An increasingly bitter dialogue about Sex and the City has developed in the past several days, on blogs and in publications. Currently, the movie stands at a mediocre 53 percent on the Tomatometer, which seems awfully high for the drumming this movie has received. I don't doubt that's it's true, though, and that critics are more split on the merits of the movie than it appears. For whatever reasons, and I'm sure there are many, Sex and the City represents one of those rare cases in criticism where the detractors are making so much noise, despite not quite representing a majority. It's not so much the "for or against" rhetoric that's especially interesting, but the condescending manner in which the film is approached, even by its supporters. It seems to me that even critics who are fairly indifferent about the movie are going to great lengths to let their readers know that Sex and the City simply isn't their thing.
I don't want to make any grand suppositions, but this phenomenon seems to reflect the hegemony of patriarchy within journalistic film criticism. The irony of this statement is that when it comes to the proliferation of masculinity in cinema, Hollywood usually takes the blame and critics get a free pass. But the level of discourse about Sex and the City reveals a few tendencies in even the most productive sects in American film criticism, about the assumed male spectator.
I have not seen Sex and the City, so I cannot say what is true or untrue. But that's not really the aim of my observations. What really interests me about the SATC discourse is that it features so much self-conscious defensiveness. Critics who are downright vitriolic are targeting Sex and the City for its glorification of hyper-materialism and consumer culture, and its audacity for centering on four female characters more interested in the latest fashion trends anything else. This seems an odd claim to me, since American cinema represents one of the pinnacle commodities in contemporary culture. When critics are routinely pumping out 600-word formulaic pieces in support of "consumer culture," I wonder why films like Sex and the City are singled out, and not some of the massive action blockbusters whose saturation in media and advertising reaches sickening heights.
On the other hand, you have critics who are not outright hateful of the movie, but admit that it's not their thing. This position is much more useful than blind rage, but, again, why do critics speak this way of movies like Sex and the City and not other show-turned movies like The Simpsons, or even just certain genres or styles, like horror films or sword-and-sandal epics?
Not two weeks ago, critics largely raved about Jon Favreau's Iron Man, a comic-book actioner about a war profiteer turned-action hero. The film was competently made, no doubt, but it's hard to account for the overenthusiastic critical reception. Even critics who outright said they were getting sick of comic book movies seemed to like it. Winning over just about everyone, the film is an anomaly to me, and evidence that perhaps critics should be more reflective of their practice and reflexive. I know that it's a critic's job to treat a movie on its own terms, but if there's one thing anyone studying the arts and social sciences should know, it's that nothing stands in isolation. And part of the job of critics is to identify trends, anticipate them, and critique not just formal craft in individual movies, but to situate them amongst a larger inquiry into art, commercialism, and socioeconomic policies.
Now, I didn't read all of the reviews for Iron Man, so I don't want to make a sweeping generalization. But I did read a number of them. The best one I read was by Filmbrain, over at Like Anna Karina's Sweater. He didn't write a review, or talk about plot or character. He offered a simple observation that qualifies as evocative, interesting criticism. The post was entitled, What I learned from Iron Man, and it read:
"A pretty, Ivy League educated, socially (and politically) conscious Vanity Fair reporter will, in a matter of minutes, toss aside her personal ideology (to say nothing of her professional ethics) and jump into bed with an alpha-male war profiteer who first questions her intelligence, and then follows up with a sleazy pickup line."
I don't expect professional critics to muster the courage to write anything like this, but a number of online writers with this potential don't exercise it for that kind of commentary. Moreover, at no point did I read anything in the sea of positive reviews for Iron Man that the film not being the reviewer's cup of tea, so to speak. I would guess not, since so many of the films critics are subjected to in a year are of this variety. I suppose no one goes into professional criticism expecting that they won't see hundreds of movies like this a year. Apparently, male-centric films are ok with most critics, and why not? Hollywood cinema has always been a dreamscape for a patriarchal society, so why should critics be any different? It's the expectation of these trends, the passive acceptance of the imposition of particular values and assumptions about gender, individualism, class, race, etc. that worries me; the fact that critics appear more interested in playing the game, than looking past the surface of film cultures and analyzing trends and practices, revealing new perspectives and enabling other, in hopes of bettering the production and consumption of movies.
As Andy Horbal once noted, there is a scary amount of sameness in professional film criticism, so much that it's hard not to wonder that criticism has become the very commodity about which many of its participants complain movies have become. It's hard to hold individual critics responsible for these larger ideological trends, but at what point do we begin questioning the punditry that criticism seems to represent when viewed in a collective light. There are definitely bright spots in film criticism, but they are shining lights enshrouded in a dominant cultural system that doesn't reward progressive thought; which is, in fact, positioned as "the alternative."
Some argue that other modes of criticism are a way of correcting some of the weaknesses of professional criticism. But this largely depends on the ideological stance of the argument. Framed from a perspective of representations of gender in cinema, and the manifestations of deeply embedded cultural notions of masculinity and femininity, I'd say that all venues of journalistic film criticism are subject to massive interpretive problems stemming from a hegemony of patriarchy that pervades media.
I'm sure this isn't a popular perspecitve, so I'm welcome to counterarguments. Discuss!