Theaters are struggling to return. Some critics have decided they’re not worth it.
This imaginary critic’s first complaint has to do with the press screening being “all the way uptown, and there were huge delays on the J train,” and it’s all downhill from there: The screenplay resembles an idea the character had in grad school; the lead actor’s height, slightly less than his own, engenders resentments; and praise from the Times’s critic only increases his rage, as he “went in for an interview three years ago … and they rejected me.” The critic doesn’t have issues with the movie: He has problems with himself.
Needless to say, film writers were unhappy with the unfair and inaccurate suggestion that we’re merely frustrated artists taking their revenge on those who have made it. I shared their annoyance at the time and continue to do so. But I’ll admit to having thought back to Eisenberg’s essay once or twice during the kerfuffle over the push to reopen cinemas in the United States.
“There’s nothing much in the movie that’s worth remembering, much less risking a possible COVID-19 infection to see,” one reviewer writes of “Unhinged.” The Los Angeles Times opens its “Unhinged” review with a coronavirus disclaimer stating that we must “subject it to a moral and practical inquiry that film lovers will surely be conducting for the next several weeks and months: Is this movie worth risking your life?”
The movie that has prompted that question with the greatest urgency is “Tenet,” Christopher Nolan’s time-travel-adjacent movie. Nolan, who has long been a champion of the theatrical moviegoing experience, hoped that insisting on releasing “Tenet” in cinema rather than delaying it indefinitely or sending it to video on demand might help keep cinemas alive.
His efforts don’t seem to be appreciated, at least not by critics. One reviewer suggests “Tenet is not a movie it’s worth the nervous braving a trip to the big screen to see.” Another swore on Twitter that he’ll never watch “Tenet” in theaters and will in fact skip all future Nolan productions so as to spite the would-be savior of cinema.
In announcing that they would not be reviewing “The New Mutants,” which isn’t screening for critics in theaters and was not made available to them to stream in advance of its release, the AV Club restated a common refrain. If they send a critic to one of these (plebe-filled, disease-ridden) public screenings, “There’s a very good chance you could get sick. And that’s a risk The A.V. Club will not be taking to review a movie, any movie.” There’s no word in the announcement on what sort of pseudoscience makes press screenings safer for film critics than screenings attended by normal folks unsanctified by Rotten Tomatoes.
Andrew Cuomo made a similar distinction between gyms, which he has allowed to open, and theaters, which remain shuttered: Gyms are necessities for New Yorkers while theaters are trifles. Getting sick gains and shredding your core are, obviously, important to Cuomo in a way that enjoying films on big screens and with impeccable sound in the company of other movie lovers is not. If you want to watch a movie, do it at home: Entertainments such as those available in the cinema are mere fripperies, not worth even minimal risk.
None of this is to say that critics shouldn’t write about the weirdness of moviegoing in our moment. Mike Ryan’s take on the moral unease of releasing films under these circumstances is not my own, though I still think it’s worth consideration.
But generally dismissing theaters as something we can do without since squinting at your laptop or phone or tablet or TV is a perfectly acceptable substitute rankles. It implies that film is a less serious art form, less worthy of being experienced in the correct setting or as the artist hopes.
In John Simon’s essay from the introduction of his collection “Movies Into Film,” he argues that by using less serious terms for film, “The implication is that we go to the movies purely for fun. … But if film were merely an amusement, if it could not and should not go beyond that, there would be little need or justification for publishing books about it — mine or anyone else’s.”
Simon would likely roll over in his recently occupied grave were he to read his words utilized in defense of seeing pictures such as “Unhinged,” “The New Mutants” or “Tenet,” which take a great art form and reduce it to a cheap and dubiously worthy luxury. If critics are turning reviews into attempts to calculate entertainment-derived-to-chance-of-getting-sick, they’re not really engaging in criticism. They’re doing service journalism and consumer reportage. There’s a place for that in this environment.
But if films are worth writing about, they’re worth writing about seriously, as art separate from logistical concerns — and seeing properly, as they were meant to be seen.