Wednesday Morning Kneejerk

A critical trait I can see the theoretical value of but find basically impossible to adopt: ignoring some major negative within a movie in favor of focusing on what the movie is doing, or trying to do. On his blog Rosenbaum just reprinted his essay about the director Cy Endfield (probably best known for Zulu), and he bases a lot of his case on Endfield’s Try and Get Me!, a low-rent 1950 noir about a family man who befriends a stranger, yadda yadda, it doesn’t really matter here. It’s a mostly negligible film until its last half hour, when a new movie comes bursting out of the old movie’s chest, and we’re treated to a ferocious lynch-mob scene that actually stands up well to the riot in Lang’s Fury. Rosenbaum’s right when he says that the movie’s directed with some brains and care, but he fails to mention one unavoidable problem: its star, Frank Lovejoy, gives a performance that’s neither lovely nor joyous. In fact, it’s textbook awful. The charisma-free Lovejoy suffocates every scene, dragging their rhythms down, or backwards, with his pained attempts to look desperate, and it’s especially ruinous since his character is a man who’s supposedly being flushed away by momentum and circumstance. (Lovejoy wasn’t bad as Bogart’s cop buddy in In a Lonely Place, but that was a small role and in 1950 you pretty much had to defy God himself to look bad in a Nick Ray movie.) And yet Rosenbaum declares Try and Get Me! to be “a masterpiece of the early 50s”.

Well…hm. That’s a pretty tough sell for those of us who think the word “masterpiece” ought to be reserved for a few ambitious and accomplished works whose flaws, if any, amount to nothing more than hairline fractures. It’s also a tough sell to those of us who see movies as an ultimately collaborative effort, who can’t forget that watching them is something we have to experience physically, who feel that a director’s job includes coaxing good work out of his performers as well as his crew, and who—if nothing else—notice how much better movies work when actors actually enhance the material rather than stand around stinking the place up. I suppose I could appreciate Transformers 2 as a Platonic form that’s just hovering in the ether, rather than the bag of shit it really is, if I closed my eyes and let myself float up to some majestically neutral plane, high above all those critics who rely on their precious little value judgments when they think about movies. But I just can’t help thinking that it’s important to stay in touch with the film that actually appears on the screen, and that just as much can be learned from what’s wrong in a work as from what’s right in it.

But the arguments for an impersonal appreciation of art take a lot of forms. More times than I care to count I’ve gotten into fights over how relevant an artist’s intentions are (or even how interesting they are)—a surprisingly contentious point for some folks, who seem to think that even to consider what Renoir had to say about Grand Illusion is at best uncritical star-fucking and at worst a mental surrender to some kind of fascistic paternalism. Well, part of the reason I seek out a Suttree or Crime and Punishment to begin with is because I like spending time with the weird febrile goofy fucks that create them; hooking into a work gives us what’s almost certainly going to be the only contact we ever have with an Agnes Varda or J.G. Ballard.

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