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COMMENTARY

Sometimes, a standard may be too high

Great film directors shouldn't have to top their previous works to remain great.

December 22, 2006|Michael Sragow | Baltimore Sun

It can be a curse in disguise to be a critical favorite, even if you're a giant like the late director Robert Altman.

Discussing Altman's career, his friend and peer Jonathan Demme said, "If you assigned some of his 'down' films to any other director, they'd make up an oeuvre of endless fascination, open to infinite amounts of critical dissection."

Altman competed, even in his death, with his own most popular and acclaimed work -- and was underestimated if he didn't come up with another "MASH" or "Nashville." I found myself reading some of his obituaries last month through clenched teeth, thinking, "Vincent & Theo" was better than "The Player"; "Dr. T and the Women" wasn't odd or disappointing -- it was hilarious and touching.

Sometimes, artists move beyond past pinnacles and reviewers don't. If a moviemaker is a genuine risk-taker, it may be difficult to appreciate his lunges and experiments. And if a moviemaker is a true original who keeps operating on an individualistic wavelength, critical fatigue may set in simply because reviewers despair of finding anything new to celebrate in the work.

That seems to be happening to director Christopher Guest: Much of the media would have you believe that "For Your Consideration" isn't as sublime as "A Mighty Wind," which three years ago was thought to be not as funny as "Best in Show" (2000). They're all brilliant.

What the philosopher and literary critic G.K. Chesterton said of Charles Dickens' fiction I would say of Guest's movies: Sit back, relax and savor them, not just as individual movies but as slices of the greater Guest.

And, in general, reviewers might consider that if skepticism is useful as a critical default mode, creative forces sometimes earn something else: the benefit of the doubt.

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Michael Sragow is a film critic at the Baltimore Sun, a Tribune company.

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