Friday, August 9, 2013

On THE BUTLER, black film, and the critical mind

Just today, one of my favorite film bloggers, Sasha Stone of Awards Daily, posted a deeply loving defense of LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER (which is the last time I'll be referring to it as such, because of the ridiculously pointless recent controversy over its original title, sans the director's name).  Though I have read only a couple of relatively kind reviews, I have already gathered it's a movie that critics aren't going to get overly enthused about (however, there are raves for Oprah Winfrey's supporting performance, and for Forrest Whitaker's lead--and when has he not satisfied in anything?). And, though I have not seen it yet, I can understand this.  For me, it just doesn't look that GREAT, although I am perfectly willing to admit it might be entertaining, and informative to some (most especially young viewers), and this is enough, is it not?   Sasha's certainly right on point in her comments here.   In the world of Oscar blogging, though--the world that Sasha Stone is in--we're at least ideally looking for the great, though we know, at least half of the time, the Oscars aren't anywhere near recognizing the greatest films of the year (that said, even many Oscar blogs don't come close to recognizing those films that deserve to be hailed).  Yet, also, sometimes in their shunning of a certain movie, The Oscars get it correct (and, again, they more often get it wrong).  I'm dunno what's gonna happen with THE BUTLER--as with all movies, I'm still hoping that it's terrific--but I do have some thoughts about the possibilities.

One thing that did kind of rub me the wrong way about Sasha Stone's piece (and perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but I think it's pretty obvious) was the notion that anyone who doesn't like THE BUTLER just doesn't like black film, or at least doesn't understand it, or its worth.  And that those who do not are unjust film critics that should really start trying to make their own films rather than writing about other people's films.   While I recognize that there are maybe MANY film critics out there who aren't as educated as some, this idea kind of erases the entire art form of film criticism, and it doesn't even take into account that, while book critics can easily write books, and music critics can easily play music, and food critics can easily cook, it's not as equally easy (even in this more democratic film age) to sit down and just make your own film.   Film is radically different from other art forms in the sense that it absolutely cannot be made by simply one person; it requires collaboration, and by definition, collaboration goes against the idea of "one person, one vision."  It's really this aspect of the article that got my ire up.

Anyway...I would advise you to read the article.  And then I would council you to take a look at the trailer, then read my words, and come to your own conclusions...most preferably after seeing the film itself:

Here is my response, posted originally online at AWARDS DAILY: 

Some thoughts:

1) It’s true there are a lot of bad critics, or bloggers, or whatever you wanna call ‘em, out there.  On FILMICABILITY, I really try, in my writing, to discuss mainly the films I love, because I prefer talking positively about things I love over tearing down things that are just not my cup of tea–and that’s really how I feel about most movies I don’t like, or even despise: that there might be something there for someone, but not for me. However, on the podcast I do, when I do discuss something a film I don’t like, or one that I like but has problems, I do tend to be quite blunt. And I do try and suggest ways the film could have been improved (if I care, that is). Nothing wrong with that; it’s a form of expressing exactly what’s wrong with a picture. You’re correct, Sasha, in saying that some film commentators need to get up off their butts and direct or participate in the making of movies; doing so DOES sharpen one’s critical senses. I know this from having made my own films, TV shows, having programmed a film festival, and having works on other people’s films (mainly as an actor and editor). But I don’t think filmmaking experience is absolutely necessary for the critical line of work–some commentators have just decided to be writers about film, and this is okay; this is no reason we should denigrate their opinions. The real question is, are their opinions (1) intelligently and fairly arrived at, (2) interestingly expressed, and (3) informed in all aspects. This is where a few (like you, Sasha) shine, and where many fall.

2) I’ve had discussions with a fellow critic at the NYFF, where we talked about the surly manner most film critics display. We characterized it as them sitting in their theater seat, before the movie, with their arms crossed, and sternly saying “Okay, impress me, genius!” They watch movies with a chip on their shoulder. Where my friend and I, we said that we go into every movie expecting something great, and only when and if things begin to turn for the worse do our judgment centers kick in. I think these other critics are just ready to be mean, because that’s what the internet has become–a mean place. I guess it’s more fun for some to write a negative review, and to make fun of something. I don’t get it. For me, it’s like going to a wake. And NOT an Irish one…

3) As for THE BUTLER, I too have to say that I’ve been rather unimpressed with what I’ve seen from it. Yes, I’ve made a little fun of it on MOVIE GEEKS UNITED (certainly not of its subject matter, but my perception of its treatment, mainly for the casting of the presidents…which, in the photos alone–and divorced from the actual movie, mind you–don‘t paint a very promising outlook). I’m also not really impressed with the trailer, which makes it looks like the sort of overbaked biopic that I don’t really care for. Still, as your essay pointed out, I could be wrong (and, of course, I will see the film–Daniels has become a filmmaker whose work any serious film lover has to see). It is an occupational hazard for a film writer to dislike movies that portray what we see as clichés, when in actuality, for the younger audience, this could be the first time they’ve encountered these tropes, and so for them, it’s brilliant. In that dichotomy, we really underline the reason why critics in general are sometimes seen as horribly out-of-touch with the masses. But, again, there’s no reason we should be IN touch: criticism is not really about the pure veracity of one’s opinions of a work, or its membership in a cabal of like-minded assessments. It’s really about one person’s ability to express an opinion in an entertaining, informative, articulate, and educated manner. As with all art forms, there are many who cannot rise to this level, and the sorry thing is that, on the internet, it’s becoming easier for those who are miserable at this art to have their voices heard by more people than those who're more accomplished. And this, again, is nothing new, in the practice of any art form.

4) I like PRECIOUS (mainly for its performances, though I wouldn't have given it all the Oscar nominations it eventually got, simply because it didn't deserve them). Still, a very good film. THE PAPERBOY is sweaty, trashy pulp, and that’s all it set out to be, and that makes it a success of sorts, even though it’s not really my thing. THE HELP was an underrated movie, for sure, even with all the attention it got–that was a film with integrity, and I liked how it framed the struggle for equal rights. I thought it worked, and was moving and inventive (though I don't wanna go overboard here--I recognize its faults). As for MALCOLM X, that’s a movie I admire and want to like a little more than I actually do. The first hour, with its out-of-place touches of comedy and musical theater, is where its major problems lie; the last two hours are extremely well done, though, and I agree I’d rather see it on the Best Pic nominees instead of either SCENT OF A WOMAN (execrable) or A FEW GOOD MEN (kind of a bore). However, I would posit that UNFORGIVEN indeed was the best movie of that year, and I bristle at any sort of implication that says that if you aren’t over-the-moon about MALCOLM X (or THE BUTLER, for that matter), then there’s something perhaps morally wrong with, or at least partially blinding, you. In 1992, there were many movies that were better than MALCOLM X: Unforgiven, Howards End, The Long Day Closes, The Crying Game (actually released in 92), Glengarry Glen Ross, Brother’s Keeper, Reservoir Dogs, One False Move (my favorite black-directed film of the year, by Carl Franklin), Baraka, Hard Boiled, A Midnight Clear, Bad Lieutenant, The Player, My Cousin Vinny, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Passion Fish, The Story of Qui Ju, Deep Cover, Brother’s Keeper, Lessons of Darkness. MALCOLM X is certainly of more hubris than some of those movies…but better? I dunno…it’s debatable. Often it falls into that same lumbering trap that so many other biopics fall into–it’s just too bloated and reductive, with a cornpone edge to it that, luckily, in this case, starts to fall away as the movie progresses (its last half IS undeniably sweet). I respect Lee's film more than love it (though I do love Denzel Washington's lead, and also Al Freeman Jr. as Elijah Muhammad, and I very much do recognize the film's historical import). At any rate, I have a feeling that this is how I’m gonna feel about THE BUTLER, but I’m keeping my mind open. (By the way, one of the mistakes that biopics–including MALCOLM X or, say, RAY–make is that, when they do a birth-to-death story, they get overloaded with information and you sort of lose the essence of the subject; biopics always do better when they examine only a short section of a person’s life.)

5) In my case, I truly adore black film, but I tend not to like it when I feel it’s being watered down for some marketing or budgetary or horribly race-based reason. I really prefer the classics: Killer of Sheep, Eve’s Bayou, Roots, Nothing But A Man, Shadows, Do The Right Thing, Mandabi, Cotton Comes to Harlem, Cooley High, Menace II Society, Sidewalk Stories, Hoop Dreams, Bird, Round Midnight, She's Gotta Have It, The Watermelon Man, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Pinky, Imitation of Life, One False Move, Green Pastures, The Jackie Robinson Story, To Sleep With Anger, Daughters of the Dust, Coffy, Richard Pryor Live in Concert, Sankofa, City of God, Car Wash, A Raisin in the Sun, Lady Sings The Blues, Dead Presidents, The Learning Tree, Greased Lightning, Carmen Jones, Blue Collar, Shaft, Hustle and Flow, Barber Shop, Foxy Brown, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, Far from Heaven, Deep Cover, Devil in a Blue Dress, Glory, Sounder, How High, Malcolm X (the documentary), King: From Memphis to Montgomery, Moolaade, Fresh, Wattstax, Boyz N The Hood…that sort of thing. I think every one of those films (and, yes, a few were directed by non-blacks) is at or near masterwork level. And we’re not even getting into those drive-in movies from the 70s…those films some like to term "blaxploitation," but which I look at as being just another arm of black film. At any rate, if I were advising someone young and curious about the black experience, all around the world, I would recommend that they watch these movies–even one or two of them–over recommending something that I felt was substandard or really, not a great movie, but the best that we have available that’s new.

Anyway, Sasha, I liked your article and am glad you’re positive on THE BUTLER. I hope to be so, too, but if it doesn’t happen, it just doesn’t happen. I just felt compelled to comment on some observations you ably expressed.

My eventual review of LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER can be seen here. 


Must Love Movies said...

nice post. i did see the butler but not sure if i could critique it yet. i have never completed malcolm x. maybe for that reason it just didn't move me but there are scenes that i've caught that make you think spike was in his zone. as for the butler i dig it it's like forrest gump but an old black man at the core. period pieces are hard to be done well. i didn't think oprah was great but whitaker yes and everyone else. now i'm starting to write a review anyway. it's nice to read that you enjoy black film and appreciate the well written ones.

Celsa said...

This is awesome!