Friday, June 06, 2008

Stuff: The bravest movie critic in all of Washington D.C.

Today Washington Post staff critic Ann Hornaday turned in a dismissive review of the upcoming Mother of Tears, the last installment in Argento's nonsensical Mothers trilogy-cause-I-said-it-is, and Stuck, Stuart Gordon's grim satire of the Chante Jawan Mallard case (in which she hit a pedestrian with her car, got him stuck in her windshield, and left him to bleed out – true story, swear to God – took the poor guy more than two hours to die).

The fact that the wonderfully named Hornaday basically dumps on both movies as muddled and gory wastes of time doesn't surprise me or disappoint me. My interest in Gordon is almost entirely based on his status as the go-to cinematic interpreter of Lovecraft. As for Argento: he's so reliably uneven that it is entirely unsurprising to hear one of his flicks is a stilted, bloody mess. Being charitable, even Argento's best films walk a thin line between bizarre puzzle and pretentious disaster.

Hornaday says of both flicks:

So, dear readers, in front of you and the movie gods and everybody, I'm here to say: I don't get it. I don't get why, in "Mother of Tears," I'm supposed to find some kind of taboo thrill in watching a young woman being strangled by her own intestine. I don't get that Argento can write some of the most wooden dialogue and elicit some of the most risible performances to be seen in a movie (think "The Da Vinci Code" with an even more cockamamie mythology), but still get credit as some kind of auteur because of the ingenious weapon he creates to impale two eyeballs at once. I don't get why, in the course of a 40-year career, Argento can still find anything new in a shot of a slit throat and rivulets of burbling, viscous blood. (To the inevitable defense that Argento's work is simply camp, I would say that anything this aggressively hateful forfeits the right to be called camp. As Susan Sontag rightly observed, even camp at its most outlandish reveals some truth about the human condition.)

Compared to the myriad perversions on display in "Mother of Tears" (culminating in the film's star, Argento's daughter Asia, almost drowning in a sea of sewage and cadavers -- grazie, papa!), the degradations of the flesh in "Stuck" look almost endearingly modest. Inspired by a true story, the film stars Suvari as a nurse's aide who hits a homeless man (Rea) and leaves him for dead after he crashes through her windshield. Although Gordon clearly has something to say about poverty, class mobility and throwaway lives, whatever substance might have oozed through "Stuck" is quickly stanched, to let flow the blood, gore and attempts at erotic humor (a catfight between Suvari and a naked rival played for laughs). Admittedly, "Stuck" features only one eye-gouging, but like "Mother of Tears" it climaxes in a fiery Grand Guignol, its portrait of misery and moral indifference complete if not even slightly credible.

There are things to value in "Stuck," including the lead and supporting performances, and Gordon's taut thriller-like pacing. But, like "Mother of Tears," I don't get it. I don't get what fascinates Gordon and Argento -- both men in their 60s -- about thinking up new ways to inflict pain. I don't get what's "ingeniously nasty" about watching people suffer and die. I don't get the "gonzo artistry" of murdering a woman by way of a symbolic rape with a sword. I don't get why that's entertaining, edifying, endorsed by the cinematic canon or even remotely okay.

Let it all out, Hornaday. Tell us how you really feel.

Seriously though, I suspect that most of Hornaday's basic criticisms are dead-on. Gordon's been a reliable, but strictly workman-like horror director for a couple decades now and nothing in his filmography suggests he's got a profound cinematic Jonathan Swift hiding in him, straining to get out. As for Argento: the last movie of his I saw was a "mystery" whose plot hinged on the supposed fact that crows are an innately vengeful breed of bird that will hunt down and peck to death people who hurt crows. His movies are shambling hulks of stylistic absurdity. That's you thing or it isn't, but few folks deny it.

Here's what I hated about her review. From the opening section:

When you work as a movie critic, you learn very quickly which filmmakers are unassailable: Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman and anyone associated with the French new wave are geniuses. Period. They're bulletproof, and to take a shot at them, whether by way of their body of work or an individual film, is to invite not just immediate derision but excommunication from the ranks of Approved Cinematic Authorities.

There's another version of this intellectual lockstep, one tier down from the universally acknowledged great masters, having to do with cult films by directors that nobody has heard of, other than those benighted souls who have spent their every waking hour in a sticky-floored repertory house. These are the films that over the past few years have often arrived in theaters "presented by" such reigning cinematic tastemakers as Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese; you can also find mention of them on such authoritative Web sites as and in the hilariously on-point "The Film Snob's Dictionary" by David Kamp and Lawrence Levi.

Two films that coincidentally open today at the E Street Cinema come from directors with creditable standing in the annals of film snobbery: Stuart Gordon, whose film "Stuck" stars Mena Suvari and Stephen Rea, and Dario Argento, whose "Mother of Tears: The Third Mother" completes a trilogy he began in 1977. Gordon attained cult status in 1985 with the highly regarded "Re-Animator," an adaptation of a H.P. Lovecraft story. Argento helped create an entire film sub-industry in his native Italy known as giallo. Both filmmakers traffic in the kind of graphic horror made profitable by such franchises as "Saw" and "Hostel" but enjoy pride of place, along with zombie auteur George A. Romero, as originators of the cult-horror form.

Because Gordon and especially Argento possess such cinematic cred, any self-respecting critic should greet the arrival of "Stuck" and "Mother of Tears" with the requisite phrases about dark humor, recurring visual tropes and pulp sensibilities. The tone should be ironic and supremely knowing: If, dear reader, you can't hang with the kind of graphic gore, sadistic violence, protracted torture and perverse sexist subtext that run through these movies, then you're obviously not in on the joke. You're a philistine. File under "Square, hopeless."

Hornaday, however, bravely resists falling into "intellectual lockstep." She tells those snooty film snobs where they can stick their cult directors. And she does it boldly, with no regard for what it will do to her career. Damn the consequences, she can see these particular emperors have no clothes and she's got the guts to call it like it is.

Why do I hate this? Because it is absurd self-aggrandizement based on half-truths, misunderstandings, and dismissive stereotypes, the final result being that it turns her lack of interest or knowledge about certain genres or filmmakers into a positive good rather than a gap in expertise.

First, let's look at her characterization of Gordon. Sure, I like him enough, but does he really occupy "pride of place, along with zombie auteur George A. Romero, as originators of the cult-horror form"? Stuart arrived on the scene nearly two decades after Night of the Living Dead. The number of directors and movies that arrived in the 20 years between those two flicks, all of which have a much greater claim for being "originators of the cult-horror form" than Gordon. Even among horror fans Gordon's a bit of a one-hit wonder.

As for Argento, perhaps I'm not self-respecting, but I haven't been booted out of the horror blog-o-sphere for thinking Argento's overrated. Maybe the jackbooted film taste police just haven't reached me yet. Or, and I know this sounds crazy, there's simply no goose-stepping central authority of horror fandom. Wait, wait: hear me out. Maybe, just maybe, horror fans are a pretty diverse group of people with varied tastes. Maybe we all apply slightly different critical criteria to the films we enjoy. We engage in dialog with other fans about relative merits. Sometimes we even respect one another's different opinions (not on the Internet, of course, but elsewhere it can happen).

But, then again, I'm not one of those who have spent my entire life in a "sticky-floored repertory house" (shades of the porn theater, that bit), so how I even know about the unbelievably obscure directors is a mystery. In the era of Netflix and the Internet, her characterization of the cult film world is a bizarre fantasy, not unlike the imaginary hordes of socially-stunted troglodyte basement-dwelling bloggers that mainstream literary critics fear are battering down the establishment's draw bridge.

Claiming outsider status is the last refuge of the intellectual bigot. When you can't make a good argument for defending your limited criteria for what makes a good work of art (and we all, by the nature that we don't have infinite capacities for appreciation, have limited criteria), you instead suggest that the issue at hand is that a cabal of elites have foisted what you don't like on you. Genre guys pretend that they've been marginalized by an evil conspiracy of elitist critics. Critics play the same game, simply reversing the positions to become the embattled defenders of true quality. Both sides appeal to the sadly innate American distrust of expertise and love of claiming the status of the righteous victim. You're a victim, fighting for truth and justice. This isn't about the fact that your tastes, knowledge base, and experiences might be ill-suited for the rigorous evaluation of these films. Rather, this is about how you, alone out of all your cynical and mean-spirited film critic ilk, had the mad courage to take a stand. This is what we do with our unexamined prejudices: we dress them up in the shoddy borrowed stage-finery of the "last honest man."

We salute you Ann Hornaday. You're so brave. When the collective weight of the film criticism world crashes down on you for your brave, so very very brave, refusal to toe the line, rest assured that you've got an open invite to guest blog here. Together maybe we can hold our against those barbaric hordes of, shudder to think, cult film fans.


AndyDecker said...

The more things change, eh? So if you like the movies of Argento, you basically belong to this invisible brotherhood which a normal and decent person never can belong to, because they don´t get the "joke". Nice one. Or in not so clever words: you are a kind of pervert.

The problem of course is that Argento is sometimes hard to defend. His storys are more often than not very coherent or don´t make sense. Maybe that´s why some of them are quite fascinating to watch.

In one thing she has a point, though. After watching the uncomfortable Stendhal Syndrome I did ask myself how a father can put his daughter through such scenes. It´s ... weird.

But apart from this the tone and the message of the article is the same old. Shall they whine from their high moral horse. It´s what they do.

CRwM said...


I guess I liked it more when they were just condescending. This "I'm the only one who can see this" crap just rubs me the wrong way.

I don't mind people who think horror is crap. But then they should just say, "I think this is crap." This whole "I'm willing to stand up to the critical establishment because I will not bend a knee!" act is just so lame.

As for Argento, I brought up the exact same point in my review of Stendhal Syndrome. How many rape scenes does any one man need to film his daughter in?

Curt Purcell said...

Great post, CRWM! This Hornaday sounds pretty out-of-touch with the geek community she's supposedly offending. Even hardcore Argento fans (among whom I count myself) have long since resigned ourselves to the likelihood that OPERA (or maaaaaybe SLEEPLESS) will be the last Argento worth a look. Over at the large and lively "Eurotrash Paradise" discussion board, expectations for MOTHER OF TEARS have been through the basement.

CRwM said...


Thanks for swinging by. I suspect that, with the exception of a quick Google search, Hornaday has no real knowledge of the filmmakers or tradition (for lack of a better word) she's dismissing. That, in and of itself, doesn't bother me so much. Lots of folks don't like horror or, if they do, they prefer a different brand. But to play up one's ignorance as if it were a tag of one's moral superiority is a just cheap ego-boost at the expense of others. A professional critic, whose job it is to be informed, should be ashamed to cop such a uncritical and embarrassing attitude towards any form of cinema.

She's got a cool name though. If you haven't already outlined out your whole book, you should write in a minor demon with the name "Hornaday."

Sarah said...

But the late Ingmar Bergman wouldn't even watch his own films, and thought them to be too depressing. Where does that leave him in her logic since that basically implies that he didn't even like his own movies?

Orson Welles wasn't into Bergman, or Godard for that matter. Then again, Welles was booted out of Hollywood pretty much after Citizen Kane.

I guess just be glad that she wasn't writing about the slew of newspaper film critics being fired.