I’m really glad the Fifth Opinion crew brought this up, because I’ve been itching to talk about it: self-indulgence.
Yeah that’s right—strap in motherfuckers. Because it doesn’t get more exciting than this. You’re about to witness Film Colossus go to town on film criticism’s emptiest and most useless bit of criticism.
I mean, wrap your mind around that for a second: This is as bad as it gets when it comes the Rex Reeds, the Richard Roepers, the Kyle Smiths of the world; The Dissolves, the AV Clubs, the Slants, the Mubis of the blogosphere. And, of course, in this case, the Peter Bradshaws of the critical community, proving that it’s not just clueless Americans, that nobody on this goddamn planet can review a film, that even some dude who justifies his inflated ego with his journalism degree can pull the oldest fucking trick in the book: “Don’t like a movie? Call it self-indulgent.”
Fifth Opinion calls out Bradshaw’s review of Lost River, and for good reason—it’s pretty much the epitome of everything wrong with film criticism. The broad points, the lack of examples, the pompous and pretentious holier-than-thou attitude that comes with judging another artist’s hard work. I believe in constructive criticism, and I believe in analysis, but I do not believe in this garbage that basically exists for pull quotes to get slapped on movie posters. I would ignore it like I ignore the crazy dude who dances to “Single Ladies” at the park on Friday afternoons during my walk home from work, but it’s so toxic that it’s hard to ignore. Because not only are film critics calling films “self-indulgent,” but they’re making everybody think…that’s an actual criticism.
Think about that for one second: What does it mean to call a film “self-indulgent”? What does Bradshaw mean when he says Lost River is “colossally indulgent, shapeless, often fantastically and unthinkingly offensive and at all times insufferably conceited”? You are definitely allowed to think all those things about a movie, but what does Bradshaw accomplish by writing a sentence like that without providing any examples or expanding thoughts or JESUS CHRIST LITERALLY ANYTHING TO BACK THAT SHIT UP?
“Colossally indulgent.” Lost River is “colossally indulgent.” That’s written as a bad thing. But I’ll tell you what: If I read those two words side-by-side before seeing Lost River…I’d be super excited.
I’ve written about this before. Spring Breakers was most definitely a victim of being referred to as “self-indulgent.” In fact, that pretty much sums up Harmony Korine’s career—and he had a response for it all:
“How can an artist be expected not to be self-indulgent? That’s the whole thing that’s wrong with filmmaking today. Ninety nine percent of the films you see do not qualify as works of art. To me, art is one man’s voice, one idea, one point-of-view, coming from one person. Self-indulgent to me means it’s one man’s obsession. That’s what great artists bring to the table. When fucking critics or whatever say, ‘he’s self-indulgent,’ I don’t know what that means. The reason I stopped watching films is because so many people lack any kind of self-indulgence. But I don’t believe in being boring.”
Harmony Korine is 100% a self-indulgent filmmaker. He explores every single last one of his whims and fancies, from white trash kids drowning cats to a Michael Jackson imitator visiting a commune to James Franco talking about all his shiiiiiiiiit. And maybe you don’t like his movies…but please, for the love of sweet Jesus, explain to me why his own self-indulgence should be the reason? People call Korine “self-indulgent” because he angers them. He makes art that strays from their comfort zone, that doesn’t conform to the norm, that, often times, is in fact a searing critique of the audience watching his film (seriously: Spring Breakers).
So, you may not like his films…but think about the alternative. What if Harmony Korine was afraid of being too self-indulgent? What if he pulled it back? What if he decided that Gummo would never land him on Letterman in a million years and just decided to make a light independent romantic comedy that nobody would ever talk about? What if David Lynch never made Eraserhead? What if Sofia Coppola never made Lost in Translation? What if Stanley Kubrick never made Eyes Wide Shut? Where would we be if every single filmmaker and artist felt too afraid to perform the actual definition of self-indulgence: Openly and poetically exploring what you care about most in a style that embodies who you are and what you believe in and what you want to tell the world about. Was Orson Welles not being self-indulgent when he stretched the boundaries of filmmaking with Citizen Kane? Was Alfred Hitchcock not whetting his own palette when he invented the impairment shot in Vertigo? Was it not important to these filmmakers to defy what was considered normal and exploit film for ever whim it could possibly satisfy?
So: Lost River. Bradshaw thinks it’s “colossally indulgent.” And he’s right. Because Ryan Gosling has never directed a film before…and he made this: A gorgeous collection of images that tell a story through their mise-en-scene and defamiliarize the idea of feeling drowned in your community—which just about every image in this movie represents.
From the light, comforting glow of a television…
…to the destructive and claustrophobic reality of your hometown crumbling around you.
From the promise of a job that will bring your family out of the dumps…
…to the pressures of sacrificing your dignity to save your family.
And from trying everything in your possible power to get out of trouble…
…to the crushing, fiery defeat that burns it all to the ground.
Perhaps Gosling is channeling his influences—there are most definitely hints of Nicolas Winding Refn. But how could you call this movie anything but “Ryan Gosling”? How is this movie not entirely his own style, his own complete vision, his own unique way of exploring the feeling of familial destruction and communal suffocation? And if you do realize it is his own vision, why oh why oh WHY would calling it “colossally indulgent” be a bad thing? Shouldn’t we be encouraging filmmakers to find their own voice? To challenge the norm? To explore new ways of embodying life’s universal truths?
And with mise-en-scene like these shots backing Gosling up…why does it even matter that Bradshaw called it “colossally indulgent” in the first place?