Reeling with Ryan Lattanzio

This Week: The Critical Condition

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Doubtless one leading reason why the world declines honoring us whalemen, is this: they think that, at best, our vocation amounts to a butchering sort of business; and that when actively engaged therein, we are surrounded by all manner of defilements." So says Ishmael about the business of whaling in "Moby-Dick." But taken out of context, this passage could be about film critics.

I'm not proposing I am any sort of "film critic" - I'm getting there, okay? - but here I speak for the lot, so let's assume I'm one of them. Some people think we really are butchers, that we set out to destroy films by lacerating them with sharp prose. In writing reviews, I never intend to draw blood (but it's better if I do).

Critics are prigs, I agree, especially when they start name-dropping and making references. A review becomes unintelligible that way. It's like when you're walking down the street and a crazy guy accosts you, opens his coat and shows you all the shiny shit he's got for sale.

But in my columns, I know I've been guilty of accosting you with all the film-buff-ery I've got in my cinephile's overcoat. When you've seen a lot of movies and you're geek-ing out, the impulse is hard to resist.

So let me offer one of my little treasures, my memory of a scene from Woody Allen's gravely serious film "Interiors" (1978) that entirely stands for what it means to be a critic.

In an Allen film, all the world can be distilled into a dinner party. At this one, the characters of "Interiors" are all getting really talky, as people do in Allen movies, and start discussing a play they'd all seen.

Some of the women wax intellectual and chew on the moral issues of the play. They're all so deep or whatever, but there's one dinner guest who liked the play well enough but can't follow what's being said.

"I didn't get that. To me it wasn't such a big deal," she says. The other women, over-educated jerks they are, hate this, calling the one who "didn't get that" a vulgarian.

At this harmless dinner turned amateur panel discussion, we see very different kinds of critics in these people: There are those who are cerebral and dismissive of those who aren't, and then there are those who just feel art on a gut level. A film critic must find that slippery balance between the two because otherwise they're just being snobbish, or lazy.

As they attempt to explain those base ("vulgarian") feelings while also pointing the reader toward something they might've missed, the critic plays a quintessential part in the movies. The critic takes a film out of a vacuum, unfurls it from its self-enclosure and places it in a context - only then can the movie achieve some kind of transcendence.

Why should you see this movie? Why should it exist in the world? My favorite critics answer those questions, but I'll readily admit that I don't always deliver in that regard. For someone as mad about film as I am, those "whys" are the big existential questions.

Doubtless one reason why the world declines honoring critics is this: They think the vocation amounts to a gratuitous sort of business. But the critics, the vital contributors to a film's coming-into-the-world, will be necessary as long as there will be movies.

To use a crude analogy, the critic is there at a film's birth to get the baby delivered.

If a film played in the theater and no critic was there to say something about it, was it ever really there at all? I think not, in a way.

Tags: COLUMN, REELING


Check out what Ryan's got in his overcoat at [email protected]



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