Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: A belated anniversary look around

Somehow when I wasn’t looking—or at least paying attention—the Screening Room passed its second anniversary. I don’t know if that’s cause for celebration, but it’s perhaps at least worth noting—if for no other reason than it never occurred to me I could find two years worth of things to write about. Yes, I know that Justin Souther has stepped in on a few occasions (and for that I am very grateful), but that doesn’t alter the fact that it’s not always easy coming up with a topic. Not that I’ve run out of things to talk about. Far from it. But finding a topic that it strikes me that more than six people will care to read about is another matter.

I might be perfectly happy making a case that the last great unexamined filmmaker from the “golden age” of movies is William Dieterle, but I don’t think too many readers are likely to run right out and buy or rent every movie of his that’s commercially available. That doesn’t mean I won’t do it anyway at some point (inspiration is sometimes at a low ebb,  you know), but it’s not at the top of my list. In fact, I’m far more likely to sing the praises of William Thiele’s (who?) The Jungle Princess (1936), which introduced the faux-exotica of Dorothy Lamour to the world—if only to put forth my theory that no movie—even the finest—could not be improved upon by ending with a monkey stampede, which is how the film in question concludes. And don’t tell me there’s no one here who wouldn’t find that a mass of marauding monkeys descending on Scarlett O’Hara at the end of Gone with the Wind would liven things up considerably. To the best of my knowledge, however, The Jungle Princess is the only movie to take advantage of this useful device.

I could also devote some serious time to the idea that two of the things most missing from modern film are men in gorilla suits and secret passages. Think about it. When is the last time you saw a really good man in a gorilla suit? These boys used to proliferate in movies. Some actors—most notably Charles Germora, Ray “Crash” Corrigan and their low-rent companion Emil Van Horn—specialized in this. Few respectable mad scientists would be caught dead without their very own gorilla for random mayhem, and as we all knew, eccentrics of all sorts kept gorillas as pets. Plus, there was nothing like a gorilla suit for being inconspicuous in suburban America (see the 1930 Little Rascals short Bear Shooters and the 1940 Boris Karloff B picture “thriller” The Ape). And comedians from Laurel and Hardy to the Marx Brothers to Bob Hope found them useful. Hell, stick a cowhorn in the middle of Corrigan’s gorilla’s forehead in Flash Gordon (1936) and he becomes an outer space horror called an “orangopoid.” Pretty versatile, if you ask me.

And the secret passage? There’s a kind of illusionary secret passage (an offset wall) in James Wan’s Dead Silence (2007), but I can’t think of any others in recent times. Why? Has architecture become so boring that these occur to no one? These are such useful all-purpose constructions that their absence seems very strange. Hidden horrors—even occasionally men in gorilla suits—can lurk in them, missing corpses can tumble out of them, heroines can be snatched by hooded madmen into them, and, if we’re to believe the one in the Bela Lugosi picture The Devil Bat (1940), spacious enough to store old furniture, beds, paintings, and goodness knows what else. And let’s face it, secret passages are just plain cool. Who among us wouldn’t incorporate one—or more—into a house plan with the slightest provocation and sufficient financial backing? So why have they all but disappeared from the movie scene? It’s a question worth pondering, I think.

I could go on at some length about these things, but I’m not going to—at least not now. Instead, I want to take this quasi-occasion to pose a different sort of question—and a loaded one at that. What exactly do you look for in a movie critic? I ask not because I’m looking for pointers. That would be kind of silly. I doubt I could be other than I am, and I know that if I tried I’d only be a second-rate imitation of whatever or whoever it might be suggested I should be. No, it’s mostly a matter of curiosity. And it seems a more pertinent question than ever in our democratized internet age.

Having thought back on the matter, I find I have a difficult time even remembering when, how and why I started reading movie critics. I was vaguely aware of critics in a general sense, but general movie magazines of that era were more like the print version of CNN’s Showbiz reports than not, far more concerned with Liz and Richard Burton than with anything to do with the movies themselves. What critical fare I read came from “monster magazines” and the nostalgia-based books that offered The Films of Whoever. The former offered little criticism and many of the latter offered reviews from the time the films were released, which was frankly not terrifically inspiring. The 1930s might have been the golden age of film, but it was not the golden age of film criticism.

I guess this started to change when some relative decided that a subscription to Esquire would make a swell Christmas present for a high school boy. Whether or not that was really true, I did encounter some actual criticism in its pages—sometime contributed by no less than Peter Bogdanovich and some by Dwight MacDonald, about whose work I remember very little. However, if it is true that he wrote of the 1959 Ben Hur, “Charlton Heston throws all his punches in the first 10 minutes (3 grimaces and 2 intonations) so that he has nothing left long before he stumbles to the end, 4 hours later, and has to react to the Crucifixion. (He does make it clear, I must admit, that he quite disapproves of it.),” then there is perhaps much to recommend him. I seem to recall that when he left Esquire, he took his critics to task over the charges that he took movies too seriously by unequivocally recommending—sight unseen—Little Cigars (1973),  a crime caper picture about gangster midgets. (Gotta see that someday.)

I still can’t say that I avidly followed critics until much later, and in those days it was all pretty much hit and miss, which is to say I read whatever came my way—without taking it very seriously. By that I mean I never “had” to see what so-and-so said about a movie in order to choose whether or not I was going to see it. The concept is perhaps irrelevant to me at this point in my life. The only luxury I have in making it a to-see-or-not-to-see proposition now is whether or not to invoke that magical phrase, “Oh, that has Justin Souther written all over it.” But were the choice available it’s one that I likely still wouldn’t follow. If I’m interested in a film because of its subject matter, genre, director, or (in rare cases these days) star, chances are I’m going to see it no matter who tells me how bad it is.

This probably goes back to the era when movies of a recent vintage (recent usually meaning within the past two to five years) were debuted with some little fanfare on network television. For our edification in the matter TVGuide hired the sometimes estimable film critic Judith Crist to do a column weighing in—rather briefly—on the week’s offerings. Now, Ms. Crist could incite me to see a film I’d never heard of. In fact, her enthusiasm for the TV premiere of Bryan Forbes’ The Wrong Box (1966) was the primary reason I saw the film in the first place (or rather as much of the film as the CBS censor felt it was suitable for me to see).

She’d also earned my respect for championing Michael Winner’s I’ll Never Forget What’sisname (1967) in its theatrical release—happily thumbing her nose at both the MPAA (who had denied the film an approval seal) and the Catholic Legion of Decency (who had “condemned” the film outright). At the same time, she gave very low marks to Casino Royale (1967) calling it “vulgar” and “trashy,” and I certainly took issue with that (even in the 95—out of 131—minute version that played on network TV)—not in the least because it missed the point of a film that made fun of a series of movies that thrived on being vulgar and trashy. Lesson learned: critics will never completely reflect your tastes.

Without going into an entire history of my own relationship with movie critics, my point is that a critic may get me to watch a film, but isn’t likely to keep me from doing so. I find a good deal of movie criticism interesting and follow a number of reviewers as a matter of course. Off the top of my head, I consistently read Roger Ebert, David Edelstein, David Denby, Wesley Morris, A.O. Scott, Manohla Dargis, J. Hoberman, Stephen Holden, Kenneth Turan, Carrie Rickey, Bill Gibron and Andrew Sarris (who has unfortunately been “laid off” by the New York Observer). I could add Luke Y. Thompson, Larry Toppman, Roger Moore and Matt Brunson to this list, but since I know all of them—to one degree or another—there’s likely a degree of bias there. Do I agree with all these critics all the time? By no means. But that’s not what I’m looking for—nor do I think it should be.

Personally, I’m interested in criticism that sheds some kind of light on a film in a way I hadn’t thought of. That hardly requires my agreement with the criticism, and in fact very often won’t get it. What matters isn’t agreement, but whether or not the argument is well thought out and presented in a coherent—and entertaining—manner. If the writer can make me look at the film in a different way and consider his or her point of view, then he has succeeded.

This is sometimes even true of the most villified critic of our age. I refer, of course, to Armond White, who seems to exist for the express purpose of being hated. My own problems with White stem less from his status as the arch-contrarian than from the fact that he ties himself up with jargon, hamstrings himself with pointlessly provocative comparisons, and is rarely an entertaining writer—except perhaps by accident. I almost never agree with him, but I often find his point of view interesting—occasionally to the point of borderline insanity.

I simply cannot bring myself to hate (an awfully strong word) someone who put forth the idea that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was a deliberate satire of the sort of movie it purports to be. I don’t buy it for a second, but it amuses me. And is it all that different from Manohla Dargis’ assessment of Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008)? In both cases, the reviews strike me as being less of the movies themselves than about the movies the reviewers wanted them to be. The biggest difference is that I tend to think Dargis is reviewing the movie Eastwood thought he was making. I’m hard-pressed to believe that Michael Bay thought anything at all, except perhaps that audiences like low comedy, things blowing up and Megan Fox with her butt in the air.

This is part of what I do not understand about the response to movie critics. So much of it seems predicated entirely on simply not agreeing with the critic. You see this all the time on Rotten Tomatoes where reviewers are constantly damned—with alarming and sometimes seemingly psychotic fervor—for not being in agreement with the commenter. They take this so seriously and so personally they will pore over every review by the offending critic in order to “prove” him or her wrong by finding an instance or two of a good review for a generally low-rated movie, or a bad review for a highly-acclaimed one. Really, all this proves is that everyone has variations in taste. I’d be happy to save them the research and admit that I liked Eurotrip (2004) and intensely disliked Million Dollar Baby (2004). Now, if you want to turn that into that interesting—not infrequently cited—claim that you’ve never agreed with anything I’ve ever written, liked no movie I have liked, and loved every movie I’ve hated, have at it. And I wish you the joy of that Wayans Brothers festival you must be having.

Fortunately—and I’ve noted this before, but it bears repeating—we seem to have generally created a civilized online community of regular posters on the Xpress site who are capable of agreement and disagreement without base name-calling and absurd blanket statements. Oh, it’s happened, but it is blessedly uncommon—even when someone wants to put me in my place—or wants to do the same with another poster. It isn’t that I’m unwilling to go best two falls out of three with someone over a movie or a filmmaker. I most certainly am. But I’m also aware that, at bottom, it’s a matter of differing tastes and perceptions.

Do I like being agreed with? Certainly. Who doesn’t? Is a disagreement cause for vitriol? Rarely. I spent 12 years publicly fighting with Scarlet Street publisher Richard Valley. People used to read the message boards we co-moderated just to watch those verbal brawls. What they didn’t get was the fact that he and I communicated with each other nearly every day of those 12 years and almost never even referred to our online battles in those communications. Were the battles a pose? Not in the least. I fully believed Richard had some of the most parochial tastes of anyone I ever knew, and he fully believed that I had a marked taste for pretentious twaddle. So what? Richard died from pancreatic cancer in 2007. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss him—or those battles—even if he was wrong, and he usually was. And he’d slap me if I said otherwise. Or maybe he’d unleash a monkey stampede on me.

Do I digress? Well, probably a little, so let me simply throw out the question again—what do you want from a movie critic?

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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43 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: A belated anniversary look around

  1. Louis

    Marked taste for pretentious twaddle…Hmm?

    How ’bout a conceited wealth of cinema knowledge and the bombastic literary acrobatics to support it?

    One need look no further than one Duncan Shepherd of the San Diego Reader. His opinions can be maddeningly critical. His prose? A delight.

    I suspect too pretentious to even fool with something as pedestrian as, say, RottenTomatoes –his reviews cannot be found there?

    Would be curious to know if anyone who haunts Xpress knows him?

    Here’s a sampling…

    http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2010/feb/17/bad-lot/

  2. Dionysis

    I’ve never thought about what I want from a movie critic, so I’ll list the first things that come to mind. At minimum, (1) an ability to write in an engaging style, (2) a solid knowledge of film history, (3) some knowledge of the technical aspects of film-making, (4) a willingness to admit personal bias while still rendering a reasonably objective review, (5) a feel for the cultural milieu giving rise to films, (6) refraining from the denigration of opposing views and (7) humor.

    I don’t go out of my way to read various reviewers; yours are the only ones I consistently read (and Justin’s, of course). I sometimes read Rotten Tomatoes, and I’ve always liked Roger Ebert’s reviews (when it was Siskel and Ebert, I usually found Gene Siskel too dour and slightly condescending). I also will check out reviews every couple of weeks or so on IMDB. I often find reviews by the public helpful.

    I agree that a review will not prevent me from seeing a film (with a caveat: if I find it contains something I know I’ll not like, such as animal abuse, I probably will skip it), but a good review may well induce me to see a movie I hadn’t planned to see.

    Thanks for asking your readers the question.

  3. Ken Hanke

    Would be curious to know if anyone who haunts Xpress knows him?

    I have to say I’ve never heard of him, but chances are he’s never heard of me, so we’re probably even. I’m somewhat less delighted by the writing style than you are, I think, but mostly I’m not finding a lot of substance here. Then again, the reviews are too short to offer much room for that.

    I might note that Richard didn’t think I wrote pretentious twaddle (I think it unlikely he would have published as much of it as he did were that the case), but that he thought my cinematic taste veered in that direction. (He thought anyone who liked any John Boorman picture should be viewed with great suspicion.)

  4. Ken Hanke

    I’ve always liked Roger Ebert’s reviews (when it was Siskel and Ebert, I usually found Gene Siskel too dour and slightly condescending).

    I think a lot of that was probably a plain difference in their characters. Ebert is just generally more outgoing, more willing — even eager — to share his personal life with the public. (That may be even more true today.) Siskel was always more private and guarded. I remember very little of Siskel’s writing. I remember far more of Ebert’s — even or maybe especially things I didn’t agree with. And I wonder how much of that is the sense that he wants to share the things he loves with others.

    You know, there was one of the old guard critics — I mean really old guard — I’m not sure who wrote of Love Me Tonight back in 1932 when it was new and no one thought of movies as collectible or generally of lasting interest, “It’s the sort of movie you wish you had a copy of, so you could take it on rainy days and show it to your friends and make them happy, too.” Something of that sort is what I think we try to convey when we’re at our best about movies when we think they’re at their best.

    Thanks for asking your readers the question

    Thanks for answering it. I think it’s an interesting topic.

  5. luluthebeast

    I think a retrospective of William Dieterle would be great, anyone who can direct movies like Midsummer Night’s Dream, Six Hours to Live and Devil and Daniel Webster (some of my favorites) deserves it.

    As far as what I look for in a reviewer? Someone who can write an interesting article and knows some history of the cinema. Doesn’t matter if I agree with them or not, as long as they can keep things in some sort of perspective. And I think you do that Ken.

  6. Ken Hanke

    I think a retrospective of William Dieterle would be great, anyone who can direct movies like Midsummer Night’s Dream, Six Hours to Live and Devil and Daniel Webster (some of my favorites) deserves it

    You and I are very likely the only ones here who even know what 6 Hours to Live is. (Thank you, Fox Movie Channel for sitting on yet another title.) At the same time I’d add The Last Flight, Her Majesty Love, Scarlet Dawn, Jewel Robbery, Lawyer Man, Madame DuBarry, Fog Over Frisco, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, I’ll Be Seeing You, Love Letters, Portrait of Jennie to that list. The kicker to all this? I’ve tried, tried and tried — as recently as a week or so ago — and I just don’t like The Devil and Daniel Webster. And I know I’m “supposed” to.

  7. luluthebeast

    “The kicker to all this? I’ve tried, tried and tried—as recently as a week or so ago—and I just don’t like The Devil and Daniel Webster. And I know I’m “supposed” to.”

    That’s OK, look at how I feel about THE SHINING!

  8. Ken Hanke

    That’s OK, look at how I feel about THE SHINING!

    Yes, but I can’t get away from the notion that in both cases we are wrong in our dislikes.

  9. luluthebeast

    I think you dislike THE DEVIL more than I dislike THE SHINING, I just think that there are a number of movies by Kubrick that I think are better, plus, to be honest, sometimes I just get tired of Jack.

  10. Ken Hanke

    I think you dislike THE DEVIL more than I dislike THE SHINING, I just think that there are a number of movies by Kubrick that I think are better, plus, to be honest, sometimes I just get tired of Jack

    I’m not even sure I dislike The Devil and Daniel Webster. I’m more just indifferent to it and left cold by it. Oddly, I think it may suffer from having someone (James Craig) so bland in the central role that he might be the “anti-Jack.”

  11. I read film criticism for the same reason I read most writing – entertainment. I want someone to write or talk about films in an entertaining and incisive manner. I need not agree with their opinions. If that was the case, I would’ve given up on Mark Kermode years ago.

    On a practical level, my favourite critics are ones whose reviews will tell me whether I will or won’t enjoy a film. This is mainly to do with how well they articulate their arguments. I can read one of Ken’s reviews and 98% of the time, I know whether I’ll have a good time watching the movie he’s talking about.

    This is not to say that he and I have 98% concurrent taste – I’d say 70% is a more accurate figure. But he does an excellent job of framing his reviews in such a way that I know which qualities of the film he responded to – and I can take a pretty good stab at how I’ll respond to them.

    Ken gave extremely positive reviews to both THE LAST STATION and PRECIOUS, but from reading the respective reviews, I know that I want to see THE LAST STATION and will pass on PRECIOUS.

  12. I wonder how much of that is the sense that he wants to share the things he loves with others.
    Actually, THAT is what I look for a critic. If I don’t get the sense that the critic has a real, honest love for the medium, chances are their writing will leave me cold.

    The sense that at the heart of the critic, there’s a film fan – and that’s the driving force of their vocation – is what I get from yourself, Ebert, Mr Souther, Kermode, etc. and that’s what makes it enjoyable.

    Otherwise, it’s like reading a book about Sgt Pepper by someone who thinks the Beatles were an ok beat combo and doesn’t get what all the fuss is about.

  13. Ken Hanke

    This is not to say that he and I have 98% concurrent taste – I’d say 70% is a more accurate figure. But he does an excellent job of framing his reviews in such a way that I know which qualities of the film he responded to – and I can take a pretty good stab at how I’ll respond to them

    That’s probably very reasonable, though I would have placed the percentage of accord — at least on current film — a bit higher. I wonder how much of this may by genre specific? You could answer that better than I.

    Ken gave extremely positive reviews to both THE LAST STATION and PRECIOUS, but from reading the respective reviews, I know that I want to see THE LAST STATION and will pass on PRECIOUS

    And that suggests a degree of genre specificity, but I will gladly admit that you’re also describing two very different kinds of reviews. Precious is a film I admired, but I didn’t particularly like it, and though I have seen it twice, it’s not something I envision becoming a movie I’ll want to revisit. The Last Station, on the other hand, I admired and I enjoyed the hell out of it. I can imagine revisiting it over the years. I am sure that comes across. I would in fact be surprised if it didn’t.

    I actually find that I can often gauge my likely response to a film — at least in broad strokes — based on the kind of positive or negative review. When I see a film damned as “overwrought,” “self-indulgent,” and/or “pretentious,” I tend to be more rather than less interested. When I see a film praised as “beautifully restrained” and “deliberately paced” and made by a filmmaker who “knows that less is more,” I’m braced to be bored out of my mind. Of course, it doesn’t always play out that way, but these can be useful signposts.

    it’s like reading a book about Sgt Pepper by someone who thinks the Beatles were an ok beat combo and doesn’t get what all the fuss is about.

    That might be a little too specific for me, but the point is well taken — and I’ve certainly seen articles and even books that fit this description.

  14. That’s probably very reasonable, though I would have placed the percentage of accord—at least on current film—a bit higher. I wonder how much of this may by genre specific?
    I was speaking across the artistic board, so yes, with film it’s probably a great deal higher.
    Where we diverge with film is probably not so much genre based but more to do with it’s relationship with other media. I’m more inclined to find value in a film based on a comic book series I’m fond of (Batman, Superman, etc.). I’m more likely to enjoy a biopic about Sinatra or Howlin’ Wolf. We probably went into SHERLOCK HOLMES with different expectations. Even in those areas, however, we often seem to find much common ground.

    Precious is a film I admired, but I didn’t particularly like it, and though I have seen it twice, it’s not something I envision becoming a movie I’ll want to revisit.
    Which definitely came across in the review, and is the main reason I’ve got no desire to see. Unless it contains something incredibly innovative or unique, I really don’t want to spend two hours not liking something, no matter how admirable it is. This is, for the most part, why I avoid Clint Eastwood movies.

    When I see a film damned as “overwrought,” “self-indulgent,” and/or “pretentious,” I tend to be more rather than less interested.
    Well, that depends on who’s using those phrases, surely?* Those all strike me as potentially valid criticisms (even ‘self-indulgent), but it varies. I mean, describing Tarantino as being too in love with the sound of his own dialogue is a way of calling him self-indulgent. Describing a Nicholas Sparks adaptation as overwrought certainly seems appropriate. And I would have no objection to THE DARK KNIGHT being labeled pretentious.

    *Don’t call me Shirley!

    That might be a little too specific for me
    Actually, it is for me as well. Bad example. But I did once read a biography of a country artist by someone whose opinion of the whole genre seemed to be pretty low. I couldn’t work out why the hell he’d bothered writing the book. That’s probably a better example. Because there have been many times you will be obligated to review popular films you don’t get the fuss over (eg. STARs, both WARS and TREK, TWINKLIGHT, etc.), but that shouldn’t invalidate your review of the films one bit, as you’re examining them within the context of a cinema-at-large, rather than in the context of the phenomena that spawned them. If that makes sense.

  15. Ken Hanke

    Where we diverge with film is probably not so much genre based but more to do with it’s relationship with other media. I’m more inclined to find value in a film based on a comic book series I’m fond of (Batman, Superman, etc.).

    In that regard, yes, since I’m fond of no comic book series (possible exception being Magnus Robot Fighter, which is more camp value than not and even was when I was a kid), and the film is engaged in an uphill battle to make me care. That may be a wash, however, because departures from the source don’t bother me.

    I’m more likely to enjoy a biopic about Sinatra or Howlin’ Wolf.

    Sinatra maybe, maybe not. It’s true I’m not a fan, which probably has more to do with his era than not, but I’m not against the idea of a biopic. Howlin’ Wolf, definitely, but you could say the same of any straightforward blues musician, since the appeal escapes me. (We needn’t drag country music into this, I hope.)

    We probably went into SHERLOCK HOLMES with different expectations. Even in those areas, however, we often seem to find much common ground

    Well, I didn’t care much about whether or not Sherlock Holmes was faithful (whatever that means in the context of Holmes) and my interest had as much or more to do with it being a Guy Ritchie movie. I neither expected, nor wanted a Basil Rathbone movie (if I did, there are 14 real ones I could choose from).

    Well, that depends on who’s using those phrases, surely?* Those all strike me as potentially valid criticisms (even ‘self-indulgent), but it varies. I mean, describing Tarantino as being too in love with the sound of his own dialogue is a way of calling him self-indulgent. Describing a Nicholas Sparks adaptation as overwrought certainly seems appropriate. And I would have no objection to THE DARK KNIGHT being labeled pretentious

    I think it’s probably less who’s using the terms than it’s what they’re being applied to. Overall, though, I think “self-indulgent” is a lazy, worthless term that mostly translates into, “Oh, my God, he’s made a movie about things that interest him.” Unless we’re talking about a contract director of the studio era or a hired gun, that’s pretty much a given. (And I think it’s less pretension that bothers me about The Dark Knight than it’s pomposity and bloat.)

    But I did once read a biography of a country artist by someone whose opinion of the whole genre seemed to be pretty low. I couldn’t work out why the hell he’d bothered writing the book.

    I know more than two or three writers who almost never turn down an assignment, which is probably the answer here. Myself, I can’t imagine devoting the time it takes to write a book to such a thing.

    Because there have been many times you will be obligated to review popular films you don’t get the fuss over (eg. STARs, both WARS and TREK, TWINKLIGHT, etc.), but that shouldn’t invalidate your review of the films one bit, as you’re examining them within the context of a cinema-at-large, rather than in the context of the phenomena that spawned them. If that makes sense.

    Yes, though there’s a huge difference between 600-1000 words of review and a book. And I do try to take the phenomenon into account — if only to express bafflement over it. But I definitely try to make it clear upfront if I’m a fan or not. That I think is only fair.

  16. LYT

    “Now, if you want to turn that into that interesting—not infrequently cited—claim that you’ve never agreed with anything I’ve ever written, liked no movie I have liked, and loved every movie I’ve hated, have at it.”

    I often get people, sometimes even friends, who’ll say: “You’re a terrible critic! I disagree with you on everything!” To which I respond: “Then in fact I am a great critic for you — do the exact opposite of what I suggest, and you’ll always be happy.”

    I like writers with personality and conviction. This is part of why I find the “reviews” at right-wing Christian sites like Movieguide.org and capalert.com so compelling. They’re usually wrong, but they have 100% certainty in their convictions.

    I’ve recently been discussing at another site the issue of critics seeming arrogant when they claim to speak for the audience…one of the burdens old media has that new media does not (and I speak having briefly been a part of the former) is that first-person is so frowned upon in old-school publications that you have to write your own opinion as “we” or “the audience,” which inherently comes off as arrogant.

    Anyway, honored to be mentioned in this column.

  17. bengi

    Hmm. The last man-in-a-gorilla-suit movie that I can think of was 1983’s Trading Places.

  18. davidf

    Dionysis gave a similar enough answer to what I was thinking that I won’t be redundant by restating it. I’ll just write: ditto. I would add that I appreciate a critic whose sensibilities are easily discernible so that I can compare them to mine and gauge how much I’m likely to enjoy a movie. That also echos what many have answered here, and it’s one of the reasons I particularly enjoy your reviews, Ken. You give a good enough sense of your tastes in your writing that I can usually tell where our tastes will overlap and where they’ll diverge.
    Mostly, I appreciate a writer with a precise enough understanding of a films’ context and a precise enough vocabulary to speak meaningfully about a film. I mention this specifically because I’m always wondering what the hell Armond White means when he uses the word “hipster”. Culturally, that word is pretty meaningless at this point. I don’t know what it could mean when pertaining to a film. Watered down cultural labels like “hippy”, “punk”, “emo”, etc. are brimming with precise meaning compared to “hipster”. I’ve become pretty convinced that Armond White doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I appreciate a critic who doesn’t give me that impression.

  19. DrSerizawa

    I read reviewers for different reasons. First I have a couple I read simply because they like and dislike pretty much the same movies I do so I can get a better feel of whether I want to spend the $ at the theater.

    Second there are critics I read who are knowledgeable and entertaining. Dionysis gave some excellent criteria for this earlier in the thread. I include Ken H for this. I don’t look for agreement with my opinions… quite the opposite. How boring would that be? I want opinions that challenge my assumptions.

    The worst critics IMHO have no idea that they are engaging in solipsism… i.e. they’ve confused personal subjective opinion with objective reality. This results in the make-wrong attitudes so prevalent on the net. People can’t see that their view is right for them but doesn’t have to be right for someone else. Movies are subjective entertainment and “good” and “bad” are subjective realities.

    Reviewers who go off into the ozone are not entertaining to me. Neither are those who have too high opinions of their beliefs. An example is a B movie review site “And You Call Yourself A Scientist” where the reviewer makes every SciFi movie of the 50s an allegory for the fear of Communism. Monomania never entertaining for me.

    I’m also amused from time to time by directors’ comments on DVD commentaries where they chuckle about the critics who have placed thoughts and motivations in the director’s heads that never existed. There is danger in over-analysis. It becomes silly.

  20. Ken Hanke

    I often get people, sometimes even friends, who’ll say: “You’re a terrible critic! I disagree with you on everything!” To which I respond: “Then in fact I am a great critic for you—do the exact opposite of what I suggest, and you’ll always be happy.”

    Well, that is a valid approach. I strongly suspect, however, that it’s hyerbole on their part. It would be truly remarkable to find a critic with whom you literally never agreed.

    I like writers with personality and conviction. This is part of why I find the “reviews” at right-wing Christian sites like Movieguide.org and capalert.com so compelling. They’re usually wrong, but they have 100% certainty in their convictions

    I wouldn’t argue the point, but I think it’s fair to note that these people aren’t really writing about movies, nor do they care about movies per se in 90+ percent of the cases.

    I’ve recently been discussing at another site the issue of critics seeming arrogant when they claim to speak for the audience…one of the burdens old media has that new media does not (and I speak having briefly been a part of the former) is that first-person is so frowned upon in old-school publications that you have to write your own opinion as “we” or “the audience,” which inherently comes off as arrogant

    I’m not sure exactly when and how that changed. I do think it generally refreshing to not have to talk like visiting royalty, though. In some respects, I think — but cannot prove — that it had a lot to do with the more anecdotal styles that were adopted by Messrs. Ebert and Sarris over the years with more personal stories mixed in to the reviews.

    Anyway, honored to be mentioned in this column

    Well, I do read you regularly.

  21. Ken Hanke

    Hmm. The last man-in-a-gorilla-suit movie that I can think of was 1983’s Trading Places

    Well, I guess that’s a man in a gorilla suit in Old Dogs, but it tries too hard (and is almost certainly CGI’d to smooth it out). It’s really not the same if it’s not fairly evident that it’s a man in a gorilla suit.

  22. Jessamyn

    The great thing about Trading Places (which sprang instantly to my mind also) was that it had both a man in a gorilla suit, and a Man in a Gorilla Suit. If you know what I mean.

    What I look for in a reviewer is, as has been said before, someone who explains WHY they found various parts of a film enjoyable or execrable. It’s a fault of immaturity and the non-critical thinker to say, “that’s great” or “that’s awful” when what you mean is, “I don’t like it.” Mushrooms aren’t awful, they have an earthy taste and a slippery-chewy texture that personally I find completely inedible, but maybe you yourself really like an earthy taste. You’d never know to try them if I just said, “Mushrooms are awful!”

    The other thing I look for, particularly in something like this “screening room” section, is an expert. I know very little about film history, most directors’ body of work, technical details of cinematography, etc. I also have no interest in researching them. But if someone pulls together the strands that connect a series of films or shed light on the workings of a particular picture, I’m fascinated.

    Show me the man behind the curtain – he has a really interesting job!

  23. Ken Hanke

    I would add that I appreciate a critic whose sensibilities are easily discernible so that I can compare them to mine and gauge how much I’m likely to enjoy a movie.

    That seems only reasonable actually. It also presumes patience on the part of the reader to read a critic long enough to get a feel for his or her sensibilities.

    I mention this specifically because I’m always wondering what the hell Armond White means when he uses the word “hipster”.

    “Hipster” seems to have come to be internetspeak to be randomly applied to anyone you want to denigrate. You’re right that it hasn’t much meaning, though I always take it to mean anyone who appears to be following any current trend for fear of not being cool. I suspect that White means to imply that anyone who isn’t the outspoken Mr. White is a phony, since he, after all, is the only one with nerve enough to tell the truth. That, however, is only my guess. I only know one person who actually — and only slightly — knows White (and said person finds him scary).

    By the way, I don’t use the term “hipster.” I’m pretty sure I never have.

  24. Ken Hanke

    I don’t look for agreement with my opinions… quite the opposite. How boring would that be? I want opinions that challenge my assumptions

    Yes, but this is because you are an adult and don’t get rattled when you’re made to (God forbid)think, and don’t go into a tailspin because someone sees a thing differently than you.

    I’m also amused from time to time by directors’ comments on DVD commentaries where they chuckle about the critics who have placed thoughts and motivations in the director’s heads that never existed. There is danger in over-analysis. It becomes silly.

    It certainly can get silly, but it isn’t something I easily dismiss (unless it’s obviously off in the stratosphere). I don’t always think directors are the best judges of their own work, or that they’re always conscious of what they’re doing. I’ve encountered too many filmmakers who were clearly lying about something and even more who take a “well, now that you mention it” stance to something in their work that they’d not consciously realized. I don’t think all art is conscious. And very often, I think the art is more honest than the artist.

  25. Ken Hanke

    What I look for in a reviewer is, as has been said before, someone who explains WHY they found various parts of a film enjoyable or execrable. It’s a fault of immaturity and the non-critical thinker to say, “that’s great” or “that’s awful” when what you mean is, “I don’t like it.”

    It’s truly surprising the number of people who do not understand this distinction. However, it’s also as well to be sure of the veracity of the reportage, too. Just this week I encountered a review that described a scene in Shutter Island — for purposes of denigrating the film — and that would be fine — except for one thing: the scene in question occurs in nothing like the way it was described. No one is perfect and everyone is going to make mistakes, but one ought to be careful about making an issue of something — at least to the point of making sure that something is actually there.

    Mushrooms aren’t awful, they have an earthy taste and a slippery-chewy texture that personally I find completely inedible, but maybe you yourself really like an earthy taste. You’d never know to try them if I just said, “Mushrooms are awful!”

    And if you get rid of the stems and cook them in enough butter and garlic to kill the taste, they’re a lot less horrible. OK, I couldn’t resist that.

    The other thing I look for, particularly in something like this “screening room” section, is an expert. I know very little about film history, most directors’ body of work, technical details of cinematography, etc. I also have no interest in researching them. But if someone pulls together the strands that connect a series of films or shed light on the workings of a particular picture, I’m fascinated.

    In that regard, think of me — and others like me — as a kind of shortcut. I don’t think I necessarily arrive at much in the way of conclusions that you couldn’t do yourself. The difference is that most people aren’t crazy enough to invest the time necessary to get there. I can’t blame them.

  26. davidf

    Ken, have you seen this blog?: http://www.gorillamen.com/

    And speaking of secret passageways, the only one I’ve seen in film in a long time was the portal in CORALINE. That one was a doozy, but I sure could use more of them. And that one is so otherworldly, I’m not sure if it really counts. The secret passageway may be my favorite architectural feature. I can’t imagine ever designing a house without one.

  27. Ken Hanke

    Ken, have you seen this blog?: http://www.gorillamen.com/

    No, I hadn’t, but it’s nice to see someone with his priorities in place like that. I had completely forgotten about Spook Busters. I tend to try to do that with the Bowery Boys, though.

    And speaking of secret passageways, the only one I’ve seen in film in a long time was the portal in CORALINE. That one was a doozy, but I sure could use more of them. And that one is so otherworldly, I’m not sure if it really counts.

    Oh, I think it probably counts, even if it’s hardly your standard secret passage.

    The secret passageway may be my favorite architectural feature. I can’t imagine ever designing a house without one

    Now, you see, that seems wholly reasonable to me. I wonder how many people actually follow through on the idea, though?

  28. LYT

    Incidentally, living in LA as I do, I probably personally know about 60% of the best-known critics out there…so the whole “I may be biased” bit, for me, is kind of a given. And their reviews often become more fun to read because I hear their voice when I do so.

    There are some whose Twitter feeds I’ve had to cut off, though. Not everyone I like personally is tolerable to digest in sound-bites.

  29. Ken Hanke

    There are some whose Twitter feeds I’ve had to cut off, though. Not everyone I like personally is tolerable to digest in sound-bites

    For me, all Twitter is intolerable, but I’m a crusty old duffer.

  30. LYT

    It’s one of those things that’s essential for freelancers, just so people can actually find the reviews every week.

    Facebook is good too, as you know…which makes you less crusty than some.

  31. Ken Hanke

    Facebook is good too, as you know…which makes you less crusty than some

    Actually, I’ve never used it in any professional capacity. I only ever go there to make snide remarks to the posts of people I know. I’m not even sure how to use it for much of anything else.

  32. Ken Hanke

    I don’t text or twitter. I guess I’m crustier!

    Nor do I. Nor do I IM. (We’ll see who can outcrust who without making extravagant claims of a handcranked computer.)

  33. luluthebeast

    “Nor do I. Nor do I IM. (We’ll see who can outcrust who without making extravagant claims of a handcranked computer.)”

    Mary is crustier than all of us! She refuses to even touch a computer and I have a hard enough time getting her to turn on her cell phone. None of us will leave a message as she can’t figure out how to retrieve it. Email? HAH! Hand written letters is good enough for her. And we won’t even discuss how she screws up the Directv if she tries anything but turning it on and changing channels, and sometimes even then she’ll hit the wrong button.

  34. Ken Hanke

    Ken, you moderate a message board. You’re not going to win a battle of the crusties.

    Reading Ray’s inane prattle on a daily basis makes me all technically savvy?

  35. Ken Hanke

    And we won’t even discuss how she screws up the Directv if she tries anything but turning it on and changing channels, and sometimes even then she’ll hit the wrong button.

    I know how to turn it on and how to enter 256 and get to TCM. Anything beyond that and it’s asking for trouble.

  36. LYT

    Ken, assuming that you have more Facebook friends than yours truly who live outside the range of the Mountain Xpress, it doesn’t hurt to post links there to all your reviews each week. That is, if traffic to them is in any way important to anyone.

    Pretty simple to do that, and I’m sure you can figure that out if you want to. Stress on the “if.”

    I write for more than one source, and have realized no friends wish to do the homework on it.

  37. Ken Hanke

    Ken, assuming that you have more Facebook friends than yours truly who live outside the range of the Mountain Xpress, it doesn’t hurt to post links there to all your reviews each week. That is, if traffic to them is in any way important to anyone

    I presume it’s important in some manner — and we both know (hate mail to one side) that it’s better to be read than not to be read. I suppose I should figure this out and do it. What alarms me, I think, is the prospect of finding myself with more things to comment on than I already do.

    I write for more than one source, and have realized no friends wish to do the homework on it.

    Well, I kind of do, too, though all you get (for the most part) is a much abbreviated blurb version in the Charleston City Paper, so you get the bulk of what I do on this site.

  38. brianpaige

    I have discussed the various works of Dieterle with an English pal of mine in emails and the consensus is definitely that Dieterle is a forgotten master. I haven’t seen 6 Hours to Live but it sounds pretty cool (Fox early talkies are typically really, really bad too).

    I do sort of see what you mean about Devil and Daniel Webster though. It’s a near great movie to me, but there’s just something about it that isn’t a home run. Maybe they needed someone other than James Craig for the farmer? Arnold and Huston pretty easily acted him off the screen.

  39. Ken Hanke

    I haven’t seen 6 Hours to Live but it sounds pretty cool (Fox early talkies are typically really, really bad too).

    Well, I’m okay with Liliom, Six Hours, Ambassador Bill, A Connecticut Yankee, The Black Camel, In Old Arizona, Women of All Nations, The Cockeyed World and Chandu. OK, so Just Imagine pretty much sucks. I’m not sure I’ve seen many others.

    Maybe they needed someone other than James Craig for the farmer? Arnold and Huston pretty easily acted him off the screen

    I think that’s a lot of it. I don’t even care so much that he gets out-acted. It’s that he hasn’t enough inherent appeal for me to invest much interest in his fate.

  40. Me

    I still read Roger Ebert from time to time and he still does great reviews. Did anybody read the Esquire story on him wow!

    http://www.esquire.com/features/roger-ebert-0310

    I also have always liked Jonathan Rosenbaum and since hes retired he still keeps a blog and posts old reviews and top 10 lists.

    http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.com/?cat=5

    Does anybody listen to filmspotting on Chicago Public Radio/podcast? Its a really great show and the two guys that do the show teach at The University of Chicago. Its pretty entertaining. They have a good film forum too.

    http://www.filmspotting.net/

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Filmspotting

  41. Ken Hanke

    I still read Roger Ebert from time to time and he still does great reviews. Did anybody read the Esquire story on him wow!

    I read Ebert fairly regularly. Sometimes I agree with him. Sometimes I don’t. I often have mixed feelings because he tends to mangle — or miss — plot details oftener than I think entirely reasonable. I also find that he goes a little too lollipops over low-budget obscurities for my taste. That said, I find him to be an excellent writer with invariably interesting perceptions. More, I admire him tremendously as a human being. And that was true before I read the Equire piece.

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