Oh Jesus the Times Review of You All Are Captains Is Embarrassing

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10/19/2011 1:42 PM |

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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.

3 Comment

  • I challenge you to “engage” with a film in under 300 words – usually the “third-string” reviewers you criticize are limited to 250.

    More importantly, I’d challenge you to justify your assumption that Mr. DeWitt is unfamiliar with this style. As he’s a friend of mine, I can assure you that while you’re right that he likes movies, you’re incorrect about his level of experience of them and the range and depth of his knowledge and appreciation. You base several of your criticisms of his critique on an entirely unfounded – and in this case flat-out wrong – assumption.

    I respect your issues with the style and approach of the review; however, is it possible that you simply responded to the film differently and disagree?

  • 1. 300 words is the standard length of a feature review in the print edition of this magazine you’ve just parachuted into with your dueling foil. I CHALLENGE THEE! ENGAGE!

    (1a. “Third-string” isn’t pejorative. It’s how the depth chart works over there. I’ve also heard that DeWitt’s a good editor for other film reviewers.)

    2. The justification for my assumption that he’s unfamiliar with this filmmaking style: he wrote a review that transparently vamped for space, and attempted to stylize his own beffudlement at the narrative strategies being utilized. “This movie, you guys! It doesn’t have a *plot*!” I’m sure someone is about to tell me that he’s writing for a wide audience, who need to be “eased into” movies that feature “shots of tourists, of sky, of water, of streets, of … who knows?”, but that argument is bullshit. YOU know, you’re the film’s interpreter, and if you don’t know, I mean, fuck, films have featured nonnarratively motivated landscape photography since the 19th century, and getting so stuck on that suggests limits of knowledge and appreciation–which is fine, everybody has those blind spots, but where’s the attempt to apply his no doubt worthy knowledge and appreciation outside of his previous circuit of aesthetic familiarity?

    I mean. Just use the adjective “contemplative” to suggest a mood, an attitude, and a film-historical lineage. Jesus fuck.

    3. If you read The L’s review (linked in the article, about 350 words), you’ll see that our critic didn’t love the film either. Not every discussion of critical sensibility and practice can be dismissed with relativism about personal taste.

  • To be fair to NY Times there is an excellent Dennis Lim article/interview linked to in their review. Also this: “The film won the international critics