Peter Bart on critic snobbery: ‘I got more fun out of “Pirate Radio” than “Invictus” ’
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It’s no secret that when Peter Bart was running Variety he was especially unpopular with some of his own critics, since he had so little respect for their craft. Now that Bart is a Variety blogger, well, not much has changed. He’s still taking potshots at how out of touch critics are with the general populace (as if this were really shocking news). The other day, for example, he started out writing a post about ‘Avatar’ and how it has become a big part of the national conversation, only to suddenly veer off into another riff about his favorite bugaboo: those pesky, out-of-touch film critics.
What seems to have set Bart off is his discovery that Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman gave ‘Avatar’ a B grade, leading Variety’s eminence grise to sniff, ‘What can you expect from a critic who considers ‘Far From Heaven’ the best movie of the decade?’ After that, the floodgates were open. Bart took a few jabs at the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern, whom he quoted as calling ‘Avatar’ ‘a lumbering parable of colonial aggression,’ prompting the quip, ‘Was he seeing an old John Huston movie by mistake?’
Bart then shifted gears and began zinging critics for their top-10 list choices, which Bart thinks is fair game since he believes that top-10 lists are useless formulations dreamed up by critics who ‘want to make themselves look smart by giving weight to intellectual content.’ That led Bart to zing a few more critics, starting with the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips, who had the temerity to place ‘There Will Be Blood’ on his top-10-of-the-decade list. Bart reacted with scorn, dismissing the film as being ‘about as moving as a root canal.’
But the best part of the post comes when Bart offers us a glimpse of his own snobbish tendencies. Acknowledging that list-making is done to make the writer look good, Bart says, ‘When I’m asked about my favorite magazine, I prefer to list Cahiers du Cinema rather than People. I got more dopey fun this year out of ‘Pirate Radio’ than, say, ‘Invictus,’ but the latter would inevitably make my 10-best list.’
I’m not saying that Bart doesn’t have a point. Critics regularly use top-10 lists to indulge their most perversely arcane enthusiasms. One example: Given all of the year’s great TV shows -- ’30 Rock,’ ‘Parks and Recreation,’ ‘House,’ ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ ‘Big Love,’ ‘Weeds,’ The Colbert Report,’ to name just a few -- the New York Times’ Mike Hale picked the Travel Channel’s ‘Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations’ as one of his favorite shows of the year (on an especially eclectic list).
But sniping at a gifted critic like Phillips simply because he adores ‘There Will Be Blood’ is really bad form. And I’m not just saying that because I happen to agree with Phillips: It is a phenomenal film. Critics make up top-10 lists because they want to celebrate the years’ best work while letting us -- the readers -- know where they stand on the current state of the art form they write about. If Bart had any guts at all, he’d let us see where his own tastes lie. I’m impressed that he was willing to wax enthusiastic about ‘Pirate Radio.’ But I’d like to know what else he liked. If ‘Pirate Radio’ makes the cut, could ‘Couples Retreat’ really be all that far behind?