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.