The Grups Award (for generalizations that seem astute but aren't) hasn't been given in a while, but it's mostly been due to my own laziness, not a lack of eligible articles, people, and publications. Today I'm awarding a Gruppy to a trio of film critics: Anthony Lane of the New Yorker, Stephanie Zachariak of Salon, and Keith Phipps of The Onion's AV Club (though Mr. Phipps's award-winning comment is from a piece in Slate). Why are they collectively winning a Grups Award? For gloom-and-dooming movies because of a perceived bad year in 2006.
My saddest moment in a movie theatre came a month ago, when I screened “All About Eve” to a bunch of acquaintances, one of whom came up to me at the end. “What happened?” she asked.
“Well,” I replied, “Anne Baxter got the award, and Bette Davis sat there all steamed up, and George—”
“No,” she said, tapping her foot, “what happened to movies like that? Movies with four great parts for women and lines you want to quote? Where did they go?”
No idea, but they sure as hell aren’t coming back.
The loss of an artist like Rpbert [sic] Altman would be difficult to bear in any year. But his loss cuts even deeper because he came of age as a filmmaker in an era when people could still be galvanized by movies, when there was time to refine our likes and dislikes, to parse our passion for or ambivalence about a picture before the next weekend's wave would roll in. We don't need more movies in our lives. We need more time, a commodity that's in short supply for almost everyone I know, to be able to catch at least some of these movies on the fly and define for ourselves which ones really matter.
I saw a pattern of settling into acceptable mediocrity in 2006, and it worries me.
Sigh. Oh, those glory days! When were they again? The gone-for-good fifties, Mr. Lane? The galvanizing seventies, Ms. Zachariak? Apparently even 2005, according to Mr. Phipps, was so vastly superior to 2006 that we should all drown an eye unused to flow for the golden age of cinema which apparently ended just last year.
Now, I'm no big city film critic (audience: "Ooooooh!"), but I find it very very hard to believe that any year that gives you movies like "Idlewild," "Children of Men," "Idiocracy," "Pan's Labyrinth," "Borat," and "The Proposition" could be defined as settling into mediocrity. In 2006, there were plenty of daring, personal movies (both successes and failures). And speaking of "Children of Men," I had quite a nice conversation after seeing the movie with the people I saw it with. As I do with, you know, most movies I see. And a movie that causes us to "parse our passion"? I had to practically wear ear plugs to avoid walking into a conversation about Borat -- and at least some of them had to be high-minded enough to count as "galvanizing." Yeah, movies still make people talk about movies and refine their tastes.
(If Zachariak wants movies to do more than that -- the word "galvanizing" is troubling to me -- I feel the need to point out that film, like all media, does only what it can. It would be nice to think that "M*A*S*H" and Bob Dylan ended the Vietnam War, but it didn't happen that way. At the beginning of "Slaughterhouse Five," Vonnegut writes that when he told a friend he was writing an anti-war novel, she replied that he might as well write an anti-glacier novel [but I suppose we'll be able to judge the effects of a pro-glacier movie with "An Inconvenient Truth"]. I remember a play, I think by Ed Napier, where a character makes fun of Berthold Brecht's "alienation effect," saying, "Well, look how good it worked on the Germans." I don't think she meant it like that -- that movies should affect social change -- but I started rambling and couldn't stop myself. So there.)
Now, on to "All About Eve" and it's quotability and the fact that it's never coming back. I thought about "All About Eve" and after I sorted "Sunset Boulevard" from it in my head, the only quote I could come up with was, "Hold on, it's going to be a bumpy ride." Then I thought, "Wait a second? That doesn't seem right. This seems like a 'play it again, Sam' moment." Hmm. So I looked at the IMDB memorable quotes page and saw that I'd misremembered it. "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night." I also saw that I did not remember ANY OTHER LINE from the movie. This isn't proof that the movie isn't well-written, but, well, it just doesn't have the place in my relatively smart, relatively thoughtful brain that Anthony Lane imagines it should. And why should it? It's an artifact from another time. Reading the memorable quotes, they feel stagey and weird. Now, T.S. Eliot took great pains to remind us that the present's artistic endeavors are only possible because of the past, and I agree with him, but times and fashions change and works of art are at least partially a product of their times. Why aren't there movies like "All About Eve" anymore? For the same reason that in fifty years movies like "The Big Lebowski" or "Eternal Sunshine" or "Three Kings" (or, or, or) won't be made anymore: shit happens.
If I were a less thoughtful person, I might be inclined to despair over the lack of good film criticism "nowadays," but that's not the case. All that happened is that three critics, while going over their year end lists, got struck by bouts of getoffmylawnism brought on by a year of seeing mostly mediocre, forgettable "entertainment." Well, too bad. Go watch "Sullivan's Travels" and do your job: review movies, not the state of movies (that last bit goes for you, too, David Denby).