Friday, December 16, 2005

too cool for school

Item! Police are on the manhunt for an aging fourth or fifth string NY Times film critic who has, in a fit of picque, lacerated innocent bystanders with what's being described as his "cutting edge." Details of this incident remain sketchy, but victims are described as possessing something called "middlebrow," which may or may not be synonymous with monobrow.

Okay, that wasn't funny. Let's try it again. This post concerns a potential Sideways-level cineaste backlash to the critically lauded gay cowboy movie, one which Steve Erickson believes to be on the horizon. It's a backlash that has already arrived if you read certain highbrow sites like Dave Kehr's blog (check out the comments for some particularly funny examples of film geek self-congratulation). You see, the self-styled guardians of cinephilia are up at arms over Lee's "safe, middlebrow" tendencies, as if by virtue of identifying a target audience of uncool types (here, Oscar voters) they've identified the film's fatal flaws. For some, Lee's nondescript visual style in service of earnest, character-driven dramas proves too much for those with rarefied tastes. Worse, he dares to peddle his middlebrow antics in the sacred land of genre films. While the philistines fete a hack like Ang Lee, true geniuses like Renny Harlin and Walter Hill toil away in tragic obscurity, making brilliant, underappreciated genre exercises like modern day Budd Boettichers. Or so the superhighbrowcineastesnobs will have you believe.

That's where Kehr and his auteurist zombie[1] acolytes come in. Kehr's one of America's finest critics, but notice how his critique of Lee's film amounts to nothing more than artier-than-thou posing? Compare Kehr's impoverished attitudinizing with a review that actually engages with what's on the screen, which is above all a poignant study on the way an imperfectly realized love affair gets withered away by time and distance. (As if I need another movie to validate my "no long-distance relationship" policy.) Instead of addressing the movie the way Bryant Frazer did, Kehr just wants to show off how enlightened his aesthetical stance is. The argument? Lee is embraced by Oscar-voting, middlebrow philistines, ergo Lee is a hack.[2]

Alarms should go off whenever you hear critics go off on "middlebrow" this or humanistic (or anti-humanistic) that. These are not qualitative judgments. Rather, these terms are simply descriptions of the film's approach or sensibility. Too many critics, even terrific ones like Kehr, lose sight of that.

[1] What is an auteurist zombie? I like Bilge Ebiri's description: "people who will call three movies a trilogy if Ulmer has an insert of a shoe in each one."

[2] Just to be clear, I don't consider Ang Lee to be one of my favorite filmmakers, and as superb a job as he did with Brokeback, the film's missteps are mainly made by Lee (and Gyllenhaal). I just find the anti-Lee vitriol to be way over the top.

Also, this guy is a fucking twat.