Why Film Criticism is Still Split by Gender Lines

It's much easier to see the partiality in others than in ourselves.

March 15, 2018 5:00 am

I don’t get Michael Bay’s Transformers saga – or the big battle of the robots in Ironman 3. I don’t even feel any particular liberation as Wonder Woman fights, fails, rallies and defeats Sir Patrick in that movie’s big climactic CGI hullaballoo, reducing an airport battlefield to fiery rubble. I space out. Don’t care. Foregone conclusion: No suspense, no mystery and no character development – I just don’t get the appeal. Thumbs up or thumbs suck?

And then, last week, my grown son explained it to me as we were watching a preview for Pacific Rim Uprising out on March 23. He turned on the f-cking lightbulb in my critical head. And he did so while employing that same patronizing tone I’d use with him while we were walking hand-in-hand down the sidewalk to nursery school when the Twin Towers still stood.

Young Mr. Adams explained what’s obvious to the majority of dudes and plenty of chicks: watching robots battling in the streets while toppling buildings is a joy in and of itself. Crash! Slam! Destruction! Whether it’s Optimus Prime versus Megatron or Godzilla versus Mothra, it’s just fun. Not deep. Not world-changing. Just kicks. “Do you understand?” to quote the Pacific Rim: Uprising trailer.

It’s not Michael Bay’s fault that I’m clueless – or, to quote what I hear when my kid clues me in: “Mom, you’re so stupid” I just didn’t get it – but now I do.

As often happens, your own kids easily identify your unspoken preferences (“Mom always liked you best,” to quote the Smothers Brothers).

For example, take the reviews for Maudie, Aisling Walsh’s moving biopic about Nova Scotia outsider artist Maud Lewis. It stars Sally Hawkins in an Oscar-caliber role ultimately overshadowed by her lonely love-struck custodian in The Shape of Water. That it was directed by a woman with a female-driven narration appealed to my biases, and it became a movie I championed. In the film, Maudie does fight off the abuse of Ethan Hawke’s gruff orphaned fisherman in a hand-to-hand tussle – but no skyscrapers topple and, really, the violence ends swift as a slap.

Let’s run the tape. The reactionary bias, as I’ve noted before in Variety, appears in that influential trade review, where long-time critic Peter Debruge justified his dislike of the drama: “If it weren’t for Hawkins, there would be little to distinguish Maudie from the sort of 16mm filmstrip made for schoolchildren back in the day.”

That stings, the kind of clever-as-critic remark that potentially decimates the esteem of a female director. Walsh, incidentally, graduated from a prestigious art school and has four features on her resume along with a slew of English television including Wallander with Sir Kenneth Branagh and Trial & Retribution. My point being, Walsh is no amateur and the male critic’s gratuitous put-down, however honest, shows a lack of bias-awareness. Perhaps, it’s because the lead is unf-ckable in a role that is every bit as meaty as Daniel Day Lewis’s Oscar-winning disabled painter overcoming adversity Christy Brown in My Left Foot. But I don’t read minds.

And, for a little perspective, this week Maudie won seven Canadian Screen Awards, including Best Achievement in Directing for Walsh, Best Motion Picture and Best Actress in a Leading Role for Hawkins.

Debruge’s not alone in this world of critical bias and false Rotten Tomatoes consensus where fully 80 percent of the critics are male (particularly among the dying category of those with sweet, full-time, benefit-paying jobs in the field). I was recently at the Berlin Film Festival, where I enjoy viewing films like fresh snow before the critics descended to leave their footprints. I watched Pernille Fischer Christensen’s vivid Scandinavian biopic, Becoming Astrid in which rising star Alba August plays the young, evolving Astrid Lindgren, the Swedish author of the famed anarchic Pippi Longstocking character. I laughed, I cried, I related – and I immediately wondered: what would the critics say – and would there be a gender split?

It has become a game for me, checking for male-female bias in criticism in an unscientific, anecdotal way. Still, The Hollywood Reporter’s Boyd van Hoeij cranked: “this is a very conventional coming-of-age story about a young woman in pre-war Sweden.” His dismissive review did nothing to shed light on what I found both surprising and alarming: that elements of Lindgren’s past fit the #MeToo narrative.

Meanwhile, at Variety, Alissa Simon declares right up front: “a gorgeous piece of heritage filmmaking that chronicles a character-forming period in the young life of the Swedish writer born as Astrid Ericsson, who would go on to worldwide fame as Astrid Lindgren, one of the most beloved children’s authors ever.” The subject’s importance resonated with Simon in a way it failed to do with van Hoeij – and that had an impact on how he filtered the filmmaking.

I welcome Cherry Picks, a new female-driven review site unveiled at SXSW  will expand and curate female critical voices to combat the powerful ketchup of Rotten Tomatoes. Cherry Picks cannily fills a major gap in coverage that I’ve been calling out for years, with Jessica Chastain and Meryl Streep joining in the uproar. But let’s pause for just a moment and recognize the danger that lies in creating a false Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot battle of critics that ride the Hollywood hype machine. Harnessing the power of the feminine voice and gaze, let’s be better than that – let’s crack open criticism.

It used to be, in the ancient time of powerful print reviewers like Vincent Canby or Andrew Sarris or Pauline Kael that we chose our critics in part because of their biases – we knew them well. And, so, we could opt to go to the movies based on this knowledge, this intimacy. They served as barometers, either negative or positive. Sarris speaks for me. Kael opens up movies in new ways. If Rex Reed hated it, odds are I’d love it.

All critics have biases. But the great critics who transform the field know their predilections and confess them because the best critics also undergo a journey of self-discovery the more films they see and unpack. That’s wisdom as opposed to film knowledge. And, while it may not be particularly valued at this point of oversaturation, I’ll leave it to others to discern whether Transformers 3 is an important addition to the oeuvre, or Pacific Rim Uprising (opening March 22) is something greater than oversized CGI tin cans cracking each other open.

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