MUELLER: Throwing punches in the name of art

As my numerous columns, blog posts and conversation starters should have made incredibly clear by now, I love movies. Mainly, I love the fact that it’s one of the few topics in today’s American society where one can have a debate without exploding into frustrated yelling and punches. When political discourse continually breaks down into vile slander and vicious lies, it’s nice to know film will always be there for civility and good clean discussion.

Normally.

And then sometimes the ugly state of debate in the world crashes in on my cinematic love affair.

Fantastic Fest is a weeklong cinema celebration held at the famed Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas. Unlike most film festivals, however, Fantastic Fest isn’t just a collection of art films and Oscar bait. Instead, it embraces the bawdier side of cinema and specializes in often unappreciated movie genres, such as horror, sci-fi, action and fantasy. Essentially, it’s an awesome rock concert in comparison to the fussy opera or string quartet of Sundance or Cannes.

The event has gained popularity over the years as a fan’s festival, not just for critics and snobs (the Milwaukee Film Festival’s new midnight Cinema Hooligante program is reminiscent of Fantastic Fest’s general vibe). As a result, tiny, ridiculous movies with titles like “Vegetarian Cannibal” and “Attack of the Killer Mutant Chickens” can share the screen with Hollywood hits like Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie” and the highly anticipated “Looper.”

One of the side events that happened at this year’s rendition of Fantastic Fest was a boxing match between Badass Digest – an up-and-coming film website – writer/critic Devin Faraci and indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg. The two are apparently heated rivals; Swanberg makes improv-heavy low-budget dramas, and Faraci hates them, believing them to be lazy creations involving minimal effort.

The two began with a planned debate, filled with zingers (as well as some solid points about what film should and should not be). The duo then dropped any semblance of civility, hopped into a boxing ring – a real boxing ring – and actually punched each other’s lights out. Well, Swanberg punched Faraci’s lights out if reports are to be believed.

At first glance, the match – given the nickname The Accostin’ in Austin by IndieWire – is just “boys being boys.” It’s not as though boxing and film criticism is anything particularly new. Fantastic Fest has hosted boxing matches in previous years, and most notoriously, schlock director Uwe Boll challenged his critics to fight him in the ring.

After thinking about the bizarre event a day later, however, I find Swanberg and Faraci’s little tiff to be a slap in the face – on multiple levels.

By having a ridiculous boxing match, any real, articulate points made by either party was lost. It’d be like having a presidential debate followed by a street race. It’s a distraction from the arguments and a detriment to any real ideas presented.

On a larger level, though, I really don’t like the idea of critics partaking in or even accepting these kinds of fights. Critics are already often considered the bottom of the barrel; artists hate them for trying to grade their creations, and most of society finds them pretentious and unnecessary. Just look at the response to the New York Times’ A.O. Scott giving “The Avengers” a middling review or commenters’ reactions to Marshall Fine’s review of “The Dark Knight Rises” to see how people feel about critics.

By behaving like children, critics simply continue the notion that they are just petty snobs unworthy of respect. Faraci didn’t help his cause during the debate either, hiding his excellent points behind smarmy cheap shots, even pulling the Hitler card, the cheapest of cheap shots. There’s nothing wrong with being a critical critic; in fact, that’s what critics should be. If no one questions the norm and asks for the best from people and art, society can never push forward and see what it can truly become.

But there’s simply no room for cheap shots, both in the ring and on the page, by critics. Let politicians and sports talk hosts act like children, yelling and making personal attacks. Let’s keep discourse about art, well, artful.

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