Wesley Morris, boston globe film critic: “they hate people who have opinions that run contrary to their fanaticism”



A film review by Wesley Morris can take a number of different angles: a star’s power over the production, the quality and chemistry of the performances, a film’s place in a genre or the arc of a career. It does so in lively, smart prose sprinkled with memorable turns of phrase—of Michael Moore’s abilities as a director, he wrote that Moore “can turn a kernel of truth into a bucket of popcorn”; about The Help he wrote: “On one hand, it’s juicy, heartwarming, well-meant entertainment. On the other hand, it’s an owner’s manual.” Morris started writing for the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner in the late 1990s, then moved to the Boston Globe. From his offices there, the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize criticism discussed bringing notebooks into the theater, trying not to grow into a grumpy old critic, and much more. - Naoki O’Bryan

THE BELIEVER: When writing a review, do you feel obligated to come down to a yes or no decision?

WESLEY MORRIS: No, no. I would hope that by the time you are done reading what I’ve written you can determine whether or not it’s an experience you would like to have if you haven’t already had it. If I like a movie, I’m definitely advocating for it, but it’s not “you should see this” or “you shouldn’t see this.” I try to take a longer view about what the movie is doing and where it fits in the context of other things, in the way that certain good literary criticism tries to do the same thing. I’m slightly limited by the fact that I write for a daily newspaper and that I have to apply that idea to five separate movies in the space of anywhere from five hundred to a thousand words each, as opposed to taking one film and dealing with that for about two or three thousand words. But hopefully the effect is the same. Hopefully I can give you a sense of whether or not I had a good time, and whether it worked or why it doesn’t work.

BLVR: How much, if at all, do you take a filmmaker’s intent into account when writing about a movie?

WM: It’s important to keep that in mind, but I don’t think that is the guiding principal for me in terms of what I think the movie is doingAnything produced and then exhibited for public view is open to interpretation. A movie is just like a work of art or a book or a piece of music. The intent of its maker is one thing, but its interpretation by an audience is something else. I don’t stop at what the filmmaker wanted to do.

BLVR: As a critic, it’s your job not to love a movie just for its director, but a lot of fanboys do exactly that. Do you ever clash with them?

WM: No. You can’t really reach those people. The movies have entered this new strange partisan situation. There’s nothing inherently a critic can do to enlighten these partisan moviegoers. They’re as fanatically devoted to movie franchises as certain sports people are to their teams. I don’t write for those people because they read reviews to have what they believe verified, and they hate people who have opinions that run contrary to their fanaticism. Without even having seen a movie they will attack a critic for not liking it.

BLVR: Do you go to regular theaters, critics-only screenings, or both?

WM: Both. I love to go to the movies with people, but a lot of the time it’s me in a room with a bunch of other movie critics, which is fine. I don’t need the audience, but sometimes it’s nice to have a gauge—not so I know how I feel but so I get what is or isn’t working for moviegoers.

BLVR: You’ve written about bringing in a notebook.  Woody Allen once said he “disagrees completely” with critics who bring notebooks into the theater because it keeps you from fully absorbing the movie.

WM: It’s easy for Woody Allen to say that because he’s not a critic. It’s not essential to have a notebook—and a lot of the times I don’t even use what I write down—but at this point I would be more distracted not to have a notebook than to have it. Once in a while I’ll look down and for the two seconds my eyes are away from the screen I’ll miss something and I’m annoyed with myself. It doesn’t happen that often, but it has happened. Still, I’d rather have the notebook than not have it.

BLVR: What do you appreciate when you look at a film review as prose?

WM: Anything that makes me think and entertains me a bit. I just have to be able to follow and enjoy the writer’s voice and the writer’s point of view. Liking what the person has to say is not really important to me.

BLVR: Are there any critics or writers whom you’d cite as an influence?

WM: I like Nora Ephron. She wasn’t a critic in the strictest sense of the word, but she did a lot of social criticism. She was so funny and so in the right place at the right time when she was writing for Esquire and New York magazine in the seventies. She has a really strong voice, she had really strong opinions, and she managed to incorporate her own sense of herself into things that she wrote without hijacking the subject with narcissism.

BLVR: What comprises a work of bad criticism?

WM:  There’s a kind of jargon that some critics have—they get it from reading Variety or the Hollywood Reporter, so they write in what some people call Varietese. They’re concerned with what the box office is gonna be like, with Oscar prospects. Those are side concerns.

BLVR: Looking back on your earlier work, is there anything you wish you hadn’t done?

WM: No [laughs]. Well, I had a correction once where I said that Michelangelo Antonioni was dead when he wasn’t actually dead—he was just barely alive but he was not actually dead, so I regret that. I’m a better writer than I was then, I’m probably a better thinker. But my taste hasn’t changed too much. I’m probably more honest about the things I don’t like that I should like—”should,” whatever that means. I don’t have to like every movie that Abbas Kiarostami makes just because he’s Abbas Kiarostami, but that took a bit of time for me to understand.

BLVR: Can you take me back to the first film review you ever wrote?

WM: Probably something when I was in the eighth grade about a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie called April Morning. It was the one movie we got to watch in school all year, and I talked how mediocre the movie was, and how because it was our only movie, it was such a shitty movie of them to pick. I didn’t synopsize the plot, I wrote about how awful a time I had watching it. That was the first piece of criticism I was consciously aware of writing. The teacher pulled me aside after class and said, “This is really good, you should think about continuing to do this.” And he continued to encourage me. So I did it for the school paper and that was the beginning. 

BLVR: After Brokeback Mountain was passed over for Best Picture in 2006, you wrote that while Hollywood preaches tolerance of homosexuals, it doesn’t provide “an actual homosexual to tolerate.” Have the movies’ portrayal of homosexuality improved at all over the past several years?

WM: Not really. TV does it better. I just don’t know what the movies are doing. They just don’t care, and if nobody is pushing them or holding their feet to the fire, they have no incentive to do anything. The tragedy of Brokeback Mountain is that it just kind of took that off the table for studios, they don’t feel like they have to do it, so now, every time they make a movie that stars two actors playing gay guys, their gayness is the attraction as opposed to the story. Brokeback Mountain is a sad love story about two people who can’t be together, and the reason that they can’t be together is because being gay is a stigmatized thing. It would be interesting to have the same movie, in which the two guys weren’t in the closet and there was no shame about them being gay and they couldn’t be together for other reasons. I still feel like we’re a long way from that happening.

BLVR:  What would it take to make that happen?

WM: For the studio to just be like, “I don’t care, yeah, they’re gay.” What you get is this in-between thing, what they call Bromance, two guys just kind of spending all this time together, but then they put in a woman just so you know they’re not gay. Pretty much everything else points to the two guys being in love and loving each other, but there’s Anna Kendrick, or some woman, whose only purpose is to not let your mind go there and stay there for too long. “They are straight, don’t worry, don’t be freaked out.”

BLVR: Do you see social change influencing movies, however slowly, or change coming the other way around?

WM: Ultimately the social change has to come from the people who make the movies, right, so the people who make the movies have to look at the landscape and say to themselves, “Well, you know, these things are changing, and I’m okay with their having changed, and I think it’s okay to start reflecting those changes through the movies we make.” I don’t see a lot of studio executives caring at all what the culture is telling us. They think they make the culture. They’re not out taking the temperature of things and using their results of whatever sort of cultural surveying they’re doing to make movies. They’re interested in doing things that people are already comfortable with, and taking those properties and filling them.

It would be nice to see them try to take more risks and think beyond Will Smith and Denzel Washington. There are lots of other non-black, non-white people you could put in movies to try to make them a star, but nobody seems to be doing that either.

BLVR: You’ve often criticized movies based on their portrayals of race. For example, you’ve written that Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is sappy and righteous and all about Spencer Tracy’s speech at the end. But you’ve mentioned you really love Do the Right Thing. What makes that film so great?

WM: It’s honest. It’s the best American movie made on the subject of race. It looks at it from a number of different angles. The problem with a lot of movies when it comes to race is that they want to be moral, and they want to make the audience feel good about something a lot of people don’t feel good about. The great thing about that movie is that it isn’t interested in being moral, it’s interested in what this collection of people in that particular neighborhood felt, with each side having their own sort of frustrations with another group.

BLVR: Why do you think Spike Lee put those two quotes—one by Martin Luther King Junior and the other by Malcolm X—at the end of the film?

WM: To point out that there’s two ways to do it. The so-called Malcolm X way, which is violent reaction to oppression and racism. And there’s the passive, the so-called Martin Luther King kind of response, which is change through resistance and peaceful disobedience and protest. In some ways people give Spike Lee a hard time for that, seeing a short-sighted or reductive interpretation of both men, but I think it’s really good shorthand for the two options that the movie gives you, that really aren’t two options. It’s not a binary situation at all, it’s actually much more complicated than that. Both of those things are understandable and maybe even viable. It might even be better with a little bit of both used at the same time.

BLVR: Do you feel any responsibility to be a black voice in a predominantly white profession?

WM: Sure! I don’t go out of my way to do it, but it’s a natural outgrowth of my being black. I do feel a responsibility to address things that are problematic, but again, I don’t have to go out of my way to do that. I have a pretty good sense of when to express misgivings. And white critics are just as capable of pointing those things out and noticing them as people of color are. All critics have the responsibility to tease out the social ideas and social problems in a movie. I don’t feel an obligation to do that because I’m black, I feel like I do it because I’m a human, and I’m a human who’s aware of the history of humanity and the ways in which the movies touch on those things.

Straight white males: that’s the predominant moviegoing category, and the persistence of that is a dismaying maintenance of the status quo. It’s legitimate to point out the ways in which the movies and popular culture in general are failing to recognize how different the world looks now than it looked even ten years ago, or how different the United States, looks than it looked like ten years ago.

I’m uniquely positioned to deal with some of those things, but I don’t think that people who don’t deal with those things are at a loss or at fault. Everybody brings their thing to their criticism. I bring this wealth of opinions and feeling and knowledge of and about race and gender and sexuality. I feel like I have it, I may as well express it, and if it’s applicable to what I’m writing about and I’m not forcing it, I should try to use it, because it’s interesting. It speaks to more than some people.

Some really really great stuff here re: criticism, auteur fanaticism and Hollywood’s relationship to the culture. Seems like a pretty cool dude.

(Source: believermag)

a burned effigy to the gods of deep sea submergibles

The Avengers

^great poster by the way

I’ve been very negative about escapist entertainment lately. My primary problem with escapist entertainment is its schlocky and passionless nature and how effectively it demoralizes audiences with poorly-defined conceptions of humanity and morality and weak intellectual value. This is very much not that kind of escapism.

Granted that it’s a live action cartoon and is a major cash-in, there are fewer of its kind better than this. I think it certainly surpasses all of its predecessors quite easily—it never falls flat in its action sequences like they do, nor are the dramatic notes excessive or humorous moments too obnoxious. This is just flat-out sophistication in blockbuster entertainment. I expect no less from Whedon at his weakest, and this is surely much more than that. He brings immense wit and heart to what it seems should be soulless. People contrasting this with the Transformers movies are right inasmuch as Whedon is the perfect anti-Bay kind of filmmaker. His images are fluid and gorgeous and coherent, with rough-and-tumble explosive action melding perfectly with run-and-gun moments. One particular spot where they pull a deft, very Whedonish tracking shot from character to character across the New York skies and rooftops was just riveting. You can see the careful touch he employed in Firefly getting used to utter perfection here, both in his use of ensemble and the subtlety and clarity with which he moves his narrative forward. And his writing absolutely takes advantage of every Avenger’s best characteristics. Where characters like Black Widow, the Hulk and Nick Fury seem profoundly empty in their various past appearances, they absolutely shine here. The Hulk especially was a sight to behold—it’s hard to imagine a better use of the character. Whedon finally hit just the right notes with a character that seemed doomed to mediocrity.

And surely one of the greatest things the movie accomplishes is combining all of these characters and movie plotlines that we’ve been following for, what, like four years now? in such an organic and wonderful way. By the time the Avengers are, ahem, assembled, every preceding movie seems to have led perfectly to this one, and the characters are so extensively developed in their respective movies that time can be spent developing their relationships to one another right away. And that is done so extremely well.

As far as capturing comic books on film goes—just the very idea of translation from comic to screen—I think this is the best effort yet, for sure. I really felt the same way I felt when I read The Ultimates or Marvels. This feels like a comic book on screen, the perfect cinematic embodiment of the form. Obviously that’s not to say it’s superior ultimately to The Dark Knight or X-Men 2 or other pretty awesome adaptations—though it might be, that thought is certainly rumbling in my mind, but that may just be the high from the experience—but in terms of sheer adaptation this is the first complete triumph. Pure, silly, heartwarming, exciting fun. Whedon is one of few modern Hollywood filmmakers I feel can powerfully change the vocabulary of the form.

Piracy, The Studio System and YOU

This dopey gal has the funny idea that movie piracy is what makes movies so bad.

Haha, yeah…no.

This is the kind of insipid, status quo-perpetuating nonsense that allows things like the current privacy-violating legislation in Washington and heinous money-grubbing hacks in Hollywood and elsewhere to thrive.

After discussing a meme-inspired convention/conference thing where the merit of memes as intellectual property is apparently discussed with complete seriousness, Katie Notopolous says,

I worked at major movie studios for years, and I know exactly the consequences of movie piracy. I was around for several rounds of massive layoffs at studios where thousands of jobs were eliminated. There is a direct and real effect on a large American industry. While Tom Cruise or the president of the studio doesn’t see a dent in his paycheck, you might see the entire accounting department outsourcedto trim overhead.

What Miss Notopolous is forgetting is that the sensibilities with which modern movie-making is done has existed since its inception; make movies cheaply, focusing budget on spectacle and marketing instead of substance, and then watch the dough roll in. It’s not new that Hollywood produces bad movies. Regardless of the effect piracy has had on employment of the “little guys” in LA or NYC, the root of the problem is the very idea of profit over substance. And this seems to be the case in any way you can look at it.

Hollywood produces a film for y dollars. Typically a film is considered to have been a feasible investment if it makes back 1.5y, in other words the studio’s initial investment plus half that. This is a worst case scenario, mind you. They desire much more—as much as possible, obviously.

A project’s potential to meet these standards is the only criteria that is taken into account when a project is developed in the current studio system. Characteristics like plot, character, setting, theme, craft, the talent involved (director, screenwriter, performers, etc.), are taken into consideration only in respect to their ability to be sold. No matter what producers, execs, etc. say about the magic of the movies at their self-congratulatory award shows or benefits or whatever, they will not make a movie if it will not make them money.

Certain standards that have proved to be economically viable are the quickest to be picked up for production—obviously, a sure thing is more likely to be made than something more risky or different. And in most cases, risky or different projects that do get picked up belong to individuals who have already made studios a lot of money.* So genre movies, movies that will star major actors, movies with plots that are not too difficult to follow, movies that will win awards at the aforementioned political back-patting award shows (really, really long commercials, basically), movies based on already-existing material that will sell to built-in audiences and that have books/TV shows/other movies/etc. to act as extreme hype-building, free advertising, etc. get picked up more often than original ideas. That last one—the one about previously existing materials—is where we get the rampant remake/reboot/sequel/prequel/adaptation problem. Not piracy, as Notopolous hilariously suggests.

Once a movie meets these (read: weak) standards (which producers are perfectly willing to alter to their sporadic specifications if need be in the midst of a complicated production process which they otherwise have no part in) the actual talents involved are given millions of dollars with which they can make the schlockiest product possible so long as they do it on or under budget, on time and then subsequently sell that movie as obnoxiously as possible.

This brings me to the most troubling fact in the article in question. In the midst of all the defense of the little guys in the studio system and appeals to handing our money away to these trashy movies studios produce, Notopolous points out this little gem:

Inception had a $100M marketing budget

I shudder at this fact. Alright, obviously this isn’t anything new or really surprising. Most major Hollywood releases have crazy marketing budgets. But in the same article that we are being asked to be empathetic and honest and give these people our hard-earned money, we’re told that a film that already had a $160M production budget had a marketing budget that consisted of another $100M? How are we supposed to view Hollywood and its scumbag executives as anything more than just that, utter scumbags, with knowledge like this? And hey, I like Inception. I like it a lot. I think, despite Christopher Nolan being something of a slimy, Hollywood-spokesman kind of character (in my humble opinion), that he’s made some really great films and I greatly look forward to his next Batman movie. Like, greatly. Like, nerdgasm times a million greatly. But that so much money goes toward something as despicable as marketing** kills me, it soundly eliminates any potential sympathy there could have possibly been in my mind for Hollywood and its Randian cretins.

So an idea is picked up for its salability, marketed with attention toward that salability, distributed on a mass scale so as to pull as much cash from as many audiences as possible (and allegedly even the $9-13 we have to spend on tickets isn’t enough for them most of the time), audiences see it, much money is made…but not enough. Even though most of these major releases—the ones that cost the most money to make—make money (break even and then some), they are not making enough money. Piracy is keeping money from them that they need so desperately that they lay off poor accountants and whoever else, because not enough people wanted to spend money on their excellent movies? On what planet does such an argument make sense?

These movies appeal literally to the lowest-common-denominator, they have little to no substance, and even when they do, it’s a rare sight. That they are lower-than-crap productions is not the fault of piracy—audience members who go to movies for entertainment (and possibly even for substance!) see crap and become demoralized with the fact that for decades they’ve been spending enough money on a cheap dinner for the family on excessively-priced movie tickets for the worst kind of movies. Notopolous provides this gem:

First, several studios shuttered their arthouse imprints like Picturehouse and Warner Independent in the past few years. So no more “good” movies that don’t make huge profits.

Implying it is the responsibility of the independent filmmaker to produce movies of value. That, if studios choose not to distribute independently produced content, good movies are not released. What is this nonsense? Why should it be up to independent filmmakers to produce quality? And let’s be honest. The “independent” fare that Hollywood tends to pick up is still picked up based on its ability to be easily marketed. It has that “indie feel!” It has that popular actor going slightly out of his comfort zone! It’s controversial and people will pay to be able to talk about it! It’s never a question of substance—in the studio system, monetary potential precedes substance always.

Piracy is a result of people sick of repetition and studios constantly taking advantage of a perceived stupidity in the masses. Perhaps the masses when, I dunno, massed, can be stupid. Transformers always sells. But studios appeal to aspects of humanity that can be easily manipulated into blind consumption and empty acceptance of low quality. People who are starting to realize that and who have the ability are now refusing to spend their hard-earned money on garbage. And personally, even if it’s not garbage, if I know my money is going to go to the perpetuation of this system, this means of production, I can’t help but feel guilty for supporting it. But I do. Tomorrow I’ll finally be seeing The Avengers, because I love comic books, I love Joss Whedon, I love the cast and characters. But I hate the empty ideology and overt twisted attitude that surely went into much of its conception, production and distribution. And that’s something you and I are giving our money to every time we pay for a movie ticket.

*For example, king of the ass-kissers Chris Nolan making a pair of extremely successful Batman movies and then getting the opportunity to make odd, cerebral movies in between successive Batman movies, one of which (Inception, which Notopolous discusses in her article) was made on a budget nearly on par with the budget of his second Batman movie, which seems like a triumph for creative filmmaking when in fact it’s just a result of a Batman movie (a franchise with the benefit of both built-in, decades-old marketing and the employment of two of the franchise’s most popular villains, one of which played by a beloved actor who died far too young just before the film’s release) making back a little over five times its original budget and therefore giving Nolan himself a little leaway in terms of creative control. That the “one for them, one for me” aspect of Hollywood filmmaking is thought of as some sort of fair trade or righteous artistic endeavor by the majority of people, including film fans, is insane to me. That a talented mind (and the extremely talented crew that he or she works with) spends millions of dollars on a gamble so that he may or may not get to make the kinds of movies he wants to make is extraordinarily sad to me. Another example of a filmmaker who got to make what he wanted is James Cameron, a self-made millionaire with enough money from his franchises to be able to make whatever movies he wants (and tellingly enough even he chooses to play it safe and make the movies that’ll multiply his excessive riches).

**That’s for another day. Don’t get me started on marketing.

Bomb Hollywood means demanding increased quality in cinematic production.
It means leaving the craft to the craftsmen and not the businessmen. It means telling the businessmen to quit controlling what gets seen, how it gets made, who gets to make it. It means the capitalists will always be secondary to the artists. It means shutting down the parasites.
It means killing the gimmickry. It means bringing light back into the theaters. It means making movies mean something.
It means burning money before ever even thinking of handing it to George Lucas.
It means holding entrepreneurial filmmakers accountable for increasing budgets in production and spending enough money on one blockbuster to keep an impoverished nation alive for a decade.
It means burning away the icons, the actors and their cults of personality that at once alienate the masses while making them feel like they should aspire to superficiality and excess.
It means making artistic expression attainable for everyone, not just those with luck, looks, cash and connections.
It means piracy.
It means encouraging moviegoers to ask, “why?”
It means supporting big awesome explosions, crazy CGI, and eye-popping 3D for the sake of organic purpose—not for the sake of selling a product.
It means, make art. Make someone happy. Make someone think. Make someone know you and know themselves better than they ever could without art.

Bomb Hollywood means demanding increased quality in cinematic production.

It means leaving the craft to the craftsmen and not the businessmen. It means telling the businessmen to quit controlling what gets seen, how it gets made, who gets to make it. It means the capitalists will always be secondary to the artists. It means shutting down the parasites.

It means killing the gimmickry. It means bringing light back into the theaters. It means making movies mean something.

It means burning money before ever even thinking of handing it to George Lucas.

It means holding entrepreneurial filmmakers accountable for increasing budgets in production and spending enough money on one blockbuster to keep an impoverished nation alive for a decade.

It means burning away the icons, the actors and their cults of personality that at once alienate the masses while making them feel like they should aspire to superficiality and excess.

It means making artistic expression attainable for everyone, not just those with luck, looks, cash and connections.

It means piracy.

It means encouraging moviegoers to ask, “why?”

It means supporting big awesome explosions, crazy CGI, and eye-popping 3D for the sake of organic purpose—not for the sake of selling a product.

It means, make art. Make someone happy. Make someone think. Make someone know you and know themselves better than they ever could without art.

The Novelty of 3D; brief thoughts on film gimmickry

For a brief period of time, sound was a gimmick. It would appear briefly in event movies—maybe one line of dialogue would have sound, enough to get the audience gasping and cheering and paying boatloads to see otherwise thoughtless and empty movies. Color was similar; looking at movie posters from the 30s and 40s you see “IN TECHNICOLOR” as large as the movie titles, much in the same way you see the phrase “IN IMAX 3D” on movie posters now.

I am not a fan of 3D. I think it’s definitely fair to dismiss it as it currently used in cinema as a gimmick and as a way to inflate ticket prices and fill the pockets of producers and studio execs.

Am I the same as a bored audience member in the 20s who may have felt irritated and disenchanted with the sound trend? Maybe. But I don’t think audience members were any more in the wrong then in their distaste for novelty as I am now. Sound was a gimmick, no less than 3D is right now. It was not until filmmakers saw its potential as a storytelling device and fully embraced it that people saw it for the meaningful technical achievement that it really was.

In the past few years, there have been perhaps three or four movies to employ 3D for reasons other than sheer novelty; Avatar, Hugo, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams come to mind, and there are probably a couple others I’m forgetting or that I’m just unaware of. James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, and Werner Herzog, the first the strongest advocate for the technology out there and the latter two as far from industry conformists as you can get in modern mainstream cinema, clearly saw some sort of potential in 3D, or they wouldn’t have dedicated time and money to employ the technology in their films. Cameron especially had a lot of time and money at stake, not to mention pages and pages of arrogant self-promotion to be held responsible for, if Avatar hadn’t been the massive commercial and critical success it turned out to be.

I’d say calling 3D a gimmick in this filmmaking and film business climate is accurate and warranted; to call it unwanted not as much, as the consistent ticket sales, slumping though they may be, have clearly implied. But I can’t say it has personally been a selling point for me since Avatar, and that was the one and only time.

Sound, color, animation, computer enhancement and digital effects, and expanded aspect ratios all had a chance to prove themselves before they lost the stigma attached to them when first employed. But until they did finally prove themselves—as all certainly have—they underwent years of criticism and dismissal, all of which was probably warranted, and all of which was likely crucial in innovating the techniques, in changing them from gimmicks to meaningful modes of storytelling. 3D not only deserves criticism, it requires it. Criticism is its test; should it improve and prove itself as powerful a means of film storytelling as its predecessors, it will be because of commentary on its employment that led it there. If it crashes and burns, if in a decade James Cameron sulks in obscurity and instead the art form has been revolutionized by digital cinematography, increased frame rates (as Peter Jackson is attempting to do with The Hobbit) or remains much the same as it is now—as powerful as ever, with or without dimensional effects—so too will it be because of commentary.

"Act of Valor" and Propagandist Polarization

I’ve just discovered the critical reaction to Act of Valor, a film whose synopsis I won’t bother going into with any detail (because (1) I haven’t seen it and (2) you can read about it HERE and HERE and HERE) but basically it follows a Navy SEAL squad, all portrayed by real soldiers in active duty, on a trek all around the world to stop a terrorist cell from attacking the United States. It’s (supposed) stylistic intention is a cinema verite action war film of sorts. As true to life as can be, or something.

Already there exists a major conflict between the general patriotic, red-blooded, conservative American public and their political representatives and the liberal Hollywood establishment. Since the fall of the Hays Code filmmakers have been able to portray the numerous campaigns of the American military as negatively as they please, with our war in Vietnam being the subject to the most critical of modern war films. Conservative mouthpieces Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter, among others, have accused Hollywood of damaging the reputation and dignity of the United States’ military, portraying soldiers as psychotic, ruthless, monstrously violent and at best dim-witted.

The problem of this conservative view of the modern war film is that stuff like Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, and Platoon—certainly some of the most famed and acclaimed of the accused films in question—from the outset seek to uncover not the nature of the soldier but of the nature of war; how war and military training and ideology effect the psyche of human beings. The primary thesis that seems to recur through most modern war films is, Man is already a creature stricken with the inner conflict between our primal, natural instincts and the rational, spiritual, ethical structures with which we associate and define our humanity, so placing further weight on that existential strife with the horror of war results in a struggle so profound that the result is almost a new, wholly indefinable kind of humanity. It is a question of how we look at and solve the problem of war and its effect on mankind, not whether or not the parties involved are lacking in humanity or morality.

This conflict of ideology is one of many that carries on unfettered in the American social and political landscape. It cannot be substantively argued that we are not a nation divided, ideologically, spiritually…fundamentally. This dichotomy is not necessarily represented on the small scale; for the most part on a person-to-person, community-to-community basis, we’re able to reach relative agreement. But on a national scale, and in our political infrastructures nationwide, we are a country of citizens at odds with one another.

So back to the original point. The critical consensus to Act of Valor and the inevitable reaction to that consensus by the general American population and movie-going public is a perfect picture of this conflict. I came upon my first review of the movie on Slant. Andrew Schenker’s reaction to the movie could be called spirited. He opens his review calling it a “movie whose cinematic ineptitude is matched only by its ideological rottenness.” You can click the link for the rest of the review. It’s a relatively straightforward and fair one.

The comments that follow give us an idea of the kind of conflict critics are likely to face upon the potential success of the movie:

"Hey, you. Mr. White Liberal Guilt. You’re reviewing movies here, not politics, remember? Get a hold of yourself."

The comment seems to imply film criticism should not seek to pinpoint and counter a work’s thematic and ideological focus, which is a pretty spurious idea unless you’re a fan of the plebeian commentary of Gene Shalit or Entertainment Weekly.

Is it so out of line to express disdain for blatant, whitewashed propaganda and pose the possibility that American foreign and military policy is less about freedom and more about imperialism? I don’t think so, but the reaction reviews like this are bound to get is a wild fervor appealing not to rationality or reasoned discussion but to the black and white mindset of the American political landscape.

I won’t go so far as to assume Act of Valor is as insidious a piece of propaganda as Schenker implies—I imagine it won’t be much more harmful than the deliriously ahistorical The Patriot—but it is telling that the final cut privileges belonged to the Navy, allegedly because they didn’t want precious military intel getting in the wrong hands, but clearly also because they wanted to ensure their boys in uniform were portrayed as brave and likable and of course completely moral. There’s no doubt that regardless of its more subtle intents it is absolutely a biased piece of propaganda for the American military complex; how you’re expected to interpret what you see on screen is right there in the title.

The great sorrow is that this is not a conflict likely to be resolved. The film as of this writing has a 19% on Rotten Tomatoes. Do all of those reviewers share in a distaste for the actions of our men in uniform? It’s not likely, but even if some or many of them do, is it against the role of a film critic to hold a piece of art accountable for a questionable ideology? If this were a film about soldiers in any other country or anyone at all performing an action the reviewer did not find morally justifiable, would it be out of his or her element to make that known and include that fact in the critical evaluation of that piece of work? If the actions of characters in a film are not to be analysed in order to understand its purpose, what’s left? Is Act of Valor then not intended to convey truth or realism or a message about our soldiers and just act as an entertaining action movie distinct from the politics and ethics it puts on display?

There is no reasonable resolution to be found in a country ingrained with unchecked idealism and black & white mentalities. Act of Valor is probably fated to rush to the bargain bin like similarly ideological half-asseries such as Fireproof or Courageous, forgotten by those serious about film and worshiped by the audiences it happens to find who will always hold in better esteem their ideals in any incarnation than truth or artistry.

Or maybe Act of Valor will be huge. I would be interested to see what would happen then.