Saturday, April 24, 2010

Is Film Criticism Dead? #4

Andrew O'Hehir's recent Salon piece on film criticism has understandably struck a nerve with my colleagues on this site. I agree with both Susan and Kevin that critics losing their long-time jobs on major newspapers, magazines and trade publications is tragic, but I’m not sure it matters all that much. The new generation of film critics coming up the ranks just aren't worthy to inherit the mantle of the relatively few good film critics and film writers we still have.

Long gone are the days when a talented critic like Pauline Kael could tub thump for a favourite movie, like Barry Levinson’s wonderful comedy Diner (1982), and actually turn that film, which was dumped by its studio, into something of a hit. Siskel and Ebert did the same for Carl Franklin’s terrific thriller One False Move (1992), which had been under the radar until they shone a light on it. These days, critics are only taken seriously as negative factors. In fact, some movies are now not even press screened in hopes that the movie can get a decent weekend box office before the reviewers take a whack at it. But since those movies are generally bad, they likely would have been financially unsuccessful regardless of whether the critics were able to pan the movie in advance of its opening.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Is Film Criticism Dead? #3

I wasn't going to weigh into this issue for a couple of reasons. First, both Susan and Kevin had done such a good job here taking the mickey out of Andrew O'Hehir's ridiculous Salon column "Movie Critics: Shut Up Already." Secondly, I've not been a film critic for over 20 years, so I didn't think what I had to say would be timely. But then I read Kevin's piece and it brought to mind why I decided to quit film criticism as a profession in 1989. I guess I saw the writing on the wall for both what the profession was becoming and what I was becoming within that profession -- neither of which I particularly liked.

It all began with a long-forgotten Weird Al Yankovic flick called UHF (1989). Never saw it; never wanted to. One afternoon, I was attending a concert at the Ontario Place Forum (now the Molson Amphitheatre), when a film-critic acquaintance of mine sat down beside me. He will remain nameless to protect the guilty. We shot the breeze about what we were up to for a bit and then he told me a story. He was working for a free newspaper (it no longer exists) writing film reviews. He'd been assigned the aforementioned Yankovic 'classic' which he told me he hated, and wrote a review that basically indicated same. After he handed the assignment in he got a phone call from his editor. It seemed the film's production company was buying a big ad for this film in that week's paper. The editor asked this critic if he'd mind changing his review to something "more positive". And he did.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Is Film Criticism Dead? #2

It’s pretty clear from Salon critic Andrew O’Hehir’s article, with its Alfred E Neuman What-Me-Worry attitude, that he really has no grasp of the bigger picture at stake here – as Susan so aptly put it yesterday. But why should he? What’s becoming increasingly obvious today is the manner in which careerism has infected journalism, so much so that O’Hehir (as a critic paid to ask questions) refuses to examine why certain film critics are no longer considered employable while others are.

I’ve been somewhat fortunate that I came into the profession in 1981 just as the line started to blur between critical and consumer-friendly journalism. Looking back, I think I've had a pretty satisfying career and accomplished things on terms that I found agreeable. That’s partly because there was a time when you could distinguish yourself from puffery by, to quote one sharp radio producer, treating the audience as voyeurs rather than consumers. In those days, if your goal was to be smart, articulate and informative, it could get you hired. It’s almost the opposite now. I’ve lost three jobs as a film critic in the last few years not because I wasn’t doing my job, or forgot how to write, or talk, or had nothing of interest to say. I was relieved of my duties because I held to the same standards I originally brought to my work -- and those standards in the business have now radically changed.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Is Film Criticism Dead? #1

Dorothy Parker
Film critic Andrew O’Hehir in Salon recently lamented the end of film criticism with the idea that even if it is on its death bed, and critics are losing their jobs, quit griping about it. Write about movies, he says, instead of your wounded pride.

There are a few of us at Critics at Large who have been at the short end of that ugly stick and we don't feel quite as glib about heading to the dustbin as Mr. O'Hehir does (it's also a lot easier to take that stand when you actually still have your paying job as a film critic). But let's digress no further.

Let's hear instead from Susan Green:

Jeezum Crow! That’s a traditional term used by old-time native Vermonters, a disappearing breed, to express anger but avoid blasphemy. Last week a piece by Andrew O’Hehir on targeted another disappearing breed, film journalists whose work appears in print. His point seems to be that critics who have lost jobs -- such as Todd McCarthy, recently fired by Variety after 31 years -- or are concerned that could happen in the near future should stop discussing this trend.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Creepin' Under Your Skin: Jakob Dylan's Women and Country

This album creeps in under your skin from first note to last. Starting with a great song called “Nothing But the Whole Wide World,” Jakob Dylan is heading for the vast expanse of the American West, but not out of nostalgia, but rather like taking an opportunity, or a chance, at self-discovery. Women + Country contains songs that are mature, honest and unpretentious. On the track, “Everybody’s Hurting,” one gets right into the dirt and grime of labour-intensive work in the fields. Dylan works the land of relationships on “Smile When You Call Me That” presenting a story of a tough breakup: "I’m drunk and you’re insane/I can’t quit and you won’t change." But the storyteller accepts full responsibility for his actions and cries out for her return. The 11 tracks on Dylan’s second solo album create an exquisite journey through space and time; stories of relationships with women, nature and God. It’s a confidant, thoughtful record beautifully produced by T-Bone Burnett whose sublime touch has done wonders for Dylan’s compositions. Clearly, Burnett has made a difference by creating sonic textures appropriate for both the song and the singer. Jakob Dylan deserves no less.

-- John Corcelli is an actor, musician, writer, broadcaster and theatre director.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Back From Oblivion: The T.A.M.I. Show

A couple of weeks back, in my piece on the declining art of the film poster, I wrote about "Captain" George Henderson and his wonderfully ramshackle film poster shop, Memory Lane. It was while visiting George's shop in 1980 or so that I first encountered James Brown's performance on the T.A.M.I. Show. (The acronym translates as Teenage Awards Music International.) George used to smoke cigarette after cigarette and watch videotapes of movies or TV shows as you plowed through his goods. Taking a break from one fruitful dig, I talked to George for a couple of minutes and then turned to look at what he was watching. Playing on his small TV set was a Betamax tape of the T.A.M.I. Show. What I watched was a revelation as James Brown sang, shimmied and shook his way through four outstanding, mesmerizing songs. The piece de resistance being, of course, "Please Please Please." In the song, as Brown begged his now-absent girl to take him back, he fell hard to his knees in despair. One of his Fabulous Flames back-up singers rushed to his side, patted him repeatedly on his back and helped the slumped and exhausted singer to his feet. Brown's capeman, Danny Ray, came up behind him and placed an elaborate cape over his shoulders as the two men helped Brown off stage. During all this, the band and back-up singers kept going. Before he could be led off, Brown stopped, screamed, threw off the cape and stumbled back to the mic. He did this four times with the same scenario played out each time. He didn't break character until well after the song finished. George turned to me and said "that is a man possessed." Though George was referring to the story being told aurally and visually in the song, I also took it to mean that Brown would do anything to make all that he did on stage memorable (he was called The Hardest Working Man In Show Business for a reason). I didn't see who came next (that in a moment) as I had to leave, but that was my first encounter with the legendary 1964 T.A.M.I. Show.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Body: Revisiting Deliverance

Poet and author James Dickey was once asked by TV host Dick Cavett what his novel Deliverance was about. “It’s about why decent men kill,” he answered dryly. That’s certainly the plot of both the 1970 novel and John Boorman’s feature film (1972). But it’s also like saying Macbeth is about why kings get ambitious. The power of Deliverance actually lies somewhere beyond the plot and into something more mysterious and fragile like the body. The story is about four Atlanta businessmen – the macho wilderness man Lewis (Burt Reynolds), the beefy, insecure insurance salesman Bobby (Ned Beatty), the affable musician Drew (Ronny Cox) and the thoughtful Ed (Jon Voight) – who decide to canoe down the (fictional) Cahulawassee River in Georgia in order to “commune” with nature before the river valley gets flooded and displaces the mountain locals. With the exception of Lewis, who is a man’s-man like the deerslayer of James Fenimore Cooper (or De Niro’s Michael in The Deer Hunter), and Ed (who has joined Lewis on a few expeditions); the other men are complete innocents. The locals they encounter are also deeply reserved folks isolated from the world these suburban males inhabit and some – like the young boy who duets with Drew on the famous “Duelling Banjos” – are part of inbred families. Lewis and friends, feeling their own false sense of superiority over the inhabitants, still take on the river as if to tame the body of water. What they discover along the way, however, is that nature can’t be tamed and the body is a vulnerable entity.