Monday, June 12, 2006

Some Thoughts on Movie Reviews (and Reports)

My friend, pg, has been a professional movie reviewer, used to go to Cannes and has met and talked with many of the important movie directors and actors. He finds my naive approach to movie reporting (I don't purport to do reviews, just report on what I see and think) frustrating and keeps trying to educate me by having me watch some of the classic movies and read some of the "important" reviewers. I resist his efforts at education for a number of reasons -- I have no interest in being more educated about movies; I don't care what the New York intelligentsia thinks about a movie; I don't want to watch movies that bore me just because I need to learn about them; most of the classics are only available on DVD and I have no interest in watching movies in such a small screen format. I used to simply keep track of the movies I watched over the course of a year by giving them stars and then, in my annual Christmas report, list the movies I and the rest of my family liked best over the course of a year. PG gave me so much grief about my star system that I have started giving more indepth reports on this blog about the movies I see,while also assigning stars, but he is still not satisfied with the lack of depth in my reporting.

PG pays a lot of attention to what the New York Times, particularly its columnists and letter writers think, and he frequently posts complete columns by Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd and others on his websites. Now comes Clive James, a venerable New York Times movie reviewer and gives support to my naive approach. I won't reprint the whole column because I don't think it is legal, and even if it is legal, I don't think it is ethical, but the "fair use" doctrine permits me, legally and ethically to post some pertinent quotations which follow. Read and weep, pg. What follows is from James' column in the New York Times Sunday Book Review published June 4, 2006. For now, at least, it is available online here although registration may be required.

"Since all of us are deeply learned experts on the movies even when we don't know much about anything else, people wishing to make their mark as movie critics must either be able to express opinions like ours better than we can, or else they must be in charge of a big idea, preferably one that can be dignified by being called a theory. In "American Movie Critics," a Library of America collection drawn from the work of almost 70 high-profile professional critics active at various times since their preferred medium was invented the day before yesterday — the whole history of narrative movies for exhibition still fits inside a mere hundred years — most of the practitioners fall neatly into one category or the other.

"It quickly becomes obvious that those without theories write better. You already knew that your friend who's so funny about the "Star Wars" tradition of frightful hairstyles for women (in the corrected sequence of sequel and prequel, Natalie Portman must have passed the bad-hair gene down to Carrie Fisher) is much less boring than your other friend who can tell you how science fiction movies mirror the dynamics of American imperialism. This book proves that history is with you: perceptions aren't just more entertaining than formal schemes of explanation, they're also more explanatory.

"The editor, Phillip Lopate, an essayist and film critic, has a catholic scope, and might not agree that the nontheorists clearly win out. They do, though, and one of the subsidiary functions that this hefty compilation might perform — subsidiary, that is, to its being sheerly entertaining on a high level — is to help settle a nagging question. In our appreciation of the arts, does a theory give us more to think about, or less? To me, the answer looks like less, but it could be that I just don't like it when a critic's hulking voice gets in the way of the projector beam and tries to convince me that what I am looking at makes its real sense only as part of a bigger pattern of thought, that pattern being available from the critic's mind at the price of decoding his prose.

"For as long as the sonar-riddled soundtrack of "The Hunt for Red October" has me mouthing the word "ping" while I keep reaching for the popcorn, I don't want to hear that what I'm seeing is an example of anything, or a step to anywhere, or a characteristic statement by anyone. What I'm seeing is a whole thing on its own. The real question is why none of it saps my willingness to be involved, not even Sean Connery's shtrangely shibilant Shcottish ackshent as the commander of a Shoviet shubmarine, not even that spliced-in footage of the same old Grumman F9F Panther that has been crashing into the aircraft carrier's deck since the Korean War.

"On the other hand, no prodigies of acting by Tom Cruise in "Eyes Wide Shut," climaxed by his partial success in acting himself tall, convinced me for a minute that Stanley Kubrick, when he made his bravely investigative capital work about the human sexual imagination, had the slightest clue what he was doing. In my nonhumble ticket purchaser's opinion, the great Stanley K., as Terry Southern called him, was, when he made "Eyes Wide Shut," finally and irretrievably out to lunch. Does this discrepancy of reaction on my part mean that the frivolous movie was serious, and the serious movie frivolous? Only, you might say, if first impressions are everything.

"But in the movies they are. Or, to put it less drastically, in the movies there are no later impressions without a first impression, because you will have stopped watching. Sometimes a critic persuades you to give an unpromising-looking movie a chance, but the movie had better convey the impression pretty quickly that the critic might be right. By and large, it's the movie itself that tells you it means business. It does that by telling a story. No story, no movie. Robert Bresson only did with increasing slowness what other directors had done in a hurry. But when Bresson, somewhere in the vicinity of Camelot, reached the point where almost nothing happening became nothing happening at all, you were gone. A movie has to glue you to your seat even when it's pretending not to."

Thank you Mr. James for the ammunition. Knowing pg, I'm sure this won't be the last word on the matter.


Jess said...

Yeah, ditto, she said, having not written a movie review herself just last month...

[BTW, she's often found the dialogue with PG quite entertaining.]

PG said...

OK, I'll bite. This is all, of course, ridiculous nonsense, lowbrow snobbery by people afraid to admit they are TERRIBLY BORED with car chases, movie stars, redundant plots and predictable sequels, stuck in a horrible commerical rut of moviegoing. In a world in which a boy of 17, doing missionary work for his religious beliefs, is captured by US forces, thrown into jail for four years, commits suicide in hopelessness, and then has the military head of Guantanamo call his action "an act of war" is a world in which I don't care to discuss Sean Connery's accent at the moment. I don't understand your defensiveness about your refusal to see good movies. I'm sorry you are missing great works of thought, art, and meaning -- which have nothing to do with what New York reviewers may or may not say about them. I watched a movie on Sunday, an early Michael Haneke film called "The Seventh Continent." It blew me away (technical art school term there) and I haven't read any New York critics. I've been catching up on all the old Haneke films, which were only recently released on DVD, having been unavailable previously. His most recent film, Cache, made many 10 best lists last year though. I'm anxious to see it, and I will, when it comes out on DVD next month. I love studying movies. I always have. The types of ho-hum commercial product you think you enjoy only interest me when I want to scoff and feel superior to the system... or something. Watch what you want and judge it however you wish. But, for my money, when I read a review or a "report" or what have you, I'm not looking for an uninformed, inexperienced, naive, fair-weather, popcorn-minded moviegoer's clever bons mots. I especially don't what that uninformed person telling me what is good and what is bad, because that person is not in the position to do so. That person is an ignorant fool speaking loudly about what he enjoyed or did not and then makes the claim that others must agree with him. I want intelligence and experience in my reviews and in my viewing. I can enjoy a stupid movie as much as the next guy, if I'm in the right frame of mind. But, frankly, Amishhead, since you've never seen a Bresson movie and hate Bergman and disdain the great filmmakers as somehow beneath or above you, I can't respect your opinion. Now, if you had watched a few Ozu movies and were able to say with any meaningful explanation, why you disliked those movies, that would be a different story. But since you refuse, you are speaking out of ignorance and prejudice. So have fun. If you get a chance to see "The Seventh Continent," let me know.

As for that article you quote, I scanned it earlier and didn't think it was that interesting or informative. I also scanned an old Dudley Andrew book over the weekend, Concepts in Film Theory, and again was reminded of the depth and beauty that can be discovered in film. Also, I watched Michael Haneke's interviews on the new DVDs -- each has a separate interview -- and I was impressed with his thoughts on what goes into making his movies. Call me crazy. I like that kind of thing. I wouldn't know where to begin to talk to you about new Mexican cinema, or old Werner Herzog films... Come to think of it, you saw Herzog at Ebertfest a few years ago and couldn't stop talking about him and his movie. Have you seen the movies he made in the 1970S? Your enthusiasm was warranted, granted, but you were a real come-lately there, buddy. You were excited about something that some of us had long since recognized -- because we watched those movies you previously disparaged as "arty" or some such. Am I done now? Happy? Have you got your fair share of abuse? If you can identify the reference in the previous line, I will credit you with more cultural understanding that I thought. It's a test.

PG said...

Take two.

I went back and read the Clive James article a little more closely. It's even stupider than I first thought. He blasts Pauline Kael for having "a new theory every two weeks," when she was the most anti-theorist critic of all, always arguing with Andrew Sarris about the auteurs. I think the point James is trying to make is that he prefers some writers to others, and those he doesn't prefer are those with "theories," but beyond that, it's a muddle and not worth the time analyzing or having a theory about. I'd have to read the book he's reviewing and I'm sure I'd like some of the reviews and not some of the others... and that's really all he's saying, isn't he? The crazy thing is, he tried to have a theory about his preferences, why those with theories are less "good" than those without. In the end, he says one has to know something about the world -- to be informed -- in order to review a movie well. He uses the movie "Downfall" in his example. I have seen "Downfall." I think the point he makes is more or less valid, but it doesn't illuminate the film for me in any way. Is he saying that critics shouldn't also be informed about other films? That they should watch each film as if it were the only film ever made? If you think he's so smart in his analysis, let me ask you this. Did you see "Downfall"? If not, how do you have any idea what he is talking about? Have you read Sarris, Denby, Kauffman, or any of the critics he mentions?

Amishlaw said...

Thank you, pg, for helping me keep Jess entertained. But you sound seriously pissed off. I hope you're not taking any of this too seriously. To answer your last question, no, I haven't seen Downfall. But I think I have some idea of what James is talking about, that's why I posted excerpts from his article. It may be the wrong idea, but who cares?

PG said...

Son of Pissed Off, Part Three.

No, I'm not pissed off. Much.

I didn't think that much of Downfall. Most people loved it. The faux-Amish publication, The Mennonite, included it on their ten best films of the previous year. Don't bother, I say.

When I first started reviewing movies, the field wasn't so glutted with competition. Nowadays, everybody reviews movies and watches box office returns. The movies are so commercial they are hard to endure.

But James is on to something even though he doesn't exactly realize it. It is, as I said, almost as if he wishes people had no other movies to compare to the one they are reviewing or watching. No one is that naive any more. He can't pretend not to be a little sophisticated about what he watches.

But his big mistake is in reading the reviews before he sees the movies.

For some time now, I give a cursory glance to reviews, note star ratings even if you will, know how I respond to a particular critic, and then protect myself from learning anything at all about the movie before I can see it, if I deduce that it something I will want to see. That way, it is always a discovery, even for movies that have been out for a year or more.

I did it with L'Enfant, and I am so glad I didn't read the glowing reviews. I got to discover it. I did it with The Three Burials of Melaquides Estrada, and I'm glad I did that, too. Maybe I'll go back and read your review now. And I'm doing it with Cache.

Opening night weekend hype falls away within weeks or even days. One realizes the lack of necessity to see movies like The Da Vinci Code or almost any of the other overpublicized movie.

On the other hand (and counter to James' argument), if there wasn't the auteur theory or even an idea of the work of a singular director, one wouldn't go see The New World (another movie you missed) because one wouldn't know that Terrence Malick makes exceptionally beautiful movies, once in a decade or so, and that they benefit from the big screen. So, yes, I went to that at the movies as soon as I could. Because I knew something beforehand, some theory, some understanding of the artistry of the filmmaker.

The weekend that movie came out you, I believe, chose to go see Fun with Dick and Jane, a movie you thoroughly enjoyed and rated highly. I can only sigh, shake my head, say "to each his own" and know how much you have missed with your theory-free, no-nothing, filmgoing choices.

You walk into an art museum. On one wall is a Picasso. On the other is a centerfold from Hustler. You love one and think the other is crazy. That's OK. Just don't tell me I'm wrong because I enjoy talking, or writing, about the Picasso while you are fondling your pencil on the other side of the room.

rdl said...

a-law, i'd say he sounds pissed off by the sound of that last remark, but then he lost me right off- he is terribly wordy, i find you much more to the point and entertaining.

Amishlaw said...

Well, thank you, rdl, I think you "get" what I'm trying to do.

PG, which one, the Picasso or the Hustler, do you divine that I would enjoy and which do you think I would find crazy? Careful now, you're usually wrong when you try to read my mind. And, by the way, there are no right or wrong opinions about which movies one prefers or hates. Opinions are like a popular body orifice. Everyone has one. In any event, thanks for helping enliven my blog.

gnightgirl said...

More often than not, I cannot remember what happened in a movie 30 minutes after I've left the theater. I didn't hear the lines everyone else talked about, am perplexed when my friends comment on the soundtrack, and never notice the booms (?) or bloopers. What in the heck am I doing in there? I don't know, though I usually think I like or dislike the show, one way or another. It's a wonder.

Amishlaw said...

gnightgirl, I have a brother with that problem. He goes to movies to sleep. Maybe you're falling asleep and don't realize it. You don't snore, do you?

gnightgirl said...

It's never been pointed out to me, snoring. I do wonder how it is that I have popcorn stuffed up my nose when I leave the theater though...heyyy....maybe I DO fall asleep.

Debra Hope said...

Can't resist. Here's a taste of my lowbrow snobbery which I'm sure will get all your cultured undies in a bundle: I'm happily humming the Oscar winning tune, "You Know It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," from "Hustle & Flow," which I absolutely loved and which I'm sure none of you movie elites bothered to see . . . so there.

Amishlaw said...

Wait a minute, Debra Hope. Whose "cultured undies" are you going to tie in a knot? Who are the cultural elite here? Certainly not me, pg says I speak "out of ignorance and prejudice," and that I have no idea of what Clive James is talking about because I haven't read Sariss, Denby, Kauffman, etc. (Actually I have read some of them, but don't let pg know.) Certainly not gnight girl, she snorts popcorn at the movies. (She really should try it with chocolate covered peanuts.)Surely not Jess, she didn't write a movie review either just last month, and rdl can't follow pg's wordy diatribes. Moreover, I did see Hustle and Flow and thought it was a pretty good movie, although I didn't memorize any of the songs. I think you're the movie elite for memorizing songs from Hustle and Flow. Oh, I guess you must be talking about pg. I don't think he wears cultural undies, but I don't think any of us want to find out.

Ich bin auch Amisch said...

Hey, Amishlaw. Just admit it,... you aspire to be a "ding an sich" viewer.

Amishlaw said...

Ich, I'm afraid I have to admit that I'm so culturally illiterate I don't even know what a "ding an sich" viewer is. Maybe pg will know.

Debra Hope said...

Ding an sich: German phrase for "thing in itself." Probably the Pennsylvania Dutch version of "depends on what is is," okay? Can't believe I'm more Amish than you AmLaw, but this is what my PD-speaking elders think it means . . .