Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Shifting perceptions

Every so often things happen in a way that they form a pattern—a pattern that makes you pull back a bit and look at something in a different way. This happened to me over the course of slightly less than a week. It started last Friday night when I ran into someone—an industry professional—outside the Fine Arts after watching A Serious Man. We happened to get onto the subject of the 2009 crop of movies and he remarked how much he’d disliked Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. I confess that this was one of those movies that went in one eye and out the other. I watched it, made much out of what the film had tried to do, noted that I didn’t much like it personally—and after spending a few days trying to understand why I didn’t care for it, forgot about it altogether.

By itself I doubt this exchange would’ve have made much of an impression on me, but that wasn’t to be the end of it. On Tuesday, I went to Don Diefenbach’s film appreciation class at UNCA—dragging Justin Souther with me in case I needed back-up—to yammer at his students for about an hour. Originally, the idea was that I would show a movie and then discuss it with the class. In the end, I suggested two films—F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) and Joseph McGrath’s The Magic Christian (1969). (Yes, these are about as polar opposite as you can get, though both represent the full-flowering of their respective eras.) The films were shown in blocks before I arrived—with me only coming on the scene for the last 15 minutes of The Magic Christian.

As is usually the case with these lectures—using that term in the loosest possible sense—the topic supposedly under discussion didn’t last all that long and the conversation ‘twixt myself and the class became involved with film on a more generic basis. Most of it was of the expected nature—like do I take notes while watching a movie? (The answer is no.) But somewhere in there a remark was made about critics by their very nature being more in tune with other critics than they are with the general populace. Now, this is something that I realize as being at least partially true. By that, I mean I simply probably have more in common with, say, Andrew Sarris in the way I approach a movie than I have with the teenager in line for a ticket to New Moon. And with notable exceptions, critics do tend to line up with not dissimilar overviews. For instance, at the moment I agree with the majority of critics on Rotten Tomatoes 80 percent of the time, while Roger Ebert agrees 77 percent of the time. (We will not explore how often Armond White agrees with it.)

The figures are only accurate in the broadest sense. We’re always breaking rank. For instance, I gave Frank Miller’s The Spirit (2008) a good review (today, I’d give it an even better one). That means that 15 other guys and I liked a movie that 92 other critics disliked—most of them could be said to have hated it. (One Rotten Tomato denizen, calling him—or her—self “Voice of Frustration,” commented on my review, “Aw, you’re usually my favorite critic,” but I note that VoF defended me from a Twilighter on my New Moon review, so I guess I’ve been forgiven.) There are numerous examples with every critic, but it is true that there is some sort of critical mindset. And I think it’s probably inescapable, because we see so much and don’t just look at movies as something to kill time, which a lot of people do. We’re looking at them in a different light.

Now, what, you may be asking, does all this have to do with Where the Wild Things Are? Well, I’ll get back to that in a minute, but not till we detour to a screening of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. Since I’m reviewing this, I’m not going into detail here, but I need to reference it at least in passing, since it is everything that Where the Wild Things Are isn’t.

Another film that qualifies for being everything Jonze’s film isn’t is Pete Docter’s and Bob Peterson’s Up—and this was brought to mind when the folks at Disney sent me a screener. That’s a nice gesture, but it has nothing to do with Disney liking me. It’s all about angling for a South Eastern Film Critics Association vote—and anyway, they killed any bogus sense of good fellowship by sending me a copy of The Proposal, too. (Studios are often known to hold beliefs that would get mere mortals put in a facility where they would be kept away from items hot or sharp.) But no matter, the point is that I watched the film again and realized anew what a truly remarkable work it is.

In the meantime, I’d had another encounter with someone watching (yes, at last) Where the Wild Things Are, which was soundly and succinctly dismissed as “one of the worst things I’ve ever seen.” I was, in all honesty, somewhat taken aback. Even while I hadn’t actually liked the film very much—and had significant problems with large portions of it—that assessment seemed a little strong to me. And then I wondered if it really was. How exactly had I approached the film?

Thinking about it, I’d gone to Where the Wild Things Are with some reservations. The trailer fell between intriguing and looking like something from the “glory” days of Sid and Marty Krofft. Then there was the filmmaker himself, Spike Jonze, whose work has never done a whole lot for me. I know it’s supposed to, but it doesn’t. Even so, I did approach the film as the work of a serious filmmaker of some note. I did judge the film on the basis of what Jonze was apparently trying to do—and adding points for both those moments where it does work (and there are such moments), and for the attempt itself. In the end, what I had done was ironically the exact same thing that Jonze had done: I took the film far too seriously. As a result, I saw Jonze’s very serious children’s film and simply accepted that this excused the film’s general lack of charm, fun or entertainment.

Looked at in this light—and putting Where the Wild Things Are in context with Up and Fantastic Mr. Fox—it seems to me that I almost willed myself to overrate the film by affording it qualities it more aspired to than actually possessed. This is, I think, an occupational hazard, but it’s one that I find personally instructive—and one I feel I should have recognized the very moment I knew that I had no desire whatever to see the movie again. Do I now think it’s in the realm of one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen? Ask that of someone who hasn’t sat through Old Dogs. No, it’s certainly not that bad. I can’t even say I think it’s bad in any normal sense of the word. Rather, it seems to me that it’s a brave attempt that’s done in by its own sense of importance. I’ll be interested to see how its reputation in general holds up over the years.

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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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14 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Shifting perceptions

  1. davidf

    When I first saw Where the Wild Things Are, I had the feeling that something about it was flawed. This feeling manifested itself as a concern that others in the theater weren’t enjoying it quite as much as I was. I wondered if some parts were too neurotic for the children in the audience to connect. I wondered if there was enough of a plot for the adults. All the while though, I, personally, loved the film. I was thoroughly moved, charmed, and entertained.
    It worked for me so much that I couldn’t help going to see it once more later that week. Again, I was moved, charmed, and entertained, and I’m sure this DVD will end up on my shelf and in my DVD player for repeat viewings. I should note that I didn’t go into the movie with any preexisting attachment to the source material.

    Despite my love of this movie, I don’t recommend it to people enthusiastically because I’m still aware of it’s flaws. Granted, those flaws weren’t really flaws to me, but I know that it’s strange pacing and the characters’ neurotic banter won’t connect with a lot of viewers. I can even understand why a lot of people would be downright disappointed.

    Have you had that experience with a film? I’m curious how I would deal with this as a critic. As an individual, if someone asked me about the movie, I’d say “I loved it. I wouldn’t have wanted anything to be different. However, it may or may not work for you.” If I had to attempt an objective review, though, I really wouldn’t know what to say. “5 stars for me but 3 for general audiences” sounds pretty pretentious.

    Having said all that, last night I watched Fantastic Mr. Fox, and it was exhilarating to the point that I would want to add a sixth star to the scale used above. Even more satisfying was the feeling that I would recommend this to others enthusiastically and with no reservations.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Have you had that experience with a film?

    Any number of times. That’s why the phrase “not for every taste” exists.

    If I had to attempt an objective review, though, I really wouldn’t know what to say. “5 stars for me but 3 for general audiences” sounds pretty pretentious.

    Well, there’s really no such thing as an objective review. The idea that you — or anyone — can actually know what someone else will like is not only absurd, it’s actually a little insulting unless you’re specifically in reference to someone you know very well. The best you can do is to say whether you liked it and why — and if you suspect that it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste or that some may find it offensive, it’s reasonable to say that.

    Now, I’ve actually had an in-person moment that fits “5 stars for me, but not for you,” and I had no idea what to say. I ran into some people who had planned on seeing Diary of a Mad Black Woman, but had opted to see The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou instead. They had made this decision based on the fact that I’d given Life Aquatic 5 stars and Diary only 2 stars. (They had not, of coure, actually read the the reviews.) After a few minutes of conversation I knew full well they were going to hate Life Aquatic, but I could think of no way to tell them that. I think they made it 20 minutes into the film.

    Even more satisfying was the feeling that I would recommend this to others enthusiastically and with no reservations

    So would I probably, but yet I can easily envision people who will not like it at all.

  3. Jim Donato

    This topic takes me back to the movie “Cabin Boy.” As I sat in the theatre watching it, I could hardly wait until I had the laserdisc of it. It punched my buttons from start to finish in a way that other, ostensibly better fare, only occasionally manages to do. Nevertheless, after leaving the theatre with my friends, I remarked as to how it was as if the film had been made for my sensibilities alone with no regard as to the larger realms of commerce that drive filmmaking. Actually, I was astounded that some suit signed off on it, period.

  4. davidf

    That’s why the phrase “not for every taste” exists.

    I guess my real question (which I never really asked above) is this: does the “not for every taste” factor ever cause you to lower your ratings, even if you feel like the movie was perfect for your eyes, or do you always rate from your personal experience? I would guess that your answer would be no, considering the fact that it didn’t prevent you from giving Life Aquatic 5 stars, but I’m curious if that factor has ever caused you to lower a rating.

    Also, since you mentioned the possibility of critics being more in tune with other critics, how would you guess most folks in your line of work would answer that question? (Feel free to disregard this last query as unanswerable, as I’m sure it may be.)

  5. Ken Hanke

    Actually, I was astounded that some suit signed off on it, period

    While I kind of like Cabin Boy myself, the film was only ever agreed to in order to keep Tim Burton happy, which Disney was keen on doing just then. Actually, Adam Resnick never intended to make this film — he wrote it for Burton to direct. But Burton kept insisting that Resnick should do it, even though he was totally unprepared and it wasn’t even the sort of movie Resnick wanted to make. Resnick and I had a long conversation back when I was writing the Tim Burton book — one that devolved into him bragging that he’d traded a Letterman jacket for a rare laserdisc of Polanski’s The Tenant. As he told me then, his idea for a movie he’d like to make would involve two people in a house, not something like this, but what would you do if you found your first movie script bought by a major studio and were being offered the job of directing it? Exactly.

  6. Ken Hanke

    I guess my real question (which I never really asked above) is this: does the “not for every taste” factor ever cause you to lower your ratings, even if you feel like the movie was perfect for your eyes, or do you always rate from your personal experience?

    No, not for a minute — as long as I’ve made it clear in the review why it got those five stars. If the viewer bases his or her choice on nothing but those stars, that’s pretty darn foolish. I doubt seriously if the couple who bailed on Life Aquatic would have gone to see it if they’d actually read the review. I mean, really, would you just see five stars and go to the movie? Or would you read to see what motivated those five stars?

    Also, since you mentioned the possibility of critics being more in tune with other critics, how would you guess most folks in your line of work would answer that question?

    I really have no idea. I’ve never discussed it with any other critics. Perhaps Justin might weigh in on it and Luke Y. Thompson stops by here on occasion (though I can’t recall whether or not he uses a star system).

  7. Uncle Charley

    It took Thanksgiving dinner and the conversation I had with younger cousins (at the kiddie table, where everyone under the age of 43 ends up) to understand why–were I in your shoes, Mr. Hanke–I would alter my critical grading of Where the Wild Things Are. I too took little from the film personally, even after somehow managing to have no first-hand experience with its source material despite the couple of decades of literacy I have under my belt.

    Three days ago, however, I found my mind doing two things while scrambling for the last of the sweet potato souffle: follow the epileptic logic of the family’s wee ones, and having flashbacks to my viewing of Where the Wild Things Are. It had been a good, solid month since seeing the thing, and no one at the table brought it up in conversation. So why did it crop up in my mind then and there, and with such vividness? That’s when I realized that in my head I was replaying a work of genius. Somehow, a grown man with a crew of other adults managed to make a so-so adaptation of a book, but more importantly a perfect, crystalline, unflinching reproduction of a young mind, its logic, and its chronology.

    That’s why we’re still talking about this ridiculous thing. One can not merely say of this work that it is “not for every taste.” We have to be more specific and state that this is a work built around a single taste, and one that is rarely heard…or coherent enough to put its thoughts altogether at once. I too will be interested to see how the following of this little guy unfolds in the future. I already take interest in the interactions of those who grew up with schizophrenic social commentaries like Rocko’s Modern Life and those who felt their offspring were almost certainly on drugs. Why should I expect the exchange to dull after just one generation?

  8. Ken Hanke

    Somehow, a grown man with a crew of other adults managed to make a so-so adaptation of a book, but more importantly a perfect, crystalline, unflinching reproduction of a young mind, its logic, and its chronology.

    It’s an interesting reading and not one that I would discount, but I have two caveats about adhering to it too closely. The first is simply that this tends to presuppose a one-size-fits-all mentality. The other is that you’re approaching it — as are Jonze and company — from the outside looking in, i.e., reading or creating an impression of how those minds work more from observation than experience.

    We have to be more specific and state that this is a work built around a single taste, and one that is rarely heard…or coherent enough to put its thoughts altogether at once.

    But is it? I mean it wasn’t made by a child. And interestingly, I have not heard anyone actually talk about the reactions of a child to the film. In fact, everyone I know who’s seen it either had a vested interest in the book from their childhood, or an interest in Spike Jonze. I don’t expect to see 10-year-olds posting on here, but I’m surprised to realize that I’ve seen nothing in the way of reportage about how their children or their friends’ children felt about the movie.

    I already take interest in the interactions of those who grew up with schizophrenic social commentaries like Rocko’s Modern Life and those who felt their offspring were almost certainly on drugs. Why should I expect the exchange to dull after just one generation?

    It was going on long before that. It didn’t start with that generation and it won’t end with it.

  9. davidf

    “The other is that you’re approaching it—as are Jonze and company—from the outside looking in, i.e., reading or creating an impression of how those minds work more from observation than experience.”

    This statement assumes that the filmmakers and adult viewers have no recollection of their own experience as children. Everyone here has obviously had the experience of being a child, granted that memory of childhood emotions and experiences will certainly vary from person to person. Most of my enjoyment of this film came from its ability to recall in me many emotions and experiences from childhood that I really haven’t thought about in a long time and remind me of the joy of childhood activities that are usually lost to adults (sleeping in piles, creating imaginary miniature worlds, building awesome forts, etc.)
    The films power, for me, lies in it’s juxtaposition of a child’s internal processing of emotional turmoil (and horrendous behavior) in order to reconcile himself with the adult world into which he is emerging and the film’s nostalgia-inducing recollection of imaginative childhood activities that have been lost to the adult experience. Through this juxtaposition, the film mediates between the adult and childhood experiences in a way that can provide interesting fodder for conversation between adults and kids. This reading is reinforced for me by the experiences of some parents I know who had great conversations with their kids after seeing the film. One great conversation starter: does Max deserve what he gets in the final scene?

    “this tends to presuppose a one-size-fits-all mentality.”

    I definitely get your point here. Based on my reading of the film, it can only be successful if its portrayal of fort-building, pile-sleeping, and model-world building strikes a nostalgic chord with adult viewers AND it’s portrayal of childhood emotionality resonates with children viewers. These things worked for me and a few of my adult and children friends, but I can’t see it working with every viewer. The film is personal, not universal: definitely “not for every taste”.

  10. Ken Hanke

    This statement assumes that the filmmakers and adult viewers have no recollection of their own experience as children. Everyone here has obviously had the experience of being a child, granted that memory of childhood emotions and experiences will certainly vary from person to person.

    And that memory is filtered through an adult sensibility (or so I would hope) and a haze of nostalgia — not to mention differing experiences.

    Most of my enjoyment of this film came from its ability to recall in me many emotions and experiences from childhood that I really haven’t thought about in a long time and remind me of the joy of childhood activities that are usually lost to adults (sleeping in piles, creating imaginary miniature worlds, building awesome forts, etc.)

    Okay, I’ll grant you the ones about creating imaginary miniature worlds and building awesome forts, but I seem to have been deprived in my childhood because the film is the first and only place I have ever encountered the notion of “sleeping in piles.”

    Based on my reading of the film, it can only be successful if its portrayal of fort-building, pile-sleeping, and model-world building strikes a nostalgic chord with adult viewers AND it’s portrayal of childhood emotionality resonates with children viewers.

    Setting aside “pile-sleeping,” I think the problem for me is that I’m not particularly nostalgic for these things. I did them and enjoyed them, but I don’t miss doing them.

    But more, one of the main things that does not work in any positive way for me is the question of emotionally resonating not with children, but with adults in memory. Yes, I do recognize some of Max’s emotions from my own childhood, but other things are quite foreign to me — and at a much more hysterical pitch. The things I do recognize as part of myself as a child are in many cases things I did not like about myself even at the time and I’m not nostalgic for them in the least. This, however, is not so much a criticism of the movie as simply a visceral reaction to it. It may, in fact, suggest that the movie has more power than I might be allowing.

  11. LYT

    I have to say, Ken, I am surprised you don’t take notes. I don’t any more, but that’s only because nobody wants to pay for more than 400 words any more. Back when 800 was the norm, I would always take notes, if only so I could quote lines accurately if I needed to. Shorter reviews have no room for such acute attention to detail, however. I confess I don’t recall exactly what kind of word count you’re held to, though in the case of “House” it was a lot more than the movie arguably deserved.

    But on to the question posed to all critics herein: “I guess my real question (which I never really asked above) is this: does the “not for every taste” factor ever cause you to lower your ratings, even if you feel like the movie was perfect for your eyes, or do you always rate from your personal experience?”

    First, I do not use stars in my ratings, and would never use any ratings scale if left to my own devices. For E! Online, however, I use letter grades, and bear in mind that anything less than a B- is considered “Rotten/Not Recommended” on Rotten Tomatoes.

    Generally, the rating reflects my taste. I gave Transformers 2 an A- knowing full well lots of people would hate it, but my feeling that people who knew precisely what they were in for would get their money’s worth took precedence. I try to use the review itself to express any reservations, and in the case of E! reviews, they all end with a section called “The 180” in which we are called upon to momentarily take the opposite view from the one we’ve just espoused, and find either the good in the bad, or the bad in the good. People like this a lot.

    The biggest example I can think of that may speak to the question at hand is when I reviewed the Last House on the Left remake. I felt the director had achieved everything he set out to do, and done so well…but I still found the movie repellent and missing the point of its source material. I asked my editor how to proceed, and he said to bear in mind that E! readers probably expect it to be a typical slasher, and would trust me to mention if it goes off the rails. Ultimately, then, I gave it a lower rating based on my personal reaction.

    Usually I can mount what seems to me a credible defense of my own taste, though.

  12. Ken Hanke

    I have to say, Ken, I am surprised you don’t take notes

    For a one shot viewing review, I don’t partly because I don’t seem to need to, but more because it feels too much like I’m reviewing the movie while I’m watching it rather than watching it, if that makes sense to you. I have been known to make a second visit for a line of dialogue, however.

    I confess I don’t recall exactly what kind of word count you’re held to, though in the case of “House” it was a lot more than the movie arguably deserved

    The theory is that the body of the reviews are 650 words, but a.) I push that sometimes and b.) that means they have to average that. I can gauge my verbosity accordingly. I freely confess that I have often written more about a movie I disliked than one I liked.

    First, I do not use stars in my ratings, and would never use any ratings scale if left to my own devices

    I think most critics feel that way.

    Generally, the rating reflects my taste. I gave Transformers 2 an A- knowing full well lots of people would hate it, but my feeling that people who knew precisely what they were in for would get their money’s worth took precedence

    That gets into an area I can’t personally traverse, which, of course, is why I get all the “you just need to turn off your brain and enjoy the destruction” mail. But then I truly despised the film in question.

  13. LYT

    “I have been known to make a second visit for a line of dialogue, however.”

    Heh. I guess that is easier, given the set-up you have. I’m usually lucky to get one screening that isn’t just a couple days before deadline.

  14. Ken Hanke

    Heh. I guess that is easier, given the set-up you have

    That’s definitely a factor.

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