Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Reviewing the Audience

Is there anything in criticism more obnoxious than a critic reviewing the audience? Well, yes... there's Rex Reed's racist screed masquerading as an Oldboy review (since deleted by the Observer). But reviewing the audience is a very close second.

Before we go further any further, let me be clear on what reviewing an audience means. For preliminary examples, I direct you to any review by Armond White. Another place where this practice abounds is this universally derided Slate movie club, where the participants find "hipsters" who like Dogville and Before Sunset as dangerous as al Qaida. Or better yet, this Matthew Wilder dis on Rohmer fans, perhaps the nadir of this tactic. Used exclusively in negative reviews, the elements of a "review the audience" ploy are (1) defining the intended audience for any given film in the most ungenerous light; (2) implicitly congratulating the reader as someone superior to this intended audience; and (3) once you've lathered up your readers sufficiently, leaping to the conclusion: "you should not watch this movie because this is made for those losers, not for you, champ." Typically, the targets are aging bobos, the Landmark Theaters/NPR crowd, to whom lefty hipsters can condescend guilt-free, but homely geeks, Red Staters, and other unfashionable types are also common objects of scorn. Of course, for it all to work every word must be decreed in a haughty, dismissive voice, like the pronouncements from the prom queen in high school. "You are not cool/sophisticated/edgy/mature if you like this movie," these reviews tell you, without actually saying anything useful about the movies themselves.

We've all come across these reviews before, and most of us have probably felt the impulse to validate our dislike by judging the intended audience of the art that we scorn. You find this impulse most commonly attached to music, but movies are not immune from snobbery. Indeed, I'd say snob psychology is at the heart of connoisseurship -- folks are just too polite to actually blurt out the nasty thoughts lurking in our inner Jack Black about lame "I Just Called to Say I Love You" fans. It's human to not want to join a club comprised of people you despise. These reviews simply pander to that impulse.

Two recent films have provoked a gaggle of "review the audience" type reviews. Manohla Dargis's pan of Oldboy isn't so much an evisceration of the Korean shocker as it is a snarky putdown of genre cultists and the cult aesthetic. It's a strange diatribe coming from a critic who has the anime Ghost in the Shell 2 on her top 10 list, but I'm not her therapist. In any case, it's a provocative if irritating polemic that has stirred much debate in geek circles. But hot on Oldboy's heels comes Sin City, which has prompted all kinds of putdowns of that comic book adaptation's intended audience. I plead guilty to do doing the same.

Am I a hypocrite for fuming against the "reviewing the audience" tactic yet turning around and employing the same? Perhaps. But I find no way of explaining my disdain for Sin City honestly without coming to the heart of the matter: that this movie embodies a certain kind of sensibility best described by way of reference to fifteen-year-old Punisher fans. Watching Sin City, I had the inescapable feeling that the movie is made specifically and only for the edification of "fanboys" (as exuberant teen geeks (and their likeminded adult manifestations) are contemptuously or affectionately called, depending on whether you consider yourself part of the fanboy bretheren). Every "cool" moment by a "cool" character -- tortured tough guy, ninja chick, or whore with a machine gun -- feels calculated to elicit sighs of joy from boys just beginning to sprout pubes, whose idea of "cool" involves a very mean dude in a trench coat with a big gun, preferably with a cigarette dangling from the lips and a quick quip for every occasion. If you don't think trenchcoat chic is actually cool -- Robert Rodriguez's very similar exercise in studied coolness, the Desperado/Once Upon in a Time in Mexico series of macho posturing, struck me as laughably uncool -- all your left with are some arresting visuals in service of peurile crap. I found Sin City uncomfortable to watch, not because of the violence or nihilism, but because I was embarrassed by the shameless fanboy ethos at work. The perfume commercial dialogue and the cliched tough guys, the ninja chicks and whores with machine guns, the trite corruption storyline -- I thought the Spider-Man movies put an end to this kind of nonsense.

It's possible that much of this disdain stems from my own addled psychopathology, something to do with being a self-loathing geek, as someone has suggested. I'll admit that I'm instinctively suspicious of nearly anything I liked when I was fifteen. I'm more embarrassed than excited by references to Debbie Gibson, The X-Men, or Get Smart. But fanboys are characterized by their unalloyed enthusiasm for the object of their devotion -- they are, after all, partisans -- while my approach to art can be described as cautiously optimistic. Nor am I particularly attached to the tropes of "extreme" cult cinema.

So I don't think it's hating my inner fanboy that makes me review the audience. Rather, certain films, like Sin City or Finding Neverland on the other end, function so well within its niche that, in the end, what's offensive about them is that they close themselves off to anyone who doesn't get giddy when they get a whiff of their scent. These movies are "well-made" and arrive exactly as the creators intended, I'm sure. But by wallowing in "cool chic" fanboyism or middlebrow Miramaxism and rubbing the audience's nose in it, these movies face a backlash from those who find that underlying sensibility repugnant. Of course, my own blowback will come when the similarly hermetically-sealed, sensibility-sensitive movies by Arnaud Desplechin and Olivier Assayas are flamed. Yeah, it's true: misguided creatures who hate talky French Dandy Cinema are out there, if you can believe it. And they will pay me back.

Kings and Queen, April 20, 2005 @ Aero. I will be there. As will Arnaud. You will have your chance for dandy scalp thereafter.