Writing in the Dark
Photo courtesy of (the great and all-powerful) Martin Tsai
“Critics sit in the dark so they can show us the light.” – from the panelists’ introduction
This weekend was the New York Times’ sixth annual Arts and Leisure Weekend, a celebration of the arts throughout the city that manifested itself in free movie screenings, discounted Broadway tickets and a cornucopia of lectures and Q&A sessions covering everything from film to architecture, literature to dance, theater to music.
One of the weekend’s most dynamic sessions was entitled: “Writing in the Dark,” a panel discussion on film criticism moderated by the Times’ own A. O. Scott and paneled by David Edelstein (formerly of Slate and now with New York magazine), Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly), Nathan Lee (The Village Voice), and Wesley Morris (The Boston Globe).
The roughly hour-long conversation ran the gamut, highlighting films the panelists loved or loathed, examined the overall tone of films this past year, and touched on how technology is fundamentally altering both the ways in which films are made and how they are criticized.
Scott opened the afternoon by asking each panelist about his or her favorite film of the year. He and Schwarzbaum considered Clint Eastwood's World War II epic as seen though the eyes of the Japanese, Letters from Iwo Jima as their preferred film. Edelstein lavishly praised one of several of this year’s “little indys that could,” The Queen. Wesley Morris was very moved by the controversial and overtly sexual Shortbus. But it was Lee who sparked the first great debate of the day by proclaiming David Lynch’s Inland Empire as his pet film, despite its “cruddy digital” images.
“As critics, we hold onto the past too much,” said Lee. “I love 35mm. But it’s dead. It’s over. This is the age of digital video.”
Schwarzbaum blanched in disgust, arguing for the majesty of the classic mediums and wondered aloud if they might not still be able to co-exist side by side?
“Films are good not just because they move us or have something to say, but because they’re beautiful,” she said. “You’re taken in by the making of the movie as much as the story.”
The conversation branched out to include how techniques once considered edgy and avant-garde (hand held cameras, extremely long takes, etc.) now find their way regularly into mainstream films.
“Audiences recognize that movies have an aliveness, danger and electricity,” said Edelstein, “which is a direct by-product of the technology and new techniques.”
All agreed that no standards exist for understanding digital video beauty and that the very methods by which contemporary cinematography is judged must be redefined for a new era of filmmaking.
The conversation naturally steered itself to David Denby’s piece in this week’s issue of the New Yorker ("Big Pictures") on the current schism in the entertainment industry between big and small screen viewing practices. Scott, who also wrote a similar piece ("And You’ll Be a Moviegoer My Son") in the Times this week bemoaned the rise of iPod viewership and the younger generation’s predilection for devouring their films and other forms of media via technology that may be convenient but hardly showcases the wonder and majesty of the medium. The return of epic films like Pirates of the Caribbean, he argued, is a direct result of Hollywood feeling the pinch.
“You haven’t seen (some films) unless you’ve seen them on the big screen.”
But what about films which are decidedly not epics? Whereas last year's breakout independent features were generally dramas, this year’s standout indy films were mostly comedies, especially Borat and Little Miss Sunshine.
Morris wasn’t buying it. Citing the periods during the year when Hollywood saturates the market with the films it doesn’t think will do well (versus the summer or Chrsitmas season when the more pedigreed, obvious Oscar-bait films appear), he regarded Little Miss Sunshine as a fluke. If it had come out amongst stronger films, he argued, it would not have received any where near as much attention.
“People only liked Little Miss Sunshine because it was the only water available in a desert of films for adult audiences,” he protested.
Perhaps surprisingly, he and several of the other panelists still predicted that Little Miss Sunshine may yet walk away with a Best Picture Oscar.
Which inevitably brought up the other 400-pound gorilla in the soon to be announced Oscar race: The Departed. The film generated the most contention between the participants with Schwarzbaum and Lee arguing for its brilliance and Scott and Edelstein arguing against it.
“People are dying for Scorsese to win an Oscar,” Edelstein admitted. “But The Departed is a cynical film and if he wins for that and not Raging Bull or Taxi Driver or Goodfellas, what does that say about our culture?”
After several minutes of escalating back and forth debate, moderator Scott changed the subject, worried, he said, that the panelists might begin reenacting scenes from the hyper-violent film on each other.
“It’s true, there is so much war, inhumanity, and incivility in our movies this year,” admitted Morris, keying in on something everyone had been feeling, especially Edelstein.
“This is the year in which that old Republican Clint Eastwood made not one but two films deploring war,” he said. “In which the birth of the CIA signified the end of our national innocence and the spreading of evil. In which dystrophic films like Pan’s Labyrinth and Children of Men dealt with encroaching fascist and the breakdown of the social order. In which An Inconvenient Truth and even the children’s film Happy Feet dealt with the destruction of our planet.”
He went on to exclaim, “You look at the movies and you have to say, ‘We’re f-----d!’”
And yet, Edelstein mused that these dark films work to reveal the darkest parts of ourselves and our society and in doing so, actually make us want to become better people and change the world around us for the better.
Each critic on the stage admitted to a certain amount of difficulty in wanting to promote more mature films despite the fact that they were all well aware that the average movie-goer doesn’t want to think when going to the theater, but simply wants to be entertained.
“It’s difficult wanting to inform and enlighten,” said Scott, “when the public will always like what they like.”
The discussion ended with a brief Q&A session during which a question was asked about how one should go about getting into the business of film criticism.
“Ignore the print media,” Schwartzbaum shot out. “Get online. That’s the only place you can make your name these days. Start there, become recognized and blog your way to print.” Print media, she confessed, is still the recognized, preferred, “adult” means of communication.
Edelstein alluded to a dynamic synergism when he responded to the question: “When the technology made instant, mass communication possible, what did millions of people do with it? They all became film critics. There is this natural impulse not to let the movie end when you leave the theater—to relive it, to share it with others.”