“You made me forget myself I thought I was someone else Someone good” – Lou Reed “Perfect Day”
Here’s the thing: that song you love that you’ve listened to thousands of times and it always makes your heart beat faster, it makes you feel like it’s plugged directly into your central nervous system, speaking to your soul? I don’t like it. That movie you’ve watched over and over so much that you can quote the dialogue and you feel like you’ve actually lived the lives of the characters, the one that still thrills you even though you know what’s coming? Bored me to tears. That TV show you binge-watched four times, the one that makes you gasp and squeal, the one you’ve tweeted about fourteen-hundred times? I didn’t make it through episode one.
Much as we try to fight it and ignore it, the world out there does not reflect the world inside us. What we love is not universally loved. In fact, what we love is probably hated by many. And play that in reverse: that thing you just can’t stomach, well I live for it. I found this out as a kid after watching a James Bond film. (Can’t remember if it was on TV or in the theaters… or even which one it was, but I remember the after-effects.) I rushed out to all my neighborhood pals, raving about it, figuring they’d rave, too. I mean, everyone had to love James Bond movies and everyone wanted to hear about this one, right? Yeah, not so much. None of them really cared about the James Bond movie. Weren’t those movies sexist? Weren’t they silly? Wasn’t he kind of old? Instead, they liked the newest Disney film or that sudsy romantic comedy.
I was shell-shocked. The world did not agree with me. (Of course, I’d had a taste of this earlier with the age-old Ginger vs. Mary Ann debate from “Gilligan’s Island”. In that case, I was arguing with myself, because my preference would switch in an oh-so-fickle manner on a daily basis.) But I learned. Which is why I remember this experience. In fact, that’s sort of what growing-up is about.
The world is full of contrary opinions. And you have to live with that. You have to learn to accept that other people do not share your most fervent feelings. That’s life. There are gaps between people. And you must navigate those gaps in order to function in the world. Some of those gaps are based on when you were born.
I’m a rock-n-roll guy. You can lay out all the learned treatises on why jazz is so special, how it’s a quintessentially American art form, how complex it is, how it changes moment-by-moment based on the musician. And I can listen to Coltrane and Davis and Beiderbecke and the Big Bands and, sure, I can hear what you’re saying and I nod my head politely and smile a thin smile. But meanwhile, I’ve got my earbuds in and I’m blasting Black Sabbath, which is vibrating my innards and shaking my soul like nothing else could.
And even in the rock arena, you can tell me that Elvis and Buddy Holly and Jan & Dean were the true innovators and that everyone after them was a pale impersonation. And I bob my head, smile politely and crank up Led Zeppelin and Muse and The Black Keys, thank you very much. But that’s my problem. I don’t speak music. I can’t read it, I don’t know the history, I can’t see the connections. If I tried to be a music critic, I’d be laughed out of the room. Rightly so. I can’t just point to something and go: “I like dis one veddy much but I don’t know why.” I mean, if I just want to be a fan, I can. But if I aspire to more than that, I’ve gotta know what I’m talking about.
Paraphrasing my friend and mentor Harlan Ellison, you’re not entitled to your opinion. You’re entitled to your informed opinion. If you don’t know anything about the subject matter other than this thing makes you feel nice inside, then please don’t expect me to care.
Many film reviewers sit down and let a movie blow over them, then see how they feel afterwards – and they go back to find things in the movie that support that feeling. And you’d expect that from people who were just transferred from some other part of their pop culture site or magazine or newspaper and suddenly have to write about movies. But we require more, please. Just because you go to the movies once a week doesn’t mean you know anything.
A critic must do the research, do their homework, not just sit and see if it makes dem feel warm inside. Here are a few things I think are meaningful for a critic – and I’m dealing with movies and TV here, since those are what I know.
SUBJECT/OBJECT You’ve got to learn to be objective. Which is nearly impossible. But you at least have to learn what your prejudices are and inform the public accordingly. You like certain kinds of films (and for me, I’m the fanboy, so that’s sci fi and horror) and you don’t like others (please don’t send me to see a rom-com or a sports film). Buy guess what? Suddenly I’m assigned to a rom-com or a sports film. And I can’t go in predetermined to hate it. I have to suspend subjectivity. And if I can’t, I’d better tell you about it. Because I have to jump over the gap and become that audience member who might enjoy this type of experience. I can’t be the grump who waggles his finger and says “this kind of thing can’t ever be good…” Because it can. Class can also be an influence. I came out of “Howard’s End” thinking ‘why should I care about spoiled rich girls sitting around eating desserts and complaining about their love lives?’ I have a problem with the whole idea of a ruling class and a servant class, even if the film takes place in a time when that was accepted. So I better tell you that when I write about “Downton Abbey”. Some critics I know feel that this means they have to go into a screening without knowing anything about a movie or a TV show so they won’t have any kind of predispositions. That’s admirable, but how do you do that anymore? My feeling is more like: yeah, I know what I know but if you can still grab me and surprise me, then you’ve done a good job.
SHOOT/CUT Movies are made piecemeal by an army of artists and technicians. So let’s address that fact. They took three hours to light that shot, all night to build that set, six hours to apply the make-up, weeks to find the right wardrobe. Talk about it. A movie review is not just an analysis of the story. You can do that in English class. How’s it lit, what lens did they use, where is the light coming from, did the make-up look fake, did the wardrobe capture the character, was the hairstyle distracting – it’s our job to analyze and critique every facet. Having been on hundreds of sets, I always find it amazing that the damn thing gets done. The crews are fighting time, weather, actor’s and actress’s schedules, possible illnesses, equipment problems. In the midst of all that chaos, the actors have to build a consistent performance. The director has planned a bunch of shots, but then has to be open to new ideas and chance happenings, the magic of the moment. And then they all have to do it again. And again. From that point-of-view, it’s hard to be hard on a movie or TV show. Because all those hundreds of people did their jobs. They all wanted to make something good, something special. So at least talk about their works. Don’t just write punny and dismissive lines that look good in a quote. For me, watching a movie is a left-brain/right-brain experience. While my right brain may be caught up in the story and emotion of the piece, my left brain is watching camera movement, lighting, editing, placement of the actors, visual effects, make-up and hair, story logic, scene sense, every possible detail. Yeah, I’m that annoying guy who tells you when shots don’t match. But somebody’s gotta do it. A friend once asked me if I judge a movie as if I have a scorecard, putting the pluses on one side and the minuses on another. A lot of the times, that’s true. But sometimes a movie wraps its fingers around your brain and pulls you into it. Even if it’s not perfect, it’s overpowering in its originality and feeling. And that’s what we’re hoping for, each and every time.
GOOD SENSE But if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. And we must say so. Screenwriters have the best intentions, but having multiple writers and many movies made-by-committee sometimes causes the story to go astray. So if the Evil Queen in “Snow White and the Huntsman” could change herself into someone Snow White trusts, why didn’t she do it earlier? They have to wear hats in “The Adjustment Bureau” to do the teleportation stuff? Hats? Come on. Some ideas may seem ‘cool’ but there’s no thought behind them. Sometimes the way something’s shot doesn’t make sense. Look for scenes where the characters are looking out a window. Characters always seem to be looking out windows at something (we usually never see what). And then another character comes up behind them and talks to their back and they both stare out the window. Does anyone really do that? Ever? Not unless there’s something to see out the window. Most people don’t gaze mopily out at nothing for minutes on end. But from a tech viewpoint, it’s a blessing because they can put a nice big light outside that window and make both actors look glowingly wonderful without having to shoot separate close-ups of each one. But logically it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. I can’t recall any Hitchcock movies where people looked out windows unless they were looking at something important. So please, filmmakers, if you want to do that, put something interesting outside. I recently watched a great old film noir, “Alias Nick Beal”, in which a literally devilish Ray Milland tempts honest politician Thomas Mitchell off the straight path. There’s a scene with Milland in the foreground, while Mitchell wanders away to the rear of the set and fusses around near a curtained window. It’s a lovely shot, with Mitchell looking tiny and helpless in the background. But there’s no reason for him to go back there, there’s nothing for him to do there. So it doesn’t make sense. Give him a reason. Don’t just do something because it’ll look cool. Another example: nobody ever ‘goes for a walk’. Whenever a character needs a lame excuse to be outside for a reason, they say they’re going to go out for a walk. Have you done that? Do you know anyone who has? Give them a reason. Their cat goes outside and goes up a tree. Or the kid in the room with them throws their favorite Hank Aaron-signed baseball out a window and the hero must go chase it. Then you’ve got him outside, and maybe up in a place where they can witness that murder or see whatever plot device they need to see to keep the story going. But please, don’t have them ‘just go for a walk’. Logic matters. You can get by with one or two moments of characters doing something illogically (going back into the house or the basement or whatever), but too many and the audience will give up.
HISTORY MATTERS They’ve been making movies for well over a century now, TV shows for almost that long, and anyone worth his or her word-count should know some history. There’s no excuse for any reviewer or critic not to know about Hawks, Renoir, Ford, Chaplin (not Ben), Keaton (not Diane or Michael, though they’re both quite talented), Truffaut, Bunuel, Godard, Alice Guy Blache, Melies, etc, etc, ad infinitum. I know: you can’t see everything. Back in my college days, I thought I would: I had ambitions to watch every single movie. Well that didn’t last long. Hollywood alone makes five to six hundred a year. So triple or quadruple that for the world. Still, you can make an effort. It helps to know what came before. It helps to know that the scene in “Good Will Hunting” where Will tries to get a goodnight kiss at the start of the date is a direct copy of the same scene in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall”. (They claim it’s an homage to that film. Um, I think when you take the exact same scene and use it, that’s not really an homage. That’s something else entirely). It helps to know that George Lucas based R2D2 and C3PO on characters from Kurosawa’s “Hidden Fortress” (and since he did his own spin on them, that’s more like an homage). And it helps to know that Steven Spielberg was heavily influenced by the old Republic serials when he made “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (and since he did those action scenes in his own unique way, yes, that’s more of an homage). Or that “12 Years A Slave” wasn’t the first movie about slavery. (Really? You didn’t see “Roots” or “Amistad” or the awful “Mandingo”?) Does the regular moviegoer need to know all that? Of course not. But a critic does. Movies didn’t begin with Lucas or Spielberg or Soderbergh or Tarantino. Those filmmakers work in the shadow of those who came before – and they’re the first to admit it. So if they can know about those movies back then, so can you.
NOSTALGIA IS NADA That doesn’t mean old is good. Those movies or TV shows you saw as a kid that warmed the cockles – whatever they are – of your heart, the ones you watched sitting on Daddy’s knee or cuddled next to Mommy. They probably weren’t good. Take another look. Objectively. I went back and watched some of the kid shows that were produced locally in Philly where I grew up – and boy, they’re embarrassing. So admit that your memory lied to you when it said “The Gnome-Mobile” or “Herbie Goes Bananas” or “Return to Oz” were wonderful. They’re not. 80’s movies are not the best movies ever made just because that’s when you grew up. Get over it.
ALL FILMS ARE CREATED EQUAL This is something I firmly believe in. Most don’t. But just because a movie was made by a big studio with an important director and a big star doesn’t make it automatically better than that low-budget movie with aliens attacking the earth that was shot in a couple of weeks. Or because it’s an indie by a hot new director, it’s gotta be better than that action movie that just came out by a Luc Besson-imitator. Not necessarily. A movie’s not automatically better if it has subtitles. Or because it’s artsy. Or because it has that actor everyone tells you is the best thing going now. Nah. All predispositions and expectations must be tossed in the trashcan. All movies are equal and should be judged that way, which brings me to:
SUBJECT MATTER DOESN’T MATTER Just because a movie is about a Big Important Subject doesn’t make it important. Or Big. Does the subject matter of a painting make any difference? Because the Impressionists just painted flowers and hordes of no-name artists painted crucifixions and religious tableau, does that make the Impressionists’ work inferior? Nope, just the opposite. It’s the way the painting was done that matters. Not what it’s about. There were a ton of Important, bloated studio films about Important Topics in the 30’s and 40’s that most of us have forgotten (oh, I dunno, how about “Wilson” and, yawn, “The Story of Louis Pasteur”) but we remember Frankenstein and Dracula and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Oh no, you say, not monsters and not sci fi. That’s silly stuff. Wrong. Dead wrong. Many monster films have more depth and meaning than any socially relevant snoozefest made by well-meaning filmmakers. Does that mean that Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” is better than Spielberg’s “Lincoln”? Why, yes, Virginia, it does. But subject matter does matter in other ways. Moral ways.
CLASSICS ARE IN THE MIND OF THE BEHOLDER One problem with some film classes are that certain films in the ‘canon’ of film history are presented as classics that cannot be criticized. Any film can be criticized. I still find “Gone With The Wind” to be slow and occasionally trite. And when I was in school, they showed me “The Birth of a Nation” as a classic. A more vile, reprehensible, racist piece of work does not exist. Sure, tell me how Griffith invented the close-up and advanced the art of montage. But he put actors in blackface and had the Ku Klux Klan ride in as the heroes of the film. So no amount of style can overcome the hateful stuff in that movie. All the supposed classics can be torn apart. It’s OK. They’ll live. Some will love them, some won’t. But it’s useless to say something is a masterpiece and is beyond all reproach. No film is perfect. So if you feel that “Citizen Kane” is too impersonal, Kubrick is too cold and emotionless, Hitchcock movies are so planned-out and storyboarded that they lose feeling – it’s OK. I don’t necessarily agree with you, but those are all valid viewpoints. Just back up your assertions and opinions intelligently. A lot of younger people tell me they find “2001: A Space Odyssey” tedious beyond belief. And yes, my first instinct is to bitch-slap them and holler till their ears bleed. But they have a point. Nothing is beyond criticism. Live with it.
LEAVE ‘EM LAUGHING In the interest of complete disclosure, I’ll end with a list of common critic quotes – and then tell you what they really mean. Honest. This is an accurate translation, according to the Secret Reviewer Guide, Twelfth Edition:
It’s well made = I don’t know what I’m talking about
It’s so well done = I really don’t know what I’m talking about It’s well-directed = I had to think of something nice to say Sure to be mentioned during Awards season =
I fell asleep Definite multiple Oscar nominations = I fell asleep twice
A thrill ride = they had lobster and champagne at the press junket
The summer’s most exciting roller-coaster ride = This gets me quoted in the newspaper ads, right?
A deeply felt story of real emotion = I didn’t see it
Beautifully Shot =I saw pretty flowers in it
The best movie I’ve seen this year = how much is the studio paying me to say this?
A feast for the eyes = the script didn’t make sense
Well-acted = my favorite movie is TOY STORY 3
An important film about serious topics = should have been a Lifetime movie
Non-stop action = It kept me awake
Powerful female performances = women scare me
Edgy and provocative = sex scares me
Recalls great movies from the past = my brain stopped working when I was fourteen
Every frame is a masterpiece = at least the set designers knew what they were doing
I had so much fun in the theater = but not because of the movie
An undiscovered gem = I had to sit through this turd so I’m going to make someone else sit through it, too