Friday, June 24, 2011

chicago doc screening highlights, week of June 24

quick (and incomplete) recap of some chicagoland doc highlights this week, several week-long runs:

- @ChiFilmmakers has Onion City Experimental throught the weekend.
- @filmcenter opens PIANOMANIA;
- @facetschicago has MAKE BELIEVE returning;
- @musicboxtheatre opens TROLLHUNTER, continues MY PERESTROIKA, and returns BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK for the weekend only.

- many great one-offs, most noteworthy is the kick-off of Propeller Fund-ed Southside Projects' screening at South Side Community Arts Center (th), two chicago gang pics LORD THING (70) and THE CORNER (62), discussion follows.
- @docfilmschicago has ZORN'S LEMMA (th) and CLIMATE REFUGEES (wed).

plenty more

Monday, June 20, 2011

Black & White and Red All Over: the PAGE ONE Kerfuffle

  Thom Powers NYT assigns  to non-film critic. Most unbalanced neg review of the year. Surely paper could have found real critic.

Thick tweet. The New York Times makes a choice about who is to review a film about itself. The paper chooses a "non-film critic". The review is unbalanced. The review is negative. The "non-film critic" has, about 80 characters later, turned into a not-real critic. There is a lot unsettling Mr. Powers; the next day Mr. Powers again tweets on the topic:

 Thom Powers Real film critics on  at NPR Village Voice  Daily News  But not 18 Jun 
 Here, it would seem, the emphasis has focused onto the realness of the critics writing on PAGE ONE, except for the fact that all the reviews linked are positive, so the germ of negativity within the initial complaint remains active. And it isn't as if there are no "real film critics" to draw upon for a negative reviewChristoper Campbell's January 26 Cinematical review:

Ultimately, the otherwise likable 'Page One' only really fails in its attempt to say something. Rossi spreads the film over too many areas, not knowing whether to simply observe with a direct cinema approach or to tie together a greater examination and contemplation of the times of the Times.
Or, more robustly critical, Armond White's June 15 New York Press piece:

It doesn't occur to Rossi that the Times has always absorbed technological changes and still remains the same institution fully conscious of exercising its power. Rossi doesn't examine the Times' own ethics. Rather than sticking to the distinct manner of print journalism, Rossi himself gets distracted by the fashion of technological transition, and clutters Page One with TV broadcast clips about trends in the journalism industry. These serve as further distraction from the fact that Rossi goes inside the Times' sanctum and looks right past it.

While Mr. Campbell or Mr. White's reviews don't meet Mr. Powers' "most unbalanced neg review of the year" level of complaint, they share opinion in final analysis.  On this point, it is worth noting that Mr. Kinsley's review appreciates the general thrust of PAGE ONE of "how dreadful it would be if The Times did not survive. True, of course, but" adding, and here I agree completely "boring to the point of irritation after five or six repetitions." In a multi-tweet response of my own, I write that I'd "love to read why this complaint is so important to Thom"; he graciously responds:

 Thom Powers @
doccritic well, yes, I'm against non-film critics taking the place of real film critics and doing such a botch job so prominently
 Thom Powers @
doccritic btw, I'm hardly alone.  called it appalling and that's the unanimous tone of reader comments on site
 Thom Powers @
doccritic here's a list of over 50 critics more appropriate to review  than the  choice 23 hours ago 

Again, thickness. There is a weakened complaint against non-film critics, this time the issue is taking the place of "real film critics" (how would any criticism by a "non-film critic" not take the place of a "real critic"? I'm not sure). There is the added complaint that Michael Kinsley's review is "botched", and "so prominently [visible, I suspect, this is The Times, and not meaning 'so prominently botched']". Mr. Powers goes on to grow the chorus of discontent, citing not only the appalled David Nugent:

 David Nugent appalled  review of  . How on earth is Kingsley best person 2  review. Shoddy writing frm great company.

who, it should be noted, misattributes the "shoddy writing" to some "Kingsley". Beyond Mr. Nugent's dismissal we can visit the balance of the outraged masses in "reader comments" offering a "unanimous tone" of appalled. Here, the irony is difficult to miss. Mr. Powers is criticizing the critical abilities of a "non-film critic" and drawing upon seven (!) online commenters to bolster his position that the review in question is misguided. Unless he knows something about these commenters that I don't, I suspect they are also "non-film critics" (if they are "real film critics", I suggest the Critic Police be sent). Or, does this once again get to Mr. Powers' main issue, that he simply disagrees with Mr. Kinsley's "botched" review? Part of the difficulty in understanding Mr. Powers' complaint against "non-film critics" is not knowing how it is that Mr. Kinsley's review is inferior to the three linked pieces of Joe Neumaier, Bob Mondello, or J. Hoberman - and the seven commenters, for that matter. Mr. Neumaier's 150-word capsule provides only token plot points (150-words is no excuse for lack of content, see Kevin Lee capsules, for example), hardly an exemplary work of criticism. Mr. Mondello gives just as little in his 500ish-word piece, offering a couple of quotes as well as his personal connection to the film's "star", David Carr, the popular platform of NPR is no excuse, as we are all familiar with Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's work on Ebert Presents. Mr. Hoberman's piece is typical Hoberman - well written, firmly rooted in a sense of film, culturally connected - this is inarguably film criticism, right? As judged against one another, it would seem that Mr. Kinsley's piece is similarly observant to Mr. Hoberman's piece, not as rich, not as clearly film, but certainly more informative and better written than offerings from Mr. Mondello or Mr. Neumaier, and arguably more playfully written than Mr. Hoberman's polite offering.

This, of course, is the rub. What is the work of the critic? What makes the work of Mr. Powers' triumvirate more valuable than the work of Mr. Kinsley? The assumption is that those that have held the paid position of film critic have better film insight:

 Thom Powers doccritic here's a list of over 50 critics more appropriate to review  than the  choice 23 hours ago @

a list of film critics who have lost their paid positions. Why should this be a marker of "real film criticism"? If we assume that two of the three "real film critics" have indeed written inferior reviews to Mr. Kinsley, why should the inferior criticism be preferred as "real"? I am of course not wanting folks to lose their jobs, but just holding a title or job does not determine the quality of one's work. The richness of Mr. Powers' anxiety of the fading institutional relevance of film critics is, of course, perfectly matched to this PAGE ONE kerfuffle, as the film is about an institution in decline. As other non-adoring critics of PAGE ONE have noted, the film does not do a good job of making its case. Further, as other reviewers have noted in various degree, the film's NYT landscape is inescapably white and male. So just as this is a film about the decline of relevance of "the paper of record", it is also a film about the decline of "the subjectivity of record". Is some of this discomfort with the negative review about more than the institutional slide of print media and paid film critic? As David Bordwell has summarized lately, claims that film criticism is dying are simply overstated. 

This raises the question of these "50 critics more appropriate to review" PAGE ONE, or Mr. Nugent's query "how is Kingsley best person 2 #write review", the first point raised by Mr. Powers - and seemingly most understudied: how is it that The Times decided upon Mr. Kinsley to write this review? It seems venom is being passed to Mr. Kinsley for his "botch job" and "shoddy writing" and being both a "non-film critic" and more dismissively, a non-critic, aside my disagreement that he botched the job or wrote shoddily, what obligation does The Times have to use a "film critic" that either works for The Company the review is based on or a "film critic" that would likely jump at the chance to write for The Times? While the critic is clearly not reviewing the institution but the film, doesn't it still make some sense to have a very removed individual review the film?  Is it possible this is why folks at The Times went with Mr. Kinsley?

In returning to Mr. Nugent's tweet charging "sloppy writing", I echo the astute Chris "@tapestore" Boeckmann's sentiment:

 Chris Boeckmann MattDentler Pretty confident that the NY Times review is purposefully "lazy."

though not clear what exactly Mr. Boeckmann means here, it suggested to me that Mr. Kinsley was mimicking the mundane content of PAGE ONE in his review, not a bad way to review something, really.  Beyond this playful formal exercise, Mr. Kinsley's criticisms of PAGE ONE resonated with me as true and valid. Does the critic have any obligation to "balance"? Is it my obligation, or Mr. Kinsley's obligation, to dig for positive remarks to be made on a film if the fundamental response is not positive? I can't imagine such an obligation exists. A friend of mine wrote:

In as much as user-generated reviews on Amazon don't undermine the integrity of the critical endeavor, neither do the iPad or the ebook. Write for new platforms, yes, but remember that the pleasure, the value, and the relevance of reviewing remains vested in the exercise of our pre-modern minds.The sizzle shall always remain quite distinct from the steak, and one will always leave you hungry.

Perhaps an engagement with Mr. Kinsley's ideas and criticisms of PAGE ONE would be more beneficial than name-calling dismissals that villainize him for not being a card-carrying film critic. And, perhaps more to the point, if folks are so offended that a "non-film critic" got the assignment, it seems some questions should be addressed to The Times.