Am I mistaken, or did people used to know how to write a film review? A film review isn’t a recap of the film’s plot line, but judging from what gets labeled a film review these days, you’d think “review” and “recap” were synonyms. What’s up?
My favorite film critic of all time – and I’m far from alone here – is Pauline Kael. I discovered Ms. Kael in the pages of the New Yorker magazine in high school. My father had taken the NYer as long as I could remember, and when we moved to Boulder, CO in the late ’70s, our first floor powder room had real NYer covers as its wall paper – we took it as a sign. Kael’s film reviews were the first part of the NYer that I cottoned to.
As a junior, I struggled with writing, and my father suggested I start reading the NYer to learn from the greats. I can’t remember not taking my father’s advice, so I gave it a look. The movie reviews were fairly short (in comparison with other NYer articles of that vintage) and covered a subject I had interest in (my lifelong movie addiction was already in full bud). Thus began my race to the mail for the weekly issue. As I laid stretched out on our green faux velvet couch, nose buried in the back of the NYer where the film reviews are, I read each Kael-written word as if it were a finely made chocolate. Savoring one as it made way to the next, I prolonged my enjoyment of sentences that fascinated, entertained, illuminated and inspired.
The thing was, Kael rarely discussed plot. Instead she discussed character and actors’ choices in portraying them; she explored directors methods and compared them to other directors (as a young movie-goer I was barely aware of directors so this was hugely educational for me); she discussed film theme and message, making her points with literary, historical, and political allusions from her enormous range of knowledge. Her bold reviews made me want to see the films she wrote about and made me appreciate at a much deeper level those I already had.
Here is Kael on “Raiders of the Lost Arc” – the prescience of her “obsessive pace” insight is noteworthy:
“The effect of the obsessive pace is that the picture seems locked in. Our eyes never have a second just to linger on a face or on an image of planes coming out of the clouds. The frames fit into each other, dovetailing so tight that sometimes it seems as if the sheer technology had taken over. It’s all smart zap—a moviemaker’s self-reflexive feat.”
And here on Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” her clarity is razor-sharp, as is her indictment:
“Stanley Kubrick’s Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is not so much an expression of how this society has lost its soul as he is a force pitted against the society, and by making the victims of the thugs more repulsive and contemptible than the thugs, Kubrick has learned to love the punk sadist….The trick of making the attacked less human than their attackers, so you feel no sympathy for them, is, I think, symptomatic of a new attitude in movies. This attitude says there’s no moral difference. Stanley Kubrick has assumed the deformed, self-righteous perspective of a vicious young punk who says, ‘Everything’s rotten. Why shouldn’t I do what I want? They’re worse than I am.’ In the new mood (perhaps movies in their cumulative effect are partly responsible for it), people want to believe the hyperbolic worst, want to believe in the degradation of the victims — that they are dupes and phonies and weaklings. I can’t accept that Kubrick is merely reflecting this post-assassinations, post-Manson mood; I think he’s catering to it.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but Kael spoiled me for most every other film review I’ve ever read. And the reason is simple. Film reviewers these days seem hell-bent on telling you what the movie is about – and often, incredibly, how it ends. And if this was a tendency ten years ago, today it’s an epidemic. There’s even a standard phrase employed to give you the heads up that you’re about to have the movie ruined for you by narrative revelations: Spoiler Alert. This galls me. Isn’t one of the signs of a good review the ability of the writer to talk compellingly about the film without actually telling you it’s plot? I mean, if this isn’t true, then why don’t we all become film reviewers? I can relate the storyline of a film with the best of them.
The “spoiler alert” is, for me, like a film critic wearing a big sign round his neck that reads: “I’m not a film critic – I’m just a guy who likes to go to movies before anyone else and then ruin them by telling the plot.” I DON’T READ FILM REVIEWS FOR THIS. I read reviews to have my thinking about a film, its director, actors, screenwriters, its place in film canon and culture expanded by someone whose job it is to watch hundreds of films a year and think about them. Unfortunately, most reviews these days seem to be written on the back of a napkin while the reviewer is watching the film, shoving popcorn down his gullet, and jotting quick one-liners about his titillating feelings – all instead of pondering what the film might mean.
And what really gets me is that the more acclaimed the critic (who certainly know that reviews shouldn’t plot recount), the less they tend to use the spoiler alert phrase – even though they should. I guess they think they can sneak the plot summary in on you – like maybe you won’t notice since it’s THEM writing – Mr. Hot-Shot-Film-Critic. Are they kidding? Do they think we can’t tell when we’re being told the whole movie like a bad trailer? After several times of reading along and getting sucker punched by TMI, I’ve given up reading film reviews in advance of seeing a film. This is nothing short of a bloody shame since film reviews, after all, are supposed to help you decide if a film is worth seeing. Right?
So, what’s all this film synopsis masquerading as review about? I think it’s laziness. I’m not sure where the laziness began, but it definitely is laziness. It’s lazy of the reviewer: how hard is it to tell the story, make a snide comment or two about the actor’s hair, and then call it a review? Not very. It’s much more taxing to actually think about a film, to contemplate its meaning, resonances, influences, what it might say about our culture and how that is the same or different from before. And I don’t mean this can only be done with fancy art films. As the above excerpts prove, Kael was as adept at illuminating “Raiders” or “An Officer and a Gentleman” as she was “A Clockwork Orange” or “Nashville.”
And of course, movies themselves (or movie-makers, I should say) are lazy. Has there ever been a time more plagued my remakes and sequels? And how often are any of these actually better than their predecessors? (Ok, I grant you that MI3 was far better than 1 or 2, but that was strictly due to Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s villain.) And how many movies (should I say, in the U.S.) are made to make us think, with any remnant of that intention? These are fewer and farther between, many of which can only be seen at crowded film festivals.
And ultimately, it must be that movie-goers are lazy. If movie-makers pound out sequels and reviewers write plot summaries, this must be what movie-goers want. Is this then to be the nature of our movie-going experience? We simply go to escape, to relive the same narrow plot that we could’ve written ourselves, and no more? No thinking about it afterward? No desire to make meaning of it? No interest in revealing ourselves to ourselves through our experience?
And the reviewer who does attempt this kind of writing is considered boring and elitist, so why bother? Okay, but if that’s the case, then let’s call these pieces of writing what they are: Movie Cliff Notes. And let’s call these writers what they are: Plot Summarizers. And I will steer clear and not bother to read them, but instead, content myself with re-reading a true film reviewer and critic, Ms. Kael. Fortunately, her prolific legacy is in print.
In Memoriam: Pauline Kael left us bereft of brilliant film reviews 10 long years ago.