Thursday, October 4, 2012

Critical Condition

In his marvelous, totally discursive film Caro Diario, Nanni Moretti goes to see an American film some critic had recommended. It was Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. It's a fictionalized account of a real-life serial killer, Henry Lee Lucas, who confessed to over 600 murders. Moretti sits in his theater seat, while some typically gratuitous murder scenes from the film make him squirm and look away from the screen. He walks out on the film:

"I wander around the city for hours trying to remember who it was that said good things about this film. I read a review. I read something positive about Henry. Suddenly, I remember. I find the review, and I copy it in my diary. Here it is: 'Henry kills people, but he's a kind of good guy. Only facts count for him. Otis is the real scum. Henry has a mad solidarity with his victims. A prince of annihilation, promising a merciful death. The director awakens the public to its worst nightmare: a shower of gore, impaled eyes, martyred flesh, abomination. Henry, the first to dismember the criminal philosophy of the Hollywood racists.'

"I wonder if, whoever wrote this, before falling asleep, has a moment of remorse? When did it begin? When did all this begin? I don't know."

In the next shot, Moretti is sitting at the bedside of the critic who wrote those words, who lies with his sheet pulled up to his face.

"Maybe when you wrote: 'This Korean film was a costume melodrama, demented clothes and hats, super-feminist, flamboyant and diabolical, shot like Spielberg on acid, in futuristic rhythms and spaces." [The critic cringes and whimpers at every word.] Then there's also Cronenberg's Naked Lunch: 'Pure high-budget underground pus, a real cult movie.' [The critic tries to hide his face but Moretti pulls the sheet down.] 'It's not that Jonathan Demme's women are superior. Nor are they what the proletarians and lumpen of three circling worlds were for Lin Piao. But only his women have the gumption to uphold the righteous side of the war of the Imaginary Scalpel in hand.'"

Moretti relentlessly reads on: "'Before Sailor and Lula join for the happy ending murmuring "Love Me Tender", Sailor will spend years in the pen. Shattered human heads will fly. Dogs will grab severed hands, hundreds of Kools and Marlboros will be smoked . . . .'"

The critic that Moretti singled out for ridicule was deserving of such torture - having to listen to the logorrhea he spews out for a living. But critics have never been much liked, by artists or audiences. The artist doesn't like them for the bad things (and possibly the good things) they write about their work. The audience doesn't like them because they are so negative most of the time. What artists and audiences don't understand is that few films (or plays or books) require or deserve comment. But a critic would starve if he only wrote about what was worthy of comment.

In his essay, "Confessions of a Book Reviewer", George Orwell epitomized a typical film critic, circa 1946:

"Everyone in this world has someone else whom he can look down on, and I must say, from experience of both trades, that the book reviewer is better off than the film critic, who cannot even do his work at home, but has to attend trade shows at eleven in the morning and, with one or two notable exceptions, is expected to sell his honors for a glass of inferior sherry."

Orwell's one or two notable exceptions among film critics is a good average at any given time or place. The same number of exceptional film critics were at work in America in 1946 and in every decade since, despite the exponential expansion of the number of people who think they're qualified to write film criticism. John Simon, who wrote illuminatingly about film for forty years, once told an interviewer*:

"Sometimes, sitting at a film or drama critic's voting meeting, I feel surrounded by creatures from the black lagoon or from twenty thousand leagues beneath the sea. We don't speak the same language. A great Russian film meant nothing to them, whereas a cheap American shoot-'em-up or cowboy movie is a masterpiece. They look at me as if I were some sort of strange comic monster; I look at them and think, What do I have in common with these people? Why am I sitting here? I think press agents would be much nicer to sit with. They know much more about what we're talking about. Perhaps even cab drivers do."

Vernon Young, another exceptional critic, once dubbed Bosley Crowther, longtime movie critic - for 27 years - for the New York Times, a "fogey without portfolio". What exactly are the proper credentials for a film critic? Are there any? 

To be continued . . .

* Davi Napoleon at The Paris Review.

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