Criticizing Criticism: A Look at the Flaws of My Peers
Part 2: The Larger Writings of David Thomson
Late last year, I wrote a long piece criticizing critics who write for New York publications as well as my position on the criticism in general. I now find that I actually have significant more to say about the subject and since I’m going to be looking more at both literature and films in this column, I think that this is enough of a subject to write about semi-regularly.
So every so often I intend to critique my fellow critics, mostly in films and occasionally in TV. I want to try and assess why it is one of the most hated professions ever and that, in my opinion, much of that loathing is brought about by the critics themselves. I’ll start with a literary piece on film.
A couple of days ago, I was visiting the New York Public Library and, as I always do, perusing the Arts section. I came across David Thomson’s most recent book A Light in the Dark which focuses on directors.
For those of you who don’t know who Thomson is, he is a British Film Critic who has written for many journals including the Atlantic Monthly and who is quoted in Wikipedia as ‘the most enjoyable film critic since Pauline Kael’. (Had I known that quote, warning lights would have gone off, but that’s for another column.)
I was trepidatious about this book. A couple of years previously, I had come across a much longer work of Thomson in Barnes and Noble: Sleeping with Strangers: How the Movies Shaped Desire. I spent the better part of an hour combing through it, not because I found the writing particularly good or Thomson’s mission statement particularly intriguing, but because as someone who had read dozen of film books over the years, I’ve rarely read one that had no clear perspective on what the writer wanted to say. Thomson’s writing was all over the playing, berating Marilyn Monroe, calling Mrs. Miniver overblown, trying to come to a conclusion as to why Meg Ryan’s career had trailed off. And beneath all of this, he seemed to come back to a film that seemed to be the embodiment of desire to him — The Phantom Thread by Paul Thomas Anderson. I think he mentioned it at least a dozen times during the course of the book.
Now I admire Paul Thomas Anderson. I think he’s a great talent who a lot of critics have tried to unfairly demean over the past twenty years, and I’m grateful that at least one critic recognizes him as talent. But I can’t for the life of me see why The Phantom Thread is somehow the ultimate in genius to Thomson. It’s not Anderson’s best film (for me that is the controversial Magnolia) or even Anderson’s best film starring Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood) I’m not even certain the best film in 2017 that had to do with the art of sublimated romanticism (that might very well be Call Me By Your Name) Yet to Thomson, it seemed to be a better film that Some Like it Hot, All About Eve and Marty combined.
So understandably I had qualms about even looking at another book by Thomson. But this had a more general subject: film directors. How far off the mark could he go? Well, after spending some time reading it, the answer is pretty far.
I realize that trying to consider who the greatest directors of all time are is a mammoth undertaking, one that Thomson even in the foreword admitted he was going to spend a lot of time overlooking many of the most important ones. And considering that A Light in the Dark is, by my guess, about a hundred pages shorter than Sleeping with Strangers it was understandable that there were going to be many sins of omission. But honestly, having read it the best thing you can say about it is Thomson didn’t have as heavy a focus on Paul Thomas Anderson as he did in Sleeping with Strangers. (That said, he did give the man more pages and columns then Billy Wilder, Frank Capra and the Coen Brothers combined, but that’s the smallest flaw in the book.)
He kept shifting his timeline in a way I could understand, as well as shifting subjects that would boggle the mind of so many alternative fictions. His chapter on Jean Renoir, arguably one of the great directors of our time, spent more time focus on what a good person he was than what a great director. He gave an entire chapter to Nicholas Ray as a great talent (his most famous films are Rebel Without a Cause and In a lonely Place) and didn’t give the time of day to John Ford. Comedy, as is almost invariably the case, was pretty much ignored, except for a few pages on silents. There are so many flaws with his book that I could poke at, but I’ll settle on one chapter in particular because it illustrates just what a mess his book is.
Stephen Frears is one of the most undervalued directors in history even though he’s directed some truly remarkable films that include Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, Philomena and his most famous film, The Queen. He’s also a very remarkable director in television, directed the exceptional recent limited series for Amazon A Very English Scandal which showed Hugh Grant doing some of his best work and won an Emmy for Ben Whishaw. Frears is worthy of appreciation by critics and I’m glad that he was paid tribute to. But Thomson spends most of his chapter damning with faint praise and saying that his most famous work is actually inferior. He says The Queen which won Helen Mirren an Oscar and was the first real work of the century to give a real look inside the monarchy, is weak and yet somehow pro-monarchy which completely misreads the film. He says that Dangerous Liaisons was inferior to another adaptation that debuted the following year Valmont. (Did he think Cruel Intentions was better, too?) He says that Frears work for television is often brilliant, and then spends a page and a half condemning his most recent work State of the Union a series of short form series that won several Emmys. (He seems more focused on Rosamund Pike’s outfits than anything the show was about.) If Thomson wanted to point out that Frears was undervalued, his entire article seems to say that he deserves to be.
But Thomson’s entire book basically seems to argue that every major artistic director that people celebrate — particularly in the past half-century — is overrated. Francis Ford Coppola? Never made a film that was about anything but itself. Martin Scorsese? Keeps making the same film over and over. Robert Altman made some good movies, but his characters all talked too much. He pays a backhanded compliment to Steven Spielberg, saying that he is a very talented filmmaker who makes too many crowd-pleasers. And of course Tarentino is all style no substance with too many unpleasant characters. Paul Thomas Anderson has been accused of the same thing in many of his films, of course, but that’s different because Thomson likes him.
You really get the picture from reading Thomson that the film industry isn’t in trouble because studios are focused too much on franchise films and marketing towards teenagers but because directors are given too much freedom. In the final chapter, he focused on Martin Scorcese’s most recent film The Irishman which Scorsese spent years trying to get made in studio’s but finally had to agree in Netflix. Does Thomson see this as a violation of the film industry, a sign that the director has no power any more? No, he makes a backhanded joke about Scorsese complaining about not being able to make another film about a gangster. Then he proceeds to pan it.
Anyone who already has the opinion that a critic is an elitist snob who thinks they know what is best for film without actually watching it would not have their opinion changed one iota by A Light in the Dark. For me, the piece de resistance came in the closest pages when Thomson tries to show himself as slightly more of a man of the people by announcing how much television is than film. He name checks The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, which is meaningless anyone who watched TV would now about their greatness. And then he focuses on Ozark.
I’ve already written multiple articles explaining why I think Ozark is one of the most overrated series in history, so I imagine my hostility when Thomson spends the last three pages of book not only elevating Ozark but calling the last four episodes of Season 3 and Jason Bateman’s direction in particularly, infinitely better than The Irishman. The fact that both movie and series essentially center on that White Male Antihero that so many people at this blog rage against shows that clearly Thomson has no perspective when it comes to television any more than he does film. It’s nearly as incomprehensible as his fixation on The Phantom Thread in his last book.
Reading Thomson and so many other critics, you get the feeling that there is a fundamental difference between how they view films and how everybody else — the creators, the production and the audience — views them. All art — not just film, but also plays and TV — is made for three reasons: to make an artistic statement, to make money — for everybody involved in its production, and to entertain the masses. The order of these three differs on every level of the makers, but I’m pretty sure that in performative art, the artistic statement lags closer to the bottom.
So many critics — Thomson is no different — seem to view that film should only be made to make an artistic statement. Whether or not it makes money is irrelevant — and indeed, many critics have a habit of loathing many of the creative forces whose work is massive hits. And whether or not the masses are entertained — well, I’ve read enough critics work to know that far too many of them don’t give a shit about the people the art is intended to. To them, a movie, play or TV show is for three people: me, myself and I. Who cares what anybody else thinks? The fact that these seem critics earn a living on this work often doesn’t enter their minds. I honestly think some of don’t care if people read their work, much less like it.
This fundamental conflict between what criticism is and what it should be has been a sore subject for many critics over the years. The next column in this series will deal with this inner conflict and why I think there should never really be one in the first place. Others will deal with what critics have considered great films to be and what films and directors they have regarded with disdain as a result.