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Aug 102017
 

By Harvey Blume

Kathryn Bigelow. Photo: David Shankbone

Director Kathryn Bigelow — a unique talent for immediacy, Photo: David Shankbone

I have no doubt that Kathryn Bigelow is entitled to make Detroit. Or that Dana Schutz is entitled to paint Emmett Till, lying, after being tortured and murdered, in his casket. Or that Shakespeare was entitled to write Shylock (Stephen Greenblatt’s marvelous revisiting of that play in a recent New Yorker demands to be read.) Or that Walter Mosley could create believable Jewish characters. Or that Jonathan Lethem could create credible and interesting black ones. Or that male novelists can write about women, and vice versa.

Such efforts are not always successes, to be sure, but the same should be said of any work of art in any genre. To argue otherwise — to credit the powers of censorship — is a huge step back.

I’d rather censor the censors.

Still, I’m not going to see Detroit and that’s because I’m sure it will have the virtues of Kathryn Bigelow’s other films and the corresponding flaws. The virtues are especially evident in her Iraq movies — Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker. Bigelow has a unique talent for immediacy, for confronting viewers with the power of the present. Hence her deserved reputation as a director of action movies. I know of none better. But all that immediacy, as she deploys it, squeezes out the last possibility of thought.

What did her characters think of our involvement in Iraq? She doesn’t allow them to think. What are her views? No room for that. No room for any ruminations about history, either.

I can imagine how her talent will play out in Detroit, and therefore decline to see it. It will all too predictably be the adrenaline rush of Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker playing out on the canvas of police brutality, racism, and a race riot. Her power to address the senses intensely, the here and now, will as usual, leave the brain stymied. That style may be perfect for Point Break, her surfer movie, or Near Dark, a vampire film, but I’d like to keep the brain attached when it comes to the story of the Detroit riot.

Bigelow had the right to make this movie, no doubt. To even debate this question is a critical red herring. But I too have the right, as a critic and consumer, to spare myself what I have good reason to think will be an intensely unsatisfying experience.


Harvey Blume is an author—Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo—who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, The American Prospect, and The Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to The Arts Fuse, and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.


Editor’s Note: I wrestled with Harvey’s short commentary because it seems to me that an explanation about why a critic is not going to write on something — in this case, a film — without having seen it should not be encouraged. (Particularly in the know-nothing Age of Trump.) Do we really care why a critic didn’t bother to take in a book, film, play, etc? Isn’t there something self-indulgent about the exercise? There is an important exception: a critic’s act of refusal can be used to advance a provocative argument. For example,  Arlene Croce’s detailed explanation in the New Yorker of why she wasn’t going to review Bill T. Jones’ AIDS play Still/Here. She made the case that Jones’ production was Victim Art: the show was just about making a safe political point. There was no need for arts criticism of what amounted to a PSA. A firestorm of comment followed — all to the good.

Harvey is not accepting that kind of intellectual challenge in this piece. Still, I am interested in what readers think. So I have posted it.

– Bill Marx

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  7 Responses to “Commentary — “Detroit” & Critical Red Herrings”

Comments (7)
  1. I wrote the review. My response –

    Two things I wouldn’t argue with: as a consumer, you can always spare yourself, and Bigelow is confrontational.

    I was concerned about the director’s aggressive style and this topic when I went to review the film. I was not a fan of Strange Days. I wouldn’t try to talk you into seeing it, but here are some thoughts:

    After writing my review, I read and saw some interviews with Bigelow and with a few of the film’s subjects. No one has mentioned having felt exploited and Bigelow’s motives sound sincere.

    I got the book, Algiers Motel Incident (I incorrectly wrote “Hotel” in the initial review) the facts are equally disturbing. I read a critique of that book in the Harvard Crimson for 1968 that said, “It deserves a better treatment than this book gives it.” (http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1968/7/12/the-algiers-motel-pbsbhortly-after-midnight/)

    The weekend my review came out my wife (who is white) coincidentally went to an all-black wedding in Detroit. She was in the hotel elevator when the door opened for a black family and two little girls looked at her and stepped back as if from fear. She said ‘Please, it’s OK. Come in”

    Later a guest at the wedding mentioned to my wife that he believes conditions (including Flint) are so bad that through negligence the system is trying to kill off a generation of African-Americans to get a fresh start.

    That is an extreme opinion, but having heard these things and having just seen the film, Detroit seems not to have healed in 50 years. The black folks in the area are suffering and distrustful. The problem is nation wide.

    Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq was earnest but difficult for a mainstream audience. Moonlight was widely seen but was about gender and race. Loving, Twelve Years a Slave, and Singleton’s Rosewood were distanced by history. Get Out used comedy to talk about racial identity. Hopefully, Whose Streets?, which is about the Ferguson uprising will open in Boston. I admire Detroit‘s unsparing confrontation.

    I saw a screening of Detroit with a largely black audience and kids who had been background extras (for scenes shot around Boston). There were gasps. The audience was shocked as one would expect. The kids I spoke to afterward were glad that story was being told and that they had been a part of the telling.

    Sounds like the start of a worthwhile conversation.

  2. Seems as if the critic has the freedom to see a film or not. What I find objectionable is the assumptions he makes, based on Bigelow’s past work, that he won’t like this film for the same reasons. If he really objects to what he calls too much “immediacy,” he should address that after seeing the work. Without that, his views have no credibility. See it and comment, don’t see it and don’t comment, unless extraordinary exceptions apply, none of which springs to mind.

  3. Bill, the truth is I’m awaiting “intellectual challenge” to my short piece but don’t feel I’m getting anything close, at least from you.

    My first point was that all the attention given to the issue of “cultural appropriation” these days has the effect of distracting attention from the work itself, whether paintings by Dana Schutz or a film by Kathryn Bigelow. Therefore I called the furor around “cultural appropriation” a critical red herring.

    I then went on to say why, for reasons that have nothing to with the above, I’d prefer not to see Kathyrn Bigelow’s Detroit. I said I’m a longtime fan of her work and also very aware of its downside. The downside is that the power she puts into her narratives leaves can suck out any chance for thought.

    I simply didn’t want Detroit to be yet another action movie. I wanted a little more in the way of depth, discussion, character, and I gathered from critics that was not to be had.

    For example, Stuart Kalians (in The Nation):
    Kathryn Bigelow’s instinct for the visceral overflows her chosen subject, making a mess of the themes in her new film Detroit.

    Reviews posted by other critics dovetailed to the same thing. After at first looking forward to a new movie by Bigelow, I began foreseeing the opposite: I saw myself in a seat at the local theater being pummeled by the violence on screen, and thinking, all the time, can I stand it, what does it tell me, when will it end, should I walk out?

    It may be that posting reasons for not seeing a film is a genre of criticism that ought to be more openly explored. Here are ten movies I won’t be seeing this week. Here are big art openings I’ll be staying away from at all costs, and why. Here are some cultural events I’ll be dodging, and why.

    The above might be more revealing — more direct — than the sarcasm and snark that often fill out assigned reviews of unbearable work. It would certainly be more honest.

    What is intolerably dishonest is for a critic to post a review of a film or art work they haven’t seen, writing as if they had, fooling the reader. I can name at least one high-profile word-slinger guilty of such genuinely scurrilous conduct.

    But I haven’t done that, haven’t fooled the reader. I haven’t deceived.

    • I can’t be too far off the intellectual challenge track because we are not that far apart.

      On the one hand, you argue that the “cultural appropriation” critique doesn’t hold. You drop that point and move onto a more interesting idea – why shouldn’t critics write about their reasons for not seeing a film, book, etc? I agree, which is why I gave an effective example of a critic doing just that – not seeing a performance and explaining why in a way that raised issues about politics and aesthetics. For Croce, the critic has the power to judge what is or isn’t art. It doesn’t matter what the artist says. She believed that, despite what Bill T. Jones intended and other critics believed, his performance piece was just about scoring didactic points. A critic refused to see a performance and created a provocative piece of writing; she generated a firestorm of debate raising the issue of whether Victim Art was ‘art.’

      The onus is on the critic to make his refusal to see something yet write about it compelling. For a writer to argue that his experience of seeing an artist’s pervious work — and reading other reviews — convinced him to sit a particular work out does not clear the bar.

      • For conversation to proceed, let’s please get the guideless clear. The truth is I was never “assigned” to see Detroit, hence did not refuse an assignment. You billed my piece as “Commentary,” which it is. In it I very clearly expressed my admiration for Bigelow’s work while highlighting what I, among others, have found to be a disturbing flaw.

        • You weren’t assigned. It is a commentary. My point remains: to explore what form a substantial commentary/review — about an film, book, etc not seen or read — should take. Croce provides a stimulating model. A critic writing that they are not going to like what they are going to see — though they admire the artist — is not enough.

          • I never denied others might find the work rewarding. And, since I wasn’t penning a review, and hadn’t been assigned to write one, I felt free to write more as a consumer, deciding whether or not to see a movie. I think the reasons I posted for not seeing it are worthy of discussion, which they’ve scarcely received, but I can also see the blurring of lines between being a critic and being a consumer made for confusion. I should have been more clear.

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