An impressive job

Re: “The high stakes of ‘Molly’s Game’” by T.T. Stern-Enzi; January 2, 2018; Vol. 15, No. 1.

It would never occur to me to watch the movie “Molly’s Game,” because it isn’t a part of my usual viewing. T.T. Stern-Enzi isn’t tied to a particular aesthetic though, and that’s what makes his critiques entertaining. He discusses whether he likes a film – don’t worry, Sorkin fans, he liked “Molly’s Game”- but he also talks about why it worked well, or didn’t. [In this case, Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba give colorful, nuanced performances, making the film engrossing even when much narrative is necessary to explain the dramatic states of protagonist, Molly Bloom’s, rigged poker game.] He also explains a film’s genre and its cultural significance. His detailed reviews remind me to challenge my own aesthetic, and, at least occasionally, pay more attention to if a filmmaker has succeeded at what he or she set out to do than whether a film belongs to a genre that’s terribly familiar to me.
Stern shares how he feels about a film, but he also approaches it as a critic. Liking a film only requires me to find fault with it (or not) and, as anyone who has ever insulted an ex on social media knows, finding fault is easy. To critique a film, I have to know how it functions and why it functions that way. Anyone who watches a film will form an opinion of it. Only a critic will take the time to form a nuanced one, and T.T. Stern-Enzi is a very gifted critic.
Part of what makes him one is his ability to understand, not only how an individual film is working, but how that film fits within larger artistic, historical, and sociocultural contexts. His unique ability to approach analysis holistically is one the contemporary American educational system no longer instills. History isn’t the only subject taught in school. I’m making an example of it, because history (American or otherwise) is like a film that never ends; we’re always telling a story, and the dramatic stakes of that story are always high. Stern-Enzi focuses on the fact that Molly Bloom, the heroine of “Molly’s Game,” is unlike most of the female characters Sorkin writes. People who don’t know history, though, may not even recognize how remarkable it is that the real life Molly Bloom, a white woman who was seriously injured in a skiing accident, entered the male dominated world of high stakes poker games and played her often male, often rich, opponents with every hand. Sorkin helps his audiences understand poker games, but someone who doesn’t have at least a cursory knowledge of the history of the economic and social exclusion of women in America can’t give Molly Bloom full credit for her (albeit illegal) accomplishment.
Luckily for me, T.T. Stern-Enzi has an impressive knowledge of history and culture. That’s why he critiqued the “truths” being presented about blacks in his review of “Suburbicon,” even though he felt the director, George Clooney, hadn’t fully considered their implications. Another reason Enzi’s critical voice is so important is because he uses the tools of critique advocated by the Roman poet, Horace (who believed drama should “delight and instruct”) and the German director Johannes Goethe (whose “Goethe Triad” is still the standard by which the success of a piece of art is judged) made valuable contributions to criticism and critical thought. Nonetheless, the authority to decide whether a piece of history is significant or a piece of art is effective needs to be wrested from the hands of The Great White Men of History. Stern-Enzi’s engaging explanation of, not just what he thinks of a film, but why he thinks it, shows it’s possible to seek insight as well as entertainment from film.
Of course, it’s also possible to watch a film without considering its sociocultural significance at all. I’m not shaming anyone who does that. It’s entirely possible to come home from an unrewarding job and desperately need something pleasant to think about (or not think about). Fortunately, Stern makes it his job to think critically even when his readers are too overwhelmed and exhausted to do so. He’s frequently as entertaining as the filmmakers who seek to entertain us. I hope he knows his job, at least, isn’t a thankless one.

– Iris Jones via


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