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Hey, how did you like that movie? Ask me tomorrow

This year's flop can be next year's classic and vice versa in critics' revisionist history.

March 30, 2003|Stephen Farber | Special to The Times

"Of course I'm respectable," John Huston tells Jack Nicholson in "Chinatown." "I'm old. Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough." Those aren't the only entities that gain respectability as they age. Many schlocky old movies also acquire bewildering luster if they hang around long enough.

Revisionist history is practiced in many different fields, but it's absolutely rampant with regard to movies. Press pundits and general moviegoers are often guilty of blithely misrepresenting the earlier films that they pontificate about.

Admitting that you've had second thoughts about a movie is fair enough. What's peculiar about some of the fast-and-loose revisionist criticism that has become so commonplace is that critics and ordinary moviegoers often cavalierly fail to acknowledge that they're rewriting history. Invidious comparisons can be a convenient way of putting down a new movie while idealizing the good old days.

To cite a current example, many reviews of the hit comedy "Old School" complained that it was far tamer than an earlier frat-house romp, "National Lampoon's Animal House," which helped to make a star of John Belushi in 1978. Variety's David Harvey mocked "Old School" as "this year's kinder, gentler 'Animal House.' " In the New York Times, Elvis Mitchell ticked off the similarities between the two movies, leaving no doubt as to which he preferred. "Animal House," he contended, "raised the stakes with a kind of ruthless bad taste that was actually refreshing," while "Old School" is "like a half-empty glass of Coke that's been sitting out for a couple of days."

Reading the reviews would lead readers to conclude that "Animal House" is pretty universally regarded as some kind of classic, but their memories may be playing tricks on them. It's true that "Animal House" was a box-office smash that inspired a wave of teen gross-out comedies, from "Porky's" to "Road Trip," but was it really a good movie?

It got very mixed reviews back in 1978, with critics leveling exactly the same charges at the picture that today's reviewers (who in many cases are the very same people) are now directing at "Old School." Writing in the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, Michael Sragow noted that "Animal House" was "surprisingly tame. It's a latter-day Hellzapoppin' that in every important way is too pooped to pop."

So what's going on here? Have critics gained new appreciation for "Animal House" because of all the inferior movies that followed it, or are they simply forgetting the imperfections of that earlier film, which has grown more than a little foggy in their memories?

Hasty judgment

Sometimes a touch of revisionism is relevant. Many gangster movies and film noir melodramas were dismissed when they first came out, but they're more legitimately appreciated now. On the other hand, some of yesterday's trivia has been laughably overinflated. (Even "Gilligan's Island" is now dissected with hushed reverence.) It's healthy for critics to keep an open mind and rethink opinions that might have been formed a little too hastily.

That's what Joe Morgenstern (currently the critic for the Wall Street Journal) did in his famous re-review of "Bonnie and Clyde" back in 1967. In his original review for Newsweek, Morgenstern panned the movie. A week later he went back to see it again and filed a second review extolling its virtues and confessing that he had misjudged the picture the first time.

Sometimes the good old days that beguile revisionist critics aren't even that far off. In his review of "Chicago," Variety's David Rooney carped that the new picture was "arguably less buoyant or inventive than recent unconventional and artistically controversial tuners such as 'Moulin Rouge' or 'Dancer in the Dark.' " Writing in a similar vein, Time magazine's Jess Cagle charged that "Chicago" "doesn't have the stylistic daring of 'Moulin Rouge.' " The Los Angeles Times' Manohla Dargis seemed skeptical of both movies, though she indicated a clear preference when she said of "Chicago" director Rob Marshall, "Like Baz Luhrmann in the superior 'Moulin Rouge,' he simply refuses to sit still."

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