Audience Unfriendly = Badge of Honor?

“Critics have a duty to be clear with readers,” Marshall Fine has written in a 4.12 essay. “Not to warn them, per se, because that implies something about relative merit. But to be clear or honest [when the case applies]: This is a movie in which nothing much happens. Or this is a movie in which what does happen doesn’t make a lot of sense. Or is deliberately off-putting or upsetting.”

I am one of the few critic-columnists who actually says stuff like this from time to time. But I disagree with Fine siding with the virtues of audience-friendly films, particularly when he uses Brian Helgeland‘s 42 as a sterling example.

“You know what an audience-friendly film is,” Fine writes. “It tells a story that engages you about characters you can like and root for. {And] yet movies that seek to tell a story that uplifts or inspires often get short shrift from critics. 42 is being slagged by some critics for being manipulative, [but it] happens to be a well-made and extremely involving story about an important moment in history.”

Wells response: 42 is okay if you like your movies to be tidy and primary-colored and unfettered to a fault, but it’s a very simplistic film in which every narrative or emotional point is served with the chops and stylings that I associate with 1950s Disney films. The actors conspicuously “act” every line, every emotional moment. It’s one slice of cake after another. Sugar, icing, familiar, sanctified. One exception: that scene in which Jackie Robinson is taunted by a Philadelphia Phillies manager with racial epithets. I’m not likely to forget this scene ever. It’s extremely ugly.

Back to Fine: “The fact that 42 works on the viewer emotionally, however, is often seen as a negative by critics who aren’t comfortable with movies that deal with feelings, rather than ideas or theories.”

There’s an audience, Fine allows, for nervy, brainy and complex films like To the Wonder, Upstream Color, Room 237, Holy Motors and The Master. But “all of those are not audience-friendly,” he states. “Most of them were barely watchable. But if you read the reviews, you would find little that’s descriptive of what the movie actually looks or feels like while you’re watching it. Which, for a lot of people, was a negative experience in the case of those particular titles.

“How many people saw them because of positive reviews that were misleading? How many might have thought twice if the review mentioned that, oh, well, this film is all but incomprehensible, even if you’ve read a director’s statement on what it means? Or, well, this movie has very little dialogue and takes a 20-minute break for a flashback to the beginning of time? Or this movie is about an inarticulate movie star caught in moments by himself during a movie junket?”

Wells response: I also think that critics should just say what it’s like to watch certain films. If a film is great or legendary or well worth seeing they need to say that, of course, but they also have to admit how it plays in Average-Joe terms and how it feels to actually sit through it. I’m not saying “nobody does this except me,” but who does do this? New Yorker critic David Denby strives to convey this, I think. Andy Klein does this. I’m sure there are others. But I know that it’s a clear violation of the monk-dweeb code to speak candidly about how this or that monk-worshipped, Film Society of Lincoln Center-approved film actually plays for non-dweebs or your no-account brother-in-law or the guy who works at the neighborhood pizza parlor. Guys like Dennis Lim will never cop to this.

It also needs to be said that “audience-friendly” is a somewhat flattering term. The more accurate term is audience-pandering. Pandering to the banal default emotions that the less hip, more simple-minded and certainly less adventurous portions of the paying public like to take a bath in. Because these emotions are comforting, reassuring, and above all familiar. That is what 42 does, in spades.

  • I think some critics spend more time worrying about other critics than they do about the movies they’re reviewing. A good movie is a good movie is a good movie. A flick where nothing happens can be tedious or it can be mezmorizing. An “audience pleaser” can be slick fun or a plastic turd. Exceptions abound to the point of no longer BEING exceptions. If audiences get “duped” into seeing a well-reviewed movie they don’t dig, who gives a flying fuck? It’s a critic’s job to have expansive tastes that allow for all sorts of styles and genres to warrant good responses provided the quality of said films are strong. Great bands don’t record music to hit #1 on the charts and great critics don’t worry about Joe Popcorn giving Killing Them Softly an F (“Well, the violence might scare off the female demographic that comes to see Pitt with slicked-back hair and long discussions about the economy of criminal organizations may prove dull to the 13-16 crowds who sneak in…”).

    Film critics don’t exist to lead rubes through the proper turnstile. That’s what marketing is for. That said, Wells excels at articulating his own response to something (biased or not) although he’s not a critic but rather a hipster samurai word warrior with an emotional cowboy hat, right?

    • Nothing happens in Michelangelo Anonioni’s “L’eclisse” but boy, what a movie! Ditto “L’Avventura,” “Last Days,” “Elephant” and 30 or 40 other films I could name off the top of my head.

  • CBJ

    For someone who so often congratulates themselves for refusing to succumb to a conventional audience’s tastes, you have a habit of shitting on films that refuse to give you conventional bearings. “To the Wonder” and “Antichrist” are two immediate examples, but it happens all the time. And there’s a fairly consistent formula for the films you do champion: films with an established genre formula that have been glossed over with a bit of superficial grit so as to flatter your sense of your tastes.

    And there’s nothing wrong with that, just as there’s nothing wrong with someone who goes to conventional action movies. Christ, you phrased your admission that you watched part of “Rock of Ages” as if confessing to a lover that you cheated on them.

    • Ray Quick

      This is pretty true. I think it was the commenter “jesse” a few weeks back who said more and more Jeff seems almost entirely indifferent to the actual aesthetics of cinema, and is more likely to only embrace a) a movie where he personally relates to, or wants to bang, the lead character(s), or b) something that flatters his personal worldview, usually politically, or c) something done in a pretty middle-brow if elitist style, obviously crafted by Redfordian/Soderberghian upscalers in a sort of politely, tamely throwback mode.

      I doesn’t seem like Jeff ever really cottons to big, blaring, loud, sweaty, didactic personal movies in kind of bad taste with overwrought visual styles, or films that are full-on directorial exercises, be it a “Spring Breakers” or an “Enter the Void” or “Melancholia” or much Spike Lee, and now it seems like Malick’s full-on on his shit list, too. And he didn’t like “Place Beyond the Pines” because…. somebody had greasy hair or something.

      I mean, Spring Breakers has more to say about race and pop culture than any 10 Soderbergh movies and it honestly seems like most of the subtext of that movie SAILED over Jeff’s head, writing it off as popcorn bubblegum instead of it being basically a 90-minute expansion of the Peter Boyle diner scenes in “Taxi Driver.” Jeff didn’t make a SINGLE POINT about the way African-American characters show up midway through the film and– whether you buy it or not– it spins into this post hip-hop breakdown of white and black, teen and thug, cultures exploiting and objectifying each other. Shit, never mind explaining that to your boys at the water cooler in the loading dock, when major movie bloggers don’t even acknowledge subtext so blatant it’s full-on text (Poland’s typically daffy, clueless take on SB was a riot.)

      In short, everybody has their own bullshit preferences and prejudices, even HIGH THREAD COUNT critics. And I don’t know how many of you guys have friends or brothers “back home,” but when you try to say like, “Well LET ME TELL YOU, this is an ART FILM and YOU WON’T APPRECIATE IT,” or whatever, there’s no way, NO WAY, to convey that without sounding like a condescending asswipe. But then people go and pay 10 bucks to see DRIVE and they’re fucking MYSTIFIED.

      • Is there a way for Wells to get a full-on LexG review of Spring Breakers. I think we’d all like to read that.

        • Pay the man 100K or GET HIM A HOOKER.

        • Trimmer

          Buy him a brand new Ford Focus with a passenger seat.

  • Sonny Hooper

    Not sure what’s so special or new or interesting about the first graf. And I’m sure there are a lot more than a few who do that. And yeah, what CBJ said.