Culture, Film, Review

Deconstructing a New Criticism


Willie Osterweil declares the Hollywood system dead. Long live the Hollywood system.

Film editor Willie Osterweil proposes a new type of criticism on The New Inquiry,  one that is more egalitarian and eschews  the director/marketing complex of  an industry that sells movies like Juno the same way it sells movies like Transformers. Except, the concepts hes puts forth aren’t new, or that his jabs at sacred cows undermine his delivery of the message he’s making, along with the message itself.


He starts with a classic film student break play.  It starts with a Cahiers du Cinema pass, a couple of dribbles from Herzog to Kar Wai Wong before setting up for his kill shot, his “film current” idea. This is his description of the concept:

“A manufactured zeitgeist, a false urgency sustained by the barrage of advertisement, conversation, and criticism about a movie that creates a sense that films reflect their cultural moment.”

He bemoans the way the current’s whitewater crushes any ounce of true criticism due to marketing tricks blinding critics and moviegoers. It’s a bloated idea that is best dissected using the word zeitgeist. By saying that there exists a constructed “spirit of the age”,  he assumes that the ones before it were completely organic structures or that the entirety of moviegoers then were any less easily captivated by mediocre or bad films as they are now.


His attempt in convincing us to destroy the use of film critics shows how much farther down he is in the currents of reality, let alone a film one. His choice of letting the people choose and comment on a movie instead of the experts is a foolish one. People are easily swayed in the age we live in now. He should read up on how companies in other industries use Search Engine Optimization and social media to go past the critics and drive their marketing at the doorstep of the consumer. Criticism is, in many respects, a dead thought killed by the crowd-sourcing reviewers Osterweil is hoping will come (Hint: they’re already here, and they give us homogenized crap).  He needs to read up on Christopher R. Weingarten’s attacks on the new democratic system in music criticism today.


On to the manufactured part of his idea – Crash is a mediocre movie at best.  Whether by marketing ploys or by undeserved accolades, he thinks it’s a no-brainer to see its flaws. His complaint is a nicer way of saying, “Here, here! This is bad!, Why are you watching it?”

That is a complete waste of time.  To think that Crash made every single review on the movie, and by effect on race relations, have merit or effect is asinine. You can go through forums throughout the internet and see comments on the movie that boil down to “This movie portrays white guilt!” or “This movie shows how racist you are!” It sounds eerily similar to the way sports fans or political junkies talk. That is how human nature works, Mr Osterweil, through mob mentalities that aren’t going away anytime soon.

As far as his beloved “sheeple”, at this point of Crash’s legacy, it is already showing signs of general disdain and is easily forgotten. This is not only from critics, but the masses as well. Go ahead, Google “most overrated Oscar winners”; I’ll wait.  As for Slumdog Millionaire, we’ll see how well it fares in a few years. With critics like Salman Rushdie at the top of an already large number of Indians slamming it for its depiction of poverty tourism, that will wash away like anything else in his current, with almost no trace of it left behind. The bears will always catch and eat the weakest salmon, no matter what part of the current they are at.


He then takes a  stand in rooting for the entire production crew of a movie instead of the director, a  form of  Marxist theory with a spotlight on the real Hollywood proletariat instead of the cinematic one in, say, Battleship Potemptkin.  Another example at an attempt of creating a new form of criticism, the Schreiber theory proposed by David Kipen, barely any meat to it as well.

As for his use of statistics to show the horrible disconnect between the working masses behind the sets and the uber-auteur, let’s go back to music. The BLS has their total at 240,000. Another industry, Authors, writers, and editors have 281,300 . Now, off the top of your head name as many as you know in each profession. I’m sure it will be as comparable to the 200 Osterweil mentions in his manifesto. He’s making exceptions for an “exploitative labor relation” that happens in many industries, which makes his pseudo- “power to the people” idea very stale. Don’t bring numbers to a fact-checking fight.


It is true that many directors develop a cult of personality using the umbrella of the auteur mystique without really deserving them. What he fails to see is that directors themselves eventually lose their power, just like the rest of us. Film-makers like Scorsese keep theirs for longer while others like Shyalaman grind it away outright.

Osterweil concentrates on Nolan as his sacred cow/red herring to slaughter. His mention of Batman Begins as “a historical footnote” makes no sense in that Nolan’s use of an existing intellectual property in a different way led to The Dark Knight, one of the best action movies in a long time. That led to the casting of great actor (in this case Heath Ledger as the Joker) whose performance blew away almost all iterations of the character. To see a skilled actor like Ledger work on The Dark Knight and putting his all into it is a testament to both men, not just the director.

He also blames Nolan in failing to use his clout to push the envelope. Nolan is not as powerful as a producer/director like Steven Spielberg, who can do whatever he wants. His studio might have wanted to cast DiCaprio instead of someone Nolan thought fit the role better and lost that fight. They might have attempted to release the movie in 3D and hastily slap them in the shots and he won that one. No one is completely invulnerable to an industry owned by five major companies that have ruled the industry with an iron grip since day one. That’s why the indie film scene exists, Mr. Osterweil. If you don’t like being put down by the cinema “Man”, there are other ways of appreciating and hyping the movies that you like. Go use some of that newfangled social media idea to go around the big studios.


His comparison to Nolan with Michael Bay is clearly made to make a false polemic. That’s when you can start to notice his internet trolling at work. Read his article on technology enslaving us. He writes fourteen paragraphs to say what my high school chemistry teacher said on my calculator use: The machine is only as good as its user. All the small bites he makes in both his manifesto and that article show a severe lack of perspective on his part and a propensity to develop a florid, grandiose way of presenting incredibly simple ideas. All he wants from the reader is to make an educated response to make his criticism relevant to the discussion. It isn’t, mainly because it’s full of tired gripes and poorly used tactics on people who really know what they’re talking about. Osterweil needs to learn from Armond White: If you’re going to troll, do it right.