In mass media, "smart" has become the alternative to popular. And
"smart"—the hipper-than-thou, angrier-than-thou attitude of today’s culture—has
led to smug. It’s what red staters have in common with blue staters, what makes bloggers and journalists
both feel at once superior to and combative with each other. It’s what connects Good Night, and
Good Luck, The Squid and the Whale, North Country, The Dying Gaul, The Weather Man, Syriana
and Capotesome of the year’s most acclaimed yet detestable films.
These titles prove that movie culture has changed since its last populist
eraironically, the era of "the director as superstar"when the press and the public
both responded to film in terms of an artist’s unifying vision. Audiences assented to commonly
understood ambitions, desires and questions. In today’s fake populism, where obscenely overpaid
and over-promoted journalists pretend to speak for the commonweal, pundits are superstars. And
since each self-proclaimed expert certifies himself film savvy, movies are considered less important
than how they make one feel superior. The hope that movies could bond a disparate populace is pass.
Movies are now part of the way that the media elite (and the cyberspace fringe) proclaim their advantages.
At no time in my experience reading cultural journalism was there a period
when the culture was as hostile as today. Awful movies are foisted upon the public through critics’
hypocritical confusion of bad taste and private interest. Propaganda for themselves. They automatically
acclaim movies that align with their personal beliefs while shunning any intellectual challenge.
Conflict-of-interest duds—from The Squid and the Whale to Good Night, and Good
Luck—represent boomer vanity; their implicit values denote the backed-up sewage
of the ’60s counterculture’s self-importance. These are films only people who fancy themselves
New York intellectuals could love. Such lousy movies and their critical praise signify an attempt
to create a cultural consensus. One social set’s prejudices get validated based on the unexamined
acceptance of particular class priorities. This hegemony is put into effect by pundits with no
grace or humility, who assert their difference—their smartness—from the general
We’re a long way past Vogue magazine’s candid yet mortifying
1986 disclosure that Hannah and Her Sisters was "about our kind of people. The things we
like to do, the places we like to go." Today’s smug media means to intimidate moviegoers into holding
the same high-rent values that dominate the airwaves and press. Thus, thinking alike, pretending
to be smart.
Being smart about movies is a way to seem right about everything else.
The media’s shameful treatment of both The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 911
taught a dire lesson that cinema has become part of the media elite’s tool to bolster one empowered
group’s political ideology and their separateness from the common folk. The discipline of criticism
was lowered to identity politics and alarmist name-calling. It reduced the legacy of the New York
intellectual to an anti-Bush/anti-Mel lapel button and brandishing that little gewgaw took the
place of thinking. The media’s attempt to control mass opinion was a cultural catastrophe from
which we have not yet recovered. The arrogance has only gotten worse.
Last year the New York Times took down the innocuous
Sideways for flattering journalists who saw themselves in its lead character. Yet an uglier
reflection of that profession is seen in the roundly-praised The Squid and the Whale. This
wretchedly made film about a disintegrating yet still elitist white middle-class family in Park
Slope, Brooklyn, inadvertently reveals how smugness gets transmitted from the dinner table to
the pages of The New Yorker. But it’s primarily a nauseating orgy of in-group solipsism.
Director-writer Noah Baumbach mimics the inverted narcissism of Capturing
the Friedmans, presenting his Park Slope denizens as the brain trust of New York literary culture
in all its bedraggled, half-ass, suburban-manque vanity. Real (average) moviegoers are said
to stare back at the screen in numbed stupefaction, however screening rooms buzzed with the press’s
self-satisfied chuckles. Propaganda for ourselves. Most New York critics should have recused
themselves from judging this mirror reflection. Their lack of such scruples matches Baumbach’s
lack of talent. The mind-boggling moment when his alter ego (Jesse Eisenberg) rips off a Pink Floyd
tune at a music contest and, supposedly, no one in all bourgie Brooklyn recognizes the theft, demonstrates
the downright plagiarism and nepotism of Baumbach’s career.
Benefiting from the same in-crowd laissez faire that has ruined cultural
journalism, Baumbach fouls-up the minority group scrutiny that distinguished Whit Stillman’s
superb comedies about monied Wasps. The Squid and the Whale recounts Baumbach’s parents’
divorce not as a coming-of-age lesson, but to boast of his clan’s dysfunction. All striving for
status, they lack the rigor and self-criticism of Stillman’s characters in Metropolitan and
The Last Days of Disco who, despite falling short of their snobby ideals, yet remain recognizable
and sympathetic. But Baumbach replaces Stillman’s subtle satire and affectionate mockery with
smugness. Self-conscious neuroses become signs of each character’s class superiority—smeared
in the audience’s face like the reckless kid brother errantly spreading jism over library books.
Baumbach fakes adolescent naivete because he has no perspective on the arrogance and selfishness
that divided his parents and the family snottiness he himself perpetuates.
But dig: Baumbach’s got the smug strategy down pat. He drops film and
literary references for tone (the New York nerd equivalent of no-fault insurance) and, sure enough,
congratulatory reviews followed. Film critics repeated the publishing industry’s logrolling
practice when they promoted Baumbach’s narcissism as the current cultural standard. The low point
was the Village Voice writer who (in one of a series of Baumbach-praising articles) bragged
about saving all the movie reviews published by Baumbach’s mother, an undistinguished film critic
but a former Voice employee. Thus, the Baumbachian admiration of snide and obtuse behavior
comes full circle.
Because the current cultural moment extols middle-class vanity,
we must suffer anomalies like Baumbach’s and the poison-pen valentine of Capote, which
has a similar combination of New Yorker magazine worship and social climbing. A crisis
of ethical confusion is apparent in the way Capote mixes admiration and envy. The filmmakers
trash their protagonist while also playing off New York literati against the banal treachery of
the Midwest when Capote is shown going to Iowa to research his book about a local mass murder. Screenwriter
Dan Futterman, director Bennet Miller and master mountebank Philip Seymour Hoffman sacrifice
a credible sense of place to their personally felt (post-2001 President election) tension of urban/rural
difference. Murderous hicks vs. disingenuous sophisticates. The subliminal psychological
conflict of class competition prevails. It’s red state/blue state sarcasm written in cold blood.
But Truman Capote’s allegedly unscrupulous ambition has nothing on
George Clooney’s diabolical smirk now made insufferable in two features, Syriana and
Good Night, and Good Luck. It’s maddening to watch Clooney’s media-flirtation, kissing up
to the press that, in gushing response, refrains from holding him to even the simple ethical standards
of a high school debate. Clooney out-smarms all his TV interviewers from Charlie Rose on up, but
the reason he gets the carte blanche denied to Mel Gibson is obvious: Clooney sells the irreligious,
left-liberal media their own cocktail party fantasy about themselves.
Fact is, there was less hagiography in The Passion of the Christ
than in Good Night, and Good Luck‘s canonization of Edward R. Murrow. Clooney gainsays
the media’s courage, reenacting Murrow’s on-air fight with Sen. Joseph McCarthy without ever
honestly examining the journalist’s motives or who actually did the era’s blacklisting. He doesn’t
deal with tragedy (there was none, only corporate business-as-usual, now conveniently excused
or blamed on McCarthy). It’s infuriating to see this shallow film praised as "thoughtful." Clooney’s
not our great thinker; he’s the epitome of TV’s dumbing-down infiltrating the movies. And the media
has refused to critique him simply because his film supports the delusions of the powers that be.
Maybe if Clooney repeats the sound bite that every one of the film’s details
was "double-sourced" enough times, his canard that Murrow fought the good fight will seem like
truth. David Straitharn’s stiff-necked Murrow isn’t a dogged researcher or investigative reporter;
he’s simply "smarter" than his white-collar colleaguesa tobacco-puffing totem of smug.
Clooney doesn’t dare involve this paragon in a dialectic on history, a series of supercilious chiaroscuro
postures is all. This amounts to industry propaganda force-fed to the public through a media that
is either gullible or complicit. It provides exactly the delusion that keeps American politics
divisive. That’s why the ad campaign for this domestic "thriller" hints at President Bush’s foreign
policy ("We cannot fight fear abroad while abandoning it at home.") Additionally, it seduces audiences
with visions of TV-star heroism aimed at kids who no longer dream of being president.
In Todd Solondz’s Storytelling a hapless teenager’s
life’s goal was simply to be on "The Conan O’Brien Show." He worshipped the media class, pursuing
the same carrot that The Weather Man and The Dying Gaul dangle before audiences.
Neither of these films is as good as Storytelling, but they present unabashed profiles
of the basic smug personality.
In The Weather Man, Nic Cage plays David Spritz, a TV automaton
whose $240K salary affords him upscale insulation and isolation. Director Gore Verbinski gives
Spritz the most specious moral crisis since Jerry Maguire. He playfully idolizes a TV profession
more than he satirizes a career that garners "a large reward for zero effort and contribution."
By turning sad-faced Cage into a Murrow-faced clown who gets assaulted on the streets by his vulgar
public, Verbinski exposes how media royalty really feel about "the people." Spritz’s isolation
from his children, his ex-wife, his father and his publicthe personal causes of his distressare
not even single-sourced. Rather, in this sentimental characterization, Spritz bears no blame
or responsibility for himself. Verbinski fills Spritz’s psychological vacancy with
cheap-shot slapstick gags and pathos. By tapping into Clooney’s TV arrogance, The Weather
Man inadvertently captures the narcissism of the new Anderson Cooper-style media supernovas.
Not since the newspaper comedies of the 1930s have the movies celebrated
a professional class unto itself. But this time the egotistical go-getters are no longer altruistic,
they’re totally self-absorbed, like the screenwriter protagonist of The Dying Gaul.
Director-writer Craig Lucas’ noir conceit holds Hollywood players to different standards than
the rest of us. In this movie about moviemaking, smugness devours itself. Lucas pretends to uncover
infidelity, greed and contemporary personal dishonesty yet nothing’s more dishonest than his
infatuation with America’s dark side through this privileged-people melodrama.
Asked to name his ideal filmmaker, screenwriter Robert (Peter Sarsgaard)
answers "Gus Van Sant since Truffaut is dead." Strange choices for a pathologically willful and
sadistic protagonist. Confined and defined by his gayness (Trapped in his own private Malibu?
Depressed by 400 blow jobs?), Robert sells out. He gets caught up in the Hollywood game of flattery
and duplicity and when it’s used against him, lashes back in an extremely misogynist Dial M for
Murder-style plot turn. Clearly, our culture still hasn’t come to grips with the moral revelations
of Altman’s The Player and that allows Lucas to celebrate the venality he pretends to expose.
Doesn’t Lucas know: Van Sant and Truffaut don’t mix?
The Dying Gaul’s Hollywood sharks swim right along with the
squid and the whale. By praising these movies critics create a class unconscious atmosphere
based on their own habits, political fantasies and self-importance. Movies like these have nothing
to commend them other than class bias. Almost everything is wrong with what’s presumed normal in
The Squid and the Whale, The Dying Gaul, Good Night and Good Luck and Capote—on
back to those critics’ faves Million Dollar Baby, In the Bedroom, Far From Heaven and
Lost in Translation.
This year there have been a range of movies—from War of the
Worlds to Palindromes—so unsmug as to be unfashionable to the critical constabulary
(and thus to the public). If critics were more conscientious than servile, this season’s glut of
on-screen narcissism would be roundly reviled. But Clooney and Baumbach’s obscenities stay around
as blue state fantasies of media class empowerment and haughtiness. (There’s an element of self-hatred
in this which also explains critics’ masochistic thrall with such Bush-bashing, rag-on-America
films as Syriana, Jarhead and A History of Violence.) Each willful and obnoxious
vision of superintellectualheroism is bought into and then promulgated by a media class recklessly
appointed to speak to and speak for America.
This problem results from media conglomerates orchestrating like-mindedness
among journalist-employees. Between publishers who only care about profit and editors who cultivate
bland homogeneity among critics, smugness is all we get. Back in the director-as-superstar days,
you could say that the critics who gave awards to 1976′s All the President’s Men over
Taxi Driver, Carrie, French Provincial and Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, were
congratulating their own profession rather than rigorously practicing it. But this year’s surfeit
of conceited movies and conceited criticism encourage an odious moral environment—the
triumph of smugness.
In an angry mood, the change that has taken place in cultural journalism
could be called corruption. Truth is, the mainstream media is now bullied and flattered by commercialism.
Big budgets and media respect go hand-in-hand. Who would dare oppose a movie that circuitously
pays your salary and directly flatters your ego? No critic besides Roger Ebert can praise everything,
but even the few pans that Ebert hand picks (War of the Worlds) just to keep his smartness
cred, very deliberately exempt him from the hoi polloi. This must also be called smugness.
Film journalists and filmmakers have lost the instinct to question
the presumptions of their own privileged class. Third-raters with more temerity than talent rule.
Every word of praise for Clooney, Baumbach and their mendacious colleagues demonstrates the preening
self-satisfaction of a media canton incapable of self-scrutiny, heedlessly celebrating its
own kind. Now that the privileged children of ’60s dissent have risen to power, they discourage
the moviegoing public from coming together in assent.
Smugness may be at the heart of the low attendance problem that perplexes
Hollywood this year. Audiences are unaroused by either Clooney’s smart-ass condescension, Baumbach’s
elitism or Ron Howard’s cornball patronizing in Cinderella Man. Through the corporate
collusion of filmmakers and film critics, a line has been drawn between themselves and the public.
And no one wants to cross.