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?