One of the running themes on Jim Emerson's scanners blog over the last year (roughly) is contrarianism as it relates to film criticism. Starting with a string of posts about Martin Scorsese's pedantic and shallow Oscar winner, The Departed, and various other things, Jim wrote piece after piece examining the idea of contrarianism. The discussions that resulted were enormous and rich, which is (I would guess) partly why he felt so inspired to continue writing about it. Eventually, he organized a contrarian blog-a-thon, which turned out to be quite a large event in the film blogging circuit, bringing in a number of contrarian perspectives on film, culture, and contrarianism. Although I would have loved to have delved more into my own contrarian passions, of which I have many, I opted to write more broadly about guilty pleasures. (My long gestating contrarian perspective of Frank Marshall's brilliant 1995 film Congo is still in development, and will see the light of day on this blog sometime in the hopefully near future. I promise.) But I love to relish in contrarian viewpoints, especially on taboo subjects like critically panned movies.
One recent example of how the critics turn against their once-darling filmmakers is Youth Without Youth, Francis Ford Coppola's long-awaited return to directing. I remember eagerly anticipating this film when I read about it last year. I was disheartened, however, to learn that most critics ripped the film -- it scored a poor 28 percent on the Tomatometer -- and its maker for being overly pretentious, heavy-handed, and condescending. Francis Ford Coppola, it seems, has fallen out of graces with the critics who championed him as the wonderboy of cinema 35 years ago. Amazingly, much of the criticism of the film echoed the same rhetoric about other supposedly "once great" auteurs, namely Woody Allen, whose recent films are unfairly simplified and situated within the "What Happend to Woody?" narrative to a sickening degree. Although Youth Without Youth is the first movie to be subject to such negative judgment, I fear that Coppola may be doomed to the same fate with critics, many of whom are so baffled that a filmmaker dares to offer something different from her/his previous work that they choose to deride the art. In trying to be contrarian and cutting edge -- like most critics are painted -- critics actually draw themselves as the boring community of homogenized writing styles they so adamantly reject.
Based on the skewering criticism, it came as no surprise in its very limited release that was quickly "shown the door" at the cinema arthouses last December, when films like There Will Be Blood, Persepolis, and various others were competing for cinema goers' attention. In the blink of an eye, it seems, Youth Without Youth was gone, never to be heard from again like so many interesting looking films as awards season reared its head and started cutting down films to the small number that will be admitted into contemporary critical canon. It should be noted that films admitted to canon now often fail to resonate as much as films that were ignored in-the-moment, but over time were more memorable.
I discussed the danger of awards season discourse in a recent entry, in which I highlighted the importance of critics who were willing to swim against the current and talk about films no one else was talking about during awards season, such as David Cronenberg's mesmerizing, every-bit-as-good-as-No Country For Old Men film, Eastern Promises. But I admire just as much the critic who admirably discusses, and demands that we pay attention films that not only get forgotten, but which are disparaged and then forgotten, like Youth Without Youth.
Larry Aydlette is one of these critics. His seemingly bold take on the film, whether you agree or not, is utterly necessary at a time when so much criticism appears the same, not just in tone and structure, but in viewpoint too. His review of Youth Without Youth is inspiring, and should make and cinephile or critic want to see the film. Given that it would be impossible for any critic defending this film not to position her or himself as a "defender" of it, Aydlette takes on these criticisms head-on, and is baffled with the strangely uniform and predictable critical response to the film.
"I was completely mesmerized by Francis Ford Coppola's “Youth Without Youth.” If I had seen it last year, it would easily have made my Top 5 films of 2007. Where are all the cinephiles on this one? Why aren’t they supporting this legendary filmmaker? Isn't this what bloggers say they want more of: Independent movies with intelligence and storytelling and heart? I think that the failure here is not Coppola’s, but ours.
"Youth Without Youth” is told with passion and a love of a cinema that no longer exists. It’s the best movie Francis Ford Coppola has made since “Apocalypse Now.” Coppola has long promised to return to smaller, artier, more experimental films. This isn’t exactly experimental; it’s very soulful and old-fashioned. But in today’s film language, that’s downright radical. “Youth Without Youth” is one from the heart. Go see it."
Simple, direct, and somewhat fiery. It's perfect. I should probably disclose that I haven't seen Youth Without Youth, but whether I've seen it or not is really the point. The reason this is important is because it reminds of how much critics actually become figures predictable sameness in their attempts to be cultural contrarians. It's firstly interesting that so many directors in their later years tend to be unfairly judged in a negative manner, as if critics recognize that they perhaps gave a filmmaker too much credit for her/his classics or masterpieces and are now making up for it. It is quite fascinating, though, to examine critical trends, specifically how certain filmmaking styles and aesthetic conventions suddenly become taboo, such as mise-en-scene and classically-influenced cinematography.
But in a broader sense, I wonder if critics are losing touch with what it means to see films and write about them, and whether their sense of history contorts their understanding of contemporary cinema. Do we need a proverbial slap in the face to pull ourselves away of the same-old, boring conventions of predictable contrarianism? And at what point does being contrarian actually become the very act of sameness that contrarianism sought to reject in the first place? But I suppose the bigger question to come out of this is whether there is any way of shifting the critical dialogue away from the dominant binary approach of majority/minority and injecting it with the same amount of nuance that complex films demand?