Jan 01, 2009
Posted by: Hitsville

Coming from Breitbart: The Derrièrist Manifesto

Jon Swift’s disquisition on derrièrism is funny enough* that you almost forget to chase the links to investigate the news that prompted it, namely that Andrew Beitbart is starting a web site to collect writing about culture that isn’t um, written by people who write about culture.

Now the politically conservative Breitbart, 39, will debut his own collection of original material in his Big Hollywood group blog, a new home for right-of-center voices that want to sound off on the interplay of popular culture and politics.

Breitbart has already signed several big names, including House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), incoming Minority Whip Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Reps. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.), Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) and Connie Mack (R-Fla.), to post entries on the site. He has also landed former senator and GOP presidential candidate Fred Thompson, MSNBC correspondent Tucker Carlson and a slew of other conservative thinkers from the National Review, The Weekly Standard and Commentary magazine to contribute.

It gets better:

And to jolt liberal Hollywood, Breitbart says he has wooed conservative screenwriters, comedy writers, classical musicians and alternative singer-songwriters to contribute to the blog. Celebrities who risk being blacklisted if they come out as conservative can write under pseudonyms, Breitbart says.

“I want it to be such a mixed group of people that people’s minds will be blown,” he says. “They’ll go, ‘This is not your mother’s conservative moment.’ ”

Emphasis added. With Breitbart buddy Matt Drudge routing traffic his way (which may be Breitbart.com’s chief means of support), the site might not be as evanescent as one might oppose, and for a time will undoubtedly provide some amusement for those who enjoy red state film criticism, or maintain a morbid interest in the parabola of Tucker Carlson’s career.

The site has as yet nothing up but a message promising a January 6 debut date.

* Since it is funny I feel churlish pointing out that Swift misread the comments on Wall-E I made that earned Hitsville inclusion amongst the derrièrists. I was writing about the film not to discuss its ideas nor to agree or disagree with them. My point was that, at a time when everyone reflexively says pop culture is degraded, here was a film with a fairly developed and, not incidentally, blisteringly ironic message whose ideas were largely unengaged with by terrestrial critics. Once acknowledged, people are welcome to get all derrièrist on the ass of those ideas, as far as I’m concerned, but they needed to be recognized and processed first. I may be the first post-derrièrist.

Aug 13, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

Embargo Wars: The (Lucas) Empire Strikes Back

clone-wars-poster.jpgThe fan boys are incensed with some embargo enforcement from Lucas World for the release of a new Star Wars animated film, Clone Wars. One strain here, wherein Ain’t It Cool News had to take down an early review. Slashdot is also going on about it here; a dopey blog item from the Guardian here.

As the Guardian item shows, embargoes aren’t always understood, even by the press. I think they are fair. The studio has a film; it shows it to journalists early, on condition that the reviews not run until the day of release. There’s nothing wrong with that; the journalists are free not to agree to the embargo, and to wait until the film is released to review it*.

For smaller films, the screenings are held in empty theaters, often in the afternoon. For most major releases, though, these are often in the form of early-evening screenings, for which free tix are distributed to the public.

From the studio’s perspective, this can make for a better reviewing environment (with an audience pumped up to see a “special” early showing) and beyond that hopefully can give the film some “word of mouth” early buzz.

Since the whole point of the latter is to get people talking about the movie, the phenomenon of internet-era early reviews magnify the potential to either help or harm a particular film.

Ain’t It Cool got invited ex officio to an early Clone Wars** screening, posted a review, and then was asked by Lucas to take it down. The site did it, but didn’t like it:

Does this whole thing stink? Yep. Sorta does. They’re having public screenings of the film, like yesterday’s show at the Egyptian, and if I’d gone to one of those, no one would be able to embargo anything.

*In practice this never happens. With the increase in Thursday midnight screenings, more and more papers are reviewing major films a day early. National outlets like Time and Newsweek have always been given a pass on this, not so much because their reviews are so influential but because they can, once in a while, provide slobbery cover-story PR bonanzas for hard-hitting skeptical journalism about big-budget product like your Da Vinci Codes and Harry Potters. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone (which is a biweekly) is a reliable blurbmeister and gets a pass as well. The trades, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, generally review at the first public screening, often prior even to film festivals.

** The film, a collection of the first three episodes from an upcoming TV series, is not getting good early reviews in any case. Variety:

Leaving behind the traditional animation employed on the three-season, similarly combat-oriented “Star Wars: Clone Wars” series aired on the Cartoon Network 2003-05, Lucas & Co. here employ a computer-generated anime/manga style that results in somewhat more dramatic compositions and color schemes. But the movements, both of the characters and the compositions, look mechanical, and the mostly familiar characters have all the facial expressiveness of Easter Island statues.

Jul 14, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

More whining about disappearing film critics, who really aren’t

The Guardian frets about disappearing critics. It’s disappointing, coming from this source; unlike the commentary in the U.S. on this subject, like the one I discuss below, you expect a bit more sophistication from the Guardian. Instead, it’s the same old droning on about the allegedly disappearing critics and unfocused, oddly unenlightened appreciation of what’s available on the web.

Consider this passage, emphases added:

The old media have, predictably, been outraged [about the cutbacks in fulltime critics at some papers].  After all, their jobs are on the line. ‘People who make these decisions,’ says [Salt Lake City film critic] Sean Means of the host of sackings, ‘get it into their heads that people who want to read about new movies have lots of places to do so, from fan sites, through blogs to critical aggregators, but they are being short-sighted. The reason people buy newspapers is to hear that particular voice.’

So is he saying that the opinions expressed for free on blogs are not of value? Not necessarily, he says. ‘The truth is, though, that there are very few amateurs who are better than professionals. If you really are good at it you figure out some way to get paid for it. At the risk of sounding elitist, everyone has an opinion, but not everyone has an informed opinion.

Both these points are completely incorrect. For the first, while the changing role of the American newspaper is due to a lot of things, many of them business related, at least part of their decline has to do with their timidity and arrogance.

Most daily film critics are timid; few have distinctive voices; over the years almost all have had larger-than-life personalities or opinions beaten out of them. Means is, ironically, right on this point: Readers would like a particular voice. But they have rarely, if ever, existed in any number at daily papers in the U.S.

At the same time, the service part of the papers’ mission has been ignored as well. This is where the arrogance comes in. The typeface of listings started small and got smaller. Papers didn’t care about being comprehensive. (Indeed, most local alternative papers helped find their niche by providing not just better film criticism, but also with more complete and fuller coverage of all the local movies playing, including art films and those showing at small venues.)

And they rarely wrote about consumer issues involving movie-going: What theaters had good projection, increases in tickets prices, the rise of commercials before the showings, and many other related things.

To this day, I find Google’s Showtimes feature to be the easiest and most useful way to find out where a movie is playing. It’s not perfect*, but it’s better, clearer and easier to use than any local paper’s service I’ve seen. Only institutions as hidebound and arrogant as daily newspapers in the U.S. could have lost the captive audience they once had for this most basic service.

As for Means’ second point—”At the risk of sounding elitist, everyone has an opinion, but not everyone has an informed opinion”—he is at risk only of sounding like a nut. The idea that informed opinion is the prerogative of the American metropolitan daily is … quaint.

Beyond that, his understanding of the media world is mired back in the previous century. Today, the audience gets to decide for itself who has the informed opinion it wants. There’s no longer one local institution making that decision for it.

Far too much of the rest of this very long Guardian piece consists of interviews with UK critics in various fields, most of whom confess they don’t look at the web much. I’m not sure those are the horses the paper should be backing at this juncture.

The paper never says the obvious: That for the vast majority of people there is more convenience and more information—more by orders of magnitude—about everything in the cultural sphere. Once the shakeout in the information industries resolves itself, the world will right and there will be normal jobs again for critics, hopefully based on their writing and less on their ability to get along in the timid confines of the (very much changed) American newsroom.


Another lament on the alleged disappearing film critic, this one from Craig Lindsey at the Raleigh News & Observer.

It’s not irredeemable. I didn’t know all of this, for example:

As for film critics, they’ve been around since the creation of film print. Revered Midwestern poets Vachel Lindsay and Carl Sandburg did time as silent movie-era critics, churning out reviews and essays in the early 20th century. Esteemed novelists Graham Greene and James Agee began writing movie reviews in periodicals in the ’30s and ’40s. Former Winston-Salem resident Bosley Crowther was at one point the country’s most-known newspaper critic, filing reviews for The New York Times from the ’40s to the ’60s.

(Lindsey diplomatically doesn’t say that Crowther was a buffoon.)

But, like most of the sloppy writers addressing this issue, Lindsey is hung up on the status of daily newspaper film critics, which he, like the Guardian, romanticizes. There is, he allows, some film writing on the internet, but tries to dismiss it as hack work:

In the past two decades, there has been such an abundance of film criticism that even a Web movie-review haven such as Rotten Tomatoes had to put a kibosh on accepting new critics. This boom not only has given us writers and commentators who can offer a valid opinion on a flick but also hype machines with feet. They don’t review movies so much as cheerlead for them, penning enthusiastically hacky write-ups just to appease movie studios so they can get invited to future press junkets.

With so many people ready to voice their opinions on movies—some not fully qualified to do it in the first place—it’s no wonder that publications don’t mind thinning the herd.

But of course, there’s far more good writing on film on the net (and much more sheer information) than there ever was in local dailies. And those dailies also paid (and pay now) living wages to more hacks than the web ever will.

As I’ve said before, the real problem here is that what’s really disappearing is free advertising for films in local dailies, which is what most local film criticism is. Since there are ever more movies being released and more ways for the audience to see them, this is a problem only if it is your job to actually market films in this challenging time.

Even Elvis Mitchell, who isn’t an idiot, is quoted saying this:

“We all think about that world of 30 years ago, when it was The New York Times and The New Yorker and Time magazine. And they could really, if not dictate policy, then keep a film director working. A great review could get somebody another movie, and those days have sadly disappeared. But the world of that kind of filmmaking has disappeared too. I mean, I think we have to bemoan that more than this demise of film criticism.”

Hmm … So film criticism isn’t what it used to be, and filmmaking isn’t what it used to be, either!

May I say that commentary on the demise of film criticism and filmmaking is what it used to be?

By which I mean that there will always be some guy affecting world-weariness in the corner moaning about the good old days. Again, just last week everyone in the mediasphere was clucking agreeably about Mark Gill’s speech about that there were too many movies being made.

Who isn’t getting to make movies? Who isn’t getting to write about movies?

The answer? No one.

But wait, what about the poor consumer, the reader of film criticism?

They, of course, have access to more good writing about film, from both national news outlets and independent writers on the web, than they ever did before.

So what is the problem?

* Google hasn’t figured out yet that it needs to weight art houses and unusual venues when folks are searching for local showtimes. A user wants to know where Iron Man is playing at the closest megaplexes, but also wants to know what unusual moves are playing in a different part of town.


Previously in Hitsville:

Film critics—still missing!
The year of the disappearing film critics

More on the disappearing film critics 

Jul 14, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

Quantifying hackdom: Ladies and Gentlemen, Peter Travers

Erik Childress, at efilmcritic.com, has a nice takedown on ultrahack Peter Travers, Rolling Stone’s utterly useless film critic.

Childress zooms in on one of any lame critic’s most annoying tics: Using a bland assertion of contemporary mediocrity to overly praise a new piece of corporate product.

The evidence is this blurb, taken from Travers’ review of The Dark Knight, in the current ads for the film:

“A thunderbolt is about to rip into the blanket of bland we call summer movies. FEVERISH ACTION? Check. DAZZLING SPECTACLE? Check. DEVILISH FUN? Check. Just hang on for a shock to the system. Every actor brings his “A” game to show the lure of the dark side. The haunting and visionary Dark Knight soars on the wings of untamed imagination.”

I suppose it’s a minor thing, but it’s not a bland summer of movies. Last year, it was all sequels, threequells, fourquells. This year, there’ve been a lot of relatively novel entrants, from Iron Man to Speed Racer to The Incredibile Hulk to SATC to Wanted to Hellboy II.

Childress then goes back and notes that Travers own reviews of that summer of bland have been … pretty darn enthusiastic.

Jul 11, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

Beating up on “Wall-E”

Slate’s Daniel Engber takes a whack, arguing that the film’s equation of overweight Americans with global destruction is incorrect:

The desire to link obesity and environmental collapse seems to have more to do with politics than science.

I suppose he makes his case, but it’s tangential to the film, I think. It’s a little willful to read the movie necessarily saying that overweight people cause environmental problems. Indeed, some people have said that Hitsville’s contention that the movie is a broadside on American food consumption is wrong because the people on the spaceship have become blobs only in their exile.

Two, I think he’s underappreciating how unusual the bluntness of the societal critiques in the film are. Taken individually, it’s hard to argue with the points. Americans are overweight. Companies do foist unnecessary trash on the culture and don’t take responsibility (or have not been forced to take responsibility) for, more obviously, the recycling of dangerous materials. (They also exercise political muscle to squelch social attempts to make them.) The film is careful to make plain both sides are complicit.

And G-rated movies are, as a rule, a little more … sympathetic to the concerns of large companies, I think it’s fair to say. I don’t agree with all of Pixar’s critiques. The Incredibles, for example, had a preposterous (and fairly right-wing) framing trope*. But it’s hard to gainsay what Pixar pulled off in this instance.

p.s. And anyway, Hitsville’s main concern isn’t with the film at all. It’s that critics didn’t bother to consider the political implications of its tropes. 

p.p.s. Engber ends his piece with this poignant scene:

What happens when the movie ends and the lights come up? Does the rest of the audience stare at the lone fatty as she waddles her way toward the theater doors? Do they see in her body a validation of the film’s “darker implications”—a signpost for what we might become if we don’t change our ways? Or do they just scowl at her, convinced that she’s part of the problem?

I would like to note again that this is a somewhat sensitive issue and repeat what I’ve said in previous posts: That I don’t want to make individual judgments about folks’ lifestyles. That said, the picture Engber presents in that graf is a bigger carton that Wall-E is. We’re not talking about a “lone” person. Wall-E‘s ferocity comes from the way it essentially holds a mirror up to its audience.

* If I remember correctly, Father Incredible is driven out of the superhero business in the face of lawsuits stemming from one of his heroic rescues. You can read this is a clever sendup of the nonsensicality of the plotting in the superhero genre generally, but it has a far greater resonance in terms of the right-wing talking points about abuses of the legal system.


Previously in Hitsville:

The “Wall-E” debate continues: The far right attacks!

The critical conundrum of “Wall-E” 

What if Pixar released a ferocious broadside attacking the American way of life and the movie reviewers didn’t notice?