Tuesday, April 20, 2010

MSPIFF 2010: Day 3

For the Love of Movies - Take It or Leave It
I'm sorry, but this 'film criticism in crisis' topic is getting old, and in most cases off the mark. If you want to find a crisis, look at the print publication industry. Yes, film critics are losing their jobs, but so are hard nosed journalists who worked in an industry that is now failing under the pressure of the internet. I would agree that film criticism for the masses is dead. No one is going to base their decision on whether or not to go to a movie based on a review. People are either going to go see Sex in the City 2 or they're not. But what has grown stronger is a core conversation about film on the internet, in small publication and even in some of the dailies. Unfortunately, most of the dailies still think they are targeting the masses with film reviews. Although For the Love of Movies sells itself as a survey of American film criticism, it feels like a eulogy. As a historical piece, it merely skims the surface. At 80 minutes it attempts to cover a century of thought, and although it hits the highlights, it never delves very deep. It spends too much time on the Pauline Kael/Andrew Sarris feud and closes by reveling in the cynicism toward the internet and 'unqualified writers.' Possibly the best thing about the film is seeing and hearing interviews with critics that I have spent time reading—Molly Haskell, Kenneth Turan, J. Hoberman, Andrew Sarris, Michael Wilmington, just to name a few. (Not scheduled to play again, but available on DVD if interested.)

Looking for Eric - Highly Recommended
Looking for Eric is the best film I've seen so far at the festival (excluding 35 Shots of Rum.) Overall, I am very cold on Ken Loach's films and haven't seen one that has really stood out to me. Looking for Eric has changed all that. Working with far more humor, Loach crafts a affecting and hilarious portrait of a middle aged man at the end of his rope. Eric is a postman who is burdened with the guilt of leaving his wife of over twenty years ago and is distraught by his inability to communicate with his two teenage sons. His mates do their best to help, including organizing a meeting guided by a self-help book to build confidence. When they are instructed to close their eyes and imagine the world through the eyes of someone they admire, Eric immediately chooses Eric Cantona, star player for Manchester United, as his muse. Enter Eric Cantona who routinely shows up to help Eric work through his problems. The friendship that Eric builds with his hero, even if it is in his head, is incredibly tender. Steve Evets is amazing as Eric. I never doubted his anger, his depression or his love for football. But big points go out to Eric Cantona for taking on the role and filling it perfectly. Looking for Eric has a working-class realism that you might expect that glows under the performances of Evets and Cantona. I was willing to forgive a finale that has pieces fitting too neatly and enthusiastically in place due to the sincerity that permeated the entire film. (I'm getting this out too late to recommend the second screening, but let's hope Looking for Eric returns to this town and yours.)

Reykjavik-Rotterdam - Take It or Leave It
I had shades of déjà vu watching Reykjavik-Rotterdam, an accomplished thriller from Iceland (with no volcanoes.) Reykjavik shares many elements with The Square, which I had seen just the day before. Although they run on completely different narrative threads, they both have a similar gritty feel and they both have a character who is a foreman anxious to get some cement poured. I've never had the problem of films blurring together, but under the circumstances of watching three or four festival films a day, I am always struck by the similarities among films. Call it copying, appropriation or inevitable, genre films need to be a little more creative. This is where The Square has the edge on Reykjavik. The Square works consciously with cliché in the mind (much like Shaun of the Dead) and uses it, and our expectations, to its advantage. Reykjavik-Rotterdam feels more like a film mimicking a successful formula. Kristófer has gone clean. He is sober and he has ditched his booze smuggling days for the family life with his wife and kids. But the strains of a low wage job force him into doing just one more run so he can afford to put a down payment on a flat. Kristófer's best friend helps him set up the run, but he also has the makes on Kristófer's wife. Some things go right; some things go wrong. The plot feels forced and the characters rarely go beyond one dimensional. I was in turns entertained and incredulous. The film was penned by the author of Jar City and also shares a couple of actors from that adaptation. The attempt to sell Reykjavik-Rotterdam as the next Jar City pulled me in but left me sorely disappointed. (I caught the second screening and it is not yet scheduled to play again. I can say anyone is missing anything.)


Anonymous said...

I'm the filmmaker of For the Love of Movies, and I feel misrepresented by Kathie Smith's placing my film among the daily words of whiners complaining that film criticism is disappearing. It took me eight years to make my film, and my arguments in the film have developed in the long time I shot and edited. But the concluding chapter can't help but be a kind of eulogy, and in line with today's bloggers and tweeters. It's a shame that the vast vast majority of Americans don't consider the words of talented, educated film critics, whether on the Web or in print, in their decisions to see a movie, or think about that movie.
Kathie, to date more than 65 film critics across America have lost their paying jobs. It's not the war in Iraq, but I don't understand why you think that's not worth writing about, and fretting about.

Daniel Getahun said...

I think there needs to be more of a clarification of the crisis you're discussing Anon (and Kathie) - if more than 65 film critics have lost their jobs, is it a crisis in publishing or a crisis in criticism? It sounds like Kathie is saying the former and you are saying the latter (to be fair, I haven't seen your film).

I think I agree with Kathie, in that film critics aren't the only newspaper writers who are losing their jobs. Their content is still valued, just not in print form or possibly even in online form under the payroll of a newspaper. Many of the critics who have lost their jobs are still finding their analysis appreciated through other media. Indeed, the very thing that could be blamed for the loss of their job (the internet) is ironically the very thing that is keeping many of them working at all (not to mention allowing access to their archived reviews).

Again, I haven't seen the documentary but I also wonder how it speaks to points brought up in A.O. Scott's piece a month ago about the state of criticism. This is a really dynamic time not only in film criticism but all arts criticism, and if For the Love of Movies is too narrowly focused on film without acknowledging a sea change in popular culture and the internet's influence on society in general, then I would imagine it may be a missed opportunity.

Anyway...I missed Looking for Eric but I think it's coming out sometime this summer, so I'll keep an eye out.

Kathie Smith said...

Mr. Peary, I think in general, we are on the same page. I think film criticism is more robust than ever, unfortunately it is just very hard to make a living at it. I think it is inevitable when you are looking at the history of film criticism that the end note is the huge question mark that we are currently experiencing. The fact that people don't consider the opinion of critics is systemic of, not only the flux of print media, but also marketing strategies from the studios. Television ads and previews build more momentum than any critic possibly can these days. (An interesting contrast would be music critics. There words are far more valued - look at Pitchfork for God's sake. But in most cases, an album does not have the marketing budget that a film does.)

I'll admit that I have never earned a living wage writing reviews (and maybe I don't deserve to), but, although warehouse work is a glorious thing, I would love the chance. I'm realistic however: I am probably not one of the talented, educated critics that you site, and the market is certainly not in need of film writers. We all know film critics, either personally or professionally, who have lost their jobs. I don't want to see anybody lose their job, regardless of whether or not they are a film critic.

I contribute to In Review Online (which Sam said I should have mentioned to you at the screening, but I didn't know then that you had been his teacher.) I do it for the exposure and the possibility that more people will read my reviews. But what I really love about it is the camaraderie with the other writers who all love movies as much as I do and are all willing to take time, between jobs and family, to watch and write about movies. For the love of movies, indeed.

I don't really fret about film criticism, because if I do, I'll probably stop writing. As it is, I enjoy engaging with a film by writing about it. If someone reads it, that's just the icing on the cake. I do fret about newspapers and periodicals and hope they can meet the challenges they are facing to stay afloat.

The A.O. Scott piece that you mention, Daniel, was interesting and gave a kind of 'who knows' answer. I guess I would also look to the resurgence of rep programming in town (which gets very little press) also as an interesting litmus test. I certainly don't have the answers, but I appreciate the dialogue.

Kathie Smith said...

Right now I'm just worried about how I'm going to catch up with day 4, 5 and 6 of the Festival!