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.