Bravo, Revisionists!

I don’t know who Richard Brody is. He reviews films for The New Yorker, but he’s not David Denby and he’s not Anthony Lane. One day, though, he might be. (And, for once, I mean that in a good way.)

Brody’s reviews appear in the magazine’s opening pages, the Goings on About Town section. He writes blurbs for films not given full reviews by Felix or Oscar and usually authors the DVD Notes column that covers new releases. This week’s subject was last year’s Cassandra’s Dream, directed by Woody Allen. Until 2005’s Match Point, the general consensus was that Allen hadn’t released a great film since 1989 (Crimes and Misdemeanors) and a good film since 1992 (Husbands and Wives). I have a penchant for Everyone Says I Love You (’92) and Celebrity (’98), and Sweet and Lowdown (’99) has its fans, but many of Allen’s films from the last twenty years are just excremental.

Match Point, which I haven’t seen, was celebrated as the dawn of a new Allen era, his last era, to put it bluntly, a mature, brooding (to the extent that this man can be brooding) opus (à la his idol Ingmar Bergman) that will later be known as ‘late Woody Allen.’ The following year’s Scoop was a general disappointment, although some critics thought it would have been as feted as Match Point had the films been released in reverse order. By the time Cassandra’s Dream came out last autumn, everything seemed back to normal. As one critic put it: ‘Another year, another Woody Allen film.’

I don’t know anyone that saw Cassandra. I didn’t. In a season of must-sees, Allen’s latest UK caper didn’t present itself as the most pressing ticket, and the reviews didn’t help. It also had the misfortune to be released at the same time as a more conspicuous project with a very similar plot, Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (a harrowing film with great performances but ill-suited editing). Brody’s column tries to convince us to give Cassandra another look. You can read it here and decide whether or not you’re tempted to seek out the film. I found that aspect convincing, although I won’t know if I agree with Brody’s assessment, of course, until I see the film. This post is dedicated not to the content of the column but to its particular brand of film criticism.

A film review, like a review in any artistic medium, is ephemeral. It might affect opening weekend box office receipts, but it’s not a title or reward that can later be revoked. It is merely the first word in the film’s life as a perpetual entity that, barring destruction, can be revisited, reconsidered. Cinema is hardly a century old, but there are already dozens of examples of films that have wallowed in shame and obscurity for years only to have their reputations vindicated by a new generation of critics. This revisionism used to be gradual and reserved for older films like Kiss Me Deadly (’55) or Peeping Tom (’60), but now, perhaps with the proliferation of DVDs or the immediacy of the internet, a poorly received film can be revived before awards season. Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales was positively shit upon by (most) critics after its November release. Then Nathan Lee, a young but influential critic, named it as his favorite film of the year and argued for it eloquently in Slate‘s year-end Movie Club. I might be projecting too much, but after that article, Southland Tales appreciation became a sort of insider currency. I still haven’t seen it, but my perception of it changed from annoying, forgettable film by the Donnie Darko mastermind (I hate that movie!) to the next epitome of modernity in the legacy of Caché (’05) and Inland Empire (’06).

A large part of the attraction to such clarion calls stems from a self-assigned imperative to fine taste. (I don’t think that everyone who devotes part of the day to internet review consumption is an egomaniac; hipness to the cultural discourse is essential if you ever hope to contribute to it and surely there are more reprehensible aspirations.) The Opinion updates with almost every click of the refresh icon, and such a sudden reversal in the perception of a maligned film doesn’t go unnoticed, especially when the speaker is someone of merit.

What separates Brody and Lee from, say, yours truly, is their platform. Every film has fans somewhere; I could type on about the magnificence of Die Hard With a Vengeance until my fingers were bloody stumps, but because this is a no-name (I prefer ‘underground’) blog, it would make few ripples. Columns like Brody’s are commendable not only for the service they attempt to render underrated (perhaps) works of art, but also because they take balls. The New Yorker‘s review this week of Sex and the City is the most devastating take-down I’ve read since, well, perhaps since A.O. Scott’s review of Haneke’s Funny Games remake. (‘What a clever, tricky game! What fun! What a fraud.’ And if you like that kind of thing, watch Chris Matthews hand this conservative dickweed his ass on a platter.) I probably won’t see Sex and the City, not because I’m opposed to it–I’ve seen the whole series–but because time is limited, movies are expensive, there are better movies to see, and this movie apparently isn’t anything special. I think a lot of people feel the seem way (even if they haven’t considered it so deliberately). If in the September issue of Film Comment Amy Taubin writes an extended article called, ‘Sex and the City: The unsung post-colonial masterpiece,’ I and others like me will probably make an effort to see it. I’ve read Taubin’s film criticism for years, and I trust her opinion.

Like Anton Ego says in Ratatouille, ‘There are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.’ A critic’s power comes from our assumption that she knows better than we do. She’s seen more, she’s read more, and she writes about it all with more fluency than any of us could manage. Why else would we listen to her? (Critics that don’t match these criteria are worthless, e.g. Lou Lumenick.) When Taubin sticks her neck out for Sex and the City, she risks her credibility as an authority, and if she does it one too many times, she’ll lose her readers’ confidence, and consequently, perhaps, her job.

I’m pretty stoned right now, so I’ll just recap my point before it gets away from me. This revanche type of criticism is commendable because the critic puts her credibility on the line for a noble purpose. The motivations are allocentric: her intention is merely to give a work of art a second chance. Its negative counterpart, where a critic targets a beloved film and tries to make everyone hate it, is also provocative and contributes to the cinematic discourse. Yet, an invitation to the discovery of a work of art, compared to a rejection of one, must be a more productive and praiseworthy act. I’m not saying there’s not a place for (or pleasure in) take-downs, but wouldn’t you rather appreciate as many things as possible?

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~ by ohkrapp on May 31, 2008.

3 Responses to “Bravo, Revisionists!”

  1. best line from the Lane piece:

    look out for Kristin Davis screaming “No! No!” at Chris Noth like a ninth grader auditioning for “The Crucible”

  2. note to french people:

    it’s been brought to my attention that ‘revisionniste’ in french refers to holocaust deniers. boo, revisionnistes! bravo, revisionists: film critics, scholars and viewers that attempt to re-evaluate films that were misunderstood/underrated when they were released.

  3. […] film department (by which I mean that he’s secretly the best), has already been the subject of my appreciation. Hoberman makes equally ambitious (but probably accurate) claims: Breathless was the most […]

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