Tag Archives: The Lego Movie

Better Living Through Criticism

better-livingI’ve been a fan of A.O. Scott since his too-short time co-hosting At the Movies with Michael Phillips, which was my favorite post-Ebert iteration of the show. Their tenure was a salve after the brief and forgettable stint of Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz. Phillips and Scott brought a benevolent wonkiness to the show I greatly enjoyed and mourned when it was axed.

So I was quite pleased to read A.O. Scott’s new book Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth, which is not as self-helpy as it sounds, mercifully. In fact, it’s nearly the opposite of self-help, a genre hell-bent on offering surefire prescriptions for every psychological impediment blocking our true greatness within. Scott is far less strident. He avoids making grand declarations about The Purpose of Criticism, much to the chagrin of grand declarers. All the better. To me, criticism is not about conquering artistic foes or achieving certainty, but about making sense of what goes on inside our heads and hearts when we encounter something beautiful, pleasurable, or truthful — or all (or none) of the above.

The book ambles towards answers to the pointed questions I’m sure Scott receives often: What are critics for? Are critics relevant anymore? One purpose for critics he lands on is to be people “whose interest can help to activate the interest of others.” This is absolutely true, as is its inverse of steering others away. Many movies that I expected to be worthwhile ended up being duds, and the critical consensus that bubbled up before their opening weekends helped convince me to wait for the Redbox or to avoid them altogether.

Conversely, without Bilge Ebiri’s incessant cheerleading for The Lego Movie before it came out in early 2014, I would have assumed it was another cheap kids movie and not a hilarious and surprisingly profound meditation on creativity and identity. Ditto Brooklyn, which I expected to be another overwrought, Oscar-baity period drama but in fact nearly brought this non-crier-at-movies to tearsCritics matter, even when I disagree with them (cough Carol cough).

Scott also feels duty-bound as a critic “to redirect enthusiasm, to call attention to what might otherwise be ignored or undervalued. In either instance, though, whether we’re cheerleading or calling bullshit, our assessment has to proceed from a sincere and serious commitment.” The calling attention to is big: a recent example is last year’s Tangerine, a tiny indie I wouldn’t have given a chance without wide and persistent acclaim from the bevy of critics I admire and follow just so I can get scoops like that.

“Redirecting enthusiasm” might also be considered a challenge to “swim upstream”: to seek out the earlier, influential works that laid the groundwork for whatever we’re watching, listening to, reading now. American culture’s on-demand, presentist bias deprives us of decades of good art, whose only crime is not being made right this live-tweetable second. The critic who compares a new film to an older one, favorably or otherwise, provides context for readers but also a tacit clue that checking out that older film might be worthwhile. The upside of our appified age is that finding those forgotten gems has never been easier: getting upstream is as easy as visiting your local library, Amazon, or streaming service.

But what I consider the most compelling reason for the critic’s job might be their most self-interested one. Scott quotes the ever-quotable critic H.L. Mencken, who wrote the motive of the critic who is really worth reading is “no more and no less than the simple desire to function freely and beautifully, to give outward and objective form to ideas that bubble inwardly and have a fascinating lure in them, to get rid of them dramatically and make an articulate noise in the world.”

The process of making an articulate noise about something is the point, I think. It’s where a writer lives most of the time, engaging in a back-and-forth with the work and with himself until he lands on something approximating the truth of his experience. To that end, Scott writes, the history of criticism is the history of struggle. This book embodies that struggle literally: Scott engages in four interstitial dialogues, wherein he banters with an unnamed interlocutor (or inner critic?) who could also stand in as the aggrieved audience, demanding that Scott justify his existence.

I know this combat comes with the job, but the hostility critics in general receive baffles me. There’s way too much out there to see, read, and hear for one person to sort through. “This state of wondering paralysis cries out for criticism,” he writes, “which promises to sort through the glut, to assist in the formation of choices, to act as gatekeeper to our beiseged sensoria.” Having professional curators with unique, informed, and enthusiastic taste is a good thing, not something to scoff at or claim is irrelevant in the age of Rotten Tomatoes.

But if you think a critic is wrong and want to tell him why, congratulations! You’re now a critic and are obligated to say more.

Anyway, good on Scott for driving this conversation, and for holding his ground against Samuel L. Jackson.

Favorite Films of 2014

lego

Because synchronicity has been on my mind recently, I wondered while considering my favorite films of 2014 if any of them were thematically aligned, explicitly or otherwise. Turns out they are. The ten-ish films that lodged themselves into my brain this year naturally arranged themselves into pairs or groups—some odd ones, to be sure, but nevertheless interesting. I landed on four categories, some of which could easily describe many of the listed films but felt like the right headings for the films they contain. Keeping in mind the usual disclaimer that I’ve yet to see a number of 2014 films I suspect would make this list, here are the ones that made movies fun this year. (Spoilers aplenty ahead.)

LOOKING CLOSER (h/t Jeffrey Overstreet)
Boyhood
, directed by Richard Linklater
Life Itself, directed by Steve James

I preemptively connected these two films in my review of Boyhood, but time has revealed even more. Both films concern themselves with telling the unvarnished truth: in Boyhood it’s via the yearly check-ins with Mason & Co and the focus on quotidian moments over Kodak ones, and in Life Itself it’s via the camera’s unblinking view of Roger Ebert’s sad yet dignified decline. The march of time, which these two films concern themselves with greatly, is relentless and revelatory. Its power is best seen at the extremes: zoomed in to the micro, the everyday details we can see only on foot, and zoomed out to the macro, where the cosmic, birds-eye view of things looks oddly like the micro. Isn’t it funny how images from a telescope can look like something captured from a petri dish (e.g. Hubble’s picture of the Andromeda Galaxy, not-so-ironically dubbed “Pillars of Creation”). Set up a double feature, rename them The Beginning and The End, and you’ve got an amazing portrait of life, to name-check another fine movie, rendered in the spectacular now.

A RECKONING
Calvary, directed by John Michael McDonough
Ida, directed by Paweł Pawlikowski

Let loose into their outside worlds, the Catholic priest of Calvary and the novice nun of Ida encounter the hostile brokenness of laypeople who either don’t see the need for the Church or resent it outright. These ecclesiastics—one in postwar Communist Poland and the other in modern Ireland—are spurred out from their cloistered lives by a similar commission: Get your life in order. They face a reckoning with their calling, one last chance to ponder the consequences of their decisions and make things right before destiny calls. Yet despite the gravity of their pilgrimage among the people, they mostly just listen. They absorb the pain and bitterness around them while trying to reconcile their vocation with their tempestuous milieus and arrive at peace. Can it be done? Good question.

LET’S GO EXPLORING
Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan
The Lego Movie, directed by Chris Miller and Phil Lord

Multiple dimensions. New worlds. A hero destined to save mankind. Travels through black holes and time portals. An old sage with questionable tactics. Love conquering all. I wasn’t expecting two of my favorite movies of the year to have so much in common while also being essentially polar-opposite in their style and audience, and yet here we are. Who is Matthew McConaughey’s character in Interstellar if not the Master Builder reluctantly fulfilling his destiny to save the universe through ingenuity and love? And what are The Lego Movie’s Cloud Cuckoo Land and other worlds if not the mystery planets the Interstellar crew sought for salvation? Even the final twists echo each other: Interstellar’s time-hopping tesseract and The Lego Movie’s portal to human earth reveal the handiwork of an extra-dimensional Creator and redefine everything we’d seen before. Never was I in awful wonder more this year than during these two films.

MAN ON A MISSION
Locke, directed by Steven Knight
Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle
Noah, directed by Darren Aronofsky
Snowpiercer, directed by Bong Joon-ho

What are you prepared to do? (I can’t help imagining that line being said in an intense Scottish accent.) The protagonists here have a mission and will not stop (in Locke’s case, literally) until it is accomplished. Locke’s Ivan and the Noah in Darren Aronofsky’s Biblical epic set a course and stick to it—come personal hell and high water—even while their worlds crumble around him and their decisions inflict suffering upon innocents. In Whiplash, Andrew’s steely determination to succeed as a jazz drummer draws blood and fractures his psyche. And Curtis, the reluctant leader of the train-bound proletariat uprising in Snowpiercer, forges forward for answers, making brutal personal sacrifices along the way. Is all this carnage worth it? Results vary, but all four of these films’ endings seem to have a similar answer.

JUST BECAUSE (Bonus)
They Came Together, directed by David Wain

Because this made me laugh so hard.