The Un-Civil War: ‘Abraham Lincoln’ vs. The Critics

The title should have been the biggest clue as to what was in store. If not the name, then the various ads that have run throughout the last month could have provided some insight. Yet it seems that some critics walked into the Timur Bekmambetov’s unsane Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter expecting something other than a rousing, ridiculous insane reexamination of the War between the North and South. Retracing the steps of our celebrated 16th President and turning him into a lifelong vampire hunter with a personal vendetta, this incredibly surreal experience was never going to warrant mass appreciation. On the other hand, the amount of vitriol aimed at the film and its makers may have little to do with what’s up on the screen and more to do with industries out of touch with each other and their own individual best intentions.

Here’s the deal: film criticism is dead. Readers are reluctant to examine a motion picture experience outside the obvious. They want “yes” or “no” answers, not elaborate explanations of composition and mise-en-scene. They want the mass produced opinion of the social network system, not some implied snobs views on subtext and theme. More than any other time in its history, the cinematic artform is viewed in throwaway, junk food terms… and Hollywood’s not helping. It realizes the easy money of international receipts and makes sure that all of its movies meet this less than stringent standard. The result is a literal butting of heads, writers reduced to commenting on crap as the studios continue to put it out with full faith in the proposed universal appeal.

This sets up a complementary clash that even someone like Kevin Smith (who should be really kissing critic’s asses for his continuing relevance as an ‘artist’) embraces as old fashioned and dysfunctional. Like the filmmaker himself, his latest TV project, Spoilers, is a massive FU to those who practice the lost art of actual criticism. There are many in the game who bristle at the continuing distinctions, arguing that “reviewer” doesn’t do their title justice. It’s the difference between a book report and a term paper, to use low IQ analogies. For someone like Smith, the success or failure of a film has little to do with quality (and this is coming from someone on the record as loving his last few titles) and everything to do with cranky old farts so out of touch with the realities of the entertainment business that they can’t ‘properly’ gauge content or its impact on viewers.

This is otherwise known as “Bullshit Explanation No.2” in the official press vs. property debate. Alongside the worst piece of illogic offered on the topic — aka the discussed to death idea that critics have to be filmmakers in order to properly judge same – this notion that age, ability, or actual status somehow equals credential makes no real sense. There are literally hundreds of bloggers braying about film right now, and yet very few are foisted up to the level of a Peter Travers or a Roger Ebert. Even hacks like Pete Hammond or Shawn Edwards are more ‘respected’ by the suits who determine marketing movies. Indeed, unless you are a horror film relying on BloodyDisgusting or FEARnet to save your opening weekend, the established print people (with a few exceptions) rule the role of quote whore.

This could explain some of the amplified aggravation and obvious frustration felt by those who legitimately did not like Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. There is nothing wrong with opinion. Everyone is entitled to one and to use it in whatever manner — wise or unwise — that they choose. But there’s a fine line between objectivity and obliteration. Hatred can be hindered by a sense of perspective, but it could also be generated by a need to be the biggest, loudest voice in a very crowded, very noisy room. If online criticism has one fatal flaw – and it’s a big one – it’s that few have found a way to differentiate the many valuable trees from the rabble-filled forest. Tweeting a reaction right after a screening is not criticism, it’s kneejerk and embracing same is just stupid.

Yet this is the bandwagon way the new/nu media works. Granted, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter was always going to be a love/hate experience, but many are comparing it to the wholly awful Jonah Hex as if there is a similar aesthetic and production pattern – and nothing could be further from the truth. Aside from the casting, which is still a bit strange for a mainstream Summer tentpole, it appears that Bekmambetov and his partner in cinematic complicity, producer Tim Burton, got to make the movie they want. Hex was hindered by awful studio interference. Here, there are big action set pieces, including a horse stampede chase and a last act train battle that have to be seen to be believed, and aside from a toned down level of gore, this is a violent, visionary effort.

Yet those who’ve spent the last decade immersed in the Hollywood mainstream and all the derivative dung it creates are unable to remove themselves from their own limited purview. For them, movies began (and ended) with George Lucas’ Star Wars saga and, in their minds, Renny Harlin’s Prison and Chuck Barris’ Gong Show Movie are forgotten masterworks (well, maybe only the latter). There’s no filter, no finding worth in the unusual or the eccentric. Instead, it’s screaming anger and shout downs of those who don’t agree. Call it the Jersey Shore-ing of the social network, but everyone wants to fist pump and primp to their own pimped subjectivity. Don’t like Quentin Tarantino? He becomes the most overrated filmmaker in the history of cinema (oddly beating out Shawn Levy and Stephen Sommers). Adore Zooey Deschanel? She’s Elizabeth Taylor with a geek speak affinity.

It’s time for Tinseltown to take its own share of the blame. As it continues to water down content to serve like shots at your neighborhood saloon’s weekly speed dating night, it forgets to find the right way to sell. Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter was geared to a specific mentality for a specific lover of an equally exclusive subgenre. It’s a more serious SyFy Movie with slightly better F/X. It’s not camp, it’s not kitsch, and it’s certainly not some new kind of superhero epic. Instead, it rewrites the history of the Civil War to pitch the Confederacy as blood farmers for the neckbiter crowd. Lincoln himself lines up as not only a proponent of abolition, but as a ruthless supernatural hunter. Maybe a wink of an eye or a tongue planted firmly in cheek would have made this movie work better for the masses. Within the current critical culture, however, it won’t stop the desire to stand out, no matter the lack of real resolve.