Make A Note of This: Who Do Ya Trust?

Despite the fact that true critics are supposed to work from a balanced center when they enter a screening or a show or a restaurant, they don't. They can't. I, myself, try to do such a thing when I sit down for a film. Whether the film is Wallace and Gromit or Hostel, I try to approach the film with a blank notepad in my head. Most critics contend that this is how they do it. But, it cannot be done. No matter how much they might protest, there is not a critic in the world who can totally divorce themselves wholly from their experience, their prejudice, and the influence of the surrounding atmosphere. That blank notepad? It's only in their hands.

And I am sorry, but if you are taking notes during a movie, then you are not watching the whole film. It's one thing to take notes during a lecture or a speech, but film is mainly a visual experience, and relies on a connection between the viewer and the screen to impart the bulk of its message. To properly see a film -- at least, the first time; I don't care if you take notes on a second or later screening -- one must totally immerse oneself in the experience. No chatting with pals or neighbors; no giggling or goofing with dates; no specially cut popcorn buckets. I doubt there is a reviewer out there who would wear iPod earbuds while reviewing a film, or talk on their cell phone in the middle of one. I've seen ordinary citizens do both; but a reviewer? Nah...

A film reviewer for the Anchorage Daily News would often show up in the theatre when I was attending numerous films through the '80s; on two occasions, once at Re-Animator and once at The Evil Dead, I sat behind her and caught a full glimpse of her working habits. With Re-Animator, she had her head down taking copious notes through the first half of the film, and then got up halfway through and left. I assume she used the bathroom, because she was gone for some time, and when she came back nearly twelve to fifteen minutes later, she had a spanking new soda cup in her grip. Due to this detour from actually reviewing the film, she missed much of the already controversial "head" sequence. At The Evil Dead, she brought a girlfriend (uh... yeah... you know...) and while she also kept notes on her reporter's notebook (I was sitting on the aisle in the postage stamp screen that made up the third theatre in the late, lamented Polar Theatre, and I saw her note-taking peripherally down the open aisle), she somehow decided to maintain a full and quite noticeable conversation with her gal-pal. As there were about twelve people in the room, it turned out I was the only one who really cared, but my decision to relocate across the aisle in a huff was apparently all that was required to get them to stifle it. For the most part. Either way, I found it implausible that she could pay any attention to either film in the circumstances, and still feel qualified to construct a balanced review on the event. Somehow, she actually ended up giving slightly positive reviews to the pair of films (of the "great cheesy fun" type -- blah blah blah...), a turn which I attribute either to magical pixies or to someone paying heed to the critical trends and then following suit. (I recall that her Re-Animator piece quoted lines and details that she missed during her lengthy sojourn to the potty and snackbar.)

I have said before, and let me reiterate slowly -- because this is the launching point -- we are each of us the sum total of our experiences. A person beaten by their father as a child is going to approach any film with violence far different than a person who has ridden a bicycle down the sunny path of life their entire existence. My brother Mark and I, who are very similar in our musical and cinematic tastes, both reacted to The Squid and the Whale positively, but with markedly different perspectives as children of divorce four years separated. My angle on our parents' slow dissolve from coupled happiness is far different from Mark's, though it affected each of us in many of the same ways. He found the film far more amusing than I did; all I saw were moments than made me recall my own freefall into the anguish that led to some very frustrated and angry teenage years. For this same reason (and for some that stem from my own ill-fated turn with divorce), I will tend to skip on many films that are heavy on personal or household drama, simply because I cannot handle them on my own emotional plane. Example: I have yet to see the Oscar-nominated, wildly acclaimed In the Bedroom due to this reticence on my part. As relatively untroubled as my past made be, it still comes back to haunt me, even (and especially, perhaps) when I am sitting in the dark of a movie theatre, where I am supposedly watching a film with a calm and measured eye, just like I pretend to do with any other film. In my brain, I believe that I am cool and collected and balanced at the center as I enter the theatre, but my subconscious will never allow me to go unaffected by everything in my past.

So, would my friends trust my opinion on The Squid and the Whale? Much of my inner circle know, as I do of theirs, of my past experiences, perhaps not every detail but fully but enough to know that I might have a particular knowledge of the subject of divorce and the children devastated in its wake. I like to think that most of my close friends value my opinion on films, but I am looking at this from the angle of a person who cherishes writing about them.

Most people, when weighing in on their views about movies to a close pal or sister or brother, don't consider this angle. They are merely ordinary people talking in an everyday fashion to other people. "Hey, we went to Ocean's Thirteen last night." "Oh, was it any good?" "Eh, it was alright. Not as good as the first, but way better than the second one." The person receiving this information will likely pass on "I heard it's OK" to the next person who happens to bring up the name of that film, and so on. If this initial inquirer read a review in their local paper or in a magazine that raved about the film, they would then have to judge that A+ opinion against their friend's "alright" rating. Which do they value more? The reviewer? Or their close friend? It really depends on what they know about their friend, and how much they value the opinion, based on past reviews, of the critic. What it really comes down to is, "Who do ya trust?"

(To be continued...)

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