I have often complained about the state of film criticism in these bizarre modern times where there is fear everywhere. Fear to say what you REALLY think, fear to be called an “ist” of some sort and have your entire career and reputation ruined as a result. Fear to be labeled a “white guy” which is honestly just as bad. The idea that more women and people of color will mean the reviews will HAVE to be different because once we remove the offending unclean things we will have people who can REALLY see what is good and bad. Even if there are shades of truth in this overall ideology — there is nothing wrong with diversifying viewpoints — the idea that criticism must be policed for compliance and conformity has mostly ruined film criticism.
But today, shockingly, the National Society of Film Critics (aka the NSFC) has taken a stand against Variety’s absurd decision to apologize for an observation made in a review of Promising Young Woman, which commented on how Carey Mulligan looked. She took offense to that, and said so in a New York Times column. She had a right to voice her objection, as the critic had the right to make that observation.
Try telling that to the overly coddled Lord of the Flies on Twitter who were calling for the film critics’ ouster. Literally calling for him to be fired. They assumed, wrongly, that he was your typical straight white male complaining that she wasn’t pretty enough. In fact, as he says in this Guardian interview, he is a 60-ish gay male.
Here is their statement:
A STATEMENT FROM THE NATIONAL SOCIETY OF FILM CRITICS REGARDING VARIETY’S APOLOGY FOR ITS PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN REVIEW
Feb. 9, 2021 — We, the members of the National Society of Film Critics, wish to register our alarm at Variety’s shabby treatment of our colleague Dennis Harvey.
On Jan. 26, 2020, Variety published Harvey’s review of the movie Promising Young Woman from the Sundance Film Festival. (Full disclosure: The review was edited by Peter Debruge, Variety’s chief film critic and a member of the NSFC.) While praising the film, Harvey wrote that Carey Mulligan, “a fine actress, seems a bit of an odd choice” as the movie’s “many-layered apparent femme fatale” protagonist, noting distancing aspects of the character’s costuming, hairstyling and vocal delivery. He went on to praise Mulligan’s performance as “skillful, entertaining and challenging, even when the eccentric method obscures the precise message.”
On Dec. 24, 2020, almost a year later and in the thick of awards season, Mulligan noted her objections to Harvey’s review in a New York Times profile: “It felt like it was basically saying that I wasn’t hot enough to pull off this kind of ruse.”
Mulligan, like any artist, is within her rights to respond to criticism of her work, just as we are within our rights to assert that nothing in Harvey’s review — which focuses on the actor’s stylized presentation, not her attractiveness — supports her claim. But differences of opinion in the evaluation of a film or a performance are not at issue here. What concerns us is Variety’s subsequent decision to place an editor’s note at the top of the review: “Variety sincerely apologizes to Carey Mulligan and regrets the insensitive language and insinuation in our review of Promising Young Woman that minimized her daring performance.
If Variety felt the language in Harvey’s review was insensitive and insinuating, it had the option of working with him to fix that in the editing process before it ran. There are also ways Variety could have acknowledged and responded to Mulligan’s criticism, rather than simply capitulating to it and undermining its own critic in the process. The imposition of a subjective value judgment (“her daring performance”) as a flat editorial perspective, as if it were a matter of inarguable fact rather than opinion, is particularly inappropriate. We believe the editor’s note should be removed.
Like any journalism, film criticism often displeases those being written about. And, like any journalists, film critics must have the support of their publications when that displeasure, usually coming from people far more powerful than any journalist, is made known — especially when that publication claims to report on the industry those powerful people inhabit. It is appalling that, in this instance, Variety chose to side with that power rather than supporting its writer.
I am not sure what value film criticism even has if it is there to merely pander to and to coddle those too fragile to handle, you know, concepts that might be somewhat challenging. This compliance and conformity to a strict standard has no place in art, and certainly no place in film criticism. Calling for this critic to be fired for “offending” one person and therefore all of Twitter is beyond ridiculous.
My first thought about Mulligan, by the way, was that she was TOO PRETTY for the part. Her looks should not matter either way, as the movie is about men who take advantage of women who are too drunk to walk, talk or drive. In these situations, I can promise you, how they look is beside the point.
Bravo to the NSFC. Stop apologizing. Start speaking out. It is the only way out of this mess, as the alternative is intolerable.