Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Do Critics Know Anything?

The answer to Richard Corliss’ question, historically speaking, has been: Not much.

OK, that’s not totally true. And while critics overlook certain eventual classics, it’s also the critics who supply the intellectual firepower to explain their resurgence.

Still, what do Citizen Kane, Vertigo, The Searchers, and Blade Runner have in common? You would find at least one on most critics’ lists of the greatest American films. And all of them took abuse from critics at the time of their release (Admittedly with Kane, that was coming from the Hearst press).

Take a look at 1982, a year that the folks over at www. famously deemed as the greatest year in the history of science fiction earlier this year. Here are Siskel and Ebert’s top 10 lists.

Gene Siskel: Moonlighting, Tootsie, E.T., Diva, Mephisto, Lola, Personal Best, Three Brothers, Das Boot, An Officer and a Gentleman.

Roger Ebert: Sophie’s Choice, Diva, E.T., Fitzcarraldo, Personal Best, Das Boot, Mephisto, Moonlighting, The Verdict, The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time.

It’s true that the bald guy and the fat guy made some choices with legs – E.T.. Fitzcarraldo, Mephisto, Das Boot, Tootsie, to a lesser extent Personal Best and The Verdict. But the first question that comes to mind looking at the list is, what the heck is Moonlighting? I’m not saying it’s not an outstanding film. I’m just saying until I looked at the list, I’d never heard of it. Sophie’s Choice is the quintessence of Meryl Streep’s 1980s output – a tender, dignified piece of mature filmmaking that no one really watches anymore.

The Best Picture nominees were Gandhi, Missing, E.T., Tootsie, and The Verdict.

Who watches Gandhi anymore?

But what films have really taken off since 1982? Blade Runner may be the youngest member of The Canon, in a battle with Metropolis for most influential science fiction film of all time. Yet it was panned and was a box office mega-bomb at the time. To be fair, the themes of human identity and our relationship to technology wouldn’t be so obvious or resonant in an America still getting used to its microwave ovens. And its flaws wouldn’t be corrected until 1992’s superior Director’s Cut. But it’s one of the essential examples of a classic slipping through the cracks.

Some 1982 releases whose reputations have risen with time: Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The Thing. Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn. Maybe Tron, to an extent, as a precursor to The Matrix.

I mean, what critic in their right mind at the time thought The Wrath of Kahn would gain currency while Gandhi would lose it?

On the other hand, 1983 was a year where critical opinion won out in one very important case – Phillip Kauffman’s The Right Stuff. Critically lauded and expected to be a huge hit, it laid an egg on release. But it gained a new life on cable, in particular, and has maintained its reputation.

Take last year. Of its nominees for the big prize, I doubt critics favorite Babel and The Queen, will have much legs (Babel, especially). Meanwhile, I expect movies like Casino Royale and The Devil Wears Prada to be entertaining people for decades. Think about it – The Devil Wears Prada may be one of the few lasting performances for Streep, who has been a consistent loser in this game.

I also expect this decades’ wave of zombie movies to gain in reputation as the years go by.

This is not to say that critics aren’t usually right about a high-quality film. Far more often than not, they are. It’s just that the things that make a film intelligent, thought-provoking, etc. are not always the things that make a film a classic, and vice versa. And it’s hard to know what that classic-making quality is in real time.


Pinko Punko said...

I love that Pauline Kael rightly loved "The Wrath of Khan" for what it was. Also, even with the scenery chewing by Montalban, he was still quite compelling. He was both a cartoon and real, and the Moby Dick was entirely appropriate. Shatner was quite good. On top of that, they made it on the cheap.

I don't think Blade Runner is the classic that you do, mostly because I find it diminished by the tinkering. I'm also certain there are excellent films we've never heard of, so I'm not sure any of that counts.

K. Bowen said...

I think what I'm trying to say is not that the Moonlightings of the world are anything less than excellent. Only that being excellent and being a classic aren't the same thing. And critics are better at identifying the former in real time than the latter. Although they have blind spots for the former, as well.