Monday, April 17, 2006

"How Do You Review Movies?"

This is a question I am sometimes asked, and one that I sometimes ask myself as I sit down to do the job. I've been reviewing films for more than thirty years, but I still don't fully comprehend my process. The mystery is useful; it may be what keeps me coming back -- that, and the desire to keep the pantry and freezer full. It's the same with typing, which I've been doing only slightly longer than I've been critiquing: if you asked me where the "P" is located on the keyboard, I couldn't tell you, but I can find it when I need it without taking my eyes off my computer screen. I'm not even certain whether it's my left or my right hand that finds it.

I take a similarly "zen" approach to reviewing: I approach the task without consciousness or deliberation. I know the process is different for everyone; Richard Harland Smith once told me that he watches each film he reviews at least twice, and Pauline Kael notoriously boasted that she never saw any film more than once. I suppose I fall somewhere between those two disciplines, because I seldom watch anything more than once while I am in the process of reviewing it, though I will later watch those films I like as many times as curiosity and pleasure dictate.

When I was a staff reviewer for CINEFANTASTIQUE in the 1970s, publisher-editor Fred Clarke supplied me with a regular stack of pre-printed, postage-paid index cards, which I was to fill out and mail back after seeing new movies. These were formatted so I could jot down the name of a film, its director and distributor, running time, and a few sentences of critical comment. As a young writer, these cards were very helpful to me. They taught me how to compose my thoughts as I was watching something, and how to be certain of them -- because once I had written something down in marker, there was no erasing it... and crossing it out would limit my available space to file my report. Fred probably never thought of these cards as an educational tool for his staff, but speaking only for myself, I found they sharpened and organized my thinking.

I occasionally saw other reviewers in screening rooms jotting down notes in the dark, so I also adopted this habit in my early days, but I wouldn't fully embrace it till much later. If I was responding favorably or warmly to a picture, annotating the experience tore me away from it; I might miss something good, some important incidental, if I was trying to see what I was scribbling in the dark. And if I wasn't responding favorably or warmly to something, the scribbling became about itself; I became much more interested in creating a witty retort to something I hated, rather than giving it a fair chance to win me back. But, in the days before films were available to reviewers on tape or disc, those notes in the dark were critics' best guarantee of accuracy if they wanted to quote dialogue or venture comment on a cutting strategy.

Nowadays, much moreso than before, the process begins with notes. I keep a packet of unlined index cards on a small table next to my viewing spot, and I jot down thoughts that occur to me throughout my screenings. Sometimes I will stop the disc as I write, but usually not; it depends on the ambition of the thought. My note cards don't show complete or finished sentences. I use them to refresh my memory about important plot points, character names, dialogue, trivia. I try to review the films I annotate promptly, but it's not always possible. Consequently, there's usually a stack of unprocessed note cards resting in the recess just behind my computer keyboard. For example, here -- chosen at random -- are some (slightly dusty) notes written while screening GINGER (1971), that will eventually germinate into a "Things From the Attic" review... or not:

GINGER 100m 26s
Derio Oldsmobile 23 college "straight B average" cheerleader from Hampton NY parents killed plane crash 1 brother extensive travel Brighton NJ resort popu. multiplies 10 x 3 months of year Rex Halsey "people on vacation want what they can't get at home" boss hands her envelope "We call it 'The Halsey Report' - no pun intended" $50 grand to crack case Bondian vocabulary: "dossier," "attaché" handcuffs gun bullets tape recorder camera infra-red film "anything you don't know how to use, learn" etc...

I have no idea how useful this excerpt may be, but it offers the literal answer to the question posed on the title line. If you know the film, my notes should at least give you an index as to which details in the passing parade I'm inclined to pounce on. For instance, the Derio Oldsmobile notation seemed important to me because the producer of the "Ginger" films was named Ralph Desiderio, and seeing this reminded me of a BILLBOARD article I read in the early 1970s, which mentioned that the seed money for this series originated from a New Jersey car dealership. I may not use any of the information I write on these cards, but they bring back the experience of the movie, or at least my experience of the movie -- that time.

While the goal of these note cards is to make some of the more elusive details of a viewing more concrete, the most important aspect of the work is by definition intangible. I find it's essential that I review a film while my experience of it is still reasonably fresh in my senses. This GINGER card depresses me because, as I say, it's been sitting around awhile; when I finally clear the time and have the desire to review it, it may be necessary for me to watch it again, or at least a bit of it, to help me absorb some of its particular atmosphere and energy (or torpor, as the case may be). Yes -- if I wait too long, my note cards become impenetrable even to me.

Here's another note card, dating from the last time I watched the Universal B-picture HOUSE OF HORRORS (1946). I think VW has already reviewed the VHS release of this movie, which is all the release it's ever had on video, so there was no intention to review it again... but the card reflects that the movie was written by someone far more intelligent and world-weary and professional than what they had been hired to write. I jotted down three lines of dialogue with which I felt a particular shade of simpatia:

"Rush, rush, rush -- that's all you get around here."

"The hungry maw of the cinema is always ready to devour new beauty."

"I have to dig up material for a Sunday column... and I haven't the slightest idea where I'm going to find it!"

These were clearly preserved as candidates for VW's Table of Contents page epigram -- where we present relevant quotations pertaining to art, the fantastic, the creative process, or wherever Donna and I feel ourselves to be at that particular moment in time. The last quote particularly reminds me of the "NoZone" column I write for SIGHT AND SOUND, which, until recently, had a Monday morning deadline that always kept me working on Sundays. My schedule being what it is, I tend to decide what I'll be reviewing for S&S one day before the piece needs to be turned in (which is now the first Friday of every month), writing through the night and turning in the finished piece a few hours before the S&S editors reach their desks on the morning of the deadline. It's my experience that necessity is the mother of invention, and that deadlines are probably its father. Things get done when they have to get done and, as the old saying goes, if you want to get something done, ask a busy person.

The present tense of my work looks forward, not back. People are surprised when I tell them I have only partial recollection of all the films I've reviewed for VIDEO WATCHDOG over the years, but it's absolutely true. A friend once sent me a trade list of DVD-Rs and I asked him to send me a certain title, which I'd heard was interesting; he wrote back, in effect, "Well, you seemed to think so when you reviewed it in VW issue-whatever." I had no recollection of ever seeing the film, and when I went back to my review to recharge my memory, not only did my review not remind me of the film I had seen, I couldn't remember writing the review. (At the moment, I must admit to a shiver of worry because I can sense that I have written about this anecdote once before... but I can't remember if it was for this blog, or in a past editorial, or in private correspondence, so please forgive me if I've repeated myself. If your life becomes a roman fleuve, you run the risk of drowning -- and I stock more than one river.)

Charlie Largent cleverly summarized this phenomenon as "the Mashed Potato factor." He says I've seen and reviewed so many movies, over such a long period, they must repose in my head like a lot of mashed potatoes, and trying to pick out one movie in memory from all the others must be like trying to distinguish one plate of mashed potatoes I've eaten from another. It's actually a very apt simile. It's not to say that everything I've seen has been equal; it has more to do with what these movies become, once they have been chewed and discarded only once. Just as we hold important events or moments in memory by reflecting on them again and again, either as memories or with the aid of photographs and home movies, I think important movies demand to be re-experienced. I imagine Pauline Kael carried around a lot of mashed potatoes.

Donna, John and I finished VIDEO WATCHDOG #125 over the weekend, with Donna and I passing over what must have been a nice Easter Sunday with her family to stay at home and get the work done that much sooner. All the details, including previews of Charlie Largent's cover art and four interior pages, can now be found on the "Coming Soon" page of our website. Today we start prepping VW #126, for which all the text is written... except for my editorial and my "DVD Spotlight" review of Peter Jackson's KING KONG. I have no idea how I'm going to do it, but I know that both will be in hand within the next couple of days. After all, a couple of hours ago, this essay you're reading didn't exist. Not even the title. Just the need for a Monday blog.

So, how do you review movies? As another Lucas might say, by doing it until the Force is with you.

Now where's that card?

KING KONG 187:05
opens w/ apes zoo, images of captivity Depression Jolson "Sittin' Top of World" no green anywhere The Lyric Vaudeville Revue all of Ann's backstory looped into uncle's mouth offscreen - written in post? CHANG insert framed outside screening room etc.

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