When the Critic Met the Star: A Movieline Ethics Seminar

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LAT critic Kenneth Turan offered an interesting piece on Sunday addressing one of the dirty little secrets of film criticism and journalism in general: Conflicts of interest when it comes to covering the work of "people I know well." The occasion was the upcoming L.A. release of The Exploding Girl, which Turan wanted to support based on the lead performance of Zoe Kazan -- the daughter of Hollywood lifers (and Turan pals) Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord. "I haven't just seen all of Zoe's film work and much of what she's done on stage," Turan wrote. "[I]f I had to I could comment knowledgeably on her key role in the Windward High School production of Little Shop of Horrors." And self-imposed rules and basic journalistic ethics be damned, he's going to review her indie breakthrough anyway. I think I have a problem with this.

Look, every critic and/or reporter deals with this kind of situation at some point. Some more obsequious types (you know who you are) literally trade on their relationships with talent and creatives, who themselves often attempt to leverage whatever relationships they can exploit to boost visibility and buzz. This has been happening -- and will continue to happen -- forever. Parasites will be parasites.

Yet it's odd to see Turan so conspicuously acknowledge it in the Times, particularly when his readers are sophisticated enough to know as much (and even participate in it) and particularly when print media have long lorded their professional scruples over the Web. I take it to mean a few things: He's out of touch with his audience, and he may be in that stage of his career where he just doesn't give a crap what you or I think of his self-admitted lapses. But I'm especially taken with the canny calculation of it all -- Turan clearly would rather get blamed for carrying Kazan's water today than called out for hiding their lifelong relationship after a glowing review. In fact, he even argues that their association makes him perhaps even more qualified to review Exploding Girl:

Watching Zoe's beautifully modulated work as the shy, quiet 20-year-old Ivy made me feel that knowing her was an advantage in this case because it gave me additional insight into how good a performance this is. Since what she does plays out with perfect naturalness, it would be tempting to hypothesize that, after all those other, busier movies, Zoe at last has the chance to be herself. Except that knowing her makes it unmistakable that this is nothing of the kind, that this is the kind of highly controlled, delicate work that is some of the hardest kind of acting to pull off.

On the one hand, at least Turan has the balls to come out and say what virtually every other film critic/journalist secretly does to varying degrees. On the other, you just know he'd never call a friend out for phoning in a performance or taking a Paycheck Role or having poor chemistry with his/her co-star. He wants to support Girl on an "objective" basis, but he also wants to express an extra level of personal resonance to which 99 percent of readers are incapable of relating. Well, which is it? Like, how's this for full disclosure: I avoided covering The Exploding Girl not because I'm casually acquainted with director Bradley Rust Gray and his wife/collaborator So Yong Kim, but because it bored me to death, and as a small indie, it doesn't need the bad press. But I'm not going to tell you that Brad and So Yong are awesome and never mind because none of this has any reflection on them. Of course it has no reflection on them. It's just one movie, nothing personal.

That said, L'Affaire Turan raises significant questions about just how close film journalists should allow themselves to be to the talent they cover. For example, it's bad enough to go to a junket and face the autograph- and photo-seeking sycophantic scourge head-on, but at least that behavior ultimately suggests a distance -- several degrees of removal, thank God -- from the objects of their affection. The privilege of access means something. By extension, that removal means even more: It's the only true route to objectivity, despite Turan's crafty hints to the contrary. Take away the access entirely, either by choice or by PR fiat, and a sort of environmental purity does influence the work that comes out of it. Call it a bubble or whatever, but its results are almost always more beneficial to the writer, the subject and, most importantly, the readers we're all doing this for in the first place. After all, there's a reason why Ben Lyons is Ben Lyons and Manohla Dargis is Manohla Dargis; their critical faculties are only part of it.

I would toss a modest proposal in here pledging a clean break between reporters/critics and actors, but that's not realistic. But I have to wonder if it's just me, or did Turan break more than his own self-imposed rule against covering the work of friends? It seems kind of epically misguided, not least of all to couch it in this context of, "I know this is wrong, but is it really?" Yes, Ken. Your first impression is usually correct, and if you spend more time rationalizing the ethics of the act you set out to do in the first place, then you are in all likelihood doing something wrong. Maybe I'm old-fashioned? Do readers even care? All I really know is that this kind of thing makes me want to never leave the house again, just to make it even.

· Film Critic's Notebook: When an actor is also a friend [LAT]



Comments

  • Alan Smithee says:

    Is this ethical debate not out of date considering the rather ludicrous situation of a certain recent war film based in Iraq. Critics applauded it but it was derided by the military and fans for its absurdity and patronising of the audience.
    It seems to be the case that critics often regard themselves as 'experts', as with any art field, but as with all art, it only appeals to the beholder. Which is why I, like many, questioned the integrity of not only the Academy Awards but those critics who were writing in support of a fellow journalist.
    Who wrote a dreadfully bad script.
    With appallingly bad direction.
    Resulting in one of the worst films ever made.
    The fact this certain war film has one of the lowest viewing records (and falling) of recent big releases, must surely say what most people feel about it: it was decidedly average. For it to receive the interstellar critique it has has made a number of people ask what film it was we were watching; as the lauded opinions bared no resemblance to the turgidity on-screen.
    Which makes it all blindingly obvious that there is no neutrality in the entertainment industry. I know this as a well-connected friend once offered me a leg-up and I refused. I would much rather work in an industry knowing I got there under my own steam and not simply because my mates voted for me.
    Or I was ironically the ex of the recipient of the most Oscars.
    And a woman.
    Imagine if she'd have been black! That WOULD have been a statement of neutrality. Almost like giving out posthumous awards...

  • Alan Smithee's Brother says:

    Wha???? Mainstream newspaper critics have ethics? I point you to your Holy Grail of movie criticism, Mister Roger Ebert and his incendiary leftist politics twittering and his slavish devotion to all movies with leftist agendas, ala the recent Green Zone. Good day, sir.

  • Alan Smithee's Aunt says:

    The idea that journalistic solidarity was responsible for all of the praise that "The Hurt Locker" received makes me laugh and laugh. Why exclude journalists from all other professions that would resent the vault into Hollywood success of one of their own?
    Otherwise, Stu, I'd wondered the same thing with Hoberman's take on "Momma's Man" in 2008, though in the end I found I didn't mind it. He does manage more with his connection to the Jacobs than Turan's "I assure you, she's acting!" bit, though.
    http://www.villagevoice.com/2008-08-19/film/childhood-in-momma-s-man-struggles-with-daddy-issues-in-hamlet-2/

  • bess marvin, girl detective says:

    You had me until you tried to tell me that "The Hurt Locker" is clearly a bad movie because of its box office numbers. What does that make 'Transformers: ROTF?" Citizen Kane?

  • I forgot about Hoberman. Excellent point, thanks...

  • sweetbiscuit says:

    Trust me, you should have taken the leg up.

  • Tara says:

    Readers don't care, unfortunately.
    Didn't Turan get laid off?

  • Alan Smithee Observer says:

    I'm serious doubt if he is writing about "Green Zone" or "The Hurt Locker". The "ex woman" reference is pretty clear; but "Hurt" never had a big release

  • alan smithee once more says:

    Forgive me, I seem to have caused a lot of confusion. I was indeed referring to Point Break 2: The Ineptitude Of A Director In Portraying Men As Anything Other Than 2-Dimensional Flouncing Ponces.
    And you are right, Obs., it never had a massive release but from where I come from there was word-of-mouthage desperately hoping it was going to be a sleeper.
    And no offence, sister of my mother, but I've yet to find compelling evidence of anyone other than a journalist regarding it as anything other than a weak stab at a right-on A-Team.

  • alan smithee (leaving quietly before...) says:

    And yes, Bess Marvin, Funky 'Tec. I agree viewing figures was a weak argument. I'm just glad you didn't lump in Shawshank either. The fact it's grossed even less is something I was hoping no-one would bring up...
    damn, blast...
    I like you, you were vaguely convinced. Fancy some tea?
    Ok, then: contender for worst film: K9:Widowmaker 2; The Revenge Of Ms. Cameron or It's Complicated (nominating best actor for Steve Martin's incredible eyebrows)

  • alansmithee's underpants says:

    It was more of a leg-over...

  • alan smithee... (sorry) says:

    What I was trying to say was that audiences are wisening up, thankfully. It was an uninspiring, exceptionally poor film. It had a dropkick release and would have gone s-t-v if not for a lot of lobbying. But even that didn't work. The hope the Oscars would boost viewing figures never materialised. Because people know how half-arsed it is.
    That was my point.
    I think...

  • alan smithee (leaving at last) says:

    Sorry Kathryn. I'm sure you're a lovely person. But please don't ever pull a long-shot like the one in the supermarket again.
    Or frame a doctor in a windscreen when you're going to quite obviously blow him up.
    Or have a soldier whimper at a curious gentleman stood in a doorway with a mobile phone a few yards from a bomb.
    Or throw in some pseudo homo-erotic scene mixed with the obligatory 'institutional racism' card.
    Or convince Rafe Fiennes and Guy Pearce that what they're doing is so great they only need to be in for a couple of minutes before they die, thus guaranteeing them a slate on the cinema door to entice in viewers and then conning said viewers into thinking there's quality instead of Jeremy Renner in 28 Months Later.
    Or having said Guy Pearce tell his operatives what happens when a bomb goes off (that was brilliant that bit - laughed my arse off it was bad!)
    Damn, run out of space. Bye!

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