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Wednesday
Apr032013

Don't Bother Reading This

My wife loves yellow mustard. Loves it. She'll allow no other condiments on her sandwiches, and has passed this obsession down to our son. He can barely get through a meal without dipping peas, blueberries, and anything else within reach into a fat glob of French's.

Darlena used to be a honey-Dijon girl, exclusively. Four years ago, yellow mustard was anathema to her. In the same way she gets all scrunchy-faced now, when I jokingly ask if we're having sushi for dinner, there was a time when her favorite spread was so gross that I got dirty looks for even having it in the fridge.

So, what changed? I don't know. I'm not sure she does, either. Likely, she accidentally ate something with yellow mustard in it while at a restaurant and was simply no longer grossed out. This began a love affair that has kept us in little squeezy bottles ever since.

You'll notice I didn't write, "she accidentally ate something with yellow mustard in it while at a restaurant and promptly sent the dish back, demanding her entree be dropped from our check." She kept eating and discovered that her lifelong taste had swung dramatically, randomly, in a new direction. Sharing this level of commitment makes us an awesome couple.

My "yellow mustard" isn't actually yellow mustard--it's movies. As a film critic, I'm challenged weekly by content both inspiring and depressing, created by everyone from brand-name, millionaire directors to indie auteurs with barely two nickels to rub together. I used to think there was no place for no-budget filmmaking in hard, cinematic analysis. But Cory Udler changed my mind.

I was given a review copy of his movie Incest Death Squad a few years ago. Looking at the cover and reading the synopsis, I figured I was in for a painful, amateurish production. While the film wasn't anything resembling perfect, there were enough good ideas and great performances on screen for me to take it seriously. Cory followed up the next year with a sequel, which I loved so much that it made my list of 2010's best films.

I respect Cory as a filmmaker. He never lets a limited budget interfere with entertaining the audience. Granted, in the indie film world, "entertaining" and "audience" are dicey words: to some, the sole purpose of micro-cash trash is to watch something stupid with drinking buddies; for others, like me, there's little distinction between a twenty-minute short film someone posts to YouTube and Steven Spielberg's latest three-hour costume drama. I've long believed that any film not explicitly aimed at children or carrying a "stupid time-waster" label on its cover should be given the respect of being judged as a legit work of art.

Not everyone agrees, apparently.

Case in point: for the second time this week, people have suggested that I should not bother watching certain movies because I either A) think I'm "above" the material and therefore am inherently biased against it, or B) am not familiar enough with the director's previous work to make a fair assessment.

The first sign of trouble came when Derrick Carey, a producer on the movie Swamphead, called me a hypocrite for unfavorably comparing his film to Sexsquatch. He reminded me that, unlike the harsh blanket statements I'd used in my new review, I'd actually referred to the people behind Swamphead as talented in my old write-up.

Sure enough, I had said that, and immediately issued a non-apology: in the year-and-a-half since I posted that review, I've matured as a critic.* Rather than pull some George Lucas-style revision of my previous work, however, I decided to let the Swamphead piece stand.

You see, awhile ago, a reader wrote in to say that some review I'd written was clearly a softball piece meant to protect the feelings of filmmakers I clearly liked and/or knew. I don't recall offhand what the movie was (and am too tired to comb the archives), but the point stuck. In that moment, I realized I was hurting my readers by recommending they invest their time and money into something I didn't fully believe in. As the Internet's five billionth armchair movie reviewer, my only hope of standing out and standing strong is to make sure my opinions and words are in total sync--no matter who might be upset with them.

Sadly, I lost Derrick as a Facebook friend.** I was pretty torn up about this, but there was simply no way to save face without being untrue to myself. Since the Swamphead review went up, I've been able to support his other projects in good conscience, while simply remaining quiet on the topic of that particular movie. As I said in my last post to him, it doesn't matter how much effort a film crew puts into a picture; if the end result is bad art, and if that bad art is pushed into the marketplace (with or without a price tag on it--but especially with one), then the artists must be held accountable for their work.

Few people understand that being a movie critic is only partially about watching movies and writing about them in an entertaining fashion. We are also consumer advocates. If I say, "Go out and buy Dead Weight! It's one of the most original thrillers in years!", what I'm really saying is, "I know your disposable income is precious, but there's no better use of that twenty dollars burning a hole in your pocket than to check out this awesome indie film." You may not wind up agreeing with me, but I'll defend my recommendation 'til the cows come home.

Of course, I'm not the Sheriff of World Taste, which is why I pack my reviews with as much supporting evidence as possible. Some readers proudly and consistently head in the opposite direction of my opinions, which is why I also try to include information on where they can buy and/or see the movie in question.

The second argument is that I should avoid any movies I feel are beneath me. Derrick lobbed this one, as did Eric, a commenter on last week's Spring Breakers review. He accused me of not understanding Harmony Korine as a director and said I should probably avoid his films. While I understand this sentiment, I wholly reject it. No one has seen every movie ever made, and while a director's filmography sometimes offers interesting context for a given picture, nothing should be so inaccessible as to require an accompanying magazine article or Wikipedia cram session to enjoy it, much less understand it.

I hated Spring Breakers for its pretentiousness; its lack of morality and focus; and the unforgivable way in which Korine turned violence and nudity into something so boring that I wanted to leave the theatre.

Yesterday, before reading Eric's reaction, I listened to the new episode of Marc Maron's WTF podcast, on which Korine was a guest. When asked about his filmmaking philosophy, the writer/director said he prefers characters over stories, and has no real use for plot. From what I understand of his work, this is a selling point of the Korine mythos--which I also reject outright.

It's a cute idea, but the days of Andy Warhol's Empire are over. I'm not saying experimental filmmaking doesn't have a place, but if your goal is to wrap aggressive art-school pretension inside a glossy Hollywood production, don't be surprised when people smarter than your acolytes figure out the scam--and don't try to play off your insecurity and lack of ambition as a hippie-ish disregard for "the mainstream". To those of us who appreciate solid storytelling, the craft of acting, and the transportive abilities of passionate directors, endorsing Spring Break is akin to advertising public masturbation.

If Korine really wanted to set the world on fire with his movie, he would have grown up a little bit (or a lot) and found a way to make his vision more palatable to a broader audience. And, no, this doesn't mean selling out; it means innovating, earning that "genius" title that's handed out so easily and with more frequency than nudie-show flyers on the Vegas strip.

For the record, I don't consider myself to be above any film until after I've seen it. I never walk out of movies, or turn them off before they're over. I earn every word I publish on this site, vitriolic or celebratory. I might have assumed Swamphead or Sexsquatch were a waste of time by looking at their cover art, but when I think of how many great films I would have missed out on by skipping the ones that didn't interest me initially, I get a little queasy.

In the same week I suffered through Sexsquatch, I was thrilled by Angela, a short by a newer filmmaker with very little money. Were I to adopt Eric and Derrick's philosophy, I'd have never given it a chance--and thereby denied the filmmakers an endorsement they might one day slap on a DVD cover (or simply take as an encouraging slap on the back). In twenty minutes, Nathaniel Scott Davis showed he knows more about horror and drama than the people who made Swamphead and Sexsquatch know about comedy.

(Here's a hint, fellas: when everyone in your film acts like vulgar versions of the buffoon sidekick on a tween sitcom, it's nearly impossible to hold the audience's interest--unless that audience is stoned or comprised of people who worked on the movie.)

So, yeah, if your intent is to screw around with friends and put out a movie that dares people to like it--have fun. But you probably shouldn't ask me what I think. I'll pull no punches in saying that I wouldn't show it to my grown-up, professional friends or my possibly unemployed but no-less-enthusiastic readers. If that makes me a snob or an out-of-touch troll to a community of fifteen bitter people I'll likely never meet, so be it.

While you're grousing about that (and still reading my reviews) I'll be over here in the real world, where intent and access to cheap film equipment does not magically make an endeavor worthwhile. Agree or disagree, you can rest assured that I'll always tell you honestly which movies I think are great, and which ones don't cut the mustard.

*Quit laughing.

**This all happened on the KtS page; feel free to read it

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