Name recognition can do wonders for a filmmaker. The trailer for There Will Be Blood got massive coverage from the blogosphere simply because it's a P.T. Anderson film. If The Departed weren't made by Martin Scorsese, it probably wouldn't have won the awards it won or received the praise it received. A Hitchcock film, no matter how bad, will still be a Hitchcock film, and as such, it will be parsed until it is good. But sometimes name recognition can be a terrible thing.
Thanks to Jim Emerson by way of Damian, I noticed the two biggest names that turn away viewers responded to criticisms. First there was Michael Bay, who responded to Jeffrey Westhoff's review of Transformers. In this case, like many reviews of blockbusters by people trying to look hip, it is less a review of the film than an attempt at character assassination. I cannot comment on the film, as I haven't seen it, but the review, which had a two star rating by the way, spends more time talking about how bad a director Bay is than talking specifically about the film. This sort of thing has become par for the course in discussions of Bay.
Bay has become the straw man for those out to attack "Hollywood films." Rather than going after Jerry Bruckheimer or Tony Scott, who together in Top Gun began the slow decline of modern cinema, people take out their anger at Bay. I'm not saying that Bay is a good director, merely that he gets more than his fair share of flack from critics. Westhoff's only genuine criticism of the film comes at the end of his review:
"By trying to make the Transformers appear realistic the film technicians take away the charm of the toys, cartoons and comics. In their robot forms, the Transformers look like every other computer-generated special effect of the last decade."
What people forget about Bay is that he's not a bad director. His films actually have some sort of pacing to them, and his films make for a serviceable evening for most teenagers. His style is not as abusive to the eyes as Tony Scott's, nor is he anywhere near the nadir of film that is Uwe Boll. He makes films that make money. He has become very good at this (with the exception of The Island, a film that was actually praised by some as intelligent), and this infuriates some filmgoers. I would be much happier if Danny Boyle's Sunshine were to make Transformers numbers, but that's not going to happen. His films are merely a symptom of a much larger disease, but to blame him for this is absolutely unacceptable.
This isn't to say that Bay's response is much better. He uses the age old defense of "it's popular, so it's good." Of course, a major seven day gross is more indicative of a good movie than a good three day gross, but Bay puts too much faith in his filmmaking and the craft of the film as the main draw. The hype behind the movie is almost always the main draw in the first week, and then word of mouth determines the film's legs. The argument that Steven Spielberg thinks this was a bad review is more convincing, but his assertion that Westhoff just needs to have more fun at the movies is ridiculous. If I tried hard enough, I could put together a defense of Norbit that centered around it being "fun," but there's more to a film's worth than it being fun.
Bay puts forth the best argument either man makes when he claims that Westhoff's attacks are solely based on the director. This is the real heart of the letter, and it points out a major flaw in film criticism. All too often, critics play favorites with directors. If it gets people seeing more Terry Gilliam films, I might exaggerate how much I liked Tideland. However, the review I wrote was based on the film, which I did enjoy greatly, rather than the artist. Similarly, many people will dismiss a movie simply because it is "A Michael Bay Film." To paraphrase a wise man, this shall not pass. Bay's letter is completely necessary in the context of the poor review, but that does not excuse the fact that there are a lot of people who, based on the film's merits and not the director's name, thought Transformers was less than meets the eye.
The second attack comes at the expense of one of the most divisive filmmakers out there, Eli Roth. In Don Kaye's article on MSN, he laments the current state of horror films, lulling for a moment on Roth and his Hostel movies. His comments echo the prevailing thought in criticism, that a great deal of horror films today lack the basics of horror, instead preferring to gross us out with an overreliance on gore. I myself am not a horror aficionado, and I try to avoid gory films at most any cost. His arguments sound completely legitimate, and the inclusion of recent films bolsters his argument significantly.
Roth responded, and it is very clear that he has finely tuned this sort of response. This argument lacks the references to 9/11 and Guantanamo Bay, and it counters many points in a reasonable and articulate manner. Claims that Hostel: Part II flopped at the box office lack any sort of credence, except when compared with expectations. Judging by the performance of Captivity, another recent example of "torture porn," Roth's presence and the established Hostel franchise kept the film from being a flop, but people were expecting it to gross more, so many see it as a flop.
Roth's comments about character development are also, I assume, correct. Like the first Hostel film, Part II is set up to introduce us to three characters before we see them on the slab. I can't comment on the actual development of the three women in Part II, but it's almost guaranteed to be more than we got from Saw, especially if there is 45 minutes before we enter the torturous parts of the film. However, the biggest claims Kaye makes still hold up despite Roth's arguments. Roth's films rely more on gore than actual scares, and that is a problem with horror currently. However, we cannot blame Roth for Saw 2, 3, 4 or Captivity. He does not deserve to be the punching bag for so many critics who don't like the state of horror today, and yet that is what he has become.
We like to think that we can change things. If enough people say they don't like Eli Roth, maybe he'll just go away. If enough people express their hatred of Michael Bay and his middle-of-the-road sensibilities, then he'll try something new and exciting. Unfortunately, this is not how things happen. As you may or may not have noticed, I don't mention Michael Bay or Eli Roth much on this blog. I figure that my dislike is shown through my unwillingness to buy into the hype their films produce. A review as scathing as David Poland's of Hostel: Part II only adds more fuel to the fire and makes more people want to see the film. I limit the mentions to those I want to promote, since any publicity can end up as good publicity. And that's all these filmmakers are really after. Just more coverage.