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July 07, 2004

Back to Rewrite

Dear Vanessa --

You know how there ought to be Oscar categories for all kinds of things? Worst Phone-Answering-Machine Message. Dumbest New Food Product. Most Transparent Attempt to Excuse a Screwup.

I've got a new Oscar category: Opening Line Most in Need of a Rewrite. My current odds-on favorite is this corker from a Village Voice movie reviewer, Michael Atkinson, who kicks off his review of the new "King Arthur" this way:

Another ornery bear leaping atop the new millennium's pig-pile of demi-historical and/or magick-stuffed battle sagas, King Arthur is, on the surface, a familiar parade of McEpic flourishes: calamitous (but decidedly bloodless) combat scenes, anachronistic Asian sword antics, hilltop posturing, helicopter shots, and thundering one-liners.

Had you even been aware that the new millennium has been delivering a lot of historical battle sagas? Let alone a "pig-pile"'s worth? I hadn't. I wonder if it'd be worth suggesting to Atkinson that he substantiate one or two of the dozens of generalizations his sentence relies on.

Really, though, staring at Atkinson's clotted lead sentence, I'm not even sure where I'd begin to suggest rewriting it. My head does little but spin. Any thoughts? But perhaps some sentences really do deserve nothing more than being put out of their misery.



posted by Michael at July 7, 2004


Could head-spinning be due to the recent slowdown?

As to the rewrite: I'm in a loop of one (or, rather, Moebius strip: it's endless..)

I'm glad you're back. Seems the commenters here took 'slow' advice too literally without your pocking.

Posted by: Tatyana on July 7, 2004 12:47 PM

I dunno. Seems to me if you took out the opening clause and began the sentence with "King Arthur ...", the sentence would be okay. Maybe use "On the surface" to begin it. Here's my revised opening sentence:

On the surface, King Arthur is a familiar parade of McEpic flourishes: calamitous (but decidedly bloodless) combat scenes, anachronistic Asian sword antics, hilltop posturing, helicopter shots, and thundering one-liners.

At which point you can wonder aloud if he might also be describing "X2," Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, either of last year's "Matrix" movies, "Star Wars II," "Chronicles of Riddick" (aka "Matrix: Regurgitated"), "Troy" and "Gladiator" -- to name but a few. The new millennium has indeed been crawling with tricked-out war movies and phony-baloney epics, and it's not hard to see why. Teeming masses of troops are easy to create with CGI, and the resulting compositions are so busy that no one in the audience will be able to see how shoddy and borderline-blurry the effects are.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on July 7, 2004 2:05 PM

Tatyana -- It does seem like a Moebius loop, doesn't it?

Tim -- Your rewrite's a big improvement, god knows. But even in that slimmed-down form I'd still query Atkinson about "calamitous" (is he using the term judgmentally, as in "unfortunate," or is he just pumping his sentence up more generally?), "McEpic" (why the comparison to hamburgers?), and "thundering one-liners" (they're loud?). In each case, I do get what he intends, I think, but he's overdoing the semi-academic yet slangy, in-the-know tone by 'way too big a factor. And he still needs to think a bit about how to bring his reader in; even your rewrite's a little lacking in the "let's hook the reader" department. And you're of course right about how many crowd and battle scenes have been showing up on screen recently. I wonder why Atkinson couldn't bring himself to say it as clearly as you have.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 7, 2004 2:15 PM

For a whole essay that's just as confusing, go to

Posted by: john massengale on July 7, 2004 2:22 PM

John -- Wow, that's so bad it's surreal, thanks. Are we sure it isn't an Onion parody?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 7, 2004 2:50 PM

Are the "thundering one-liners" good thundering one-liners or bad thundering one liners? I mean they could be either, n'est-ce pas?

Posted by: ricpic on July 7, 2004 8:35 PM

I don't go for big "let's-hook-the-reader" openings, myself. If readers are sufficiently interested in a topic, they'll read an article on it no matter how flat the prose may be. But if they don't care about the subject, they'll ignore even the catchiest lede. (Besides, in Atkinson's defense, it's difficult to write the perfect lede about yet another mediocre McMovie.)

Most "thundering one-liners" are just godawful. They always feel like sloganeering rather than dialogue, and they seem more appropriate in a film's trailer than in an actual film. Troy is chock-full of these howlers.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on July 8, 2004 2:56 PM

Perhaps I should lop off Michael Atkinson's head with a big blade and ride off into the woods with Clive Oven.

Seriously, that review is crap. McEpic is not am apt term, pig-pile is another phony term that sounds like it should mean somthing - but even as one who's slopped hogs and dog-piled on hapless sibs, I don't know what it's supposed to mean. Is there is a one-liner in the new King A? Don't recall anything of the "Go ahead, make my day" or "Take my wife, please" stripe.

To pick another nit - wouldn't this be a newspaper award?

Posted by: j.c. on July 8, 2004 10:16 PM

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