I’ve been reflecting lately that the film coverage these days in the New York Times — thanks to the lively prose of Manohla Dargis, the literary intelligence (if not the film background) of A.O. Scott, and the critical and scholarly chops of Dave Kehr — may be better than it’s ever been before. But then I read the ugly, xenophobic, tossed-off review of Opera Jawa by Jeannette Catsoulis in today’s paper, and I realize that in some ways we might as well be back in the 60s, when a barbarian like Bosley Crowther was smugly ruling the roost.
I saw the world premiere of this audacious, undeniably challenging, in fact downright mind-boggling avant-garde masterpiece by Indonesian filmmaker Garin Nugroho at the Venice International Film Festival in 2006, along with my esteemed colleague and friend Olaf Möller, a critic based in Cologne who writes columns for both Film Comment and Cinema Scope. (I’m sorry to say that Olaf’s review of the film for the former isn’t available online, but he aptly called it an “honest-to-God masterpiece of mad invention.”) If memory serves, Olaf has seen most or all of Nugroho’s previous features and understandably regards him as a master, so he had much more context for this film than I did. I simply regarded it as a dazzling bolt from the blue — something to see and savor again. The film is part of New Crowned Hope, an ambitious and fascinating series of films commissioned from the third world as part of an international celebration of Mozart’s 250th birthday; others in the series have included Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century — but of course Catsoulis can’t be bothered to mention any of this.
Back in the days of Crowther, you could treat a knock of his as a recommendation — at least that’s what I often did when I was a freshman at NYU, and the gamble usually paid off. It would be nice to think that some readers today use Catsoulis the same way, but frankly I doubt that many will rush off to the Museum of Modern Art to see Opera Jawa after reading her short review, buried at the bottom of the fifth page of the arts section. And I’m even more depressed when I think that the odds of this film making it to Chicago may be reduced because it’s now possible for a potential programmer to shrug and say, “The Times says it stinks.”
“One of the extraordinary advantages of growing up French,” David Denby wrote in the New Yorker almost a decade ago, “is that you can be absurd without ever quite knowing it” — a flip way of insulting about 58 million people. Catsoulis is slightly less direct about insulting almost 235 million Indonesians, but the implication that what she perceives as their quaint customs are all pretty hilarious seems to hover over her review. In both cases, the assumption appears to be that if you’re fortunate enough to be a New Yorker, no further education or level of sophistication is necessary; if you’re unfortunate enough not to be, the farther away you are, the likelier you are to be ridiculed with impunity.