Monday, August 18, 2008

Hack For Hire

THERE ONCE WAS A TIME not too very long ago when a critic -- defined in the dictionary as "one who forms and expresses judgments of the merits and faults of anything" -- whatever he happened to be writing about, would offer his unvarnished take on the subject at hand. The critic who wanted to be respected wouldn't care if he had to ruffle a few feathers in the process; he was g
oing to tell you exactly how he felt, because integrity, not popularity, was uppermost in his mind.

For instance, Edgar Allan Poe once dispatched of something that came across his desk with the following succinct conclusion: "The most inestimable piece of balderdash with which the common sense of the good people of America was ever so openly or villainously insulted."

Cut to today, when a certain movie critic's constant over-the-top recommendations, in the form of a gushing blurb, seem to adorn almost every film advertisement. For years now this critic has poured out his love for almost every new film released by the major studios, routinely going overboard when it comes to the most disposable and escapist brand of entertainment fare, setting back the very idea of movie criticism.

In our present, deeply unsatisfying pop culture era, any film critic worth his sense or sensibility, whose opinions are not for sale, would dislike or treat with disdain at least 8 and more likely 9 out of every 10 movies released in a given cycle. But not Peter Travers, who writes for the anachronism that is Rolling Stone magazine. So clueless, so rudderless is Travers that in his writing you can almost hear a plea to be liked, to not be left out of the discussion when it comes to the latest formulaic, marketing-driven, celebrity-promoted vehicle being shoved down the public's throats at any given moment. It's almost absurd that a middle-aged man would publicly admit to falling for the kinds of movies that are relentlessly targeted at kids who are two and even three decades younger, such that the only reasonable explanation would focus on the possibility of some sort of movie industry version of radio payola or "praise for pay"; otherwise one can only conclude, judging strictly by his own printed opinions, that Travers is just such a hapless fool as he appears to be, with the awful taste in movies to match.

What sets Travers apart from your run-of-the-mill movie industry lackey is the sheer volume of films about which he sings his never-faint-or-damning praise. Any day now there should be an Onion feature with the headline: "Comedy Movie Released That Peter Travers Doesn't Find Laugh-Out-Loud, Falling-Down, Mind-Blowingly Hysterical." Until such time, we will have to get by with Travers' own often unintentionally hilarious assertions of critical acclaim.

Let me give you a few examples, chosen randomly from whatever newspapers I have lying here in front of me, before looking a little further into just who this Peter Travers is. If, like me, you've been following Travers' career for any length of time, you know that there is a certain type of teen-oriented flick, aiming for the coveted 14-26-year-old demographic, that Travers soaks up like a pedophile at the playground. No matter how hackneyed, half-baked or unoriginal the treatment, there's a certain type of movie that will have Travers salivating. So it was no surprise that Travers, a priori, would see fit to dole out heaping helpings of praise for something like Pineapple Express, a film that will be totally forgotten in about three years, more likely a lot sooner.

ANOTHER TRADEMARK of Travers' blurbs is that they're almost never about the movie itself, but instead purport to tell prospective viewers the effect the movie will have on them, as if we are all hapless blank slates existing only for the movie industry to write all over our compliant, pliable minds. In any ad for Pineapple, you'll find at the top Travers' name in big letters attached to the blurb that proclaims the movie is "Hardcore hilarious. It slaps a big, fat, goofy smile on your face that lasts for days." Imagine the type of person smiling like a moron for days after seeing a mainstream Hollywood comedy!

Of course, these blurbs are just a few sentences cut out of an entire Travers review, but his reviews are invariably blurb-worthy because he writes in the kinds of simplistic, sound-bite-like cliches that fit nicely on a poster. His reviews are almost never about anything the director is doing technically, for instance, but are instead solely reliant on his likes and dislikes, typically comparing the film in question to two or more previous movies. That's the Travers formula, along with invariably throwing in some youth "jargon" that Travers is at least 10 years too old to have any business using, which makes for a lamentable stew that breeds the following:
"For you to grasp the true essence of Pineapple Express, let me paraphrase the immortal gibberish that issues from the mouth of Franco, who delivers a sidesplitting tour de force as the sweetly profane Saul: This is like if Superbad met Midnight Run and they had a baby and then meanwhile that freaky Quentin Tarantino talk from Pulp Fiction and True Romance met that freaky Judd Apatow TV stuff from Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared and they had a baby, and by some miracle those babies met — and fucked — this would be the funny shit that they birthed."
If you're not utterly mortified by the thought of sharing DNA with this twit Travers, you too are beyond contempt, and would do well to remove yourself with all speed and alacrity to something like the People magazine website, which not uncoincidentally was Travers' former employer. Rolling Stone and People... the fact that Travers intersects both publications tells us an awful lot about the depressing state of the culture and of media. Instead let's alleviate the depression with a few more choice Travers blurbs.

Ben Stiller has made a few watchable movies in his life, and his new one, Tropic Thunder, received mixed reviews even as it breaks records at the box office. The Village Voice hated it, for instance, and found parts of it offensive. Speaking of blurbs, the New York Times critic called it "a flashy, nasty, on-and-off funny and assaultive sendup of the film industry." And Armond White, whose weekly reviews in the New York Press constantly demonstrate his encyclopedic knowledge of film history as well as appreciation of the power of a truly great film, found a lot to like about Ben Stiller's direction of Tropic Thunder and his inside-Hollywood jokes. There are still critics who come to their viewpoints honestly and deliver them with intelligence, and isn't that preferable to wasting time with a lapdog sellout like Travers? I mean, how can you trust someone's opinion on anything if he likes everything? The answer, perhaps, lies in yet another shameless Travers plug:
"Think of all the ways you can hurt yourself laughing, as in fall down, split your sides, bust a gut, blow your mind. You get it all in Tropic Thunder, a knockout of a comedy that keeps you laughing constantly. It's also killer smart, lacing combustible action with explosive gags. Major props to Ben Stiller."
Here we have the quintessential Travers. It's all there: what the movie is going to do to you when you see it (hurt yourself laughing), the tried-and-true movie review cliches (bust a gut, split your sides), the youth slang (killer, props) that is already by its nature passe if someone like Travers has caught on to it. Further in his Rolling Stone review for Tropic Thunder, Travers relates the following in lieu of an actual critique:
"Stiller took flak for the other three movies he's directed: 1994's Reality Bites was allegedly too soft, 1996's The Cable Guy too dark, 2001's Zoolander too airy-fairy. Confession: I liked them all. And I'm nuts about Tropic Thunder, with its dynamite script by Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen." ("I liked them all," he confesses, because Travers sees something to fawn about in almost every movie ever made at any time by anyone.)
Travers then proceeds to demoralize readers even more, if such a thing were possible, suggesting by way of analogy that Tropic Thunder is like "Apocalypse Now as conceived by Borat." He gets paid for these penetrating perceptions? It is Rolling Stone we're talking about here, not exactly the same counterculture periodical where truly groundbreaking work by writers like Hunter Thompson was published. Talk about "long ago in a galaxy far, far away"!

HERE'S AN EXPERIMENT you can try at home: Open up any newspaper you have lying around and turn to the movie section. Your eyes can't help but run across more examples of Travers' ponderous musings. Ah, here we go, an ad for the new Woody Allen movie, Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Everybody seemed to pan the movie, but Travers found something to like about it: "Penelope Cruz is a stunner." Okay, but we knew that already; what does it tell us about the film, Pete?

Same page of last week's Village Voice, an ad for Bottle Shock. Never heard of it, but here's Peter again: "Hugely entertaining! There's magic in it. Rickman is droll, dazzling perfection. Be on the lookout for Bottle Shock. It's a winner." First of all, who the hell talks like that ("droll, dazzling perfection")? That sound you may hear is me crossing Bottle Shock off my list of must-see movies. Thanks, Travers, you have no idea what a service you provide.

Now moving to last week's Onion, an ad for a movie called Hamlet 2, which looks like a complete waste of time, starring the likes of David Arquette and Steve Coogan. But Travers could hardly contain himself yet again. "Comedy Heaven!" his blurb shouts in huge letters, and Travers' work is done here. You see, Hamlet 2 is a new film from the makers of South Park Bigger, Longer & Uncut and Team America, World Police, so Travers has to be out front and oversize in his approval, lest he risk being branded out of the youth culture loop. It would be funny if it weren't so pathetic. The Great American Movie Industry keeps churning out unctuous, noxious effluvia, and Travers is first in line to sniff all the fumes and rave about how you it smells like perfume from his killer front row seat.

Travers' Wikipedia entry is not very informative and quite sketchy on the bare facts. No date of birth for starters, although by the photo he's got to be late 40s, early 50s, which makes his singular obsession with mindless teenage films all the more disturbing. The entry says something which I didn't know for certain but have long suspected: "According to, Travers is the most blurbed film critic." That sums up his career perfectly, not the Most Influential or Most Respected, but the Most Blurbed. Almost the definition of hack journalist, is it not, and a fitting epitaph for Travers when the projector stops running and he takes his rightful place among the "no longer screening" at the Big Cineplex in the sky.

See also:

Just die

No senses

Sorry Michaels

Missing George...

But not Don

Imus-Free AM's

Radio Babel

A real Klosterfuck


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