In response to a post called “The Critical Condition” (Feb. 6, 2012), a reader calling himself – and for all I know it’s his actual name – “Johnny Walker” spoke about the idea of multiple viewings of the same movie on a single day, which he (or she, if a woman is choosing to call herself “Johnny”) attempted, and discovered that, though one’s experience of a movie is essentially subjective, “the major successes and flaws [of the movie} are felt by all audiences.”
I suspect that may be correct. Which is why many filmmakers, especially comedy filmmakers, like to “test screen” their movies, so they can fix what needs fixing before they open.
First, allow me to weigh in on the “test screening” process itself. Acknowledging that I was never in such a situation, since no movie script I wrote ever got made, still, I would be highly resistant to the idea of pre-testing my movie. For me, when it comes to any work of art, even (forgive me for including it as art) a blog post, your inner mechanism (an amalgam of training and gut instinct), the same mechanism that guided you concerning what to include and what to leave out in the first place, remains your most reliable weathervane.
Here’s why I find “pre-testing” a questionable process. Two words: Mitigating Circumstances. Say, as a surprise to the audience, they screen your movie after another movie – the movie the audience came to see – and that movie stunk up the place. The audience has been put through the ringer, and may no longer be in the mood to be entertained.
Then, there’s, what they call, the “halo” effect. Judd Apatow has a reputation for making hilarious comedies. Now, his name comes on the screen, and the audience is already laughing. And “Apatow” is not even a particularly funny name.
How accurate will that test screening be? The opposite, of course, is also the case – a test screening of a movie, made by unknowns. “Unknowns” have to earn their laughs the hard way – by being genuinely funny. And some audiences still may not respond, because the “auspices”, as the elements in a project are called, lack the pre-assigned Seal of Approval.
The test audience’s reaction can be affected by other elements out of the filmmakers’ control, such as the elements themselves. I once saw a cartoon in an English satirical magazine called Punch that was set in a small circus. A clown and an acrobat peer outside the circus tent and the rain is pelting down; it’s a virtual deluge. Observing the downpour, the acrobat turns to the clown and he says,
“Fancy you chances of having them rolling in the aisles today, eh, Rollo?”
The response of a sodden test audience could easily send insecure film producers dashing back to the editing room to rethink the entire project. The studio may even decide to abandon the project then and there.
“What happened to your movie?”
“It got rained out.”
Bad news can also be a factor. Fancy pre-testing your hilarious new comedy on September the twelfth, 2001?
But before this gets away from me, I want to talk about, not the specifics of a movie, but its overall effect – “I liked it” - ”I hated it” – and how, in my experience, I have made some remarkable misjudgments.
I remember – when we were invited to such things, because I was on lists – attending a fundraising event, where the Penny Marshalll-directed movie A League of Their Own (1992) would be shown.
My original reaction was that overall, despite some very funny lines, especially the ones delivered by Jon Lovitz, I didn’t like the movie. It was too long. It was sappy. It was predictable. The movie had four endings. Its climactic moment was ambiguous. Tom Hanks is no home runner hitter. And, perhaps most importantly, the real-life lady ballplayers, shown in action during the closing credits, were, even in old age, exquisitely graceful and naturally athletic, while Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna, and generally, all the actors portraying these actual ballplayers were not.
All of the above observations are correct. I’m a professional; do not challenge me. I am kidding, of course. Even professionals get it wrong. Sometimes, because they’re professionals. Focusing on peripheral concerns, while ignoring the gem that’s staring them in the face.
What I missed during my first viewing of A League of Their Own, a movie I have since come to adore, was the movie’s unashamed humanity.
During World War II, a women’s baseball league was formed, pretty much as a stunt. But the league became popular, due to some of the girls’ “playing to the camera” but also due to the fact that many of the participants’ turned out to be terrific ballplayers, and the games became more legitimate contests than voyeuristic spectacles.
At least, that’s how the movie told it.
There are touching moments all the way through A League of Their Own. A major storyline involves two fierily competitive sisters, who finally “connect” in old age.
Another moving moment, occurs when a telegram delivery person passes through the clubhouse, bearing what is clearly a “We regret to inform you” announcement, the camera revealing the terror in each of the girls’ eyes, fearing that it’s their loved one who’s been lost in action.
There is, finally, the women’s league’s reunion during its induction ceremony into the baseball’s venerated Hall of Fame, during which they join together to sing the league’s official anthem, (reminiscent of a camp reunion, with aging former campers belting out, “We’re Having A Wonderful Time At Camp Ogama.”)
Was the movie flawed? Everything’s a little flawed. Some people think Mona Lisa’s smile sucks. Tom Hanks is still nobody’s idea of a slugger. And the climactic moment remains ambiguous, though whether that’s accidental or intentional, I have no idea.
But what I missed the first time around was the pure and deep and sincerely truthful emotion. And in a work of art, that’s what ultimately endures.
If I were a movie critic, I can see myself having to write two reviews – one, my instinctive response to the movie, and the other, when needed – and it would not be infrequently – the corrective review, where I would apologize for missing the point.
I don’t know how real critics get it even close to right in a single try.