Sometimes, when certain artists release a new work, a lot of the critical response seems to be more a referendum on the whole of their oeuvre than a straightforward review. I suppose this is something of a natural tendency, and I’m sure it happens often, but there are some artists for whom this approach seems to be the overwhelming default. This is probably best described by using some examples:
- Wes Anderson – This post itself is mostly a reaction to all the reviews of Anderson’s latest effort, The Grand Budapest Hotel, all of which, without exception, devolve into a discussion of Anderson’s career and style and try to place this new film somewhere on that continuum. To be sure, Anderson does have a distinctive style, an almost defining sense of quirk, like it was built in a lab and weaponized. Weaponized quirk.
- Pixar – I’ve mentioned this before in my review of Brave, but when there’s a new Pixar movie, people love to take that opportunity to do things like rank the Pixar films or ask trolling questions like “has Pixar jumped the shark?” and other such ponderances. Indeed, the recent announcement of two sequels, Cars 3 and Incredibles 2, has lit off the debate over whether or not Pixar is totally out of ideas (though plenty of excitement surrounds Brad Bird’s return from the realm of live action). I suppose you could argue that Pixar isn’t, in itself, an artist, but for whatever reason (perhaps John Lasseter’s heavy involvement does warrant such though) everyone treats the studio as one entity.
- The Coen Brothers – Perhaps less so than the other two examples, but you still often see folks attempting to summarize or otherwise put the Coens in a box when talking about a new release. This is another situation where you often see people ranking all the Coens’ movies, usually on the occasion of a new release. In this case, even while the Coens’ often take far ranging ideas and mash them together, you also see people trying to genrefy their catalog into their more broadly comedic releases (Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, etc…) or their more serious pieces (which, to be sure, often contain some form of their off-kilter humor, stuff like Fargo or No Country for Old Men).
So what is it about these filmmakers that seems to necessitate a referendum (or at least, a trip down through their filmography)? Well, all three kinda represent a singular vision. Wes Anderson did bring a certain brand of quirk to the screen in such a way that many have tried to imitate, and yet, I feel like no one has ever really come close to actually duplicating his vision. I feel like you could almost certainly pick out an Anderson picture without knowing ahead of time who made it. This is perhaps less so when you get to Pixar, but it still works – no one was making movies the way Pixar did (now that they’re sequelizing everything, I’m not as sure). And the Coens have some rather strange streaks that are almost impossible to imitate (though I suppose some of their films are more distinctive than others).
Next would be a relatively small filmography. When combined with a singular, distinctive style, you get something that screams to be listed and ranked. This, I think, is why you don’t always see a referendum on someone like Martin Scorsese. This is partly because Scorsese has been making movies for so long, partly because he has made a lot of disparate types of movies (I think he has a distinctive style, but he also isn’t afraid to tread new ground from time to time). Of course, with something like The Wolf Of Wall Street, there were a ton of comparisons to Goodfellas (and to a lesser extent, Casino), but that makes a certain sort of sense, as the three movies are basically exploring the same ideas and themes, from slightly different angles. If those were his only three movies, you better believe that his next movie would be used as a referendum on his whole career. As it is, the guy has so much stuff, including several absolute classics, that no one feels the need to do so.
Maybe all of this means nothing and I’m just reading too much into a few reviews (and it’s not like I read every review evar), but I think there’s something here. And there’s probably a bunch of other examples I haven’t really thought through yet (Tarantino? Aaron Sorkin?), but I’ll leave it at here for now. To be honest, I’m not even sure it matters that much, as the three examples above are all excellent in their own way…