Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The End of Televised Film Criticism?

I happened to catch The Charlie Rose Show last Friday and what a breath of fresh air. Two intelligent, experienced film critics (David Denby and A.O. Scott) talking about some of the best movies of the year on television. Is that even possible any more? Of course it is. (Above--start watching at about 14:00)

Now, why couldn't At the Movies have hired these guys--or any of a number of men and women who write prolifically and intelligently on film?

Oh yeah, it wouldn't make for good television--unlike the first 30 years of the show, apparently.

This blog posting from the LA Times sums it up very well, I think

Top critics wallop Oscar nominees
by Patrick Goldstein, LA Times

Having heard all the dismissive talk about the hapless new At the Movies team of Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz, I have a suggestion: If you want Must See Movie Critic TV, it's time to dump those lightweights and hire the New York Times' A.O. Scott and the New Yorker's David Denby, who put on a heady demonstration of critical fireworks Friday night on the Charlie Rose show. Although clearly a bit taken aback by the critics' rough treatment of the hallowed Oscar nominees, Rose still knew he'd seen two cultural observers at the top of their game, saying at show's end that it was "the best conversation about movies that's ever taken place at this table." For once, Charlie was actually understating the case. Eager to hear about the Oscar best picture and actor nominations, Rose got an earful from Denby and Scott, who both thought the best picture category would've been a lot stronger if it had a few films with real bite and depth, like Rachel Getting Married or Wall-E.

Scott perfectly grasps the underlying flaw of the Academy Awards, which has led to oh-so-many dazzling films being ignored in favor of middlebrow crowd-pleasers like A Beautiful Mind. As he put it: "I think the Oscars are an odd phenomena because what they're really about is not the best movies of a given year, but the American film industry's image of itself." After sharing solid enthusiasm for "Milk" and engaging in a fierce debate over The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the critical duo--Denby looking like a natty college professor, Scott like a brainy Rand analyst--proceeded to strafe the remainder of the best picture field, damning best picture favorite Slumdog Millionaire with the faintest of praise (Denby called it "fun and sentimental, but not a great film in any way") before dismissing Frost/Nixon (Scott calling it "a well-done minor film that should allow itself to be minor") and heaping scorn on The Reader. And what scorn!

Scott: "It's not a serious film. It's a self-serious film. The novel [it's based on] is a pretentious, sentimental consecration of an idea of literature that is just nonsensical and preposterous."

Denby on Ralph Fiennes' dreary performance: "What you got was his handsome face looking into nowhere for an hour. I wanted to give him a kick. Just do something!"

But it was their lively, biting exchange over Benjamin Button that really hit paydirt.

It all started when Scott teased Denby, saying "I don't adore Button, but I certainly didn't think it was the worst movie of the year [gesturing toward Denby] as you did." Denby laughed, saying, "Well, that was a little bit of a riff," with Scott shooting back, "You obviously didn't see The Love Guru."

But that was just the beginning. How brutal was Denby's dissection of Button? Keep reading:

Denby really was insulted by Button's entire filmmaking stance. "It took a playful science-fiction conceit of a story from F. Scott Fitzgerald and literalized it and monumentalized it and solemnized it. The level of the craft is extraordinary, but I don't see anything dramatic going on there.... Brad Pitt doesn't take a close-up well. The camera doesn't discover anything in his eyes. He doesn't know how to dramatize thought. I mean, how can we have deep, profound thoughts about what's essentially an artificial conceit?" Scott retorted: "You could say that about any movie that takes place in a world of fantasy or unreality. You could say that about Wall-E. That movie is a conceit and it's still the most profoundly moving movie of the year."

Denby was unmoved: "This movie never came alive dramatically. It was just absorbed in its own mechanics." Scott gave him a sidelong look, like a guy in a bar who just heard someone say that Willie Mays really wasn't such a great center fielder. "Actually," said Scott, "the more I hear you say that, the more I find myself actually liking the movie. For me, it had a structure that was almost like a piece of music. It just flows."

Scott acknowledged that he was dreading making the trek to the screening room to see Button, having heard that it was nearly three hours long. "To tell the truth, I was not looking forward to it. I sort of fought it for the first half-hour and then, well I didn't look at my watch for the rest of the film." With great timing, at least for a critic, Denby waited a beat and then sniffed: "I developed a love affair with my watch."

I know the great age of criticism is supposed to be over. But this was a wonderful throwback to the glory days of film criticism, hearing two wonderful practitioners of their trade sharpening their stilettos, separating the wheat from the chaff and actually sounding like they still enjoyed their jobs. But don't take my word for it. Watch for yourself.


TL said...

Terrific exchange. I miss smart people talking about movies. :(

Anonymous said...

Um, this makes me miss Roger Ebert even more. Neither A.O.Scott or Denby rise to the level of the original At the Movies. Not at all.

I like it that they called BS on Benjamin Button, though.

Anonymous said...

I like it that Scott isn't a fan of Doubt. Way overrated movie. Way overrated performance by Streep.

Dan said...

Although their exchange will never be as good as one with Siskel and Ebert, I found so much joy in watching two people talking ABOUT the film rather than OF the film.

Anonymous said...

I happen to catch this show. During the discussion it occurred to me that this is what is missing right now on television. Their insights and arguments were compelling and thought provoking. Even when I disagreed with them on a couple of films, I was impressed by their reasons. I was stunned (as they were – A.O. Scott sounded shocked) when Charlie Rose stated that it was the best discussion about film he has had at his table. Wow.

But, I understand why he said that. Just think about all the actors, directors and writers that appear on his program as part of their marketing campaign. No matter how honest these folks are, it’s still “spin” to a certain degree (although I will admit, on his show it is muted).

Then, here come these guys. No spin. All well thought out, objective honesty. To Charlie it must have seemed liked a breath of fresh air. And he seemed genuinely shocked and pleased by what was occurring. Like these 2 guys had just cut through six months of biased bull like a hot knife through butter.

A great show…

Anonymous said...

Denby is a terrible critic or a critic I really do not go to when looking for a movie review. He bores me to tears with his reviews that not only I disagree with but take forever to get to the point. Denby needs the crazy cartoons in The New Yorker to make his reviews look interesting.

He thought Rachel Getting Married was Best Picture worthy. Wha? Not Demme's best and I was annoyed to death by their characters with the exception of the parents.

I like AO Scott and Michael Phillips. They are for my generation and I agree with them mostly.

News Review said...

Roger ebert is one of the most admired critics.. The award is indeed meant for him.. Congratulations to Mr. Ebert.. We sincerely pray for his recovery..