Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"A Critical Review"

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.


Alan said...

There’s an apocryphal tale of a Broadway producer sending his creative staff to the opening of the latest musical to see what they’d think of it.
The next day, the gathered staff reported:
The Music? His composer thought it was derivative.
The Book? The librettist thought it was too long and way too talky.
The costumes were clichés, the set design too fussy.
In fact, according to these pros, the show wouldn’t last a week.
The show?
My Fair Lady!

Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; sometimes a movie is not what it appears to be about. "A League of Their Own" is one such movie. They're tricky.

Do you think the atmosphere of the screening affected your initial assessment? I find that I enjoy a movie when I'm watching it, but later find the flaws and dwell on them. Most times I suspend my disbelief during the moment, it's later that I feel regret for having done so.


Frank said...

Painting funny pictures with words counts as art in my book Earl.

YEKIMI said...

Having managed movie theaters for a number of years, I sometimes went to screenings of movies put on by the film companies [since they were trying to get you to book their movies in your theaters]. What amazed me was often what I saw and what was released had been severely edited. [Stuff that was in during during the screening had been taken out & stuff added in]One of the ones I saw pre-release long time ago was "The Black Hole". Disney put on one hell of a shebang, catered lunch, marching bands, etc. But they showed the film before a lot of the special effects had been added, before the soundtrack [dialogue, music] had been added to the film [they had some of the dialoge on a reel-to-reel tape that they had synced up with the film]. But even seeing some movies before public release, I'd sit down and watch it once it was...often several times. Often when seeing it the first time, I'd think the film was crap, but upon subsequent watchings I'd discover things I missed the first time and sometimes change my opinion of it. I would also say it would have to do with the mood you were in when you saw it for the first time. There were times I was in a funk and I'd think the movie was awful while everyone else was raving about it, but after seeing it when I was in a better state of mind, I'd changed my mind. So John Walker is right [I'm pretty sure he's a guy, he posts a lot on Ken Levine's blog] watching a movie a number of times may give you a better perspective on the whole film. Then again, sometimes a film is a piece of crap when you first watch it and remains a piece of crap no matter how many times you see it.

PG said...

As a teacher, I chose a couple of films for the Media Studies curriculum to help the students understand the impact of new technologies on average family life. So for over 15years, two terms/year, I sat through "Radio Days" and "Avalon" with my classes. I never tired of either of them, finding more to enjoy and appreciate with each viewing. Without going into particulars, they just got better and better! But unlike John, there was a little breathing space between my screenings!

Johnny Walker said...

Hey, I'm that Johnny Walker -- and yes, it's my real name.

Just wanted to add: The idea of watching the same movie in a theatre three times in one day is a writing exercise that William Goldman insists his students do. I didn't make it up, but I did learn from it.

That said, I think the idea of audiences sitting there, twisting dials, is preposterous. You can get a feeling for how an audience is reacting just by sitting with them if you ask me.