Idiot Box


Nashville, Paramount Pictures, 1975

From The Baffler:

In 1974, with classics like Nashville and Network still forthcoming, Kael wrote that though American movies were “probably the best in the world,” she still fretted over their future, with young moviegoers suddenly flocking to “slam-bang pictures” like Dirty Harry. “Audiences like movies that do all the work for them,” she complained,

College students don’t appear to feel insulted (what’s left to insult us?); they don’t mind being banged over the head—the louder the better. They seem to enjoy seeing the performer whacked around, too; sloppy knockabout farce is the newest smash, and knockabout horror isn’t far behind. People go for the obvious, the broad, the movies that don’t ask them to feel anything. If a movie is a hit, that means practically guaranteed sensations—and sensations without feeling.

Kael, of course, was right. Dirty Harry begat Rambo begat Top Gun, and film audiences have been knocked about by cyborgs, secret agents, and superheroes ever since. Kael celebrated the films of the late sixties and seventies that she thought truly superlative, but always with the understanding that New Hollywood was too good to last. She also, importantly, was no rubber stamp: she blasted A Clockwork Orange as having “no motivating emotion,” and used it to argue that no less an eminence than Stanley Kubrick had “assumed the deformed, self-righteous perspective of a vicious young punk.” Indeed, throughout the era of New Hollywood, the critics were as likely to sing the praises of a now beloved picture as to pan it, as when Renata Adler—Kael’s great antagonist and a necessary skeptic to the widely held assumptions of Hollywood’s excellence—wrote that “Seeing The Graduate is a bit like having one’s most brilliant friend to dinner, watching him grow more witty and animated with every moment, and then becoming aware that what one may really be witnessing is the onset of a nervous breakdown.” Compare to now, when a show’s poor review is usually blamed on the factors of its production rather than those responsible for creating it.

Though the latest season of Luke Cage is a “repetitive slog,” Sepinwall writes, that’s Marvel and Netflix’s fault for “filling up a thirteen- episode bag with only three or four episodes’ worth of story,” rather than, you know, the creator’s fault for only coming up with three or four episodes’ worth of story. Similarly, even as Sepinwall chides Legion as a series that prizes “style over substance,” he is quick to reassure the reader that in its “wonderful” first season, “the style was so dazzling, and the story propulsive enough, that it didn’t much matter that the characters were largely hollow archetypes.”

Such rhetorical excuse-making looks flabby next to Kael’s reviews of the eighties, when she blasted Platoon as “overwrought, with too much filtered light, too much poetic license, and too damn much romanticized insanity” and wondered, bemused, why Scarface treated its characters “as if they had an interior life and were going to grow or change.” These are, by many accounts, quality films. But they are not half the measure of their sixties and seventies antecedents, and they were treated as such. Today’s television critics, unfortunately, learned the opposite lesson from their own Golden Age: Breaking Bad was a work of genius, so everything else must be pretty good too.

“Party Monsters”, Kyle Paoletta, The Baffler