I mostly feel bad for David DeWitt, who seems to work on the editorial side at the Times and presumably likes movies and is getting his shot at filling in a couple of film reviews, only to find that one of the smaller films that Tony and Manohla and Steve Holden have passed on is a challenge to write about, in that it’s opening at Anthology and is a doc-fiction hybrid in the recent European tradition and its sidelong rhetorical style engages with people who are familiar with an implicit dialogue about narrative structure and the politics of representation.
So it turns out that his review of You All Are Captains, in today’s Times, is embarrassingly adrift from any real sense of the movie, beginning with its opening sentence: “So here’s a list of those who could be smitten with ‘You All Are Captains’:”, and continuing in actual listicle form (“Patient and indulging art film aficionados”) for the first quarter of the review.
Granted, it’s a challenge to write about movies made in a style with which you’re unfamiliar, in 300 words or so. But I’d like to think that it’s at least possible to attempt a level of engagement beyond jokey first-person speculation about who could possibly like this weird little movie:
Are their efforts messy or profound? Yes. No. Maybe. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I acknowledge that “You All Are Captains” has something to express that can’t be said except the way it’s said, and that way there be art.
(Weirdly, a version of the “I guess it’s art” line was also used by the similarly confounded third-string Times reviewer of, incredibly, the entirely accessible Turkey Bowl.)
This is, I guess, the problem with the way the Times assigns film reviews: freelancers, like the great Dennis Lim and our own Nicolas Rapold, and a host of other prominent writers, mostly do longer-form Sunday Arts stuff. There are semi-regular freelance reviewers (the Times has, I gather, a fairly strict noncompete clause for freelance reviewers, which means that they don’t draw from the same film-nerdy pool as do the film sections of The L, the Voice, Time Out, and the Internet), but many of the actual reviews seem to be handled in-house, by whichever editor or staffer or TV critic can make the press screening.
This leads, of course, to reviews that are incapable of engaging with what a movie like You All Are Captains is trying to do, and how; and how—reviews that make many a small film seem like a curious artifact from the forbidden planet Arthouse.
Reviews like this one can kill a smaller movie’s chances with a larger audience, programmers will tell you; they’re also infuriating to read if you know anything about the current discourse in world cinema, and think it’s the job of any critic, even a reviewer from a daily newspaper with a general readership (especially for a daily newspaper with a general readership!), to model an ideal level of engagement with the film object under discussion.