Written in late November 2013 for Caiman Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.
En movimiento: The Season of Critical Inflation
Am I turning into a 70-year-old grouch? Writing during the last weeks of 2013 — specifically a period of receiving screeners in the mail and rushing off to various catch-up screenings, a time when most of the ten-best lists are being compiled — I repeatedly have the sensation that many of my most sophisticated colleagues are inflating the value of several recent releases. And my problem isn’t coming up with ten films that I support but trying to figure out why so many of the high-profile favorites of others seem so overrated to me. All of these films have their virtues, but I still doubt that they can survive many of the exaggerated claims being made on their behalf.
Gravity, hailed by both David Bordwell and J. Hoberman as a rare and groundbreaking fusion of Hollywood and experimental filmmaking, and not merely an extremely well-tooled amusement-park ride, is now being touted as a natural descendent of both Michael Snow’s La région central as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey, as if its metaphysical and philosophical dimensions were somehow comparable.
Blue Jasmine, described by many reviewers and bloggers as some sort of artistic pinnacle, overlooking and/or implicitly ratifying Woody Allen’s customary caricatural scorn for his working-class origins, viewed here without particular insights and with none of the sexual ambivalences of his principal source, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, that made the class issues far more charged, juicy, and interesting.
12 Years a Slave –- an arthouse exploitation gift to masochistic guilty liberals hungry for history lessons, some of whom consider any treatment of American slavery by a black filmmaker to be an unprecedented event, thus overlooking Charles Burnett’s far superior Nightjohn.
Inside Llewyn Davis, a quieter and softer-than-usual serving by the Coen brothers of their usual petty torments doled out to their usual born losers, has been heralded by many as a pitch-perfect rendering of the American folk music scene of the early 1960s. But having actually attended the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village in 1961, the setting of this film’s opening scene, I can attest that even if some of the regulars there occasionally said “fuck,” they didn’t use the word in almost every sentence, as many do today, including the alleged “period” characters in this movie.
And what about Spring Breakers, passionately recommended to me as something new and radical not only by several critics, but also by such sophisticated filmmakers as Carlos Reygadas and Keja Ho Kramer, and not as just another let-them-eat-cake and ultimately unthreatening (if doggedly puritanical) provocation crossed with kiddie-porn from Harmony Korine?
I could go on, with other examples ranging from Leviathan to Computer Chess to Nebraska. But maybe what’s to blame for my (relative) disenchantment with such items isn’t so much my age as the fact that I retired from regular reviewing almost six years ago, which has inevitably changed my critical perspective. I regard critical inflation as an occupational hazard for most professional reviewers, myself in the past included, who are obliged to sit through reams of terrible cinema week after week, and even stay to the end of films we wouldn’t see otherwise, are consequently more likely to overrate and sometimes even cherish the ones that aren’t so bad and are even halfway decent. (I’m leaving out of this survey those I rightly or wrongly regard simply as bad and even morally offensive films that are extolled for ideological rather than intellectual or artistic reasons, such as The Act of Killing –- a film that fits all too snugly within the category of valorizing and bringing spiritual dimensions to callous mass murderers and serial killers that has already reaped multiple benefits for The Silence of the Lambs and No Country for Old Men, among countless others.)