A Critical Dismissal, by Tyler Smith
In a recent National Review article, film critic Kyle Smith discussed Tamara Jenkins’ new film Private Life, starring Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti. The film depicts the frustration of infertility, as a married couple tries unsuccessfully to get pregnant. Smith’s review of the film ultimately boils down to marketability. Smith cannot, for the life of him, imagine who would ever want to see such a film as this. He suggests that those who have struggled with infertility themselves would have no desire to see their misery depicted on screen, while those that haven’t dealt with such things would likely also have little interest in the subject, ultimately concluding that this just isn’t the kind of film that people want.
I found a similar attitude in a panel on Fox News, as commentator Greg Gutfeld discussed Michael Moore’s latest documentary, Fahrenheit 11/9. As Gutfeld observed the box office failure of Moore’s film, he noted that the average person isn’t interested in seeing movies like that. Instead, he suggests, people just go to the movies for escapism.
While I’m more inclined to forgive Gutfeld, who has never claimed to be an academic and whose job is to heighten his opinions for humor, I find Kyle Smith’s dismissal of Private Life deeply frustrating. It is perfectly acceptable – maybe even admirable – for a critic to openly admit when a film just isn’t for them (“Frustration is not an emotion I seek when I go to the movies”), but Smith falls into what is a fairly standard trap for conservatives discussing the arts: he assumes that his own traditional sensibilities are universal and will coincide more with those of the mainstream audience, based on the assertion that liberal Hollywood is out of touch with the average person.
Granted, he is probably right. Private Life is likely not going to shatter any box office records. But, then, it probably wasn’t meant to. Nothing about this film was intended to appeal to the masses. Instead, it was a deeply personal project that only a smaller audience will choose to engage with.
Because this subject matter is very specific, heartbreakingly so. Infertility can feel extremely isolating, especially when one is surrounded by doting parents. The Facebook videos, the constant updates, the eagerness with which they reach into their pocket to fish out their phone, bursting with up-to-the-minute photos; all of this is both completely understandable, and equally alienating. It all works to confirm that something is indeed wrong with those that are unable to conceive.
Perhaps this is why Tamara Jenkins chose to make Private Life in the first place. Smith notes in his article that Jenkins herself struggled with infertility, and is speaking from a place of personal sadness. That Smith can acknowledge this and still dismiss the film as self indulgent – rather than therapeutic – is astonishing, and flies in the face of what a good critic is supposed to do.
He is suggesting – albeit in a roundabout way – that some subjects just don’t belong in film, further stigmatizing an already under-discussed subject. If art is all about communication, then Smith is ultimately saying that anybody that has dealt with infertility should just shut up, because their circumstances are just too depressing.
I do wonder, however, exactly where that line is drawn. There have been movies about divorce, loss, and unemployment, just to name some of the more mundane tragedies. We’ve also seen countless films about rape, war, and genocide. These are not happy subjects, but I rarely hear critical objections to the impulse to discuss them artistically.
Similarly, the 2014 Clint Eastwood film American Sniper was a surprise hit, and it is most certainly not the escapist fair that Gutfeld would suggest normal people are interested in. Instead, it is a harrowing story with a tragic end; one that doesn’t contain a great deal of hope for the audience. Not only were conservative commentators perfectly accepting of this film’s existence, but they were downright celebratory of it.
There were no escapist elements to this story, and the inherent tension – combined with the audience’s knowledge of the inevitable conclusion – keeps it from being a conventional “good time” at the movies. And yet my fellow conservatives never suggested that this was not a story worth telling, nor did they scoff at Eastwood’s desire to tell him.
But there is a certain nobility in war that seems to excuse whatever fatalism might come with the depiction of it. And this nobility apparently can’t be found in the more day-to-day struggles of average people. While a stoic warrior struck down in his prime is a story we can all get behind, where is the glory in a couple’s tedious, heartbreaking attempts to conceive? What can we glean from these smaller, more common stories?
There is no concrete answer to these questions, and perhaps that’s the problem for commentators like Kyle Smith. And Greg Gutfeld. And others like Matt Walsh, who dismissed the 2016 film Manchester by the Sea because he thought the main character – who lost all three of his children in one tragic evening – was too much of a sad sack. Every year we see lower budget domestic dramas that deal in the quiet sadness of life. We are invited into the lives of unremarkable people and asked to find the inner strength required to carry on while being deprived of what so many of us take for granted.
These films seldom contain the grand gestures that so many of my fellow conservatives seem to require in their art, allowing them to find what they consider to be reasonable grounds for dismissal, all while attempting to speak for the average person, who just doesn’t want to see such things.
And while it may be more acceptable to mock the films of Michael Moore as being out of touch with the mainstream audience – despite previous box office success – because they are inherently politically polarizing, the instinct to speak on behalf of the average moviegoer is a dangerous one. Because it carries with it an innate suspicion of “the elites” in Hollywood, whose own instincts keep them at a distance from middle America. And when a critic leads with this kind of suspicion, then he winds up in Kyle Smith territory, so accustomed to casting doubt on the motivations of Hollywood filmmakers that he accidentally winds up suggesting that some stories just aren’t worth telling.
And to delegitimize a director’s artistic instincts out of a knee-jerk desire to score political and cultural points is to undercut the purpose of criticism. If, as Roger Ebert once said, film is “a machine that generates empathy”, then it is a critic’s job to try to tap into that empathy, rather than stand at a remove and wonder where exactly this story fits into the larger cultural picture. Our role is to assess the effectiveness of a work of art, which often means exposing ourselves to as many voices as we can. Appropriately, we should also be open to whatever an artist chooses to explore, understanding that, if done right, anything can be cinematic and that even the smallest, most specific stories can have an incredible emotional impact, if we allow them to.