Everybody’s a Critic of the Critics’ Rabid Critics / The Film Culture Of the Internet

IF I had to issue a one-sentence manifesto for film criticism, it would be this: Any movie worth seeing is worth arguing about, and any movie worth arguing about is worth seeing.
But nothing is ever that simple, as demonstrated by “Inception,” a movie that makes a show of complicating everything in its path. In case you have been sleeping through some other movie, or pursuing dreams of your own, “Inception” is the new film from Christopher Nolan (director of “The Dark Knight” and “Memento,” among others), in which Leonardo DiCaprio, playing an unlicensed plumber of the subconscious named Dom Cobb, frets and fights his way through various dreamscapes, the number and nature of which is very much in dispute.

Depending on how you interpret certain key images and motifs, there are either three or four levels of dreaming explored by Cobb and his crew. Much else that happens within the film’s packed and hectic 148 minutes — which in third-level dream time is at least a month, and which for some deep slumberers may last forever, or at least feel that way — has occasioned intense and contentious
speculation on the Internet. The discourse is marked by the ritualistic incantation of two words that may at this point be redundant: spoiler alert.
TLDR article ahead. but very much worth reading.

So consider yourself warned. But, in the manner of the movie itself, which seems to begin in an uncanny present only to jump abruptly backward in time, let’s cut to a flashback, the kind that in a more literal-minded movie would be established by the words “three weeks earlier.” Remember? It was a more innocent time, when families were flocking to “Toy Story 3.” Back then all that was known of “Inception” was that it was, after months of elliptical “teaser” advertisements and trailers, arriving soon in theaters.

Well, maybe a little more than that; the cast and pedigree of “Inception” granted it a special, almost official status as the most anticipated movie of the summer of 2010. Mr. Nolan, after all, was responsible for “The Dark Knight,” the most widely viewed, intensely debated, passionately embraced movie of the summer of 2008, and the spell that the movie cast over that season has
proven remarkably durable. People are still fighting about its stature and its allegorical meanings.

Mr. DiCaprio, meanwhile, starred in the surprise cinematic conversation piece of last winter, Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” which shows an interesting thematic kinship with “Inception.” In both films Mr. DiCaprio plays a troubled professional with a shaky grip on reality and an unresolved, guilt-tinged relationship with his vanished and beloved wife.

“Shutter Island” divided critics — some said classic, others junk — and engaged audiences with its lurid period atmosphere and its rug-pulling final plot twist. It also, serendipitously, set the table for “Inception” by rehearsing some important terms of debate: Do certain directors inspire unreflecting loyalty from both professional critics and passionate movie fans? Does the
perception of this kind of bias plant seeds of skepticism that blossom into overstated negativer eactions? What role does expectation (or hype, if you prefer) play in the audience’s experience of a movie?

As soon as the July Fourth weekend was over, these questions began to swirl around “Inception.” Warner Brothers, having screened the movie for select journalists the previous Friday, relaxed its embargo — the standard, routinely flouted prohibition on publishing reviews before opening day — and a burst of raves went up all over the Internet. The name of Stanley Kubrick was duly invoked, and the word “masterpiece” sounded like a trumpet through the blogosphere. The early score on Rottentomatoes.com was a perfect 100.

But then a second round of notices tarnished that luster. David Edelstein of New York magazine, Stephanie Zacharek of Movieline.com and Armond White, the reliably oppositional critic at The New York Press, published pans that ranged from frustrated to weary to vitriolic, decrying the rush to inscribe “Inception” in the pantheon of cinematic greatness. For their efforts these and other
similarly unimpressed writers were treated like advocates for national health care at a Tea Party rally, their motives, their professionalism, their morals and their sanity questioned, and not always politely.
What seemed to provoke the most ire was that these critics had shown the temerity to mention what other critics had written, and to respond to the aggressive marketing and the early effusions.

The next stage involved a series of commentaries reflecting on these earlier phases, and wondering what it all said about the state of criticism in (oh, my) the age of the Internet. The rage of the movie’s defenders was a particular cause of dismay, since their intemperate howling seemed to attack the very basis of civilized discussion and to impart a personal, emotional tone to
the whole debate. How dare you not like what I like?
How dare you cast doubt on my reasons for liking it? Shut up and let me watch the movie — which I am sure I will love even though I haven’t seen it yet!

Thoughtful scribblers like Dennis Cozzalio (of the excellent blog “Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule”), Jim Emerson (of the excellent blog “Scanners”) and Roger Ebert warned against this kind of ranting, pausing to muse on the nature of taste, the ubiquity of marketing, and the difficult balance between passion and dispassion that all good criticism requires.

Then an amazing thing happened, a twist in the narrative that, in retrospect, everyone should have seen coming all along. The movie opened. That’s right: everything I have just described — the feverish embrace of “Inception,” the hostile rejection, the angry defenses, the commentary and the metacommentary — unspooled, for the most part, before a ticket had been torn or a kernel of
popcorn consumed.

What was left to discuss? As it happens, plenty. My own review, published in the print edition of The New York Times on opening day, having gone up on the Web site the previous afternoon, landed in the middle ground, which is where quite a few of the notices published at that point in the cycle ended up. I was neither as bowled over as, for example, Devin Faraci at CHUD, nor as exasperated as Mr. Edelstein, though in a way I envied the strength and clarity of both of their responses. Love and contempt have antithetical satisfactions that ambivalence — admiration tinged with disappointment, irritation leavened by delight — simply do not. I wondered too if my perspective had been formed inadvertently by knowledge of theirs. I had not read any reviews closely, but by the time I saw "Inception” I was aware — by virtue of having eyes, a brain and a Twitter feed —of how its reception (or prereception) had played out.

So maybe I was subconsciously splitting the difference. Or maybe — like the Nolanistas and anti-Nolanistas who had come before — I was just trying to give an honest account of what I had seen. In the end I don’t believe that the smitten first responders were simply bedazzled by hype, nor that the second-wave skeptics were merely being contrarian. Just as critics need to operate in good faith, so should consumers of criticism proceed from the assumption of good faith. We may be wrong, but we tend to say what we mean. It’s a responsibility of the job, as well as one of the perks.

Nonetheless, over the first weekend of the release of “Inception,” I braced myself for brickbats for both sides. Either I had been suckered by the Hollywood publicity machine, or else I was blind to the visionary genius of a great artist. And some e-mail messages and comments on the Web site did express those views with varying degrees of eloquence and coherence. But for the most part the conversation had shifted away from the criticism of criticism toward other, more relevant matters. What did the last shot mean? Is Cobb still in a dream at the end? Whose dream is it? What’s going on?

What is odd about these questions, which shrewdly invite a second viewing, is that they seem to come at the end of the argument about “Inception” rather than at the beginning. Film culture on the Internet does not only speed up the story of a movie’s absorption of a movie into the cultural bloodstream but also reverses the sequence. Maybe my memory is fuzzy, or maybe I’m dreaming, but I
think it used to be that “masterpiece” was the last word, the end of the discussion, rather than the starting point.

But in this case we end up with where we should have started, wondering what the movie is about, what it means, puzzling over symbols and plot points. It’s almost as if we’re all in a movie that’s running backward, like “Memento.” Which was totally overrated. Unless it was a masterpiece. I’m going to have to see it again.