By Ray Pride
What if a movie like “Stop-Loss” falls in the forest and there are no crickets there to chirp its praises?
Movie awareness is promoted in many ways, with money and “free media.” A paper’s film reviews are one example, as is an ad on the page after this one; or a sex-driven TV spot for “21” on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” in between inventive ads for lousy beer and you-can’t-blink videogames; ticket giveaways; interviews; and the Holy Grail, word of mouth. Who was talking about “Stop-Loss” last weekend, Kimberly Peirce’s earnest, flawed attempt at depicting the “back-door draft” of military “stop-loss” orders, which enable volunteers to be kept months or years past their contracted term? Not much of anyone, it turns out. Start with the title: that simple but necessary explanation would make my eyes glaze over if it weren’t an issue I cared about. Good actors, some spent in too-small roles: Abbie Cornish has been a terrific presence in every movie she’s been in, but is there ten dollars worth of fleeting fame among them? Re-brand it as an MTV release, preview it on campuses, clip the sexiest footage in commercials. (Ryan Philippe: buff.) Clever salesmanship: didn’t work at all. (The recurring “no one wants to see an Iraq war movie” remark ought to be “Everyone wants to see a great movie—Period.”) The movie itself is a mixed bag, but with fierce moments that show Peirce has the directorial eye, but coming nine years after “Boys Don’t Cry,” it also shows how rugged the road’s become: for directors, for films, for finding an audience.
Most of the movies that are driven by advertising are screened later and later, if at all, for most media. This week, “Leatherheads,” “Nim’s Island” and “The Ruins” are all being offered for review after Newcity goes to press. Are these movies that don’t need reviews? Or would they get shellacked like a Tyler Perry movie, if shown in advance? With vertiginous parallelism, the movie industry and journalism are both undergoing economic upheavals, and in the cricketing field, newspapers and magazines are slashing staffs in response to the demands of shareholders (and not necessarily their profit margins). The aggregate voices of the various critics may not mean much to the average reader, but “What critics do you read?” is the question I hear most often. (Aside from, “What’s good?” and “You mean you get to see the movies before they come out?”) There are engaged readers but the ranks of engaged writers are thinning. While Stanley Kauffmann, who turns 92 this month, remains a cogent voice at the New Republic after fifty years, Roger Ebert remains on medical leave until the end of April; Jonathan Rosenbaum retired at 65; Newsday recently dropped its film editor and both critics; the Village Voice said they couldn’t afford the very voice-ey Nathan Lee; Newsweek bought out 100-plus employees, including thirty-year veteran David Ansen; the Detroit Free Press and San Diego Union-Tribune also recently booted career reviewers. (A few weeks later, a Union-Tribune editor had to apologize for letting through a rankly sexist wire-service review of “The Other Boleyn Girl,” which mocked Natalie Portman’s proportions in the opening paragraph.)
“Stop-Loss” was made and released by a major media conglomerate, and if it suffers from fewer voices discussing its merits and failings, what of the smaller movies? Is it a case of too many movies, too few screens? More importantly: do we all have too little leisure time? (I’ll txt you later.) The conversation about movies on the page and with filmmakers and with readers has always mattered to me. It gets you through a hard week or a terrible movie.
In a neatly written yet bleak piece in Tuesday’s New York Times, columnist David Carr writes, “Given that movie blogs are strewn about the Web like popcorn on a theater floor, there are those who say that movie criticism is not going away, it’s just appearing on a different platform.” A quick flipside comes from an online reply later that day by the Oregonian’s Shawn Levy, remarking on Ansen’s departure. “I clearly have a personal stake in this matter, but… I’m as anxious about it in my capacity as a lover of newspapers and public debate about movies as I am as a guy with a mortgage and three kids, two in college… [T]he idea of fewer platforms for varied voices depresses me… I can appreciate Ansen’s desire not to see any more big Hollywood movies even if he’s being paid to do so [but] the idea that printed film criticism is continuing to consolidate (while the online version disseminates willy-nilly) is a caution and a sadness.”
At least ten movies are opening this weekend in Chicago for at least a seven-day run. There may be more; bookings shift by the hour these days. I’m concerned, like Levy, about the career I’ve made and what it will become, but also about movies. Flies may have a hundred tiny eyes, but we’ve got only two to watch with, wide-eyed.
Doesn’t it always come back to the apocryphal old curse, “May you live in interesting times”? Which Wikipedia sources as a corruption of “It’s better to be a dog in a peaceful time than be a man in a chaotic period.” And the lowly cricket? Still in the dark after all these years.
“Stop-Loss” is still playing. Plus those ten other movies. And did you hear Sony’s putting features on AT&T phones?