Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Death of The Death of The Death of Film Criticism

Perhaps it’s my general crabbiness but I find myself increasingly annoyed at the horrible quality of most film review writing. To be specific, my annoyance has to do with the fact that it has become increasingly difficult to point students to good examples of popular film writing that offers some analysis and reflects some understanding of film history. (There are a few left to be sure.) In a recent salon article about how film critics excessively bemoan the death of film criticism, Andrew O’ Hehir unintentionally reveals what I hate about most film critics. Here is the article.

I am particularly interested in the passage:

“But reviewing movies is a lot more like performing stand-up comedy than like delivering a philosophy lecture. None of those grand ideas even begin to matter if you're boring and you can't write.”

Aside from the facile oppositions—that you can’t do stand up and philosophy at the same time— O’Hehir’s attitude that being entertaining (not being boring!) is the essential requirement of film criticism is troublesome. And since apparently philosophy lectures can’t be entertaining, what happens with critics who buy into this belief is that actually saying anything about a film, or interpreting it, becomes a strictly secondary concern.

Consider this review of Hot Tub Time Machine by critic Christopher Kelly, who I picked since his name can be found in the comments section of the article praising O’Hehir

'Hot Tub Time Machine' not a lot of fun
'Hot Tub Time Machine' goes back to the future and sends humanity down the drain.

By Christopher Kelly

Hot Tub Time Machine doesn't have much in the way of plot or characters. It barely has a concept. What it does have is a title so dumb that it sounds like one of those fake movies you see advertised between skits on Saturday Night Live. Except this is a real movie. About a hot tub. That also functions as a time machine. It even stars real actors (or at least one, John Cusack, surrounded by character players no doubt happy to collect a Hollywood-size paycheck). Mewonders if H.G. Wells is spinning in his grave.
The problem is that, once the semi-amusing buzz of the title wears off (i.e., once you've seen the trailer), there's little left to hang your hat on here. Hot Tub Time Machine winks and nods at any number of '80s movies, from time-travel comedies like Back to the Future and Peggy Sue Got Married to teen sex romps like Hot Dog: The Movie and Revenge of the Nerds. But it does so much winking that it never develops a personality of its own. Nor is it especially funny. When the first two gags involve excrement -- a set of keys swallowed by a dog and an exploding hospital tube filled with urine -- you know you're in trouble.
There isn't much of a plot to summarize, but here goes: Adam (John Cusack), Lou (Rob Corddry) and Nick (Craig Robinson) were once close friends, now going through some tough times. Adam's wife has just left him. Lou ended up in the hospital after what might have been a suicide attempt. Nick fears his wife is cheating on him. With Adam's nephew Jacob (Clark Duke) in tow, they take a weekend trip to a ski lodge where they spent many memorable weekends. They step inside the hot tub and -- shazam! -- it's 1986, complete with neon colors, bad perms and repeated references to Miami Vice.
With its mixture of bare boobs and easy sentimentality, Hot Tub Time Machine is kind of cinematic comfort food for male moviegoers of a certain age: Wasn't life so much easier, it asks, when Poison was the biggest band on the radio (the glam rockers make a cameo), and when the possibilities for the future seemed limitless? But as the men wander through the ski lodge trying not to screw with the space-time continuum, the movie never develops a core of either sweetness or humanity, à la such men-behaving-crudely classics as There's Something About Mary or American Pie. Hot Tub Time Machine -- directed by Steve Pink and written by Josh Heald, Sean Anders and John Morris -- just feels like a cynical attempt to cash in on the same crowd that propelled The Hangover to blockbuster success.
Corddry and Robinson at least appear to be having a good time (there's a witty gag involving a sure-fire bet on a football game that goes awry), but Cusack is charmless and petulant, wearing a fixed expression that suggests he is really annoyed with his agent for booking him in this movie. As the mysterious hot-tub repairman, Chevy Chase putters around the edges of the story -- I'm guessing whatever part he might have once had was left on the cutting-room floor. The primary bright spot is the wonderfully weird Crispin Glover, who plays a guy on the verge of dismemberment with uncommon good cheer. He seems to be in on his own private joke -- one much funnier than anything in this movie.

While the review isn’t terribly written, it has nothing really to say about the film. When it does Kelly explicitly misinterprets the film, by explicitly I mean the film actually has characters spell out their lesson about traveling back in time; in other words, the men in the film realize that they weren’t happier in the past and the 80’s doesn’t live up to their nostalgia. Misinterpretation aside, why is this review littered with so much snark? What is actually said in the first paragraph? Is this what counts as being entertaining? Sadly, there was a time when critics would actually take movies like Hot Tub Time Machine, or B movies, seriously and actually wrestled with saying something about them rather than simply offering a belabored opinion that is supposed to be entertaining. Bring back the head of Manny Farber Futurama style!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Svankmajer Essay on the end of history and civilization

I re-read this today with much fascination. I am not sure where it's available anymore but I remember pulling it off some now defunct website. I wonder if the once reactionary idea of "returning to nature" no longer in fact seems reactionary. Is there any other corrective to the exhausted promise of the progress of liberal modernity and Enlightenment? Perhaps the next generation of the IPAD will be enough in the short term.

To Renounce the Leading Role
By Jan Svankmajer
(Taken from

We witness an exciting and fascinating transition from a totalitarian system into parliamentary democracy. We are all completely absorbed by it. It's not only our problem: it's a global trend. It seems that the whole world is marching once again for a lengthy period towards preferring a democratic form of government. It's not difficult to guess that besides the unquestionable advantages in the economic and political life such a change will for some time also bring a predominance of conservative thought and in art the romanticism of artistic avantgardes will be replaced by the boredom of a new (how many so far?) classicism. And to be completely consistent, it also necessary to add that one repression will be replaced by another. For repression is not an invention of a totalitarian system, but it is a tax which humanity pays for civilisation. Of course, in a democratic system it is less nakedly primitive, it is somewhat more elegant, more civilised. Nevertheless right now the whole world lives through a kind of euphoria: everything will be okay from now on, well, yes, we do still need to "get rid of a few bugs", but on the whole we are marching mile per step to paradise. And at the same time we are unwilling to accept that along this road there is a hellish smell of sulphur (and this is meant figuratively as well as literally). Even at this moment we should certainly not forget that humanity as a whole stands before a far greater change, before a crucially substantial transformation which relates to its very existence: Mankind in its own interest, following a survival instinct, will have to renounce civilisation and return (hopefully on an evolutionary spiral) back from where it set out from: to nature. But this time not as its ruler, but as a returning prodigal son.

In the same way as the communist party (i.e. the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia) had to renounce its leading position in society and return to political plurality, so Mankind will have to renounce its leading role in the world and return to nature's plurality as one out of many. And this will have to be done without any smartness. It will not be enough if Mankind transforms itself from a ruler of nature into its protector, because nature could consider this as a kind of hypocritical attempt to save at least the remnants of the discredited illusion of anthropocentrism. That's why Mankind will have to renounce this illusion as a whole. (Anthropocentrism, as my friend, the surrealist poet Jirí Koubek wrote, is an expression of racism of species.)

It will not be the first illusion which Mankind will have to leave abandon in the course of civilisation. Copernicus has long before deprived it of the illusion that Earth is the center of the universe and relatively recently Freud deprived Mankind of the illusion that it is the supreme ruler of his thought and action. Though I concede that the loss of the illusion of anthropocentrism will be the most painful and it will have far more serious consequences.

Where are the roots of anthropocentrism? Such a concept is unknown to primitive nations. Anthropocentrism appears only with the emergence of civilisation. It only comes as a product of religious systems of civilisation. Religions had to give Mankind something as a substitute for the fact that they tore it out from the paradise of nature and exposed it to civilisational depression, exploitation and the principle of efficiency; for the fact that instead of a kind and generous mother they gave him punishing, intolerant, ascetic and bigoted fathers, and instead of innocence - morality and penal law. So in order to pay Mankind at least some kind of severance, they gave it the illusion of anthropocentrism. They deceived Mankind by making it think that God - father created humans in his image and therefore Man is the dearest of all His creations, and for this reason He has placed Man above the rest of the nature. A similar trick has been used in the history of civilisation many times since: You are better than the others because your father was Jewish, you are better than the others because your father wasn't Jewish, you are better than the others because your father has a factory, you are better than the others because your father never had a factory and so on. It is somewhere here that the human desire for power originates, a desire which is alien to the primitive nations.
The fallacy of anthropocentrism was then in the 18th century supported from a different side by the Enlightenment and its "cult of reason". The whole process was crowned by the industrial revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries. And from here there is only a little step towards the ecological catastrophe before which we stand.
Because of all this I view the resurgence of religions, be it Christianity in Eastern Europe or Islam in Asia as an expression of regression. On the contrary, Mankind should be taken away from the Father - God and return to the Mother - Nature. (The mother is at least always known since birth, which cannot be unambiguously said about the father.) With the return to nature humanity will have to abandon certain achievements of civilisation: useless technologies, science will turn into magic again and art will descend from the pedestal of aesthetics and from the glittering lairs of mass entertainment and return to where it came from, to the practice of life, as an instrument of everyday rituals and as an expressive means of myths. (Incidentally, the surrealists are more that fifty years ahead in this).
I wish that even now, or precisely now, there would remain enough paper in the presses, not only for "handbooks of democracy" and outpourings of "oppressed Self", but also for truly topical books: J. J. Rousseau, Ch. Fourier, S. Freud (The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and Its Discontents) Claude Lévi-Strauss (The Savage Mind and others), H. Marcuse, but also the books of old hermeticists, books on magic, folk fairytales, ancient myths, and, last but not least, the books of surrealists (A. Breton: Arcanum 17, Prolegomena to the Third Manifesto of Surrealism, P. Mabille: Egregory or The Life of Civilisations Égrégores, ou, La Vie des civilisations, The Mirror of the Miraculous, J. Koubek: Stairs on Rain, The Bottom of the Lake, the miscellany Surrealist Civilisation) but also for printing Karl Marx and Lenin's essay State and Revolution no matter how unpopular this may sound at this very moment. What unites this at first sight seemingly heterogeneous mixture? In these books we find ideas which either question humanity's step on the road of civilisation or suggest other alternative and less repressive variants of civilization, or at least define a more adequate, modest role for Mankind in this world.

Talking about Karl Marx, I would like to draw the attention to the fact that he also reached the conclusion that humanity has to return to where it came from. However, he saw it in a very narrow way, only from the point of view of social justice and this is (we see it especially nowadays) not enough. The upheaval has to go far deeper, but he saw very well that all "evil" (which Marx equalled to exploitation) begins when humanity stepped on the road of civilisation (according to Marx: a society based on slavery), and thus it is necessary to return humanity to "good" (according to Marx: back to classless society).
However this is not an attempt to rid Marx of the responsibility for the Leninist-Stalinist bloody interpretation of his noble ideas, because every idea is responsible for all even unintended interpretations, to which it gives rise.
But after all I do have something in defense of him. It seems, as it were, that he is not the only one. In a similar way, the idea of the unification of Europe, to which we nowadays look as to one of our most desired goals, had gone in the past through a number of bloody attempts to be realized. One should also not forget that even the Declaration of Human Rights was first tentatively realised by Robespiere with the help of the guillotine. And the means used in the past to spread Christian love to one's neighbour, better not remind that at all. One cannot even discard the possibility that even this idea of renouncing the civilisation has already gone through its bloody trial if I understood Pol Pot well.

It seems that humanity, perhaps out of impatience, tries to realize all these noble and humanistic ideas at first through this "quick" bloody way, in order to persuade itself again and again that this is not the right way, and it only after the collapse of the brutal variant that it set out on the lengthy and slow path of peaceful evolution.
I would like to return yet again to the losses that humanity will "suffer" from the abolition of civilisation; I think that what it will gain will far outdo these losses: namely, it will gain life in a non-repressive society and in this way also a sense of security, it will gain meaningfulness of its actions, a true social justice and moreover it will have again something to drink, eat, and breath. And last but not least, it will finally rid itself of its damnation, a feeling of guilt for the hereditary sin: the abandonment, desecration, offending and humiliating of its own mother. However, this time humanity will surely have to hurry up quite a lot if it wants to return on the evolutionary spiral because the second, worse variant, is a return in a circle.

From this point of view on the further destiny of humanity our "velvet" revolution seems an unsubstantial albeit amusing freak of history. A propos, we will also have to renounce history, we shall not need it. The primitive nations do not know history: they have something far more substantial and lasting instead, they have their myths.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Quick Thoughts on Bitter Moon (1992)

Bitter Moon (Dir. Roman Polanski, 1992)

Perhaps it was my own jaundiced state of mind over the possibilities of romance, but watching Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon again for class, I was surprised by how much it plays like a black comedy. At the very least, I found myself laughing a bit too much. Indeed, the tone of the film alternates between the campy, humorous, and nihilistic. The Alfred Hitchcock worship of Polanski’s previous film, Frantic (1988), is replaced with sadistic, campy, misanthropic excess. More broadly, I was left with two impressions:

The first is that Polanski wants the audience to enjoy the emotional torture on display and the emotional wounds the couple inflicts on each other. This is what makes the film so interesting: though it superficially works as a moral condemnation—see what happens when you get bored with sex! It’s a slippery slope from making animal noises in bed to sticking dirty needles into your partner’s legs—it never denies the necessity of enjoyment both for its characters and the audience. That is to say, I don’t know if Polanski wants you to feel superior to the characters as much as he wants you to realize you may not be too different.

The second impression is that the film directly equates love and romantic coupling with sadomasochism. Or perhaps romantic love is the veneer that barely covers up the need for couples to torture each other? In Polanski’s world (or more particularly in films like Cul De Sac, Bitter Moon, or Death in the Maiden) the bickering couple, the former or new lover who takes emotional cheap shots—all the banally sadistic things that happen in relationships, or have happened, becomes an expression of a darker impulse.

I think a character in the film tells Nigel and Fiona that they should have kids if they want marriage therapy (rather than travel by ship to Turkey as they are doing in the film.) Perhaps this is so they will repress their sadistic and masochistic tendencies which devolve from their “love.” It seems more like defeatist advice than anything. Having a kid will at least let them defer their problems.