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Shane Danielsen: Among the Grifters

Shane Danielsen: Among the Grifters

The river is turning into
a place to drown.

— Frederick Seidel, “I Do”

Summer in Berlin brings many pleasures – and little incentive to stay indoors watching movies. There are the strand bars along the Spree, the lakes at Wannsee, the sidewalk cafes of Friedrichshain and Mitte. But I’d not seen “Cyrus”, the new film from the Duplass brothers, whose “Puffy Chair” I’d programmed at Edinburgh some years earlier, and admired; there was a press preview scheduled for Wednesday morning. Plus, it was at the Astor, on the Kufuerstendamm, one of the oldest and loveliest picture-houses in the city – and a close walk, afterwards, to the great, gourmet food hall atop the KaDaWe department store. All in all, it seemed a good way to spend a morning.

Arriving at the Astor, I signed in, and so did the woman behind me. There was something familiar about her. When I glanced again at the list, I saw that she was Anne Troester, the film editor of ExBerliner, the city’s main English-language monthly. Which was good, since I had a question to ask Ms. Troester.

Here – I think sanctioned by the laws of fair use – is Troester’s own review of Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” featured in the magazine’s combined July/August edition:

“There isn’t anything that Nolan has done that hasn’t been superb. ‘Inception’ combines everything he’s revered for [sic] by film freaks: his fascination for [sic] how the mind works – its incredible potential and its fragility; his interest in illusion and surprising plot twists; his commitment to visual brilliance – although here he’s not as original as he can be – and the way he brings out pitch-perfect performances from an ensemble cast of first-rate actors at the top of their game.”

78 words. A capsule review, like almost all of ExBerliner’s coverage. And, on the surface of it, not much to argue with, at least from my point of view. I agree that Nolan is an amazingly gifted filmmaker, by far the most interesting “event movie” director working in the U.S. today. And Troester does correctly identify and list most of his finest qualities.

She even gave “Inception” a score: three out of four.

None of this is what aroused my curiosity.

It was the fact that ExBerliner’s summer issue had hit the streets on June the 29th. More than seventy-two hours before my friend and colleague Justin Chang, of Variety, had watched “Inception” in the screening rooms of the Warner Bros. studios in Burbank – at what was, I believe, its first press screening. And while the film reportedly plays fast and loose with empirical reality, I could not quite see how even Warner Bros.’ marketing department could bend the laws of physics thus.

I went into the theatre and sat down. A moment later, Ms. Troester came in and, as fate would have it, took a seat directly in front of me. I leaned forward and asked if she was from ExBerliner. She said that she was. Our conversation thereafter went like this:

“I’m just wondering, how did you get to see ‘Inception’? Friends of mine in L.A. only got to see that the other day. And I didn’t think there were any long-lead previews.”

For just a moment, it seemed to me, she looked slightly surprised. Then her composure recovered. She smiled. She seemed very agreeable. “We didn’t,” she replied.

“I’m sorry?”

“We didn’t see the movie. With our deadline…there was no time.”

“So why did you run a review on it?”

“We didn’t. We just did a piece.”

“But you gave it three stars.”

“Well, hearts,” she demurred. “Three hearts out of four.”

“Hearts or stars, lady – you reviewed the film.”

She shrugged. Her expression remained blandly serene; I might have been asking to borrow a cigarette.

I tried again: “What I don’t get is, if you hadn’t seen it, and you had no time to see it before you went to print, why do a review at all? You could have just previewed it…’Oh, this looks pretty cool, it’s by the guy who did “The Dark Knight”…'”

Troester: “But that’s what we did.”

“No, you didn’t. You offered an opinion on the worth of the movie. You said, ‘here, Nolan’s not as original as he can be.’ You gave it stars, or hearts, or whatever. I’m sorry, but that’s a review.”

“If you’re unhappy, you should talk to the editor,” she said.

“But you’re the film editor. It’s your decision, surely?”

She hesitated. “I’m not sure why this matters to you.”

“If you hadn’t said that line about originality – if you hadn’t offered an opinion on the actual worth of the film – I mightn’t have so much trouble with this. But there’s no way you could have known whether Nolan was ‘as original as he can be’ this time around, or not. Or if it was a three-star movie and not a four-star one. Because you hadn’t seen it.”

Once more, the shrug. By now, Ms. Troester was looking at me with a kind of irritation. Why was I spoiling her quiet moments of contemplation before “Cyrus” – a film which she had made the effort to actually attend – with these pesky semantics? She’d seen it, she’d not seen it…who cares? “It’s only a short piece–” she began.

“I don’t care if it’s short; that’s not the point. You’re offering an opinion on a movie you haven’t even seen. Not even part of it.” (Because god knows, I’m not a believer in sticking around when something indisputably sucks.) “Have you just got no professional pride whatsoever, is that it? Does none of this matter to you?”

“Not really, no.”

“Then I got nothing to say to you. You’re a hack.”

I sat back in my seat. A few minutes later, the film began.

*

We can argue about the value of film criticism, and either lament or relish its decline, depending on our relationship to the profession. But it would take some doing, I think, to argue that this behavior – blithe ignorance masquerading as critical authority – constitutes a good thing, or a worthwhile development in the relationship between filmmakers and their audience. For the latter, it’s a betrayal of trust, a violation of the implicit contract between a writer and their readers; for the former, it’s either useful (when the piece is favourable, as this one mostly was) or insulting and infuriating (when it’s not).

I have, I know, an inordinate, Harlan Ellison-like capacity to become angry; anger fuels most of my days. And a 78-word blurb, in an expat magazine in central Europe, is, let’s face it, fairly small beer.

But the principle…the principle is worth defending.

Ms. Troester, it should be noted, is hardly alone. People do this every day. I mentioned this incident to two friends, one in London and one in Sydney, before I started writing this piece, and each could name one or two of their peers who function in exactly the same way. But I think about friends of mine who’ve lost their jobs in the past twelve months – good critics, smarter about film and more diligent in their professional responsibilities than Ms. Troester and her ilk will ever be – and think how galling it is to see their ranks diminished, replaced by people for whom the work is cheap and meaningless and without honour or self-respect. People no better, in essence, than those shit-eating, merch-grabbing junket whores who’ll happily stump up a positive quote for anything, provided it comes with a night in a hotel room and free sandwiches in the hospitality suite.

You don’t look to ExBerliner for its film coverage. Before I learnt of their Impressionistic, almost clairvoyant approach to reviewing movies, I was frequently puzzled by their judgments; even in this issue, they – almost alone on the planet – preferred “Shrek: Forever After” to “Toy Story 3”. And that’s fine: criticism is subjective, and should be – anyone who pretends otherwise is an ass.

But what I wanted to believe, as I want to believe of any critic, is that they engaged honestly with the work. Even if they hated it. Even if they walked out of it. That they saw enough of the actual film to form a judgment of its worth. I wanted, I suppose, a sign that the job still meant something, that we were not in the hands of grifters and shills. But it doesn’t, it seems, and we are.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Born in Sydney, Australia, Shane Danielsen is the former Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. He now lives in Berlin.

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Comments

Cas

Shane – Kerrilee Male? No news in 50 yrs. here accross the ponds. The impact of her Eclection vocals still resonates today.

EXB insider

I have worked at Exberliner and I can tell you, Änne and her team are definitely not hacks. Not only do they watch the films they review, they also see a considerable number of films that don’t even make it into the magazine.

What does happen, in my experience, is that very, very occasionally – maybe two or three times a year – a big Hollywood blockbuster comes out that cannot be reviewed by print time (always because its distributors/production company have refused to release review copies and hold advance press screenings). If they are too important to be ignored, these two or three Hollywood blockbusters are given a minimal capsule review based on the extended segments and insider knowledge Änne gleans from her friends in the industry, as well, of course, as her knowledge and research as a professional film critic of some nine years standing.

So… all this to say that Shane Danielsen’s rant – his positioning of himself as a great crusader for good, honest, old-school film reviewing, and Änne as the immoral hack who’s only in it for the freebies – is so misguided as to be ridiculous. Danielsen claims to be taking on the fakes who are killing off ethical film journalism, but instead writes a character assassination of an extremely conscientious reviewer at a last-stand independent magazine. (Exberliner, for those who don’t know, is still run by the three journalist-editor-publishers who started it just under a decade ago.)

And, because it’s an independent (read idealistic) magazine, Exberliner watches the films it reviews. At the very least, this fact is made clear by the example Danielsen himself offers: Exberliner gave “Toy Story 3” a worse rating than “Shrek: Forever After” because the reviewer was repelled by Toy Story 3’s insidious right-wing agenda.

Danielsen’s beat-down is therefore not directed at a bad film critic who doesn’t watch films: it’s directed at a film critic who watches all other films (indie, art-house, obscure, mainstream, you name it) with tenacious thoroughness, but very, very exceptionally doesn’t see a Hollywood blockbuster in its entirety.

Hmm… so remind me. Who’s the hack here?

michael lerman

I want to be clear that I didn’t mean to imply that the two things are equal. In my eyes, I don’t believe they are at all. I agree with both Ben and Shane himself that Ms. Troester’s actions are much, much more egregious.

@shane danielsen – I didn’t mean to imply that your piece was the “definitive indieWIRE response to Andrew Bujalski’s ‘Beeswax.'” I was suggesting that your use of objective generalizations about the film was inappropriate when you didn’t finish watching it. (And that’s say nothing of the irony of what I felt was a quite brilliant comment on critical subjectivity in the piece above…) It makes sense to me why some would draw a connection, albeit tenuous, between the two events/pieces.

Now, was it a review? No, @rabbi, you’re right. It’s wasn’t. But I guess where the complication comes in is that the average reader isn’t thinking about the difference in piece type and when a writer steps out of first person subjective language in a notebook piece and into objective generalizations, it begins to sound more like a review – certainly much more of a distinction than hearts instead of starts, but nonetheless – and therefore draws up controversy when it’s also admitted that said writer did not watch the entire film.

But, again, it was publicly noted, at least partly watched and technically not a review. So, yes, not AT ALL the same thing. But something that could be, I think, understandably scrutinized.

shane danielsen

I can’t put it better than Mark Rabinowitz does, above. If I’d been a professional reviewer, seeing ‘Beeswax’ in order to review it for this site – to be, in effect, the definitive Indiewire response to Andrew Bujalski’s ‘Beeswax’ – then I’d have had no choice but to sit through the whole thing. But I’m not, I wasn’t, and I didn’t.

I could very easily have lied by omission, not mentioning that I’d skipped out early. Instead, because I did, I took pains to be clear, in print, that I had. I think I was actually pretty scrupulous in my honesty – and equally unabashed in the subjectivity of my response to what I saw. For both these reasons, my conscience, regarding ‘Beeswax’ at least, is clear.

Unlike Ms. Troester in this example, however, I did have at least the courtesy to show up. The level of critical response one expects from a ‘review’ and a ‘festival report’ (which, for the record, this was) might differ from one reader to the next. But if you seriously think this is somehow morally equivalent to filing an actual review – complete with a grade – of a film you haven’t seen AT ALL, then I’m sorry, but in the immortal words of Flavor Flav, I can’t do nuttin for ya, man.

BenCM

Bored at work today I’m going to drop my two cents in on this for what it’s worth.

I do see a difference between Ms. Troester’s supposed “review” of Inception and Mr. Danielsen’s piece on Berlin 2009. Now, I love Beeswax (and recently Aurora too) and agree entirely that what he wrote was, indeed, unfair to the film but when I read it then (and re-read it now) I can’t quantify what he wrote as a review in any sense of the word.

Does what it have “review like qualities”? Sure, but most pieces in film journals express the personal likes and dislikes of the writer. This was a piece about the Berlin Film Festival and was never catalogued as a review or given consideration as such. Do I think he unfairly portrayed Beeswax in the article? Yes, to a degree, but what Ms. Troester did I find much more egregious.

She wrote a capsule and even rated a film based only on the marketing material that WB has made available. And unfortunately I have a sneaking suspicion that she’s not alone. Fair on unfair doesn’t even come into play here because she flat out lied. She didn’t “misrepresent” anything because she has no source from which to misrepresent. What’s worse is that what she wrote DOES quantify as a review which, in distribution, counts for far more than an op-ed piece about where the film premiered. Far more people are going to see her bogus capsule then are going to read indieWIRE.

michael lerman

And you, Mark, miss a very salient point, which is that his notebook piece had review-like qualities, including the following quote:

“But there was no second act, because there was no structure—no point at all, in fact, beyond watching a bunch of almost defiantly unattractive people deliver stumbling, banal dialogue . . . in badly shot 16mm.”

As I sighted before, some films hold off revealing their point or their structure until the end. For example is Cristi Puiu’s Aurora, which premiered at Cannes this year, cleverly holds the majority of its exposition for the final five minutes of its three hour running time.

The above quote makes assumptions that the film would continue on the path that it was at the time he left out of frustration. He doesn’t say that he was so annoyed with a feeling that there it wasn’t going anywhere. He uses definitive language, stating generalizations about a film that he hasn’t completed and then tacks on that he left.

So, call it what you want, a review or not, but it’s an unfair assessment in print, just like the one Anne Troester made on Inception.

rabbi

@Michael, @anonymous (have some courage and print your name, why don’t you?) and @Houston:

You all miss a very salient point. Shane didn’t review Beeswax. He was hired to do a piece on his reactions to the first few days of screenings in Berlin. It was neither labeled as a review nor was it written like one. He said, basically, “I walked out of this film that was, until I walked out, terrible. This is why I hated it and this is why I walked out.”

I really don’t see how that’s in ANY WAY similar to what Anne did. Shane didn’t review Beeswax without seeing it. He hates the 50 minutes he saw and explained why. Had you asked him to review the film for indieWIRE, Variety, etc., I am sure he would have refused, as he hadn’t seen the whole film.

-Mark Rabinowitz

shane danielsen

@Jefferson: You want to defend your friend, and it’s both good and admirable that you do so. I’d do the same – and have, when I felt the attack in question was unwarranted. But having no acquaintance with Ms Troester personally, knowing her only through the work in ExBerliner – at which she was demonstrably neither diligent nor honest – my comments stand.

michael lerman

I think Shane has a point and Houston has a point. The difference is that in Shane’s example, there was no public admittance from Anne that she hadn’t actually seen Inception. However, I do agree that it is a form of “hack” criticism to judge a film without sitting through the whole film. Many films, some of the best films, surprise you with abrupt revelations about what they are trying to achieve….sometimes not even until their final moments.

That being said, I am sure I am guilty of this at some point in the past. We all make mistakes. I just try my hardest not to and try to admit and care about when I do.

anonymous1234

@ahem – I hear ya. I’m just brooding on the fact that Shane negatively reviews films he doesn’t see in their entirety (and tiny microbudget indie films at that).

I actually do not disagree with this article above, I just find it highly hypocritical.

Houston

Shane,

Linking to the Beeswax review (which I helped make and you trashed but never watched completely) with the link “sticking around when something indisputably sucks” and then writing “criticism is subjective, and should be – anyone who pretends otherwise is an ass.” makes the case for me.

Jefferson

I strongly agree with Mr. Danielsen that critics (and others) should obviously see a film before making critical pronouncements about that film. (Not that that keeps many, many folks from doing so, however.)

And it’s also obvious that the ExBerliner (and other media) should very clearly distinguish between films that have been “reviewed” and films that are being announced as “forthcoming” (when deadlines prevent a proper review).

But just as a good film critic should have at her or his disposal a broad and deep knowledge of film before pronouncing on any individual film, a good “reading” of another person must often go beyond a brief and superficial encounter.

[Full disclosure: Ms. Troester was a former academic colleague in the U.S. (and still a friend) whose writing I’ve continued to read in the ExBerliner since it began publishing.]

Where I strongly disagree with Mr. Danielsen is in his personal characterization of Ms. Troester. It’s relevant, I think, to know that Ms. Troester’s primary work is in the post-production side of the film industry. And that her work for the ExBerliner is done primarily as a labor of love for film (as is most film journalists’ work these days).

Personally I’ve met few people in any field who work harder and have more “professional pride” than Ms. Troester and to characterize her as one who thinks that her own “work is cheap and meaningless and without honour or self-respect” is a ridiculous misreading indeed.

Associating Ms. Troester with “those shit-eating, merch-grabbing junket whores who’ll happily stump up a positive quote for anything, provided it comes with a night in a hotel room and free sandwiches in the hospitality suite” is a silly and stupid statement that has no basis in reality.

While Mr. Danielsen has every right to bemoan the fate of his friends who have lost their jobs this past year — and the decline of film culture in our commercial media IS a real tragedy — he should instead take his anger out on those who truly deserve it. But this leads to a whole other discussion….

rabbi

@Jefferson: Assuming Shane’s reporting is correct (and I’d bet my life it is) it wasn’t Shane who characterized Ms. Troester as such. She did it herself:

“Have you just got no professional pride whatsoever, is that it? Does none of this matter to you?”

“Not really, no.”

seafar

i four heart shane’s articles for indiewire

ahem

anonymous1234 (if that is your real name) — I’m not sure you could have possibly missed the point more; in fact, I’m genuinely curious if you actually read the article. The entire occupation of a film critic is to watch a film, and then try to honestly evaluate it. This critic in question did not see the film, and yet offered a professional opinion on the film, in print, as though she had seen it. This is basically lying.

Whether the review was positive or negative is completely not the issue. The issue is one of telling the truth vs. lying. And the journalistic term for someone who lies in the way this woman did is “hack.” That’s pretty much exactly what the word means.

And no, to answer your last, completely absurd question — it is in no conceivable way an abuse of a film critic’s power to negatively review a film offered up for review. That’s actually the whole point of the job: you see a film, then you say whether you liked it or not. Are you clear on the matter now?

anonymous1234

Let me get this straight Shane. I’m just trying to understand.

So what you’re saying is that it’s totally okay for a critic to completely + publicly trash a tiny indie movie right after its very first screening, where critics could seriously effect the outcome of not only the film’s distribution and box office, but also a low budget filmmakers’ next career steps, after only seeing half of it. In your mind, this is completely justified and not at all an abuse of what little power a critic has left.

But it’s not okay to give a positive review of a giant summer tentpole, a film that is most likely, probably very good, in a situation where their review will have little or no impact on the film’s impending fiscal success or their readers’ desire to see or not see the movie or the filmmakers ability to make future movies. In this case, these critics should be appropriately labeled as “hacks.”

I just want to make sure I’m clear on this matter.

martin k

Wow. And I get upset by Bloggers fudging it and posting outlandish over-the-top stuff :)

Nice article.

-M

[A]

damn. what a day for ‘fake critics’, huh? also, good for you for saying all these things to her face!

ammam

“Hearts, not stars” is classic. Could be a new rallying cry for the mediocre.

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