Reihan: My Favorite Critic

Creating a kerfuffle is a commerical imperative. So I'm of course very skeptical when I'm told David Edelstein (long one of my favorite movie critics) is courting controversy by endorsing Brian De Palma's latest. Who exactly is going to attack Edelstein? I assue a doughty band of conservatives will go through the motions of blasting De Palma's film (which I haven't seen), and I assume Edelstein will treat them with withering contempt. As for Edelstein's friends and fans, who are many, they will cheer him on.

Now of course, Edelstein is raging against the powerful, specifically the "warmongers" in the White House, etc. And of course these "warmongers" will do absolutely nothing to disturb the bubble of (relative) domestic comfort most Americans enjoy (relative to military families, and of course relative to Iraqis fleeing their homes and losing their lives, part of the "collateral damage" De Palma evokes). This is part of the reason performing rage can be so gratifyng: it suggests a more expansive moral sense, and it is an implicit rebuke to Bush's manifest failure to call for shared sacrifice.

Let's accept that the invasion of Iraq was an inexcusable blunder, and let's accept that the burdens are overwhelmingly borne by a small minority of Americans. When De Palma talks about "urgency," I have to assume he means that we urgently need to withdraw US forces from Iraq. That, of course, is a much trickier argument, and it's not clear that incendiary images clarify rather than cloud our thinking. Consider the incendiary images and bloody shirts that have started so many wars, including, arguably, the war in Iraq.

Edelstein references the "noise machine" that will surely crank up to attack Brian De Palma. But again, who really believes that (a) a mostly marginalized group of conservative (or rather "right-wing") critics will be able to destroy or even mildly dent Brian De Palma's reputation as an auteur? I'm not even sure a string of astonishingly bad movies could do that at this point. And (b) who believes that a movie like Redacted would get a wide and enthusiastic audience in the absence of this "noise machine"? Yes, it will pack the art-houses. Or it won't. A ferocious "noise machine" can only help in that regard. As for the "other America," the 95 percent who would never consider seeing such a film (it's tough to find babysitters, and why spend an evening watching something like Redacted?), the "noise machine" isn't exactly making much of a difference.

This is one of the inescapable dilemmas of cultural commentary. We need to believe that our work is vitally important. The right-wing and left-wing professional agitators need to keep the cultural temperature at or near the boiling point, to curry favor, to build audiences, to raise donations. And ... and again, the most important issue is: are Iraqi children better off or worse off under a continuing American military occupation? I don't think the answer is obvious. I'm inclined to think we're doing some good, and that the sectarian violence could get far worse, but this is a near-run thing.

What I do know is that no, Redacted really isn't vitally important and standing up to the "noise machine" is a surefire route to bestselling success.

In Edelstein's post, he references Ross.

In his Atlantic blog, right-winger Ross Douthat makes fun of my review of Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah, which also touches on the moral devastation of Americans in Iraq. I said in my column that although it’s a clunky piece of storytelling and a third-rate mystery, it’s also a powerful and important film. Douthat sees this as representative of a liberal tying himself up in knots to praise a movie he dislikes but agrees with politically. If he thinks those are knots, he should read me on Michael Moore!

To Edelstein's credit, he seems to be acknowledging, with grace and good humor, that Ross's assessment was sound. Most critics would prefer taking a potshot, and he didn't. (My suspicion is that Edelstein sees "right-winger" as insult enough.)