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No, not another abortion post–that will be later today. Instead, so that it doesn’t clutter up my 10-best list, a quick note about one of the best pictures of the year. Sideways, now facing a severe backlash. In light of this, I saw it a second time with as much feminist guilt as I could muster. And I still think it’s an outstanding film.

I am tempted to call the anti-Sideways backlash Medvedism of the left, but that wouldn’t be entirely fair. The critique about the implausiblity of the Madsen/Giamtti relationship is certainly fair, and is an actual aesthetic critique. Even granting that Madsen knew him well before he hit rock bottom, it is a male fantasy. I’m not sure why Sideways, in particular, is getting hammered for something that affects most Hollywood movies, but it’s still a fair point. In addition, I of course have no objection to those who say the movie isn’t to their taste; the movie is quite male-identified, and I can understand having no particular interest in that, in the same way that I don’t really care if I see any of the Lord of the Rings movies again, because while they’re exceptionally well-made my sensibility is very different than Tolkien’s, and even the best long battle sequences make my mind wander. It would be wrong to deny that they do what they intend to do, but tastes differ. The argument that it’s a very good movie that critics tend to overrate because they over-identify with the male leads is certainly viable. I would have preferred a sad ending myself (although the actual ending is rather more ambiguous than Quinn suggests.)

On the other hand, one staple of Medvedite criticism is that the characters in a film represent a filmmaker’s unmediated beliefs; obviously, to them, the choices made by the characters in Million Dollar Babyrepresent Eastwood’s ideological attitudes. This is, of course, laughably incompetent criticism, anti-art and anti-human. Similarly, a staple of Sideways haters seems to be to point out that Haden Church’s character is an asshole, and hence an indictment of Payne. (This is best observed in Charles Taylor, who went from arguing in Salon that Payne was cruel to the two male characters to arguing in the Slate film club that he was celebrating them. Contraianism in search of a rationale.) Of course this character is an asshole. You’re not supposed to think otherwise. And Jake LaMotta was an even greater scumbag. So what? And as to charges that the Church/Oh relationship is implausible, with all due respect, bullshit. I’m sorry, but self-confident, good looking jerks do in fact sleep with women who deserve far better all the time. People make irrational choices in relationships. These aspects of the human condition are not worthy of celebration–and the film doesn’t celebrate them–but to pretend they don’t exist is silly.

But the criticism of Payne I have absolutely no patience for is the claim that he “exploits” characters who aren’t conventionally attractive. The whole point of the sequence with the waitress near the end of the film is that Church’s assumption that she was the “grateful type” was completely wrong. She wasn’t naive, or a sucker; she got what she wanted out of the tryst, and was not under the spell of the has-been actor by any stretch. Even worse is the criticism about the use of Kathy Bates in About Schmidt. You see, fat people could never possibly be comfortable with their bodies, let alone have (or, God forbid, enjoy!) sex, so a brief nude scene with Kathy Bates must somehow be exploitative. There’s nothing in the way that either sequence is structured to suggest contempt on Payne’s part; essentially, his critics assume the validity of the stereotypes that they criticize him for allegedly deploying. These criticisms are revealing, all right, but far more about the critics than about the film. (These assertions of contempt are particularly amusing coming from Taylor, who moans “if I ever grow that pathetic—–or dress that badly–—this is public acknowledgment that you have my permission to take me behind the barn with a shotgun.” How dare Payne put non-stylish people on screen! How gauche!)

I may be wrong about Sideways being one of the best movies of the year, but the content of most of the criticism isn’t very convincing, and (with one exception) has virtually nothing to do with the aesthetic merits of the film. So I’m sticking by my original judgment.

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