Betsy Shebang - Column for 1/22

Why I'm Not A Movie Critic

So, last week I griped about The Sixth Sense, which was at best a complaint two years overdue. My essay failed to achieve literary transcendence, but it did piss off a few friends who liked the movie and thought I was being disrespectful to those intelligent people who saw value in it.

I gotta admit, I found this confusing. If I think a movie is crappy, am I supposed to pretend I don’t? If a friend and I can agree that “Contact” was a lame movie and “Forrest Gump” was worse, isn’t that enough? Do we have to argue when we finally find a film we disagree on? Or is that disagreement just an opportunity for mutual discovery, and/or relief from the pressure to agree on everything?

This, folks, is why I’m not a movie critic. Because I really don’t expect anybody to agree with me about anything, and in a way I really don’t care. Don’t get me wrong – I love to complain about the bad taste that defines every other human being on planet Earth, even while I'm terrified of conflict and I desperately want everybody to like me and I find it very hard to express any opinion that isn't shared by the people I'm speaking to. I can’t take the challenge to identify who's right and who's wrong seriously for longer than it takes to realize what an idiot my obsessions have led me to become.

If I were in prison in a perfect world, where I could spend all day writing my Cant columns without getting the feeling I was polishing the dashboard of a broken lifeboat, I’d have written an essay last week that discussed a lot more than just how one pretty good movie wasn’t quite the cinematic apocalypse I’d heard it was. Even while I do feel the urge to use my meager voice to counter-balance the torrent of opinions I find to be naďve or misinformed, I acknowledge that the only purpose it serves is to prevent me from accomplishing anything significant for another week.

So, before I begin my life’s work, or at least try to figure out what it is, here’s my procrastinatory statement to the world:

What I object to is human arrogance – in this case, that of filmmakers. They work so closely with their footage that they lose all perspective and they see hidden meanings and dramatic subtleties that just ain’t there when anybody else sees the finished film. In the mini-documentary that follows “The Sixth Sense” on video, the producers describe their worry that they’d foreshadowed too many plot elements through the use of the cold-breath thing and the color red. I dunno…I was feeling sorta brain dead when I saw the movie, but when I saw the cold-breath thing, I assumed it meant they all lived in drafty houses. In the end, the producer’s worry made me think of my own college video projects, where I spent so long obsessing over the same forty seconds of footage that I began to think I’d captured all human pathos and mystery on screen by pointing the camera through the windshield of a moving car. The equipment was borrowed. My mom was driving. My life sucked. None of this translated into good cinema.

So, last week I saw Gosford Park. Fun movie. Only complaint: the sound recording. See, Robert Altman has decided that his signature touch is to shoot crowd scenes by recording every person speaking on a separate audio track; he then remixes the sound to highlight one conversation at a time. This can mean recording thirty synchronized tracks at once. So far, so good.

The problems:

a) A crowd scene must take place over an expanse of space, yet every conversation recorded in this manner is close-miked, so each voice sounds like it’s right next to the camera.

b) In response to this, Altman said “What can we do to make the voices sound far away?” The sound guy said what sound guys always say, which is “Put reverb on it.” So each voice that’s supposed to be more than five feet from the camera sounds like it’s coming from inside a sewer tunnel.

c) With the echoing sounds of conversation disassociated from the period-piece visuals, the crowd scenes take on the surreal giddiness of being stoned at a formal family gathering.

d) None of this accomplishes anything. Nothing is revealed in these grandly staged crowd scenes that couldn’t be better achieved through more conventional recording techniques; in fact, most of the dialogue isn’t necessary at all. All the effort that went into this ridiculous recording strategy could have been used to feed the starving masses or recount Florida ballots for the twentieth time. It didn’t serve the movie; it only served the ego of the moviemakers. This annoys me, because they have money and I don’t.

So, again, I couldn’t care less what films are made; I don’t care if Tom Cruise stars in a sequel to “Cocktail” and people go see it. I don’t care whether studios make this movie or that movie. What I object to is the world’s habit of mistaking this movie for that movie.

That said, now I can get back to the important tasks that will someday define my life’s accomplishments. Lessee…what’s on cable?

Columns by Betsy Shebang