UPDATED 7/15/10 1:11 pm
Didn’t we just do this a couple of summers ago?
Remember when The Little Movie That Could, a.k.a. The Dark Knight came out and several critics, among them David Edelstein, Keith Uhlich, Stephanie Zacharek and Armond White, wrote negative reviews that went decidedly against the grain of the colossal pre-release hype and the consensus of the critical community? Well, it wasn’t pretty, with much of the tidal wave of vitriol directed at these critics by denizens of the Internet during the period in between the publishing of the review and the actual release of the movie, a period of about a week. Which means, of course, that most of the people who took offense early on over the dissenting views about The Dark Knight were reacting having not yet seen the film themselves. It wasn’t the film they were defending, it was their level of pre-fab excitement over the impending release of the film that was apparently under assault, and they let these writers know in no uncertain (and often inarticulate, incoherent) terms that they didn’t like the raising of the prospect that their hopes might be dashed, that The Dark Knight, rather than a masterpiece, might instead just be a mediocre action movie with only the hopes and dreams of a giant multinational corporation fuelling its future fortunes in the marketplace.
Once audiences finally did start seeing The Dark Knight life didn’t get any easier for these critical malcontents. Some of the comments they received were perhaps more well-reasoned, but the anger, the disbelief over what they had written took a long time to dissipate. The fact that The Dark Knight failed to garner a Best Picture Oscar nomination didn’t help these writers’ standing with a community of Internet movie buffs who felt betrayed by critics they felt were hopelessly out of touch with what mass audiences wanted to see, who refused to accept that a negative view of the movie could be motivated by anything other than a perverse contrarian impulse or a desire to drive up hits on their individual websites.
Well, here we are again, on the eve of the unveiling of yet another big budget, Christopher Nolan-directed potential blockbuster which has been at the eye of a hurricane of pre-release publicity. You may have heard of it. Inception has been screening for the press for several weeks now, with instructions from Warner Bros. to honor an embargo on published reviews until at least the first week of July. Peter Travers, whose enthusiasm for the film seemed to know no bounds (despite only a ***½ star rating in Rolling Stone) was the first to publish a review, well in advance of that embargo date, and since then members of the press have reacted strongly in the positive, bandying about descriptive words and phrases like “Kubrickian,” ‘masterpiece” and “Kubrickian masterpiece” in advance of the film’s July 16 release date (this coming Friday). The critical hyperbole was so widespread and unchallenged that it actually led Los Angeles Times industry reporter Patrick Goldstein, never one to resist faulty logic when contemplating the incompatibility of art and commerce, to wonder out loud if the critics and industry press weren’t setting the film up for a nasty backlash:
“When the critics start building a film up like this, it only inspires other critics to assert their independence from the overwhelming groupthink by taking pot shots at the movie sooner rather than later. At this rate, the Inception backlash could begin before the film even plays Peoria.”
Aww. There goes Goldstein, like a particularly nervous mother watching out that her kids’ feelings don’t get hurt, rushing to the preemptive rescue of this poor little $200-million movie, afraid that getting too excited too early might damage the movie’s rep, and his own paper’s prospects at running endless Calendar pieces built around it, if audiences should themselves smell a rat nowhere near the size of Batman come July 16.
That was last week. Now today Goldstein, like a knight in shining armor, flips his strategy with a thickheaded post on his Times blog The Big Picture entitled “Chris Nolan’s Inception Gets Its First Critical Sucker Punch,” in which Goldstein recounts the circumstances surrounding the unveiling of the first high-profile negative review, written, as it happens, by that notorious Dark Knight hater and fanboy symbol of critical corruption, David Edelstein.
Goldstein quotes Edelstein’s first paragraph:
"With its dreams, dreams within dreams, and dreams within dreams within dreams, Christopher Nolan’s Inception manages to be clunky and confusing on four separate levels of reality—while out here, in this even more perplexing dream we call 'life,' it’s being hailed as a masterpiece on the order of '2001: A Space Odyssey.' Slap! Wake up, people! Shalalala! Slap!"
Then it was time for Goldstein to begin his own examination of Edelstein’s piece:
“It only went downhill from there, with Edelstein mocking Nolan's lofty ambitions ("So it's, like, Mission Impossible in the Dreamscape-Matrix!'") while dissing the director as being "too literal-minded, too caught up in ticktock logistics, to make a great, untethered dream movie." And as for the people, like his fellow critics, who've been over the moon about the film? Edelstein thinks they're cracked, or as he put it: "It's as if someone went into their heads while they were sleeping and planted the idea that 'Inception' is a visionary masterpiece and--hold on... Whoa! I think I get it. The movie is a metaphor for the power of delusional hype--a metaphor for itself."
For someone who has long ridden the “critics are out of touch with mass taste” pony, you can practically hear Goldstein’s lips smacking at the prospect of a lone dissenting voice rowing up the face of a giant wave of critical adoration for Inception. But to address Goldstein’s objections, does the quote Goldstein uses provide evidence that Edelstein is mocking Nolan’s ambitions? If one has any history of following Edelstein’s work, it won’t come as a surprise that he would use humor in describing plot elements like this, which come off in this context as an attempt to deflate what Edelstein views as the movie’s pretensions by pointing out how the movie uses corny action-adventure tropes from earlier films and TV shows (films and TV shows with perhaps a far less inflated sense of themselves). But the humor is also employed as a way of pointing out Edelstein’s own well-documented child-like enjoyment of those very same silly tropes. This critic has never hidden from his own appreciation of what in some circles might be termed “lowbrow." The crime here seems to be pointing out Nolan’s use of those very same bits of familiar material as central elements of his allegedly unique, visionary, one-of-a-kind movie.
And what Goldstein terms a “diss” on the director, with complete awareness of how loaded his own language is, is actually an observation of how Edelstein operates in tune with the role of any good critic, that is in measuring the perceived limitations of a director and his approach against what he has tried to achieve in the film. Why is it out of line to characterize Nolan as a literal-minded director who is too caught up in plot logistics to make a movie that flows with the ethereal, immutable impenetrability of “a great, untethered dream movie”? It’s not like Edelstein doesn’t take time in the review itself to back up that claim.
But it is Goldstein’s decision to skip over all that troublesome stuff in order to make way for his own diss. Edelstein writes about the movie’s central idea, that of an agent (Leonardo DiCaprio) who specializes in invading people’s dreams and extracting corporate secrets from them, who is then presented by a client with a special challenge: to invade a subject and not steal but implant an idea. “Why is an `inception’ more difficult than an extraction?” Edelstein asks, not unreasonably. “`The subject’s mind always knows the genesis of an idea,’ explains one character—which strikes my unoriginal and highly suggestible mind as dead wrong. But that’s the premise, anyway.” Just ask David Lynch, or David Cronenberg, two truly visionary directors whose own movies often resemble the undulating, shifting logic of dreams, if they always know the genesis of an idea.
Neither can Goldstein resist pointing out the abuse in the New York website’s comments thread to which Edelstein has already been subjected. And he does so with obvious relish: “As it happens, Edelstein's own readers gave him quite a spanking, calling him a charlatan (and) a schoolyard bully,” Goldstein writes, either blissfully or purposefully unaware that the readers submitting these gems of reactionary prose are all minus the experience of actually having seen the movie themselves. Once again, it’s the rabid fans prefab enthusiasm that is being defended here. Anyone with any history of reading Edelstein’s column will know right away just how much water these claims and others, like the ones which speculate that the writer is just ripping the movie everybody likes out of some perverse bid for attention, or out of his inability to respond in kind to the grand gestures of popular entertainment, really hold.
Undeterred by facts, Goldstein tramps on: “As one reader put it: `You know, it's fine to dislike a movie that many other people like. But to call them all delusional because they have a differing opinion is terribly arrogant of you. Shame on you, sir! Go back to watching Avatar and its easy-to-understand eye-candy." I love that “As one reader put it.” Goldstein shows his true colors here, and he gets to subtly put this reader’s comment in his own mealy mouth. The comment that has Goldstein and some members of the New York readership so up in arms is discussed in Goldstein’s post thusly:
“And as for the people, like his fellow critics, who've been over the moon about the film? Edelstein thinks they're cracked, (italics mine) or as he put it: "It's as if someone went into their heads while they were sleeping and planted the idea that Inception is a visionary masterpiece and--hold on... Whoa! I think I get it. The movie is a metaphor for the power of delusional hype--a metaphor for itself."
Edelstein thinks his colleagues are cracked? Here’s the comment as it actually appeared in the final paragraph of the review, introductory sentences intact:
“For the record, I wanted to surrender to this dream; I didn’t want to be out in the cold, alone. But I truly have no idea what so many people are raving about. It’s as if someone went into their heads while they were sleeping and planted the idea that Inception is a visionary masterpiece and—hold on … Whoa! I think I get it. The movie is a metaphor for the power of delusional hype—a metaphor for itself.”
Here Edelstein expresses his own preconceptions and desires for Inception-- Yes, it’s entirely possible that even critics want to like a film going in. And really, what sane person would want to put himself in the same position that caused them such unending joy and goodwill over The Dark Knight? But what is mystifying to me is how scorched Edelstein’s feet are getting over the honest practice of exactly what his critical duties entail. One cannot have read much of his work to seriously entertain the idea that David Edelstein is anything like the pugilistic look-ma-no-sense troublemaker that Armond White prizes himself for being. Given that basic fact, shouldn’t we respect and value a reasonably composed and articulated voice that is willing to speak up and offer an alternative point of view that cannot be folded seamlessly into Warner Bros. unstoppable marketing campaign? This is in no way to suggest that anyone who likes or even loves Inception is equally corrupt or even wrong, and I think it’s a mistake to read Edelstein’s final comments this way. Edelstein admits bafflement at why people are so enthusiastic, which simply means they have not been able to successfully, convincingly convey to him what was at the basis of their positive response. And the final sentence, in which Edelstein judiciously employs humor, a frequently misconstrued tactic, to make his point, in no way condemns those who would rave about Nolan’s movie. He’s merely framing his own response in a less-than-poker-faced fashion, and darned if Goldstein isn’t right there to salve the wounds of those Nolan fans who might get their feelings hurt by someone else’s wit. Sticks and stones, after all…
Make no mistake—I have not yet seen Inception myself, though I look forward to it (perhaps now more than ever) and I remain intrigued with the hope that it will feel more like Nolan’s Insomnia (a movie Edelstein praises in his review) and less like The Dark Knight, which I found as incoherent and unconvincing as those reviews cited above. I’m not crying foul over either camp’s honest reaction to Inception. Why would I, or anyone? No, what I’m crying foul over is Goldstein’s eagerness to characterize Edelstein’s honesty, and his excellent faculties as an observer and critic, as somehow corrupt or wrongheaded. (How else to interpret that “sucker punch” headline?) This bastion of industry integrity, writing in the movie industry city’s paper of record, has some real issues with film critics doing their job. And this was the point in Goldstein’s brief post where I cried irredeemable foul (again, the italics are mine):
“I give Edelstein points for lively writing, but in an era where critics have enough credibility issues as it is (and again, italics mine), the last thing we need is a critic thrashing a film because, in part, he's chagrined to see it get so much open adulation. If you want to write that after the movie has opened, fair enough. But it's the wrong stance to take before people have even had a chance to make up their own minds.”
Not to put too crude a point on it, but Mr. Goldstein, what the fuck are you talking about? First of all, with the review itself as my only evidence, Edelstein is in no way basing any part of his reaction to the film itself on other writers positive reaction to it. If that were true, wouldn’t it make more sense that he would have outright lied and claimed to have loved it rather than endure this kind of armchair bullshit? But what’s really perplexing are the last two sentences. Why, exactly, is it fair to express a negative reaction to a movie that has been universally praised only after it opens? Why is it “the wrong stance to take before people have even had a chance to make up their own minds”? With these two sentences Goldstein completes his application to the Warner Brothers marketing department for the position of Head Sycophant, because what’s he’s saying is that critics who don’t like a big-budget release like this shouldn’t have the opportunity to say so and potentially affect the potential box office windfall of that crucial opening weekend. Goldstein would, it seems, favor a selective embargo on any review that couldn’t be quoted whole hog in the two-page Los Angeles Times Calendar ad on opening day. Is Goldstein even aware of what he’s calling for?
The concluding paragraph of the post takes Goldstein from potential publicity hack straight down to the dregs of the Internet goofballs who called for Armond White’s head on a stick for writing a negative review of Toy Story 3. I happen to think White is dead wrong about that movie, even though he certainly has a right to his opinions as well as a forum in which to express them. But most of the outcry wasn’t over White’s opinion which, given his history of, shall we say, impatience with Pixar movies, was no surprise. No, what pissed off the geeks was that White and fellow critic Cole Smithey screwed up the movie’s chances at a rare 100% recommendation rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes. Even those who raise a cynical eyebrow at White’s motives had to recognize that whether or not Toy Story 3 had a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes was 100% irrelevant to whether or not it was a good, bad or great movie. What could concern over such a trivial pursuit have to do with responsible critical reportage or even something so crude as the potential box office performance of such a movie. Were there any heads so soft out there as to believe that a 99% rating would make a dent in the movie’s inevitably lucrative future? Or that even Armond White would write a negative review of the movie with the express desire of putting a blemish on an otherwise spotless Rotten Tomatoes ranking?
Well, maybe we could ask Patrick Goldstein those questions. Here’s the devastating conclusion to his withering take on David Edelstein’s integrity in the Inception brouhaha:
“So far, all Edelstein has accomplished is lowering Inception's" initial Rotten Tomatoes score from 100 to 97. But now that the backlash has officially begun, I suspect it will go lower still.” (Shudder. Sniffle. Sob. But that’s not all. Wait for it…) “Apparently, there is no greater sin than for a filmmaker to make a movie that some people just like too much.”
This is a comment that is just so brain-dead dumb as to almost be beneath comment, were it not for the fact that it bears the imprimatur of the Los Angeles Times. Yes, let’s go back and read the terrible reviews bestowed upon the likes of Jaws, The Godfather, Rocky, even Star Wars, not to mention more recent efforts like Inglorious Basterds and, yes, Toy Story 3, all of which, by the way, have had the David Edelstein Seal of Approval bestowed upon them. What the hell sense does this final sentence make? Clearly none, unless we’re to conclude that Goldstein expects a critical, not to mention audience consensus, to greet every big hit. Believe it or not, Patrick, I’ve talked to everyday people, not critics, who don’t think all that highly of The Godfather or Rocky or Star Wars or Casablanca. It's difficult to see where the sin comes in on either the part of the filmmakers or on the part of those who would dissent from popular opinion about these pictures. What this all sounds like to me is that once again you’re trolling for a pat on the back from the big studios and the approval of the majority pro-Inception crowd. Does that mean you’re corrupt too? Or are you just expressing your opinion?
Here’s my totally non-tongue-in-cheek recommendation of 21 Things I’d Rather Do This Weekend Than Fight the Crowds at Theaters Showing Inception:
1) Attend a lecture by Author/Hollywood historian Cari Beauchamp on actress Marion Davies at the Egyptian theater in Hollywood, followed by a screening of her 1928 comedy Show People.
2) Go get chilled by an ectoplasmic double feature of The Uninvited and Robert Wise’s original The Haunting Friday and Saturday night at the New Beverly Cinema.
3) Go see one of two, or both, Eric Rohmer double features at the Aero Theater. (My Night at Maud’s and Claire’s Knee screen on Friday, and Saturday features La Collectionneuse and Chloe in the Afternoon.)
4) Go see F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise in a brand-new print at the Nuart.
5) Go cruisin’ with the Cinefamily and their ’70s Van Triple Feature, featuring Stuart Getz in The Van, plus Mag Wheels and Supervan.
6) Go back to the New Beverly on Sunday and thrill to Fred and Ginger in Top Hat and Swing Time!
7) Stay inside, turn on the AC and watch the DVD of Julien Duvivier’s Le Fin du Jour that the Siren sent me this week.
8) Take the kids to Glendale Cruise Night.
9) Pour a beer and page through the made-to-order Warner DVD Archives.
10) Go see a minor league baseball game.
11) Find a swimming hole and jump in.
12) Eat a Pink’s Double Bacon Chili Cheeseburger.
13) Retreat to the family bathroom with a stack of magazines after having eaten the Pink’s Double Bacon Chili Cheeseburger.
14) Go biking with my kids.
15) Write, write, write.
16) Go to the drive-in.
17) Take a walk with my best gal(s) and go get an ice cream cone.
18) Pick up one of the approximately 30 books I have currently bookmarked in progress and make some serious headway on at least one of them.
19) Decide on a new color with which to paint my house.
20) Cash in that gift certificate for a 90-minute massage that I got two Christmases ago.
21) Raise a glass to the friends I see every week, the friends I miss dearly and the friends I’ve never met.
Anybody got any other ideas?
UPDATE 7/15/10 1:11 pm Jim Emerson rounds up the preemptive strikes in the pre-release war of words over Inception and Christopher Nolan over at Scanners.