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Criticwire Survey: History Too Important for Fiction

Criticwire Survey: No Cameras, Please

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.) Leave your own response in the comments, and send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: CBGB was blasted by critics for its inauthentic evocation of the legendary punk club. What cultural movement or milestone would you never want to see filmed?

Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly 

I have this bone-deep dread that, at some point, someone will try to adapt Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks’ oral history “I Want my MTV.” It’s not so much because I’m so desperately nostalgic for the era that I fear they just won’t get the music, man. Mostly, I have visions of second-tier actors trying to do impersonations of Simon Le Bon, Billy Idol, Michael Jackson and Madonna, with all the horrifying hairstyles and garish costumes that would entail. Sure, it would be hilarious to watch the architects of the music-video revolution observe — to a contemporary audience’s ironic amusement — how they’ve saved the recording industry, and everyone can go about the business of printing money with no potential problems in sight. And then we’d get Dane DeHaan or somebody as Boy George and do they really want to hurt me? Yes, apparently they do.

Robert Greene, Sight & Sound, Hammer to Nail

I pray to the movie heavens weekly that we never see a film about 90’s indie rock because I don’t want to watch Judah Friedlander as J. Mascis feuding with Ryan Reynolds as Lou Barlow, especially not a scene of Reynolds/Barlow drunkenly scribbling the words to “The Freed Pig.” Or that moment when Bob Nastanovich yelled at Gary Young in a hotel room. This era of music was my CBGB. So many of my aesthetic inclinations and sensibilities come from hearing Sebadoh III 27,835 times and trying to convince everyone that Alien Lanes is the greatest musical experience of our lifetime. I just… can’t.

Christopher Campbell, Nonfics, Movies.com

I’m both amazed and glad that the ska craze of the ’90s, of which I was way too immersed in, never really caused a stir this far into mainstream media. Not even in the form of a documentary. That’s what I thought of first via the CBGBs thing. Gimme a movie called Coney Island High or The Wetlands about that era and I’ll cringe — but also secretly be amused. Probably just as Debbie Harry and the rest feel about that movie (not that I’d have a character based on me or anything).

Peter Howell, Toronto Star

I hope nobody ever tries to make a Parkland-style docudrama about the disastrous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont in December, 1969, where a guy was stabbed during the show.  Nothing can improve on Gimme Shelter, and I don’t think I could handle a dramatization where Russell Brand plays Mick Jagger, Zac Efron does Keith Richards and Justin Bieber plays the Hells Angel who angrily glares at Jagger all through the show. On second thought, go right ahead! This would be hilarious.

Danny Bowes, RogerEbert.com, Tor.com

Apologies for cheating slightly on this question (most of the cultural movements and/or milestones I’ve dreaded seeing filmed already have been, because dreams may sometimes come true but nightmares always do, to coin a potential song lyric), but the thing I’d like to see go away forever is fiction written by “allies” of a given oppressed group made primarily for the moral self-gratification of the ally. Which is to say, no more films by straight people patting themselves on the back for noticing that LGBT people exist, no more white auto-fellatio at the spiritual awakenings granted white protagonists by proximity to people of color, no more First World cooing over how utterly homo sapiens-like Third World people are revealed to be, and so on. This is not to say that no one can ever make a work of art about people outside their own peer group, more that that increases the importance of knowing what you’re talking about if you do so, and not doing it to make yourself look good. Doing the right thing is its own reward. That and a cookie. You do get a cookie for not being a clueless bigot. (NOTE: cookie may be rhetorical.)

John Oursler, Sound on Sight

It’s a tough question, because, as a minority population, you always want to let the world know about a formative piece of your history, but at the same time you don’t want it diluted just for the sake of getting a film made. Specifically with regards to gay male representation in cinema, and even more specifically in high-profile Hollywood fare, the depictions are few and far between and, when they’re there, tend not to be very good or representative. For everything Dallas Buyers Club does well, for instance, it fails to mention even for a second that the bulk of the progress in getting AIDS medicine was achieved at great personal risk by gay activist groups, not homophobic, entrepreneurial straight cowboys. To answer the question, I wouldn’t like a narrative film to be made of David France’s essential documentary How to Survive a Plague, which covers similar territory as DBC. That’s not exactly true- I’d love to see it narrativized, but I want a true representation. Ryan Murphy is adapting Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart into a feature length film, but, as befell Soderbergh in his big gay film, lack of funding interest pushed it to cable television rather than the multiplex. 

Richard Brody, The New Yorker

Any movement or milestone of which I have personal experience — because no filmmaker will ever capture my own experience of it. But since I have no personal experience of any cultural movement or milestone, filmmakers can rest easy and rely on their talent and their imagination to film whatever interests them. There are no rules. A movie such as CBGB (which I haven’t seen yet) can be great if the filmmaker is as audacious and original as the artists who are its subjects. Even movies featuring familiar and overfamiliar historical figures whose faces and voices are rooted deep in the collective unconscious — well, when the prospect of representation is overwhelming, unbearable, or sacrilegious, a real artist makes art of that inhibition — as Clint Eastwood did with FDR, JFK, and MLK in J. Edgar.

Glenn Kenny, Some Came Running

I haven’t even seen CBGB, but that would probably be it. That doesn’t mean I take especial offense at its existence, or even that I intend to “boycott” the movie (no reason I ought to pay to see it, either, so I may never experience its wonderment). It seems a pointless exercise not only on all those whingy personal grounds like “violating my youth” (which, whether or not true or “true” isn’t a legitimate critical complaint anyway), but because the current culture is only informed by “punk” on a remarkably meager and superficial level. Great songs and all, but it’s gotten kind of quaint, no?  It doesn’t even piss people off all that much anymore, which can’t be said, say, of Duchamp’s urinal. (Again, inasmuch as people are aware of Duchamp’s urinal…the issue kind of takes care of itself that way I guess.) Hey, nobody’s making a biopic about Duchamp, right?

Peter Keough, Boston Globe, Critics a Go Go

Maybe reality TV. A fictitious film about a phony show pretending to depict real life is so many removes from reality that it might make my head explode. 

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second, Periodical

I’ve never really felt that the Beats have been done justice on-screen. Reading On the Road at an impressionable age I longed for the mooted (at the time) Francis Ford Coppola adaptation, but when that film eventually reared its head last year in the shape of Walter Salles’ interpretation I couldn’t help but find it underwhelming. Perhaps it’s the form of that particular book, and the unorthodox nature of much of the works associated with that movement that means they’re nary likely to ever succeed as films made for mainstream audiences, or maybe it’s more to do with the fondness with which I hold the movement/era in general and the unachievable expectations that brings with it. 

Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer

Would that you’d asked this question before HeartBeatOn the Road and Kill Your Darlings had been made. I don’t want to see any more Beat-era hagiography.

Josh Spiegel, Mousterpiece Cinema

I can’t think of a cultural event or milestone so dear to my heart that it would infuriate me to see it turned into fiction. No doubt, I wonder what the creative prospects are of a film like the upcoming Saving Mr. Banks, less because I find the production of Mary Poppins to be so extraordinary by itself, and more because I wonder what kind of story can be told of the film’s creation. The problem, for me, is less with turning a milestone into fiction than it is making unnecessary shortcuts in the retelling. (I haven’t seen CBGB yet, but the reviews make it sound like this issue crops up frequently.) So though I may be skeptical of some events being transformed into awards-bait cinema, I don’t think there’s any one event that should be left out.

Andrew Welch, To Be (Cont’d), Dallas Observer

As a teenager getting into The Beatles, I wondered what an expansive movie about the band would be like, but now I can’t think of anything more diminishing to their legacy. I’m sure there’s a throughline that could be teased out, but I can’t imagine the end result being anything but derivative compared to the lasting quality of their music. I don’t have a problem with a movie like Nowhere Boy (which I haven’t seen), since it has a limited scope, but to imagine the band’s entire history being crammed into a two-and-a-half or three-hour Hollywood movie — it gives me the shivers.

Jason Shawhan, The Nashville Scene, Interface 2037

In theory, there’s nothing that couldn’t be turned into a good movie. I don’t know if one could make a strong narrative film about the Occupy movement, mainly because its open source/democratic approach to existing is best served by documentarians; I think having a writer and director stamp their visions on it would result in something that, while quite possibly moving and/or thrilling, would be at intellectual odds with the movement that spawned it. Similarly, thanks to their astounding array of self-documented footage (see How to Survive a Plague), there’s no need to try and make a narrative film about ACT UP. Just look at the winnowing and bowdlerizing that happened to Harvey Milk’s story (as supervised by Cleve Jones) in the journey from real life to Milk. That’s not a slag on Van Sant’s film, but a concern about who’s telling of the story gets used. Any movement is going to come with some infighting, but when that infighting helps shape what is supposed to be the objective, “historical” telling of the tale, then there’s problems.  

John DeCarli, Film Capsule
I definitely don’t need to see a self-righteous docudrama about the Occupy movement. I feel like the 99/1  percent tent-pole comes ready made with emotions that wouldn’t translate well into film. I imagine a rote Hollywood biopic-like film with a lot of fist wagging. If it were to be done well, however, I’d want to see a Godardian take-down of form as well as politics. Something like the omnibus Far from Vietnam currently in rerelease. 

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing

The one that comes to mind is a biopic about President Barack Obama. I say that not because I don’t want to see it or because I don’t think it could be good, but because the mere thought of how the far right in America would react just makes me want to curl up in a ball and not interact with society anymore. We live in a time where some try and posit that everything done by the man is evil, so I’d just like to avoid the future arguments I know that I’d end up having.

Edwin Arnaudin, Ashvegas

I think that in the hands of the right filmmaker, any piece of history has the potential to be turned into a great film.  Just because a particular non-fiction topic didn’t translate well to the screen at one time or seems like it wouldn’t sells filmmakers short.  Not having seen CBGB, I can’t speak to its quality, but if Randall Miller’s film is indeed bad there’s still room for someone to do the subject justice.  To believe otherwise seems incredibly pessimistic.

Piers Marchant, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

I’m personally dreading the inevitable Stanley Kubrick biopic that is no doubt brewing in Hollywood production offices as we speak, I mean, look what happened to Orson Welles. First of all, they are almost bound to be poorly cast (What heated box-office draw will play young Kubrick? Zac Efron? Justin Timberlake? Dwayne Johnson?), and they will attempt to make this brilliant, enigmatic man into some kind of accessible trope — suffering artist, pissy perfectionist, loving paterfamilias — and contort his life into some kind of three-act redemptive arc about the power of love or the non-conformist virtues of an artist who refuses to compromise his vision. I can tell you right now, it will only serve to reduce the man to a convenient stereotype, a facile bit of pablum that the auteur himself would never have stood for in any of his work. I’m preemptively mad already.

Anne-Katrin Titze, Eye For Film

If it’s well done, any “cherished cultural movement or milestone” could be turned into fiction. 

Luke Y. Thompson, Topless Robot

The logical follow-up to CBGB is a fictional Lollapalooza movie, with Spike Jonze as Perry Farrell. Though I just thought of something worse — the Woodstock 94 movie that will invariably “prove” that alternative rock causes rape.

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

At first, I thought this question had stumped me. Then I realized that there really isn’t any specific answer I could give. If the movie is done well, any cultural movement or milestone is fair game. As Roger Ebert famously said, “It’s not what the film is about, but how it is about it.”

Tony Dayoub, Cinema Viewfinder

If by cherished that includes not-by-me, then I could live without ever seeing Tea Party: The Movie make it onto screens.

John Keefer, 51 Deep

It’s not the what but the how that matters.

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap

I firmly believe that no one should ever make a Monica Lewinsky movie — with the possible exception of the Farrelly Brothers. 

Q: What is the best movie in theaters right now?

A: Gravity

Other movies receiving multiple votes: Captain PhillipsWadjda, A Touch of Sin, The World’s End.

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