Mediocrity has taken over film criticism. Producer Scott Rudin’s despotic response to an early review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo made this embarrassment unignorable—from the fawning review itself to the pathetic defense from New Yorker film critic David Denby about running the review. Saddest of all is the media’s confusion over the entire mess. The New York Times, Slate and innumerable blogs have demonstrated the decline of critical journalism through numerous writers dithering about the ethics of criticism; envious of Denby’s ignominy, afraid to call it out, yet unsure of their own role in cultural journalism
This problem always arises during awards season when critics reveal an obsession/competition with the Oscars rather than believing in the purpose and tradition of their own profession. The fracas began when Denby, a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, attended a Dragon Tattoo screening held Nov. 28 specifically to garner critics awards—though, oddly, not for review purposes. Denby’s decision to go ahead and review the film several weeks prior to opening unexpectedly uncovered a humiliating circumstance: Critics’ collusion with the film industry.
Denby’s excuse that he would never have published an early negative review proved that many reviewers feel complicit in helping to promote movies rather than critiquing them. Denby’s weak apology didn’t wash with Rudin who threatened to bar him from future screenings of his productions; Rudin complained that by reneging on an agreement not to review the movie Denby had derailed its planned media launch. Most accounts of this conflict disingenuously overlooked how today’s media culture prioritizes commercial practices rather an interest in art. Denby gave preference to a big-budget Hollywood movie merely to score a scoop for The New Yorker. “We had to get something serious in the magazine,” was the worst part of Denby’s alibi.
The word “serious” typifies the intellectual arrogance of elite media publications. “Serious” now replaces what journalists in the ’80s more honestly—cravenly—termed “sexy.” In aesthetic terms, the Dragon Tattoo remake is no more “serious” than Cars 2 (and less enjoyable). What journalists now consider “sexy” is getting as close to the film industry process as possible—as in seeking to influence the Academy Awards race and angling for quotes in ads which, essentially, was the essence of Denby’s advance rave. His opening line, “You can’t take your eyes off Rooney Mara,” shamelessly uses adspeak to convey pop enthusiasm. But Denby’s imitative Pauline Kaelism is unconvincing; by suspiciously elevating the undistinguished Mara (scion of the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers fortunes), Denby conforms to the same class flattery that was so egregious in last year’s critics’ celebration of The Social Network.
Sadly, few journalists understand the ideological underpinnings of their job addressing mainstream culture (and maintaining the status quo). Critical independence is no longer valued which is why reports and opinions on the Rudin-Denby clash all stumble over the issue of an “embargo” that film companies routinely impose upon journalists.
There should be no question whether critics ought to respect a so-called “embargo:” In the interest of maintaining critical independence, they should resist any such “embargo.” The job of journalism is to provide news and information, especially when it comes to reviewing. Maintaining independence prevents the possibility of influence and conflict-of-interest; it advances artistic standards and political understanding which should be criticism’s primary interest: Arguing against “embargoes” is not to defend Denby, whose own defense was both self-serving and unprincipled, but to return principles to the discussion—the profession—that has lately ignored them.
Way back in the 1980s, Denby was interviewed for an article in Variety about the new power that film publicists were wielding over journalists (by insisting on signed agreements, presenting interview questions for pre-approval, bargaining for cover stories and article positioning in exchange for access to box-office stars). At the time, Denby lamented that things had changed, telling Variety how critic-publicist relations had shifted. Today, most journalists unthinkingly regard “embargo” as standard operating procedure—as if that’s how it has always been and ought to be. Even reviews of the recent Pauline Kael books blasted her classic 1975 “preview” of Robert Altman’s Nashville, as if Kael had violated a code of ethics. This revanchist idiocy forgets the unusual precedent that Kael had recognized a major achievement by a major film artist and risked protocol to herald the news. So I guess it must be emphasized that Fincher is no Altman and Dragon Tattoo is no Nashville.
Rather than beginning an untenable practice, Kael demonstrated the importance of principled, committed critical independence. Criticism’s power is not idle arrogance; its purpose is to separate aesthetic values from market control, giving perception and appreciation, information and awareness, back to the viewer. Rudin doesn’t want this and unfortunately, few contemporary journalists understand what’s at stake. Most of them seem unaware that the word “embargo” actually means to “restrict trade” and that a journalist’s only trade is the information that publishers, editors and readers commonly trust will be provided without prejudicial influence. Criticism has descended from being an intellectual literary, journalistic form to simply being a business, a counterpart to advertising.
Rudin has a point when he charged to Denby that “You simply have to be good for your word…You broke your word to us and that is a deeply lousy and immoral thing to have done.” Rudin ought to know, since he and his minions contrived the “deeply lousy and immoral ” Greenberg ban to slander me in 2010. Uglier and less surprising than Denby’s arrogance is Rudin’s own self-interest, which is always the motivation behind the studios proposing a silly thing like “embargo.” Two facts: Such an “embargo” only works if journalists comply. Only weak, subservient journalists would do it.
And don’t expect filmmakers to see things clearly or argue fairness. Fincher’s own cluelessness became apparent when he told Rene Rodriquez at Miami.com: “This is not about controlling the media,” when, of course, that is exactly what a publicist “embargo” is about. The critic-publicist shift Denby used to regret has deranged professionals’ understanding that the courtesy of an early press screening must never impede a journalist’s trade. The critic-publicist’s implicit contract is simply to provide coverage—good/bad, early/late can never be bargained, otherwise the journalist is in the publicist’s employ. It’s not a gentlemen’s agreement, as one naïve writer put it. Gentlemen agreeing to be embargoed would be like agreeing to be enslaved. Or is that what Hollywood capitalism has come down to?
Holding reviews for a film’s opening day has a news-based logic but ideally, film reviews, like theater reviews, would not appear until after the film has been made available to the general public, thus becoming newsworthy. Studios are selective about this necessity when it suits their campaigns (frequently offering advance access, screenings and granting early notices to mainstream publications in lieu of puff-piece promotional content). But that leeway also infringes upon journalistic independence. It’s infuriating when gossip columnists who long ago sold their souls to the machine and bloggers who have no soul to sell wrangle over the Denby debacle as if there were an actual dilemma.
The term “embargo” is based in contempt. Despite the bourgie-to-bourgie tone of familiarity in Rudin’s well-publicized admonishment, he apparently abhors any criticism. That should not be forgotten. Rudin expects critics to write the mediocre, by-the-book rave that Denby provided—but according to Rudin’s own timetable, such as the encomiums in Entertainment Weekly that regularly praise industry hacks as geniuses and call readers geniuses for recognizing such “genius.”
We find ourselves in a state of mediocrity where journalists are no longer willing to risk free access to movies for fear of being left behind on opening day. That’s an impractical concern in an era when movie coverage is everywhere all the time and the only real news is a critic’s individual point of view—if he has one. Denby forgot his pride. Disappointingly, one colleague told me “none of this matters.” But it does matter. It’s a matter of honor.