Can Critics Change Their Mind?
Published by the Director’s Guild of America
Once upon a time there was a young movie geek who thought that a film was a coefficient in the algebra of a motion picture experience, as unchanging as a Rodin bronze. And then the geek, who had enormously enjoyed the film Gigi when she was five and had imagined that Maurice Chevalier sang “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” expressly to her, was driving down the Pacific Coast Highway on her way to college, her AM radio blaring. As the intro to “Thank Heaven” swelled (in the ’70s oldies radio meant show tunes and not Led Zeppelin), said geek fondly recalled the 1958 Vincente Minnelli movie starring the gosling-like Leslie Caron, who at film’s end swans around the Bois de Boulogne.
Replaying sequences of the film in her mind, she nearly drove off the road when it dawned on her that the wholesome coming-of-age story she so tenderly remembered as an ugly duckling tale was about the education of a courtesan who defies family tradition by holding out for marriage.
As you’ve correctly guessed, I’m that geek. And this “Gigi Whiz!” moment was the first time I struggled with the question: do movies change, or do we? My initial thought was that I had taken in Gigi’s deeper meaning at age five and suppressed it until I could process its implications. The movie hadn’t changed, really. It was merely a case of my having matured and being able to see it fully.
Or so I believed until the experience repeated itself more than I care to count. Sometimes it’s the movie that seems to change. Sometimes it’s the cultural context. And sometimes it’s my opinion.
Changing your mind about a movie if you’re a civilian is victimless. Changing your mind as a professional critic has ramifications. As a point of pride, Pauline Kael saw films only once. She believed her immediate response was most honest. For Manny Farber, viewing, and re-viewing, movies enabled him to experience them from multiple perspectives, to compensate for variables of cultural and intellectual change. I recall that when Joe Morgenstern retracted his initial negative Newsweek review of Bonnie and Clyde after taking a second look, he was pilloried by some as a flip-flopper. Then, as now, I thought him brave to admit his critical opinion wasn’t infallible. God knows, my first impressions haven’t always stood the test of time.
Not long after the Gigi incident, I took in a French import by Louis Malle called Murmur of the Heart. At the time I was about 18 and it was the height of the sexual revolution—my own, and the culture’s—I thought it the jazziest of comedies about erotic initiation. Its hero is a 14-year-old bebop enthusiast and his seducer is… his shamelessly sensual mother. So help me god, at the time it struck me as a lighthearted romp. Reviewing Murmur for my college newspaper, I wrote something to the effect that a mother’s induction of her son was an expression of love and surely healthier than the sex-as-violence promoted by movies such as Straw Dogs. Some 30 years later when it was re-released, what had been “taboo-breaking” and “liberated” in 1971 was “child abuse” in culturally conservative 1989. Murmur was still a resonant film, but now closer to the parent’s age than the child’s (and a step-parent myself), I watched, haunted by the question: is a 14-year-old a consenting adult?
From these experiences I realized that film is like multiple-variable calculus. A movie conceived for one generation might not speak to the next; a critic who liked a movie one year might wonder what she saw in it a decade later—kind of like an old boyfriend.
Are there other variables that color and flavor the way I see a movie? And could I adjust them in order to approach every movie with what the kids at the Wikipedia website call NPOV, or neutral point-of-view? These are some of the conditions that have led me to critical lapses and precautions critics can take to avoid them.
Viewing Under the Influence
This might explain why Easy Rider was the best movie of 1969 and, except for Jack Nicholson’s irreverence, in 2006 is more compelling as a cultural artifact than an enduring work of cinematic art.
Adjustment: For three hours before a movie, drink nothing stronger than a cup of coffee.
Quality of Viewing Experience
Many is the time I’ve seen a picture on that gigantic screen at Cannes and responded more powerfully to it than on a repeat screening at the local art house where projection is equally fine, but the screen is a fraction of the size. Scale matters. Diminuition of scale can diminish what we love about a film. To put it another way, at the Salle Lumiere in Cannes, Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire played as an epic, at the Ritz Five in Philadelphia it played as a city symphony, and on our home screen the Berlin panoramas did not loom so large and it played like an intimate romance.
Adjustment: Endeavor to see every movie reviewed under optimal screening conditions, even if it means making headaches for studio marketing departments.
Blood Sugar Level
My husband and I saw French Kiss on empty stomachs and thought it only mildly amusing. Was it higher blood sugar that sweetened our estimation of the film on later viewing?
Adjustment: Pack a yogurt along with a notebook.
The Artichoke Factor
You know how artichoke makes the other food on the plate taste sweeter and grapefruit makes it sourer? Those of us who see 300-plus movies a year often are seeing films back-to-back, like that day I had a double feature of Leaving Las Vegas and Casino. If the first film of the day is an artichoke, it can make the second film sweeter than it is. Opposite is true if the first film is a grapefruit.
Adjustment: Mental palate-cleansing. Between films, take a brief walk or jog around the block.
Previewed The China Syndrome two weeks before the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown; liked the movie when I saw it, but it acquired even greater meaning when the event actually happened. Saw The Road Warrior a few days after abdominal surgery; would have liked it better if I hadn’t been in such wincing pain. Previewed Almost Famous the day my mom died. Everyone else says the movie’s about a rock critic coming of age in the ’70s; for me it will always be a love story between an overprotective mom and her journalist child.
Adjustment: If previewing a film while physically or psychologically in extremis, see it a second time to gauge if/how personal or political atmospherics impair judgment.
But even if I make these adjustments doesn’t mean that I’ll always get it right. Some variables are outside a critic’s control. Like the ’40s zeitgeist when Miracle on 34th Street won multiple Oscars and scored with critics and the coffers while, the previous year, It’s a Wonderful Life was shrugged off by The New York Times and didn’t make back its production costs.
But unlike reviewers in the ’40s, who didn’t have the opportunity to re-evaluate movies they wrote about, today re-release, pay cable and DVD allow for critical reconsiderations and amplifications. My 1989 “re-review” of Murmur of the Heart layered my youthful with my mature responses to the film, and the review is richer for incorporating multiple perspectives. I’m no Einstein with a hypothesis that predicts how a film’s force of gravity changes on subsequent viewings. To the question, “Do movies change, or do we?” the answer is yes—and yes.
Adjustment: Watch, repeat, reconsider.