The Death of Criticism
From The American Spectator.
January 7, 2003.
In a review last year of Austin Powers in Goldmember, the third of Mike Myers’s ventures into 1960s Bond-nostalgia, I inadvertently neglected to be critical. This caused some readers to wonder why I seemed to have liked such a stupid movie when the earlier installments in the series impressed me less. Honestly, I just forgot. Of course the thing amounts to what we movie critics call crap. That ought to go without saying. But then, did Mike Myers think it wasn’t crap? I very much doubt it. In fact, I will go further and say that many of the worst movies being made today were intended by their makers to be just exactly as bad as they are.
This creates rather a dilemma for the critic. In critics’ school they used to teach us that we were supposed to explore the gap between intention and achievement. What did the author intend, our beloved professor used to instruct us eager neophytes to ask ourselves, and how well did he succeed in realizing his intention? Bad movies were movies that, it was assumed, were trying to be good movies and just not making it. The authors had made a mistake in putting scene A before scene B instead of vice versa, or in moving the camera in a distracting way, or in allowing incoherence to creep into the plot or the actors to overact and so spoil the effect they were trying to create.
But Mr Myers and his colleagues were not trying to create any effect besides laughter. Accordingly, their movie consists of one joke after another, like a stand-up routine. Some of the jokes are good and some are not so good, but the main thing is that they keep coming — so that even if there are several duds in a row, it will never be long between laughs. And anyone who tried to treat such a movie as an artistic whole would be the butt of the biggest joke of all. In this as in other cases these days, to be critical is itself a critical lapse. It is to fail to "get" the central and endlessly repeatable joke of post-modern movie-making, which is that the bad movie is bad because it is supposed to be bad.
Part of the reason for this state of aesthetic affairs is the way movies are made these days. The Santa Clause 2, for instance, had been in development for eight years while negotiations proceeded with a view to protecting the original property, which was a big hit for Disney back in 1994. These negotiations were far more responsible for determining what was in the movie than any creative inspiration issuing, individually or severally, from the half dozen people who were eventually hired to write and direct it. The commercial requirements — for instance that the original star, Tim Allen, had to be back on board — and the requirements of those requirements — Mr Allen, for instance, insisted that his portrayal of the bad clone-Santa had to look like a robot or a mannequin and not like his good-Santa — were simply stirred into the pot along with a miscellaneous collection of comic ideas from the behind-the-camera talent.
The final result had then to be submitted to Disney executives to make sure that it was in keeping with the corporate image and focus groups to make sure that there were enough laughs to make a sizable audience want to see it. That meant that fart jokes were in (though only the farts of the animatronic reindeer) while anything in the least demanding, or likely to be uncongenial to kids expecting a considerable outlay on presents by mom and dad, was out. What, in such a case, is the job of the critic? To point to a failure of narrative or thematic unity? Geez Louise, Mr. Smart-Ass Critic, what do you think you’re watching here? Citizen Kane?
In other words, what is the point of mentioning that a movie mixes heterogeneous materials or jumps carelessly from one thing to another or leaves loose ends sticking up through the narrative fabric like quills upon the fretful porpentine when it has given not a moment’s thought to avoiding such errors — indeed, so far from considering them errors, has positively cultivated them? In Hollywood, the people rule, and the people don’t care about such old-fashioned stuff. At least they are supposed not to care, and the fact that they gave Sweet Home Alabama the biggest box-office ever for a September opening suggests that they really don’t care.
Far be it from me to find fault with those who liked this movie, but even they have got to admit it is a conceptual mess. The makers of the film took an old fashioned country-boy-outwits-city-slicker tale and added to it a celebration of the city-slicker’s value system and shallow sophistication without knowing or caring that the two things just don’t go together, like oil and water. The result is a central and seemingly fatal incoherence from the point of view of the traditional-minded critic. But if that incoherence doesn’t bother either the film-makers or the audience, where does the critic come in to tell them that their transaction, perfectly satisfactory to both parties, is quite mistaken?
Of course there have always been people who flock to bad movies, just as there have always been movie producers prepared to supply the appetite for kitsch. But even kitsch had its rules, and could be adjudged more or less successful on its own terms. Moreover, bad movies resembled good movies because they were trying to be good movies and failing — though lots of people were prepared to give them credit for trying.Nowadays, however, moviemakers and audiences alike seem to think it is more amusing if movies try to be bad of set purpose — like Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven — since that is supposed, by the magic of paradox and irony, to make them good.
Don’t just take my word for it. Haynes himself proudly proclaims that he set out to copy the kitschy 1950s movies of Douglas Sirk (Magnificent Obsession, Imitation of Life and, especially, All That Heaven Allows). But he goes the postmodernist crowd one better by suggesting that the transformative property of parody is so powerful that it makes even the original kitsch good. When Far From Heaven was released, J. Hoberman of the Village Voice wrote a swooningly appreciative piece about Sirk for the New York Times, identifying him as an unrecognized "hyperrealist" with elements of expressionism and a Brechtian dialectical sense. Sirk, it seems, was parodying the absurdities of the 1950s long before Haynes thought (very respectfully) to parody Sirk.
Does it surprise you that such a complex exercise in inter-textuality has a very simple moral, like a fairy tale? Sirk was also a moralist, it’s true, although his present day admirers might well dismiss all that side of his work as ironically intended. But Haynes’s moral is (I think) not ironical, since it is the same as the moral of almost all Hollywood pictures since the 1960s. In fact, it is the same moral as Sweet Home Alabama and The Santa Clause 2, which is that anything which would seek to prevent an individual from doing just exactly what he or she pleases is an outrage and an abomination, particularly when it is done on behalf of some larger social grouping — one’s family, say, or one’s country — or at the behest of some religious creed.
In this way the jettisoning of aesthetic rules becomes a complement of and a synecdoche for the jettisoning of moral rules — except, of course, for the very sternly moral rule that there shall be no moral rules. It may be objected that there is another moral imperative allowed by the Hollywood sensibility, which is this, that thou shalt not discriminate, a principle that Mr Haynes is very keen on reinforcing. But this is really the same exception, since discrimination on racial grounds is seen as just another variety of the moral "judgmentalism" involved in discrimination against homosexuals (that is the heavy-handed point made by Far From Heaven) — or adulterers (Sweet Home Alabama) or even badly-behaved children (The Santa Clause 2).
Well naturally every patron of the movies churned out by the Disney shop in the last dozen years knows that there are no such creatures as bad children. In any difference of opinion between parent and child, between authority and individuality, it is always the latter which is right. The only bad thing can be to identify anything or anyone else as bad. So the bad clone-Santa of Santa Clause 2 is identifiable as such because of his wish to reintroduce the distinction between naughty and nice, with appropriate sanctions — that and his army of giant wooden soldiers. These may suggest a certain sympathy with the view, officially sanctioned by Disney for commercial if not for philosophical reasons, that insisting little Charlie should tidy up his room or not deface school property is tantamount to "fascism."
If such a simple-minded equation lies behind the Hollywood moral consensus, it is little wonder that 1950s-style kitsch is once again beginning to seem the appropriate vehicle for its expression. At any rate, it is certainly the case that we are seeing an increase in movie moralism coupled with an ever wider and deeper but politically tinged moral illiteracy. The result is sometimes straightforward propaganda — feminist in the case of Real Women Have Curves, Marxist in the case of Swept Away — but is more often reducible to the vaguer but still unshakable movie-land conviction that order and tradition lead straight to Hitler and the Holocaust (Max) while belief in God and God’s laws leads to drug dealing, money laundering, permanent oppression of the peasantry and the sexual hypocrisy that kills (El Crimen del Padre Amaro).
To believe such stuff, it helps to believe that movie-land is the real world, since the movies have been pushing such propositions for a long time now. That is one reason why Mr Haynes, among many others, finds his Heaven in parodying or alluding to other movies. The accumulation of absurdities is quite as useful as the insistence that absurdity is just exactly the effect you were trying to produce. Some such plea may be the excuse of the comically awful Equilibrium, which is founded on the laughably false premiss that it is an excess of human feeling which produces war and cruelty. This belief produces a dystopian future in which a monstrously cruel totalitarian government keeps its people drugged up to the eyeballs in order to stamp out feeling entirely, and so avoid war.
Is this just more po mo moralism? Are they being absurd on purpose? The secret of 21st century movie-making is that it doesn’t matter. The silly moral, or its opposite, is there for those who want it, but the silliness is one way that we can tell its only real purpose is to provide an excuse for the Matrix-like imagery of the central character’s gunplay, which takes place in a fantasy world every bit as remote from reality as that of tyrant feelings-suppressors. The one is the counterpart of the other and both are imitations of other movies, rather than of life. This may make them all-but immune from criticism, but I hope it still leaves room for someone like me to be an enemy of movie-land itself.