Recently by Glenn Kenny
One of my fellow bloggers at ARTicles has expressed some misgivings about the use of rude personal characterizations by myself in this space, worrying that such language could dumb down the discourse here, and, beyond that, come to cause this individual some social discomfort. While I regret this state of affairs, I have to say in my defense that I don't think my colleague really understands what I have to deal with in my little corner of the world and/or media whirl. It truly is enough to drive even a mild-mannered man to personal invective, and drink besides.
Take, for instance, a piece by Bernard-Henri Levy that appeared, I presume, in various newspapers and their websites today. The headline for it in The Australian is "Don't let Tarantino and his ilk distort the past," and it's a complaint about the "historical revisionism," as it were, of Tarantino's last film Inglourious Basterds. Levy is perturbed, of course, that in Tarantino's fantasia Hitler dies in a Paris movie theater rather than in the bunker as he did in real life; Levy argues--while still hailing Tarantino's "genius"--that real, and dangerous, revisionism lies in the "joyously macabre pranks" of Tarantino's film. Now, being a refined sort, Levy is probably entirely unaware of the dozens, if not hundreds, of "B" and exploitation films that took rather outrageous liberties with history before Basterds, and which Basterds is a kind of hypertrophied homage to. Nor does he appreciate that, unlike Oliver Stone's genuinely problematic J.F.K., Basterds never once presents itself as a historical corrective, but always as a cockeyed pulp fable; hell, the movie pretty much begins with the title card "Once Upon A Time In Nazi-Occupied France."
In the wake of the disheartening death of Alex Chilton, I've been revisiting a lot of his music and also reading up on some of his achievements; and the other day I read the monograph on the Big Star album Radio City (a part of Continuum's intriguing "33 1/3" series of short books on landmark albums) by Bruce Eaton, a one-time musician who played with Chilton on a few occasions. The book is largely an oral history of the making of that album as told by the group's members and associates, and it's replete with the kind of wonky technical detail that's often catnip to me. Eaton is a sharp editor and a better-than-competent explainer, but I found him kind of tiresome when he deemed to express himself. The first part of the book is rather steeped in fake-nostalgic reveries for the old days when musicians were musicians and could actually tune and play their analog instruments and write real songs, and yes, please do get off my lawn you damn kids. And in the book's coda, Eaton goes on an extended riff about "rock snobbery." This involves a post-gig hangout with Chilton in the late '70s during which Supertramp's hit "The Logical Song" comes on the jukebox. Eaton is all ready to sneer at the thing when he sees Chilton bobbing his head to it. Once he gets over his initial shock and confusion, he processes his problem as, well, everybody else's problem. "[R]ock snobbery is an exercise in aural flagellation--a way to punish yourself because girls ignored you back in high school." Ooh, snap. "What gets lost in all this rock snobbery is a simple point: music is meant to be enjoyed." Finally: "I stopped paying attention to record reviews and pouring [sic] over new releases after that."
I bring this up not to beat a dead horse but rather as just another example of an odd tendency I've seen more and more of over my quarter-century of doing something that sometimes resembles criticism--that a lot of people look at the critical impulse, and the work that it sometimes produces, as some kind of attempt to kill their buzz. And, beyond that, to force-feed them stuff that they don't like. It never occurs to Bill Eaton that the fact that he needed Alex Chilton to approve of a Supertramp song before he could do likewise actually says more about Eaton's own insecurities than anything else, as far as I'm concerned. But no, Eaton insists--it's your fault, rock snob. And/or rock critic. Similar currents run in film appreciation circles. I recently had a rather furious argument with a querulous online film writer who posited that the high regard in which the director Douglas Sirk is held is largely due to a conspiracy of "monks" and "dweebs" who want to shove what he sees as a bunch of treacly, badly-acted melodramas down the throats of good, honest film lovers.
I've never had a thoroughly worthwhile or even vaguely enjoyable reading experience on those rare occasions when I've been compelled to look at the work of Steve Almond, and his entirely inane piece in today's Boston Globe--in which he posits that "negative" music criticism maybe sorta ought to be abolished on account of the fact that it might hurt certain fans' feelings, or something--proved no exception to this rule. The sole point of interest of the piece is what it does not engage--the fact that critical practice relative to popular audience taste has been, in fact, a very hot topic among critics for some time now, ranging back to the early "anti-rockist" arguments of...well, whenever they were, and right up to and beyond Carl Wilson's 2007 consideration of Celine Dion, Let's Talk About Love: A Journey To The End Of Taste. Apparently, in Almond's philosophy--and I suppose, by extension, the Boston Globe's--none of these discussions have ever taken place. I understand that this condition mostly speaks to the fact that Almond's an uninformed moron, albeit a well-connected uninformed moron with a resourceful agent who can place uninformed and insubstantial pieces on the op-ed page of the Boston Globe. But it also speaks to many other things, such as the fact that an increasing number of self-proclaimed critics not only don't read other criticism but actually don't know what criticism is, as a form. Another, perhaps even more disturbing current it points to is the reflexive notion of criticism as a bad-faith enterprise. "Criticizing a particular band or song might make you, and some of your readers, feel smart and sophisticated," tsk-tsks Almond. (Yeah, take that, George Bernard Shaw.) In a recent review of Martin Scorsese's film Shutter Island, the much- much-smarter-than-Almond New York Times film critic A.O. Scott made an aside saying that the film's good notices, were it to get any, could be ascribed to "loyalty to Mr. Scorsese" on the part of some "otherwise hard headed critics [who] are inclined to extend [the filmmaker] the benefit of the doubt." Because clearly there's no other way anybody could find any artistic worth in this work that Scott so disdains. I don't think that Scott is necessarily entirely wrong in his speculation. But the fact that he's willing to make it at all, let alone that he's willing to make it without citing specific examples, and the imperious, above-it-all pose he strikes in making it, counts for more, in this case, than whether he's got an actual point or not. And that's troubling.
Whereas in the case of Almond it's kind of funny, particularly if you enjoy really dumb jokes.
With that, I ask the readership and my fellow bloggers what they think.
The first panel on the future of film criticism that I ever attended was in October of 2007, at the lovely Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, MA. I was a member of the panel, called "Beyond Thumbs Up: A Critical Look At Film Criticism," and quite a nice panel it was, including such luminaries as Philip Lopate, David Sterritt, Ty Burr, Stephanie Zacherak, Scott Foundas, Owen Gleiberman, Richard Porton, Cynthia Lucia, and oh, yes, the insouciant and delightful Armond White. At the time I was the chief critic for the Premiere website, formerly Premiere magazine.
Since that time I've lost that full-time position, and have sat through any number of panels concerning the future of film criticism, and read countless articles on the topic. "Whither film criticism" seems, as of mid-March of 2010, to be the query that keeps on giving. Just this week, for instance...because I need to be directed to these things, because, as I'll explain more fully in a moment, I never actually seek them out...I was told not of one but of two internet thumbsuckers about the future of film criticism, oh joy.