Tuesday, July 8, 2008
Getting It Wrong Is Right
I had missed the first 20 minutes, but that was okay. I’d seen that stretch of the movie three times before. And, besides, I was channel surfing. I didn’t plan on sticking with the flick playing commercial-free on AMC, or whatever it was, on that lazy Sunday afternoon. I was just passing the time. But then 5 minutes of watching turned to 10, turned to 20, turned to 30. And the next thing I knew the movie was over. Save that missed first portion, I’d watched the entire thing and sat enthralled throughout. And I was stunned.
The movie was Robert Altman’s The Player, and it was love at fourth sight. In my three previous attempts at watching the film – all of them on video – I hadn’t made it more than halfway through. Each time I had found the movie dry and dull. It made me feel as detached as Tim Robbins’ glassy Griffin Mill. At one point in that span of failed viewings I’d even received the DVD of The Player as a birthday gift and promptly exchanged it for something else. For all its acclaim, Altman’s noirish Hollywood satire just wasn’t for me, I had concluded. Until that fateful Sunday, that is, when suddenly it was.
What was the difference? I couldn’t begin to tell you. Perhaps my first three viewings had been spoiled by misconceptions about what The Player would be, although for the life of me I can’t remember what those misconceptions would have been. The movie’s fatal flaw, in my mind, was that it was uninteresting. Simple as that. And yet when I stumbled upon The Player a few years later, on TV no less, I was genuinely and effortlessly engrossed. The film hadn’t changed, and considering that the movie was released in 1992 (hardly olden days) the context hadn’t changed much either. I had changed, in ways simple enough not to be able to identify and yet significant enough to alter my perceptions.
Had I written a review of The Player after my first partial viewing and called it icy and emotionless, I wouldn’t have been altogether incorrect, but I would have been far from right. As I look back on it now, at the time I had only a tourist’s understanding of the film’s culture. Thus dismissing The Player would have been akin to criticizing the diction of untranslated Dostoevsky. The art was in a foreign language that I wasn’t equipped to scrutinize.
The bottom line is that I had been wrong about The Player. And I mention all of this now because of a recent Q&A with Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times in which he suggests that he never second-guesses any of his initial reviews, because he has no reason to do so. “I am not now nor have I ever been mistaken in my judgment about a film,” Turan says with admitted “unwise bravado.” Then he dismisses the concept altogether: “Let me explain why I feel that asking critics about what they got wrong, or for that matter what they got right, is to fundamentally misunderstand what it is we do and how we do it.”
If you’re a fan of thoughtful film criticism, this is where things get ugly. As a tool to support his argument, Turan notes that “critics were almost unanimously dismissive” of Vertigo when it was released in 1958, but that 44 years later Hitchcock’s tale of obsession finished second to Citizen Kane in a poll to determine the best film of all time. “What happened?” Turan asks. “Were those critics back in 1958 hopeless fools? To say that would be to arrogantly assume that today’s practitioners have reached some ultimate pinnacle of knowledge that neither past nor future generations can hope to equal. The reality is that critics are creatures of their particular time and place, that even the most rarefied criticism is at its core opinion shaped by all the personal and societal forces that shape anyone’s tastes.
“Just as you can’t be wrong or right if you prefer Italian food to Chinese, it’s hard to be right or wrong about what we like in a film, no matter how much we think we can. What criticism offers, ideally, is informed, thoughtful, well-written opinion, an expression of personal taste based on knowledge, experience and insight that helps readers both decide what to see and understand what they have seen. And the closest I’ve come to making a mistake has been when I haven’t trusted my own instincts about a film.”
Then Turan quotes Robert Warshow from The Immediate Experience: “A man goes to the movies … A critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man.”
Sounds humble, doesn’t it? It isn’t. Oh, sure, Turan is right on the money when he says that critics must trust their instincts and write honestly. “In the final analysis, you’re a gang of one or you’re nothing at all,” he says. True that. But to acknowledge that criticism “ideally” offers “insight” to the common moviegoer and then to suggest that Turan’s initial judgments have never been mistaken is to reveal that Turan doesn’t see himself as Warshow’s “man” after all. If he did, certainly by now he’d have come across a film that he panned or praised only to read another piece of criticism that changed his mind and set him straight. That’s presuming, of course, that he thoughtfully reads other critics. And if in fact Turan doesn’t meditate on opposing viewpoints and/or has never once been won over by them, he’s operating as if he’s reached that “ultimate pinnacle of knowledge” and values no opinion but his own.
Don’t get me started, by the way, on Turan’s implication that one’s assessment of a film comes down solely to matters of taste, as in preferring Italian food to Chinese. According to that model, Italian food lovers would prefer undercooked Sbarro to expertly seasoned P.F. Chang’s. Turan takes excellence in execution out of the equation. Do moviegoers have tastes, biases, preferences? Of course! Are we influenced by societal or cultural forces around us? Certainly. Should a critic be as mindful as possible of these factors in order to write the most honest piece of argument-driven, evidence-based criticism possible? Absolutely. But to see a critic reduce criticism to an evaluation of whether or not we “like” a movie is disheartening for those of us who seek something deeper.
That said, there’s a degree to which Turan has the right idea by suggesting that his original judgments are infallible, because as reflections of his first viewing experiences such reviews are indeed faultless. Then again, his perfectly honest reviews could still be perfectly misguided, and I’m shocked that Turan is reluctant to acknowledge as much. On his way to dumbing down the essence of criticism and while implying that he’s just one of the masses, Turan reveals himself to be a movie evaluating elitist after all.
Because, let’s face it, we all make mistakes. Fail to grasp a film’s intent and chances are you’ll be left on the outside looking in. I’m thinking now of In The Valley Of Elah, and the rush by many critics to view it through the prism of Iraq War commentary rather than take it as a story of one man’s suffering and disenchantment. I’m thinking of seeing Brick and walking out of the theater listening to two guys slam the movie because they thought Rian Johnson’s Sam Spade dialogue was an oblivious error (“I don’t know any high schoolers who talk like that!”) rather than a stylistic choice. I’m thinking even of No Country For Old Men, which captivated me on first viewing only to absolutely thrill me on the second when I could ignore the MacGuffin well enough to focus on the themes of fate. Sometimes it takes seeing a movie to know what to look for within it.
So while it’s rare for me to do complete 180 on a film, as I did with The Player, I proudly admit that to lesser degrees I get it wrong all the time. I read criticism not to have my judgments validated but to have them challenged, and I am nothing short of jubilant when I come across a contradictory viewpoint argued so effectively that it becomes my own. Accuse me of flip-flopping if you want. Charge me with bending to the crowd, if you must. But in my mind there’s a bigger sin than taste-testing the Kool-Aid from time to time. It’s getting drunk on stubbornness and self-veneration. Try though he did, Turan didn’t demonstrate modesty with his response. Seems to me he exposed his closed-mindedness.
So I ask you, Cooler readers: Care to share a time you got it wrong?