Online archiving was an issue with my Herald reviews. My editor was hesitant, worried we’d be “giving away” the paper. For a time he did put the reviews up on an early version of the paper’s website, but then one day I found he’d started to excerpt my reviews, with a note saying to get the rest in the print edition. The editing made the reviews make less sense – I hadn’t written them “inverted pyramid” style – so I decided not to post them at all. But I saved them, either on hard drive or in hard copy.
But I’m glad my editor A) let me do the reviews in the first place, and B) ran interference for me with our publisher. I liked our publisher, and she liked me, but I don’t think she ever “got” my reviews or saw their value. I’m sure she wished I didn’t do them, but I’ve seen evidence that my editor argued with her on my behalf. I don’t think I ever thanked him properly for doing so.
There was another frustration: I got almost no feedback from anyone about the reviews. I knew people were reading them, and I tried to make myself easy to reach for comments were readers so inclined, but I barely heard from people about them until (wait for it) I’d stopped doing them, about two months before I quit my Herald job. Then of course multiple people asked “Why’d you stop?”
(I’ve told some of you this anecdote before, but one response I got to a review was a letter paired with a one-page manifesto typed up by a local member of the Mormon Church (I doubt it was a church-sanctioned manifesto; what church sums itself up in one page?) and an attached letter asking me to pass it along to John Carpenter. I’d reviewed Carpenter’s 1998 film Vampires, and this reader thought I knew him: she actually wrote, “I’m sure you can reach Mr. Carpenter no problem.” I wouldn’t mind meeting Carpenter! But, no, I, hadn’t. So, metaphorically speaking, I backed away slowly from that reader. She didn’t get a letter back. Yeesh, as leonardpart6 would say.)
I began in 1997 with In and Out; in summer 2000, when our competition the East Oregonian had been using a roster of movie reviewers (some good, some disposable) for about a year-and-a-half, I ended with a two-line review of Shanghai Noon, the second line of which was “I want Owen Wilson to play me in the movie of my life.” (An indulgent line, I know, but I wanted to end with something catchy.) A few of those reviews are already archived here, tagged as both “Flashbacks” and “Film Reviews”; soon I’ll add more. Not all of them; a few I don’t have handy, like my ranting review of Wild Wild West, and a few were useless, like my review of BASEketball, where I managed to say NOTHING OF SUBSTANCE. But I’ve built up a good archive, and I’ll keep adding to it.
Re-reading the reviews years after writing them, I admit I was probably too inclined towards positive write-ups. Some of that was self-selection; I didn’t have the time or desire to see or review every major film, and if something looked completely uninteresting to me I could be my own boss and say “No, I won’t review that.” While I enjoy reading well-written “killer” reviews – see Harlan Ellison (“The Ice Pirates is so ludicrous it ought to be enshrined in the Academy of Dumb Stuff along with such other sterling freaks of nature as the lima bean, poison ivy, the Edsel and the singing of Billy Idol…this poor gooney bird of a movie has all the grace and charm of a heavy object falling down stairs”) – I wasn’t interested in writing them. Plenty of good writers, including several friends of mine, already can do them; but for me, I think, the real problem is that a lot of bad writers do them, too. (If I sense that the reviewer is more interested in being clever than saying anything of substance, that turns me off…especially if the attempted cleverness ain’t that clever.)
What I would tend to do was get analytical, almost academic. (When I reviewed Mouse Hunt I had to force myself not to reference the 1991 Jeunet & Caro film Delicatessen, which Mouse Hunt’s drab-yet-cartoonish design and its casting of offbeat-looking actors seemed to owe a big debt to, because almost no one in rural Oregon at the time would ever have heard of Delicatessen.) Reviewing Ever After: A Cinderella Story (which I’ll post soon) led me to look up other versions of the Cinderella tale to compare and contrast with the film’s version of it. That, to me, was more interesting. And I liked to be sure to give at least a sense of what you’d find in the movie, content-wise (but with little spoiling of plot points if I could help it), hoping that the reader would think “This film is/isn’t for me.”
Then there was my rant over Wild Wild West, a terrible horrible no-good very bad film (and a review I really hope I can find and share). Its badness has stayed with me from just that one viewing, and the reasons I find it bad have even evolved. My biggest complaint back in 1999 was the waste of talent Wild Wild West represented – I liked almost everyone in front of and behind the camera, and they made THIS crap?! – but I also was bothered by its (to me) out-of-place sexual imagery, pretty blatant for a family-oriented blockbuster. And, more damningly, it wasn’t fun. It felt sex-negative. First of all, notice that with all of the sexuality/“alternative” sexuality imagery in the film, with stars Will Smith and Kevin Kline crossdressing or the gags when Smith helps Kline improve his fake boobs (“Now touch mine…now touch yourself…”), the only character who seems to enjoy anything sex-oriented is Kenneth Branagh as the crazed villain Loveless, the only character without sex organs? Salma Hayek’s (it turns out) marriage to the scientist is really, really chaste; they might as well be father and daughter for all the sexual chemistry they have. Whatever heat Smith has with the woman he’s with in his first scene dissipates quickly when he’s spilled, naked, in front of those men who don’t know how to react to a naked man. (They seemed a little…fixated, don’t you think? VERY distracted. But c’mon, they have guns and Smith’s unarmed, so if we were anywhere near logic, Smith would have to be literally disarming to survive…) And the acme of the film’s sex-negative imagery, something I could only hint at in a review in a family paper, was a certain weapon Loveless has. He has a modified train engine that (seriously) looks like a dildo, shooting out of its front end deadly spinning blades that are attracted to those giant metal collars Loveless’s hostages wear. Essentially, it’s a penis that shoots death. All I risked saying in my review was “…well, let’s just say the Freudian implications are staggering.”
So I tried whenever possible to go beyond “It’s good” or “It sucks” when reviewing to reach “It’s good because…” or “It sucks because…,” and that’s a habit I’ve kept. (I still think the reason I became a quick fan of Mike Russell was that his reviewing style was much like the style I’d been building towards.)
You’ll see more examples of that in coming days. Archives…open! (There. I like being dramatic.)