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Film Freak Central (#110 of 5)

Closing the Distance Walter Chaw’s Miracle Mile

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Closing the Distance: Walter Chaw’s Miracle Mile
Closing the Distance: Walter Chaw’s Miracle Mile

At one point in Miracle Mile, the first book-length work from Walter Chaw, the Film Freak Central critic writes about how his father’s death shifted his perspective on things. Now, he tells us, “I demand that movies show me more about myself. I wonder about tidy endings—they make me angry. I don’t believe them.” Most cinephiles can point to a critic who left a lasting influence on them, whose words helped chart a course through the vast and mystifying expanse of a century-and-change of world cinema. When I started to realize that movies were more than a way to kill time and would indeed become a large part of my life, I was reading a lot of Chaw. In his reviews, that quality of the demand—of actively searching for what a film has to give—is one of his defining traits.

His most visible reviews, the ones that get quoted and relinked, are often the ones in which those demands aren’t met. When he brutally eviscerates movies, it’s not for their failure to entertain, but for the wretchedness of their ideologies, as when he recently savaged Transformers: Dark of the Moon as “good, all-American, Patriot Act and Internet-smut fun that will send your handsome white sons off to die in war, armed to the teeth with all the metal-fetish, extreme xenophobia, and sexual frustration this film can pump into them.”

But even without the acid, he carries the conviction that movies aren’t just singular pieces of art, but also reflections of their milieu, and that when we look at them, we’re looking at the desires and neuroses and primal fears lurking in our social psyche. His writing rarely leans on the insular jargon of academia, but probably taught me more clearly than most professors that the zeitgeist is a thing and context matters.

Mad Men and Y&D

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Mad Men and Y&D
Mad Men and Y&D

We’re a little slow on content upload this week (new entries coming tomorrow), so I wanted to share two recent web postings that have stoked my interest:

First, Glenn Kenny of Some Came Running has written a terrific response to several end-of-summer, state-of-the-art doomsaying articles. It’s titled “Young and dumb versus old and in the way”, and as befits Glenn it’s an illuminating mix of autobiography and critical observation.

Second, a hearty welcome to video essay land for the Film Freak Central crew. Contributor Jefferson Robbins has just posted a tribute to Mad Men in anticipation of its premiere this Sunday. I’ve embedded the video below the jump, but be sure to head on over to the Film Freak blog itself and let Jefferson know your thoughts.

Keep Up, or Get Out of the Way: An Interview with Film Critic Walter Chaw

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Keep Up, or Get Out of the Way: An Interview with Film Critic Walter Chaw
Keep Up, or Get Out of the Way: An Interview with Film Critic Walter Chaw

As newsprint-based dailies and weeklies get the squeeze in terms of word count and content, one increasingly has to look to the World Wide Web for no-holds barred criticism. If Film Freak Central film critic Walter Chaw feels uncomfortable with the “Web critic” label, it might be because the medium throws amateurs and professionals onto the same playing field, and studios and publicists fail to distinguish between the wheat and the chaff. But when you find an online critic with writing chops as strong as Chaw’s, you don’t want to keep him to yourself. Where many Internet-based reviewers mimic the acerbic aspects of Pauline Kael, Chaw takes his caustic, occasionally hostile wit so far that one sometimes wonders if the Paulettes might ask him to tone it down a little. Barbed language aside, though, Chaw’s approach owes less to the obvious film critic models than to satirist, science fiction author and cultural pundit Harlan Ellison, who famously said, “Not everyone is entitled to an opinion. They are only entitled to an informed opinion.”

In that spirit, Chaw often references artistic sources that predate cinema’s brief history. Praising Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator as an “ode to needing to make movies—and needing to watch them,” Chaw invoked William Blake’s “idea of gods created in the breast of man [being] transmuted into the cult of personality and the patina of nostalgia for the titans of the silver screen’s golden age. This is a shrine to individualism and a critique of the dreadful cost of individuality.” In his review of Harmony Korine’s second film, Chaw said that Puccini’s ’O Mio Babino Caro’ aria from ’Gianni Schicci,’ a plaintive appeal for the acceptance of a lover, finds itself scattered throughout ’julien donkey-boy’ to further underscore these themes of alienation, sexuality, and a frustrated desire for familial harmony.” Chaw clearly expects his readership to keep up or get out of the way.

He shows an affinity for art house fare, singing the praises of Claire Denis’s astonishing and frequently misunderstood masterpiece Trouble Every Day as “the most insightful film about sex and gender that has perhaps ever been made.” But he’s equally quick to assault the pretentiousness of Sundance favorites like Primer, writing, “I suspect that a lot of people are afraid to admit they don’t understand what’s happening in the film, which talks too much in too stultifying a fashion, obscuring its heart of glass with blizzards of expositive candy.” He is frequently accused, at least by those who write in to Film Freak Central, of being an elitist and a snob.

But those readers might be surprised learn how many mainstream Hollywood films Chaw has championed over the years. He has given four-star reviews to V For Vendetta, King Kong, and Spider-Man 2, which he said “takes chances with its story that lesser films would not, affirming, along with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, that big budgets don’t just by the fact of them quash unique, distinctive, ambitious voices.”

Chaw rages against the Hollywood machine’s depictions of class, gender and race, puncturing political correctness, but assailing films that still think it’s okay to use xenophobic or chauvinistic stereotypes. His jihad against dumbed-down content is so wide-ranging that I’ve occasionally wondered if he needed to take a break. He’s incinerated movies that were paper-thin in the first place: Bringing Down the House, The Dukes of Hazzard, Bulletproof Monk, xXx: State of the Union, Last Holiday. Maybe he justifies his vitriol on the grounds that he watches this junk so we don’t have to.