Saturday, March 18, 2006

Why film school grads make lousy critics...

I gotta admit, it beefs me out when I read reviews that criticize flicks on the basis of the subjects' "unreality" or "stylization." This punk didn't like O Brother because it was "episodic" (what the fuck do you think is the formula of most epics, you dipshit?!?) and that punk didn't like Big Lebowski because it was too "aimless" (do you even recognize the allusions to Big Sleep and other similarly "aimless" noir, you midget?), and a whole bunch of punks didn't like Million-Dollar Baby because it was too "formulaic" (as if genre is automatically less valuable than auteurite).

I'm convinced that one reason why such critics don't like such films is because their field of experience and intellectual reference is so fucking small. Too many of these guys' reviews read as if their authors' only frame of reference is other movies they picked apart in a lecture hall at NYU. And goddammit, I've sat in those lecture halls and I've watched those po-mo show-offs disappear up each others' asses.

But here's the deal: sure, Million-Dollar Baby is an exercise in genre. Sure, it uses the melodrama and occasional bathos of any classic boxing film. Sure, it drags in the second half--not to mention using a "Star Trek red-velour shirt" plot twist--but what none of the above-mentioned punks recognized is that this movie understands about poverty. The fighters I knew didn't get into it because they thought it was fun, or because they liked beating up other people, or because they were macho, or any of that bullshit. They got into fighting because it was a way out. This movie understands that.

The other thing those dipshit reviewers tend to do is to ignore acting in favor of screenwriting. Virtually every bad critic I've ever read is bad in part because s/he is a failed screenwriter. It makes sense--they try to write a script, they can't sell it, they don't know how to act, and so they keep using words, but this time to talk about how the words in someone else's movie are bad. And such critics can't recognize a great piece of acting if they fucking fall over it.

Baby is a case in point. None of the critics I cited above have anything good to say about the acting. But the thing that makes Baby so compelling, and that makes me watch the first half every time it's on, is the absolute conviction--in fact, the absolute lack of self-consciousness--in the three principle roles, that overcomes the script, or the plot line, or the cliches.

We expect Morgan Freeman to leave all/any aspects of the Hollywood persona at the door. We expect him to inhabit any character (in this case, Scrap, the busted-down one-eyed ex-fighter who "cleans up other peoples' spit" at the gym). Watch his face, and listen to his inflections, as he delivers the line "You see the way she did that? Sugar Ray would do that. Girl's got Sugar."

We expect Eastwood, within his more limited dramatic compass, to deliver persuasively--if for no other reason than that he doesn't cast himself in roles he can't cut.

But the really pleasure to watch is Hillary Swank, and not just because of the obvious investment of time and physical effort she put in to make her fight scenes persuasive.
It's in the degree to which, in company with two actors who are collectively probably 80 years older than she, she also abandons any pretensions to star character--any of the Nicole Kidmanesque "I'm playing a character but you'll never forget I'm A Star" quirks--and becomes this dirt-poor girl from the Ozarks. Watch the scene in the emergency room waiting room, where she sits with a broken nose and her head tilted back, and says "I'm O.K., Frankie."

It's a great performance and it's without ego. Which such are scarcer in Hollywood than educated critics.

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