What Kills Good Movies (It’s Not Bad Reviews)

What Kills Good Movies (It’s Not Bad Reviews)


Two of my fellow-critics have gotten the ball rolling. Inspired by a tweet from Matt Zoller Seitz,
David Ehrlich asked me and other film critics a provocative question for
the latest of his weekly IndieWire surveys: my choice for a film maudit, a “widely despised and/or financially unsuccessful movie” from
the last two years that will turn out in the light of history to be
acclaimed as a classic. The prime examples from decades past are “Heaven’s Gate” and “Ishtar,” but I confess: in considering the question
I ignored the “financially unsuccessful” part, because it applies to
most movies in recent years that will turn out to be classics. More
interesting, to me, is the question of critical condemnation, and the
related question of film distribution.

In the past decade, film criticism has become better than ever, by which
I don’t mean that every critic writing is better than those of the past
but that criticism is better over all—more critics than ever have
actually seen many classic movies and a wide range of current ones,
because cinephilia, an ardor for wide-ranging moviegoing, is now a core
premise for even attempting criticism. (The gap between aesthetically
advanced young critics and op-ed think-piecers is even more conspicuous
than ever.) Above all, there’s a wider and stronger strain of curiosity,
a deeper variety of interests that goes together with a younger set of
critics who possess a wider variety of backgrounds and experiences,
which makes it altogether less likely that a great movie will meet a solid tsunami of critical dismissal—and the sharing of views far and
wide on social media, especially on Twitter, helps to get word around among
critics as well as viewers.

That’s why, I suggested in the survey, the last true film maudit is a
movie that was released in 2009, just at the start of the time of
social-media overdrive: Jared Hess’s “Gentlemen Broncos,” which I consider a truly great film, with no asterisk whatsoever, and which bears
a Rotten Tomatoes rating of nineteen per cent. While Hess’s more recent films rank higher—“Don Verdean,”
at thirty per cent, and “Masterminds,”
at thirty-four per cent—neither is a masterwork to rival “Gentlemen
Broncos,” although, because Hess is only thirty-eight years old, I count
on him to make many more extraordinary movies in the years to come,
which would make both of these recent films at least historically

On the other hand, there’s a new kind of curse afflicting the narrow
spectrum of enduringly worthwhile films, or, rather, a curse that has
always shadowed the field of movies but which, paradoxically, comes more
clearly to light in the current environment of rapid and vigorous public
discussion: movies that get little, or no, theatrical release. I’m
reminded of Faulkner’s line from “The Wild Palms” (which, aptly, is
cited by Jean-Luc Godard, in “Breathless”): “Between grief and nothing I
will take grief.” The grief that critics give movies still allows a
movie to live a shadow-life as a film maudit, whereas unreleased
movies are like cinematic phantom limbs that weaken the cinematic corpus
and cause pain by the very fact of their absence.

Film festivals are the place to go for movies that haven’t yet been
released and are being angled for their place in the cinemascape—and
when I occasionally go to festivals, I often see movies that deserve
prominence and don’t even come close to getting it. One example is the
documentary “Coma,” a
first-person account by the Syrian filmmaker Sara Fattahi about living
with her family in Damascus during the ongoing war. I saw it at the Berlin Film Festival two years ago; it played at MOMA once or twice, and then vanished
without getting released theatrically, on disk, or streaming. It’s
one of the few films I’ve seen that transforms the artistic heritage of
Chantal Akerman, and it’s invisible.

Then there are series held in local repertory venues, such as MOMA,
where, in 2013, I saw “When Night Falls,”
the most recent feature by Ying Liang. He’s one of the best Chinese
filmmakers, and he’s in exile because of his films’ frank depiction of
repressive and destructive policies by the Chinese government. He won
the Best Director award at the 2012 Locarno Film Festival for that film.
(Here’s a time line of efforts by the Chinese government to block
screenings of the film.) It still hasn’t been released here. (He has two
new short films, “A Sunny Day” and “I Have Nothing to Say,” and has shot
a new feature, “A Family Tour”; this recent profile of Ying includes his account of the long reach of Chinese censorship into Hong
Kong, where he now lives, and even into Taiwan, where he has filmed.)

Not even stars are guaranteed to help: the two films by Benoît Jacquot that I find
most original—“Princess Marie” (2004), starring Catherine Deneuve, and
“Villa Amalia” (2009), starring Isabelle Huppert—are unreleased here.
Even an American première in the main slate of the New York Film
Festival may not help: the Malian director Souleymane Cissé’s remarkable
2009 film “Min Yè,” a.k.a. “Tell Me Who You Are,” remains unavailable here. Jia Zhangke and Hong Sang-soo may have become reliable presences on American art-house
screens, but a pair of 2010 films that are among their best and most
original—“I Wish I Knew” and “HaHaHa,”
respectively—remain undistributed here. The screening last Saturday
night, at BAM Cinématek, of the Cameroonian director Jean-Pierre
Bekolo’s wildly imaginative, cinematographically astonishing futuristic
political comedy “Les Saignantes”—which is far superior to most fantasy
adventures and political satires made here, and also remains unreleased
here—suggests the urgency of such rediscoveries. Such films provide a
vital reminder of what’s at stake in the issue of availability and in
the underlying question posed by Seitz and Ehrlich regarding the
recognition of classics: classics are movies that expand the
possibilities of the art, that offer templates not of imitation but of
inspiration, that liberate other filmmakers and potential filmmakers.
The question of what’s available involves much more than instant
pleasures; it’s a matter of the very future of the cinema.

Distribution and exhibition are businesses (even not-for-profit ones);
the availability of movies depends upon an entire cinematic ecosystem of
institutions and individuals, such as producers, distributors, and
programmers, streaming sites and repertory houses and museums—and
critics have a crucial place in it, too. Perhaps in the realm of
high-budget studio movies with wide releases, the role of critics is
smaller; but it’s precisely in the domain of the art house—of
independent films, foreign films, and movies from decades past—where
critics can help to foster an audience, current and future.

Because of the prevalence of streaming (which has provided a home to
some of the most noteworthy recent American independent films, such as
“Little Sister” and “The Arbalest”), as well as the ambitious
programming of many venues (including, in New York, Metrograph, Film
Society of Lincoln Center, Film Forum, and Anthology Film Archives,
among others), the distribution situation isn’t as dire as it was a
couple of decades ago. But the quantity of availability in today’s cinematic landscape can,
paradoxically, become the enemy of quality. The enthusiasm for
rediscoveries of long-inaccessible movies allows inflation to set in,
flooding screens and streaming sites and boxed sets with movies more
notable for their rarity than for their artistic originality. The
counterpart in the current cinema is the hunt for new personalities
behind the camera, which leads to a similar inflation, making critics
and viewers all the more impatient with the audacious, the difficult,
the exceptional. In short, despite living in a great time for film
criticism and film availability, there are still plenty of films absents which it will fall to another generation to rediscover.


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March 13, 2018 at 09:51PM

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