Tag Archives: a.o. scott

The Incredibles

Everybody is in love with Toy Story 3. I haven’t seen it yet. (Nor have I seen Shrek 4, the Joan Rivers documentary.)

People and critics alike are going wild. A.O. raved, New York Magazine ran a piece called “Just How Much Will Toy Story 3 Make You Cry?” and The Wrap asked (and answered) “Has Anyone Come Close to Pixar’s 11-Peat?

The picture’s critical and commercial success is a bittersweet reminder that, no matter how bleak it may get (and boy, does it get bleak), Hollywood still works. Sweet because it’s nice to be in love; bitter because love is hard. For it is written, “Falling in love again / Never wanted to / What am I to do? / I can’t help it.”

It’s been a while since I loved this way, since I met a filmmaker, or in this case, studio, that I really felt I could settle down with. Remember Miramax? Remember Canal Plus (the old Canal Plus)? And remember, long, long before that, when Uncle Louis B. Mayer gave us The Freed Unit? That was the best Christmas ever – and it went on for twenty Technicolor years.

We love to talk about auteurs in terms of people, of single creative individuals who shape a film’s sensibility, but Pixar (and Freed and Weinstein and others) are just as worthy of the label. Commanding whole armies of brilliant artists, from writers to costumers to composers to actors, these generals of showbiz – formerly the kings of Hollywood – are now a dying breed. Corporate film is the new auteur, and though it may take many forms (like The Thing in The Thing) its mutations are perverse emulations, like when you go to Vons and buy “Cola” instead of “Coca Cola.” For it is written, “It is for all time or simply a lark? / Is it Granada I see or only Asbury Park? / Is it a fancy, not worth thinking of? / Or is it at long last love?”

So keep up the good work over there. You may be our last hope.

P.S. I’m not sure cinema gets better than those first, silent minutes of Wall-E.

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Thumbing Down

Continuing to track the critics who continually track the decline of film criticism, I thought I’d say a word or two about A.O. Scott’s ineffectual apologia, “A Critic’s Place, Thumb and All,” which appeared in this week’s New York Times.

First, a bit about A.O. Scott. I like him. He backs up his assertions, doesn’t let his taste impair his judgment, and he’s pleasant to read. Yes, in my book, that makes A.O. Scott a fair critic. But I don’t think he’s a forceful one. Years from now, I suspect we’ll look on Scott as we do Bosley Crowther, the New York Times’ upper middle-brow status-quo critic of the forties, fifties, and part of the sixties, a man who is remembered less for his voice than his bland, unshakable standards. He was the gold standard of standard criticism.

Now that the whole damn everything about professional film criticism is under siege, Scott has thrown down in favor of (what else?) the critic. He maintains film criticism will be just fine because, as he goes on to explain, criticism is an essential part of the human impulse to debate. He writes,

It is not a profession and does not stand or fall with any particular business model. Criticism is a habit of mind, a discipline of writing, a way of life — a commitment to the independent, open-ended exploration of works of art in relation to one another and the world around them.

Fair enough in theory, but dead wrong in fact. If criticism weren’t a profession, then A.O. Scott would not be paid for the piece I’ve drawn from. And as one of the chief film critics for The New York Times, I think it’s safe to assume he was.

So why diminish his arrangement? Why make a play for the other side? It can only be that Scott is trying to ingratiate himself to the winning team, and to do so, he believes – wrongly, I might add – that he has to deny his own qualifications to leap aboard the blogwagon. For all of his “Everything’s going to be fine” etc., that sounds a lot like surrender to me.

He’s not alone. It has become intensely unfashionable, and even a tad offensive, to assert evidence of one’s own expertise. Long before blogging, when I was in the Liberal Arts racket, students were encouraged to “teach” their teachers in small discussion sections used in adjunct to the main lectures. The underlying idea, that the very notion of “knowledge” (or, to use the term of the day, “hegemony”) was extended to all people, no matter what their background, accomplishments, or IQ, was meant to be a very uplifting thing indeed. All are welcome! All are right! But the fallout is now upon us. A.O. Scott, who I would count among the lecturers, has abdicated to the discussion group. I wish he would go back to the podium.

Because the world of learned criticism is not a democracy. It’s a savage oligarchy.

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Let Me Count the Ways

Thanks to A.O. Scott for giving me an excuse to write a little something about Meryl Streep. (As if I needed an excuse. As if anyone did.)

In the piece published yesterday, Scott takes a loving look at Meryl across the ages, and comes up with a few choice observations – many of them fresh to Streepiana – that I’ll let you discover on your own. In the meantime, I thought I’d take the opportunity to say a few words about one of Meryl’s less visible performances.

Watching Prime, you can’t help but get the feeling Meryl is doing someone a favor. From the over-earnestness of the love scenes, to the crude, TV-movie predictability of its construction, there’s very little about the movie that actually works. But let’s put that aside for now.

In the middle of the maelstrom, guess who manages to turn out a very funny, very real performance? No surprise there – Meryl’s been turning out very funny, very real performances since she first leapt headfirst into comedy with She-Devil in 1989 (even when she’s hilariously unreal, like in Death Becomes Her, she’s still working in the tiniest units of acting – millimeters where others use feet). But if you clocked it laugh-to-laugh, in Prime, Meryl’s may be at her funniest.

If there is anything to say in Prime’s favor, it’s that it hands her a juicy challenge. As Upper West Side shrink, Dr. Lisa Metzger, Meryl is constantly in the position of having to lie to her patients, of having to keep her true feelings to herself. What this means is that Meryl, to pull it off, must play two opposing parts at once. Lisa Metzger must lie convincingly to her patient – a feat of acting from the character’s point of view – while simultaneously revealing (to the audience) her private response – a feat of acting from Meryl’s point of view. She must act, and she must act against her acting. Watching her negotiate the contrast can be hysterical.

And it is a perfectly calibrated contrast. If Meryl plays Metzger as too good of a liar, she’ll come off as cruel. If she plays her as an inadequate liar, Metzger will lose her credibility as professional therapist (either that, or it will make her clients seem like idiots). So Meryl must hit the nail on the head. Too far in one direction, and the character will be misrepresented.

So that’s quite a task, but of course, Meryl takes it further. Remember: she must also find ways to disclose Metzger’s inner thoughts in the midst of the charade. How does an actress do that? How does she speak to us in a language her patient, who she is deceiving, can’t understand?

She does it with split-second timing, which allows us, who understand her predicament, to fill in the unspoken dialogue. She does it by partnering with props – a glass of water, the beads on her necklace – in surprising ways that belie whatever she’s saying. In short, Meryl evinces counterpoint from almost everything around her. Whether it’s a choice inflection, a too-hard laugh, or too-short smile, her sources seem inexhaustible, and, in accordance with the reality of her character, always tuned to the right volume. That’s funny and real.

That’s Meryl.