MEDIOCRITY CENTRAL: Why Foundas Is 'Hungry' For More Cinema In LA Times

My newspaper colleague Scott Foundas, the film editor at LA Weekly and the Village Voice, emailed me the other day to say that “your predictions about the Los Angeles Times‘ film editor Tim Swanson have turned out to be more than true” and to complain that what Swanson is doing at the newspaper “strikes me as the death of film criticism in a nutshell”. (See my previous post from August 7, Swanson Is New LA Times Film Editor Lite.) So I asked Foundas to put his facts and feelings on the Spring Street film coverage into this report:

Hungry For More At LA Times

The British film Hunger opened in Los Angeles last Friday—not that you’d necessarily know it from reading our supposed “paper of record,” the Los Angeles Times. Its 200-word review of the film could be found hidden away on page 16 of Friday’s Calendar section, along with a handful of other “capsule” reviews of films clearly deemed less important than those chosen for splashier, full-length reviews further up in the section: Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon, the music-industry drama Cadillac Records, the comic-book adaptation Punisher War Zone and the Alan Rickman thriller Nobel Son. Adding insult to indignity, Hunger wasn’t even the lead capsule review on page 16—those honors went to the Australian family drama The Black Balloon. And rather than coming from the pen of the paper’s lead (and presently only) staff critic, Kenneth Turan, the Hunger review was written by a freelance contributer, Gary Goldstein.What makes this course of action so puzzling is that Hunger is, by almost any measure, one of the most acclaimed movies of 2008. Just five days before the L.A. opening, it picked up three wins (out of seven nominations) at the British Independent Film Awards, before going on Sunday to win the European Discovery prize at the European Film Awards in Copenhagen. Prior to this, the film won the Camera d’Or prize for best first film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, was an official selection of the recent Telluride, Toronto, New York and AFI Fest film festivals, and was recently chosen by the highly respected British film magazine Sight & Sound as the best movie of 2008, just ahead of There Will Be Blood and Wall-E. Then, just today, its director, Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen, was voted the recipient of this year’s New Generation award by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

Never mind that the LA Times review is a pan—that’s besides the point. The Weekly‘s review of Hunger, by Ella Taylor, is also quite critical of the film, but Ella’s review is informed and intelligent, whereas the Times review, in addition to giving the film such short shrift, also gets a very important detail completely wrong. It refers to Hunger’s much-discussed dialogue scene between the IRA leader Bobby Sands and his priest as “a 10-minute, single-shot conversation,” when in fact that scene is nearly 22 minutes long, the first 17 of which unfold in a single shot. Goldstein goes on to call the scene “maddeningly long,” but since it is more than twice as long as he claims, maybe it was actually maddeningly short.

In all fairness, the Weekly‘s Hunger review is also a capsule (albeit a 400-word one, with an accompanying photo), owing to the fact that last week was the 30th anniversary issue of the Weekly and, as such, we had none of our usual space for film features. If we had, we would unquestionably have run a full-length review of the film and also published my own interview with Steve McQueen, which will now run when the film opens in wider release early next year. But the Times, which was not celebrating any known anniversaries last week, has no such excuses.

It would be easy to blame the critic—in this case, Goldstein—for simply failing to take a serious film seriously (regardless of his ultimate opinion of it). After all, this is the same critic who only two months ago wrote an equally dismissive capsule review of another one of the year’s best movies, Jia Zhangke’s Still Life, deeming it “as inert as its title may suggest” without even mentioning that the film had won the Golden Lion for best film at the Venice Film Festival or that Jia is widely considered to be the most important filmmaker presently working in Mainland China. (As of this morning, Still Life can also add two Los Angeles Film Critics awards to its tally, for Best Cinematography and Best Foreign Film.)

But I fear that the true culpability for the assigning and eventual placement of these reviews lies with the Times’ recently installed film editor, Tim Swanson (and, by association, Times Entertainment Editor Betsy Sharkey), who was dubbed “LA Times Film Editor Lite” by Nikki Finke upon his appointment in August of 2007, and since then seems to have done his best to live up to that title.

While a cursory glance back over the last two months of Friday Calendar sections didn’t reveal any other errors or omissions quite as egregious as Hunger and Still Life, it did uncover the following. In the November 7 issue of the paper, Turan’s review of the American indie drama Ballast, which won two important prizes at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, found itself squeezed into a small side column on page 4, while a review and feature story about the Universal Pictures comedy Role Models dominated the spread. On October 24, recently downsized Times critic Corina Chocano’s rave review of yet another of the year’s most significant releases, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, had to make do below the fold, with a freelance review of High School Musical 3 above it. On October 10, Turan’s enthusiastic appraisal of the new Mike Leigh film, Happy-Go-Lucky, at least made it on to the front page of Calendar, but was again marginalized by the day’s dominant story—a profile of The Starter Wife star Debra Messing in which we learn, among other things, that the actress demanded the series be shot in Los Angeles so that she could be close to her family. How revelatory.

Looking back to April of this year, one can find a Hunger-worthy precursor in the LA Times’ review of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon, which freelancer John Anderson praised as “the first truly great release of 2008” while also lauding Oscar-winning star Juliette Binoche’s performance as a career best, but which was again deemed by the Times as deserving no better than a capsule review—this one topping out at a mere 175 words. (What movies did merit long reviews in that Friday’s Calendar, you might ask? Why, the likes of the Jodie Foster kids movie Nim’s Island and the universally reviled horror film The Ruins —in other words, anything being released by a big studio with a huge marketing budget.)

Meanwhile, nearly all the movies mentioned above—Ballast, Happy-Go-Lucky, Still Life and Synecdoche—received front-page and/or above-the-fold placement in the Arts section of The New York Times, where they were also all reviewed by one of the paper’s staff critics (as opposed to freelancers). The NY Times review of Flight of the Red Balloon, which shares Anderson’s enthusiasm for the film, is, at over 1000 words, more than five times as long. And while Hunger won’t open in New York until early next year, it’s inconceivable that it won’t receive similar treatment. (In any event, it will receive better treatment then Punisher War Zone, the sort of movie the NY Times deems worthy of capsule-review status.)

I should also mention, with no self-aggrandizement intended, that nearly all of these same movies received long reviews and/or interviews with their directors in the pages of the Weekly, or in some cases were designated as our film “pick” for that issue. Of course, being a weekly as opposed to a daily, we are required to be more selective with our coverage than the LA Times, and yet you’d be forgiven for thinking the reverse were true. For two weeks in November, virtually the entirety of the Weekly’s film section was given over to coverage of the AFI Fest film festival—arguably, one of the city’s two most important annual film events, and yet one that barely registers as a blip on the Times’ radar (with just a small scattering of freelance articles on the subject), no matter that the paper has long been the festival’s official media sponsor.

And earlier this year, when the Weekly printed three consecutive articles devoted to the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s month-long retrospective of films by the soon-to-be-100-years-old Portuguese filmmaker Manoel De Oliveira, the event merited only a passing mention in the pages of Calendar, where, I have it on good authority, one highly respected local film journalist (and veteran Times contributor) pitched a longer, more thoughtful essay about Oliveira and was flatly refused. Certainly, we’ve come a long way from the time when Manohla Dargis’ 1000-word rave of Oliveira’s 2002 masterpiece I’m Going Home was considered front-page Calendar material.

But perhaps the single most dunderheaded move yet by the Times in the Swanson era was the failure, in a November 26 package of stories devoted to the fifth anniversary of the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater at the Disney Concert Hall, to include any mention of REDCAT’s long-running film series, which routinely features some of the city’s most ambitious and adventurous film programming. This, understandably, resulted in duly aggrieved editorial letters from multiple luminaries of the city’s independent and experimental film community, including REDCAT film co-curators Steve Anker and Berenice Reynaud, the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s Ross Lipman and USC film school professor David James, who writes that he “was appalled—though not at all surprised—by the omission” before going on to suggest that “despite the Times’s cultural myopia, there is more in Los Angeles than Hollywood.”

Maybe the most constructive suggestion came from Sundance programmer Mike Plante, who wrote in to the Times to point out that the crowd at REDCAT’s film programs is younger and hipper than the Times likely reasons, and that if the paper paid more attention to what was going on there, they “might latch on to a whole new readership looking for information on all things cool and unusual.” Of course, we all know that fewer people than ever—young, old and everything in-between—are reading the Times these days, but the editors remain disinclined to thinking outside of their outmoded box. Does Tim Swanson even know that REDCAT has a film series? And if he does know, has he ever actually been to one of the programs? Discuss amongst yourselves.

Writing about Swanson’s appointment last year, Nikki Finke quoted one Hollywood studio executive’s description of Swanson as “a nice guy, but he knows so little about the business.” That would seem to extend not just to Hollywood itself, but to the broader world of cinema, including those pesky American independent movies that don’t have any marquee stars (at least none of Debra Messing’s zeitgeist value) and imports from foreign shores that come bearing those infernal little white words on the bottom of the screen. (It is also during Swanson’s tenure that the Times has aggressively beefed-up its mind-numbing coverage of that masturbatory Hollywood ritual known as “awards season”). And much as I am loathe to tell another film editor how to do his or her job, or to kick a newspaper when it’s down—or at least filing for bankruptcy—this is, in a word, ridiculous. It is the job of a film editor—any newspaper editor—not to merely assign and edit copy, but to have a sense of which writers are best suited to which beats, and to know enough about the terrain to know which beats are more important than others in the first place. But increasingly these days, the film coverage at the LA Times seems to have fallen under the jurisdiction of an absentee landlord.

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