oscar run xxix: animated short films
life goes on

oscar run xxx: the black dahlia

Don't worry, Neal, this is the last one.

Fifty days ago I posted oscar run i: an inconvenient truth. Now I'm up to xxx, the last one for another year.

Holy shit, did this movie suck.

The only real question is whether or not it was worse than Pirates of the Caribbean 2. It's a close call, but Pirates was half-an-hour longer, so I think it retains its "worst movie of Oscar Run 2007" title. What was wrong with The Black Dahlia? It was completely incoherent, for one thing. Oftentimes when Robin and I are watching a movie, I'll look at her and say "I don't have the slightest idea what is going on here." Her response is usually a rolling of the eyes as she explains the plot verrrry slooooowly. This time, her reply was "I don't think I know what's going on, either."

Then there's the acting. Josh Hartnett spends the entire movie with a look on his face that says "uh oh, that burrito I ate for lunch is about to make my ass explode, I better try to hold it in until this scene is over." Scarlett Johansson … I really want to love her, she could be the next Kate Winslet, except Kate Winslet is never bad and usually good and sometimes great, while Scarlett Johansson is sometimes good. And, here, she's bad. Hilary Swank … well, if someone told you after watching her performance that she'd won two acting Oscars, you'd wonder what the Academy voters were smoking. Only Mia Kirshner escapes … she's very good as the titular character, although to be honest, she's played this kind of wounded nutcase enough times now that she ought to be able to do it in her sleep (that she does in fact elicit our sympathy nonetheless is a sign of how good she is here). The film's nomination is for cinematography, and that's fair, the film's look is effective.

This is Brian De Palma's first movie since Femme Fatale, a much-maligned film that I actually liked. I wouldn't be a good Paulette if I didn't like at least some of De Palma's work, of course. But if they showed this movie in heaven, even Pauline Kael's corpse would give it a bad review. Perhaps more importantly, given the subject matter, The Black Dahlia wouldn't even get good reviews in hell.


Charlie Bertsch

Most people agreed with you that the movie was terrible. But Kim thought it was really great, in its own way, and persuaded me to see it with her. And I liked it a lot too. Yet we also described the acting as bad. I suspect that our reasons for liking it have a lot of similarity to our reasons for liking In the Cut and David Lynch films like Mulholland Drive, which means that it may not be a good idea to discuss this matter further here. Still, I did think it necessary to at least offer a contrasting viewpoint.

For what it's worth, I have a terrible time with blunt criticism of the, "Holy shit, did this movie suck," sort. It makes me feel bad when I disagree, like the words also apply to me somehow. I know, rationally, that it's not true. But I still feel that way. Indeed, one of the reasons I started to read up on taste was because I wanted to get some perspective on that bad feeling. Anyway, I'm not as invested in The Black Dahlia as some of the other texts you've subjected to similar criticism. Nevertheless, it bothers me to contemplate what would happen if I actually bothered to explain what we liked about the film. I might even have to mention Judith Butler.


Mulholland Drive was Citizen Kane compared to this movie.

I've been too busy posting all of these movie reviews to spend much time on the recent version of my "role of a critic" thing, but I think part of that applies here. If I am right, and we first react to a work of art and decide yes/no/maybe, and then construct an argument that supports our initial reaction, then what you call "blunt criticism" is the most honest criticism of all. Because, again if I'm anywhere near the truth on this, all criticism amounts to elaborations on "this rooled" or "this sucked" or "this rooled and sucked." Good critics can bring context to bear on a work, can illuminate the work, but the impulse behind the critic is based in "this rooled" or "this sucked" or "this rooled and sucked."

Again, according to my "theory," the value judgments a critic makes are totally subjective ... when a critic says "this rooled," what they mean ... ALWAYS mean ... is "I liked this." And then they elaborate, and depending on the quality of the critic, we learn more or less about the work. But we don't learn whether or not the work was good, bad, or indifferent ... we only learn whether or not the critic liked the work, a taste preference they will express as "this rooled" or "this sucked." But their statement should always be taken as a measure of their subjective response.

When I say The Black Dahlia sucked, I meant that I didn't like it. I don't see the point of mentioning that distinction every single time I comment on a work. If a person reads enough of my criticism, they will get a general idea of my taste preferences, which will help them filter my comments. And they can also look at whatever specifics I bring up, as a way of contextualizing my comments.

Here's how The Black Dahlia worked for me, here is the process whereby I ended up writing "holy shit did this movie suck." As the movie began, I was excited ... I like James Ellroy, I like Brian De Palma, I like several of the actresses, I expected to like the movie. Individual scenes were good, but as the movie progressed, I realized that I couldn't follow the plot. Anyone who has read more than three things I've written knows that the presentation of narrative is more important to me than it might be to others, so my realization in this case led to my being frustrated. That frustration grew ... the movie did not become more clear, it became muddier than ever, until eventually, whether or not I'd recognized it yet, I had reached the point where I did not like the movie. Voila: the impulse for my criticism was born. Because that's where the spark comes, at the point where you like or don't like a work. Everything I ended up writing grew out of the moment when I realized I found the movie incoherent.

If the movie had other aspects that I liked, I might have liked the movie overall, and my criticism would have foregrounded the things I liked while admitting that nonetheless I found the film incoherent. Since for me the incoherence was the deciding factor, my criticism focused on the negative. A few scenes with Mia Kirshner weren't enough to make me like the movie, and since this was the last of my Oscar-related posts, I wasn't going to pull punches ... I was just glad to be done at last. I wish I'd seen something I liked for my last movie, but I didn't, and that's that.

You mention that KDD liked the movie, but I can't find a KDD post devoted solely to Black Dahlia, or I'd link to it here ... she's a great writer, passionate about film, and her criticism always illuminates the work in question. I'd recommend her writing to anyone ... check out the "kim dot dammit" link to the left under "friends and family." She and I often disagree about whether or not a movie is good (i.e., whether or not we liked it), but that should be irrelevant ... good critics provide context, KDD brings a useful and powerful perspective to the table, and you'll always learn something from her writing on movies. She is also, it must be said, a practitioner of "blunt criticism." If she thinks something sucks, she says it. I only wish I could be as honest as she is on a more regular basis.

Charlie Bertsch

I think I agree with you, on the role of the critic. And on the way that KDD outdoes you in bluntness. I just wanted to say that it makes me feel bad when the being blunt blunts the force of my bliss. For the record, I mean. It doesn't matter that much you does the blunting, either, though I do feel the force of the blow more powerfully when I care about and respect the blunter.

KDD did write about The Black Dahlia, so eloquently, in fact, that she swayed some of her readers who had disliked the film to reconsider their position. Of course, she also picked up an internet stalker in the process, so maybe she should have written something a little less swaying.

Incidentally, you can read all her film write-ups under her film tag. She doesn't get that many readers who are as into film as you and I are. I know she'd like more.

As far as my own take on The Black Dahlia goes, I found the bad acting positively Brechtian and the discontinuity fashioned through the techniques of continutity editing positively breathtaking. I actually think De Palma might have had Mulholland Drive in mind when he was working on the film, because he seems to go out of his way to widen the fissures in the narrative. There, I said it without even mentioning Judith Butler. . . :-)


Just a quick reply now ... I'm sitting outside a yarn store in Sacramento, typing on my Treo. I hear you about the bliss. I'm always sad when a favorite critic disagrees with me. Alas, it happens. Thanks for the KDD link ... I'll read it now, perfect timing (I'm bored!).

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