Wobbly Dargis Pedestal

I can’t over-emphasize how enraged I am about N.Y Times critic Manohla Dargis having called Joe Wright‘s Anna Karenina “a travesty with a miscast Keira Knightley” that is “tragic only in its conception and execution”…God! This is an outrageously stingy and dismissive and short-sighted thing to say, and to call Knightley miscast when she in fact has given one of her most flat-on exhilarating performances (and I’m saying this having been bothered by her acting in years past) is…is…I feel like slamming my fist into a refrigerator.


(l. to r.) Manohla Dargis, Joe Wright, Keira Knightley

Dargis is basically saying that Wright’s decision to present Leo Tolstoy‘s 19th Century tragedy as a “play”, initially set inside a theatre but opening up into sound-stage sets and outdoor backdrops, was a huge mistake. In fact Wright’s decision to pull the plug on historical realism was an act of major artistic courage, especially since he didn’t choose this mad-Stravinski approach until Karenina was a couple of weeks into pre-production. Wright could have done the usual-usual and that Karenina would have gotten the usual-usual reactions, but he manned up and decided to go all Powell-Pressburger and Ken Russell and then Dargis comes along and calls his film an effing “travesty”?

That really and truly stinks. I’ve admired Manohla for many years, and I just feel appalled.

Sasha Stone is fond of saying that online columnists and critics aren’t the real deal, and that the real brahmins and gurus are the critics working for major established print orgs. To hell with that. Manohla Dargis is a heavyweight, agreed, but she doesn’t “know” any more than I do. She doesn’t have some kind of elite N.Y. Times enzyme in her bloodstream that gives her special eyes. She’s just a critic who knows what she knows, and who writes like a champ. I’ve been around as long as she has and then some, and I’m saying here and now that her opinion doesn’t count any more than mine or Sasha’s or Kris Tapley‘s or Eric Kohn‘s or anyone else with any hard-won, day-to-day cred.

And in the case of Anna Karenina, she’s hit a “wrong” gusher that compares to the one that James Dean lucked into in Giant. What she wrote is needlessly cruel and brash and lacking the compassion and respect that any fair-minded critic should bring to any act of creative daring. There is no such thing as a film critic being “right” or “wrong”, of course, but Manohla’s Karenina comments come awfully damn close.

37 thoughts on “Wobbly Dargis Pedestal

  1. Yeah, there’s no bar exam for film criticism, so what the hell? Wright did a helluva job with Hanna, taking the “Run, kill, run kill” plot to its breaking point and generating a stunning performance from Ronan (again). He’s a talent and his further moves toward audacious filmmaking after making his bones in more mannered literary adaptations should at least generate some respect.

    And I dig Knightley. Even her dicey work in A Dangerous Method felt like it represented exactly what Cronenberg wanted out of her.

  2. I admire your passionate defense of Wright’s film. The staging wasn’t obvious when I first saw the trailer. Even on the second viewing, it still looks like an amazing visual experience. I too used to be bothered by Knightley’s style, but she’s won me over with her post-Pirate choices. I hope this does well.

  3. Jeff clearly feels like he may have been suckered by the movie, and is lashing out defensively. Typical movie blogger — print media critics don’t give a shit what other reviewers think!

  4. Dargis also gave a dismissive review to “Arbitrage” on Friday. Saw it yesterday and greatly enjoyed it. It’s certainly better than she gave it credit for.

  5. I wasn’t suckered by anything. I came, I saw, I waa dazzled. And whether or not I’ve read Leo Tolstoy’s novel (or the originakl serials) cover to cover matters naught…it doesn’t merit one single dingleberry’s worth of concern.

  6. ouch. just read dargis’ blurb. yes — dismissive, and severely so.

    she’s one of the best movie reviewers but, here, she just about jumped the shark. the only saving grace is that it’s not a full review, it’s more of an off-hand remark.

    have not seen the movie but the footage i’ve seen suggests a very smart approach using the ‘stagey’ and ‘theatrical’ approach for certain parts and the ‘movie’ approach for others.

    there’s something in that which should make for good analysis, say, after the flick comes out on disc and lends itself to multiple viewings at home.

    dargis’ either doesn’t get it (and it’s not easy to get) or she gets it and thinks very little of it. clearly, that much is obvious, but i’m betting she doesn’t get it. simple as that.

    some jump under a train, some jump over a shark.

  7. Ha, bet she’s right. I ain’t seen Karenina, but Christ Atonement was an over-directed, manipulative, middle-class, middle-brow souffle. Wright + Knightly = middle-class glossy supplement snooze-fest. Imo.

  8. Same reaction I had when NYT’s Nathan Lee panned THE FALL back in 2008, and that review killed any chance of Roadside Attractions opening the film wider.

  9. As Wright told you himself, AK has nothing whatsoever to do with Ken Russell. It’s like a Ken Russell film if you removed everything that made his films memorable and distinctive.

  10. She’s free to her opinion, of course, but I don’t think this one deserves the barbs. I wasn’t as dazzled by the conceptualization as Jeff was, but I appreciated its creativity, and it was pulled off rather nicely.

    Beyond that, though, I’m in full agreement on Knightley. She’s fantastic in the film and gives one of her best performances to date. My personal best in show goes to Jude Law, who relatively few are acknowledging, but the whole enterprise is a top-notch achievement.

    But we also live in a world where critics are starting to get the revisionist bug vis a vis Paul W.S. Anderson. It’s all bullshit, to some extent. Evolving, self-reverential, consistently reassessed bullshit.

  11. Jeff you’re playing for the wrong team.

    You should be CELEBRATING independence amongst the Consensei, not the shackled we must all march in unison thudding over the cliff ballet of film critics that have characterized the past few years.

    Disagree! Debate! Defend!

    Get all Sarris & Kael on us and let’s all MAKE UP OUR OWN EFFING MINDS how we feel about movies.

    Trying to beat people into agreeing with you has become a wearying and ultimately self-defeating habit because I know Your Self loves movies and loves people vibrantly experiencing the movies indpendently and for THEMSELVES!

    At least you once did, before the Consensei bestowed you with robe and ring.

  12. Thank you Jeff Wells!

    Whether you like Joe’s vision or not, he is an incredible filmmaker, and an incredible gutsy one at that.

    Keira Knightley has often been wrongfully malingned and I believe her performance in A Dangerous Method was one of those times. She really is an underrated actress and I’m sure she give a fine performance here.

    And to say she’s ‘miscast’. Knightley was made to be in movies like Anna Karenina. That miscast comment doesn’t make any sense whatsover.

    Jeff, you are spot on in regards of what you said about Mahnola. I hope she reads your comments as well, because you hit the nail on the head when you said “What she wrote is needlessly cruel and brash and lacking the compassion and respect that any fair-minded critic should bring to any act of creative daring. There is no such thing as a film critic being “right” or “wrong”, of course, but Manohla’s Karenina comments come awfully damn close.”

    Joe did a courageous thing with Anna Karenina in making it a bold, stylized adaption. Whether one likes it or not, he should get marks for that. Without daring in filmmaking we will be endlessly stuck in a rut.

    If Mahnola can dish it, she should be able to take criticisms of her own reviews as well!

  13. “And then there’s Silver Linings Playbook, the latest family comedy from David O. Russell, which takes place on solid terra firma where people eat, drink, work, talk and, this being a David O. Russell encounter session, yell at one another as they grapple with many of the same Big Questions as Mr. Malick’s twirling, skipping, running, whispering and endlessly posing avatars.”–Dargis

  14. Jeff prefers when people agree with him than when they don’t. Hence, he’s bummed out that Dargis doesn’t. But at least give her a chance to defend.

    At any rate, all I said was that I still believe in the institution of film criticism. I think there is a difference between someone who writes about movies without advocating for them, who isn’t invested in the outcome. You and I pimp for Oscar – that makes us NOT film critics. I draw the distinction. I realize no one else does. There are many great writers out there. There are many film advocates. There are many bloggers and yes, there are many many film critics. But there’s a difference. Or maybe I am just kidding myself. And speaking of kidding myself, why am I writing a comment on this blog when I know exactly what’s about to happen?

  15. You’re kidding yourself, Sasha. You’re like the people who go to Subway and expect a sandwich that tastes like it was made at a four-star restaurant.

    My copy of the book is 814 pages long. You can’t make a decent film out of it without taking some liberties.

  16. >As long as they don’t cut out any of the 9,000 pages on 19th century Russian agricultural policy I’m happy.

    The hay-mowing sequence is one of the best passages in literature.

    Jeff, read ‘Anna Karenina.’ Not because it has anything to do with your opinion of the movie, but because it’s arguably the best novel ever written.

  17. >I think there is a difference between someone who writes about movies without advocating for them, who isn’t invested in the outcome.

    I thought Kael was knee deep in the ‘outcome’ of which movies did well, which got awards, etc.? Maybe not ‘invested’ in the sense that she drew her paycheck therefrom, but she certainly threw her weight around and had a significant impact on the industry.

  18. Sasha Stone is that rarity of rarities these days: someone who writes about entertainment and maintains a sense of dignity, purpose and honesty.

    Clip her comments and keep them throughout Awards Season because it will put in perspective lots of the rattling, clanking nonsense you’ll read.

    She speaks a truth that few are willing to admit but many need to remember each day until Oscar night.

    Kudos.

  19. “I feel like slamming my fist into a refrigerator.”

    You should totally, totally do that. Because then when people ask you, “What the fuck happened to your hand,” you can say, “I got mad about Manohla Dargis’s dismissal of Joe Wright’s ‘Anna Karenina’ and I slammed my fist into a refrigerator,” and then they’ll say, “Wow, guy’s got INTEGRITY.”

    “What she wrote is needlessly cruel.” Says the guy who wouldn’t let go of the notion that the Central Park jogger had it coming. Brilliant!

  20. “Manohla Dargis is a heavyweight, agreed, but she doesn’t “know” any more than I do.”

    And you don’t “know” any more than she does. See how it works? Funny things, opinions. It’s almost like none of them are facts — despite you ascribing that very term to your appraisal of Knightley’s performance.

    Anyway, I’m pretty sure Dargis is not ready to slam her hand into a refrigerator because she so vehemently disagrees with your personal take on Anna Karenina. Her opinion may not count for more, but that certainly does.

    I quite like the film, by the way.

  21. I don’t mean to add to the “dissent” here, but this primary conceit of AK that Jeff has been so high on — it’s not exactly anything new, is it?

    I mean — I generally don’t even watch that many “period” films (not really my thing), but I still feel like I’ve seen this technique of beginning a flick within the staged “confines” of a play and gradually opening it up to all of the trappings of the cinematic medium at least a few times before.

    I know that “it’s the singer, and not the song” and all that jazz — but seeing how I don’t much care for the singer in this case (totally with Eldritch on Joe Wright…yawn) — I’m more than a little baffled by the “major artistic courage” accolade.

    Is there any way you could further specify how you found the specific form of this movie so fucking special?

  22. Guy, it’s all worth it for the spectacle of Dargis instantly changing poor Jeff from Lee Marvin to Charlie Brown (with a touch of Travis Bickle) getting snubbed by The Little Red-Haired Girl.

  23. >But does that mean it will instantly make for one of the best sequences in cinema? People forget this kind of thing all too often.

    Who knows? A movie is a movie and a book is a book. Just wanted to defend Tolstoy’s ‘agricultural’ writing.

  24. >but I still feel like I’ve seen this technique of beginning a flick within the staged “confines” of a play and gradually opening it up to all of the trappings of the cinematic medium at least a few times before.

    Olivier did it with Henry V. Not sure if that was the first time. It was a knockout then.

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