End of the Snark Age

The late film critic Roger Ebert used to host special screenings during which he would lead the audience in dissecting a film scene-by-scene, shot-by-shot. Dubbed “democracy in the dark,” there was only one rule: anybody could call out “Stop!” and discuss what they were looking at, or whatever thought had just occurred to them, whether it was about the acting, the camera angle, the lighting, editing, dialogue, set design, costumes, score, inspiration, theme, subtext, anything. The result was a richer appreciation of the film, and for filmmaking more generally.

I was fortunate to attend a couple of these screenings during the Floating Film Festival, which is exactly what it sounds like—a film festival set on a cruise ship, with films shown between sightseeing and snorkeling excursions in various Caribbean ports-of-call. The festival was the brainchild of TIFF co-founder Dusty Cohl, a cigar-chomping, Crown Royal-swilling, gruff-yet-loveable ol’ coot in a tuxedo-printed T-shirt and a well-worn (and well worn) black cowboy hat. The FFF lineup was invariably eclectic, from The Silence of the Lambs to Infernal Affairs, One False Move to Rumble in the Bronx, Mystery Science Theatre 3000 to Chunking Express, and the “democracy in the dark” films were equally so.

My two such experiences involved Pulp Fiction, which by its very nature evokes the Switchblade Cinema aesthetic, and Adaptation. For more than four hours on each occasion, we stopped and started and wended our way through Quentin Tarantino’s darkly comic neo-noir funhouse and Charlie Kaufman’s serio-comic inside-screenwriting meta-marvel. And it truly was democracy in the dark. Everyone had a voice and felt free to use it. It didn’t matter if you were a filmmaker, film scholar, film critic or simply a film lover, all opinions carried equal weight and led to lively conversation and debate.

Which is kind of what the internet is like, a great cyber-free-for-all where everybody has a voice and feels free—perhaps too free—to share their thoughts and ideas. This is especially true when the subject is politics, sports or pop culture, lightning rods for our best and worst instincts, a veritable Mos Eisley of scum and villainy, with the occasional Jedi thrown in to bring balance to the force of our collective unchained Id.

Film criticism, for example, has devolved into Comic Book Guy-level proclamations of “worst ever” or conversely, “best ever” (or some equally obnoxious variation), devoid of thoughtfulness, nuance or even self-awareness. Now, I’m not oblivious to the fact that Ebert and his opposable thumb helped usher in this era of Roman Coliseum-style yay-or-nay sudden death reviewing. But obviously his writing was infinitely more considered and contextualized than his prodigious digit. And there are still critics—many of whom began their careers as print journalists—who haven’t fallen into this trap of relying on stars or numbers or letter grades to convey their thoughts on a film, as though they’re filling out a baseball scoresheet; that’s one reason you won’t find me assigning “switchblades” in any of my reviews (e.g. 3.5 switchblades out of 5).

But my beef isn’t with professional critics, at least not entirely. I’m talking about everybody who shares their reactions to a film, whether in conversation or via social media. And I’m mostly talking about the negativity, and about the cynicism and the snark.

How many times have you heard somebody declare a movie to be “the worst ever,” “the worst sequel ever,” “the worst…whatever…” or merely “the worst”?

If someone dismisses a movie as the “worst ever,” let’s say—and they’re not referring to Battlefield Earth or Glitter or Norbit or Leprechaun in the Hood or White Chicks or Sex Lives of the Potato Men—clearly they have not watched enough movies, and their opinions on films—and everything else, frankly—is immediately suspect. To be clear, we’re talk about the worst, not the merely terrible (Troll 2, Batman and Robin, Rob Zombie’s Halloween I and II) or the simply incompetent (Plan 9 From Outer Space).

Likewise, it’s difficult to imagine declaring a movie the “best ever.” Really? Better than The Godfather or Apocalypse Now? Better than Psycho or Rear Window? Better than Raging Bull or Goodfellas? Chinatown or Rosemary’s Baby? A Clockwork Orange or 2001: A Space Odyssey? Seven Samurai or Ran? Fargo or Miller’s Crossing?

Mad Max: Fury Road is far and away my favourite movie of the year; I saw it three times in the first three days of its theatrical release. Much has been written about the striking visuals, the (mostly) real car crashes, the feminist storyline, the dust storm of light and sound, the sheer velocity. In simplest terms, it delivered the sensory explosion promised by every bubble gum commercial ever made. I would even venture to say it’s the best movie of the year, fully cognizant of the fact that I haven’t seen every movie this year, including several awards contenders. And while my love of Fury Road is immense, I can’t imagine saying it’s the best movie ever. On the day I first saw it, maybe. Even on the second day, when I was still high on petrol fumes and chrome spray paint.

But when I finally wiped the digital dust from my eyes after the third viewing was Fury Road really better than those other classics I mentioned? Or better than Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark or Close Encounters of the Third Kind (three of my all-time favourites)? Better than The Exorcist, The Wild Bunch or The Shining? Alien or The Terminator? The Fly or The Thing? Star Wars or The Matrix? Once Upon a Time in the West or Unforgiven? Die Hard or Back to the Future? ET or The Princess Bride? Seven or Zodiac? The Raid or The Road Warrior? First Blood or Rocky? All squarely in the Switchblade Cinema wheelhouse and on any given day I can make a case for each of them being in the pantheon of the best movies ever made. Similarly, I could argue that Jupiter Ascending is not only the worst movie of 2015 but the worst movie ever.

Of course, that’s, yeah well, that’s just like my opinion, man.

But I’m not quick to throw around “best” or “worst” in any context, never mind without any context at all.

We live in strange times. Everyone’s a critic—never has this been truer—and we want everyone to know it. The expression of our love and our hate is instantaneous and unequivocal. Thumbs up or thumbs down as quickly as our thumbs can type it into our Facebook statuses. Our collective cynicism makes it harder to love something sincerely, unreservedly, unironically. And if we hate it, we must be venomous and unrelenting. Others must love what we love and hate what we hate. And it’s ugly and it’s painful and it’s sad. Such is the mood and temperament of the vox populi.

So where does that leave us? Well, here at Switchblade Cinema I want to have a conversation about the films I see. I’m going to love some of them and hate some of them and the rest will fall somewhere in between. And there will be things I love about films I hate and things I hate about films I love. Just as it’s always been. But I won’t be rushing to judgment. The easiest reviews to write—and also the ones that are the most fun—aren’t for the films I love, but for the films I hate, the ones that inspire ridicule, derision and my snarky inner 12-year-old punk. But I don’t plan on giving that punk much of a voice around these parts.

I want to talk about what I like about the films and what I don’t like, what works and what doesn’t. But what I won’t be doing is dismissing them.

So let’s talk about movies. The conversation starts here.