The same lust for power and control that blights contemporary journalism already ruined film criticism many years ago. The ranks have swelled yet the profession has diminished, thoughtlessly passing Hollywood’s promotional mindset (and its politics) on to the public.
You might have experienced this change in three stages: First, the paper of record led the habit of reporting weekly box-office grosses as a priority; next, Roger Ebert went on TV and endorsed nearly every industry fad along with the majority of new releases; then came the Internet, where amateurism overwhelmed expertise, which (coming full circle) the Times validated as “democratizing.”
The attempt to disguise mainstream-media persuasion as part of a democratic pattern, one that spreads its influence from on high to the minions below, is apparent in the acclaim for the new documentary film Hale County, This Morning, This Evening that goes beyond the cliché of “the critics are raving.” (That cliché also fits a clinical description of Beltway scribes.)
This steady breakdown of journalism — always in favor of film-industry commercialism and elitist authority — culminated in a recent Forbes magazine article that routinely praised a Hollywood product (the heist movie flop Widows) and then issued a strange reproach: “Audiences have no excuse for not showing up.”
It was alarming to see a financial publication forsake business acumen to promote race-baiting drek. That’s also the essential failing of contemporary film reviewing. By misusing professional influence to scold the ticket-buying public for not going along with commercial hype, Forbes’s film writer demonstrated the problem infecting contemporary cultural journalism: It has become the enemy of the moviegoer.
The last time I lectured at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Young Critics Academy, I asked the selected multiculti group of green journalism aspirants why they wanted to be film critics. An eager young person answered, “To tell people about new movies.” His aiming-to-please, schoolboy honesty was revelatory. It demonstrated what TV’s Siskel & Ebert show had wrought: not a personal response to art or even the analysis, dissection, or scrutiny that our educators supposedly had inspired through teaching Comparative Literature, but unfettered hype is apparently the new rule in the media’s film coverage.
Without question, the link between advertising and journalism has been fixed and approved for the millennial generation. Their attraction to the movies is uncomplicated by any standard other than the way movies are sold. When people say they look at a movie “on its own terms,” they really mean they’re following how it is advertised. (It’s the same purchase-and-satisfaction habit learned through the videogame and live-streaming exchange.)
Other speakers to the undeveloped hopefuls at the Young Critics Academy have been producers and publicists whose vocations could only demonstrate the need to comply with the industry, rather than maintaining critical and intellectual distance. Journalistic independence in the arts, as in politics, is now passé.
Some film journalists boast of their rewards from this corruption (a couple of years ago, an anthology of film reviews was facetiously titled “Better Living through Criticism”). It is the intellectually impoverished public that suffers. The lack of critical independence means that cultural journalism has turned the reviewing profession against the moviegoers’ best interest. This happens when reviewers take on social-justice attitudes.
Unsure of art (ignorant of how it’s made and its popular effect), contemporary reviewers now congratulate political stances on race, sex, and social equality.
Readers cannot avoid the fact that most film journalists agree with the same shallow convictions and rhetorical enticements declared by left-wing political journalists. By never questioning the power elite, but joining rank with them, the average reviewer creates a safe space for himself, taking pleasure in agree-upon forms of entertainment and holding the same political values.
This week’s showing of the arch, semi-reportorial documentary Hale County, This Morning, This Evening at Metrograph Cinema exemplifies the folly of self-righteous film culture.
Sponsored by the Sundance Institute and produced by the Thai art-filmmaker Achitapong Weerasethekal (affectionately called “Joe” by his film-circle buddies in the West) and co-produced by the subversive documentarian Laura Poitras (Citizen Four), Hale County arrives as an “instant classic” that has automatically proved its value and cultural status.
Directed by Brown University professor RaMell Ross, it exemplifies the liberal sentimentality that sustains the racial status quo in everyday life, but especially in art circles. Ross surveys working-class blacks in Alabama as they subsist day to day or aspire to athletic accomplishment. His aesthetic is strictly observational, like watching animals in their native habitat, the American zoo.
Through class difference and intellectual distance, Ross treats the down-home folk like creatures. He intersperses Terrence Malick–style images of natural phenomena to extol the lower class with existential portent. This propagandistic use of cinematic apparatus is sanctioned by film culture’s elites: the curators, distributors, publicists, and mainstream-media arbiters who all know one another’s preferences and protect one another’s social status. They also keep the lower classes at bay.
According to Alabama’s Plainview Daily Herald, the overall turnout in Hale County, Ala.. for the 2018 midterm elections was high and surpassed the county’s total number of voters in the 2014 midterms. The county also recently reported a decline in unemployment. But documentarian Ross overlooks these aspects to focus on black habitat — the same way that New York media types prefer to focus on urban crime, disaffection, and accounts of mysteriously organized protest. (The media sentimentalize and never investigate the protests, whose goals it implicitly agrees with.)
Journalists often follow industry hype and many reviewers do, indeed, collude with industry hype — it’s film culture’s version of what the music and radio industry used to call payola. I’m not suggesting that actual cash payoffs take place, but ideological consent, eagerly given, is real. I recall the estimable John Simon alluding to unconscious collusion when he asked, “Why should [studios] pay for what they can get for free?” This is “free” (or unconscious) hegemony, and it is the unrecognized hegemony free-floating throughout Hale County that makes its poverty porn an unacceptable offense.
Through the media’s ongoing display of confused social consciousness, Hale County has predictably been compared to James Agee’s 1941 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (the high-flown essay that accompanied Depression-era photos by Walker Evans). It joins a legacy of liberal media self-righteousness. However, Ross specifically follows the stylized method seen in Weerasethakal’s own films Tropical Malady and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, highly pictorial academic artworks noted for their sociological detachment. The detachment makes reviewers comfortable with the film’s passive regard of stereotypical ghettoized figures.
Where Hale County echoes the patronization in Agee and Walker, it differs from the authentic emotional drive of Richard Wright’s 12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States (1941). Wright’s folk sociology has lost its place in cultural memory, unlike Agee’s establishment work, which, ironically, originated as an assignment for Fortune magazine.
The books by Agee and Wright were both funded by the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal agency devoted to FDR’s collectivist impulse. Its famous photography program devoted to documenting southern agriculture and poverty was the beginning of the government-grant ideology that perpetuates pathos culture as humanist culture — such as Hale County and the politicized art now rampant in museums and film programs that further encourage welfare-state pathos art but not authentically unique, lively, capitalist, free-market-centered pop art such as Uncle Drew, Next Day Air, and the Barbershop movies, all disdained by elite film culture.
A publicist attempted to gain awards consideration for Hale County by email blasting a personal letter from Weerasethakal. Ross gets his bona fides from this connection, not from the unexceptional quality of his images and montage-editing of mundane life of blacks in the South — often with an overlay of poetic, metaphysical inter-titles: “What happens when all the cotton is picked?” “Where does time reside?” Sweat from a basketball game is paralleled with raindrops. A basketball hoop is shown against the backdrop of a starry night sky. A snowy field gets a soundtrack of anonymous voices.
All this charming, naïve pathos lets critics believe and promote their own Ferguson and Charlottesville fantasies. Yet it’s clear that these slow-talking country folk in Hale County will never get opportunities to escape poverty and rise up into Eliteville unless, somehow, they become Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kamala Harris, or MSNBC commentators — colleagues of the enemies of the people.
Pimping black poverty may no longer be a cinch now that black American depredation has been replaced by the immigrant crisis alluded to in Roma. But reviewers and programmers aren’t even forthright about this change in attitude. Despite the release of Hale County (or, Hoop Dreams, Part II), all those critics’ prizes to Roma confirm a counter advance: the new browning of media patronization.
Ross finally avoids the traditional white liberal concession when Hale County ends. Instead of choosing Billie Holiday’s tearjerker “Strange Fruit,” Ross closes the film with her rendition of “Stars Fell on Alabama.” Holiday’s happy warbling is such an odd contrast to the film’s visual pathos that it provides an unexpectedly perverse mockery of the South’s traditions — its horrors and Holiday’s own recognition of blacks’ ironic affection for what jazz critic Albert Murray called “a very old place.” This song choice lets Ross momentarily slip the bonds of liberal condescension, but Ross’s film and its pompous presentation shames the undemocratic enemies of the moviegoer.