Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Miscellaneous: Who Reviews The Reviewers?

I may have a point here. Bear with me.

My morning media routine starts with the New York Times. Today that meant Manohla Dargis’ rave review of the new David Lynch movie Inland Empire. Ms. Dargis describes it as:

one of the few films I’ve seen this year that deserves to be called art. Dark as pitch, as noir, as hate, by turns beautiful and ugly, funny and horrifying, the film is also as cracked as Mad magazine, though generally more difficult to parse.

Next, to the internet. At Movie City News, David Poland ran an email from screenwriter Larry Gross that calls the Dargis review “‘important’ film criticism” comparable to Pauline Kael’s landmark essay on Bonnie & Clyde, which “helped that film find a place for itself in the minds and hearts of the mass audience.” Poland himself also weighs in:

I was also struck by the sense that this piece was one of (Dargis’) most significant at the NYT. It’s not that it is her best writing or that the film is the most complex she’s written about. It’s that the review reaches well past traditional reviewing and speaks in a very interesting way to how we watch movies and how we should be watching movies.

MCN then followed up with a longer piece by Gross. The ever-reliable GreenCine Daily augmented the discussion by collecting other reactions to the movie and the review. Inland Empire, and specifically Dargis’ take on it, are the talk of the film blogging world.

Then I swung by another daily stop, Andrew Sullivan’s blog. As a rule, I don’t read political sites. I disappear down enough rabbit holes as it is. I read Sullivan because he’s a blogging pioneer, and because I find his point of view fascinating. A gay, Catholic, conservative Republican who turned against President Bush, he’s chronicled his struggle to hold true to his philosophy in a party that seems to have no use for him.

Sullivan also linked to Dargis’ review, under the headline “Poseur Alert.” He gives a hat tip to National Review columnist John Podhoretz. The title of his post on Dargis?

The Most Pretentious Piece of Writing in All of Recorded History

Rabbit hole entered. A Technorati search revealed that both echo chambers are working. Right-wing blogs pick up Podhoretz’s dig, while left-wingers mock earlier attempts at film criticism by Podhoretz and friends.

That’s the summary. Whew.

My point – and as I said, I may have one – is that the film community has declared Dargis’ review a significant event while those who view life through the prism of politics dismiss it as self-indulgent.

But ‘twas ever thus. Whenever an avant-garde work is praised, people will scoff. And to be honest, the section of Dargis’ review excerpted by Sullivan does make the movie sound like a tough sit. All that hooey about mirrors and entrances and exits.

Still, this seems like more than a knee-jerk response. There’s an undercurrent of judgment, a sense that there’s something unseemly about displaying such passion in print. “Doesn’t Manohla know that we’ve moved past that? She should save her enthusiasms for her blog.”

Here’s what I think. You can’t call a review pretentious unless you’ve seen the work in question. The word does mean making unjustified or excessive claims, after all. Manohla Dargis can get carried away with herself; she’s written reviews where I don’t know what the hell she’s talking about. But this isn’t one of them. This is her making a pitch for a movie that clearly moved her, and one that might get overlooked not only because of the crush of year-end titles but because of its odd release pattern. (Lynch is distributing Inland Empire himself. Its Oscar campaign consists of him sitting on various Los Angeles street corners with a cow.)

But ultimately, the review doesn’t matter to me. It’s for a David Lynch movie. I would have seen it anyway.