Saturday, January 08, 2011


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!



Richard Cobeen said...

I found this year's club dispiriting. Kois and Longworth were just not up to the level of previous participants (particularly those who were involved while Edelstein was at Slate). Longworth added nothing to the conversation and Kois is desperately trying to be funny all the time and only succeeding occasionally, although I too enjoyed the Black Swan flowchart. The idea that Russell debases his gift by doing genre work like The Fighter is laughable in the extreme.
I go back to the early 2000's and findra great conversations involving Edelstein, Ebert, Scott, Kerr, Hoberman, Dargis, Foundas and Zacharek (I also admit that Edelstein quoted me in 2002, which may influence my nostalgia). A.O. Scott in particular displayed a looseness in these conversations that was missing from his regular writing. I don't want to sound like Glenn Kenny, bemoaning the current state of criticism online, but it is a loss.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Hey, Dennis! Just stopped by to say Go Ducks! I'm sure you'll be as nerve-wracked as I'll be tomorrow.

Word verification is quite appropriate, "ouster." That's exactly what we're going to do to Auburn and the SEC's current reign as BCS Champions! Haha.

On a blog-related note...I'm looking forward to this!

Dan said...

I'm glad you guys are continuing the conversation! I will read your movie club with great interest. Thanks for the nice roundup of our roundup.

It's true, rcobeen, I *am* desperately trying to be funny all the time. That's why I'm so glad my claim about David O. Russell was so laughable. Success!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

rcobeen: I too missed Edelstein, Scott and Dargis in the Club format this year-- I have ever since since Mr. E. moved his shingle to New York magazine. I love reading Edelstein in any situation, but especially in the more informal structure of the Movie Club. And I enjoyed seeing Dargis and Scott in this arena too, more off the cuff than the Times would ever tolerate. (Do you remember the year she got on Scott's case for sharing a personal e-mail with other club members and, of course, the world?) I miss the consistency of years past in the Movie Club, but I always tend to enjoy listening to film writers sharing thoughts and comparing notes, as long as it doesn't turn into a case of one-upsmanship. And I do think also that Longworth and Stevens were the ones playing catch-up with the pace and quality of the other writers. But I'd rather have this kind of forum to read, inconsistent or not, than another mudslinging episode over the latest Noah Baumbach movie.

Kevin: I am nervously anticipating tonight's game. All the way home from the movie last night I listened to the late-night cluck on ESPN go on and on about how Oregon has no chance to stop Cam Newton, the inevitable triumph of the SEC, blah blah blah. And the whole time I'm thinking, "Yeah, and none of you all-knowing jackasses thought Seattle had a chance against the Saints this weekend either, right?" Everybody knows everything until the game actually starts...

I hope you'll chime in this week, Kevin. Keep us honest! By the way, I've been really enjoying catching up on your Ken Russell series. Tommy is magnificent, and though it is genuinely insane I do like Lisztomania quite a bit more than you. You have rather vividly reminded me of what a mess Valentino is, however!

Dan: Thanks for checking in, and please feel free to join the conversation in the comments. I'd like to design my own flowchart for The Human Centipede, but I'm afraid I wouldn't be able to control myself. And speaking of keeping pace with colleagues, it's me whose running shoe laces need to be cinched tightest this week! Here we go!