Why obnoxious films sometimes win undeserved praise today

It's bad enough to encounter the fascist mentality and ugly violence of George Miller's new film, The Road Warrior.

But even more disturbing is the way an army of movie critics have hopped on the picture's bandwagon, eagerly praising its lurid images and slam-bang style.

Reviewers of various stripes have been charmed by this garish fantasy, which takes place after Western civilization has been torn apart by oil disputes and which features a handsome fighter dealing death and destruction to his enemies. Advertisements quote print and broadcast critics using words like ''fun'' and ''witty'' along with ''brilliant'' and ''breathtaking.''

It isn't only reviewers of the consumer-guide type. Film Comment magazine, published by the prestigious Film Society of Lincoln Center, features a mean ''Road Warrior'' photo on its current cover and devotes several glowing pages to the film and its director. Elsewhere, too, critics known for solid theoretical grounding are as enthusiastic as their more populist colleagues.

It's no accident. Nor have the reviewers of America taken leave of their collective senses. There's a reason for the glorification of ''The Road Warrior.'' Since the reason is based on recent developments in film criticism and scholarship, it has ramifications far beyond the mere merits and demerits of this particular Australian picture.

Simply put, most of today's major critics - especially of the younger generation - are in love with style for its own sake. The image and the action are what count, far more than the thoughts and motivations behind them. What you say matters less than how you say it.

And this attitude isn't all bad. In fact, a touch of it was much needed 20 years ago, when dull and clumsy movies often earned kudos by pretending to high intentions or lofty themes. At a time when ideas were usually nondescript even in ''quality'' productions, creative critics learned to judge films by their styles instead, as an aid in determining the truly vigorous from the merely pretentious. The mark of an artist became a distinctive tone - a visual signature that could be seen and felt in film after film.

But the Hollywood bosses didn't much like individual styles, fearing that ''artistic'' leanings might conflict with mass-market salability. Thus, critics learned, the most creative work often took place in obscure back-lot productions , where the bosses weren't paying much attention.

By the middle 1960s, it was a jolly critical game to ''spot the artistry'' in little-known films with poverty-row budgets. Genius was proclaimed in sundry filmmakers grinding away at action, Western, war-movie, and soap-opera potboilers. It was a bold and revisionist view, and it wafted through the stale critical establishment like a refreshing breeze.

Now a price is being paid. The habit of judging movies by style alone has become ingrained, at the expense of every other element. And pictures like ''The Road Warrior'' reap the benefit.

This is a pity. As it happens, the old studio system has vanished, and thoughtful directors are free to deal with real ideas if they wish. Yet critics are stuck in their obsession with style. Nowadays, in fact, it seems most critics don't want ideas cluttering up their action-packed screens. And the movie industry, unchallenged, is just plugging along, giving the public and press as little as it can get away with.

To top it off, today's reviewers are a knowledgeable bunch, well-versed in cinematic history and eager to show their stuff. Rip off the oldest gimmick in the book, and pundits will congratulate you for ''sensitive use of genre conventions'' - meanwhile applauding themselves for spotting your ''homage'' to the past. With queasy regularity, second-rate rehashes are lauded as ''analytical revisions'' and ''insightful meditations'' on the masterpieces they openly exploit. Such words as ''mythic'' and ''archetype'' - useful in moderation - are tossed around like Frisbees.

Take Brian De Palma's baroque variations on Alfred Hitchcock and other filmmakers, such as ''Dressed To Kill'' and ''Blow Out.'' These can't compare with the earlier films they mimic. Yet some of the sharpest critics have fallen for them. Why? Because of their eccentric style, which calls attention to itself every step of the way.

Similarly, self-conscious remakes like ''Cat People'' and ''The Thing'' are reverently discussed in historic and stylistic terms, while the silliness of their content is ignored. The reason is the same: the belief that style counts, substance doesn't.

The style of ''The Road Warrior'' isn't even that good. If it were all it's cracked up to be, we could at least praise it on technical grounds. Yes, the director has a lot of energy and a reasonable amount of visual imagination. But he can't make anything look real. The images of ''The Road Warrior'' are as flimsy and frittery as the ideas; there's no ballast or conviction to any of it. The effect is dreamlike, all right, but it's like a dream we know is stupid while it's still going on.

And that would be all right in a frivolous kind of way, if not for the nastiness of the movie. It isn't just violence, it's a view of brute force as a thrilling and self-justifying thing - a celebration of strength as the basic social denominator.

In his Film Comment interview, director Miller says ''The Road Warrior'' is set just slightly in the future, and is based on trends and emotions already prevalent in Western society, such as greed and impatience. Fair enough. But his response is to exploit these negative energies in the most grisly way, as if they were amusing foibles instead of potentially fatal flaws. It's hard to trust an artist who can't tell tragedy from titillation. Or can, and doesn't bother to.

In taking this view, am I treating ''The Road Warrior'' far too seriously for an exercise in futuristic fantasy? I don't think so. The world seems too precarious these days for some explosive topics - the rule of force, the temptations of violence - to be indulged and entertained in too breezy or haphazard a way.

Violence has generally been excused in Westerns and ''period'' films, on the ground that historical settings provide acceptable outlets for aggressive material. ''The Road Warrior'' is not set harmlessly in the past, however. It paints a portrait of our future that's both deadly and frolicsome. It doesn't tell us this is the way we were, and congratulate us for having improved. It tells us this is the way we can become, and suggests it might be a lot of fun. That's very pernicious.

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