ReelThoughts: November 17, 2009

"Backlash"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


It happens every year. Critics see a film and praise it. Early audience response is rapturous. Adulation pours in from every corner. The director and stars are interviewed and the photogenic ones find themselves in a paparazzi-generated fishbowl. End-of-the-year Top 10 placements are a given; Golden Globe and Oscar nominations follow like a plow after a snowfall. Then, inevitable and ugly, the backlash builds. It starts slowly, like the first tremors of an earthquake. Sometimes, it peters out before anyone takes notice. On other occasions, however, it grows to Tsunami-like proportions, occasionally even derailing Academy Award expectations and tainting the film's reputation for years to come.

The backlash has started for Precious, this year's critical darling. The film, which won unfettered praise at the film festivals where it showed in 2009 (beginning with Sundance and ending with the litter of post-Toronto locals) and admiration during the early days of its limited release, is already beginning to feel the sting of the contrarians. They come in two groups: those who have a social axe to grind (such as Armond White), believing the film to bolster negative stereotypes, and those who simply think it isn't as good as they were led to believe. This happens a lot with (over)praised films: expectations are lifted to such lofty levels that the movie cannot live up to the hype. In these cases, viewers who see the movie early in its run - before the publicity engine is up and running at full speed - often have a more favorable opinion than those who come late to the party, when the proverbial bloom is off the rose.

It's too early to tell how loud the anti-Precious buzz will get. There is a school of thought that argues some pundits will pull their punches for fear of being labeled racist. If White ends up being the movie's most vocal detractor, the backlash will fade quickly. White, an eccentric who seems to pick unpopular opinions to stir up controversy, isn't taken very seriously by anyone outside of his core constituency. He is widely viewed as a "troll" and there are those who take an opposite position merely because if Armond says something, the converse must be the sane way to go.

The backlash against Precious reminds me of similar movements that swamped the likes of Brokeback Mountain, Juno, and Slumdog Millionaire. One of those films won the Oscar, but it arrived bloodied at the finish line. Brokeback Mountain was an early favorite, but it was dethroned by growing, broad-based dissatisfaction with its candidacy. Juno was never expected to win, but the minority vitriol against it was so strong by the night of the Awards ceremony that many wondered how it had managed to be nominated for anything.

Did Saving Private Ryan lose the Best Picture Oscar because of a backlash? Certainly, there was a sense by January that the movie had been praised a little too highly - that it was rather conventional after the Omaha Beach opening. But I don't recall a wave of antipathy directed at the movie. This was the year that Harvey Weinstein went all-out in promoting Shakespeare in Love. It is widely accepted that his lavish spending and freewheeling approach to Oscar marketing bought the award. A dozen years later, Saving Private Ryan is regarded as a modern classic; Shakespeare in Love is pretty much forgotten. Harvey may have won the battle, but he lost the war. Similarly, Crash beat out Brokeback Mountain but, after only a few years, it has managed to make its way onto the list of least-deserving Best Picture Oscars. (I agree with that assessment, although I didn't prefer Brokeback Mountain - my choice among that year's nominees was Munich.)

Perhaps the two biggest films to feel the sting of a critical and popular backlash were both Oscar winners: Forrest Gump and Titanic. In each case, these titles may have been victims of their own success. They followed the pattern, with almost unanimous early acclaim by critics, unabated enthusiasm by audiences, then a growing "anti" minority voice. Forrest Gump, hailed by its early defenders as an uplifting, witty fairy tale, was accused of being trite and insulting by those who sought to blemish its reputation and derail its Oscar run. Titanic, initially praised for its heartfelt love story and spectacular special effects, was damned by a minority as melodramatic and cheesy. To an extent, an element of the taint has clung to both films over the years. I recently re-watched Forrest Gump and was surprised at how much I enjoyed it more than a decade later. I watched it in part to determine if I still consider it a four-star film; I do.

There are other kinds of backlashes, as well. Consider The Blair Witch Project, for example. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1999 and, before the festival ended, the buzz was already beginning. The word was already sweeping it: it was the scariest movie ever made. Artisan Entertainment, employing one of the most savvy underground marketing campaigns of all time, nurtured the buzz rather than exploiting it. By the time I saw Blair Witch (I missed it at Sundance, although I was there that year) at a press screening in late June 1999, I was excited. The movie met my expectations. I didn't find it to be scary, but it was creepy and evocative. It opened less than three weeks later in a small number of theaters, mostly art houses. Especially in college towns, shows sold out regularly. It was possible to arrive at a theater on Friday night and discover that the first available show was nearly a week away. For about a month, The Blair Witch Project flourished in specialty venues, and its reputation exploded. Then Artisan went for the kill by opening it wide. Financially, its first multiplex weekend was successful. Mainstream audiences, seduced by the hype, flocked to see it. But there was widespread disappointment. I remember seeing it on "opening weekend" at my local multiplex and sensing a strong current of discontent on the way out. The movie, which had so enraptured its core audience, became a punch-line for those outside that narrow demographic.

A different kind of backlash greeted George Lucas' Star Wars prequels, perhaps the most reviled three movies of all time, despite the fact that their combined worldwide gross soared past the $2 billion mark. Today, I view those movies largely the same way I did when they first arrived on the scene: engaging cornball space operas with superior special effects. The lacked the "gee whiz" exuberance of the first Star Wars and the genuine depth of The Empire Strikes Back but they were superior to the wildly uneven Return of the Jedi. Looking at the prequels as "just movies" became a virtual impossibility, especially for Star Wars die-hards. Expecting the moon, they were horrified when Jimmy Stewart's lasso managed to do no better than snag a low orbiting satellite.

The build-up to The Phantom Menace was the most extreme I have experienced for anything, including the Harry Potter books and movies. (Compared to this, Twilight is in nursery school.) Anyone reading this whose age is north of 15 can probably recall those days and months. It was being billed as the "Event of the Century" (with typical Hollywood hyperbole). Fandom was rabid; remember the guy who camped out for months in tent? The reality, visible to many who watched from a slightly detached perspective, was that even the second coming of Citizen Kane could not have satisfied expectations that made Mount Everest look like a beginner's ski slope.

Initially, fans professed to love the movie. Opening night interviews with patrons as they left the theater were uniformly positive. I remember one Star Wars fan saying that he could now die because his dream had been fulfilled. But then a funny thing started to happen. A few disgruntled fans expressed dissatisfaction, and that disappointment ballooned. Jar-Jar Binks became (rightfully) a lightning rod for anger. Fans who initially professed undying loved filed for divorce after seeing the film a fifteenth or sixteenth time. The mood turned ugly. A sizeable contingent of Star Wars fans weren't just let down by The Phantom Menace; they hated it. The anger at George Lucas may not have been born in 1999, but it was nurtured in the wake of the opening of Episode I. Lucas went from being Messiah to Antichrist in one summer. Quite a reversal.

Ten years later, feelings for and against The Phantom Menace have quieted. The Prequels are largely viewed as massively inferior adjuncts to the original trilogy, but that recognition is no longer accompanied by venom. Fans are divided into two camps: die-hards who refuse to acknowledge the existence of Episodes I, II, and III, and a much larger group whose members debate whether the films should be watched chronologically or in production order. I could write an article arguing that all three of the prequels were better than Return of the Jedi and I would get 100 e-mails castigating me for my ignorance and 100 e-mails congratulating me for my insight. The backlash against the prequels has forever muddied the Star Wars brand. If Lucas had plans to make Episodes VII, VIII, and IX, they almost certainly have been scrapped by now.

Why are backlashes so inevitable for films that open with plaudits and fanfare? It's an interesting question and one that's difficult to answer. One obvious explanation has already been mentioned: the failure of a movie to meet unreasonably high expectations. I remember once suggesting to a budding film lover that he should spend a weekend watching Citizen Kane, City Lights, and Casablanca, three great films he had never seen. I saw him a couple of weeks later and he expressed disappointment in all of them. His comment: "I guess they were good, but I've seen better." The assessment left me speechless, but it probably shouldn't have.

Then there's the simple fact that it may be in human nature to tear down that which is successful. People derive a perverse enjoyment from seeing icons on pedestals fall from grace. Tabloids recognize and exploit this. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. This is as true of movies as it is of people. The more success a title garners, the more vociferously its critics will go after it. There are those who derive a sense of profound satisfaction from blackening the reputation of a well-liked movie.

Will Precious escape the scourge of its increasingly vocal band of detractors? Will it survive the gauntlet and make it to the Oscar podium? It has two powerful backers in Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, who should be able to deflect any charges of racial stereotyping, but the question lingers of whether inflated expectations will face the movie when it goes wide. Time will tell. Six months from now, it will be possible to write a definitive postscript to this story.


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