Tuesday, 11 November 2008

A Manifesto: Indulgent film-crit talk, part 1 of 14

Roger Ebert recently posted a list of guidelines for being a critic. These are his rules to live by.


It's an entertaining read, but Ebert is only scratching the surface. Some points, such as that critics shouldn't ask stars for autographs, have really no effect on one's reviewing capability, and are just about appearances. I don't care about that. Critics are free to act like sycophants in their own time; it's none of my business. Let the work speak for itself.

A lot of his list seems obvious, but I like that Ebert points out how hyperbolic critics like to get. We should be careful when handing out words like "masterpiece."

I'll add some more. These are some of the words that I try to live by.

- Don't brag about how brave you are for watching a movie few people in your age bracket would generally go to. It's your job to keep up with movies, and most people envy your job. If you write about how when you went to see Pooh's Heffalump Movie by yourself, the parents all shielded their kids because they figured you were a pedophile, that's good. Just don't look for sympathy. Sometimes a day at a movie theatre is just like anyone else's office job.

- Also, don't publicly complain about work conditions. Nobody feels sorry for Ebert and Roeper if there isn't an early screening of The Amityville Horror they can attend. I live in Halifax where I have to see most movies with paying customers after they're released. That is not the sound of me complaining. (eg. Ebert and Roeper)

- Never review a movie you haven't watched in its entirety. This is basic.

- Don't bash movies you haven't seen, even off-handedly. Any idiot can do that. The point of your job is that you're not supposed to be an idiot. (eg. Jeffrey Wells saying Pride and Glory was by far the best movie opening in its week when he clearly hadn't seen Saw V and High School Musical 3. Now, neither of those movies are that good, but I only know because I saw them. They're both better than Pride and Glory.)

- Have an open mind. Don't walk into Gigli planning to hate it. The more your prejudices rule you, the more you're irrelevant.

- Accept that "critical consensus" is swayed by hype. A critic should never use the phrase "that's supposed to be good" as a recommendation for a movie he/she hasn't seen.

- Understand that movies are artworks. I know that they're there to sell tickets, but it's not your job to look at them that way.

- Do not distinguish between highbrow and lowbrow art, you pretentious New Yorker wannabe. You should be able to recognize that there's more artistic merit in Resident Evil: Extinction than in Blindness.

- On a related note, important subject matter should not be mistaken for important movies.

- Stop worrying that a movie "doesn't know who it's made for." This is a marketer's concern, not yours.

- Nobody likes a hater. I make a conscious effort not to single out individual people for the reason a movie isn't working.

- Know why you're doing this job. Figure out what makes you different than the 500 other film writers out there. Have something to contribute.

- Know your subject. In the words of Armond White, "I'm not interested in the opinions of people who don't know what they're talking about."

- Know what the hell you're talking about.

- Have style. Memorizing these rules isn't going to teach you how to write.

However, I will give you the following three points:

-Don't write more than you think. This problem is huge amongst critics.

- Quit referring to stars you're not close friends with by their first names. This tends to sound dumb even when non-critics do it in conversation. "Oh, I loved that Dane and Jessica film, but thought Brad's new movie would have been better if they cast Angelina instead of Frances as his co-worker."

- Writing in cliche is a symptom of thinking in cliche. Avoid pseudo-intelligent phrases like "the fact that" when a "because" will suffice, and avoid backwards sentences like "explosions and nudity do not a good movie make."

- Be consistent. Don't pretend to suddenly hate Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull after the online community turns against it. Have some morals.

- Be honest. If your review of A Beautiful Mind ends with, "This movie taught me that schizophrenics are people too, and from now on I will always think about their plight," no one will take you seriously. (eg. A review of A Beautiful Mind that I once read. Author forgotten.)

- Be patient. Don't declare something "THE BEST MOVIE OF THE YEAR" if it's still June.

- In fact, stop thinking of everything in terms of years. You just end up promoting the system that gets movies made so they can win Oscars.

- Realize that movies aren't invalidated simply because they're not tailored to your demographic. Case in point, IMDb voters who hate movies about sports and black people.

- Don't aspire to predict what people will think, or to reaffirm popular consensus. This forum has been given to you, not Joe the Plumber. Critics are being fired all across America because newspaper editors can just as easily hire the sports section guy to tell people what they think. I don't ask my dentist for opinions on sculpture. But every idiot thinks they're versed in movies.

- Remember why you liked movies in the first place.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

The Once Halibut Theory

I've been cooking with habanero peppers lately. The habanero is the third hottest chili pepper in the world. It is so hot that if you don't wash your hands after handling one, your hands will start hurting in 20 minutes. And if you don't wash your hands and then have to go pee, you will begin to envy the monotony of female bathroom technique like never before.

Now, the reason I'm doing this isn't to defy Joseph Kahn's insistence that white people prefer food with no flavour. In truth, it's because I'm rather impatient and don't want to waste consumed calories on foods that are "subtle." I have a right to flavour-experiences. I will live in the extreme.

I try to eat a lot of fish. Fish have Omega Supreme Transformative powers, as well as the extraplanetary potential of Mercury Poisoning, and they're good for your skin or something. If you want to conquer Earth and shit diamonds, eat a lot of fish.

The problem is that some fish doesn't have much taste. I encounter this problem mainly with halibut. My mom claims that she remembers halibut used to pack more of a punch than it does these days. I won't vouch for the accountability of someone else's memory, but this got me thinking...

As a survival mechanism, wouldn't it be beneficial if species evolved to lose flavour? I mean, sure, we're several inches taller than the people our age were in the 1940s, but if we're ever in a plane crash with a bunch of rugby players in the middle of nowhere, something should have to protect us as soon as the fattest guy gets hungry. Those that would be picked to get eaten last would be those that evolved to have tasteless flesh. Like halibut.

From what I know about animals (speaking as an owner of a black lab, who knows enough to know that saying "My dog is black" is a poor way to win race relation disputes), I don't believe that animals are ever naturally spicy. One time I was at a party and some dude brought a tray of bison sausage, and I thought, damn, no wonder those bison got shot, they're spicy as hell. The guy informed me that those spices were artificially added later. This makes sense. It's also techniques like this that make it integral for beings to evolve to taste like as little as possible.

Having no taste makes survival easier.

How else could I have been thrust into a 9-month long Twilight Zone episode where people keep coming up to me and telling me that the movie Once introduced them to the concepts of Art and Humanity? There's one explanation: People are evolving to like boring shit. Don't try to be all open-minded by denying it. Be truthful, and admit it. Fans of Once display a scary passion where they'd kill for it.

If Once Lovers lived on an island commune, and I visited that commune, they would burn me in a Wicker Man.

In a way, I understand this passion. Raised without religion, the movies I love inform my identity. I'd rather talk in-person with people about movies we agree on than get in fights over ones where we don't. Some films are just too integral to one's identity. So when you say, Blue Velvet sucks, you're insulting me. I know what that's like.

It's also why it's so puzzling. What is it about Once that makes people look at it and think, "Yup, that's me"? When I watched the movie, I found it mediocre. I didn't hate it, but considered it too inconsequential to even be worth reviewing. Now that people in their 20s are losing their shit for it, I'm sort of embarrassed for them.

Nothing that makes movies incredible is contained in Once. The Irish drama stars Glen Hansard as a musician/vacuum cleaner repairman who falls for a girl played by Marketa Irglova. They record songs together, so the movie becomes a naturalistic musical--only director John Carney has not studied musical setpieces or short form videos, so his music and images create no emotional thrust.

The handheld camerawork doesn't leave room for thought-out compositions. And the songs themselves are dead-eyed indie rock boilerplate. Movies don't get more hermetically and stereotypically white than Once. It's anti-matter--a movie for those who wish to be manipulated, but in a naturalistic way so they don't realize it's happening, and who wish to define themselves through musical fashion, but try to steer away from rock star personalities. Did modern indie rock fans have any fun in high school, or did they listen to the mid-90s equivalents of City and Colour and Coldplay back then? Maybe they listened to the Fresh Prince and gangsta rap in junior high like I did, then they moved on to Soundgarden, KMFDM and White Zombie. Then it was Robbie Williams in their college years. Then Death Cab and the Once soundtrack. Tomorrow Yanni. That's not just a softening of musical style: Some of those acts are real artists.

Certain people evolve to tastelessness when they grow older. It's easier, I guess.

But I want to live.

I don't mean to pick on Once fans so much. It's just that they're fucking everywhere. When you review movies people you don't know always want to tell you about awesome movies they just saw. I recently did a year-end radio show where this was the whole premise for an hour.

As one of two guest critics, I was in the reverse-spot position of having callers tell me about the best movies of 2007. I like doing this show, but something was in the air that day. I knew it was gonna be a long hour when the first caller was raving about Mad Money. Other recommended best movies of the year were Shooter and A Beautiful Mind (which came out 7 years ago, but I let it slide.)

But the amount of people talking up Once eclipsed any other title. Even my perfectly sane co-guest was gaga for it. Genuinely curious (and determined to be polite), I responded to callers' raves with, "What did you like about it?" The answers would be along the lines of, "It was so beautiful. And when they're in the studio together, recording that song, that scene is just, ohh myyyy..."


Then last week, Sarah Riley, who usually has some of the best movie taste of anyone, just had to write me about Once.

"I cried like five minutes in. It's a beautiful film."

"Not you too!," I wrote back. There goes another one.

This much is clear. The movie Once does not care about me, for it has caused me much confusion about Darwin and halibut. For that, I cannot support it.

Never back down.

Thursday, 28 February 2008

Stuff They Won't Teach You in School

A 10 year-old girl from Montana named Maryn Smith won a National Geographic contest for creating a mnemonic to remember the order and names of all 11 planets in our solar system.


I thought Pluto was cancelled as a planet, and it seems unfair that National Geographic would throw dwarf planets Ceres and Eris on top of that.

So what did Maryn Smith come up with?

"My Very Exciting Magic Carpet Just Sailed Under Nine Palace Elephants."

I'm sure Ms. Smith is a nice person, or whatever, but her mnemonic is making the cosmos more confusing.

First off, it has a clear Earth-bias which I feel is inappropriate for the subject matter. As a mnemonic line, it's hard to remember. This may be remedied, as the mnemonic is now being made into a pop song by Lisa Loeb (best known as the girl who encouraged geeky guys to come out about their glasses fetish with the Ethan Hawke directed Reality Bites video "Stay").

Until the day when Loeb teaches us how to sing about sailing under palace elephants, Smith should be proud of her win. She just hasn't yet convinced me she's a great writer.

I know. She's 10. I'm jealous. I never got anything published at that age.

Smith isn't alone in her lack of mnemonic poetry giftedness. Most people talk in a way to reveal that they're their own bad writers. Their concept of good writing is generally wrong too. I believe Oscar winning screenwriter Diablo Cody can write well. She just doesn't consistently. That's what fuels her irrational haters to block out the bits of Juno that are well-written.

The exchange (scratch that, monologue) that strikes me as most awkward has the title character quipping that she'd give Jennifer Garner her baby earlier, but it would look like a seamonkey. It's the strangest thing, because nobody in the movie prompted Juno to begin this routine. It's a mistake on Cody's part--for the record, she wrote a better script than Tony Gilroy's overpraised Michael Clayton--and the clip is even in the trailer. This moment of a writer's indulgence rejects the natural flow of the situation.

I'd lend you $300, but I'm employed by The Coast.


For all the Maryn Smiths out there, with bright futures ahead of them (perhaps writing films), here are some lines that should never be heard in a movie again.

"I'm ____, by the way."

This is how characters often introduce themselves in movies. I used this in The Killing of Kings, and then started noticing how prominent it was in everything else. It's a way to make the mandatory meet-and-greet exposition of two characters who the viewer is already aquainted with seem more casual. The "by the way" doesn't work. If you ever say this in life, it means you're narcissistic enough to consciously talk like you're in a movie script.

"God has nothing to do with this."

I was watching a season 1 episode of Battlestar Galactica last night, and this line came up. I've heard it in dozens of movies before, almost always following another character exclaiming, "Oh my God." When one writes, "God has nothing to do with this," it must look pretty badass on paper. When it's verbalized, it sounds like you're insincerely referencing a 1970s giant insect movie. The most hardcore line so far this year is in the otherwise uninspired Rambo. "Fuck the world!" It doesn't get more nihilistic than that.

"I'd like that."

Please, no.

"It's not what it looks like."

I've heard that one before.

Be careful not to try making every line of dialogue iconic, either. You'll end up writing Jerry Maguire.

"Good to meet you."

This one looks benign, just beware. Only ever write this in a Canadian film. Last time I was in LA, I kept shaking peoples' hands and saying "Good to meet you." They'd respond with, "Nice to meet you," and I was one-upped by their moral superiority.

I'm interested in where people get their voices from. I'm not gonna be an asshole and try to take credit for inspiring anything.


But influences are revealed through the things one says.

A couple of Fridays ago, I went to a matinee showing of The Eye, a rote American remake of a Hong Kong thriller. It stars Jessica Alba as one of those blind violin prodigies that are all the rage.

The theatre had only about 25 people in it. Among them was an average-Shmoe middle aged dude, who sat by himself. I took note of this because while walking into the auditorium, I was whistling something and he shot me an incriminating look that suggested, "This guy's gonna be trouble." I felt bad for the guy anyway, because I had a scenario in my mind that he was going to a teen-skewing Jessica Alba flick alone to distract himself from a divorce. He sat on the aisle.

The real teens in the theatre sat still and watched for about 45 minutes before announcing their boredom. Two of them raced from the back of the theatre to sit in empty seats in the front. Their friends, still at the back, laughed.

Then, another one of them ran to the front of the theatre, making sure each step hit the ground as loud as possible.

I looked over at the middle aged dude. He was making some movement like he was shadowboxing the air.

The stompy kid immediately decides he liked his old seat better, and run-stomps back to it. This requires him to pass by the middle aged guy's aisle seat. As the sporty hooligan passes him, he stands up from his seat and bodychecks him. It did happen! The kid falls down.

Now pay attention to the naturalism of the resulting dialogue exchange. This great situation brought out the best in everyone's inner-writer.

Stompy: "Fuck! Someone bodychecked me."

Right off the bat, you know they're inspired. That would make a great opening line to a screenplay. You can't use it.

Middle-Aged Dude: "I didn't see you."

Stompy's Friend: "What's your fucking problem, man."

Stompy: "I got knocked the fuck out."

Middle-Aged Dude: "I was just going to the bathroom."

Stompy's Friend: "Oh yeah. You totally bodychecked my friend."

Angry man at the back of the theatre: "Shutup, you idiots! Shutup or leave!"

Middle-Aged Dude: "Now, I told you I was just getting up to go to the bathroom. I didn't see him there."

Stompy: "You decided to go the second I walked by."

Middle-Aged Dude: "It's very dark. But now that you mention it, you guys have been running around like a bunch of... MANIACS. People are trying to enjoy this movie."

Stompy's Friend: "Let's step outside."

Middle-Aged Dude: "Yeah, we should go talk to the manager. Maybe we won't have to get 9-1-1 involved."

They leave. Stompy limps out. I don't know if he was faking.


Angry man at the back of the theatre: "SHUT THE FUCK UP!!"

This is a close approximation, to the best of my memory. I replayed it in my head many times so I wouldn't forget. The situation would have normally pissed me off, except it was by far the most exciting part of The Eye.

The passion and fury of their exchange was tight, motivated, and exciting.

When all else fails, throw in another photo of Jessica Alba.

Writers take note.