I blame Sonny
My (unfortunately) former colleague Sonny Bunch ruined my day with this tweet:
When it’s said that the right isn’t to be trusted re: movies, it’s because Big Hollywood publishes things like this http://bit.ly/6C1Xs3
… which will take you to the invaluable Andrew Breitbart site, and to an essay by Ben Shapiro that I can only call the most puerile piece of neener-neener adolescent contrarianism I have ever read. (Sonny was no less hostile, calling it “the single stupidest list I’ve ever seen“; his Twitter feed suggests we may see his rebuttal at Big Hollywood soon.) It’s also a credit to Big Hollywood’s readers that the reaction in the combox has been overwhelmingly negative, and with a suitable amount of vitriol.
Shapiro’s list is the 10 Most Over-rated Directors of All Time. And he picks some sacred cows, the two most sacred probably coming at the end:
10. Ridley Scott …
9. Michael Mann …
8. David Lean …
7. Darren Aronofsky …
6. Mike Nichols …
5. David Lynch …
4. Quentin Tarantino …
3. Woody Allen …
2. Martin Scorsese …
1. Alfred Hitchcock …
Now part of me feels like Woody Allen in MANHATTAN, listening to Diane Keaton’s Academy of the Overrated and her slag on Ingmar Bergman (“what next, Mozart?”). But it’s not exactly the names he picks that makes this piece so awful (no artist is literally beyond criticism). No, what makes the article offensively bad is that it’s not even GOOD contrarianism. Even though I actually agree with a couple of those choices, it just embarrasses me more that I agree with Shapiro (I don’t care for most Lynch, most Nichols, most recent Allen and most recent Scott).
Lord knows, I’ve spilled enough 0s and 1s dissing Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Bresson. But I’d like to think I at least give disputable reasons for my distastes, rather than just issue pronunciamento sneers.
And really, that is all Shapiro does — slather adjectives and assertions, both of which make less sense the more you know about the film-makers in question. It is quite literally a worthless article and it seriously calls into question the man’s cine-literacy and his ability to engage a work of art on its own terms.
You think I’m exaggerating? I will go into detail (something he doesn’t). Here is his dis of David Lean:
Everything Lean made is too long by at least half an hour. I know it’s mortal sin to suggest that Laurence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Ryan’s Daughter are anything less than masterpieces, but … they’re all less than masterpieces. Great Expectations was good. Everything else was downhill.
It’s hard even to respond to that because there is quite literally not a single critical claim being made. Indeed Shapiro says nothing that even requires that he have seen the movies, or done anything beyond noting their running times. And factual inaccuracies abound. In what universe has suggesting that RYAN’S DAUGHTER is less than a masterpiece been considered mortal sin? Indeed, its commercial failure and critical savaging so devastated Lean that he didn’t make another film for almost 15 years. Is “everything” too long by “at least half an hour”? Everything? No sane man denies that Lean made long films late in his career (you can look that up on that IMDb), but his early films are models of economic editing. IN WHICH WE SERVE follows a half-dozen men on a ship, flashes backs to their pre-war lives, and takes in their homefront families in comfortably less than two hours. OLIVER TWIST and GREAT EXPECTATIONS (it “was good”) get across much of their Dickens novels’ incident and all of their spirit in the same 110 or so minutes. If BRIEF ENCOUNTER were a half-hour shorter, it wouldn’t even fill an hour, and BLITHE SPIRIT barely would. And these five films are not obscure — they were generally popular at the time (they made Lean’s career after all) and most of them are still well-respected. In fact, BRIEF ENCOUNTER (unmentioned by Shapiro) is an all-time Top 10 favorite of mine. One would think a conservative moralist might even approve of its attitude toward adultery, the bourgeois virtues and Romantic heedlessness. And notice how Lean (and that homersexual preevert Noel Coward) made repression in the name of decency seem worthy of tragedy. But wait … I’m going into details about a given work. Forgive me … “less than masterpieces” — that’s it.
On Michael Mann, Shapiro has exactly four words, which I rebut in half that:
9. Michael Mann: All style, no substance.
Ben Shapiro: Shit sandwich.¹
(See, I don’t even like agreeing with the guy. I’m not unsympathetic to criticism of Mann, who is not a great yarnmeister, as “all style, no substance.” But I don’t want to agree with someone who doesn’t wrestle with the obvious rebuttal — that Mann’s substance IS his style and/or is created by his style. He’s concerned with the impact of appearances and surfaces, and how they create legends and myths that then become reality, like in ALI and PUBLIC ENEMIES and THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE.)
I don’t have any great stake in the standing of Darren Aronofsky, though I like him more than some of my cinephile buds. But how can one take seriously a dis on Aronofsky that doesn’t even *mention* THE WRESTLER (his most successful film). If Shapiro is gonna complain that Aronofsky makes incoherent films filled with perverted sex, you can’t not mention the one film of his which he did not script but which complete eschews the mythopoetic rambling of PI and THE FOUNTAIN (successfully “trippy” though they were). And which is also his most narratively coherent. And which even has an entry at the IMDb on the question of whether Evan Rachel Wood’s character is a lesbian, with the answer being that the film hints at it but never “goes there” or makes it explicit (much less gets explicit). And this is just flat wrong …
Not one of his films has been a major commercial success. Yet somehow, someone keeps giving him money.
I question the competence of any film critic/writer who measures directorial worth by the box office, but let that go. “Major” is a relative term, I realize, and nobody would mistake Aronofsky for Spielberg or Bay. But THE WRESTLER — again, unmentioned by Shapiro and probably his best-known film — grossed $26 million on a $7 million budget. It’s not exactly AVATAR, but almost 4-to-1 is a good return on any investment and explains why people keep giving him money. (And PI did even better by that measure, being made for $60,000 and grossing $3 million.)
A little jester in the back of my head hopes that someone at Big Hollywood realized what a putrid piece this was and so played a joke on Shapiro by noting that the Aronofsky blurb doesn’t mention THE WRESTLER and so choosing *as the illustration art* Aronofsky with Mickey Rourke.
But let’s get to the real nadir — Scorsese and Hitchcock. This is what he had to say about Scorsese
In the musical Damn Yankees, a group of hapless baseball players sing the following lyric: “You’ve gotta have heart / All you really need is heart!” Martin Scorsese never saw that musical. His films are entirely devoid of anything resembling likable characters. They are cold and calculating and ruthless – and boring. Nobody cares what happens to Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed (in fact, in one screening I saw, people cheered when he got it in the head). The Aviator takes as long to tell as Howard Hughes did to live. Gangs of New York featured a brilliant performance from Daniel Day Lewis, and not much else (on a side note, there is no excuse for killing Liam Neeson in the first ten minutes of a film). Casino is nasty, brutish, and long. Goodfellas is similarly disgusting – you feel the need to take a shower after watching. Why anyone would want to spend several hours of his/her life with coke-snorting Ray Liotta and Co. is beyond me. The Last Temptation of Christ is baffling. The Color of Money is a snooze-fest (if you want to see a directorial clinic rather than Scorsese’s garbage, try Robert Rossen’s The Hustler, to which The Color of Money is a sequel). Raging Bull is gross. Mean Streets is gross and soporific. Taxi Driver is perhaps the most overrated film in Hollywood history — dreary, grungy, and subzero. Scorsese has never seen a main character he liked, a villain he hated, or a pair of editing scissors.
Where does one begin?
With the unsupportable and childishly-naive presumption that we must “like” characters in order to care about them? Who is “likable” in MACBETH or MISS JULIE or GREED or MEDEA? That Shapiro sees art as about “a main character he liked [and] a villain he hated” tells me he sees art as a mere object lesson in pointing to white hats and black hats. Grow up, dude.
With the unsupported assertion that “nobody cares” what happened to the lead in THE DEPARTED? How does he know this … did he survey “everybody”? Also, there are many reasons an audience might cheer a character being killed, not all of them favorably reflecting on the audience — the sheer sadism of a good “kill shot,” e.g.
How literally should we take “you can’t kill Liam Neeson in the first 10 minutes”? Why not … he’s not the central character, and his death is only there as a defining formative influence on the central character?
Does he actually think glibly labeling films as “nasty” or “disgusting” or “gross” actually constitutes criticism of them? Why anyone would want to spend several hours of his life with king-stabbing Macbeth and his psycho-bitch wife is probably beyond him too. Sure, GOODFELLAS, RAGING BULL et al depict unheroic people mostly doing bad things. But does he not realize that RAGING BULL’s story arc is Jake’s sin-penance-[tentative] redemption? Or that MEAN STREETS is about Keitel’s trying to save DeNiro from his own worst tendencies? Or that GOODFELLAS is intended to make you dislike the mobsters without simply constructing them as Demon Other? Scorsese understands, even though simple-minded moralists like Shapiro do not, that you cannot say something meaningful about sin without acknowledging and/or portraying its attractiveness.
And FTR, there is only one sequence of significant length in GOODFELLAS centered on coke-snorting (and it happens to be the most fawesome scene in the picture — an “overscored,” “overmixed,” “overdone” exercise in a life finally spinning out of control in a single day, a paranoid man trying to juggle a hundred tasks and get the special sauce ready while the soundtrack constantly rocks and the camera constantly moves).
As for Shapiro on Hitchcock, just read and weep:
He’s not even close to the worst on the list, but he’s certainly the most overrated. He never made a great film. He was the Stephen King of the silver screen: he made films with great premises, but he never knew where to go from there. The psychoanalysis at the end of Psycho is laughable. North by Northwest relies on the tried-and-true random helpful coincidence to save our hero, time and again. It brings to mind one of Twain’s rules of writing, directed toward Fenimore Cooper: “the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.” Not so much for Hitchcock. Spellbound once again relies on amateur psychoanalysis. Notorious is the same movie as Rebecca. Rear Window makes one reach for the fast-forward button. Vertigo makes one reach for the cyanide. The Birds quickly becomes inane. If you want to see good Hitchcock, rent Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Restricted to the one hour medium, he’s at his best. Left to his own devices, he’s slightly better than mediocre.
Sonny suggested that …
it’s fair to unilaterally dismiss anyone who says that Hitch is the “most overrated” director of all time
… which is probably correct, but if you’re driven, you’re driven. So into the breach I go:
He never made a great film.
Is that a fact? Who is Ben Shapiro to say that this flatly? I’ll just respond: BLACKMAIL, THE 39 STEPS, SABOTAGE, THE LADY VANISHES, REBECCA, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, SHADOW OF A DOUBT, LIFEBOAT, NOTORIOUS, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, DIAL M FOR MURDER, REAR WINDOW, VERTIGO, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, PSYCHO, FRENZY.
He was the Stephen King of the silver screen: he made films with great premises, but he never knew where to go from there.
Actually, this manages to get it exactly backwards. Hitchcock’s films generally had ludicrous premises, as Joe Queenan had great sport pointing out in “If You’re Talking to Me, Your Career Must Be in Trouble.” But, as Queenan details (in a real work of Hitch criticism), he could make them interesting and “hook us” through his style. It’s old hat that it’s easier to adapt “penny dreadfuls,” full of incident, into movies than great works of literature, but it applied particularly in Hitchcock’s case since he sought to play the audience’s emotions “like a piano.” He had a direct line to the audience’s subconscious fears and daimonic dreams (most prominently, being wrongly accused and nobody believing you).
North by Northwest relies on the tried-and-true random helpful coincidence to save our hero, time and again.
Does it? Our hero is able to make a lot of those coincidences happen, with the help of his girl friday. And the coincidences are just as often unhelpful — indeed, the whole plot begins with the coincidence of Cary Grant calling for service just as “George Kaplan” is being paged. But even so, is a reliance on coincidence terribly relevant to a film that couldn’t be more obvious that it isn’t trying to be realistic? A chase across Mount Rushmore and you complain about realism? (This is what I mean when I say Hitchcock hooks us into ludicrous premises.) The crop-duster attack is ridiculous from a naturalistic perspective; brilliant from the logic of making an archetypal dreamscape of sudden danger from nowhere, with nowhere to hide.
The psychoanalysis at the end of Psycho is laughable … Spellbound once again relies on amateur psychoanalysis.
For sheer “missing the boat,” that first sentence is probably Shapiro’s low point. Did it ever occur to him that the Simon Oakland scene in PSYCHO (which, yes, is laughable … IF you take it to be “the moral of the story”) is then followed by something far darker, something far beyond the rationalistic, clean-scrubbed categories that psychology gives us in its scientistic effort to medicalize sin, madness and human daimons. Couldn’t that, in fact, be the very point? Hitchcock was the most profound critic of psychoanalysis, like … ever (I recommend Jonathan Freedman’s essay “From Spellbound to Vertigo: Alfred Hitchcock and Therapeutic Culture in America”). What is VERTIGO, after all, but a “demolition,” as Freedman calls it, of vulgar pop Freudianism and its attempts to pragmatize the dark side of man’s soul (Scottie’s efforts to “look up … look down” and “I don’t think Mozart’s gonna do it” and the multiple “confront and re-create your past” arcs within the film)? The campy opening crawl aside, what actually happens in SPELLBOUND — the analysis of Gregory Peck and the unrepressing of his memory jeopardizes him criminally. And while analyst Ingrid Bergman saves him, it is by making the final villain a head-shrinker who not only kills himself but, symbolically-speaking because of how it is shot, also kills the audience (a 1940s audience during a period where psychiatry was starting to become respectable — “it will kill you,” Hitch warns).
Notorious is the same movie as Rebecca.
Now as ludicrous as the last sentence about PSYCHO is, it at least proffers a clear (if misguided and beside-the-point) claim. As for this sentence, I have just three words: What? The? Colorful? What does that even mean? REBECCA is a Gothic woman’s picture; NOTORIOUS is a spy thriller. They have practically nothing in common, much less “the same movie” — an assertion here without elaboration, natch. Does Laurence Olivier in REBECCA play the Claude Rains role or the Cary Grant role in NOTORIOUS? (The fact that NOTORIOUS is, in some sense, about two men battling over a woman while there aren’t even two significant men *in* REBECCA should indicate the ludicrousness of Shapiro’s glib assertion.) What in NOTORIOUS is even remotely like the shadow that the dead Rebecca and her loyal servant Mrs. Danvers casts over Joan Fontaine (and no … Rains’ mother is not the correct answer)? Both Fontaine and Ingrid Bergman enter into marriages early in the film, but not for remotely comparable reasons — in NOTORIOUS, it’s a ruse for a spy trap that “ruins” Bergman in Grant’s eyes. But male jealousy isn’t remotely a feature of REBECCA, and there’s nothing like a dead first wife or a murderous(?) husband in NOTORIOUS.² Two more words: shit sandwich.
Rear Window makes one reach for the fast-forward button. Vertigo makes one reach for the cyanide.
OK, so Shapiro doesn’t like those two films, his two greatest IMHO. No reasons at all are given or even hinted at. Just an assertion of distaste and move along. How lazy. How snarky. How hollow.
If you want to see good Hitchcock, rent Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Restricted to the one hour medium, he’s at his best. Left to his own devices, he’s slightly better than mediocre.
And for the piece de resistance, we get some good old factual wrongness that just leaves one thinking (actually, “knowing”) that Shapiro simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
(1) Hitchcock didn’t direct almost all the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” episodes — just 17 of the 266, so it’s meaningless to talk about Hitchcock as a director from the series in general; (2) “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” only lasted a half-hour, not the “one-hour medium”; (3) there was indeed an hour-long show, but it was called “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” and Hitchcock never directed an episode of it. (There’s a Website full of neat info like this that Shapiro should check out. It’s called the Internet Movie Database — here are the facts on “Presents” and on “Hour.”)
As for his critical claims — why does Shapiro think Hitchcock would have been more “left to his own devices” on a 2-hour color picture costing millions of dollars than he was on a cheaper half-hour (CQ) black-and-white TV show with his own name on it? When it comes to constraint, a format is a format, a running-time expectation an expectation (Lars Von Trier and Jorgen Leth made a pretty good film on this subject, but it’s got subtitles). And as for Shapiro’s claims, it’s a very good show and some of the episodes indeed are masterful. But they have the common “problem” of basically being structured like jokes — that is, a yarn with a last scene that’s a punch line, often recoding everything we’d seen to that point. This format and formula can, I emphasize, often make an excellent work of art, but it can also tempt an artist into a kind of superficial cleverness and facileness. Which may be exactly why …
I repeat — never have I seen such an awful piece of sophomoric tripe on a film site I respect and admire.
¹ No, I won’t explain it. You’ve either seen SPINAL TAP or you haven’t.
² Actually, if there is a murderous husband, it’s Rains’s efforts to poison Bergman (i.e., not Fontaine, the wife in the drama) not his possibly-having-killed an unseen first wife.