11 October 2005

I'm usually pretty forgiving of pop cultural criticism written on deadline (I mean, it's hard, for one thing), but this piece from the New York Times strikes me as unforgivably shoddy. Headlined "The Trouble With Films That Try to Think," it dismisses "big idea" movies like Good Night, and Good Luck and the forthcoming All the King's Men as "timid films with portentous-sounding themes, works that offer prepackaged schoolroom lessons or canned debates." Here are a few of the piece's insights:
1. The fact that many such films take place in the past (or seem "hyperreal," as in the case of A History of Violence) is "a symptom of this timidity."

2. All the King's Men can be "easily dismissed" because "the film's subject is self-contained." (Does anybody even know what this means?)

3. A History of Violence concludes that "violence is everywhere and in everyone," which is "not a thoughtful probing of the question" and "a spurious and facile statement." (It's also a spurious and facile statement that the movie never makes, which should be obvious to anyone who saw the movie and thought about it for more than a minute.)

4. Good Night, and Good Luck is damned with faint praise, with the critic noting that "the film's beautiful direction and acting deflects attention from its lack of context."

5. Million Dollar Baby showed that you could make "a tough subject like euthanasia palatable," which strikes me as a weird comment for a number of reasons. (Is "euthanasia" really the subject of Million Dollar Baby? Is "palatable" the first word anyone would use to describe that movie's final scenes? I'd argue that Million Dollar Baby is about euthanasia to roughly the same degree as Dancer in the Dark is about capital punishment.)
Most incredibly, the article provides no counterexamples (apparently, there has never been a successful movie that tackled a big issue in an acceptable manner) and offers no suggestions as to how Hollywood could break out of its circle of timidity. This sort of non-article would be embarrassing enough on any subject, but to accuse a handful of interesting, ambitious movies of "timidity" because they fail to meet this critic's underdeveloped and unstated criteria of significance is, quite simply, shameful. I can't believe that the Times even published this.

Maybe I'm just mad because I saw Good Night, and Good Luck last night, and would argue that it is one of the strongest American movies of the year. Caryn James, of course, trashes it by noting that its story "is too simple and nostalgic" to apply to contemporary events. Really? How? She doesn't elaborate. On the other hand, she credits George Clooney for "using his clout to edge Hollywood toward movies that think, even if they rarely come through with Deep Thoughts." That's the last sentence of this embarrassing article, which fails to offer a single deep thought of its own, either primarily or secondhand. This is supposed to be criticism?

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