Jan 182004

Is it possible to review books and movies without resorting to the following?

  • It’s a true story. I’ll spare you Oscar Wilde on life imitating art, because I suspect a large percentage of Oscar’s epigrams came from scouring the papers for journalese that he could stand on its head. Invert a cliché, produce a witticism. It’s a neat trick and I’ve used it myself, but it’s on the lazy side.

    Sorry. I was talking about true stories. We have two words in English, realism and reality, for the excellent reason that they don’t mean the same thing. The lamest possible defense for an inconceivable plot is that it actually happened. Inconceivable events happen all the time. Fiction wants plausibility, not reality: for reality I can ride the subway. Of course, the less plausible the “real-life” event, the likelier it is to be turned into a book or a movie. (On a side note, have you ever noticed that the more sordid the work, the higher the praise for its, usually, “gritty” realism?)

  • I laughed I cried. The Neanderthal version; “I was moved” is a slightly more evolved form. I cry at the movies. I cry at good movies, like Babette’s Feast and Brief Encounter; at good-bad movies, like Love Story and It’s a Wonderful Life; and at irredeemably bad movies, like Brian’s Song and Backdraft (don’t ask). This fact should interest no one and doesn’t much interest me. The point is, it’s easy to make the audience cry. Acquaint them with a sympathetic character and kill him, preferably her, off, preferably young, preferably with a lingering but picturesque disease. (Unfortunately tuberculosis is almost extinct. Consumption would have been the perfect choice: we make shift now with leukemia and sundry non-disfiguring cancers.) Cue swelling music, Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto or Pachelbel’s Canon or something of that sort. Pass out handkerchiefs.

    Laughing is more reliable. But only a little. The Women is a funny movie, but the one line in it that always makes me laugh is a throwaway: a woman passes through a room with her daughter, saying, “And don’t think I didn’t hear that Princeton boy call me an old grizzlepuss!” Now I happen to find archaic insults funny. I would hesitate, however, to recommend the movie on that basis.

  • Surprise! Nothing is worth seeing or reading that isn’t worth seeing or reading twice, and the second time you know how it turns out. Dickens wrote three endings for Great Expectations; Hollywood tests movies with alternate endings all the time. What happens in the last two pages or the last thirty seconds just cannot make that great a difference. The chick in The Crying Game is really a dude, and Kevin Spacey’s Keyser Soze, OK? If you’re watching a movie or reading a book to find out what’s going to happen, I suggest, with all due respect, a more productive use of time, like filing your corns or catching up on the details of Britney’s annulment.
  • Nuanced, edgy, hommage, longueur, intimate (adjective and verb, also intimation), harrowing, dazzling (my eyes!), lyrical.

Thank you for your cooperation.

(Update: Terry Teachout comments, about suspense, and he has a point. Suspense is a joy of its own, and I could certainly be read as suggesting otherwise. I want to know how it ends as much as the next cultureblogger. But you shouldn’t be in it strictly for the ending, or even mostly, even the first time.)

(More: Rick Coencas also stands up for suspense, sort of.)

  18 Responses to “A Critic’s Dictionary”

  1. Think about Pater, no?

  2. Movie/books reviews are (not always, I admit) a marketing tool and as such are aimed at certain "target audience"; popularization is the key. So fair amount of cliche’s is inevitable. At least layman (like me) knows what to expect. I only wish sometimes that all marketing people’s dictionaries were that predictable. F.ex., selecting wall covering for a hotel today I stumbled upon following samples
    * line: fine sensibility/color: graceful aura; by Pallas
    * line : energy/color: fervent drive; by Pallas
    * line : friendly takeover/color: envious green by Pallas
    * line:forecast series/ color: honor weave by Maharam
    Oh, mercy

  3. I second all of these motions Aaron.

    Let’s hope it does some good..

    However, just for the record: "It’s A Wonderful Life" is not a "good-bad movie", it’s the best film ever made!


  4. I wonder if anyone has done a tally on how many movies somehow involve the kidnapping of a child.

  5. Foul! Non-sequitur! 15-Love.

  6. "Snarky." Let’s have no more "snarky."

  7. I think there is a better chance with – This is good – This is bad – meaning something on a good blog site than on a rental jacket or in a magazine review. This is one of the reasons I will give money to a good blog.
    I cry at lot at movies too; usually because I was, once again, fished into spending my time and money on something so terrible by some main-stream review.

  8. The subtleties of It’s a Wonderful Life are often neglected, but I can certainly stand to hear it described as a "good/bad movie", though "great/bad" might be closer. It’ll still make me wince at times, particularly in the intro, no matter how often I watch it.

  9. Colby,

    I think "great/bad" is a perfect description of Capra’s film–not to mention a lot of my other favourite "flawed" masterpieces, Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, Melville’s Pierre, Hammett’s Red Harvest, Dieterle’s Portrait of Jennie, Cassavettes’ Minnie & Moskowitz, Auster’s two latest novels, Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, etc.

    I think it’s important that art make us wince, for all sorts of reasons…

  10. "Surprise! Nothing is worth seeing or reading that isn’t worth seeing or reading twice, and the second time you know how it turns out. "

    It logically follows, as night the day, that nothing is worth seeing or reading.

    Music, on the other hand (to pick on a recent thread) is in fact worth hearing, not just twice but dozens of times. As an extreme example, I can hear "Turandot" a hundred times without tiring of it.

    Just not all in the same day.

  11. I hate to be thick Mike, but how exactly does that follow?

  12. The subtleties of It’s a Wonderful Life are often neglected….

    Oh? And just which "subtleties" would that be?


  13. "I hate to be thick Mike, but how exactly does that follow?"

    In the immortal words of a certain American cultural icon, "Never mind."

    My first reading of what you wrote was "nothing is worth reading twice, because after the first time, you know how it turns out."

    (I really must pay more attention when I’m in serious blogs.)

    I connected that first reading with the realization that (for me, at least), music is better than books or film. There are very few movies that I’d go out of my way to see again. Cocteau’s "Beauty and the Beast", the Peter Sellers "Pink Panther" movies are among the few. With books, there are so many new ones coming down the pike that there’s little time for the old ones. I may get through classics, like the "Republic" several times, but that’s just because there’s more there than I can deal with at one reading.

    Music, on the other hand, is different. I can listen to some pieces dozens of times. I could listen to "Turandot" 100 times and not tire of it (just not all in the same day).

    I think this may be because of the way some brains are wired to process music. For me, the build-up to a great tune ("Nessun Dorma", in that case), is an exciting process. And it’s never stale.

    Music also has the advantage of multiple interpretations (film does too, but to a much lesser extent), each of which has subtle differences from the rest. Sometimes not so subtle, e.g., Glenn Gould vs. Landowska.

    Some years back, somebody came to the conclusion that in literature and drama, there are only 100 or so basic plots. So the "Surprise!" aspect might be one of trying to see which one they’re borrowing this time.

    "If you’re watching a movie or reading a book to find out what’s going to happen, I suggest…"

    Certainly you except things like Agatha Christie and Chesterton’s "Father Brown" series?

  14. No. I don’t read Agatha Christie or the Father Brown books, or mysteries at all, for that very reason.

  15. You said it Aaron!

    A "mystery story" isn’t worth reading unless (as in the works of Hammett especially) the "mystery" withstands the narrative…


  16. I believe it was Nabokov who said "One cannot read, one can only reread".

  17. "Luminous." Any review or blurb that contains the word "luminous," especially applied to poetry, should be scorned.

    I have a blurb all ready for a friend’s book, should I be famous enough to blurb it whenever it comes out: "Matt Westbrook bends poetry over the table of his talent and gives it what it needs."

    Change one letter in "luminous" and you’ve got "numinous," another sure marker of critical risibility. This is how one knew to ignore AS Byatt’s bitching about Harry Potter.

  18. See, I feel that there’s a certain type of "Surprise!" moment that is completely worth the time taken to read the book or watch the movie, even if it’s a bad one on the whole–the "reality shift" moment, either in the mind of the reader/viewer or in the mind of one of the characters. Remember how you felt during The Sixth Sense when the whole truth was finally revealed? To me it’s like the world has flipped, my mind achieves momentary weightlessness and the laws of physics are suspended.

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