Monday, July 12, 2010

They're baaaaack! Nolanheads on the Rampage!!!

The Christopher Nolan fans are at it again, ready to tear established writers to shreds for not totally giving themselves over, body and soul, to the movie their man has made. And while I'm for fandom, I'm not for blind faith. Even Kubrick--whose name is being bandied about in connection with Inception--had one semi-flop with Killer's Kiss. Anyway, what I'm talking about here is the vitriol being spewed from said fans at New York magazine's David Edelstein, who had the temerity--the GALL--to write a largely negative review of the soon-to-be-released Inception, spoiling its 100% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes (this is the downside of Rotten Tomatoes; it's made film writing into a sporting event). For those who give a shit about Tomatometer readings, it's crushing. Or it least seems to be from the commentary following Edelstein's succinct, well-considered and clear review.

In the wake of Armond White's mean but slightly correct slapdown of the overpraised Toy Story 3, critics are making headlines--maybe in White's case, by design--by parting ways with the hungry hippos waiting though endless months of prep to plunk down their money and achieve that orgasm they've promised themselves. But why? What's this phenomenon all about? As I commented on the board following Edelstein's piece:

"Critics are paid to write about movies. They are not there to act as a "Consumer Reports" for the art form. In determining their worth, it's not about their opinions; the point is: are they interesting to read? And Edelstein is. Look, most of us have already made up our mind we're going to see INCEPTION (some of us did it the moment the project was announced). And, I admit, it'd be foolish to ignore the film. So, given that, why are so many of you angry about this piece? Why do you need total, or even partial, validation from the world? Why is it important to you that EVERYONE fall all over themselves in praise of Nolan's abilities? The guy's a promising director--I liked MEMENTO very much, and BATMAN BEGINS was quite good for what it was (don't get me started on the rest of his ouvre [FOLLOWING, INSOMNIA, THE PRESTIGE and the dreaded THE DARK KNIGHT]). But he ain't the Second Coming. At any rate, I thought Edelstein laid out very clearly what he liked about the film, and what he didn't like. And no, the piece wasn't overloaded with by-rote plot recounting. I eventually may agree or disagree with the author's piece (as all of the commenters will, too, since they haven't even seen the darn thing), but that doesn't stop me from enjoying the writing. That's what criticism is all about. Not consumer guiding. Not validation. Not being contrary. Criticism is about the expression of ideas and opinions in, one hopes, a provocative fashion."

Then, after five more pages of comments, mostly taking Edelstein to task for his purportedly unclear, unfair, irresponsible, goddamn near criminal review, I felt I had to tidy some things up, especially after one commenter sarcastically apologized for liking great cinema, lumping Nolan's name in with Melville, Tarantino and Kubrick (again, the movie's getting a lot of comparisons to the latter director's work, I guess because it's pretty and confusing). So I commented at length again:

"Well, Melville, Kubrick and Tarantino mostly have done monumental work that's stood time's test. Nolan's only been in the business for a decade. See, this is what I'm talking about. He's a very competent director half the time, and half the time his films are stuffed to the breaking point with questionable placements of characters in time and space (the whole last third of TDK doesn't make any sense at all---"Where is Batman now??? And who cares about this Two-Face guy?" I remember thinking), poor but loud action sequences, and twists that hope to knock us off our seat but don't. To my mind, the only truly masterful film he's done is MEMENTO (and maybe the Scarecrow scenes in BATMAN BEGINS reach brilliance). But, boy, you can't say any of THAT, can you? Not without getting some buckshot in your face. Look, Edelstein is up front about what he likes and dislikes about the movie. To wit (and be sure: I am not saying whether his review is accurate or not):

For the poster that gives the author guff about pooh-poohing the INCEPTION/2001 comparisons, read carefully. Edelstein writes that INCEPTION "manages to be clunky and confusing on four separate levels of reality." 2001 is a story that takes place on one plane of "reality." And 2001 might be confusing (especially if you're used to standard summer tripe) but it ain't clunky.

Edelstein goes on to ask, regarding a detail of the film's plot, "Why is an “inception” more difficult than an extraction? 'The subject’s mind always knows the genesis of an idea,' explains one character—which strikes my unoriginal and highly suggestible mind as dead wrong. But that’s the premise, anyway." So Edelstein finds the premise suspect, and he might be correct. Do you think, say, Kubrick or Lynch or Pollock or Dickens knew where they got all their ideas? They just come sometimes. Most artists--hell, people in general--don't question why they do what they do. They simply move on to their next action.

Edelstein continues, writing "A team of colorful specialists! Cool! So it’s, like, Mission: Impossible in the Dreamscape-Matrix!" This is sarcasm, folks. He's saying "Oh no, not this again...boooring." Again, this raises red flags with me, as does his description of Ellen Page's role as an "exposition magnet." I was afraid this movie would be packed with a lot of people explaining a lot of things. I generally despise that. Show, don't explain. First rule of film language.

The fifth and sixth paragraphs are almost entirely positive. I assume most of you fans have no problem with this, so we move on. The seventh takes the movie to task for stale dialogue and character etchings, while praising DiCaprio as his ususal "excellent" self. The eighth largely describes the film's "flat and impersonal" tone--one that differs from other, more personable movies of this type, like The Matrix. And the final graph is Edelstein's admission that he wanted to like it, but no amount of hype can make it so (and, I think, at least, that the review ends with a brilliant punchline).

Some of you are bombing the writer for noting in the review the hype he's no doubt heard. Well, goddamn, Pauline Kael did this sort of thing often, and she's arguably the greatest film writer ever. When you're in their line of work, pre-screening, one unavoidably hears people saying "Oh it's great--you're gonna love it." You don't have to read the reviews to catch the wind's direction. Edelstein's been around a while; I don't think he's the type to dump on something everybody likes because it makes him feel fizzy, and I REALLY don't think he's reading reviews before sits down to type his own. However, with the carnival-barking atmosphere these days, and with a glacially-paced lead-up to the movie's release, it would be impossible for anyone, especially Edelstein, to avoid hearing SOMETHING about INCEPTION, unless you advocate critics locking themselves in a bunker, away from humanity forever, with periodic DVD deliveries.

Sorry for the length here, and the hand-holding. But it seems like you guys didn't read or understand the review, and so I thought I'd help ya out. I'm still hoping INCEPTION is a gut-punch. But I'm going in with my expectation's low. These days, with the amount of crap out there, this is the wisest mindset to incept."

Some commenters on these reviews have suggested, as many people do (and I think this is why film writers get a bad rap), that the critics need to make a movie like whatever is in question or shut up. Well, most film writers (I hate the word "critic," which is a negative term) will freely tell you they don't have the stamina to make ANY kind of movie; writing about movies is what they chose to do. And they don't need to make one to do that (though I do hunger for a wave of critics-turned-filmmakers like the world saw in the 60s with the French and in the 70s with the Americans). Anyway, I felt I had to post this, my reaction to what is likely to be the universal, already settled-upon opinion that Inception is a masterpiece worthy of a ten Oscar sweep (and I'm thinking the fans want a make-up Oscar for this to put a Band-Aid on the non-nomination of The Dark Knight, which, of course, did win a top award for it's main attraction Heath Ledger's undeniably unforgettable Joker.

Jesus Christ, if I have to endure this sort of thing every time a Nolan movie comes out post Dark Knight, I just may go ahead and nap for eternity, film-writing-wise. But I'm sure the Nolanheads would dig that and that's why--hoping always for another genuinely great Nolan-directed picture--I'll stick around in their collective craw.

POST NOTE: Inception received disappointing notices from, among others, A.O. Scott of The New York Times, Stephen Rea of The Philadelphia Enquirer, John Anderson of The Wall Street Journal, Nick Pinkerton of The Village Voice, Todd McCarthy of IndieWire, NY Press' always dismissable Armond White, and one generally abhorrent, unfair and mean-spirited review from Rex Reed, of course (the latter two reviews are the only ones I think deserves the fan viatrol); except for White and Reed, all praised the film's look but mainly didn't care for its cold tone, heavy exposition, and convoluted plotting. But most other reviews--for instance, Roger Ebert's and those belonging to a myriad of online critics--are over the moon. In all, not a bad reception, but not a perfect scorecard. But who needs that? In my opinion, the film that splits audience reactions is the one that's a must-see, because that means it's trying to do something different that might not settle with everyone. Remember: the film that gets a 61%, say, on Rotten Tomatoes, could very well be a stone-cold masterpiece. So don't cry for Inception. It's a film that has to be seen, this is for sure. It's being talked about more than any movie in recent memory (outside of the obviously lame Avatar. And this is, also, refreshing.


J.D. said...

Yeah, Nolan does seem to inspire fanatic devotion amongst his faithful followers. I certainly am not THAT keen on the man and his films but I do think he cranks out some pretty amazing stuff, esp. when you consider that he's doing it within the very restrictive, conservative Hollywood system.

Haven't seen INCEPTION yet but I am very eager to check it out and make up my own mind. which is what it's all about.

Dean Treadway said...

The NolaN fans are a strange phenom, for sure!