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CRITIC'S NOTES

The Movie Overview: We Mis-did It, You Say?

August 17, 1986|SHEILA BENSON

Still the letters come, in the wake of our recent movies overview. At the very least, the fervor is heartening. How could we have been so thick-headed as to leave X off a list? (The X's haunted all of us, right up to and past our deadline time, I promise you.) And how did X ever make the grade? (Primarily because of the quixotic tastes of five entirely different writers, asked to come to some sort of consensus.)

A recurring plaint asked why "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" didn't make the best of the '80s list when it had been so highly praised at its opening? Had the post-release glut of "E.T."-everythings soured our affection for it? (Its position on the Key Films list as one of the most influential movies of the decade was, in our minds, the reason for not doubling it up, not lack of affection from any one of this highly suspect Gang of Five.)

There were individual rebukes, in a medley of tones. How could I, for example, have managed to appreciate Kenneth McMillan and misspell him at the same time, turning him into choreographer Kenneth MacMillan? (Weakness of intellect, I fear, with profound apologies on both sides of the Atlantic.) How could a film like "Blade Runner" have been so left out in the cold? (Actually, it was one of our original key films because of the power of its visuals. But it became the only movie on the list whose influence was primarily artistic and behind-the-scenes, and reluctantly we supplanted it with another title whose clones are around us everywhere.)

Unsurprisingly, the most passionate--and the longest--letters have come from screenwriters. Some bristled at the form we used for our lists, identifying a film with its director. To a writer's outraged eye, that gives the director infinitely undue credit. Although it's an old, universal and perhaps irreversible habit, the writers may have a point. If we should ever been foolhardy enough to plunge into this another year, we should probably adjust the form so that the director is listed as director. Reasonable complaint.

One urgently written appeal asked us to consider that every film has two scripts--the one the writer turns in and the work that finally makes its way to the screen--and to temper our reviews accordingly. (I do know that in television, the practice of revisions and "improvements" is so habitual that when writers are asked to submit an example of their work, they are asked for "first draft only." Whether that is cynicism or realism, from the outside it seems a horrifyingly frank admission of prevailing conditions.)

The first-script/playing-script idea presents a problem for film reviewers, however. There is one name or two names or four names or the name of the writer's dog attached to almost every movie, and, for better or worse, that is what we have to go by. Hearsay and gossip about who really wrote a film is frowned upon in reviews, although the dog occasionally has his day. It's the same with the screenplay: What we have to deal with is what is up there on the screen--that and the nagging certainty that unless we were on the set at the time, we can never really know who created what.

(If we were on the set at the time, the experience would probably throw our objectivity so out of whack that we shouldn't be reviewing that movie anyway.)

As a general rule, reviewers don't--and shouldn't--read the screenplay first. Leaving the large question of propriety and/or surprise aside, we don't have the time. Next, fascinating though a first-draft script might be, it would still be irrelevant: We are still left to write about what we see, not the ghost of what might have been. And, finally, as a writer of my intimate acquaintance used to say, "Screen credit is screen responsibility," a succinct if tough principle.

One screenwriter wanted to know if we have any idea of the process of movie-making--of what writers, directors and producers individually contribute? I can only say humbly that I believe that all of us do, although we are all capable of omissions and oversights. So far, in the wake of the '80s overview, we have had no irate letters from film editors, although we might well have. Their crucial work wasn't given a section of its own simply because editing is fiendishly hard for an outsider to appraise most of the time. Production designers and costume designers might have an equal complaint. Actually, I suspect that if any group gets short shrift more often than any other in reviews, it's producers, not writers. (Now there is a sentence I never thought I'd see myself write.)

Writers' credits are at least fathomable. One particularly courteous special-effects person called recently to point out that his company had been given more than the budget of an entire independent film to do the smashingly spectacular effects for a recent movie, only to be rewarded with no mention whatever in our review.

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