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The Perils of Critical Mass

Reviewing films is a balancing act, but easier in a bold workplace.

July 24, 2001|MICHAEL SRAGOW | BALTIMORE SUN

Last month, when Newsweek.com broke the story that Sony Pictures had fabricated not just blurbs for movies but also the critic who coined them, it was simply the absurd end of a trivializing process that had been going on for decades.

The week it happened, one of the big openings was Ivan Reitman's star-laden turkey "Evolution." Fifteen years before it happened, one of the big openings was Reitman's star-laden turkey "Legal Eagles." As the critic then for the San Francisco Examiner, I appeared on a talk show opening day. A caller asked whom she could trust when the paper was carrying a two-page ad filled with rave quotes right next to my pan. I told her that if you see a critic's name pop up often in ads like that, chances are he or she isn't a real critic. Thank you, Sony Pictures, for proving me so right.

Real critics have always had a complicated relationship with movie studios and exhibitors, with publicity departments and with their readers. Exhibitors, including festival directors, would like us to crusade relentlessly on behalf of their efforts to keep screening conditions first-rate, great old theaters intact and art houses viable. Most of us do some of that; well-staffed newspapers assign such stories to arts-beat reporters. But our own main focus must always be on whether there's anything worth projecting in the first place.

Studios and distributors say we don't matter, yet are so anxious for our certification that they ransack our reviews for usable quotes. Every critic has his favorite story to tell on that matter. Oddly enough, mine was with not a studio picture but an art-house movie that opened when I was writing in Los Angeles: Peter Brook's "Meetings With Remarkable Men." It was a biography of cult leader G.I. Gurdjieff, and I said it wanted to be taken as an inspirational film. Naturally, in the ads the next day, there appeared the single word: "Inspirational!"--Michael Sragow, L.A. Herald Examiner.

But I actually don't know what bothered me more: the use of a single word like "inspirational" for a movie I disliked, or the use of a single word like "eloquent" or "moving" for a movie that I loved: "The Elephant Man." Criticism is not product labeling. What critics should do is express their passion and ideas fully, developing a readership that will enjoy arguing with them or cheering them--and that will bring the resulting energy into the theater. And to do that, a critic has to be as independent as possible.

Independence is easy to proclaim as an ideal, harder to practice. You have to master the practical demand of deadlines, the human demand of sympathy for honest failures, the aesthetic demand of expressing your point of view while accurately describing the work at hand. But all that comes easier if you work in a bold climate.

When I signed on to my first major job as the first-string critic for the Herald Examiner in 1978, L.A. papers had never had reviewers who would take the gloves off like their East Coast counterparts. Jim Bellows, the editor, had come west from the Washington Star to revive the Hearsts' flagging flagship. Amazingly, he wanted me to be independent in the movie industry's "company town."

Just how independent were we determined to be? The Herald Examiner had been one of William Randolph Hearst's favorite possessions. Orson Welles had pilloried Hearst in "Citizen Kane." So when Bellows asked me to come up with a rating system, instead of stars, we used rosebuds in honor of Kane's Rosebud sled. Only last week I discovered the Hearst Corp. gave Bellows heat for that.

Sometimes, in the zeal to establish a fearless stance, our side went too far. Perhaps the worst film of the '70s, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," opened the third week I was on watch. The editors came up with an above-the-banner, first-page headline for my pan: "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Bomb." Of course, you can't exactly bomb at the box office before you open. Even though every publication in the United States lambasted that film, Universal Pictures pulled all of its advertising from the Herald Examiner.

But most of the time we got in trouble simply for stating the truth as we saw it. After 20th Century Fox released a series of duds, that studio also pulled its advertising. So did Warner Bros. The newspaper lost millions. Yet with the backing of Bellows and company, I kept my job. I remember having lunch with the publisher, Frank Dale, and a producer's rep who kept urging us to take a different approach to reviewing. He grew increasingly flustered when we acted as if we didn't know what he meant.

Eventually, the advertisers came back. Of course, I was rarely used in the advertisements. But the stronger and more straightforward I became in expressing my likes and dislikes, the more positive reaction I got from readers .

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