Last week, film writer extraordinaire Christian Toto fell under the delusion that yours truly was interesting enough to interview, and if you're under the same delusion you can read the two-parter here and here. Among other things, Toto asked me about the clout critics wield and the most common mistakes they make. Here's a combination of my answers:
Critics aren't dumb, they know the public doesn't much care which way their thumbs point. But critics do know that based on their opinions and reviews they can enjoy an influence over what kind of films get made. And that's not a small amount of power. Culture is upstream from politics, after all.
If you have 95 percent of critics savaging a faithful retelling of the Gospels as anti-Semitic, no matter how successful "The Passion" is, no one's going to go near that subject matter again. And that's the goal. Same with anything that comes close to patriotism or conservatism. Such cinematic rarities are frequently labeled "jingoistic, fascist or simple minded." This is all done consciously and for a desired effect.
You have to understand that when I look at the critical community I only see it for what it really is: a journolista cabal of left wingers deeply engaged in a cultural and ideological war, deeply committed to shaping the powerful messaging of sound and fury that emanate from our pop culture masters.
As if to prove my point, this very morning Left-winger Steven Zeitchik of the L.A. Times ran this propaganda piece; a not very subtle attempt on his and the paper's part to tamp down any enthusiasm development execs might have to copycat what made "The Expendables" such a box office success and cultural phenomenon: [emphasis mine]
But the Stallone picture - with its hard-charging, take-no-prisoners patriotism unbothered by the vagaries of the real world (it takes place in a fictional country, for starters) and its caricature of freedom-hating enemies ("We will kill this American disease," as the TV spot enticed us) - planted itself squarely in the old-school genre. And this weekend, the movie showed that there's life in that category yet. ...
On one hand, it's understandable that a movie of easy American heroism (OK, first-world Western heroism) would catch on. In fact, it's surprising it didn't happen sooner. Apple-pie-patriotism already is behind the success of a cable news network and supports large sections of the contemporary country music industry. Why not a film hit too? ....
Political eras are, of course, rarely just one thing or another, and the movies we want to see in a given period are hardly monolithic. But as tempting as it is to infer that the success of "The Expendables" shows a deeper cultural need, it may well be the wrong inference. When times are confusing, we want movies to reflect that confusion, and even to make sense of it. But we probably don't want to pretend that confusion doesn't exist.
If you're wondering why Hollywood is so out of touch with the 80% of their audience who aren't liberal, part of the reason is certainly because much of the industry takes pride in being so, but you also have this kind of constant pressure from cultural enforcers like Zeitchik who disguise themselves as journalists. What Zeitchik's quite purposefully doing here is toxifying "The Expendables" by ridiculing its simple worldview - as though the nihilism found in the moral equivalency preached by the likes of George Clooney and Paul Haggis is somehow "complicated." He's essentially sending out the message that whoring yourself to the movie-going rubes and their desire to see good conquer evil makes you dumb, uncool, and unsophisticated. So don't do it.
And the timing is perfect. Zeitchik wants to slap some of the excitement out of a box office success and affect the narrative before the Monday morning development meetings begin. He's also offering talking points to his fellow travellers who attend those meetings. Therefore, even though Zeitchik is factually wrong, facts won't much matter. No one wants the L.A. Times calling their movies uncool and simple-minded, and regardless of how big the hit, no one wants to have to defend "hard-charging, take-no-prisoners patriotism unbothered by the vagaries of the real world." Not in this town.
But again, Zeitchik is simply wrong. From an artistic point of view, "The Expendables" is a much more impressive achievement than the likes of the flood of "Syrianas" that have been bombing one after another at the box office over the past few years. A simple straight-forward story that's actually about something is much more difficult to successfully craft than a confusing and muddled story that's believes in absolutely nothing. Paint-by-numbers might not be Rembrandt but it takes more skill than throwing monkey shit at a canvas.
The other false narrative Zeitchik tries to poison the development well with, is the false one that says the success of "The Expendables" is something of a fluke:
Until this weekend, old-school action movies - defined, for argument's sake, as films with a slew of explosions, a shortage of moral ambiguity and a triumph of physical effects over digital ones - had seen better days. It's been nearly two decades since pictures of this sort were produced with any regularity by the studio system, and a lot longer since they were stateside successes.
"Until this weekend?" Ah, no.
Laughably, to bring home this point, after mentioning Stallone's most recent "Rambo" and "The A-Team," Zeitchik then offers up Jean-Claude Van Damme's "JVCD" as further proof that films lacking in moral ambiguity "have seen better days."
Really? The one-location, self-referential piece of crap that is "JVCD" is Zeitchik's Exhibit C in this closing argument? But this is what happens when you're in possession of a laughably biased theory in search of proof - especially when the surprise successes of "300″ and "Taken," not to mention "Salt," the first "Transformers," and "Gran Torino" - make a total fool of that moral ambiguity theory.
That would be like me ignoring the "Bourne" trilogy while making some sort of argument that un-American, shaky-cammed action films starring hardwood don't make money.
There's plenty of room at the multiplex and plenty of box-office cash for everyone's worldview. Unfortunately for our side, the Zeitchik's of the media world will stoop to pulling the "JVCD" Card in order to remove our seat at that table.
UPDATE: A commenter quite correctly points out that in his closing paragraph, Zeitchik talks about action films with heavy CGI effects and explosions, not just moral ambiguity - and that my counter-examples of "300," "Transformers," and "Gran Torino" don't refute that point. Though I close my paragraph to explain that I'm specifically refuting Zeitchik's moral ambiguity statement (which is most of the overall argument of his write up, and where I was most focused in my response), I could've been much clearer in that regard. As far as Zeitchik's full argument, "Salt" and "Taken" are still better examples than "JVCD." I would also add the hits "Man on Fire," "Vantage Point," and "Inglourious Basterds."