Every week, the CriticWire Survey asks a select handful of 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.)
In a recent piece for The Talkhouse, Shannon Plumb — wife of “The Light Between Oceans” director Derek Cianfrance, as well as a filmmaker in her own right — wrote a candid piece about her reaction to the reviews of Cianfrance’s latest movie, and how it informed her opinion about critics in general. Some of her more pointed comments included:
“Critics can be like horseflies sucking blood from thoroughbreds.
People are losing their ability to be romantic… And the critics, like lemmings, are jumping off the cliff with all the other unsentimental rodents.
Anthony Lane, like so many other critics, seem to be watching movies with his head, not his heart.”
She cemented her argument with a famous quote from Theodore Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood…”
This week’s question: If you were to write a response to Plumb’s letter, what would you say? Does she misconstrue the role that film critics play, or does she make salient points about unfortunate trends in our profession?
Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse), Rolling Stone
I was distressed to receive your recent letter. For one, I’ll have you know that I am like a lemming only in body type, and that it has been years since I last sucked the blood from a horse’s meaty haunches. Please, I urge you to choose your analogies more sensitively in future communiques.
That being said, I can understand your frustration. Your husband’s a trier, as in “one who tries very very hard,” and while I have regularly found that to be an endearing quality in Mr. Cianfrance’s work (I named “The Place Beyond the Pines” as one of my favorite films of 2012, and for my money, his “Blue Valentine” numbers among the finest screen romances of our still-young century), many of my esteemed colleagues do not feel similarly. It’s not as if he just shat out “Pixels 2: Were You Aware Kevin James Was The Fucking President In This Movie” and called it a day; there’s genuine emotionality poured into this clearly labored-over picture. Critics spend so much time whinging about the paucity of mature, original stories featuring recognizably human characters, and so this is how we thank you for giving one to us?
The trouble is that your husband’s latest picture is, to employ a time-tested critical parlance, not that great. As much as Mr. Cianfrance’s yen for bone-deep melodrama has rubbed me the right way over the years, even I must admit that the dialogue is a bit sweaty and that your man does not know how to arrive at a satisfying finish. (If I were a cruder critic — say, the sort to compare an entire field of professionals to “parasitic insects” this is where I would make a sex joke.) And so of course the reviews indicated as much, as it is the sacred duty of the critic to warn prospective moviegoers when a new release shoehorns in a wack-ass flash-forward in its final minutes. But your grievance appears not to be so much with the anti-Cianfrance faction of critics as much as it is with the concept of criticism itself, yeah?
To which I say: Help yourself to a handful of chill pills. I will be the first to agree with you that the cretinous keyboard-mashers of the Internet’s seedier alleyways do not always run the most carefully considered criticism on their many-fonted, self-financed review sites. Even more upstanding, bona fide types (myself included, perhaps charitably so) are guilty of the occasional faux pas — getting snippy on Twitter, going into a screening with pre-conceived notions, breaking wind during interviews, you know how it goes. But the critic is not the enemy of the artist, so long as that artist isn’t Tom Hooper, who I maintain is a public menace. Any critic worth their salt commits to the craft out of a profound, abiding love for the medium, and sits down for each new film with the hope that it will be at least halfway decent. You seem to be a fan of tortured metaphors, so think of the critic like the parent who loves their child, and disciplines them because they want the youngster to be and do better. In the simplest terms, the critic exists in order to hold art to a measured standard of quality, to champion and excoriate as a film demands. If Mr. Cianfrance doesn’t want to be hassled over for third-act problems, then he should hire someone to resolve his third-act problems.
Do male critics occasionally turn up their noses at supposed “ladies’ genres” such as romance? Yes. Is that sexist? It is. Are some romance films just not good, thorny politics of gender notwithstanding? You betcha. Does answering a bunch of rhetorical questions in a row provide a writer with an easy way to work through a few rhetorical points in short order? It turns out that it does!
Of course nobody likes a Monday morning quarterback, but to suggest that fellow filmmakers are the only ones qualified to pass judgement on a movie is, frankly, absurd. Imagine if your exquisite squid-ink pasta was served to you with a severed pinky in it, and when you noted this to your waiter, the chef stormed out and bellowed, “If you don’t like my cooking, then just go make something yourself! You’re not even a chef, are you? You haven’t slaved over a hot stove for hours on end, sucking the sweat that accumulates on your upper lip into your mouth so that it doesn’t drip on the food! You know nothing of my work!” You’d probably say, “Okay, but I’ve eaten enough food in my life to know that it shouldn’t have still-bleeding fingers in it, and also there’s no need to get so huffy, and also ick.” Criticism can be really fucking difficult, but it ain’t heart science or rocket surgery. It’s more like sex, in that anyone can do it, and a select handful can do it well enough to make a career out of it.
In a final analysis, maybe people would see you as a more sympathetic figure if you didn’t keep recalling all the delectable cuisine you and your husband enjoyed during your free trip to Italy. But hey, I’m not a screenwriter. I’m apparently just some guy.
Forever your horsefly,
Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker
It takes two years to make a movie, two hours to watch one, and two minutes to demolish it. That’s the fundamental indecency of criticism. As great as the works of the greatest critics may be (whether James Agee or André Bazin), they’ll never equal the best films in their purview, whether those of Charlie Chaplin, Jean Renoir, or Orson Welles. But it’s precisely in that inequality that critics redeem and justify their work — in the recognition, exaltation, and precise description of the greatest films (which, moreover, are so often overlooked or derided by other critics). However, nothing obstructs the recognition of greatness like the celebration of mediocrity. To share enthusiasm for greatness is to share displeasures along with pleasures. That doesn’t make it easier for the filmmakers on the receiving end of those displeasures; I’m sympathetic to Cianfrance and to any filmmaker whose work gets bad reviews, even if the work isn’t good; they’re people.
Teddy Roosevelt, whom Plumb quotes, is right that the practice of an art or a craft in any given arena involves a fundamental depth of experience that isn’t required to criticize from the stands. That’s why the devoted critic doesn’t merely approach movies like a consumer but views and writes with imaginative sympathy, attempts to enter into the experience that the film implies. That’s why the idea of auteurism, of considering filmmaking as an experience — especially as inner experience — is the most useful and truthful one for recognizing and appreciating the art of the movies. And that’s where Plumb’s screed does Cianfrance no favors.
The experience that Plumb describes most fully and enthusiastically is of the fine food and wondrous travels in Venice. She quotes Roosevelt saying “It is not the critic who counts” while she frets that critics cost the film “a couple million dollars” (but who’s counting?). Does Plumb fear critics’ effect on Cianfrance’s art or on his lifestyle? His films are independent of her text, but what the films and the text have in common are vanity and demagogy. I haven’t seen “The Light Between Oceans” yet, and one of the joys of criticism — no, simply of movie-going — is when directors whose previous work hasn’t been great come through with real inspirations; I hope that’s the case here. But Plumb is right about at least one thing — critics make mistakes. The widely lauded “Blue Valentine” isn’t very good, and the praise lavished on it seems to have inflated Cianfrance’s directorial ego along with his taste for luxury.
P.S. Plumb’s also right that embargoes should be observed; a press screening is a transaction, not a right. She’s also right to note that gender can influence viewing — but the gap between women’s A- CinemaScore for “The Light Between Oceans” and men’s B+ isn’t exactly a yowling chasm.
Kate Erbland (@katerbland), IndieWire
On one hand, I think that Plumb’s essay comes from a very personal — and thus, to me, understandable — place, as she’s speaking out as both a filmmaker and the partner of a filmmaker. That she (and, by extension, Derek Cianfrance) would be wounded and dismayed to the critical response to a film that, by all accounts, was an emotional undertaking for everyone involved, is hardly surprising.
And yet, I think that Plumb’s response is far too rooted in her own personal connection to the movie and its maker — which is, again, very understandable, and what is art or love or romance without such a connection? — and is the sort of thing that only further continues to misconstrue the role that criticism plays in the consumption of art. Critics (well, good critics who care about their profession and respect the art they are entrusted with ostensibly judging) don’t exist to tear down art (or artists), and that Plumb is using her own experience to perpetuate this toxic myth is dangerous to the relationship between artists and critics — a relationship that will always be a little tense, but should also be much more fruitful and intellectual than so many general, base assumptions seem to think it is.
Oh, and P.S., I liked the film and think that Alicia Vikander is wonderful in it, so there’s that, too.
Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC)
Dear Ms. Plumb,
I’d be happy to have an argument about the role of the critic with anyone else, but not with you. You watched someone you love put his heart and soul into a movie, and you then had to stand by as it was dismissed by many critics in what I’m sure often felt to you like glib and inattentive terms. So lash out, be pissed off, say what you want. It’s fine. It really is. Any critic who takes it personally would be a fool, and even if I don’t buy Teddy Roosevelt’s notion that critics are just people who can’t DO things, it is the sacred right of the aggrieved to haul that old argument out of mothballs out if it makes them feel better.
Words can hurt, and artists are vulnerable human beings, and it is useful for critics to be reminded of that periodically, even if it doesn’t mean they would change a single sentence of their critiques as a result. It’s miserable to get bad reviews, or to feel that the work of someone you love is insufficiently appreciated — or worse, insufficiently understood. I hope venting helped, and I hope your husband’s next movie is warmly received.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko), Pajiba
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