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?


Mark said...

Excellent post, Jason, as usual. Or at least it strikes me so now. I may reread it in a few years and come to a different conclusion.

I can't think of any examples off the top where I've totally reversed my initial impression of a movie. But I think I often have strong feelings, positive or negative, and then later find they've softened up and moved my assessment toward the middle.

BTW, I think you perfectly captured the problem with Turan's essay. His reviews have always annoyed me but I've never been sure why. This helps.

Fox said...

Hey Jason-

I'm glad to see you mention Brick.

I wonder if the people who complained "I don't know high schoolers that talk like that..." think that the director was trying to achieve realism.

I though Brick was darkly funny, and clever in the way it used high school stereotypes in place of noirish stand-ins.

Richard Bellamy said...

I can think of more films that I loved and praised in the beginning, and that now I have come to loathe, than the other way around.

I initially praised "E.T." to high heaven for its sentimentality, dark/foggy lighting, musical score, and clever allusions - but now, for the same reasons, I cringe when I even hear the movie on in the background.

Similarly, I praised "Dances With Wolves" for its portrayal of the Lakota. Now I have no intention of watching it again - especially since current versions have been bloated with worthless extra footage - and I think it idealizes the Lakota unrealistically, almost demeaningly. Indians loved to fight and steal horses and take scalps and mutilate their enemies. The more I rewatch it, "Little Big Man," which portrays the Cheyenne as affectionate and philosophical yet violent, cruel, and wasteful, is one of the best depictions of the Plains Indians.

As far as a 180 from dislike to like - when I first saw "The Wild Bunch" in the movies I thought it was ridiculous. I was very faithful to the traditional John Ford Westerns - I still am - but now, after watching it just about once a year, I see it as a very realistic portrayal of outlaws and violence. I love the gang's departure from the Mexican village with the accompaniment of that sad Spanish song. When I first saw it, I thought the final slow-mo bloodbath was stupid. But now, with sequences of violence appearing so much the same, I love its innovative artistry.

M. Durand said...

The first time I saw F FOR FAKE, I thought it was a shoddy and sad piece of self-parody. Seeing it again a few years later, I thought it was more enjoyable than any Welles film since KANE, and a beautiful valedictory. How I failed to appreciate that lovely and haunting Chartres Cathedral soliloquy the first time around is beyond me.

Anonymous said...

I have to say I agree with Turan, to a degree. To extrapolate from the Sbarro/P.F. Chang metaphor, maybe the P.F. Chang has a certain amount of sesame, which is exactly what triggers your gag reflex.

For example, for those people who think that movie teenagers should talk "realistically," we can pity that they don't appreciate a film like "Brick," but we can't call them wrong for not liking it. Because, well, they didn't.

On the other side of the coin, maybe there's something about Sbarro that just gets to you, even if it's undercooked. For example, although "The Player" is a fine film, I get more enjoyment from watching "The Littlest Rebel." So I can say that for me, the latter is a "better" film than the former, although I don't like that word because it implies an objective evaluation.

Turan is right in that there is no way to objectively measure films. We can only measure our own experience of them. He is wrong in his conclusion that reviews shouldn't be revisited, because as we change, it is possible for our experience of a film to change (as you point out in your post).

For me, the most striking example is "The Neverending Story." When I saw it as a kid, it didn't seem like anything special. When I saw it as a young adult, it had me bawling my eyes out by the end.

Jason Bellamy said...

Morkeleb: Good point about the gag reflex – mine tends to be stimulated by Nicolas Cage, Nick Nolte and Whoopi Goldberg, for example. But there are exceptions: “Adaptation,” “The Thin Red Line” and, um, uh, “The Lion King” (had to really work for that last one). So I agree with you to a point that people like what they like. And if they don’t like “Brick,” so be it. But to keep with this food thing: if they don’t like “Brick” because they fail to realize the parsley on the plate is just a garnish, well, they’re going about it the wrong way.

I think what irks me is that Turan implies (and I can’t imagine he really believes this) that “liking” something is all there is to it. On that note, I wouldn’t say that I particularly “like” “Raging Bull,” “Memento,” “A Clockwork Orange,” or any of the “Lord Of The Rings” films, to pull a few names out of a hat. But from a criticism standpoint would I give them failing grades? No. Because I can appreciate them on other levels.

Don’t get me wrong: I disagree with the notion foolishly offered by some (though not here) that critics should take their emotions out of it, that criticism is a scientific examination of moviemaking techniques. Both approaches are important. If a sloppily-made film hits you on a purely emotional level, that counts as a success in my book. I don’t think “Swingers” is a masterpiece of filmmaking by any means, but I enjoy the heck out of it. Sometimes Sbarro hits the spot. I’m cool with that.

As for “The Neverending Story” … Hadn’t thought about that movie for a while. The Empress was one of my first cinematic crushes. Ah, the memories.

Anonymous said...

I basically agree with Turan's idea that his initial impressions are never "wrong" per se. A gut reaction is a gut reaction. Saying that one person's opinion of a film is less valid than another's because he/she "didn't understand what the filmmaker was trying to do" strikes me as rather arrogant, esp. considering that one can argue that even the filmmakers themselves can't *really* lay claim to what a film is "about." (Don't believe me? Listen to Richard Kelly try to "explain" DONNIE DARKO sometime. If you have any fondness for the film at all, you'll wish he'd kept his mouth shut and not embarrassed himself.)

We like to believe our tastes improve as we age - that if we dislike a film we used to love, or vice versa, that our opinion has gone from "wrong" to "right." But people's personalities move along a great many axes throughout their lives - rational/spiritual, liberal/conservative, optimist/pessimist, etc. - and all those changes, which it'd be naive to call "progress," affect their experience of art. I thought more highly of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE 15 years ago than I do now. So was I "wrong" then or am I "wrong" now?

Mark said...

This is a good blog. Smart comments.

Jason Bellamy said...

Futurefree makes some fantastic points. The one I agree with most (beyond the already established one that a gut reaction is a gut reaction) is that “the filmmakers themselves can’t really lay claim to what a film is about.” Quite true. Filmmakers have intentions, obviously, but the message received (as opposed to the message intended) is the message. I thought about this concept amidst the Where’s Chigurh? debate, when folks wanted to go back to the novel or to the screenplay to solve the mystery. In my mind we can only read what’s in the film. Period.

What really has me thinking, though, is Futurefree’s last comment. I’d offer that both opinions could be “right.” It comes down to the reasons why, the arguments you make.

I think it’s possible to get a film flat wrong the first time around. I also think it’s possible to get it right and talk yourself out of it. I remember feeling like Roger Ebert did that with his review of "She Hate Me" (must-reading for people interested in this larger conversation). It seemed to me he made up his mind that Spike Lee couldn’t make a poor film and gave it a pass it might not have earned. But maybe not.

It’s worth keeping in mind that often we reject things that are different or otherwise outside our comfort zone. Unusual often feels wrong. That’s one reason that risk-taking filmmakers often get panned in the short-term only to be embraced in the long-term. On the flip side, filmmakers who give us something refreshingly “new” sometimes enjoy raves in the short-term only to see their groundbreaking film become almost pedestrian in the long-term once it morphs from trend-busting to trendsetting. In other words, some films age better than others, leading to changes in our response to them over time. And I think Turan was alluding to that. But to suggest that first impressions can never be wrong goes too far.

Good discussion. Dissenting opinions are always welcome here. Further thoughts, anyone?

Anonymous said...

Well, I've got a further thought on the meaning of "like."

I can't speak for Mr. Turan, but for me that term would encompass any appreciation for the cinematic values of a film (which itself is something that varies greatly from person to person). So, Jason, if you found things to admire in "Raging Bull," etc., I would say you did like those movies, to some extent.

Anywho, back to the topic of evaluations of films changing over time. Some more films I've changed my mind about (not drastically, though):

Better on another view: "Eye of the Beholder," "The Cell," "White Christmas"
Worse on another view: "A Simple Plan," "Medium Cool," "Amistad"

The mention of Ebert is serendipitous: I've noticed he's changed his mind a number of times. Quite a few of his "great movies" earned 3 or fewer stars on first review.

The Film Doctor said...

Isn't it true that for groundbreaking filmmakers, such as Kubrick for instance, critics often dislike their work initially, and then accept it later, after the filmmaker has modified their opinion of what a film can do? In the recent Kubrick documentary, I believe Woody Allen said he went through several stages as he watched and rewatched 2001: A Space Odyssey, moving from an initial dislike to eventual admiration. I imagine this kind of thing happens, but only with the best or most innovative directors. They have to modify the critics' taste as they go along.

Steve B. said...

The first time I tried to watch Brazil, I was with a friend and I don't know if it was a mutual indifference to the film or not, but we turned it off. Perhaps he didn't like it and I was influenced by my environment. Anyway, Brazil came to be my favorite movie over the course of time and many repeated viewings.

Steve B. said...

Conversely, when I walked out of Batman Begins, I thought, oh wow that was great, but... and then but turned into nuts and I now think its a highly flawed movie. Dark Knight restored what little faith I had in Nolan until I realized it was entirely carried by Heath ledger's singular performance, and then I saw Inception and all of my doubts about Nolan were confirmed. I remember liking Memento (Momento?) but have been disappointed by each subsequent film of his, with the exception of Insomnia, which I like - but wait wasn't that a remake of a Norwegian film? Anyway, instead of a Nolan rant this was supposed to be an example of a movie I saw and loved and then saw again and questioned and then saw again and was sad.