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A question from Ray Carney: Why is coverage of non-Hollywood film so abysmally bad in the United States? As regular readers of the site know, I recently conducted a major festival of "under the radar" independent films for the Harvard Film Archive. The festival included 13 features and 6 short films, many of which had never played in the Boston area before, and all of which are major and culturally important works of art. (Click here to see the schedule of screenings.) To my shock and dismay, not a single film reviewer working for either of the two Boston daily newspapers (The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald) deigned to review a single film in the eleven-day festival, or even to mention that the festival was being held. Meanwhile, films like Ratatouille, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and Transformers had article after article devoted to them on an almost daily basis -- reviews, interviews with stars and crew members, "think pieces" about their significance, cultural commentary on their appeal, and on and on. Thousands of words devoted to junky, stupid Hollywood movies, and not one sentence to call attention to, or consider, major works of art.
|Photo of Ray Carney by Randy Walker, 2007|
Why are things this way? Have the reviewers sold their souls to the Hollywood studios? Are they simply stupid? Do they actually believe that movies like Transformers matter? Are they so bovine, passive, and unthinking that they simply do whatever the studio publicists tell them to and are incapable of thinking for themselves? Do they really not understand the difference between art and commerce? Do they really not understand how they are being used to sell products? Do they not care about the future of an art form, and do they not understand the effect of their lack of coverage of it on the lives and well-being of the artists?
A post-script: The American journalistic reviewing system is even more corrupt and rotten than most viewers would believe.The art film theaters are so afraid of incurring the disfavor of reviewers that even to write what I have about them on this page is considered "dangerous." After the preceding (and following) critique appeared, I was cautioned by a highly placed Boston film programmer that I should remove my criticism of the Boston Globe and Boston Herald reviewers from the site or else future film programs I was involved with would be "boycotted" by the reviewers who work at those papers. In other words the reviewers would retaliate for my criticism that they have ignored important past screenings I have been associated with by ignoring future important screenings I am involved with. The advice (which came from someone very knowledgeable about the reviewing system) was a depressing illustration of how art film exhibitors and specialty programmers in America have been treated so badly by the journalistic reviewing system that they have even become afraid to criticize it. They are so desperate for journalistic coverage that, rather than telling the truth about the whole rotten system and how awful the reviewers are, they have become afraid to say anything against them, and in fact go around attempting to curry favor with them by flattering them and suppressing criticism of their coverage.
The awfulness of the American audience and reviewing situation was brought home to me yesterday when I received the following note from Randy Walker and Jennifer Shainin about the reception accorded to their film, Apart from That, in Poland. I print an excerpt from a longer note to me:
.... Jen and I just returned from the Era New Horizons festival in Wroclaw, Poland, where APART FROM THAT was screened three times in 2 days to over 1200 people. The audience consisted of folks in their mid-twenties, all with a very serious hunger for alternative cinema. A significant portion of each audience would remain for the Q&A sessions, and the questions were extremely intelligent (all of them addressing the narrative content of the film rather than technical or budgetary issues). The festival itself was also superb -- they not only flew us out there and put us up in the nicest hotel in town, they also removed the sale of popcorn from all the multiplex theaters (out of respect for the films). The festival pretty much dominated the entire city of Wroclaw, and this general hunger for these incredible films never seemed to wane. If only this sort of thing happened in America....
Jen and Randy are right. This sort of thing does not happen in America. American audiences, even audiences of young people, are not "hungry for alternative cinema." They are obsessed with pop culture, with schlock and junk and trash -- with Austin Powers, with Harry Potter, with Paris Hilton, with James Bond, and with cartoon-movies like Shrek, Spiderman, and The Simpsons. The marketers have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams of fifty years ago, and young people in America, at least most of them, have been brainwashed by the marketers and bought into the Happy Meal, action-figure heaven of advertising and mass-marketing in terms of film. And so have the reviewers. While reviewers are supposed to be critiquing the system, submitting it to analysis and criticism, they've simply bought into its corrupt, business-oriented values. The coverage of pop culture has almost completely squeezed out the coverage of art, of truth, of reality. The reviewers have a lot of blood on their hands. Do they even realize it? Can anything be done to change the system?
Or is it the audiences who are at fault? Are American audiences just too brain-dead to want anything more demanding than the kind of movies Tony Scott at The Times or Anthony Lane and David Denby at The New Yorker promote? Would three screenings of Apart from That sell out in Boston or Los Angeles even if the film received a favorable review from a major critic? I'd note that this is the logic many reviewers themselves invoke to justify their journalistic neglect of art film: "... Nobody is really interested in those movies anyway. We just review what people want us to review. If our readers were interested, we'd cover those kinds of movies...." Or is that logic circular -- or self-serving?
I invite readers -- and independent filmmakers -- to weigh in with their comments and responses. Why are things this way in America? Why is art film, intelligent film, in such dire straits, commercially speaking? I will print the most interesting responses. There are many articles about this subject on the site. To read a few reflections on the subject, click here and follow the associated links in the menus on the page you are taken to. -- R.C.
A note from Ray Carney: By coincidence a letter came in on the same subject from someone who attended the Harvard Film Archive screenings. Mitch Hampton (who has sat in on many of my film courses for many years and is familiar with my views on art and life) alluded to the journalistic "blackout" of the event and the smallness of the audiences. I print it here as a first installment in the discussion of why American audiences (and reviewers) are so Hollywood-addled -- why they do not support independent films. -- R.C.
Though you have many important things to do ... I feel compelled to send you this note of thanks.I may have not had occasion to say this at the time, but I am all too aware of the kind of work and organization that goes into something like the series at the HFA, to say nothing of the intricate psychologies involved, the fragility of artistic minds, ego, bureaucracy, and perhaps, a million other major details that I could never know.
I also want you to know that the attendance did not go unnoticed. I was really outraged at this, of course. Its the same old story. When I went to the Taiwanese films, (which were very good) there was so much support, in a nationalistic spirit, really, by the Taiwanese community. They debated the merits of the films in a serious fashion, and there was a real sense of community, in part, I believe underwritten by their sense of group identity and belonging. It was a little like the sold out status of Chalk; it becomes a hot button issue of the teaching crisis, kind of like Michael Moore's health care crisis. When there is a big issue behind a work there is sure to be a lot of attention and even critic-proof, sure fire praise. Always when it comes to anything associated with American artistry, there is almost a willful ignorance. I remember what George Eliot said in a letter about the unimportance of hot buttons and big issues in a work of art.
It is a very difficult and weighty thing to make something, all the more so when what is made is excellent, like Honey. And yet it can't be reduced to cliches like teaching or health care. It is of a different order, really. I know you have been around longer than me, but have you ever lived in a time when aesthetic values were so undervalued? Do they know what the nature of such a thing is? Is it a problem in cognition? Are they really that much more interested in pop trivia? When people had so completely lost sight of what it means for a human being to make something both as part of a long tradition as much as in reaction to that same tradition? From what I understand, those directors traveled great distances and they were not put up anywhere? I guess I had hoped they would arrive to a packed house.
Can't go on, must go on.
Subject: Molloy lives
Thanks for the good thoughts. An overly hasty response: You're onto something: The poor attendance for the indie program was partly that America has no "community interest" like Taiwan or some other cultures... But, as to the difference at this point in history ... I don't think it's ever been any better or any worse. Look at the careers of the earlier indies I teach in my courses: Barbara Loden, Robert Kramer, John Cassavetes, Mark Rappaport. They were neglected by viewers and reviewers thirty years ago. Their work failed at the box office. Many of their important films were not reviewed in newspapers and magazines. That hasn't changed one bit, or gotten any worse, as far as I can see. Look at the careers of Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson, and Henry David Thoreau a hundred years ago. It's awful how artists are treated in contemporary America, but it's always been awful. As Robt. Frost says, it's sheer vanity to believe we live in the worst of times. It's always been this way -- and (maybe) always will be this way. The average IQ or degree of curiosity of the world doesn't go up or down very much as the centuries roll on. Or am I being too hard on mankind? That would seem to be difficult, in my view. Look at the world today. Mankind deserves all the criticism it gets. And then some! -- R.C.
Subject: consciousness change
In one sense, of course, you are right that rarefied things, by virtue of their natures, get rare receptions. It is also true that originality is lost on people; its almost a tautology. I was not saying that people are less receptive to works of high quality today, and that there was a golden age. What I was suggesting is that certain forms and forms of attention rise and fall in history. One example is opera. It is known that Italian immigrants formed a core audience in the early part of the last century; in that sense opera was part of the popular for those Italians. Anyone will tell us that opera is less well attended today. I can tell you that good jazz has more appreciation now than in the late seventies. Maybe kids are bored by rock. My hunch is that the movies at Harvard would have different responses in a time of less competition for attention - less distractions, amusements, and entertainments. The Taiwanese director I saw at Harvard was very emphatic about this. He said: "movies like Spielberg's have conditioned people to lose attention, to not pay as much attention to human relations on the screen."
Thirty years ago everyone watched the same two people on the t.v.: Johnny Carson and Walter Cronkite. Surely the proliferation of stuff and choices on the internet must change people in some way. That's the old Macluhan insight. I think there are things in human nature that are stubborn, but I think there are discontinuities. One example is the movie Husbands, which was reviled by women in the seventies; now it is a favorite among young women! That can't be arbitrary. There had to be some change in a demographic of women to make resistant to something at one date and their daughters more receptive to the same thing at the same age they were, but at a later date. I was reminded of a lecture you gave on Degas and changes in perspective in painting. Why would there not also be changes in perception of the same work over time? Look at how comedy changes! When I see Ball Of Fire or Some Like It Hot today, nobody really laughs! The oppositions and mismatches upon which the humor depends for its effect don't register! I don't believe its merely the case that the content is dated. Conversely, they might laugh at rather serious moments. I am curious about those changes. I think there is something to be investigated about this. Sorry to have gone on for so long about it.
P.S. Speaking of reception, This Harry Potter thing is insane! On one train I was on, the whole train was reading it. I really don't get it!
Subject: Art, Commerce, and Pauline Kael
Dear Prof. Carney:
"It's awful how artists are treated in contemporary America, but it's always been awful. As Robt. Frost says, it's sheer vanity to believe we live in the worst of times."
I hope you're right, and I'd like to believe things are no worse today - and I really don't think we're living in the worst of times - but I do think there is more pressure today to be mainstream and commercial than, say, in the 60s or 70s. I really do think the blockbuster mentality (which was always there to some degree), kicked into overdrive after Jaws and Star Wars hit the jackpot in the mid-70s. That really did kick-start a process of increased commercialization, more marketing tie-ins, and studios wanting more films that appealed to kids, not adults, so they could sell Happy Meals and action figures along with the movies themselves. Yeah, Hollywood has always been about money, but the blockbuster mentality at all costs really is more severe and stringent than ever before.
You can even see the effect of this shift on someone like Pauline Kael, who, after spending decades defending "trash" and making extravagant (and inane) assertions about the genius of Brian DePalma or whoever, started saying things like "When we championed trash culture, we had no idea it would become the only culture" (this is a rueful quote from Craig Seligman's memoir Sontag & Kael).
You can read a very witty and caustic review of Seligman's absurdly reverential, sycophantic memoir here if you'd like:
Of course, she was too proud and stubborn to admit publicly she was ever wrong about anything at all, but she did express some misgivings in private to friends. Even more interestingly, screenwriter Paul Schrader, who started off as a devoted acolyte, has recently condemned her "love-of-trash" aesthetic:
A detractor of Kael's named Brandon Colvin wrote the following post on a discussion thread concerning Kael:
"Responding to Phillip Kelly, yes, Schrader once loved Kael. He was basically her disciple. However, in the "Canon Fodder" article that I mentioned he called her ideas about film, when it came to her views about trash and art and the nature of film "not only wrong-headed but deleterious" (36) and assessed of "Trash, Art and the Movies" that "it remains a hugely influential essay, now for negative reasons" (36). He goes on to criticize his mentor saying, "Kael set in motion the legitimization of trash: ideas float obliquely through culture, and once that idea took root - there was no turning back. Kael was writing during the most artistically vibrant era of film's short history. I don't think she imagined that trash would actually prevail. She's become, unwittingly, the Victor Frankentstein of film criticism" (36). He continues, calling Kael's most influential and noted work as "yet another in a series of 20th-century attempts to avoid judging art, particularly popular art, as 'art'" (36). Therefore, while I'm aware that Schrader definitely admired Kael earlier in his career, as of September 2006, he appears to have had a retrospective change of heart." Click here to read the text.
But this is a cause for hope. It means that when things get bad, when people wake up to the damage caused by idiotic theories and false Messiahs, they eventually discard those ideas and stop revering those Messiahs. Craig Seligman and the other lemming-like Paulettes may continue singing the same old tired song about trash and kitsch being the true art - blathering on about "healthy vulgarity" being superior to prissy, effete arthouse fare - but some of Kael's own more intelligent disciples are already getting weary of her impact. They know a garbage idea when they see it, and they're finally ready to take out the trash.
If you want to see another example of this, here's a thread on Matt Zoller Seitz's website concerning an interview with one of Pauline's most reverential admirers, the looney tunes Paulette Charles Taylor (formerly of Salon mag). Notice how fawning the interview is, and how many posters suck up to Taylor because of his pompous, self-important manner.... even when he goes into raptures over the stupidest, most lame-brained movies.... and parrots every single cliche Kael ever wrote... then notice that at least a couple of people started lambasting Taylor after I wrote a blistering (but legit) attack on him. Here's a link to the thread -- a sycophantic interview with a Paulette and my rebuttal of said Paulette located in the comments section. My attack post is the one listed at 2/22/2006 11:59 PM.
Note how feebly Matt Zoller Seitz tries to defend this Paulette, and eventually gives up altogether. And note how, after about a dozen fawning posts, a couple of other posters chimed in to remark on how stupid Taylor is with his praise of dumb TV shows, and then another calls him "bellicose" and "uninteresting". It goes to show that fools and philistines can be thoroughly demolished in argument, and for all their bluster and pretentiousness, when confronted by a strong and vocal opposition, they just wilt and fold.
People, especially artists who rely on the good notices of critics, are too afraid to attack those with power and access to the media. But they shouldn't be so scared. As long as you attack a critic's ideas and arguments (not their physical appearance, or their weight, as Vincent Gallo did when he called Roger Ebert "a fat pig" for panning The Brown Bunny), I think it's perfectly legit for artists and ordinary viewers to publicly excoriate dreadful and dishonest reviewers. You truly can force these half-wits on the defensive, as long as you shred their ideas and arguments one by one, and don't resort to childish abuse as Gallo stooped to do.
RC replies: I have discussions about the stupidity of film criticism in The New York Times and The New Yorker, here and here.
A few more comments about the mediocrity of American's cinematic taste follows. As noted above, I invite (and will publish) the best and most thoughtful reader reflections on this topic. Why is American reviewing so bad? Why are American movies so bad? Why are audiences not in revolt? Why do they accept the cinematic garbage that is being shoveled in their laps year after year? Why do they not patronize independent films? Is everyone brain-dead?
Subject: 30 years ago
Why is American culture so fixated on stuff like Harry Potter and Rush Hour sequels? How did we come to this pass?
There are many causes, and I can't list them all. But I would like to add my own personal observation. I enjoy looking through microfilms of old newspapers. Just going through day by day reveals a lot. For example, when I looked at the film sections of my local paper from the summer of 1976, I noticed art films such as Buffalo Bill and the Indians and The Man Who Fell to Earth getting a wide release. A mere year later, in the summer of 1977, the landscape had changed -- Star Wars, The Deep, Smokey and The Bandit and The Spy Who Loved Me were raking in the box office dollars. I also noticed a shift in network television programming from the more serious Norman Lear sitcoms (All in the Family) to fluffy fare on ABC (Happy Days, Charlie's Angels, Welcome Back Kotter).
The countercultural tendencies of popular culture in the early 70's gave way to a dumbing down process in the mid to late 70's, and simply got worse in the 80's. In the summer of 1978, the big hits were Grease, Animal House and Foul Play. Meanwhile, Karel Reisz's bleak (but highly insightful) Who'll Stop the Rain played to empty theaters.
I guess the American public gets the entertainment it deserves.
Had to send you a great quote I just read in the introduction of a new book I bought at the bookstore today, Life of Pi:
"...If we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams...."
RC replies: On the basis of "The Bourne Ultimatum," "Superbad," "High School Musical," and the iPhone, I'd say that the prediction has come true. The amount of money, time, emotion, and journalistic coverage devoted to them demonstrates that it is not only our lives that are impoverished, but even our fantasies of an alternative. What has happened to us? Why is American culture this way? Why do journalists and cultural commentators continue to support the whole rotten system? --R.C.
A note from Ray Carney: Another contribution to the discussion about the mediocrity of mainstream film and mainstream film commentary. -- R.C.
Subject: re: why is intelligent film is such dire straits? (the same reasons the world is in dire straits!)
Recently, I was at a friend 's graduation party and got into a conversation with a middle-aged woman about everything imaginable. This woman is aware of certain facets of "alternative" cinema, music, art, whatever, so that alone, sadly, probably makes her more aware than the average person (she's also fairly intelligent). Anyway, she started talking about how she likes fluff, and she wasnt afraid to admit it. She was proud of it: "I like fluff!" (she can recite the lines to almost any comedy movie which you'll find out shortly after spending time with her.) She started telling stories about a married couple who she's friends with, about how the husband is on some kind of uplifting medication, and about how she recently saw their movie collection and couldnt spot any of her favorites. This was very sad to her. They were really missing out. "I like fluff, you know? Who needs to go watch a depressing movie like pan's labyrinth... it might do her husband some good to go out and laugh." (It was almost as if she was blaming the husbands illness on their taste in movies, ie, what they watch! hmm... I also sensed that she was distraught that her memorized movie lines would serve her no purpose in their presence.) It was at this point I realized that I had given the woman a bit too much credit. When I first started talking to her, I was at least glad she knew the difference between fluff and art, but this, as her pan's labyrinth comment revealed, turned out to be untrue. To her, any film that is "depressing" is a "serious film." It was what made up the alternative to Caddyshack or whatever else gave her a reason to live, and I think many people have this impression. People want to be entertained, they want to escape at all costs. If they want to be depressed, they figure they'll turn on the news. Even if they knew that the real works of art in film (or any medium) aren't depressing and can't even really be grouped into such categories, they wouldn 't be interested in experiencing them. And even if they were, they wouldn't know how to watch the "other movies" if they tried because trying to them means sitting in front of something with their eyes open. They don't want to put effort into anything.
I recently saw an interview with Norman Mailer where he was talking about how television has destroyed the mind by 30%. The theory goes (and I'm not sure who he was quoting) that from an early age we are trained to have things interrupted. Sitcoms by commercials, movies by commercials, and commercials (short narratives) by more commercials. So after a while, we can't sit still. Our attention span has evaporated and, perhaps more importantly, we can 't put in any effort because everything has lost value. Everything is just a cheap flash in the pan. A way to pass the time. For Sale.
Now back to the woman I was talking about: what she doesn't realize is that she has to watch those "happy" fluff films because she is unhappy with her life, discontent, anxious, bored etc. Well, she does realize this. She'll admit it. But what she really doesnt know or realize is that this unhappiness is largely due to her constant watching of these mindless films to escape! and not because she's "escaping" as much as because of all the lies these films have told her throughout her life. About what her life is supposed to be like. About what her marriage is supposed to be like. About how she is supposed to interact with others. About what is appropriate. About what is important. About cynicism. About what a movie is supposed to be like! We learn everything from the movies. Many say, "They're just movies - why take them seriously? I've got life if I want to take something seriously" (as if paying bills and having children means you're taking life seriously). People have lost faith in the idea that they can be changed by a film, novel, poem, or anything for that matter. It's all to pass time. They've lost faith in the idea that their lives can change, that they can change.
It's as hard to engage someone in a real conversation as it is to get them to watch something they cant "get into" within 10 minutes. "You arent going to change my mind if we talk about this, so why bother?" seems like the mentality. People think they already know everything there is to know. I cant even get my own mother to have a serious discussion about god without walking away. Or why she wears make-up. Or why she believes in certain things she says she believes in. It's almost as if she doesnt want to hear something that may put her standings on shaky ground. Or she doesnt want to reveal to me (and herself) that many of the things she has concluded are based on almost nothing. ...The idea that me watching a Tarkovsky (or any other great film) is different, or any less a waste of time, than her watching american idol would be met by many with three cheers of: "pretentious!" or "snob!" And the idea that I would actually be doing something important (I would even say essential) by doing so would be laughed at. (I think a lot of this is due to the fact that when the newspapers and the Oscars etc. promote a film as being "great, important art" they're almost always meaningless... So this becomes most people's idea of "greatness.")
So in one sense, yes, it's the viewers fault that intelligent film is in such dire straits, but the viewers have been created. People who get to this point by middle age are NEVER going to change their ways, and the main reason they're like this is because of the media - all forms of it. Take the actors for example (even, or especially, the ones who take themselves seriously like george clooney or ... I dont know, whoever.) They dont think about these things AT ALL. They dont see a contradiction in trying to raise awareness for global warming or Darfur and being paid to hand out sleeping pills at the multiplex. Modern films and television are our soma, and people are hooked. And I don't mean to leave out the film reviewers and critics and all the big time promoters. As Rosenbaum says in MOVIE WARS: "The whole notion of expertise in film criticism is tautological. According to current practice in the United States, a "film expert" is someone who writes or broadcasts about film. Yet most film experts are hired not on the basis of their knowledge about film but on the basis of their capacity to reflect the presumed existing tastes of the public. The late Serge Daney understood this phenomenon perfectly -- and implied that it wasn't an exclusively American one -- when he remarked that the media "ask those who know nothing to represent the ignorance of the public and, in so doing, to legitimize it." Also, and because of things like this, people think everything is a matter of taste - nothing is "good" or "bad." Everything is opinion. So they don't care what movies "some guy" says are important (especially when, as previously stated, "no movies are important.")
After Antonioni passed away I noticed that the built in spell checker I was using online knew when I spelled spielberg incorrectly but didnt know when I spelled Antonioni correctly... It got me to thinking about how much this mentality pervades and invades all things, even the computers we've programmed! They, too, have been told "what's important." The dictionaries too... Everything. There is no escape... So what hope has someone, who is trying to show others another way, if everywhere they go the opposite POV is being validated? Instead of the march towards death looking like the crazy path, YOU begin to look a little crazy! A quack! Things are too firmly entrenched. And it is also this mentality that causes so many of us to give up and in. (Hold on, my cell phone is ringing!)
One last thing I wanted to mention: I've been reading over some of the remembrance articles of Bergman and Antonioni (all of them pitiful) and was struck by how completely ignorant these people are. They write: "Their deaths bring down the final curtain on the high-modernist era of filmmaking, when a handful of directors were artistic gods accorded the respect and latitude of great painters or authors." And then another: "He was a giant in a time of giants... giants like we don't have anymore. You don't realize how unique and important he really was until there is another generation and another and there are no more giants." They don't even realize that they are lamenting their own failings as film writers! No more giants? Filmmakers arent given the respect of other great artists? Well whose fault is that? I guess it couldn't be your fault and has to be the "fact" that there are no longer any great filmmakers, right? You could reassure yourself with this notion if it wasnt for the fact that RIGHT NOW is one of the most exciting and richest times in all of film history! No giants? Who are Kiarostami, Ceylan, Tarr, Sokurov, von Trier, Tsai, Dardenne, Denis, Barney, Viola, etc.? Not to mention all the "members" (known and unknown) of what I call the American digital wave... and on and on and on and on. Oh, but that's right, you ignore them! There are no more giants, I keep forgetting. No giants because you slay them all!
(contrary to the conclusion one might draw from the above, I'm NOT pessimistic about the future. The immediate future, yes, but not our final destination)
PS - earlier today I was talking about film with one of my friends and I showed her a small part on your website - Manufactured Emotions -- under "The Difference Between Fake and Real Emotions in Life and Art." (Click here to read this page of the site.) Her response: "I don't like how he puts himself on a moral high ground..." (I'm going to see if she wants to borrow Your Life is a Movie for an intro to some of your basic ideas.) Anyway, I wanted to know what you thought about that sort of initial response...
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