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December 07, 2004

Without Preconceptions

Fenster Moop writes:

Dear Blowhards,

Some years back, I was fortunate for a time to have a film critic as a friend and was therefore able to get into some opening night, and pre-opening night, screenings in New York. These were really interesting because they let you approach the film with virtually no preconceptions.

Obviously there was "buzz" to contend with, but at least you didn't go in with the plot memorized and with a mental crib sheet firmly in place as to what the major reviewers thought. Also, these events gave you an unvarnished look at how the attendees themselves reacted. *

I recalled this the other day with a slight shock when I read that Michael B. attended the opening night of Heaven's Gate. Darned if I wasn't there as well. Small world, Mike!

It was a fascinating experience. I came to the film expecting the best, having fallen head over heels for The Deer Hunter, Cimino's earlier hit (I had not seen, and still have not seen, his first, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot).

I recall the intermission, at which the champagne flowed freely, to be extraordinary sociology: all these semi-bigwigs walking around not knowing whether to trust the "buzz" or their own instincts (as the old saying goes "who are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?"). And to tell the truth, I found myself having the same ambivalent reaction myself--"hmmm, Christopher Walken wearing a ton of makeup in the old West, maybe this is somehow . . . significant????"

Anyway, just for the record, I saw 1941 this way, too, at a pre-opening night screening. And my reaction was much the same. Initial excitement, anxiety and confusion as the film unfolded and a final determination by the end that it was indeed a disaster.

At the time I chalked it up to a feeling that comedy is simply ill-served by a big budget approach. While I still think there's some truth to that, it strikes me now that it was more the case that Spielberg himself just has a limited comdedic sense.

So, while Michael may have found the original, long-version Heaven's Gate to have significant redeeming qualities, I ended up concluding that the problem with the film went way beyond the version. But, in the absence of preconceptions formed by critical commentary, not without some doubts and some heavy reflecting on my own instincts. Which reminds me that the best film critics must be very brave indeed.



* [note: the use of the term "you" in first paragraphs cribbed from Kael.]

posted by Fenster at December 7, 2004


I think your comment that the best film critics must be brave indeed sounds spot on! It's one thing to sit in your apartment and say "God--this movie is so stupid" (or "Gosh, this is a cute little comedy") but another entirely to be articulate about why, and then to put it out there before you know what "others" think. You wonder if they ever take a friend to the screening and ask them first?

It reminds me that Bosley Crowther got fired from the Times after panning "Bonnie and Clyde" (which initially hurt B & C badly---it had to be re-released later to make its splash). But when others find "poetry" and "relevance" in the violence, the Times decided Bosley had been around too long and was out of step. Upon seeing the movie on TV today, I must say, I think Bos got it right the first time. But he had to put it out there without knowing what the hipsters were going to think.

Posted by: annette on December 7, 2004 7:52 PM

Bonnie and Clyde... and oldie but a baddie. From the Bos:

"This blending of farce with brutal killings is as pointless as it is lacking in taste, since it makes no valid commentary upon the already travestied truth. And it leaves an astonished critic wondering just what purpose Mr. Penn and Mr. Beatty think they serve with this strangely antique, sentimental claptrap..."

Sounds about right. The only cool character was that Texas Ranger guy, and they only gave him five minutes screen time. Their death scene was kinda funny but the rest was just dull.

Posted by: Brian on December 7, 2004 10:00 PM

This is the old problem of whether to believe your own reaction in the face of a strong consensus that disagrees with your point of view, isn't it?

An example from classical music: I believe Scriabin's musical output is much more eloquent and inspired than Schoenberg's, Berg's or Bartok's. I believe Scriabin's musical output is far better than Stravinsky's post-Rite of Spring output. Am I out to lunch? Missing something? Or am I listening openly and not knuckling under an imposed viewpoint?

Posted by: JT on December 8, 2004 11:42 AM

I remember that "Heaven's Gate" intermission! One of the more amusingly tense 15 minutes of showbiz that I can recall. People wandering around, clearly thinking something along the lines of "Is everyone else seeing the same movie I'm seeing? Is this the worst movie ever made? Or maybe it's great, and I just don't get it? What's Canby going to say? What's Kael going to say?" And no one speaking any such thing out loud.

Did you get to many screenings? It can be a fun, if odd, way to see a movie. On the one hand: few preconceptions, and no public buzz. What you see is what you see. On the other, there's often a lot of expectation in the air, at least at the mobbed bigtime screenings. So that can be its own thing to contend with. My favorite thing about them (nice chairs, beautiful prints and great sound systems aside) was the way people afterwards would look nervously around, wondering when it was OK to express an opinion, and a little anxious about how other people would take their opinion. I also liked the informal agreement people have to keep pretty quiet about things until leaving the theater. That seemed pretty sensible and respectful.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 8, 2004 11:44 AM

I believe I remember hearing a story about Kael panning Animal House when it came out and then a few years later praising it. Of course its possible someone would change their opinion on their own, but you have to wonder how much the reaction of others factors into the equation.

Posted by: Mark on December 8, 2004 2:49 PM

Did she ever write about "Animal House"? I seem to remember a few comments in one of her longer essays, but I don't think she reviewed the movie. I wonder if that was another critic. One thing Kael never did was change her mind.

It's interesting, though, to think about the challenges of being a reviewer or regular critic. So many pressures. From editors, readers, publicists. Plus the sheer oddness of seeing art in that pressurized way. I mean, who really "keeps up" in the running-to-everything way that a reviewer does? It really changes your experience of art, at least it did for me when I was running around to art in that spirit. The natural way to interact with the arts, it seems to me, is to follow your interests, which is one thing a reviewer can never do (except in the general sense of being interested in movies or books). I think the good reviewers know all this and juggle it well, but it's still something they're stuck contending with, which we civilians don't have to worry about.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 8, 2004 2:55 PM


This is indeed a hazy memory on my part. It may not have been Kael but I believe it was Animal House. I think I read it in conjunction with the 25th year release and somebody was pointing out how a major critic of the movie later expressed admiration.

I also remember reading about how the great art collector/critic Duncan Phillips initially despised Matisse and Cezanne and others of that era but later embraced and promoted them.

Posted by: Mark on December 8, 2004 4:07 PM

Has anyone seen Sideways? I thought it was great. Then I read some reviews that had reservations because of the scuzziness of the two male leads. Now I don't know what to think. What're the weak willed to do?

Posted by: ricpic on December 8, 2004 4:41 PM

Hey, somebody ought to do a posting about works of art and/or entertainment that we've changed our minds about. And how that works, what that's like, etc. Lessee. I think the one I'm most ashamed of is "Melvin and Howard," the Jonathan Demme movie. The first time I saw it, it just didn't register. I got roundly scolded by friends, went back and looked at it again, and fell in love with it. I'd really just been wrong first time around.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 8, 2004 5:09 PM

"Did she ever write about "Animal House"? I seem to remember a few comments in one of her longer essays, but I don't think she reviewed the movie."

A review of it isn't included in her _When the Lights Go Down_ (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1980), which I think is the first collection of her reviews that was published after it came out, and in which she says about it:

"You couldn't claim that _National Lampoon's Animal House_ expresses either the joy or the agony of making cinema. It's like the deliberately dumb college-football comedies of the thirties--the ones with Joan Davis or Martha Raye--only more so; it's a growly, rambunctious cartoon, and its id anarchy triumphs over the wet-fuse pacing, the blotchy lighting, and the many other ineptitudes. In its own half-flubbed way, it has a style. And you don't go to a film like _Animal House_ for cinema, you go for roughhousing disreputability; it makes you laugh by restoring you to the slobby infant in yourself. (If it were more artistic, it couldn't do that.)" (page 428)

"There's no way I could make the case that _Animal House_ is a better picture than _Heaven Can Wait_, yet on some sort of emotional-aesthetic level I prefer it. One returns you to the slobbiness of infancy, the other to the security of childhood, and I'd rather stand with the slobs." (page 429)

From her essay "Fear of Movies," pages 427-440, dated September 25, 1978.

Posted by: Dave Lull on December 8, 2004 6:41 PM

I attended a huge screening of "The Matrix Reloaded" last May on the Warner Bros. lot. I've never seen a more excited audience walking into a theatre, nor a more shell-shocked, depressed audience walking out.

It was clear to the survivors that Reloaded was a stinker, yet, most of the critics were mildly positive in their printed reviews. See, most of them hadn't gotten the wonderful first "Matrix," and that had made them feel uncool. So, they dissimulated in print.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on December 9, 2004 12:06 AM


I saw Reloaded in the privacy of my own home, on DVD, well after the screening. But I tried to skip the reviews (which I do more often now, in oder to simulate the frisson of opening night per the original post) so I didn't know what to expect. When it got to the cavernous disco/rave scene, I was almost in disbelief at how terrible a movie could be.

And Michael: I didn't get to too many other screenings--nothing as disastrous (or as illuminating) as Heaven's Gate or 1941. I did however see Woody Allen's Shadows and Fog under similar circumstances. IMHO Shadows was the first movie by Allen that could truly be classified as a stinkeroo. Up to that point, some were inspired, some so-so, but I had no real frame of reference for "a really bad movie by Woody Allen." I did by the end of the night.

Expanding those frames of reference can be downright painful!

Posted by: fenster on December 9, 2004 2:52 PM

And you're all reminding me of something, which is that an editor's also gotta have some balls. With something like "Matrix Reloaded," there was such a longterm hoopla in the press, and the drumbeats had been going on for so long ... The press was deeply, deeply committed to the idea that this film was gonna be hot-hot-hot. So when it came along and was so awful, what to do about it? I honestly think that some people get so swept up in the anticipation that they don't really experience such a movie sensibly. They're all screwed-up with excitement and nothing's going to deter them from having an exciting experience. Plus, well, like Steve says, they've been saying for months that this is hot stuff, and what are they, liars? Or fools? So it takes a tough editor with some balls at such a moment to publish something that says, Sorry folks, I know we helped work up your excitement about this one, but it's a real let-down.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 9, 2004 6:23 PM

There is nothing easier to "misread" than a film. (By misread I mean to develop an opinion about it as a result of single viewing that is at variance with what you'd think if you saw the movie once a year for, say, three years.)

I never understood Ms. Kael's refusal to change her mind about a movie. I'm not accusing her of bad faith, I just don't see how such a "once-and-for-all" reading was physiologically possible. It certainly wouldn't be for me.

But then, I never aspired to be a movie reviewer...

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 11, 2004 6:09 AM

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