July 18, 2024

OPINION: Critical failure

Lost in Scene

March 2023 for the New York Times marked the departure of A. O. Scott as a film critic when he left for the Times’ Book Review. Scott is a truly inspiring critic, grown up in a golden age of filmmaking in the ‘60s and ‘70s and settling into the critic spot in 2000. His career followed the industry’s increased use of digital cameras and CGI, along with a resurgence of independent cinema.

After hanging up the towel on film criticism, he was featured on an episode of the Times’ podcast “The Daily,” talking with Michael Barbaro about his career and the movie industry that he was growing estranged.

Scott had a knack for understanding who was reading his reviews, and described his writing as a critic as connecting audiences to the movies that they would want to see. Criticism is a subjective medium, that’s understandable, but appealing to the audience that is reading your reviews, who trust your judgement, is an objective goal.

This is where Scott in recent times describes a disillusionment with his role as a critic, with the turn of the ‘10s bringing a new wave of franchises and intellectual property-driven films that drove the movie industry away from the original and inventive movies that Scott had first loved. Specifically, Scott said superhero films and cinematic universes marked massive fatigue for him as they were “sucking up a lot of the oxygen in the movie world,” especially as fans sent harassment toward him on social media for negative reviews.

A dissenting opinion would be twisted as a mark of failure as a critic, and with retrospective review aggregates compiling every critic’s reviews into a good or bad number, a dissent is easier to spot than ever. Will a critic be correct or fatally wrong?

Streaming services further this divide, as the need for a critic to curate selections wouldn’t matter when an algorithm could mathematically and automatically give a user a movie or show that would keep them engaged with the service as long as possible. Death of the theater, rise of on-demand options. Death of activity, long live passivity.

It’s a doomed view of the industry, a moment where Scott saw fit to abandon ship. I don’t blame him, if I saw this industry change so rapidly away from what drew me in the first place, I might’ve done the same in his position.

The general audience doesn’t seem ready for the more controversial movies of today either. Last weekend, I saw “Kinds of Kindness,” a three-part anthology directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, whose name has become infamous in the movie world for directing deliberately abrasive and alienating movies with bitingly formal scripts pushing a sense of reality off a cliff.

I adored “Kinds of Kindness.” It’s a hauntingly dark piece as each of the three stories play around depictions of social manipulation, serving a world of hidden horrors as these characters find a way to cheat themselves out of, or sometimes in to, a stage of dynamics that become visually more caustic in each subsequent part.

It’s sick and disturbed, the opposite of kind, but I love it. The audience I was with did not. I witnessed walkouts and bewildered gasps (the man to the left of me shouted out “what the ----” at one point). While I left the theater feeling happy and refreshed, a couple walked past me with the husband grumbling “that was the weirdest movie I’d ever seen.”

Besides “Kinds of Kindness,” previous weeks featured “Tuesday,” “Janet Planet” and “The Bikeriders.” These four movies were meticulous, challenging and fascinating.

Yet, none of these (except perhaps “The Bikeriders,” which landed in 2,600 theaters) would appeal to a general audience. “Tuesday” featured a giant macaw as a grim reaper, with a raspy voice that eventually raps along to Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day.” “Janet Planet” is a slow burn coming-of-age story which feels like a soft-spoken lullaby rather than the bombast most would want a theatrical movie to be. “Kinds of Kindness” is a kick to the teeth of moral sensibilities. “The Bikeriders,” even with a larger release is slow and less focused on action rather than the texture and air of the ‘60s.

My joy that comes from watching movies, and writing about them now in this small little corner, is undeniable. Yet, I’m not the general audience. I was educated in weird and wonderful movies in high school and college that made me who I am today.

Scott’s pulse on the general audience is important, especially if he saw his work as a critic as how well he could serve his audience, or even the general audience of moviegoers. I think Scott’s words can be misinterpreted to mean he doesn’t trust in the general audience of moviegoers, and if he sees them as the Twitter users who harassed him after his negative writing about “The Avengers,” that view might be justified. Yet, I would argue a critic is needed more than ever.

While “Inside Out” and “Despicable Me” invigorate the summer box office, counterprogramming and alternative options are seeing a boost as well. I think it shows that audiences do want to seek out what’s different from normal, and are willing to seek them out as long as they know it’s there. Isn’t that the critic’s job, after all?

Nick Pauly

News Reporter for Creston News Advertiser. Raised and matured in the state of Iowa, Nick Pauly developed a love for all forms of media, from books and movies to emerging forms of media such as video games and livestreaming.