I am kind of (not) amazed that the New York Post’s Kyle Smith nearly killed himself trashing (as would be expected from the right wing critic) Jon Stewart’s Rosewater. Several films this year, and every year in the modern age of the Yelpification of film critics, will hopefully bypass the so-called critics and head straight to the people. Rosewater is one of those. Go out in the world and talk to people. Some will say, “Oh, I really want to see Rosewater.” And others might say “I read some reviews of Rosewater, should I skip it?” The answer to that question is yes, by all means skip it because then you can buy another Starbucks while sending the message to Hollywood that you really don’t want more movies like this one, more movies about topics that matter, and more movies made by Jon Stewart. I, for one, do. I want to support movies that make a difference in the lives of ordinary people.
Throughout the year, we wait for the so-called critics to anoint films for the Oscar race. The pile shrinks as the particular tastes of the critics (mostly 30-something white, mostly male) thumbs up or thumbs down that which they are privileged enough to do. Rosewater is going to mean a lot less to someone like that than it does to someone like me who didn’t know the story before, had no idea what happened to journalists in Iran and more importantly, the film’s overall message is worth sending, knowing, repeating: freedom of speech matters, whether you’re a kid holding a video camera or Jon Stewart lampooning fascists.
The people I know in the real world will appreciate Rosewater, I can tell you with certainty, probably more than they’ll appreciate the films the critics unanimously anoint. I hear complaints every year about the Oscar movies and how unwatchable they are. I think they’re pretty great but it’s also clear to me that something has gotten lost along the way. The movies selected are no longer movies for audiences, by and large. The Oscar brand still matters and it will continue to draw eyeballs and boost box office but there has to be room for films like Rosewater, Fury, The Judge that are making money but aren’t getting any Oscar buzz. Movies are, last time I checked, made mostly for audiences, right?
For the most part, critics are mixed on Rosewater — some love it (Stephanie Zacharek), others don’t (Kenneth Turan). Mostly the reviews are that the film is too easy, too simple in its message. What that means to me is that Stewart never intended to make a film for critics – he wanted people from all over the world to see the movie. There are very few films I feel confident recommending to people who aren’t critics – Rosewater is one of those. Eleanor Rigby is another. There are hopefully those discussions still happening, though admittedly most people I know are talking about TV.
Having just watched the extraordinary Olive Kitteridge on HBO, starring Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins I wondered, why couldn’t that have been made into a movie? Well, we know why. For one, television doesn’t have to pass that initial test of critics — now numbering roughly 200 plus – that is what I mean by the Yelpification of critics. Rosewater on television would have been a much better fit probably because then everyone could see it and it wouldn’t have to run the gauntlet of what film criticism has become.
Note how television only matters by how many people watch and keep watching. Criticism has nothing to do with the success or failure of programming. The success of the shows determine the awards — success usually means popularity mixed with admiration by critics. Such is no longer the case with the film community. The people now have very little to do with determining the success or failure of films when it comes to awards. I feel partly responsible for this devolution by trying too hard to focus on critical acclaim rather than box office success. I think there has to be a little bit of both, because films aren’t made for critics.
In the end, I admire what Jon Stewart was doing with Rosewater. I was greatly moved by the story and I think many people will be, unless of course, they hate Stewart already from the Daily Show.