Well, another edition of the Slate Movie Club is in the books, and darned if film culture isn’t slightly richer, or at least more enlightened, for it. Host Dana Stevens set the table with a knowing nudge by asking why anyone would like Black Swan (a question that will put a smile on my face whenever it is asked, in public or private), which ensured that the Club would kick off in a lively fashion. (Dan Kois’ appreciation flowchart somehow charmed both the film’s supporters and detractors.)
And for every grand defense of a film, like Matt Zoller Seitz's sincere appraisal in support of the alleged “squareness” of The Fighter and its familial underpinnings, in which he eloquently proclaimed that “Emotion is the gateway drug to all cinephilia,” there again was Kois, who is never afraid to go to the humor well. (This is the guy whose review of Babies consisted entirely of the word “Babies!” iterated around 50 or 60 times.) But he was good for stirring the pot too—it was his wondering aloud whether David O. Russell was “wasting his crazy talent” on movies like The Fighter which inspired Seitz’s response, for which Kois also had a response:
You (Stevens) say that The Fighter `is no more about boxing than The Apartment is about the insurance industry,’ but I don't remember The Apartment stopping dead in its tracks for eight minutes so Jack Lemmon could sell insurance!”
Stephanie Zacharek got a couple of good ones off at the expense of Russell’s movie too, a movie which, by the way, will probably be in my top 10 for the year. I loved The Fighter, but I had to admit I found Melissa Leo a little… scary, and perhaps not always the way the actress and her director intended. In regard to her scenery chewing, Zacharek had this to say:
“Why is there so much damn acting in this movie? Melissa Leo is big, all right. She's big all over the place. It's the sort of thing that doesn't just beg to be noticed: It knocks on your door, kicks it down because you didn't respond fast enough, comes in and steals your TV, your laptop, and your toaster, whacks you upside the head with a two-by-four, and finishes by shouting, `Gimme an Oscah, ya fuckin' retahd!’ Now that's acting.”
(I had a conversation this week with a friend who insisted that, in light of all the rafter-swinging histrionics in The Fighter, Mark Wahlberg came off looking like he was half asleep, but that’s a conversation for another day…)
Zacharek was typically sharp throughout, testily defending Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, and I especially enjoyed her comments about the back-end of list-making, digging around for the nuggets surrounding all the obvious choices on any given critic’s year-end round-up:
“I just don't see what good a critic's, or anyone's, Top 10 list is unless you choose mostly from the heart or the gut… On the other hand, the movies that I've put on lists that were, at the time, deemed wackadoodle choices (by the aforementioned feetie-pajama brigade, at least) are often the ones that have stuck with me for years: something like David Koepp's Ghost Town or Bob Dylan's America-as-dreamscape Masked and Anonymous, to choose a few randomly random examples.”
Speaking of choices that go against the grain, Karina Longworth goes on the defensive re her choice of Trash Humpers as her number-one film of the year—a position she shouldn’t be too surprised at having to take. Having not seen Trash Humpers, I’ve got more of an issue with her dismissal of Another Year, which comes with the requisite reminder that The Human Centipede is apparently the more worthwhile picture, one which she prefers to Leigh’s film. (“In fact, I kind of do,” wrote Longworth, “but I didn't actually write that.”) Longworth insists her proclamations about all three films are sincere, and who am I to say they aren’t? But they also feel a lot like grandstanding on the part of a young critic who, as it has been observed elsewhere, doesn’t do much to convince readers with evidence from the film that her objection to Leigh’s movie has more to do with what’s on screen than with her impatience in regard to a film about the emotional decay and/or unlikely contentment of a score of middle-aged Britons. She does draw an analogy regarding what she dubs Birthday Cake Cinema that is worth a tumble, though.
Finally, Matt Zoller Seitz, a critic I’ve long admired, comes up with a compelling climax to the Club with his words on Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and another film I’m very surprised hasn’t been more widely discussed this season, Matt Reeves’ Let Me In. In the entry ”Two Films That Subtly Changed Some of My Attitudes about Movies and Life”, Matt documents his own history with Pilgrim-- one which closely mirrors my own. Those of us who raised objections to Edgar Wright’s film initially had to listen to revolting, race-and gender-based objections to the film (which had nothing to do with more reasonable aesthetic-based arguments) and accusations from the film’s admirers, who were inevitably younger, that we were just too old to get it. Which is an element I did then and would even now cop to— a Nintendo-based world is one full of references I surely don’t get and one that doesn’t mean much to my personal experience. (I wonder if Karina Longworth be willing to admit as much about Another Year’s focus on Londoners drawing satisfaction from tending their gardens or falling into an abyss of self-abasement and alcoholism?) Matt may be more familiar with this world than I, but his initial objections to Pilgrim had more to do with his mood when he saw the film and his rejection of the behavior of the titular main character. And it’s fascinating to track his response upon seeing the film again, in which he details how the film’s inventive visuals suggested another way entirely of looking at the film. I think it’s pretty brave for a critic to admit that uncontrollable factors like mood and screening conditions can affect one’s response to a film, and that one’s initial reaction need not be the final word.
And Matt's conclusions re the viability of the concept of the remake—that we ought to throw out the idea that the merest suggestion of a remake is akin to blasphemy—are compelling, especially when Let Me In is the example being held up for evidence. Of course Matt isn’t suggesting that all remakes are suddenly good, only that the work itself, as always, should be the proof. As he puts it, “The batting average of remakes is no better or worse than the batting average of originals. Musicians cover great pop songs without being condemned in advance. Filmmakers deserve the same privilege.” This bit of conversational writing is one of the most interesting things I’ve read over the past year, and I couldn’t agree more—I’m one of the few people I know who thought John Moore’s remake of The Omen was a terrific movie in its own right, a visually brilliant cover version of an old favorite. Matt’s final post was, for me, the high-water mark of this year’s Slate Movie Club.
And now we’re gonna try our own version. For years I’ve read the Slate Movie Club and wished I could take part. Now, in this D.I.Y. age of the blogosphere, the time has come. SLIFR will essentially crib the format for Slate’s annual exchange with our own rosters of writers and see if anything else interesting shakes out. The SLIFR Movie Tree House commences Monday, January 10 and will run the entire week, with contributions from myself, Jim Emerson of Scanners, Sheila O’Malley of The Sheila Variations and Jason Bellamy of The Cooler and The House Next Door. These are all talented writers and cogent thinkers whom I admire without reservation, people who aren’t concerned with whether the movies they back will screw with their film crit street cred. What’s more, I consider them all friends (though I haven’t met any of them in the flesh, another theme touched on in Matt’s final Slate). They are also folks whose opinions tend to diverge in interesting ways (I doubt any of us would agree on the year’s best picture) and who have always found respectful and intelligent ways of mounting a counterargument. I’m not expecting a testy week of e-mail exchanges. But what I am expecting is that the combination of folks gathering in what I hope is the inaugural meeting in this tree house will prod and inspire and support and challenge each other through a lively exchange that will be well worth reading. A simple hope, true, and not an unambitious one, but one I’m convinced we can more than live up to. And there may even be a surprise contributor or two to drop into the mix mid-week, depending on how everyone’s schedules shake out.
So, as entertaining as it was, I hope the Slate folks haven’t sated the general appetite for this kind of forum, because we’re marching forward regardless! Please join us beginning Monday for what should be a good time poking at the still-warm body of the movie year just past in hopes of finding something more interesting than Natalie Portman’s Oscar chances to talk about. I feel sure we’re up to the task!