17 January, 2011

The Meta-metacritic (The Tourist, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)

In a year of craptaculars, The Tourist deserves burial at the bottom of the 2010 dung heap. It offers talented people trapped in creative inertia.
— Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

The Math(s) Teacher and the Down With Love Girl
Over-dressed, over-skinny, over-lipped, over coiffed, over-breast-supported, Angelina Jolie, the mysterious woman on the train to Venice, has never looked more grotesque. Glamour has never been far from grotesque though. And The Tourist is a dream of glamour and luxury. You just have to imagine a woman under the combination of Sophia Loren, upmarket Barbie and Angelina Jolie. Unkempt, unassuming, unfit, uncool, Johnny Depp, the maths teacher from Wisconsin, has never been less eye-catching in that elfin, goth way of his.

To put it too glibly: as Peyton Reed’s Down With Love was to Doris Day and Rock Hudson romantic comedies, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Tourist is to Stanley Donen’s romantic caper Charade.  Caper? Romantic Comedy? The terms themselves ring with the glibness of pitch and marketing. For The Tourist takes the glibness of its genre and forebears and makes a metaglib spectacle of it. Not that its all cool and meta. It’s a procession of a few long slow sequences: On The Train; In The Hotel In Venice; The Final Rendezvous — broken by some bits of action and joined by some international police and criminals. Slowness is all. The film glides, the beautiful inertia of gliding. That is it’s pleasure — and its not really the pleasure of cool distance but of cool indulgence. That and the contrast between the two leads: with Jolie it’s affection and maybe even beauty masked by grotesqueness as in Beauty and the Beast; with Depp it’s character masked by maths, tourism and cheap spy fiction. And it’s got an ending as contrived as Down With Love’s, the dreamy bliss of contrivance. 

One of the pleasures of cinephilia is coming across something worth seeing where everyone said you wouldn't find it.

So there we were, deep in January summer holidays, desperate for a movie on those steamy rainy days, the local multiplex is providing pretty much nothing. It’s a giant serve of dismal movie distribution. How did we get there? Via ABC Radio National's 'Critical Failure Series 1 Film', via guest Mel Cambell, via  Stephanie Zacharek  we ended up with The Tourist and Morning Glory — of what we hadn’t seen. Tron, Yogi and Gulliver were further down the list. We’d already seen Love and Other Drugs; as Myles Barlow would say, ‘Zero stars!

The American metacritic had given The Tourist 37 (out of 100, Peter Travers at Rolling Stone gave it 0) and Morning Glory 56. Cf. Love And Other Drugs 55 (should have been <10) David Fincher’s The Social Network 95 (too many) and Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech 88 (not seen yet). Probably two easy (and too easy) to like. I liked Tom Hooper's The Damned United) Stephanie Zacharev went The Tourist 90 and Morning Glory 80.

Cinema maudit and the Memetics of Criticism
We went and saw both bearing in mind the old cultural research principle that Mel Campbell’s puts thus: ‘that even really bad culture is still interesting because it reveals things about the context in which it’s created and consumed’. A sort of less enthusiastic rendition of the ‘Murray Principle’ as enunciated by the character of Murray in Don Delillo’s White Noise. There is a real ethics of the research question here. In my view you’re better off being a democratic Walt Whitman than a sniffy Tocqueville of culture. But to get this right, you've got to have a good prose style backed up a good heart. Anyway…

Morning Glory we can leave in the heap of inglorious data (Myles Barlow would say: one and a half stars). The Tourist was one of those finds of cinema maudit, cursed by a review meme that colonised, survived and replicated in the critical culturesphere., finding suitable habitat in the minds of reviewers. The question is what is this habitat? Let’s turn the cultural research on the reviews: even really bad reviews are still interesting because they reveal things about the context in which reviews are created and consumed.

Do critics want more clich├ęd romance? Do they expect more up against the wall sex? Do they expect more action and less interia? Did they only get Angelina’s grotesqueness subliminally and thus get put off by it. Were they a bit shocked at how unfit Johnny looked. Was it that they didn’t appreciate the Charade thing (If there actually was intentionally a Charade thing; anyway not my favourite movie and The Tourist was better.) or was it they really wanted Johnny like Cary Grant and Angelina like Audrey (or maybe Sophia, to whom, to me, she bore an eerie resemblance)? Do reviewers learn what they are expected to like from other reviewers? Hypothesis for empirical research: Reviewer expectations are the habitat of reviews.

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