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Critics Faves: Arty or Artful?

Critics Faves: Arty or Artful?

In the fall season, as hundreds of movies are launched and weighed at film festivals, critics come into their own. They don’t hold much sway with audiences in the summer. But in the fall, suddenly, what they think does matter.

Going into Telluride and Toronto, I am reminded that I am a strange hybrid. While I know far too much about movies and studied film at NYU, I never adopted the mantle of film critic. (I married David Chute instead.) I’ve worked at film mags and written about film my entire career, but always from the perspective of an industry insider. The blog encourages opinion and analysis, but I tend to keep my reviews short, as blogs demand. And while I like smart-house movies, I tend to be less highbrow than most critics, and more in tune with popular taste. My single father raised me on westerns, war movies and James Bond; I love epics and action as well as intimate relationship films. Like Roger Ebert, I want to like movies. And one of my missions for this blog is to rail in support of what makes movies better, and against what makes them worse.

My pet peeve since college is obscurantism. Just as I resist semioticians who make their arguments as difficult to parse as possible, I balk at movies that leave me out and fail to satisfy. I prefer filmmakers who seek to reach an audience and pull them into their movie, who don’t stare at their own navel. Quentin Tarantino, for one, knows exactly who his fans are. While his films are as intellectual, referential and narratively unconventional as the next Cannes Palme d’Or competitor, they are utterly accessible. (His surprising Inglourious Basterds box office proves that point.)

When Film Comment’s Amy Taubin and the NYT’s Manohla Dargis praised Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales at Cannes a few years back, my jaw dropped. Did they see the same meandering, meaningless mess that I did? After John Huston’s head-scratcher Beat the Devil, Humphrey Bogart said, “Only the phonies think it’s funny. It’s a mess.”

At Cannes this year, I was taken aback when Taubin, a critic I have respected since I first started reading her in the early 80s, told me she was angry at me for using the word “artsy” in a blog post on Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control. I actually used the word “arty” to describe his music and visuals, and later went on to describe the film itself as “maddeningly indulgent” and a “travelogue.” (In a comment, Glenn Kenny, who loves the film, also objected to the word “arty,” preferring “artful.”)

What does it mean to call a film arty? Is it a negative? For me it simply implies a narrow, sophisticated audience. Most critics seem to agree with me on The Limits of Control, which earned a 44% ranking on Metacritic. Is there much to admire in the film? Sure. But Jarmusch doesn’t seem to care if he leaves most audiences scratching their heads and asking, “Say what?”

On the other hand, I’m not talking about pandering to audience tastes or talking down. I utterly support filmmakers who enlighten and enrich audiences by showing them something they haven’t seen before. While I had some problems with Tetro, Francis Ford Coppola has earned the right to tell a personal story in whatever way he likes, especially if he is spending his own money. Check out this UCLA interview about Tetro:

Q: But when you’re writing something like this, is there anxiety about making it too indulgent in terms of what you want to show an audience?

A: What does that mean? Is self-indulgent different from heartfelt? Maybe self-indulgent is when you’re imposing on the audience. Like, if I’m cooking you dinner and I gave you lots of stuff I knew you don’t like, because I like it. But maybe even that can be good, in a way. I know that if I invite 30 people to lunch, a lot of them would probably prefer that I just order in Kentucky Fried Chicken. Instead, I’m going to try to make some real interesting regional dishes that you’ve never tried before.

I don’t mind if a brilliant intellectual movie lacks wide audience appeal. I’ve never understood why Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s films, for example, don’t play better. I can throw down my own list of obscure favorites with the best of them (I do, at The Auteurs.com). But I also defend the likes of Tarantino, Joel and Ethan Coen, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, and John Lasseter. While they don’t always pull it off, they know what it means to merge art and commerce, vision and accessibility, challenge and entertainment. What they do is really, really hard. And it’s often artful–not arty.

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