Roger Ebert Home

Do the Contrarian (Part II)


The great Rufus Thomas, the World's Oldest Finest Teenager, does "The Breakdown" (follow-up to "The Contrarian").

"I enjoy the occasional flaying of a sacred cow." -- anonymous movie critic

Can your monkey do the dog Can your monkey do the dog Well, my dog can monkey just like you But can your monkey do the do the do the dog like I do? -- Rufus Thomas

The first thing you'll notice about an auto-contrarian (or reactionary) piece, whether it's an op-ed column or a movie review, is that it doesn't so much try to build a point-by-point rebuttal or counter-argument. Instead, it prefers to disparage something or someone by association, by making ad hominem attacks on (real or imagined) supporters of whatever it scorns.

So, for instance, when Stephen Metcalf writes a "What's All This, Then?" piece tearing down "The Searchers," he first attributes the film's reputation not to any merits it may or may not possess as a film, but simply to his generalizations about people who like it. Then he derides them as "film geeks," "nerd cultists," "critics whose careers emerged out of the rise of film studies as a discrete and self-respecting academic discipline," and filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Francis Ford Coppola, John Milius and George Lucas, whom he labels "well-credentialed nerds." So, you get the idea. Rather than make observations about the movie itself, you insult those who admire the movie and use that to smear the movie. It's a schoolyard tactic: If you like "The Searchers," you're a nerd! Notice how the discussion is no longer about the movie, but about who Metcalf thinks is a nerd. (And never mind that "The Searchers" is a "termite" movie : Critically overlooked/dismissed as just another western when it was released, it's a movie that grew in stature over time, as more critics and moviegoers got to see and evaluate it.)

If Metcalf had written a piece that dissected "The Searchers" from a new angle, that demonstrated what the film does (or fails to do) and why he felt that was or was not a worthy achievement, then I might have enjoyed his flailing of a sacred cow, too -- even if it didn't persuade me to change my own view of the cow. Moo. I find this sort of thing happens rather often, where I'll read a critic's take on a movie and think: "Wow, I'd probably feel the same way if I saw that movie, but that's just not the movie I experienced."

In my previous "Do The Contrarian (Part I)" post about A----- W----, you'll notice I intentionally made some insulting comparisons, too. But they were not generalizations about W---- himself; they were dissections of particular words he had written. (I didn't even get into whether I "agreed" or "disagreed" with him about particular movies -- only why I think what he's said about these movies does not qualify as worthwhile film criticism.)

So: I compare his blurb-writing style to Jeffrey Lyons; his condescending tone to George W. Bush; his use of the word "unacceptable" to an unreformed Soviet bureaucrat... and so on. (And, yes, I can't imagine anyone worse at doing their respective jobs than Lyons, Bush and a former Soviet bureaucrat.) But this is not the same as W----'s broad-brush characterizations of, for example, "media-hipsters who long for social divisiveness." For any criticism I make of W----, I can point directly to a particular paragraph, sentence or word he's published that Illustrates what I'm talking about. This is precisely what W---- fails to do in his contrarian criticisms of movies and the critics or audiences he fears may disagree with his characterizations of those movies. He fails to root his criticisms in specific observations we can all see and interpret for ourselves -- whether or not we happen to find ourselves agreeing with W---- on any individual point.

When you're reading one of these sacred cow-tipping, "Everybody Else Is Wrong (Just Believe Me)" pieces, it's illuminating to consider the distinction between a critic who is writing because he/she has something to say, and one who's saying something (anything) because he/she has the opportunity to write. Is the piece you're reading about communicating ideas, or about identifying the writer as someone who belongs or does not belong to a particular group the writer is striving to characterize as good or bad? Which seems to be more important to the writer: the articulation of ideas and/or experience or the choosing of sides?

The week after Robert Altman died, I wrote about Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum's swipe at Altman and "Nashville" in his review of Emilio Estevez's "Bobby." I quoted Rosenbaum -- and quoted from "Nashville" at length -- to demonstrate why I thought Rosenbaum's criticisms were off-base. What prompted me to write, however, wasn't so much Rosenbaum's original review as a blog comment made by another critic I like (and an Altman fan at that), who observed that, although he, too, thought Rosenbaum's criticisms were wrong in substance, "I love that he's the only critic with any kind of a profile who's willing to go against the grain during a week when Altman was all but canonized."

This kind of critical relativism (like the quote about "sacred cows" at the top of this post_), puzzles and confounds me, for the following reasons:

1) If you feel a particular criticism is invalid, or at least not well-grounded, why would the timing of such a faulty criticism affect your assessment of it? Is a faulty observation about Altman now more insightful than it was the week before Altman died? Does his death, and the eulogies paid to him for his most important work, justify criticisms you think aren't worthwhile -- in the name of "balance"? (If so, Fox News has a job a-waitin'.)

2) Show me one Altman obit/appreciation (especially in the mainstream media) that did not sum up the director's career as a spectacularly mixed bag -- from masterpieces ("McCabe," "Nashville") to confounding bungles ("Quintet," "Pret a Porter"). This was not at all like when, say, Richard M. Nixon died and eulogists glossed over Watergate as if they had selective amnesia. Altman's critical and commercial successes and failures were acknowledged everywhere, his artistic temperement described as "maverick" or "idiosyncratic" or "iconoclastic," and his body of work as "eclectic" (AP), "eccentric" (BBC), "erratic" (NPR) and "uneven" (NY Times).

3) Why would it be OK to launch a misguided criticism at a film or a director based on current popularity or critical esteem? Either the criticism has validity or it doesn't. A movie is not better or worse because it is popular or unpopular -- or because it is or is not independently financed (although these days even a once-enjoyable critic like Charles Taylor tends to find anything with the whiff of "indie" about it sub-par in a predictable, knee-jerk [anti-]fashion). Likewise, a film by a given filmmaker is not better or worse because of the filmmaker's past or present critical or career fortunes. Roberto Rossellini was recently "canonized" with career retrospectives in Toronto and New York. Does that mean we need to read some reactionary anti-Rossellini pieces now (no matter what they have to say -- just because they're negative), to "balance" the wave of positive/appreciative criticism the filmmaker has received in the last few weeks? What a shallow and shortsighted view of film criticism that would be.

4) "Nobody's perfect," as Joe E. Brown once said. I indulge contrarian impulses all the time (and this posting is, in a sense, one of them). But criticism is mostly about reasoning and observation, not about countering popular trends or "going against the grain" just because you can.

And with that, let me leave you with the words of Rufus Thomas (an artist I greatly admire and thoroughly enjoy and happen to be obsessed with at the moment), in a little dance tune I would like to dedicate to the reflex-driven Contrarians out there. After all, any monkey can do knee-jerk contrarianism. But "Can Your Monkey Do the Dog"?

E-I-E-I-O Can your monkey do the dog Can your monkey do Can your monkey do the dog Can your monkey do the dog Well, my dog can monkey just like you But can your monkey do the do the do the dog like I do...

Can he prairie dog Can he hound dog Can he poodle dog Can your monkey walk his dog Walkin' the dog Just to walk the dog Well, my dog can do any dance he wants to do But can your monkey do the do the do the dog like I do

(Stay connected for more thoughts on "Do the Contrarian" week at Scanners!)

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

Article 20
They Shot the Piano Player
About Dry Grasses


comments powered by Disqus