Bombast: The Punishment Continues
Late last week—either Day 3,928 or Day 16,954 after the Death of Cinema, depending on which calendar you’re using—I sat down for dinner and drinks with a good friend who’s also a freelancer in the film chat industry, and we had the same talk that we usually have, about Doomsday. Publications should serve their critics, who in turn should serve the medium that they write about, when in practice this chain of command is usually inverted! Paychecks are being gobbled up by frauds who sensationalize conventional wisdom, who won’t let any inconvenient truth get in the way of their identifying a trend, and who can’t string two clauses together, so consequently the Sweet Science of criticism has become a playground for dilettantes proudly presenting their editors with weekly mud pies, people whose only professional qualifications are a hefty parental piggybank and/or a complete lack of shame! Soundgarden’s Superunknown got an 8.5 on Pitchfork!
And we also talked about James Gray’s The Immigrant which, for anyone keeping score at home, has come up in this column for the last three weeks running. The substance of the conversation was this: if film criticism can’t do anything to get people out for James Gray, what can it do?
This isn’t to say that Gray is the Greatest Living Filmmaker, or even part of that conversation—just throwing this out there, a movie by Marco Bellocchio, Dormant Beauty, opens in New York today—or that The Immigrant is a Masterpiece, or not. (The M-word is the kind of broad-side-of-a-barn superlative that one turns to when more precise language fails.) But if I were making up a scouting report on Gray, judging his potential for crossover, I wouldn’t hesitate to call him a five-tool player, the complete package. He makes movies that openly appeal to the emotions; I could plunk anyone in my extended family in front of The Immigrant, and I suspect they would at the very least respond to it. His craft is undeniable, and a source of rich sensorial pleasure. Finally and perhaps most importantly in an age where it is helpful for filmmakers to act as their own spokesmen-and-women, he talks about his work and the work of others engagingly, articulately, and entertainingly, in a bridge-and-tunnel accent that deflects any note of pretension.
Because I entirely lack the common touch and the proselytizing spirit, the one time that I had a shot at “getting in the tank” for Gray, positively reviewing his 2007 We Own the Night with all of 200 words’ worth of real estate in The Village Voice, I used the descriptor “dolorous nocturne” and saw fit to note that Gray was “[h]elpless with comedy.” (His last two films have gone some way towards correcting this.) I never had enough pull to knock over Twiggy in a tug-of-war, and I might have less today than I had then, but Stephanie Zacharek has gone to bat for The Immigrant at the Voice, while concluding at the end of her first paragraph “In a world like this, what chance does a period melodrama like James Gray’s The Immigrant have?” which is something like the ol’ Pauline Kael “There ain’t no way” when reviewing Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight. (I’ve made similar prognostications myself when talking about Gray—maybe it’s the fatalism endemic to his world, full of family ties that bind and strangle, that seems to invite asides about the futility of it all.) Over at Vulture, Bilge Ebiri—a critic who walks the line between accessibility and refinement as well as any that I know—has filed a piece whose headline calls Gray “American Cinema’s Secret Jewel,” a point-by-point enumeration of the particular qualities of his films, leavened with good outtakes from the ever-quotable director.
So it’s not as if the critics haven’t turned out. Yet at the date of this writing, Box Office Mojo puts The Immigrant’s earnings at $1,154,682 on 150 screens, which ain’t a lot of bread. Because Gray seems like such a sure shot, because The Immigrant is going quietly even with box-office guarantors like Edith Piaf and Avenger Hawkeye in it, I can’t help but be fascinated by the conundrum posed by its glorious failure, which is at the center of a piece posted at Esquire.com by one Jake Mulligan, rather sensationally titled “We Are Living in a Golden Age of Movies: So why is no one watching?” The answer, as put forth by Scott Tobias in “The hidden world of Video on Demand profits” at The Dissolve, is: well, maybe people are watching, just not how they used to? Tobias is writing about the increasing inscrutability of box-office figures in the years since the decline of the DVD market, as back-end profits, formerly at least faintly quantifiable in terms of units moved over the counter, have entered the shadowy realm of downloads, which most of us on the outside presently lack the means to translate into dollars-and-cents values because, per Tobias, “the money generated by VOD rentals is almost never disclosed.” In short, if understanding The Numbers has never exactly been easy, today you’re better off throwing bones or reading entrails.
As Tobias notes, this is of particular concern to independent or niche filmmakers of all stripes, who’ve seen their traditional distribution model completely upended in recent years, to the point where a theatrical run can be almost entirely symbolic, or exist solely as a means to drum up press and pull-quotes. (I believe I’ve linked the pertinent pieces about the four-walling flapdoodle elsewhere.) And yes, in some cases the theatrical run is entirely unnecessary or unwarranted—though the ratio of documentary/independent/microbudget/NoBudge directors who have a visual imagination that demands a big-screen canvas to those that don’t is probably approximately equal to the same ratio as it exists among blockbuster directors and studio brain trusts.
So maybe there’s no call to die on the hill of The Immigrant after all—maybe Gray will make out okay in the long haul and won’t have to wait seven years to make another movie, as he did after 2000’s The Yards. At any rate, Gray has it better than most up-and-coming directors. Having finished his first feature, 1994’s Little Odessa, at the Welles-appointed age of 25, he came around at the tail end of the early-Nineties indie boom, and this pedigree, combined with perseverance, dedication to a certain high-minded cinematic ideal, and craftsmanship, has made him a small but trusted name-brand. (As Gray is eager to tell anyone who will listen, all of his movies with the exception of The Yards have eventually made back their money.) And name recognition is everything: from Taschen coffee-table books to totes, the Monsters of Art House remain remarkably monetizable, as vintage fashion style guides if nothing else. As a regular New York–area rep-goer, I can attest that the DCP restoration of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, as well as retrospectives devoted to Mizoguchi and Fassbinder, are playing to very healthy crowds. So it’s not as though audiences, in New York at least, have an intrinsic distrust of “difficult” cinema—just so long as it has the respectable patina of age on it. (It’s hard to get a line on audiences in many other North American cities, because they won’t have a chance to see any of the abovementioned movies in a theater even if they want to.)
When names are so crucial, a desperation to make new ones sets in among the critical caste, either motivated by genuine enthusiasm, hubristic kingmaking, or some combination of the two, often doing the filmmakers a disservice. For example: there are several things that I like about Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, which is the “canary in the coal mine” example given in Tobias’s piece, but given the somewhat over-the-top reviews that this modest throwback thriller has received, I can’t help but think that, in the terminology of the boxing world, “We’re bringing the kid along too quick.” (And why did folks insist on giving Ramin Bahrani, with his humble talents, that title shot?)
Filmmakers are less than ever given the luxury of finding their sea legs today, and this make-or-break environment forces critics to speak in an affected language of extremes, a problem in its own right. Though I’m obviously a homer for Gray, ideally critics—let’s distinguish them from reviewers—should be something other than fans, shouldn’t let partisanship hold themselves back from saying bad things about works that they respond to, or from saying good things about works that they don’t. Maybe critics charging themselves with advocacy, as opposed to engaging with the work at hand, are part of the problem? Or maybe the entire class should just be dissolved? Ken Loach recently suggested in a video interview with The Guardian—a newspaper which caters to a middle-class readership—that the culture as a whole would be improved were we to “[s]ack the critics and get ordinary punters in.” This is a larf for a few reasons: first, that Loach seems to presuppose he has an especial rapport with “ordinary punters,” as though they were his own inscribed audience. (“Oi mate, why not pop round my place and we’ll t’row on Kes, right?”) Second, that a supposedly class-struggle-conscious figure like Loach, who imagines that he has some purchase on “political struggle in the real world,” doesn’t know that the critics have, for the most part, already been sacked elsewhere.
Everyone’s under fire! And a sense of embattlement runs through many of the pieces I’ve cited, though there is no consensus on what exactly is in danger. Tobias’s interest is in “independent genre films,” works that, in his estimation, have “struggled against more genteel arthouse fare. Too small for the multiplex, too rude for the older crowd that truly drives arthouse box office.” Ebiri, meanwhile, notes that Gray’s cinema, though not precisely genteel, occupies “a vanishing middle ground in an industry increasingly polarized between ginormous tentpoles and micro-budget indies.” (For what it’s worth, I’ve long heard it said that horror is the nearest thing to a safe bet in low-budget moviemaking.) It would seem that the multiplex tentpole, critic-proof if not always audience-proof, is the only consistently viable model for American movies—and even if you agree with the gist of Kristin Thompson’s 2009 essay “Don’t Knock the Blockbusters,” that the international success and positive trade-balance brought about by the export of our indigenous blockbuster product is good for “the welfare of the country as a whole,” it’s a bit of a drag for those of us who hold out hope for other kinds of American movies having a theatrical existence as well.
Because I am but a child in these matters, like Bleak House’s Skimpole, I won’t claim to wholly know how to account for or confront the economic woes that beset (non-blockbuster) film distribution in these United States, though on paper it seems like distribution should be easier than ever. Traditionally, the hidden “cost” of releasing a film, beyond initial outlay of budget or acquisition, was Prints & Advertising (P & A), so one would think that the much-ballyhooed switch to DCP projection would reduce this overhead considerably, now that the cost of striking prints and shipping them in huge metal canisters that you could club a bull elephant to death with has been cut out of the equation, and movies are shipped on detachable hard drives or ZIP discs or Google Glass or whatever it is. Of course the rise of one digital delivery system was paralleled by the rise of another, VOD, with its day-and-date or day-before-date, and given the choice, the pharmaceutically stoned consumer would apparently prefer to watch Nymphomaniac: Volume 2 in the same clean, well-lit home entertainment pod where they enjoy all the use of moody cinematographies [sic] in Hannibal, so apparently the savings aren’t enough to offset the new competition.
No, I’m afraid that I don’t understand the emerging business model. But the good news is—and it is good news—that nobody else does either, and anyone who acts like there’s such a thing as “conventional industry wisdom” right now is most probably a charlatan who is trying to push ahead their own agenda by pretending it’s a foregone conclusion. Culture is a pitched battle with an undecided outcome, not an inexorable matter of tectonic movements grinding us between them. Nevertheless, there are no lack of voices to announce that the day has already been carried, and much of the advice being given to aspirant participants in the Internet-era cultural economy takes the general tone of the Texas politician who once compared rape to inclement weather (“If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.”)*
At Medium, I encountered a piece by Andrea Ayres-Deets called “Writing for Readability,” which proposes to lay out ground rules for catering to Internet readers, essentially making the case for extreme utilitarian functionality, arguing that any style can only beleaguer a reader’s overtaxed, slushy gray matter. In so briskly synopsizing the piece, I am trying to follow its advice—there’s a picture of a brain accompanying it, so I guess it must be true! This K.I.S.S. credo may be blamed for the ascent of the think piece, which might better be called the Thought Piece, as it favors a single easily summarized idea, whereas the old horse-drawn review or essay could accommodate many. The quality of these thoughts I do not have to remind you of: YA books are teh bad! The National rules, Poptimism drools! Cultural Vegetables! And, of course, the occasional status quo toadying disguised as no-nonsense truth-telling. Via CriticWire, I have been pointed towards a labeled “Think Piece” at some backwater site called Pajiba.com, written by its publisher, which seems to be a lengthy self-justification for running a lot of hacky celebrity gossip stories. (Or at least I think that’s what it was about; true to Ayres-Deets’s prescription, I kinda just skipped around.) There’s little that’s funnier than people in journalism petitioning for sympathy by talking about the bottom line, rather than doing what they’re supposed to be doing—which is holding the line. (“I’m just a helpless vessel riding the storm-toss’d seas of the market! What can I do but crank out recaps and listicles by the score, for tuppence-a-pop?”)
The only thing that I know with any certitude is this: whatever the beat you’re covering, there’s always something interesting going on, but it rarely happens in the same place or in precisely the same way twice. If you’ve been waiting around for a reprise of Such-and-Such New Wave or Seventies New American Cinema or Punk Rock, you have a better chance of catching Jesus on his next go-around. The arts do have a tendency to flourish in decadence, though, and this is heartening, for this current edifice, founded on a bluffed understanding of the new playing field, is but erected on shifting sands, and destined to come down in good time. “You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next!” will look as quaint as roadside Burma-Shave ads; BuzzFeed will be a historical curio like the proto-tabloid New York Graphic; and we’ll all look back and laugh from an inestimably more terrible future.