This catastrophe was confirmed by last week’s letter from a majority of the New York Film Critics Circle to Warner Bros. about the Motion Picture Association of America (the organization that administers movie ratings) requiring that Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut be altered to qualify for an R rating. The letter charged the ratings board had “become a punitive and restrictive force, effectively trampling the freedom of American filmmakers…creat[ing] its own zone of kneejerk Puritanism.”
Jack Valenti, MPAA chairman, answered a similar, previous letter from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (signed by only half its membership). He described a “small band of constant whiners” who “talk to each other, write for each other, opine with each other and view with lacerating contempt the rubes who live Out There, west of Manhattan and east of the San Andreas Fault.” Valenti adroitly targeted the elite insularity besetting mainstream criticism; it has, indeed, alienated most of the fourth estate from hard thought and independent motivation. Both the L.A. and New York letters were ill-advised and petulant; they ignore the economic imperatives that have made a muddle of movie culture, dissolving sensible distinctions between teenage and adult films. Critics coast to coast now agree: nothing should stand in the way of any movie being a blockbuster.
One New York Circle member privately admitted the protest was “like pissing in the wind.” But worse than that, this EWS “controversy” (i.e., a mess created by the media elite but not actually felt by anyone in the civilian world) is another example of the industry-think that’s already obsessing critics. (And that’s easier to deal with than esthetic issues and the politics within esthetics.)
Although it’s encouraging to see critics acting according to their consciences (rather than according to “am-I-hip?” trepidation), they pick strange, arbitrary occasions to talk back to the industry. No critics group came to Charles Burnett’s aid when his The Glass Shield was being recut and rescored by Miramax. (In fact, there are many instances when studios mandate cuts and revisions; EWS is simply one of the few times critics are aware of such interference.) Taking up this issue is outside the purview of criticism–especially when those critics who praised EWS did so shallowly, in cliche terms that showed no penetration or appreciation of Kubrick’s art effort. This protest crosses the line from one kind of uselessness to another, familiar kind–from criticism to pseudo proactive punditry.
Kneejerking “Puritanism”–an incessant liberal bugaboo–contradicts the letter’s supposed practicality. (Interestingly, it conflates corporate reflexes with puritanism.) Critics have forgotten EWS is a product that Kubrick contractually diplomatically–agreed to supply Time Warner. As owners, Time Warner has every right to shape its product as they please (plus, we all know the full version will eventually be released on videotape, a less restricted format).
Critics actually have no grounds to argue artistic freedom–especially given their severe selectivity. Complaining that “The process by which this bowdlerized edition of Kubrick’s final film came into being has been shrouded in vagueness and misinformation” once more obviates the critical task of interpretation. It seeks the insider gossip that has, too frequently, become confused with artistic discussion and exegesis. The letter grumbles that “a serious movie about human sexuality, made by one of the world’s master filmmakers, cannot be seen by American adults in its intended form.” Yet critics rarely discuss movies in adult terms. EWS reviews that carp about plausibility haven’t a clue about artistic intention, except the bowdlerized notion of art reviewers learn from Hollywood. (They want plausibility, not poetry.)
For sheer missing of the point, this critical uproar was exemplary.
“I didn’t agree with it, but I signed on anyway,” a colleague said.
“But if you didn’t agree, you shouldn’t have signed on,” I countered.
These would-be defenders of Kubrick are not defenders of the faith. Those who hail American Pie one week aren’t credible in their speculative defense of EWS. Critics who praise Blair Witch Project for what’s “not seen” should, to be consistent, applaud Warner Bros.’ digital censoring for making the orgies in EWS “not seen.” (The most ludicrous critical statement so far this year was The New Yorker snubbing EWS, then quickly calling BWP “a rough masterpiece.”)
Now the “obscenity” question has exposed the liberal pieties driving the two critics groups as they argue for a licentious marketplace. Yes, the same critics who praised Seven, Silence of the Lambs, Terminator 2, Pulp Fiction and The Fugitive now grouse about “the apparent double standard the MPAA continues to maintain when it comes to sexual and violent movie content” (from the L.A. letter). Lacking any standard for what constitutes adult content, they essentially see sex and violence as equivalent dangerous stimuli–suitable for any audience with disposable cash. (Perhaps that’s why the Times’ lead critic went on the record to say that EWS, after digital editing, “remains the same”–to ensure its box-office chances.)
Disregarding artistic standards for commercial ones, critics have pitted themselves against the MPAA. But they’re wrong. The problem isn’t the ratings board, it’s Warner’s peculiar insistence on a soft–dare I say, American? Box-office-friendly?–version of the movie. The way the MPAA board and the studios–the MPAA’s funders–coexist, there is still the prerogative for any studio to go ahead and release an NC-17 movie. As Valenti has suggested in the past, NC-17 is a good, workable rating. Valenti can count its 1990 implementation a tactical triumph. Critics should defend NC-17, welcoming any distinction between serious films from kid stuff. And studios with big ad budgets have the clout to force the few repressive newspapers and media outlets that refuse ads for NC-17 fare to change their policies. Likewise those theater chains that refuse to exhibit an NC-17, giving it the stigma of pornography. Yet critics, ever-protective of box-office potential, ignore this capitalist safety net. They’re as misinformed as Terry Semel, cochairman of Warner Bros., who said “We’re not in the NC-17 business…NC-17 is a whole industry. It includes triple-X-rated porno films. So to us that’s just not a business that we’re in. Never have been.”
The New York Times turned Semel’s incongruous quote against him, using his defensiveness to help make the critics’ point. It was a spurious tactic. Biased journalism. But Valenti understands the facts of business, art and ethics in ways liberal journalists don’t. Studios never guarantee artistic content and only rarely do they care about it. Masking EWS was less detrimental than Kubrick’s conceptual errors (Tom Cruise!). The masking was a nonartistic decision. It was not insensitive but plainly commercial–an ambition critics usually praise.
Fact is, Mr. Semel, 28 years ago Warner Bros. released Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange with an X rating–it was a hit, as was the X-rated Midnight Cowboy in 1969 and the X-rated Last Tango in Paris in 1973. Since then, only the forthrightness of studio heads and journalists has foundered. Controversy should not be about ratings, but about studio greed and our contemporary cultural hypocrisy. (Distribution patterns in the 1990s insist that every movie open wide–to teens as well as adults. That’s why the studios no longer nurture prestige adult films; everything is marketed as mass entertainment.)
If NC-17 has been neutered it’s not the MPAA’s fault, but that of a combination of studio avarice, the National Association of Theater Owners’ apathy (they stall on a pro-NC-17 policy) and misguided critics. A proper letter would have chided Warner Bros. for not supporting the MPAA and Kubrick.
Individually, some critics might be thoughtful, intelligent. As a group, the sheep mentality takes over (some warped, early-movie sense of populism). The disinclination to think clearly and the tendency to bow to political and cultural hegemony have done much to encourage conformity and dumbness in audiences and filmmakers. They also destroy the provocative potential of film criticism. There are industry/critics issue that critics groups should act upon in order to improve conditions for watching and evaluating films. But instead, week by week, screening by screening, the group acquiesces to studio manipulation and abuse. They could create a united front to keep the studios from treating critics as just an adjunct of their
publicity departments–renouncing the embargo placed on prerelease reviews for everyone but high-readership newsweeklies; refusing to be herded into nighttime screenings with coercive, unprofessional audiences (“sweeteners” as market researchers call them). This is what keeps the treadmill revolving insanely.
A Circle member confessed, “if it is indeed true (as I think it is) that we critics now focus far too exclusively on big-budget-movie issues, it may be less out of laziness than the fact that, in the media-industrial complex, that’s just about the only practical way of being heard. (What a sad situation, but that’s another story.)”
Actually, it’s the same story. For critics, “being heard” means jumping on the Kubrick bandwagon (to appear topical). Big-budget films don’t need any more critical support; it’s the small ones that do. (Amy Taubin at least showed genuine indie spirit when using the EWS issue to publicize a small filmmaker’s travails.) What would the inept Blair Witch Project be without media complicity? Journalists stuck in the system (the “media-industrial complex”) feel there’s nothing to be done about it. But I’m wary of critics waking up only for big-budget issues. Our best effort is to make the system bend to aid singular artists and unique films, not to act continually as if only big-budget movies matter. Critics have lost “power” by giving in to the treadmill, regularly behaving as satisfied components in a “media-industrial complex.” These Eyes Wide Shut letters give more hype to another already overhyped super-production. Yet even an aggregate of film critics is impotent. Just ask Patch Adams.
Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train by Patrice Chereau is probably the film of the year. One amazing scene after another; fascinating characters dealing with love and death; plus a convulsive, winged view of life. Don’t miss it–or my defense of it next week.