A few days ago, within a post featuring several links to articles and information I felt were worth passing along, I linked to Jeremiah Kipp’s revealing interview of Film Freak Central’s resident film critic Walter Chaw. I’m enough of a film criticism geek that any time a writer whose reviews I enjoy (not the same, as I’m sure you’re aware, as always agreeing with his conclusions) gets an opportunity to speak extemporaneously in an interview situation, I get excited. So much so that I posted the link before I got a chance to read it, confident in its worthiness based on my familiarity with Kipp’s writing, the place where the interview resides (Matt Zoller Seitz’s The House Next Door), and Chaw’s own “chops,” as Kipp describes Chaw’s writing talent in the introduction to his piece. Somehow, I also felt comfortable in terming the interview “fantastic,” sure that it would be, I guess, fantastically entertaining to read, before having actually read it. Perhaps not an offense worthy of a Jayson Blair, but certainly a meaningless characterization, especially in the context of recommending the interview to others.
Kipp, in inroducing Chaw, had this to say:
“Chaw rages against the Hollywood machine's depictions of class, gender and race, puncturing political correctness, but assailing films that still think it’s okay to use xenophobic or chauvinistic stereotypes. His jihad against dumbed-down content is so wide-ranging that I’ve occasionally wondered if he needed to take a break. He's incinerated movies that were paper-thin in the first place: Bringing Down the House, The Dukes of Hazzard, Bulletproof Monk, xXx: State of the Union, Last Holiday. Maybe he justifies his vitriol on the grounds that he watches this junk so we don’t have to.”
I’ve read those reviews, and a lot of others signed by Walter Chaw, and his current review of Poseidon is in the same vein—an awful lot of energy expended on trashing or otherwise deconstructing a piece of work that seems too slight or inconsequential in comparison to the amount of bile generated in the mocking of it. However, what shocked me in reading the interview was the insistent thread of vitriol and exhaustion that seemed to characterize Chaw’s attitudes toward films, fellow critics (most of which are apparently as deserving of hatred as the lowliest junket whore) and those who disagree with his withering observations. I feel like there’s less of that obstinance, the my-way-or-the-highway stance, on display even in the most condescending reviews of his regarding films I enjoy or hold in very high esteem than what I found roiling through many of the statements he makes in this interview.
To start, personally I’d agree with Chaw that, say, Brett Ratner is probably not a director I’d want to hold up as a shining example of an artist working in American cinema. But, also just as personally, I feel like I’ve grown past needing to read reviews, or hear reviewers, that think it’s a badge of blunt integrity to refer to a movie, even one as obvious and dull as Red Dragon, as a “piece of shit.” In conversation, okay, whatever. But in published conversation, that kind of closed-off, reductive, tough-talking provocateur noise just reminds me too much of every collegiate film writer I’ve ever read who has never grown out of his desire to put down people and films just so he can see how red he can get people’s faces to turn.
Sillier still, when I hear Chaw, or any critic, start going off about how alone they are on the landscape, tilting at the windmills of Hollywood’s bad taste with no one getting their back, it makes me weep, all right, but with tears of laughter. In my own brief comments before the link I posted, I praised Chaw for countering claims that he was an elitist snob through his raves for films like Batman Begins, V for Vendetta and, most importantly for me, Peter Jackson’s King Kong. So imagine my own face blushing just a bit when I read this:
“I’m not making a play for ‘man of the people’ here, but I agree, according to Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus a pretty depressing 73% of the time. I think what gets people is that I’m not all that equivocal about dislike of a film and, more, will actually say if something is repugnant about a picture’s message, or if it patronizes its audience. Folks don’t like to be called—even if it’s just by the association of their affection for a picture—racist, misogynistic, dimwits with retarded critical faculties. Can’t say that I blame them, but unless they’re willing and able to frame a cogent response to my outrage about some of that shit, they’re just bolstering my sad, hermetic little beliefs about the kinds of people who get a real charge out of North Country and Million Dollar Baby.”
The trouble is, and maybe I'm wrong, but I get the feeling that Chaw would probably hold any such attempts at a cogent response in contempt anyway for the writer’s daring to put themselves on his level of discourse, in much the same way he himself feels dissed by writers who have much more visibility and perks and not nearly the talent. (And is yet another dig at people for their variance with his tastes really necessary? If it’s so goddamn important to note them, then let’s hear a little more about those “sad, hermetic beliefs” so we can decide for ourselves just how sad they really are. I know a lot of film writers, professionals and bloggers, who just don’t have time for this kind of game-playing, who don’t think, say, Million Dollar Baby is much of a film, but who would never harbor contempt for me because I do.)
Clearly, Chaw thinks he’s better than most everyone out there writing on the Internet. And who’s to say he isn’t? But, forgive me for championing a little modesty (perhaps that’s what gets you eaten up in the dog-eat-dog world Chaw occupies in Denver, Colorado, where he is based) when I suggest that maybe that’s an evaluation best left to others, or perhaps posterity, not the writer himself. What comes through Chaw’s comments even more clearly, though, is a gnawing anger at being left at the kids’ table—he’d much rather be at that earlier screening with just one or two other critics, both of whom, if I’m calculating correcty, he probably has just as much contempt for as “the entitlement freeloaders, the pass-rats (and) the other Internet guys who work out of their basement without editors or taste” who he ends up jostling elbows with over their shared cupholders. It’s telling that Chaw offers no solution for the problem of the Online Film Critics Circle allowing anybody with a mouse and an attitude into their membership, no thoughts on what should constitute acceptable criteria for admittance. It’s easier, and I suspect more amenable to venting steam, to recycle tired platitudes about the lack of standards rampant in the world of blogging.
And the Internet critic is obviously enjoying lobbing a bomb or two into the arena of film bloggers in Kipp’s interview. Yet he can barely be moved to draw an distinction between the entertainment gossip/Ain’t-It-Cool-News school of writing and other more serious attempts to frame film criticism within this as yet still wide, nebulous and ever-shifting virtual world. Chaw is undoubtedly aware of the many scholarly film sites available, and he may well have given them his blessing. But how he can maintain such an attitude toward bloggers when he admits, in responding to some not-so-positive reaction to his comments in the section posted directly under the interview, more than a passing familiarity with sites like Filmbrain’s Like Anna Karina’s Sweater?
(Filmbrain himself, in a response full of wry annoyance and sharp observations about Chaw’s sour grapes, finds that while Chaw may have a legitimate beef with the way Internet critics like himself still find themselves misperceived and disrespected, “instead of offering up something constructive, he turns it into a pissing contest by creating a hierarchy as a means of distancing himself from the rest of us. That Chaw has an editor at Film Freak Central is all well and good, but why does that necessitate resorting to the beyond-tired cliché of… bloggers as 'guys who work out of their basement without editors or taste?'" He also pointedly wonders if Chaw imagines himself as “God’s lonely critic,” and Chaw, on the Film Freak Central blog recently, may have provided the answer, writing about his experience at a screening of Pixar’s Cars:
“I did have the pleasure of sitting in front of some yahoo with press credentials who laughed heartily every couple of minutes whether or not there was a joke: the studio’s gotta get better at planting their ringers. Wonder if the summer of NASCAR (with Will Ferrell’s racing flick coming up in a couple of months) will leave me further out of the proverbial loop. What’s disturbing to me is that lately I’ve had the opportunity to be more in contact with the “average” audience member and the suspicion that I’ve been harboring that I’m way out of whack in terms of the popular taste has been brought home to me in a real personal kind of way. Seems like I should wear it like a badge of honor, right, but it really just makes me feel sort of melancholy and lonesome.”
As a friend of mine put it after reading this paragraph (in terms that Chaw would undoubtedly find to be an insufficient response from anyone but himself), give me a fucking break.
Frustratingly, there’s truth to that kind of power-tiering based on the visibility of one’s media outlet, but Chaw undermines his own quest for validation by coming off simply like a petulant brat who isn’t getting the kind of cookies he really wants. There’s a desperation to some of Chaw’s comments here, particularly in regard to how he perceives that he is perceived by the print media critics who have little respect for writers who don’t have a paper to scribble on. Yet he reserves just as much venom, if not more, for his peers on the Internet, 99% of whom he’s pretty sure he would support banning from advance screening based on their lack of talent as writers and observers. “Of course, I don’t think that I deserve to be lumped into that ghetto,” Chaw states. “[But] it still burns, and it gets worse as time goes on... knowing that there was a better way to see this film just a few days earlier with just one or two other critics in the auditorium.” (Does anyone recall that Pauline Kael used to go out of her way to see movies with paying audiences?)
Speaking of whom, Chaw also eagerly provides the requisite knocks on the critical establishment, an exercise which wouldn’t be so annoying if it weren’t obvious that Chaw really feels like he’s hurling sharp daggers instead of dull platitudes. He likes Andrew Sarris insofar as his auteurist approach opens up discussion of films, and claims the critic’s methods to be useful as they can be applied to Chaw’s own aesthetic and approach.
But after endorsing Pauline Kael’s claim that film criticism is for him, as it was for her, an autobiographical process, he makes sure that we know he doesn’t buy that whole mythology surrounding the late critic. “I don’t like Kael, by the way,” just in case anyone was ready to mistake this fiercely independent voice for one of those fawning Paulettes. “I think she was a brilliant writer,” he expands, “but a mean person, a borderline personality, and a shaky critic;” he also later describes her “gut-and-fuck philosophy.” I’m assuming now that Chaw knew Kael personally, though he never says whether or not this is true; how else to get away with a blithe toss-off about her being “a mean person and a borderline personality,” particularly without explaining, true or not, what exactly these descriptions had to do with her abilities as a critic? (And what the hell is a borderline personality, by the way? And what the hell hell is a “gut-and-fuck philosophy”? These are the kinds of terms tossed off in interviews that are meant to make the spouter-offer sound knowing and tough and not-to-be-messed-with, but unfortunately only do so when the spouter-offer is surrounded by a bunch of like-minded, and probably stoned, pals on the floor of one’s freshman college dorm room.)
He goes on: “She (Kael) did have a way of articulating ephemera like performance and fashion, though. But ultimately, I’m not certain her bully tactics and popularization of film criticism did anybody any favors.”
First of all, count me shocked to discover that performance in film can be characterized as ephemera. (This truly will be news to anyone who still delights in the popular artistry of, for example, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night-- at 72 years and counting, that’s some pretty stout ephemera!)
But I’m hardly shocked at all that a female critic would be concerned with articulating fashion and trends and other quickly evaporating elements of film at the expense of all the other more important elements that her male counterparts are wise enough to prize. And is it slightly ironic that a writer like Chaw, who so values bluntness and taking no prisoners when it comes to articulating his own experience with a film, would be so concerned about what he perceives as another’s “bully tactics”? Finally, his lament about Kael popularizing film criticism would be funny, in light of all his other complaints about the pathetic qualities of those critics in the print media, if it weren’t such a sober-faced inverse of Groucho’s joke about never wanting to join a club that would have him as a member.
Roger Ebert, being the far easier target, one that almost all would probably agree is a mere shadow of his former self as a film critic, gets thrown under Chaw’s bus too. “What a gasbag (Ebert) has become… commenting proudly about his love of tits to his recollection of last year spent reading the works of Willa Cather,” recounts Chaw of Ebert’s recent appearance at the Conference of World Affairs in Boulder, Colorado. Call me a yahoo, Walter, but I’m not sure I trust anybody who can’t allow for an appreciation of Willa Cather (or any other writer) to coexist with an appreciation of tits. There’s something fundamentally dishonest about that, in my view. And I would also suggest that even though Ebert is pretty watered down these days, he still has insights to offer on occasion for those who are willing to look for them.
Jeremiah Kipp’s fascinating interview with this irascible subject is just as good and illuminating as I assumed it would be when I posted the link to it, and a lot of what Chaw has to say about film is, of course, intrinsically interesting and well-observed. What else might we expect from a critic whose writing typically displays a contentious love for film and a sharp and cogent way of articulting that love? The interview is also, courtesy of that subject, a good deal more aggravating than I suspected it would be. But Kipp gets points for directing the conversation to fruitful places and, happily, even challenging one of Chaw’s toss-offs-- at one point Chaw proclaims of graphic novels, “They’re just bound storyboards, aren’t they?” to which Kipp retorts, “I don’t believe that at all. They’re two radically different mediums.” (The critic, momentarily stunned that his questioner isn’t just mindlessly eating up whatever he puts forth, offers no real counterpoint.) The end result of the interview is, however, strangely rather disturbing-- a self-portrait of a critic who craves the power of influence and recognition in a world rapidly shrinking away from any kind of respect for the concept of honest film criticism, a film critic trapped in a system that makes him feel powerless but who writes because he has the desire, the need to express himself about a medium he finds so challenging and conflicted and engaging. It’s here that we discover, even if Chaw does not, that he may have a lot more in common with do-it-yourself film bloggers than he might like to admit. Chaw gets the penultimate word:
“Most people who hate me haven’t read more than one—if that—review of mine in its entirety. When I look at what I write--and I seldom have to, thank god--I hope that what I’m seeing there is a real, throbbing outrage at films that are out to do harm and, on the other side, a real live joy at films that feed me. Stuff that’s just out to make money off of easy stereotypes and nakedly shill to robotically-demarcated demographics of imaginary people– and looping back around, here, offering up all this feckless garbage to the blind eyes of the vast majority of the critics in lofty positions that I (if no one else) hope are manning the gates—makes me exhausted.”
Jeremiah Kipp’s interview with Walter Chaw, “Keep Up, or Get Out Of the Way,” is a portrait of a very entertaining and intelligent critic who, during the course of the piece, ends up coming off like a driven, near-burnt-out, smart-as-hell and ever-so-slightly paranoid, well, gasbag.
(If you haven’t yet, you can read the interview and the ensuing commentary here.)