The Encyclopedia of Film Criticism: A.A. Dowd

A.A. Dowd
When school and church fail him, the pictures are always there; the local movie house becomes his sanctuary—a substitute chapel and classroom, where enlightenment and education are transmitted directly from the screen to his seat in the balcony. For Bud (and, by extension, [Terence] Davies), cinema is more than escape. It’s a lens through which to see the world. Dyed-in-the-wool cinephiles, for whom personal and filmic history sometimes entwine, can surely relate.

Contributed to: Film Monthly, In Review Online, Time Out Chicago, The A.V. Club

Noted champion of: Claire Denis, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Joachim Trier, Wong Kar-Wai, Bruce Baillie, Saul Levine, Béla Tarr, Spike Jonze, John Cassavetes, Jacques Tati, Tsai Ming-liang, the Farrelly brothers.

Influences: "I had a college film criticism course at Michigan State University that introduced me to everyone from Sarris and Kael to Farber and Rosenbaum. It was definitely a formative educational experience, but if I’m being honest, my exposure to criticism reaches back further—to a childhood spent pouring over Roger Ebert collections and those helpful capsule video guides. (Terror On Tape, by James O'Neill, was very useful for a young horror buff.) And I’ve been reading Entertainment Weekly since I was 9-years-old; while I don’t necessary share Owen Gleiberman’s critical sensibilities, I still aspire to his way with words. Few contemporary critics have as fluid and inviting a style."

Andrew Alexander Dowd, Alex to his friends, was born January 7, 1984 in Oxnard, California. He spent most of his childhood in Lansing, Michigan and wrote his earliest reviews ("pithy capsules for new releases, often several weeks after they’d opened") for his high school news paper. At Columbia College Chicago he began studying and writing criticism regularly. His first professional gig was at a website called Film Monthly, but came into his own as a staff critic at In Review Online, under then-editor Sam C. Mac. "I owe a huge debt to Sam C. Mac, who not only believed in my talent before anyone else really did but also gave me a laptop when my computer was stolen. For real." He wrote for the Time Out Chicago until the print edition was put out to pasture, at which point he took over as film editor of The A.V. Club, taking over for Scott Tobias. It's here that he's let his creativity run wild. An auteurist with an accessible style, Dowd's been mapping out film history for readers, one article at a time. His reviews, long and short, act as pocket biographies of the men and women who've brought them to life. His reviews are well-rounded narratives, allowing neophytes an entryway into something as complicated as the career of Pedro Costa or the ins and outs of the Cannes Film Festival, which he covers in his indispensable feature Palme Thursday. His Ebert-esque everyman's unpretentiousness and affability ("I’d much rather watch Die Hard or Beetlejuice or Who Framed Roger Rabbit than the 1988 Palme winner, Pelle The Conqueror.") make him the ideal critic to lead The A.V. Club's film department, which has always backed up its bold, smartass humour with intelligence and an achingly personal relationship with pop culture. He's also without question the current critic I'd recommend to anyone looking to get into film or film criticism.

On Groundhog Day
Two decades on, Groundhog Day feels timeless, partially because its sole backdrop, Punxsutawney, is a town largely untouched by pop-culture trends. But for all the universal points the film has to make about people’s capacity for change, it also works marvelously as a rebuke to the prevailing sarcasm of its era. To that end, who better than Murray, one of the most sardonic voices in comedy, to go through a metaphysical attitude adjustment? The actor slowly peels away Phil’s defense mechanisms, until the ironic distance he puts between himself and the world has shrank away into nothingness. No wonder Murray turned to drama and seriocomic indies a few years later. As a comedian, where could he go from a movie that trotted out all of his best tricks and then denounced them in the name of enlightenment? Like Phil, Murray had to move forward after Groundhog Day.

On The Wolf of Wall Street

At three hours, The Wolf Of Wall Street is Scorsese’s longest movie (barely edging out Casino). It’s also his crassest, his loudest, maybe his funniest—an aggressively broad satire of American ambition, the full meal to which Spring Breakers, Pain & Gain, and The Bling Ring were merely appetizers. Such reckless indulgence provides the director his own excuse to indulge, and Wolf pushes his showboating stylistic tics and love for loutish behavior to the edge of their acceptable limits. But there’s a cracked logic, a genius almost, to the film’s amped-up irreverence. Maybe laughter isn’t just the best medicine, but the only sensible response to this much brazen amorality. From Travis Bickle to Jake La Motta to the Italian and Irish gangsters of his crime epics, Scorsese has always been hooked on bad boys. And Belfort, the founder of shady brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont, may be the baddest of them all. No, he never murders anyone (though he comes close at least once), but in his ruthless consumption—his endless need for more fixes, more women, more everything—he may be the most unscrupulous character Marty’s ever built a movie around. 

On 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days
It’s context, ultimately, that lends 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days its full, cathartic power. Like most of the films lumped together into the Romanian New Wave, this one tangentially concerns the reign of Ceauşescu, a long-gone tyrant whose influence is still being felt in contemporary Romania. Crucially, Mungiu hasn’t just set his film during the waning years of the leader’s rule, right before he was ousted from office and executed by the people. He’s also made his heroine a university student. Either literally or symbolically, that aligns her with the demonstrators—many of them students—who helped fan the flames of dissent in 1989, when Ceauşescu sealed his own fate by ordering security forces to fire on unarmed civilians. When Marinca turns, in that final look to the camera, is there more than just weariness scrawled across her face? Is that the spark of revolution dancing in her eyes? By looking at the movie through the lens of history, its day from hell becomes the straw that broke the dictator’s back. Improbably, in this gauntlet of misery, a glimmer of hope emerges—and a gripping film becomes a great one.

1 comment:

jill eby said...

That first "A" stands for AMAZING.