I have shrugged off Kenneth Turan’s incessant rain of personal barbs over the last few months, since he is clearly not a big enough man to admit when he is wrong, and it has been amusing to watch him dig himself into a deeper hole each time he tries to justify his misanthropic sensibility with regard to “Titanic.” But it’s time to speak up when Turan uses his bully pulpit not only to attack my film, but the entire film industry and its audiences.
Turan says that “the flip side of ‘Titanic’s’ ability to draw hordes of viewers into the theaters is the question of where these viewers have been for the past several years. In its unintentional underlining of how narrow an audience net most movies cast over the American public, ‘Titanic’ is not an example of Hollywood’s success, it’s an emblem of its failure.” It shows, he says, “how desperate the mainstream audience . . . has become for anything even resembling old-fashioned entertainment.” They have, he says, been “deadened by exposure to nonstop trash.”
Having gone on record condemning “Titanic” as so bad “it almost makes you weep in frustration,” he is now desperate to account for the phenomenon of its unprecedented global critical and commercial success. To do so, he has settled on the outrageous conclusion that since “Titanic” is garbage (because it has been spoken and so it must be), then everything else around it--every other film in recent years--must be worse garbage. With one sweeping statement he condemns and dismisses the entire output of Hollywood.
Turan has tipped his hand. We now see his true heart. It’s not that he doesn’t like some movies, as is a critic’s prerogative. It’s that he doesn’t like all movies. Simmering in his own bile, year after year, he has become further and further removed from the simple joyful experience of movie-watching, which, ironically, probably attracted him to the job in the first place. The best critics keep that joy alive, while the worst let their cynicism twist them beyond any recognizable connection to the experience of a general audience in a movie theater.
Turan sees himself as the high priest of some arcane art form that is far too refined for the average individual to possibly appreciate. He writes as if the insensitive masses must be constantly corrected, like little children who do not have the sense or experience to know what is good for them without the critic’s patient instruction. This is paternalism and elitism in its worst form, and utterly insults the movie audience, which is theoretically his constituency.
Turan says I write “lowest common denominator screenplays that condescend to their audience.” The condescending one here is Turan, who is insulting the majority of the filmgoing public by telling them that they shouldn’t like what they like.
“Titanic” is not a film that is sucking people in with flashy hype and spitting them out onto the street feeling let down and ripped off. They are returning again and again to repeat an experience that is taking a 3-hour and 14-minute chunk out of their lives, and dragging others with them, so they can share the emotion. Parents are taking their kids, adults are taking their parents. People from 8 to 80 (literally) are connecting with this film. After 14 weeks in release, “Titanic” is still No. 1 in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan, Mexico, Australia, the U.K. and almost every other country in which it is playing. Audiences around the world are celebrating their own essential humanity by going into a dark room and crying together.
The script for “Titanic” is earnest and straightforward, wearing its heart on its sleeve. It intentionally incorporates universals of human experience and emotion that are timeless--and familiar because they reflect our basic emotional fabric. By dealing in archetypes, the film touches people in all cultures and of all ages. Is this pandering? Or is it communicating? Turan mistakes archetype for cliche. I don’t share his view that the best scripts are only the ones that explore the perimeter of human experience, or flashily pirouette their witty and cynical dialogue for our admiration.
He says that “Cameron is not someone to be trusted anywhere near a word processor” and calls the “Titanic” screenplay “the worst script ever written,” carrying on as if this is an accepted fact, a “given” upon which all his further arguments are then built. He conveniently ignores the fact that the Writers Guild of America voted “Titanic” one of the five best original scripts of the year with its nomination for best screenplay written directly for the screen. There is no more critical and discerning body in the world when it comes to screenwriting. But in Turan’s private reality, the vast majority of the worldwide audience and the majority of Hollywood screenwriters are wrong, and only he is right.
Turan’s critical sensibility is the worst kind of ego-driven elitism. The illustration accompanying the article says it all. One tiny figure trying vainly to stop the juggernaut. But is that any sane person’s definition of the role of the critic--to stand alone in complete opposition to the tide of popular taste?
Poor Kenny. He sees himself as the lone voice crying in the wilderness, righteous but not heeded by the blind and dumb “great unwashed” around him. It must be a great burden to be cursed with such clear vision when your misguided flock bray past you, like lemmings, unmindful.
Turan has forgotten, if he ever knew, the role of senior film critic for a large urban newspaper. When people spend their hard-earned money on a movie at the end of a long work week, all they ask is that their local critic steer them toward the good ones and help them avoid the turkeys. It’s not too much to ask. And it’s a fairly simple job, once you grasp it. You get to go to a movie first, before anyone else, and then come back and tell everybody about it. You even get to trash it if you didn’t like it. What you don’t get to do is grind on and on, month after month, after the audience has rendered its verdict in the most resounding of terms, telling everybody why the filmgoers are wrong and you are right.
Nobody’s interested in the vitriolic ravings of a bitter man who attacks and rips apart movies that the great majority of viewers find well worth their time and money. Turan has lost touch with the joys of film viewing as most people would define it. He has lost touch, therefore, with his readership, and no longer serves a useful purpose.
When critics like Roger Ebert or Janet Maslin talk about film, they demonstrate a deep knowledge of and respect for their subject, a respect for filmmakers regardless of the specific blunders made on a particular film, and a genuine unwavering joy at the magic of cinema. Even when they don’t like something of mine, I respect the source. They make me want to try harder.
Give us a critic who actually likes movies. Give us a critic who has at least some slight understanding of the toil and energy, the hopes and dreams that go into a movie, any movie. Give us a critic who shows respect for our chosen art, and whom we can respect in turn. And give us one who respects the paying audiences who look to him or her for guidance, not for lectures on how stupid they are for liking what they like.
Forget about Clinton--how do we impeach Kenneth Turan?