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The Artist, Shame and hype-season backlash

Over the last ten days or so I have been serially obsessed with "A Dangerous Method," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," "Margaret," "Moneyball," "A Separation" -- and I haven't had time to really devote myself to following these obsessions because I must get to the next movie on my end-of-year "must-see" list, which grows and mutates by the day. Of course, I never do make it to all of them by my deadlines, but between Thanksgiving and mid-December, those of us who whip up those inevitable year-end ten-best lists of movies and who participate in film critics' polls and/or awards balloting feel a little like those wretched souls at Wal-Mart on Black Friday (or is it Black Thursday now?), busting down doors to get to screenings and screeners so we can see and evaluate everything in the rush before voting day.

It's a joy to have these opportunities to see new stuff that might not be released in many cities until late December or sometime in 2012, and to catch up with things that slipped by earlier in the year. But ithe pressure to evaluate everything in "ten best" terms, rather than just watching the movies and thinking about them and writing about them and considering "listworthyness" later on, can also be frustrating. Especially while award-bestowers -- I'm talking about you, New York Film Critics Circle -- have moved their year's-best announcements earlier and earlier (right after Thanksgiving weekend!). So, even as I'm watching things, they're being honored or ignored in various quarters.

This kind of thing can (and sometimes does) lead to a certain sameness in the critics' awards and even individual ten-best lists. Because if the accolades do what they're supposedly meant to do -- call your attention to exceptional work -- then, when you see a title on somebody's best-of-the-year list that you haven't seen, you seek it out. And thus it becomes eligible for your own list. And so on. I'd heard vaguely positive things about "A Separation," but I try not to know much about about movies before I have the chance (or the determination) to see them. So, I thought it was an Iranian movie about a couple's marital separation. After those damn NYFCC folks named "A Separation" their best foreign-language film, I felt an obligation to see it. It was tough going for about a half hour (there's an elderly parent with Alzheimer's, and I find that kind of slow, chronic suffering awfully hard to watch) -- but then it evolves into something else entirely, a suspenseful, mysterious exploration of moral complexity (individual, legal, religious, political) that, as they say, had me on the edge of my seat. Not the movie I thought it was going to be -- and definitely among the best things I've seen this year.

On the other hand, all these lists can also lead to inflated expectations, which you may experience, upon watching the film, as disappointment -- even though your expectations are hardly the film's fault. Leonard Maltin wrote something about this last week at his indieWIRE blog:

Every year, it seems, some good movies suffer from what I call Awards Season Backlash. Because the season started earlier than usual this year--and intensified when the New York Film Critics decided to vote right after Thanksgiving--the bounce-back has already begun, I'm sorry to say.

For instance, I'm very fond of "The Artist," but I saw it several months ago, having heard just a little about it from friends who attended the Cannes Film Festival. I avoided reading reviews or learning too much about the picture, so I was able to form my own opinion of it...and I enjoyed it very much. [...]

Since then, I've spoken to several film-buff friends who came away from the film feeling disappointed. I can understand why: at this point it's been praised to the skies, and people--especially old-movie aficionados--are going to see it with outsized expectations. "The Artist" isn't the Second Coming, or a reinvention of silent-film techniques: it's a charming story that successfully emulates the look and feel of the late 1920s. I don't think filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius has any pretensions about his work: he just wanted to make an entertaining movie that paid homage to the silent era.

In the same vein, I've talked to other savvy moviegoers who haven't been won over by "Hugo" and "The Descendants." They're perfectly entitled to their opinions, but I fear they have gone to see these films all too aware of the awards and lavish praise they've received.

Maltin says he's heard that Harvey Weinstein, whose company is distributing "The Artist" in the U.S., has found that the movie "works best if an audience feels as if they've 'discovered' it." There's a challenge for the marketing department in the Season of Hype.

Leonard also admits that, because he missed the opportunity to see "Shame" in Telluride and didn't get to it until after it had opened in Los Angeles, he couldn't avoid being exposed to some of the advertising hype: "I'm afraid I may have adopted a 'show-me' attitude toward the film when I finally got to see it..." He found the movie impressive in some respects (Michael Fassbender's performance, especially) but also felt that it was somewhat opaque: "... I feel the film's deliberate absence of backstory or context presents its story in a vacuum. Not only does it give us no understanding of its central character (or his equally troubled sister, well played by Carey Mulligan) but it offers us nothing to take away when the emotionally draining drama is over. What have we learned? What insights can we bring to our judgment of people who suffer from obsessive behavior?"

He concludes that, perhaps because he had gone in expecting to see a masterpiece, he came away "slightly disappointed." I, too, was disappointed with "Shame," but not because of the acclaim and promotion it's received. I thought Steve McQueen's first feature, "Hunger" (2008), had the same kinds of problems. That movie, while a harrowing depiction of an Irish prison hunger strike and one man's physical and philosophical determination to starve himself, came close to something like artified starvation porn. Like "Shame," it left me feeling cold and queasy, but to what end? McQueen's precisely controlled direction suggests he knows, and gets, exactly what he wants on the screen. But does he know, or care, why? (Not that being conscious of intent is the artist's responsibility, but, really, what is this movie about? What, if anything, is going on beneath the surface?)

Is "Shame" a movie about a "sex addict" (as it has been widely described) or about a wealthy, well-equipped New Yorker who has a 17-year-old boy's libido in a 35-year-old man's body? He seems OK as long as he gets a handful of orgasms every day, but is that addiction or pro-active stress relief? What's the difference between addiction and compulsive behavior (and does it matter)? Does his sister's emotional neediness disgust him because he primarily needs to not need anybody? (Also, was the main character originally conceived as a gay man? Something about the film's, and the character's, aestheticized sensibility gave me that impression.)

The best scene is long-take date in a restaurant -- with a comically unsettling, fidgety and intrusive waiter -- which simply leads to the Inevitable Moment of Epiphany wherein the main character discovers that when he's with a women who is a warm, interesting person instead of an abstract, anonymous vessel... he's IMPOTENT!!! So, he's kind of emotionally isolated, you see. As for the title, he seems sexually and psychologically miserable, but is it really "shame" he's feeling or alienation and anhedonia? He doesn't appear to feel guilt about his compulsions, so can he feel shame? In this case, I'm pretty much in alignment with LM, and I'm pretty sure my reservations about the movie aren't part of any backlash...

P.S. I still haven't been able to see "The Artist," and two of my deadlines have already passed.

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