Is politics getting in the way of assessing which films are actually good?
Browbeating viewers into seeing certain movies shifts blame for a lack of diverse storytelling on to audiences, rather than the broken system of film production
If cinema had the impact on the world that film critics insisted they did in 2019, Joker would have brought about an incel revolution, and Little Women would have ended misogyny.
It was not a great year for film, with even our greatest film-makers putting out middling efforts. Yet if you listen to the critics and official opinion-havers online, you could have been convinced that it was a very important year for film. Issue movies took on an outsized influence, and movies that just tried to be movies – entertaining, thought-provoking or pleasurable – were denounced or celebrated as being dangerous or culturally momentous. The stakes this year for every film seemed impossibly high.
This was the year police departments issued warnings about the possibility of mass shootings at opening-night screenings of Joker, after all. It was a hysteria that built online after film critics saw the movie at festivals and started to complain it somehow “glamorized” or sympathized with violent incels. (I always thought one of the best things cinema was capable of doing was of sympathizing with the marginalized and misunderstood, but I guess that viewpoint is out of fashion now.)
This was also the year media outlets like the New York Times and Vanity Fair insisted Little Women was mandatory viewing to prove you’re not a misogynist. Even GQ ran a piece implying how important it was men “support women” by watching this film about some white ladies having a hard time during the civil war. Men’s supposed lack of interest in Little Women became the dominant narrative of the movie, implying it reveals the (alleged) lack of interest men have, in the words of the New York Times, in “see[ing] women as human beings”.
It couldn’t possibly be that Little Women is just a bad movie – although it is. Little Women is one of those books that has been over-adapted, with five previous film adaptations, plus a miniseries, plus a theatrical production, plus an anime version, and on and on.
The book itself is sentimental and sloppy, although interesting in the way it portrays hardship and deprivation. Its mediocrity makes mysterious its continued cultural dominance. Somehow the version adapted and directed by Greta Gerwig ramps up the sentimentality and strips the story of anything of interest. In her version, poverty looks glamorous, advocacy means just having the right opinions, and there are no consequences for anyone’s actions. At one point, I slid so far down in my chair to avoid looking at the screen and the incredibly painful things that were happening – painful to me, not to the characters – that I was nearly sitting on the floor.
But if you insist that a movie is important, you don’t really have to deal with whether or not it’s good. You can shame people into seeing it as a political statement, rather than as an entertainment or cultural selection. Same with the “dangerous” or “disturbing” moniker, which got used on everything from Joker to the latest Quentin Tarantino film Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, which was marked down for everything from not giving its female co-star Margot Robbie enough lines to its gratuitous violence against a female would-be murderer to its filming of women’s feet (fetishes are now dangerous, I guess). If a critic doesn’t like a film, labeling it as dangerous – and implying you might get killed if you go see it – is an attempt to keep people away.
Part of this language is the result of our commenting culture choosing to see everything through a political lens. There must be a political reason for Tarantino giving so few lines to a female actor in his latest film, and that political reason must be he does not respect or have any interest in women. There must be a political reason this movie doesn’t have the correct number of roles given to actors of color, and that reason must be that the director is racist. Even the female director of a terrible Charlie’s Angels reboot tried to blame the audience’s lack of interest in “women’s stories” for its failure. You know, just the totally normal and relatable stories of regular women fighting crime in very short shorts.
But another reason for this rhetorical madness is the loss of authority the average cultural critic has with the movie-going audience. There’s always been a divide between what the critical culture celebrates and what audience members actually want to see. “This three-and-a-half-hour Turkish film about the struggle between a boy and his father is a heartrending exploration of generational divides among a swiftly changing world …” “I don’t know, does anything blow up?” But that divide seems to be growing, with almost no living critic able to wield the kind of power figures like Siskel and Ebert used to have to get butts in seats, even so-called difficult films or subtitled films or art films. Not only to make an audience show up, but to increase demand enough that distributors increased the number of screens a film like My Dinner with Andre might be shown on.
Now no one really cares what a random freelancer at Vulture really thinks about a movie, so critics compete to use the most hyperbolic language possible to attract attention. “Adam Sandler is God-Level” in Uncut Gems, screeched a critic I’ve never heard of at ScreenCrush. “The cinematic equivalent of mixing cocaine with acid.” “The year’s most exciting film.” And of course there are multiple political takes, telling us how important it is for us to see it so we can better understand something about capitalism. And you know what? It was pretty good. Adam Sandler was pretty good in it. I was bored for most of it, and angry for having had high hopes for this film by all of the ravishing critical praise, but yeah I guess it was pretty good, all things considered. Nothing more than that. Other movies that had been called transformative and perfect and so important this year included Us, Midsommar, and the HBO show Watchmen, all of which also had significant gaps between the critics scores and the audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes.
But browbeating audience members into seeing films by telling them it’s politically important or by swearing this is the most intense and perfect cinematic experience they’ll ever have doesn’t really work, and it only helps their authority slip further away. And while there are political ramifications to our entertainment – whose stories get told and whose do not is a political issue – the issue is not with the audience but a broken system of film production and distribution, a disappearance of a significant proportion of film history from streaming services, and a lack of good critical writing that helps deepen an audience member’s intellectual engagement with what they are watching.
“Morals don’t sell nowadays,” a mean old male publisher tells poor little Jo March in Little Women as he decimates her short story before publishing it. I wish film critics would understand that is still true. The year before, in 2018, it was Black Panther we all “had to see”, for political reasons, of course. Its success was heralded as a political victory, not only for its black cast and director, but for all of humanity.
Saudi Arabia has been showing Black Panther in its theaters, too – the first commercially released film to be screened in almost 35 years in this repressive, autocratic regime. And that’s a political victory too. For the repressive, autocratic regime, of course. Because as revolutionary as Black Panther was hailed as being in America, it is ultimately the story of a monarchy triumphing over the challenge presented by a rebellious force. It turns out that it makes for good propaganda for the Saudi monarchy. Oh, the irony.
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