charges extra to pay for a theater with finely maintained screens and sound systems, with wider chairs and other touches that set the place apart from other chains. I'm not asking for every theater to be torn down and built anew into the perfect audiovisual experience, but is it too much to ask that chains use the extra bucks to hire some goddamned ushers?

3-D is likely here to stay for the foreseeable future, and perhaps it will yield films that mix the visual intrigue of Avatar with something worth paying attention to. Right now, though, it's just a means of bilking audiences out of more cash in the middle of a recession.


Of course, the 3-D issue was only one headache facing cineastes this week. On an entirely unrelated but equally frustrating note, we began the week with a recap of the recent screening of Gerald Peary's paean to American film criticism, For the Love of Movies, wherein online cinephiles were treated to a casual smackdown by Time film critic and noted curmudgeon-y old git Richard Schickel, who not only took the wind out of the film's sails but overshadowed the rest of the panel of assembled critics and filmmakers by castigating the entire profession of criticism. After admitting that he never really loved movies all that much -- despite spending 43 years writing countless reviews and numerous critical biographies of cinematic artists, making his own documentary films about many of those artists, recording DVD commentaries and even aiding in the restoration of Samuel Fuller's magnum opus, The Big Red One -- Shickel offered up this heartwarming chestnut:

Watching all these kind of earnest people discussing the art or whatever the hell it is of criticism, all that, it just made me so sad. You mean they have nothing else to do?" asked Schickel before adding, "I don't know honestly the function of reviewing anything.

But the fun didn't stop there. When asked if he read any online critics, Schickel turned downright nasty. He responded that he never read other reviews before laying into online critics in the laziest and most malicious manner possible: "'Im not going to go around looking for Harry Knowles [the Ain't It Cool News]. I mean look at that person! Why would anybody just looking at him pay the slightest attention to anything he said?!? He's a gross human being."

Now, I've no love lost for Harry Knowles. Knowles represents every bad impulse of film criticism as a whole -- the "gesticulating" the French critics accuse American reviewers of promoting, the shameless fanboyism, the willingness to be coaxed into positive press in exchange for favors -- and his own Internet geekiness adds an unfortunate layer of childishness to the process, as his reviews can be swayed by a piece of tacky merchandise meant to be marketed to the youth and collectors. But to write off a critic based on his physical appearance is so staggering a concept that one imagines a rogue Internet critic killed Schickel and put on his skin in some elaborate plan to knife print criticism in the heart by spouting such baiting rhetoric. It's an asinine theory to respond to an asinine statement. This line of attack, not on Knowles' lack of critical ethics and his truly criminal usage of capital letters to drive home how AWESOME it was to SEE Indy 4 and BE BLOWN AWAY but upon his weight and appearance, edges Schickel firmly into the realm of the absolute bottom of the barrel of the Web critics he so despises: it's ignorant, unconcerned with the larger picture of critical and filmic history and serves only to promote an arrogant sense of superiority in no way backed up by facts.

Schickel's petulance is backed up by an article posted in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Thomas Doherty, which wastes no time with its headline: "The Death of Film Criticism." Doherty stumbles right out of the gate:

"It sucks," decrees an Internet movie critic, sharing the most common aesthetic reaction in contemporary film criticism. In the viral salon of bloggers and chat-roomers, the finely tuned turns of phrase crafted by an earlier generation of sharp-eyed cinema scribes have been winnowed to a curt kiss-off. In cyberspace everyone can hear you scream. Just log on, vent, and hit send.

Ugh. I know that the simple act of writing "ugh" deflates my own argument against Doherty's condescending attitude toward online critics, but his thrust is at once so outrageous and so banal, overused and ubiquitous that the only possible response can be a terse, phlegmy sigh. Doherty's article rehashes an argument that has existed in some form since Siskel & Ebert hit big and opened a window for people who had more personality than brains to pose as critics in order to get on television. I find that vitriol misdirected, as both Gene Shalit and Jeffrey Lyon made it on T.V. years before Gene and Roger premiered with Sneak Previews. Of course, the difference between Siskel & Ebert and their predecessors was the fact that Sneak Previews was entirely devoted to discussing film, where the Shalits and Lyons of the country previous made do with a brief amount of time in a morning news broadcast. But that old version of the "film criticism is dead" humbug ignored a key facet behind the popularity of Siskel and Ebert: they were legitimately good critics. Yes, Gene caught flak from the Chicago Reader and other publications for spelling errors and fudging plot details, and Roger has long been under scrutiny for apparently enjoying too many movies, but you couldn't argue that these two brought genuine insights to their criticism, and the longer running time afforded to their program over three-minute news briefs allowed them to hold actual discussions of films.

But let us return to the current permutation of Chicken Little proclamations, and by "current" I mean the argument that's been floating around since before the Internet became a fixture in nearly every home in America. Does the ubiquity of blogs erase much of the stature of becoming a film critic? Yes, in the sense that it creates the illusion of equality of opinions for people who are too stupid to differentiate between erudite, thoughtful analysis and "I have an un-researched opinion like you do!" faux-populism. Most people have always written off film criticism as just some person's opinion, and often a pompous one that dares to suggest that most of the films that make their way to the cineplex aren't worth the cost of the ticket regardless of price. Doherty even attempts to tie one of the few serious film scholars he mentions, David Bordwell, into this perception of the failure of film criticism when he notes, "The impact of the academic bloggers on Hollywood's box-office gross is negligible (sorry, David)." What the fuck? When has any critic ever influenced the box office receipts of a film to a notable degree? If you answered anything other than "Never," go stand in the corner. The people who write passionately and authoritatively about film -- Ebert, Kael, Rosenbaum, Bordwell, Wood and God forbid someone in all this mention a critic from another country such as the tragically departed Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc -- do not try (nor have they ever done so) to mold the financial success and failures of certain films to their liking. Sure, people naturally want films they admire to perform well and would love to see a film they find abhorrent buried and forgotten, but the aim of film criticism is appraisal and discussion, not a focus on the pettiest side of art: its monetary worth.

However, both Schickel and Doherty hit upon interesting points based on how criticism is tied to the business side of show biz, despite the best efforts of proper critics. Both call attention to the impact of the dwindling number of newspaper readership on what films writers are allowed to cover, as well as the content of those reviews. Schickel notes that editors, whom he regards as "former beat reporters and city desk guys and rewrite men that managed to stay upright in their chairs before they were finally felled by drink," will "spike your review because it's insufficiently enthusiastic." Doherty mentions the growing number of blogs by critics already hired by print publications:

To watch their backs and retain their 401(k)'s, most print critics have been forced into sleeping with the enemy. As a form of ancillary outreach, blogs, podcasts, and chat-room discussions have become a required part of the job description for print reviewers. Or maybe the print part of the gig is now the ancillary outreach.

Now, both Schickel and Doherty are right, but I fail to see how either point reflects poorly on online criticism. Schickel's contention with paper editors forcing critics to conform more to mass taste -- presumably because of the number of writers on the Internet who cater to more popular films -- is a statement on the decline of print criticism, not the medium of film analysis as a whole. Indeed, I cannot wrap my head around Doherty's idea that the Internet is somehow the "enemy" of print writers. As long as they get paid, do writers honestly give a damn if they're writing online? The paragraph only seems more confusing when, just above it, Doherty listed many of the boons of writing on blogs and Web sites. What critic wouldn't dream of writing without word limits? Who wouldn't love the ability to be able to post screencaps and video clips to back up claims about mise-en-scène or lighting or whatever, as Bordwell does in his essays? What true, passionate film critic wouldn't jump at the chance to talk more about film and to use the freedom of the blog to write about films outside the multiplex, on foreign films, independent cinema and old, forgotten favorites? One need only look at the blogs run by accepted critics -- Ebert, Bordwell, Rosenbaum, Glenn Kenny -- to see how these writers can be so much more perceptive and thorough with the advantage of the Internet.

I suppose that this post, by nature of its subject, must seem self-defensive, but I do not lump myself in with print critics nor high-profile Web-based critics such as Dennis Cozzalio. That's part of what I find so tedious about the sweeping generalizations made about online critics: it is accepted as fact that anyone with a blog has a Napoleon complex and thinks himself the equal of any certified critic. I use this blog as a means to develop writing and critical skills in the hope that, one day, I can confidently call myself a true critic. I am not on the level of Cozzalio, Ed Howard, Jason Bellamy and a number of other online writers I would not hesitate to call critics, just as I am not a mercurial spaz who alternates between cheerleading and trolling depending on how much swag I got from a film's producers. There are divisions in online criticism, countless ones due to the nature of the freedom and possibility afforded to us; likewise, it's foolhardy to align all of the print critics together as if to face the darkness as one. Pete Hammond does not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Roger Ebert, who cannot be compared to someone like J. Hoberman except in terms of how they differ.

A lovely counterpoint to the whinging of Schickel and Doherty came in the form of Roger Ebert's return to television on Tuesday to premiere his new computerized voice, modeled to sound like his by splicing audio from his DVD commentaries and his old T.V. spots. Perhaps I'm stretching the importance of this because seeing Roger again was such a heartbreaking yet uplifting experience, but the vision of Roger, who's had to struggle through actual problems and undergone countless surgeries and near-death scenarios, coming on T.V. to re-affirm his joie de vivre and his love for his family and his job is a burning ray of sunshine in the depressive shit propounded this week. Even if we set aside Roger's relationship with his wife, Chaz, which is beyond heartwarming and worthy of its own consideration but not relevant to this discussion, the fact that Ebert still gets out of bed every day and not only still goes to work but absolutely loves his profession, as opposed to Schickel who now bites the hand that feeds out of pettiness, should inspire not only critics but everyone who searches for a dream job. In Ebert, we have the perfect image of cinephilia and the true worth of the critic: a critic doesn't go to the movies to feed a need to feel superior despite never making one's own art (as if eloquent criticism is not itself an art). Critics go to the movies because they love to do so, and they love to talk to people about movies. And that kind of enthusiasm can never die.


  1. Brilliant piece, Jake. I'll see if I have anything more illuminating to add later.

  2. Alice in Wonderland and Toy Story 3 (1 and 2 were) weren't retooled for 3D. They were created for it.
    Also, Blu-ray players don't require surround sound systems. It's the same way you could play stereo on a DVD that offered 5.1
    The rest holds up. Well done.

  3. Alice in Wonderland was always intended to be shown in 3D, but it was filmed with conventional cameras and lazily converted later. Toy Story 3 naturally wasn't filmed with 3D cameras either. And, yes, you don't need a surround sound system to play a Blu-Ray, but it's part of the package necessary for a home theater setup. Most people who spent the money for the Blu-Ray and the TV were guided into buying sound systems by sales reps in order to maximize the experience.

  4. I'll admit Alice was a faux pas. I should have kept reading. But I have to disagree on Toy Story 3. The current iteration (not the crappy recall), regardless of release date was meant to be Pixar's first in 3-D. This rumor started no more than seven weeks after (the new) Toy Story 3 was confirmed, and supported by DreamWorks:

    As far as being "guided into buying sound systems", you have to admit most of those who were, didn't really care about it beforehand and more than likely had someone install the system to begin with.

  5. My contention with Toy Story 3 is not that it was planned to be released in 3D, though by lumping it in with the rest of the 3D pictures I mentioned (and there are a number more on the way) I misspoke by suggesting that TS3's 3D was an afterthought. But it pretty much is, in my book, as the practice used for it will not create nearly the same effect seen in Avatar. I would imagine that TS3 will follow in Up's footsteps by being far from offensive in its 3D usage but also completely unnecessary.

    And I'm not quite sure what point you're making about the Blu-Ray/sound system. Yes, those who didn't understand got talked into buying a sound system, but those who really cared about what Blu-Ray had to offer without question bought a good set of speakers.

  6. to me, it's just the way the sentence is structured, and the use of the word "required".

  7. great write-up! Even though I'm not a big fan of 3D, I have to admit if the theaters want people to keep coming they need to get rid of the extra surcharge. People should have the right to bring in their 3D glasses if they already have them instead of buying new ones every time.