Testament to the power and mastery of a movie that, nearly 60 years on, still feels as modern, complex and cutting-edge as any film released…
David Carr interviewed A.O. Scott on the subject of movie criticism in a "Sweet Spot" video posted on the New York Times' ArtsBeat blog last Friday. I urge you to follow that link, watch the seven-and-a-half-minute conversation and let me know what you make of it. Carr plays the clown, but I'm not sure how much of it is intentional because most of what he says is so ignorant, and he doesn't even attempt to support it or invest thought in the conversation. Scott, as you know if you read him regularly, is quite eloquent and calls bullshit on some of Carr's more outrageous fabrications.
To help pin down my own thoughts (following up on years of writing about this very subject, including a series of recent posts and comment threads -- "Avenge me! AVENGE ME!," "The Avengers & the Amazing 'Critic-Proof' Movie," "Continuing to argue for the irrelevance of my own opinions," "Cannes and Cannes-not: On being a movie geek"), I've tried to label the various formal and informal fallacies of logic at play here, and link to Wikipedia definitions of them. Of course there are so many (in the conversation and in the list on Wikipedia) that I may have mislabeled some, in which case please let me know.
So, it begins:
Here's my latest "Mad Men" video, inspired by "The Other Woman" (Season 5, Episode 11). It's my favorite kind of video analysis/criticism: no narration, no inter-tiles, just interwoven images, dialog and music.
NOTE: Don't even think of reading this if you haven't seen "The Other Woman," yet.
"The Other Women," the 11th installment in "Mad Men" Season 5, has one of those great titles (like "Shut the Door. Have a Seat," "The Rejected," "Tomorrowland," "Far Away Places") that keeps resonating as you think back on the episode itself. It begins in a meeting of creative executives in the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce conference room, as Stan tosses out the primary theme -- of the episode and the Jaguar account pitch: "Jaguar: The mistress who will do things your wife won't." And that's the usual definition of "the other woman" -- the rival for the heterosexual breadwinner's affections, the spicy dish on the side. As Megan phrases it, the Jaguar is the mistress and the wife is the Buick at home in the garage. But that's only the beginning.
All three of the show's central female characters have been "other women" under certain circumstances, with various men. Joan has long been Roger Sterling's "other woman" -- not just his extra-marital go-to girl, but his office wife... and (unbeknownst to everyone else) the mother of his child. Peggy slept with Pete on the eve of his wedding to Trudy, got pregnant, and gave up the kid for adoption. She's never slept with Don (though a lot of the people in the SCDP office think that's how she attained her position), but don't underestimate how much her personal and professional second-bananaship has contributed to Don's fortunes as well as her own. It was clear early on how much he preferred her company at work to Betty Draper's at home.
And then Megan came along -- first as an employee (Joan: "He'll probably make her a copy writer; he's not going to want to be married to his secretary") and then as Don's wife -- the "other woman" who, in the eyes of Peggy and the rest of the firm, distracts him from the advertising job to which he was formerly "married." Don is so smitten with her that the company practically has to sue for alienation of affection. ("You've been on love leave," Cooper chastises Don at the end of "Far Away Places." "It's amazing things are going as well as they are with as little as you are doing.")
It all culminates in the line finessed by Michael Ginsberg (the word "mistress" can't be in the ad) and delivered by Don in SCDP's pitch: "Jaguar: At last a thing of beauty you can truly own." That last word deserves some explication. Yes, in the presentation, Don likens the temperamental beauty of the Jaguar to a woman, but the whole point of the proposal is that, as everyone knows, a woman can't be "owned." A car can. I only mention this because I've seen a few commentators claim that "The Other Woman" is an episode about "men trying to own women," and I think that's a bit simplistic. OK, men might wish they could "own" women on some level, but not even Don Draper or Roger Sterling -- not even Pete Campbell, fer chrissakes -- really believes that is possible in 1967.¹
We all live in our own little subcultures. In mine -- loosely categorized as international film-festival cinephiliacs -- big-name contemporary filmmakers such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Abbas Kiarostami, Michael Haneke and the Dardennes brothers (yes, they've all won the Palme d'Or at Cannes) are huge, huge stars. In fact, some of us, whether we like them or not, feel they are overexposed, on the verge of becoming more than famous: ubiquitous. Like Kardashians or something. (I'll be honest: I don't know what a Kardashian is, but I keep hearing the term.) I mean, good god, the Dardennes have been all in your face throughout the 21st century, making movie after movie and picking up awards everywhere you look. And don't even get me started on Kiarostami. That guy became the international flavor-of-the-film-fest-cicruit in the 1980s, achieved his biggest commercial success in 2010, and has a new film in competition at Cannes right now.
I suppose it's true that, to most people outside our own little coterie, the Cannes Film Festival means just about nothing. Its impact on the American box office is negligible (although Kiarostami's Palme-winner "Taste of Cherry" grossed a pretty impressive $312 thousand in the US in 1998. That's about what "Marvel's The Avengers" took in while you were reading the last sentence). I guess fame -- or importance -- depends on your perspective.
A few things got me to thinking about this. One was Manohla Dargis's NY Times dispatch from Cannes. I love her observations:
I was recently on a plane from Chicago to Seattle and Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" (2011) was playing. I didn't watch it (to paraphrase "Night Moves": "I saw a Guy Ritchie movie once...") but every time I looked up at the screens, the same thing would happen: The action would speed up and slow down within individual shots. In the days of film, you might call it overcranking and undercranking, but this was digital. You remember "The Matrix." It was all very 1999.
Shortly thereafter I saw this video (and many others) by Genki Sudo / World Order. I find their movements, accomplished with their bodies in real time and not with camera tricks, mesmerizing (robot moves aside, reminiscent of David Byrne's "Once in a Lifetime") and somehow quite moving. They're getting at something profound about the rhythms of technology and biology and modern rituals. And, as a side effect, they make Guy Ritchie's directorial career look all the more insignificant.
L to R: Takashi Jonishi, Yusuke Morisawa, Ryo Noguchi (chief choreographer), Genki Sudo (vocal, producer & director, retired Ultimate Fighter), Masato Ochiai, Akihiro Takahashi, Hayato Uchiyama.
"I am you. Prepared to do anything. Prepared to burn. Prepared to do what ordinary people won't do. You want me to shake hands with you in hell, I shall not disappoint you.... I may be on the side of the angels, but don't think for one second that I am one of them." -- Sherlock Holmes to Moriarty in "The Reichenbach Fall" (2012)
In a seething contemporary metropolis, a private citizen gifted with extraordinary crime-fighting abilities, and motivated by his own private demons, enters into an unofficial liaison with the police, who put up with his form of vigilantism because... well, because he cracks cases and catches crooks. He's a great tabloid story, so the papers avidly display his distinctively costumed image on their front pages, building him up into a kind of superhuman figure. He fully trusts only one man, his live-in companion (no, not in that way!), frequent co-conspirator and closest advisor, who warns him that he may be getting too famous for his own good, becoming a target rather than a deterrent. He is ripe for a fall.
His city-wide celebrity attracts a nemesis, a criminal mastermind who is batshit crazy but also diabolically clever at complex planning. This villain is obsessed with his counterpart, whom he sees as an avenging "angel," his mirror self and his only worthy rival. Determined to destroy his better half, he plans a series of daring schemes, assisted by scores of shadowy henchmen eager to do his bidding, to take his archenemy's confidence and reputation down a few pegs.
Above: Life in Hell © 1985, Matt Groening
If I had to make a Charles Foster Kane-like "Declaration of Principles" for Scanners (and if I haven't already done that sometime in the last seven years, then maybe I should), it would include such fundamental tenets (all-too-familiar to regular readers) as:
* Whether somebody "likes or dislikes" something is not something anyone else can do anything about, and therefore is not a fit subject for criticism.
* Neither is speculation about somebody's motives for "liking or disliking" something. All that matters is what they say, not what you guess their motivation is for saying it -- just as all that matters to criticism is what's in the movie, not what you imagine the filmmakers' intentions were. Is it there, or not? If it is, it can be talked about. If it isn't, when where's the evidence? Even speculation has to be based on something.
* A movie is always to some degree about what happens to you as you are watching it. (Which means, the questions and suppositions and emotions you have are part of the experience.)
Joss Whedon's "Marvel's The Avengers (Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire)" would have had to have been an amazing colossal fiasco for it not to be a mega-hit in its opening week. I mean, what other picture has had a whole series of $100 million-plus blockbusters basically working as feature-length trailers for it over the course of the past three years? There's "Iron Man" (2008), "The Incredible Hulk" (2008), "Iron Man 2" (2010), "Thor" (2011), "Captain America: The First Avenger" (2011) -- all of which ("The Hulk" aside, for the moment at least) have their own sequels in the works as part of the "Marvel Cinematic Universe" production deal Marvel and Paramount set up in 2005. And you've got decades of comic books behind the Avengers, too. So, you might say the movie's superpower is that it was "critic proof."
I've always been amused by that term, which it seems to me is most frequently used to signify a movie that people want to see whether it's any good or not. I mean, they hope it's going to be good, but they're not going to take anybody else's word for it but the studio marketers until they see it for themselves. And why not? You can't have a professional taster sample that new Japadog cart for you. That's something you're going to want to wrap your tongue around for your own self: Either seaweed, mayo, fish flakes and miso sauce sound like tempting sausage condiments to you or they don't.
But the response to criticism I don't understand (and the one I wrote about recently in "Avenge me! AVENGE ME!") is the one that assumes every critic/reviewer is looking at a movie with the same set of values ("production values"? "entertainment values"? "aesthetic values"?) as the reader -- or that any differing perceptions amount to the critic/reviewer attempting to negate or spoil the reader's own experience. Yes, of course that's preposterously dumb, not to mention metaphysically absurd, man. ("How can I know what you hear?") But, as we know from perusing the Internet, a surprising number of people think that way, and don't even realize (or care) how imbecilic they're being. The rest of us can only shake our heads and chuckle mock-sadly.
My friend Richard T. Jameson sent an e-mail with the subject line: "Why am I depressed?" In it he quoted the first two sentences of an April L.A. Weekly story headlined "Movie Studios Are Forcing Hollywood to Abandon 35mm Film. But the Consequences of Going Digital Are Vast, and Troubling":
Shortly before Christmas, director Edgar Wright received an email inviting him to a private screening of the first six minutes of Christopher Nolan's new Batman movie, "The Dark Knight Rises." Walking into Universal CityWalk's IMAX theater, Wright recognized many of the most prominent filmmakers in America -- Michael Bay, Bryan Singer, Jon Favreau, Eli Roth, Duncan Jones, Stephen Daldry.
It was that second sentence, RTJ said, that tripped him up. (Later, in a Facebook post, he recommended the article itself, but followed that second sentence with the comment: "The parade's gone by, all right."
Above: The Demanders: Jana Monji, Roger Ebert, Jim Emerson, Steven Boone, Odie Henderson, Donald Liebenson. In absentia: Jeff Shannon, Kevin B. Lee. Reflected in TV: Wael Khairy. Steak 'n Shake shake courtesy of Michal Oleszczyk, who also took this photo with my camera.
Every once in a while circumstances have conspired to keep me from attending Ebertfest, but the main thing that draws me back are the people I get to see and watch movies with while I'm there, from David Bordwell (with whom I rode from Madison to Champaign-Urbana) to Festival Co-Conspirator Joan Cohl to The Man Himself, Roger Ebert, whose presence animates the event, even when he isn't in the on-stage spotlight.
For me, there were no major discoveries or revelations this year -- like, say, Jeff Nichols' "Shotgun Stories" or Yôjirô Takita's "Departures" or the astounding, mind-blowing 70mm print of Jacques Tati's "PlayTime" in past Ebertfests -- but that almost seemed beside the point. (Though I highly recommend a snappy, endlessly inventive low-budget picture called "Citizen Kane." It's terrific!)
I'm happiest hanging around, in the Virginia Theatre or the "green room" (where participants gather for lunch and dinner) with, to name but a few, some of The Demanders (a small group of writers I work with who cover VOD) or the Far-Flung Correspondents, who write about movies from their home bases all over the world: Egypt, Brazil, Turkey, South Korea... even Chicago.
Although I generally find it difficult to care about superheroes and the movies that franchise them, I liked Joss Whedon's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" series -- a lot -- so, if I go to see his Marvel Comics packaging-event "The Avengers," it will be because of him and not so much because of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America or Nick Fury. (I should also say I'm intrigued by the idea of Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk and, like everybody else, I got a kick out of Robert Downey Jr. in "Iron Man," too.)
Yes, I know I wrote a piece on taking superhero movies seriously back in 2008, but neither the movies nor their fans have shown much interest in doing that. Instead, these movies have become mere team sports (like American politics), pep-rally occasions for fans to cheer and sneer, in person or online. (There's another essay to be written on the fratty/bully co-optation of geek culture, perhaps...) So, A.O. Scott gives "The Avengers" a measured review in the New York Times ("Superheroes, Super Battles, Super Egos") and Super Ego Superhero Samuel L. Jackson strikes back with a tweet: "#Avengers fans,NY Times critic AO Scott needs a new job! Let's help him find one! One he can ACTUALLY do!"