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Film: Mr. Scott and Me

By Henry P. Raleigh
ART TIMES May/ June 2011

Mr. Scott

Now Mr. A. O. Scott, the NY Times film critic, and I have not always agreed in our assessment of films. That does happen now and then and I certainly don’t hold this against him. As a matter of fact I was much taken, I might say, moved, by a piece of his that appeared in the Times January 16 (‘Defy the Elite! Wait, which elite?’) and which I’ve read over many times since.  Here Mr. Scott takes issue with Mr. Neal Gabler, a cultural historian and recently the fellow who introduces the Saturday evening film on PBS.  It seems that Mr. Gabler, in an op-ed article in The Boston Globe, proclaimed the death of cultural elitism. Among the decreased, of course, are those elitist film critics.  And this slaughter is all because of the internet and the ascendancy of those legions of film bloggers who enjoy perfect freedom to give vent to their opinions, informed or not, and devil take the professionals.  You can see what this will do, and has done, to Mr. Scott and me.

There is something plaintive in Mr. Scott’s commentary, a sense that something has been lost despite a wistful belief that there remains always the need for solid, analytic criticism. He notes, with faint hope, the revival of the old Siskel and Ebert AT the Movies on PBS.  Some may remember those early days -- the iconic thumbs up/thumbs down that became a legend of sorts. There was a subdued and serious scholarly atmosphere that surrounded the two critics going at each other.  The new version is jazzier, more visual than wordy, a show aimed at a young audience who most likely are devotees and products of blogging as indeed are the two featured film critics, both of who had made their bones on movie sites.  Both look as perfectly grand on the screen as their FaceBook and publicity shots. Christy Lemire, film critic for the Associated Press once came in 93 on an independent film critics list of 100 of the most beautiful celebrity women.  Ignatiy Vishnevetsky is as cute as a button and is clearly aware of it. After all, Siskel and Ebert weren’t that much to look at, were they?

The new show runs for 27 minutes and zips through four current feature films, each accompanied by unusually long trailers; a spot titled “Hot and New” in which each critic picks a favorite from films available on VOD, DVD, cable on on-line-- there’s no escaping technology, you see; and a special guest contributor, the most fascinating so far an enthusiastic  young lady explaining why Natalie Portman as the ballerina in “Black Swan” was shown spending so much time in a bathroom (to seek a bit of privacy). All of these segments are amply back with appropriate film clips. Even Mr. Ebert gets a quickie review.

So out of 27 minutes of running time how much in-depth critical discourse is possible? Well, not much but that probably doesn’t matter, it’s fast, pretty to watch and look, if Mr. Gabler is right who cares what a couple of youthful blogger graduates have to say, their opinions are no better or worse than any other roaming, willy-nilly, around cyberspace.  And besides paying much attention to the spoken argument may disappoint.  When one of these critics importantly claims a director “uses lots of aesthetics” and without blinking throw in a “him and me” when simple grammar demands “he and I” you might question the literacy level of the speaker.  Still, reviewing the prose of internet film bloggers you can see that grammatical niceties are not their strong suit.

Mr. Scott concludes his essay with a jab at the relentless noise of consumer advertising which can so handily overwhelm those annoying elitists. In response, he reaffirms the real goal of criticism which is “...work of analyzing and evaluating works of art honestly and independently as possible.” I’m with you a hundred percent, Mr. Scott but I suppose every film blogger figures he or she is doing exactly the same and so where does that leave us?  Goodness knows I have repeatedly warned that all those algorithms and stuff was going to get us — and they are, too.