In my field, it’s that time of year when best-movie lists are announced, and while sequels like Transformers 3 and Twilight 4.1 have dominated the box office this year, they’re not showing up on critics’ lists. Instead, critics are touting little-seen movies like The Artist or Beginners (both of which happen to feature scene-stealing Jack Russell terriers, as seen in the video above). That is, there’s a vast disparity between what’s popular and what’s actually good. This will cause a lot of handwringing, as usual, at the Academy, since they would love the popular and the good to be in sync so that more people watch the Oscar show. It will also cause grumbling among contrarians who would dismiss critics as out-of-touch elitists. But the idea that the most popular movie must also be the best is nonsense. If that were true, the People’s Choice Awards would be taken more seriously than the Oscars. In fact, why have awards at all? Why not just look at the box office chart and give the best movie prize to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II?
The notion that validity should be determined simply by popularity has infected our politics as well. There was a good example of this last week in the kerfuffle over Politifact rating the Democrats’ assertion that Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan would end Medicare as “the Lie of the Year.” It was a curious choice, since the finalists included other, more brazen lies, such as Sen. Jon Kyl’s assertion that abortion accounts for more than 90 percent of Planned Parenthood’s activity, a claim Kyl’s own office said “was not intended to be a factual statement”) or presidential candidate Michele Bachmann’s evidence-free assertion that the human papillomavirus vaccine can cause mental retardation. In contrast, the Medicare line comes down to, at best, a difference of interpretation. It’s a lie only if you buy the Republican argument that changing Medicare from a single-payer, guaranteed, cost-saving, government-provided health insurance program for seniors and future seniors into a single-payer, guaranteed, cost-saving, government-provided health insurance voucher program for seniors and future seniors doesn’t actually end Medicare. Continue reading →
Twenty years ago, conservative scholars like Allan Bloom and E.D. Hirsch were complaining about the decline of cultural literacy; today, conservatives are on the other side, egging on anti-intellectualism. Witness the twin posts this week from John Podhoretz and Rod Dreher, who, noting the death of film criticism (a topic I’ve been writing about for the last couple of years as virtually every major newspaper and magazine critic not named Ebert has lost his or her job), gleefully stomp on criticism’s grave. After all, both seem to argue, film criticism is just snooty liberal elitists who care more about “the condition of Finnish cinema” than reaffirming populist taste by championing market-tested big-studio blockbusters. It’s a pretty strange take on the trade, especially since both Podhoretz and Dreher have worked as film critics themselves.
Podhoretz argues that all it takes to review movies is an “interesting sensibility,” not specialized knowledge. This very low standard, of course, opens up the field to anyone who wants to post an opinion at IMDB, but as anyone who’s read the reviews there knows, having an opinion is no guarantee of literacy, well-reasoned argument, expertise, persuasiveness, or even taste. (Then again, getting paid to write criticism is no guarantee of those qualities either, as Podhoretz and Dreher’s own reviews prove.) Podhoretz insists that amateur reviewers, writing out of pure love for film, are more reliable barometers than professional critics writing for a paycheck. If that’s true, I hope he’s writing his reviews for The Weekly Standard for free. At least then, Rupert Murdoch would get what he’s paying for. Continue reading →
Photo by Siebbi on Flickr, licensed via Creative Commons
Any doubt that political punditry has now turned into pro wrestling should be dispelled by William Kristol’s challenge to debate Matt Damon for calling him an idiot on such issues as the Iraq War — not to mention new blog Big Hollywood‘s offer to bankroll the $100,000 cage match. (How will they come up with the money? I smell another unfunded mandate.) As entertaining as it would be to see the two Harvard-educated experts engage in erudite repartee, it sounds like a lose-lose for both of them. If Kristol gets whupped, he’s lost a political debate to the guy who made Stuck on You; if he wins, well, big deal, he’s beaten the guy who made Stuck on You. If Damon (pictured) loses, he looks like a typical know-nothing Hollywood actor for his initial remarks, but if he wins, he’s only beaten a guy mercilessly ridiculed in the left blogosphere for being so wrong about everything all the time that even the New York Times let him go with an unceremonious don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out notice on Monday. (Moments later, Kristol landed a new sinecure at the Washington Post. Like the Weekly Standard editor/Fox News contributor needs another outlet for his underexposed opinions? Dude’s got more platforms than Elton John.) Damon should let this double-dog-dare slide (if he’s even aware of it) and go back to making kick-ass spy thrillers and recording Howard Zinn audiobooks.
The reaction over at Big Hollywood is instructive. The site, which launched earlier this month, seems to want to be the conservative answer to the Huffington Post (a mix of celebrities, political experts, and people no one’s ever heard of, all opining on pop culture and politics), but it clearly has disdain for the opinions of most celebrities, and so do the 1,100-plus people who’ve commented on the Kristol-Damon item so far. The Big Hollywood bloggers see themselves as an embattled minority within liberal Hollywood (shouldn’t they call themselves “Little Hollywood,” then?), even as they claim Hollywood’s biggest successes as their own (Did you know The Dark Knight was a right-wing parable about supporting the Bush War on Terror? Neither did I.) while dismissing the folks who actually have lucrative gainful employment in Hollywood as out-of-touch liberals whose propaganda fails to move the populace. (Obama fan Tom Hanks, you’re no everyman — unless you decide to make Forrest Gump 2: Gump Harder.) They think the marketplace should favor conservative movies, but since that’s not happening, they’d apparently like some quotas in their favor. They don’t understand why, if the market is the ultimate arbiter of what’s art, the marketplace is so full of movies that pander to the lowest common denominator and promote ideals that make family values conservatives aghast. And of course, they don’t realize that, if their supposedly deep thinkers like Kristol want to engage the entertainment arena on the level of spectacle, they’ve already ceded the moral and intellectual high ground. Once you turn a political debate into an episode of Hannity and Colmes, or a YouTube video to be shared via e-mail. you might as well let Vince McMahon be the moderator.
Gary Susman is an editor, writer, reporter, and critic. He has been a journalist in print and online for more than 20 years. He blogs daily for AOL's entertainment sites, including Moviefone, TV Squad, and PopEater. His work continues to appear in Entertainment Weekly, where he spent nearly eight years as Senior Writer. Other outlets have included MSNBC, People, the Village Voice, the Guardian, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Boston Phoenix, for which he has written since 1989. More...