erik lundegaard

Sunday January 16, 2011

An Empire of His Own: How Neal Gabler Invented a Powerful Critical Elite

This year I’ve been reading and immensely enjoying Neal Gabler’s 1989 book “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood” (more on this in later posts), so it’s a supreme bummer to come across Gabler’s recent article, “The end of cultural elitism,” in The Boston Globe.

I found it in the usual, pinball-y, online manner: a post from Roger Ebert on Facebook bounced me to A.O. Scott’s takedown in The New York Times which pinged me over to Gabler’s original article.

Except his thought isn’t that original. Did you know elitists have been telling the people, which is you and I, what to see and like since the republic began? But now, with the help of that great, democratizing medium, the Web, with its aggregate and social networking sites, the people, which is you and I, are fighting back? And the year that just passed is the year we finally won?

Evidence? He gives three examples of products pushed on the public that the public pushed back, unopened:

  • “The Social Network": Critics loved it but, according to Gabler, “something startling happened. Audiences didn’t bow. They yawned.”
  • Jonathan Franzen’s novel, “Freedom,” which “soared to the top of the bestseller lists but didn’t linger long.”
  • HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”: “Once again, the tastemakers proved far more enthusiastic than audiences. Though HBO, as a subscription service, is not ratings addicted, the show’s ratings have plummeted, and ‘Boardwalk Empire’ has hardly made the kind of impression that ‘The Sopranos’ did.

A.O. Scott comes to the defense of each of these examples but I’ll just deal with the first.

“The Social Network” was the no. 1 movie in America during its first two weekends, and has thus far grossed $94 million, which makes it (again: thus far) the 31st highest-grossing movie of the year. Not bad for a drama in which words employ the same function as guns in most Hollywood films. (Vocabulary is to Aaron Sorkin as gunpowder is to Michael Bay.)

It's also the current favorite to win the best picture Oscar. Last year’s best picture winner, “The Hurt Locker,” grossed only $17 million, which was only good enough for 116th place for the year, which is some kind of low point for best picture winners. So why doesn't Gabler make 2009 his year that people stopped listening to the cultural elites? Because then Gabler couldn’t sell his article? Because he didn’t notice what he thinks is a pattern until 2010?

I confess: I’m not seeing his pattern. I’m seeing the opposite of his pattern. Critically acclaimed movies that I thought would be released like “The Hurt Locker” (that is: parsimoniously) and gross like “The Hurt Locker” (that is: painstakingly), are actually filling theaters. It’s not just “The Social Network.”

“True Grit,” a western from the Coen brothers, whose previous highest grosser stopped at $74 million, is currently riding the high country at $126 million and shows no signs of slowing down.

More amazingly, “The Black Swan,” a film about ballet, of all subjects, directed by indie and critical darling Darren Aronofsky, of all directors, whose previous four films have grossed a combined $43 million, has currently grossed $74 million, and is set to pass such would-be tentpole flicks as “The A-Team.” That’s something to be celebrated.

Add in “Inception,” “Shutter Island” and “The Town,” and 2010 was a pretty good year for audiences turning out to watch sometimes difficult, critically acclaimed films. As I've written before, critics and moviegoers have more in common than critics and moviegoers realize.

If Gabler is saying that moviegoers are showing up for the good films (“True Grit”), and ignoring the bad ones (“How Do You Know”), because of word-of-mouth engendered by social networking sites like Facebook, and aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes, and that these sites are cutting into the traditional cultural authority of critics, well, then Gabler is saying this poorly, with horrible examples, and with a demonization and sense of conspiracy from an Other (“cultural elitists” and “commissars”) that stinks of the cheap shots and half-truths of a Michael Medved.

I would add the following. It relates to something A.O. Scott writes in his sharp rebuttal:

There is a cultural elite, in America, which tries its utmost to manipulate the habits and tastes of consumers. It consists of the corporations who sell nearly everything with the possible exception of classical music and conceptual arts, and while its methods include some of the publicity-driven hype that finds its way into newspapers, magazines and other traditional media, its main tool is not criticism but marketing.

If social networking sites like Facebook, and aggregated sites like Rotten Tomatoes, are cutting into any authority, it’s not the critics', who are aggregated, after all, on Rotten Tomatoes, and who, as A.O. Scott reminds us, have rarely been listened to anyway. The authority that’s being cut into is the corporations', the marketers', the PR people, who have spent decades pushing crap on us and calling it ice cream.


Gabler (left) feels the cultural elites have finally been defeated; Scott (right) feels they were never in power.

Posted at 01:30 PM on Sunday January 16, 2011 in category Movies - Box Office  
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