Tuesday, July 13, 2010

SUCKER-PUNCHED: IS IT NOT OKAY TO DISLIKE INCEPTION?


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?

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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?

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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.

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36 comments:

Christopher Long said...

What a great post, Dennis.

I admit that I have not liked any of Nolan's films since Memento. Quite frankly, I think they've mostly been terrible for all the reasons the dissenting minority usually makes: incoherent space, literal-mindedness, excessive exposition, the need to answer every "why?", etc.

But I still went into "Inception" hoping to like it. As bad as I think Nolan's films have been, I have never found them offensive to the point where I might be rooting against them. They're just dull. I hoped "Inception" would prove to be an inflection point like "Zodiac" was, and would make me completely reconsider my opinion about a filmmaker I previously disliked.

It was not.

In fact, I thought it was Nolan's worst film yet. A failure of imagination on every level, interesting only for its record-setting density of exposition and for Cotillard's beauty.

But I'm not even going to bother to review it. Why? Because I don't feel like dealing with the ****storm from the Nolan droogies, who are, it must be said, an intimidating lot. And I don't overwhelmingly want to deal with the "too cool for school" accusations from dullards like Goldstein either. I thought the movie was terrible, not just a disappointment but flat out awful, but I don't really feel strongly enough about it to deal with any potential blowback. It's not worth the effort, not online anyway. In print, you don't have to deal with message boards and you're less likely to have to deal with hate e-mail. But online, esp at the Tomato Meter? I'll just stay out of the way. Unless there's a nice paycheck involved. Then I'm ready to go.

Damian said...

Nicely done, Dennis.

As I was reading this excellent piece it occurred to me at one point that, just as Nolan's film presumably contains "dreams within dreams within dreams," this is essentially a review of someone's review of someone else's review of a movie.

Trippy, man.

Eric N said...

Devastating. Awesome post, Dennis. You have made my night.

Bryce Wilson said...

So Dennis, I'm hosting a Christopher Nolan Blogothon over at my humble little site and would love to feature this with your permission.

It'd be nice to prove that not ever Nolan fan is scared of a bit of distention.

In my opinion, I take the extreme Rancor Nolan riles up at the fringes as a complement. Even his harshest critics seem to admit that there's something here to chew. Which is sadly becoming more and more of a rarity in studio filmmaking.

Bryce Wilson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
FilmDr said...

Wait. You are not going to see Inception? I don't understand.

Dean Treadway said...

Here was my take on the whole thing, with some similar points made http://filmicability.blogspot.com/2010/07/theyre-baaaaack-nolanheads-on-rampage.html

Great post, very detailed and multi-layered (hey, like INCEPTION!!). A criticism within a criticism within a criticism! Woooo!

And then there's my fight with THESE guys--the same fight I had with them over TDK. http://incontention.com/?p=26288

Exception said...

"Why, exactly, is it fair to express a negative reaction to a movie that has been universally praised only after it opens?"

That's pretty clearly not what Goldstein meant.

And yes, that Edelstein quote does imply that he thinks critics are simply "buying" the hype, which is as annoying and childish as any thing Goldstein wrote.

And what was the point of this post anyway? "I don't like when people attack critics who disagree with them"? Me neither, but until someone gets a critic fired over something like this, or at least his review taken down, I don't see the big deal.

Surely, Edelstein partly brought it upon himself with the "delusional hype" bit. But he's a big boy, he can take it.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Lots of great choices, but if you haven't seen Show People on the big screen, that should would be my recommendation. My ex, who claimed to dislike films that are silent, and black and white, loved this film, and was imitating Marion Davies afterwards.

Pink's sound pretty good to, but only if a paramedic is nearby.

For the record, my favorite Chris Nolan film is Following.

blaaagh said...

I like that swimming hole idea...also a bunch of the others. I also love this essay! I still don't volunteer my opinion of THE DARK KNIGHT when I'm around people who bring it up, but I remember going into it excited to see it and wanting to like it--and I didn't have any fun, nor enjoy much of it on any level. I wasn't engaged or stimulated by it as much as I felt battered by it. Then I got to be told condescendingly, "Well, if you've ever read the comics, it's SUPPOSED to be dark." Its "darkness" was not why I didn't enjoy it, and I had read and liked some of the Dark Knight graphic novel/comics--but I sure took a lot of grief for not sharing others' opinions about the movie. It was indeed as though I was trying to spoil their party.

Tim K. said...

Dennis,

I agree with most of what you wrote, including the conclusions that 1) Edelstein is a good critic, and 2) Goldstein is an idiot. I also thought Edelstein's review did a good job of showing what he thought was missing from the movie, and I laughed at his "Fantasy Island" allusion.

But ... he sandwiches his review with sideswipes at people who liked the movie (only critics at this point, I guess). It just smacks of the "Emperor Has No Clothes" kind of discourse that I find really annoying. People don't like to be told they've been suckered. Edelstein astutely reviewed the movie for seven paragraphs, and the hype for two -- maybe it's not fair he's taking a lot of flak for those two, but he knew what he was doing when he wrote it.

bill r. said...

It's funny you bring this up, Dennis, because just a few days ago I wrote a piece examing the very opposite side of this situation, namely: Is it Not Okay to Like INCEPTION?

After the absurdity of the DK controversy, a lot of critics felt safe, and justified, in tarring everyone who enjoyed Nolan's films with the same brush, and it's no different than what thos DK defenders did to Uhlich, et al, at the time. It's quite annoying to me, especially since so many people act like it's not happening. So I, brave soul that I am, decided to expose the truth! Hooray for me.

But really, I'm looking forward to finding out what you ultimately think of INCEPTION. I'm looking forward to finding out what I think of it, too.

The Siren said...

Hmm, there is something missing from that "want to do" list. :)

A very, very fine piece of writing, Dennis--calm, orderly, devastating. By taking on just the Inception (and Dark Knight) spats, you also julienne the entire bizarre phenomenon of Web-based feuds over contrarian critical opinions.

Josh K-sky said...

Here's a pretty good swimming hole. More of a dipping hole -- it's not very big, but the waterfall is lovely. I was there last weekend and saw people rappelling down it.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Dennis - Terrific post.

// Not to put too crude a point on it, but Mr. Goldstein, what the fuck are you talking about? //

Awesome.

Philip Concannon said...

Brilliant piece, Dennis. I don't really get why Nolan has suddenly been elevated into this God-like figure for so many people. He's a talented, interesting and ambitious director, and I generally respect the fact that he's trying to make smart and complex films on a huge scale - but a visionary? Earning comparisons to Kubrick? I don't think so. For the record, I liked Inception a lot and I think it's his best film since Memento (it's certainly miles better than The Dark Knight), but it still has familiar Nolan flaws, with an empty emotional core and a clumsy climax.

It's just so depressing to see how little respect people offer opposing opinions these days. Even if I love a film, I'm still very interested in reading a well-written negative take on it because it might allow me to see the picture in a new light. Nolan fans take every poor review so personally, though. I'm honestly baffled by it, and by their weird obsession with the Tomato percentage.

Just think, we'll have all of this to look forward to again with the next Batman film in a couple of years...

blaaagh said...

Mr. Concannon, I agree with everything you've written above.

Dylan T said...

I think my main issue with this article - and unfortunately it's a rather large one - is its assertion that Edelstein's review is a well-written one that addresses the film's faults in a constructive manner.

It's not. He spends the majority of the review bashing the hype his fellow critics have helped create, while taking ample space detailing the exposition of the film. He brings up a point or two that seems inviting, but never expounds on them. He doesn't even address the large tangibles such as the music, cinematography, etc in any substantial matter.
No doubt the man is a witty writer, but wit isn't critique.

Not that Inception should be immune to criticism (in fact, original concepts demand it), but a negative review should have to work harder to explore a film's faults in a sea of critical appraisal - not the other way around.

mike weber/fairportfan said...

A friend of mine here in Atlanta, who has on and off written film and music crit for various publications, reacted to Tim Burton's "Batman" (before it came out) by announcing in a column entitled "Howard the Bat" that it was self-evidently going to suck dead rat.

Through a straw.

And he wasn't going to see it.

(He finally *did* see it a year or two later, on video, at the behest of a lady friend, and actually *did* like it.)

When i asked him what was his basis for being so negative about a film he hadn't even seen, he told me that he wasn't going to let the hype-mongers control his life, so he didn't go to films that were heavily hyped in advance.

I pointed out to him the more-or-less self-evident fact that, by totally avoiding all much-hyped films and music, he was missing the occasional thing that actually lived up to or surpassed its hype.

He admitted that that *might* be true.

But he refused to concede my next suggestion, that by totally and indiscriminately avoiding the hyped stuff, he was still ceding control of his life to the hype-mongers.

(Someday i need to tell the story of his feud with Michael Stipe...)

The point (if there is one) of this anecdote is that pre-judging anything, good or bad, on the basis of pre-release hype is a mistake that all too many people regularly make.

Oh - and i went to see "The Dark Knight", despite some misgivings based on what i'd read and heard ... and it turned out i didn't like it.

But i waited to say so - and engage in a couple of back-and-forth online battles over the matter - until after i had seen it.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Ay-yi-yi! Thanks, everyone, for chiming in! I'm at work right now, but when I get home in a few hours I will take some time to engage with everyone's thoughts here. For now, a simple but sincere thanks for reading and offering some cogent commentary to counterbalance the tide of hostility out there on this subject.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Chris: I hoped "Inception" would prove to be an inflection point like "Zodiac" was, and would make me completely reconsider my opinion about a filmmaker I previously disliked. It was not.
In fact, I thought it was Nolan's worst film yet. A failure of imagination on every level, interesting only for its record-setting density of exposition and for Cotillard's beauty.


I’m sorry to hear it, Chris. I think Nolan’s films are often interesting, if not totally engaging (the exceptions being Insomnia, which I loved, and The Dark Knight, which I thought reeked), and I continue to hold out hope that this one will wow me. But I really appreciate you chiming in with what, to this hour, is still a rarity—that is, an informed opinion!

Damian: Can’t say I thought of that previous to writing the piece, but the whole folding in on itself thing does seem appropo, doesn’t it?

Eric N: Now drink your warm milk and go to bed!

Bryce: You may feature the piece with my blessing. Send me a link to your party, please!

Film Dr.: Oh, I’m going to see the movie, all right. I remain hopeful that it will be engaging and fun on a grand-scale puzzle level, something The Dark Knight decidedly was not. I’m just staying away from it on opening weekend, because I don’t dig fighting the crowds that much, I have too many other better options (and one mandatory one—that is, weekend work at my job), nor do I relish getting punched by a Nolanoid if I should walk out of the theater with a pout or a frown on my face!

Dean: Thanks for the links. I will catch up to them this weekend. (Maybe I should have put that on my list of 21—er, 22—better things to do!)

Peter: The Marion Davies afternoon has become a can’t-miss! It sounds like so much fun!

Blaaagh: By the time you next visit I will have found and jumped into one of those swimming holes, and we will make that a destination for an afternoon getaway! And yeah, if darkness (both photographically and psychologically) were a criterion for the success of a movie, we’d have a much richer film culture, it seems to me, and your average DTV opus would be far livelier and interesting than they often end up being.

Tim K: I’m not sure why Edelstein is bound to reverence for those who haven’t (in his view) adequately explained their point of view to the degree that he can understand what their enthusiasm is all about. But I do think his sarcasm is two-pronged—it is used to deflate what Edelstein sees as the movie’s pretensions and also to remind the reader that Edelstein enjoys corny plot elements as much as the next guy, as long as they’re not surrounded by a movie with an inflated sense of its own importance.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Bill R: I ashamedly admit ignorance of your Inception post, but I will definitely get on it before I see the movie. (You wouldn't beliee what this week has been like-- or maybe you would.) I like the idea of coming at the anticipation of this movie from two different angles, and I will be very interested in your opinion, since you liked The Dark Knight so much. By the way, are you a fan of Insomnia?

Siren: #7! Yeah, I’m just not sure why people get so up in arms when a writer who they clearly either don’t respect to begin with or read only when he writes negatively about movies/filmmakers they love, should be so concerned. Does it eat on them while they’re watching or something? “Somebody out there thinks this is dumb, but I’m enjoying it, so does that mean I’m dumb? What am I missing?!”

Oh, and thanks for being the very first person in the 5+ year history of his blog to use the word “julienne”! You are the best!

Josh K-sky: Oh man, I’m cooler already! I’ve got it penciled in for the last weekend of the month! Thanks!

Sheila! So good to hear from you! It warms me to think I might have put a smile on your face with my OUTRAGE!!!! (Acting!! Brilliant!!) By the way, I am pulling for Mike and the whole Glee gang at the Emmys. He really got me this year, right in the heart. I watched the finale five times and burst into uncontrollable weepage when they sing To Sir, With Love every single time.

Phillip: Just think, we'll have all of this to look forward to again with the next Batman film in a couple of years... Oh, my Jesus, you’re right. Thanks for checking in, especially since you and Chris have actually seen the movie. That Tomatometer obsession is something I will never understand.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Exception: ”Why, exactly, is it fair to express a negative reaction to a movie that has been universally praised only after it opens?" That's pretty clearly not what Goldstein meant.

Well, what does he mean then? I’m a little bit at a loss as to what else he could possibly mean. Unfortunate that you didn’t share your interpretation.

And what was the point of this post anyway? "I don't like when people attack critics who disagree with them"? Me neither, but until someone gets a critic fired over something like this, or at least his review taken down, I don't see the big deal.

I was pretty sure that the point of the post was clear, but I’ll try to summarize. The post was born out of a sense of incredulity that a broad base of fans who have not yet seen a film feel there this no contradiction, absurdity or otherwise nonsensical element to their hauling off and making vile, personal attacks on a writer and ill-informed, generally silly comments about what that writer has expressed about a film they have yet to see.

I have read David Edelstein for 25 years and there have been many occasions that I've disagree with him about films that mean a lot to me. Yet even coming from that state of grace born of having seen the movie in question, whatever it might have been over those 25 years, I have never felt the urge to wish for his disembowelment or to otherwise disparage him as a writer or a human being. The point of the article was to engage with the asinine prospect of this phenomenon of fanboy outrage now moving from anonymous chat boards to underneath the logo of the Los Angeles Times, where journalistic standards of reportage are clearly not what they used to be. A journalist ripping a critic for not toeing the line with the majority of rave reviews for a big-budget movie, and using the ravings of anonymous fanboys as ammunition, doesn’t bother you?

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Dylan T: I think my main issue with this article - and unfortunately it's a rather large one - is its assertion that Edelstein's review is a well-written one that addresses the film's faults in a constructive manner.

It's not. He spends the majority of the review bashing the hype his fellow critics have helped create, while taking ample space detailing the exposition of the film.


Let’s count ‘em up. There are exactly six sentences in Edelstein’s review— one at the beginning, and the five-sentence final paragraph— that reference the writer’s befuddlement about the largely positive reviews his fellow critics have given the movie. Six sentences out of an 849-word review do not, on my calculator, constitute “the majority of the review.” And of course he takes up ample space on the exposition—it’s the very element of the film Edelstein finds so indigestible and antiseptic. Note that he does so without approaching the events chronologically, with no desire to chart the plot from A to Z. How else can he represent what he finds to be confusing and mundane about the film?

He brings up a point or two that seems inviting, but never expounds on them.

Please expound.

He doesn't even address the large tangibles such as the music, cinematography, etc in any substantial matter.

Dylan, I used to read a reviewer on a newspaper here in Los Angeles whose template was to start off each review with a pithy phrase or two, in which was couched the basic opinion, followed by five or six paragraphs of pure plot description, and all wrapped up in a paragraph or two with obligatory nods to some the contributions of various creative members of the crew. (“The cinematography by Adrian Biddle is superb, and Dede Allen’s editing is crisp and alive.”) But guess what—those reviews were almost never illuminating of anything that was going on in the film and quickly became boring and predictable as hell to read.

Reviews don’t have to be checklists going down the list of collaborators and contributors. It’s possible that Edelstein felt the cinematography was very good, but that it was less urgent to mention the cinematography because you can see ample examples of it in the film’s onslaught of advertising. Had he mentioned the work of Hans Zimmer, which is typically big and loud and impersonal, in the negative, would this be points scored against him? Probably, since he did mention the film’s cutting in a less-than-impressed fashion: “Although the different levels look the same (too bad), the gimmick allows Nolan to have three clocks ticking down instead of one, and the editor, Lee Smith, has cut among them in ways so ostentatious that he’s all but sewn up this year’s editing Oscar.” My guess is that Edelstein thought his limited space was better used dealing with what he felt didn’t work about the movie rather than put on a smiley face and tick off obvious observations about its many creative elements.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Mike Weber: Pre-judging anything, good or bad, on the basis of pre-release hype is a mistake that all too many people regularly make.

Studios have built entire marketing divisions around the indulgence of exactly this kind of predigested response to films. But of course they prefer you to be salivating rather than spitting.

bill r. said...

Dennis - I think INSOMNIA is pretty good, but I started watching it again recently, for the first time in a while, and I found myself easily distracted away from it. I'd say it looks great, and Pacino's performance is underrated (while Williams's is a bit overrated), but I didn't find myself getting sucked into it like I do with, say, THE PRESTIGE, which I honestly think is a masterpiece.

Anyway, I'll be seeing INCEPTION tomorrow. I'm on the fence about whether I'm going to write it up, though, whatever I think, because I'm starting to reach critical mass with this Nolan discussion. I think there have been some very good things written about it lately, like your post, and Jim's, but I think, at base, the reason it's being written about so much -- and the reason has precious little to do with Nolan or his films -- is actually kind of dumb. David Poland actually popped over to my site last night and started leaving comments (in case you haven't read it yet, the post uses something he wrote as a window into the whole situation, and I was very critical of him), and I've been talking to him, and the more I write in my comments, the more I think "Why is this even happening? I think my points are sound, I think his points are less sound, but the fact that this has become a conversation at all is beginning to seem absurd to me."

And I'm partly to blame, of course, because I wrote about it, too. But I worry that a post about INCEPTION, after ACTUALLY SEEING IT, will just stir up my tiny corner of the internet even more, and I'd rather write and talk about other things at this point.

Which isn't to say that I'm not still very excited to see INCEPTION, because I am. I just think I might want to be in the audience, and that's it.

bill r. said...

I hasten to add, by the way, that when I say:

but I think, at base, the reason it's being written about so much -- and the reason has precious little to do with Nolan or his films -- is actually kind of dumb.

...I don't mean that your reasons, or Jim's (or mine, which are no different from yours or Jim's), are dumb, although that's probably how it sounds. I just mean that the things we're responding to with our posts, and their roots, are ridiculous, and maybe not worth our effort.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I worry that a post about INCEPTION, after ACTUALLY SEEING IT, will just stir up my tiny corner of the internet even more...

It's absolutely absurd that we could come to feel this way by the day the movie opens, but I concur. I've got a ton of other things I need to write about, and Inception, for exactly the reasons you stated, is unlikely to be one of them (at least right away). Interesting, your encounter with D. Poland. I'm going to have to read those comments. He linked to my piece (See, someone else thought the Edelstein takedown was wrongheaded), but I haven't been visited as yet!

And no need to worry-- the whole of the Inception tornado is absurd, for sure and it's hard not to get sucked into it, which is why I'm glad we (and Jim) have been wise enough to restrict our comments in the way that we have. But yeah, harping on it any further will just lend more importance to the "debate," when the debate is itself pretty ludicrous.

I wish I could go see this movie with you and then we could just talk about it amongst ourselves.

You've gotten me interested in seeing Insomnia again too. I liked The Prestige, and loved the Tesla element (no pun intended). But do you remember The Illusionist, the other magician that came out almost concurrently-- the one with Ed Norton, Jessica Biel and Paul Giammatti? I really responded to that one, which was more romantic and less gimmicky than Nolan's movie. It's one I've looked forward to showing to my girls. But I don't think they're ready for The Prestige just yet!

Philip Concannon said...

I totally agree on that point. The Illusionist is a film I've watched and enjoyed again a couple of times since its original release. It has a sense of playfulness, mystery and magic that I found lacking in The Prestige, along with some truly lovely cinematography from Dick Pope. It's a shame that movie seems to have slipped through the cracks.

bill r. said...

Yeah, I saw Poland’s link to your piece. I’ve actually seen your name brought up in comments over there, quite favorably, in the past. It’s funny, in his comments to me, he says that he’s sorry for not reading all the comments yet, but someone had just told him about my post. Who, I wonder? That part has me intrigued! But for my part, I was not expecting his appearance at all, and didn’t even know about it until Ryan Kelly told me. At which point, I think I muttered a weary “Oh, shit.”

Anyway:

why I'm glad we (and Jim) have been wise enough to restrict our comments in the way that we have.

Don’t assume anything until you’ve read what I actually wrote!

I wish I could go see this movie with you and then we could just talk about it amongst ourselves.

That would be ideal. It’s still my plan to, within the next couple of years, find my way out to your neck of the woods. I would really, really love to do that. Then you can find out what a neurotic freak I really am.

And yes, I do remember THE ILLUSIONIST. Part of my reaction is no doubt based on my fondness for the source material, a short story by Steven Millhauser, but I didn’t like the film very much. For one thing, the romance, the murder, all that, was not a part of the story, which is much stranger than anything that ended up on screen, and I was bummed that such a unique story had been turned relatively ordinary. But I was really put off by the ending, which, as I remember it, involves Paul Giamatti coming to a whole bunch of conclusions that he couldn’t possibly make, because he wasn’t present for many of the things he was “remembering”. But I never see anyone else making that point about the film, so maybe I’m remembering it wrong.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I was really put off by the ending, which, as I remember it, involves Paul Giamatti coming to a whole bunch of conclusions that he couldn’t possibly make, because he wasn’t present for many of the things he was “remembering”.

That's the kind of thing that usually jumps right out at me and drives me bats. I'm not saying it isn't the case just because I didn't seem to notice it, but I would think that would have been like a mote in the ol' eye for me too. It's been too long for me to say with any certainty whether or not it's actually the case-- just another good reason to revisit THAT movie too!

How about you, Phillip? Do you remember the Giammati character piecing things together by remembering tings he hadn't the privilege of previously knowing?

Philip Concannon said...

Yes I do. It ends with him standing in the street while a whole bunch of flashbacks suddenly play and a rueful smile of realisation slowly dawns on his face. I think the idea is supposed to be that he's piecing bits of the puzzle together and drawing conclusions rather than remembering events he wasn't present at, but it's handled in a rather inelegant fashion all the same. I felt a bit cheated at the time, and I heavily cricised the film for it in my original review, but I've mellowed on it since and it hasn't put me off repeated viewings. In contrast, I've had no desire to revisit The Prestige.

Bryce Wilson said...

"You may feature the piece with my blessing. Send me a link to your party, please!"

Many thanks Dennis. Its up now and you'll have a hard time missing the "party" if you visit the blog, as its all I've been writing about for the week lol.

http://thingthatdontsuck.blogspot.com/

Still judging from this thread I know you have a lot of places to be, so no big deal if you don't make it over.

I had mixed feelings watching Insomnia again. I really liked it, but its exhibit A for a remake that was plain unnecessary and I'm half convinced that Al Pacino's performance is made out of outtakes from Heat that Mann decided were too lazy.

Still Williams is great, and there's a lot of scenes that illustrate exactly what I like about Nolan as a stylist. Take the whole "Underwater Log sequence". There's not a frame or a cut in there that you could call "showy" and yet Nolan gets you exactly where he wants you.

Bryce Wilson said...

And if I may this is the piece I'm happiest with thus far:

http://thingthatdontsuck.blogspot.com/2010/07/christopher-nolan-blogothon-day-5.html

Juanita's Journal said...

I must admit that I had liked "THE DARK KNIGHT", even if I couldn't stand its last 30 minutes. I still get the hives thinking of that ferry boats sequence.

But I must admit that I liked "INCEPTION" a lot. In fact, I liked it a lot more than I did "THE DARK KNIGHT".

For those who didn't like the movie - it's okay. Don't let those who feel differently deter you from expressing your opinions. Trust me, I've been in that boat.

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