In the past few weeks I’ve encountered the concept of the unassailable, unimpeachable, untouchable “classic”—both old and new—from readers. It wasn’t brought into play unkindly, and in most cases it was done by readers I know personally. But in all cases, they were working more or less on the basis that certain films have achieved an inviolable state and that to not recognize that fact imperils one’s cinematic soul to the degree that actual excommunication might have to be considered. To this I say—also not unkindly—not only stuff and nonsense, but balder and dash, and perhaps even poppy and cock.
This isn’t new. I was once deemed completely unfit for functioning as a critic because I did not properly revere The Wizard of Oz (1939), which, as everyone seemingly knows, is utterly beyond criticism of any kind. I was never sure why it should be beyond criticism, but I was assured that its position as a “universally” acknowledged classic deemed it so. So who exactly decided this? Is it simply a case of “if enough people say it’s great, then it follows that it is great?” That’s certainly part of it. In fact that argument was used. It’s also, I suspect, partly due to the fact that it’s a movie that has a great personal resonance to a lot of people’s childhood. This, I believe, is borne out by the fact that I could express—and have expressed—less than complete adoration for Gone with the Wind (1939) and not unleash any such wrath. Yet not only is it generally rated higher, it’s also made by the same director (to the extent that any one name can be pinned to either film)—Victor Fleming— and in the same year.
The same is probably true for the defense mounted against my inability to concede the greatness of Back to the Future (1985) and The Princess Bride (1987). In another—later in the day—sense, I think youthful enthusiasm plays a part in the perception of Se7en (1995) The Fight Club (1999). But the reason behind the concept of loving these films isn’t particularly significant. What I find troubling is the idea that not loving them causes such fretting. Are we becoming so unsure of our own judgment that we feel threatened by the lack of validation when someone doesn’t share that enthusiasm?
I should note that I am not directing this specifically or even necessarily at anyone who suggested that my own lack of appreciation for any of the titles mentioned was questionable. In this first place, I’ve no problem with anyone expressing an opinion. Whether I agree with the opinion or not is immaterial, and how much weight I give the opinion is variable. Moreover, the only films I could be said to have “gone after” are the David Fincher ones, Se7en and Fight Club. The others I’m merely ambivalent about. (And I grant you that that may be more upsetting in some quarters.)
More to the point, I realize that we all have movies about which we’re protective. In my own case, I think it’s safe to say that if you don’t like Ken Russell’s Tommy (1975), Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932), Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class (1972), Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932), Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964), and James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) chances are pretty good that I wouldn’t consider taking you home to meet mother. (No, that’s not a complete list, but it’ll serve for illustration.) Does that mean, however, that I immediately think you’ve nothing of value to offer in terms of critical acumen? No, not in the least. It strongly suggests that there’s a pretty large disconnect between the way you view movies and the way I do. But it doesn’t make you “wrong,” it doesn’t make me “right,” and perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t cause me to question the value of my own judgment.
It can be argued that my sample list is generational—that it’s very much a baby boomer list. I can’t deny that, nor have I any reason to want to. Also, it does reflect films I saw for the first time between the ages of ten and 20, so it’s a list from my youth. Granted. That’s not entirely accidental, but it has more to do with staying power than with when I saw them. And part of that staying power stems from the fact that my appreciation for them has grown and changed over the intervening years. I don’t get the same thing from, say, Bride of Frankenstein now that I did when I was ten. If I did—or if that’s all I got—I doubt very much it would be on that list. I might not even still be watching it.
I have nothing against validation. No one does. When we recently ran Tommy for an audience of 100-plus viewers, of course I was pleased that the film drew applause and that all but one person who stopped to talk to me afterwards had liked or even loved the film. When we ran Love Me Tonight at one of the free Asheville Film Society screenings a couple weeks ago, did it make me happy that the audience of about 60 responded in a strongly positive matter? Of course, it did. It made me even happier to find someone I knew immediately calling a friend afterwards and telling her to put the film on her Netflix queue. It’s a very pleasant thing when you find people liking something you like. It’s human nature.
At the same time, I think dissent has its place. Granted, I find it sometimes curiously presented. The other night for example we screened Michele Soavi’s Cemetery Man (1994) to a largely appreciative audience. I introduced the movie and referred to it as easily my favorite Italian horror film. I wasn’t surprised or upset when someone came up afterwards and told me how awful it was. That’s fine.
No movie’s going to please everyone. I don’t expect it to and would in fact be alarmed if it did. But I was puzzled by the fact that the person in question was clearly expecting me to agree with that assessment—as if telling me it was bad was clearly going to alter my view. When it didn’t, the person conceded that it started out all right, but really “went downhill” in the second half. I didn’t agree with that either, but I found nowhere to go with that argument since at no point was any attempt made to explain why it was awful or in what way it went downhill in the second half. Some years ago someone came into my house and spying a poster for Ken Russell’s The Rainbow (1989) remarked, “That movie was a real piece of sh*t, wasn’t it?” All I could think to say was, “Yes, I often frame and hang posters for movies I don’t like.” Really, what else was there to say?
But I’m getting away from the point somewhat, since what I’m seeing more and more—thanks to the explosion of film criticism (using the term in a loose sense) on the internet and the democratization of the process by allowing for reader commentary—a move toward a desire for conformist thought. I find this troubling. It’s not something we see much of on the Xpress movie forums.
The worst we get—apart from the rumblings generated if Mr. Souther or I don’t happen to be swept away in a euphoric frenzy by the latest “edgy” comedy, and those occasions when something that has nothing to do with film as such comes up—is usually limited to the same predictable responses made by the same predictable voices that the reviews were exactly what they expected. It would be quite remarkable actually if you weren’t able to generally guess whether or not any critic you read regularly was going to like a given movie. There’s no need to concern ourselves here with responses to reviews of faith-based and politically-motivated films, since the responses are more grounded in the subject matter than the movie.
In the broader world, however, there is a clear lockstep mentality at work. You see it every time something of pop culture note comes out. Rotten Tomatoes is the absolute worst where this is concerned. People get bent out of shape the moment some movie they’re all jazzed about (regardless of whether or not they’ve seen it) loses its 100 percent positive review status. They lie in wait for the first hapless reviewer—hoping against hope that it will be the almost universally despised Armond White—who dares not to love the film in question. And then they pounce in some weird form of cyber-bullying to eviscerate said reviewer. It’s as if they’ve banded together to in some huge internet dare in an effort to suppress all thought that doesn’t agree with theirs.
This doesn’t necessarily end with reviews that challenge the popular notion. Right now, for instance, you can venture onto Rotten Tomatoes and go to the reviews for Wes Craven’s new picture My Soul to Take. I haven’t seen the film yet, so as of this writing I have no dog in this fight. But if you’ll look at the Slant Magazine review (credited on the main page to Ed Gonzalez, but actually the work of Simon Abrams, due to Rotten Tomatoes unfathomable policies), you’ll find it’s one of two positive ones. (The other one hasn’t been spotted yet.) It has generated nine comments, one of which “invalidates” the critic for not liking Craven’s Red Eye (2005) and concludes, “Why is this fu*king moron considered a critic?” Possibly because said “moron” doesn’t troll movie sites using a name from a Reservoir Dogs character (how passe) spewing pointless bile? Just a guess.
We live in an age where everyone with a computer and in internet connection has been given a voice. In most ways, that strikes me as a good thing, even though it inevitably results in a great deal of rubbish and just plain noise. I was never a fan of the old boy network that often pervaded—and to some degree still pervades—the print media. I am, by the way, not a member of that network. Four books, essays in at least eight others (not counting an essay I did for Films in Review that somehow ended up in a book on Tim Burton without my permission), 25 years of articles in various magazines, ten years of weekly reviews. etc. and I could still name you some film-related publications where I wouldn’t even be given a hearing. So I have no reason to be a fan of that network, though I’ve long ceased to really care.
I don’t begrudge anyone who wants to set themselves up as a reviewer with his or her own website. I view it as not that much different from all those non-paying (or “pays in contributor copies”) gigs we used to do in the typewriter age. But for better or worse, our work was filtered, edited and smoothed out by professionals. Generally, I think it was for the better, but setting that aside, there’s often a too easy acceptance of these sites—and more than a few of the critics on some of them are posers of the “be a movie critic or just look like one” school. And there are some who think that saying a movie is “fu*king awesome” is actually criticism. I name no names, even though I don’t personally know any of these folks. I figure they will sort themselves out in time. The internet is already littered with the remains of dead review sites.
What I do begrudge, however, is the idea that critics should be bullied into agreeing with the mood of the moment. I don’t like the idea that I should pretend to like something because fanboys—and anyone who goes around doing nothing but shouting down critics he or she doesn’t like deserves the term—are going to try to make things difficult for me if I don’t. You see the threat of that all the time when it comes to the notorious Armond White, who is mostly notorious for exercising extremely poor judgment. Considering the fact that White thinks Michael Bay is a great filmmaker, it might be said that he comes by his debatable judgment honestly.
I don’t especially like White, but I’m not sent into a tizzy by him. With the Rotten Tomatoes fanboy crowd, it’s another matter. They seriously call for him to be fired by his publisher and constantly implore Rotten Tomatoes to ban him from the site. It’s an unlikely scenario, of course, because White’s contrarian stance is good for website traffic both at the New York Press and Rotten Tomatoes. The real question is whether or not White believes what he writes or—as is widely assumed—it’s an attention-getting device. Without having access into the man’s mind—and I’m not sure that would be much fun—it’s impossible to say. I will say that there are a number of critics I’m less likely to read than White. That doesn’t mean I take him seriously—merely that I find him interesting.
In general, though, I simply don’t like the idea that there is some particular set of movies that is immune from criticism, or that to suggest that something not on that hypothetical list is not great is foolish. It reminds me of that sentence in Josef von Sternberg’s autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, “One who praises as great art only that which has become popular and about which there can no longer be any dispute is qualified to discuss art only with a child.”
Film criticism is a relative youngster in the world of letters. After all, film itself hasn’t a history that is anywhere near as long as that of any other art form. And both can be said to be sort of mongrels. Film draws from a wide mixture of sources—theater, painting, literature, myth, music, and, as the movies demonstrate over and over, other movies. So too does film criticism, which requires—or should require—a frame of reference. I remember cringing in 2002 when it became clear that at least one critic had no clue that Jonthan Demme’s The Truth About Charlie was a reworking of Stanley Donen’s Charade (1963). Now, that strikes me as a case where it’s permissible to ask why someone is even considered a critic.
But we all stumble through this to some degree and learn as we go because we see and experience more as we live. When I was 16 I thought the opening of Leo McCarey’s Duck Soup (1933) was brilliantly original. When I was 19 I finally saw Victor Heerman’s earlier Marx Brothers film Animal Crackers (1930) and realized McCarey had merely honed, refined and tightened the opening of that film, which I realized was itself drawn from the 1928 stage play of Animal Crackers. It would be years later that I realized both owed a heavy debt to Gilbert and Sullivan. A frame of reference doesn’t arrive by magic, though some people believe it does.
The other night while watching Cemetery Man, I asked a friend—in his early 20s—who was seated next to me if he caught the fact that the kissing scene with the covered faces in the ossurary was a reference to Rene Magritte’s painting The Lovers. He didn’t, but he’s also in his early 20s and I wasn’t surprised by this. I wouldn’t have known it myself at his age. And I’m sure that there are all sorts of areas where my frame of reference is lacking—which is one reason I continue reading other people’s takes on movies and revisiting movies I saw years ago.
It’s that same thought that make me skeptical of unquestioned classics. If our assessment of movies stopped at some point, the notions of unquestioned classics would be radically different than they are now. The Wizard of Oz would be a reasonably successful movie from 1939 and nothing more. Nearly every horror film from the 1930s would have been forgotten some time ago. The Marx Brothers would have been said to have reached their peak with A Night at the Opera in 1935—the film that for years was credited with rescuing from the “shambles” of their Paramount years, neatly disposing of what is now generally considered their best work. Mark Sandrich’s Top Hat (1935) would still be considered the pinnacle of the Astaire-Rogers movies, not George Stevens’ Swing Time (1936), which tends to hold that spot now. Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) would be written off as a failure—critically and commercially.
The fact is that our perception of movies is fluid to a great degree, and it requires re-evaluation. And it should. The constant honest debating of movies shouldn’t stop. And when I say “honest debating,” I don’t mean prove a film’s merits because of all the accolades you can produce for it. I mean prove it by telling why you consider it great. And that has nothing to do with its “approval rating” on Rotten Tomatoes, the AFI list of 100 Greatest Insert-Genre-Here Films or the even more fallacious IMDb ranking of the 250 greatest movies. These are all snapshots. Moreover to announce a film as great without the possibility of a varying opinion is to condemn that film to death by ossification. Films should be seen and discussed, not consigned to pedestals. Of course, all this goes to hell if you try to tell me that William Beaudine’s 1944 Bela Lugosi picture Voodoo Man isn’t an unassailable existential trash masterpiece. When that happens, you and I need to step outside and settle this.