Home > Critic-At-Large > The Curse of Good Intentions

The Curse of Good Intentions

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2011-10-23


By far, the biggest box-office surprise of the Summer 2011 season was The Help, Tate Taylor's domestic drama that was based on the 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett. Released in August, the modestly budgeted ($25 million) film became an instant hit, making $26 million in its debut weekend and holding the top spot on the box office charts for 25 consecutive days, the longest run since The Sixth Sense in 1999. As of the middle of October, The Help had made over $165 million, the 12th highest grossing movie of the year. The movie also became a somewhat divisive argument starter, too, for while the critical response was generally favorable, a strong backlash to the film developed almost immediately. Many writers felt that the film's portrayal of domestic servants in the Civil Rights era was wildly inaccurate and stereo-typical, and that the "realistic" dialogue imported directly from the novel sounded like roaring caricatures from Harriet Beecher Stowe or a Carol Burnett skit.

Mark Harris, Entertainment Weekly's excellent pop-culture columnist, offered a clear-eyed explanation of what made The Help so infuriating to so many critics. He ultimately recommended the film, with some major reservations, but his column from August 26 really gets at the heart of what makes do-gooder, dishonest (his word) films like The Help so exasperating. This is the third paragraph from the review, which I'm leaving intact:

The Help deserves real credit for venturing onto turf most studio films don't go near, but told properly, its story should make audiences uncomfortable rather than complacent. And here's where the movie goes wrong. It's villain, Hilly Holbrook a hypocritical, smug, near-psychotic queen of the mean girls who would rather spit her own maid out into a hurricane than let her use the toilet is so overdrawn that anyone not wearing a white hood can feel enlightened by comparison. But most ladylike Southern racists didn't behave like Cruella De Vil. The "nice," the moderate, and the well-meaning some of them were even good mothers! also inflicted a thousand small insults and injuries that remain more challenging to confront. Instead of going there, The Help indulges in lowball comedy and the soothing cliche that black caregivers are almost supernaturally maternal, with enough love and time for their own children and their white charges. The fact that a stereotype is meant as a compliment doesn't make it less simplistic. And the twist that a delicious meal cooked by a nice white lady is what gives outspoken Minny (Octavia Spencer) the fortitude to leave her abusive husband isn't merely patronizing; it's a violation of everything we know about her strong-willed character.

In the article, Harris goes on to praise the actors, especially Viola Davis, and makes the great point that sometimes, a single performance can transcend a movie's close-minded limitations. Again, I should repeat that Harris gave the movie a qualified rave, and while I trust his opinion, and I like the actors involved (Davis, Emma Stone, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney), the fact remains that I wouldn't go see The Help if I had a loaded gun pressed to my forehead. I have an almost pathological aversion to any work of art that is dead set on exalting the triumph of the human spirit, and "improving" any audience members who happen to wander into the theatre.
In Tolstoy's disastrous 1897 essay, "What is Art?," the novelist makes the outrageous argument that good, moral, "Christian" works are inherently greater artistic achievements than works that don't exalt the human condition. He dismisses, then, some of the most profound examples of artistic greatness in Western history Beethoven, Wagner, all of the Greek dramatists, and, most ridiculously, Shakespeare. In fact, Tolstoy actually makes the claim that Harriet Beecher Stowe's socially-conscious, abolitionist novel Uncle Tom's Cabin is a perfect example of "art," while Shakespeare's most confounding work, King Lear, is not.

As Harold Bloom articulates in "The Western Canon," Tolstoy is so wrong about this that it makes you question the writer's greatness, and you start to doubt your own appreciation about his work but no, Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Hadji Murad, Ivan Ilyich, etc, still belong on the mountaintop, now and forever. It's only as a critic that Tolstoy shows a disturbing rigidity of thought.

I can't think of a more frightening scenario than being forced to consume only works of art that are "good for you." Again, I go back to Shakespeare anytime you have to navigate deep questions about aesthetics and art, Shakespeare should be your fixed reference point, your moon and stars and I wonder, what works of Shakespeare exalt the human condition and show a morally correct universe? I can't think of one. Hamlet? King Lear? MacBeth? The Merchant of Venice? Are you kidding? Seeing one of Shakespeare's great tragedies is a shattering experience, you leave the theatre plagued by dozens of troubling, unanswerable questions dancing in your head. Cordelia's death in King Lear, Shylock's renouncing of his Jewishness in Venice, the bodies piling up at Hamlet's conclusion these aren't exactly moments that persuade an audience to stand up and cheer. And yet they remain the zenith of dramatic art in our culture.

Still, a lot of modern critics believe that the "stand and cheer" movies are the greater works of art, which I guess means that we are to esteem Hoosiers and Apollo 13 above Pulp Fiction and No Country for Old Men, something that ought to be patently ridiculous to any mildly discerning viewer of contemporary film. Fairness and morality and human triumphs don't automatically guarantee that a story is aesthetically accomplished in fact, I could argue that those qualities most often inhibit a film's chance to be really successful. It's a quote I've stolen often from Pauline Kael, the New Yorker's famous and controversial film critic, yet I think it bears repeating: the only thing you should know about movies is that the good ones don't make you feel good.

Of course, Pauline Kael took all kinds of hell for her review of Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, a 1985 documentary about the Holocaust. The movie took eleven years to make, it was 9 hours long, and it was almost universally revered by all critics, except Kael, who hated it. She thought it was a remarkably close-minded look at a complex and horrific event. Inevitably, of course, Kael was branded an anti-Semite for her critique, for people couldn't accept the notion that a movie about the Holocaust couldn't be great. Therefore, Kael had to be a racist who obviously wasn't sympathetic with the horrors of what the Nazis did. It seems absurd to have to say this, but Kael wasn't reviewing the Holocaust; she was reviewing a movie. And no movie is above criticism, no matter how well intentioned. And just because Shoah was made earnestly and with great sensitivity doesn't automatically make it a great film.

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