Saturday, August 9, 2008

Marginal notations

As a writer, I'm interested in critics and what they say of other books and movies, because their impressions of other writers' work gives me half an idea of how they could potentially trash mine. But I admit, as a breed, they mystify me.

Yesterday I was talking about the 2007 BEOWULF -- admittedly from the perspective of the effects. I didn't say much about the production itself, because (!) everyone, bar none, comes at a movie (or book) from his or her own angle, and likes/dislikes, loves/hates it because of reactions generated inside the individual. I NEVER read the critics before I see a movie, and I usually take anything they say with a pinch of the proverbial. Just occasionally, something will get under my skin. Bear with me!

(IMHO, it's unwise for critics to come right out and tell people, "The movie (or book) totally stinks," because there will always be many people out there who were touched by it, or impressed by something in it which the critic failed to see. Those viewers will either get a complex because the critic just told them they're so stupid, they like something that stinks, and for some reason they respect the opinion ... or they'll conclude that the critic is a callow moron, for missing so obvious, and so wonderful, an element in the movie. Either way, reviews soundly and subjectively trashing movies and books are of questionable wisdom ... people get hurt, angry, and feuds begin. How dumb is this?)

Now, a reasonable, constructive criticism is something else. All writers can benefit from constructive opinion, BEFORE the book goes to press or the movie is finished. After the fact, however...? I've read book reviews (thank gods, not of my work) that say, in almost these same terms, "The whole book is a piece of crap, without an original idea anywhere in it; I hated the stereotype characters, the plot was stultifying, the background was ripped off from two other books; and if you spent money on this, you were robbed, and you're an idiot."

Alas, I've read way too many reviews which are echoes of this. The first one I read goes back about 30 years. The movie the critic was butchering was (!) STAR WARS. I read the same approximate criticism of the 1994 STARGATE movie. Those are the two which stand out in my memory because they did such a complete butcher job on two movies which were unanimously adored by consumers (myself included).

I'm not about to defend STAR WARS or STARGATE. I don't have to, even if I wanted to (which I don't). The financials for both projects are their vindication ... and even as I say that, I can hear the critics and their advocates saying, "You can never go wrong, feeding the moronic public the lowest common denominator ... dish up garbage, and they'll shower you with money."

What I'm actually talking about is the thrust of that last line. The garbage part. Garbage in whose opionion? And whose opinion do we trust, and why?

It all depends on your point of view, and who you're talking to at the time. I haven't even seen the new EREGON movie (and at the moment have no plans to), but I read the reviews of the book, and they stank. Apparently, you take STAR WARS and you set that plot and characters in Middle Earth, and you get EREGON. I remember thinking, "Oh, dear, not again," because George Lucas himself was bashed brutally cira 1980 for lifting virtually every element of his project from extant films as widely diverse as a 1940s Nazi propaganda piece, TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, and DUNE, and THE THREE MUSKETEERS.

And so the carousel spins. Writers do "borrow" elements from other projects ... they also steal, either knowingly or un-. Sometimes they get caught, and sometimes no one cares enough to slap their wrists, or a borrowing will be called an "homage."

However, it's the trash factor which concerns me here. The part where a critic says, flat out to his viewers/readers, "Don't see this movie. It's unwatchable."

Oh .... boy. Yes, I'm talking about one of the BEOWULF reviews, a video clip uploaded to YouTube, dubbed down from some TV show (in the US) where a couple of hip (?) young men babble for far too long about what they didn't like about a movie. Fair enough: they are more than welcome to their opinions, but the other side to that coin is this: you're right back to the situation where you're accusing the viewer of tastelessness and idiocy, if s/he liked the same movie.

Uh ... huh. Now, these guys bashed BEOWULF for several reasons. One: being animated. Apparently, in their eyes the characters look wooden and rubbery. Guys, it's ANIMATED, and the technology isn't perfect yet!! Good gods, how stupid is it to bash an animated movie for being animated?

Their point was, of course, BEOWULF should have been made live. Yes? Then tell Disney MULAN and so on, and on, should have been done live. Sorry, guys, this is not an intelligent criticism. An animated features is crafted as an animated presentation, because it's an animated film from an animation studio which produces animated movies. The key word in the previous sentence is ANIMATED, and the duh factor is off the scale.

The second point for which BEOWULF was bashed was its lack of "heart," evident because human emotion is not yet projecting through the digital characters ... it's the exact same criticism which was heaped upon THE GOLDEN COMPASS (I read the reviews since Ian McKellen voiced the polar bear). Here's the rub. THE GOLDEN COMPASS was done live, with actors like Christopher Lee and Derek Jacobi, and Nicole Kidman. They're not digital. "Heart" is not something that can be guaranteed, just by filming live

The most "telling" criticism levelled against BEOWULF was the thinness of the storyline, the fact it concentrates on the action scenes and skates over the human melodrama in the background. Now, here's your problem: it's already been decided that the digital characters are like rubbery figures, with wooden acting ... now, you want to tackle twenty years' worth of soap opera with this digital cast??? How daft would that be?! So, the movie concentrates on the action, and is rubbished for being like a video game --

Except in its opening scenes, before the plot gets underway. In these scenes, its all about humans and their ribald, rambunctuous and inebriated antics, which laid the movie open for further criticism. Our two young reviewers seemed to have major problems with sexual references and harsh language in an animated film. I went on to other reviews after this one, and other reviewers had major problems with nudity, although nothing I read said a word against the bloodletting and gore, which in places are comparable to 300, albeit not depicted in adoring slow-mo.

At which point, I stopped reading. The last thing I remember seeing was someone who said, "Grendel was not remotely scary," on the one hand, while watching nude digitizations of the monster's mommy and Beowulf was just too much for this poor guy who'd had to go see the movie on critics' free tickets.

And it's here where the whole subjectivity problem jumps into focus. "I didn't like the movie because it was animated, it should have been made live, because you can tell it's not real people, it's ... well, animated." Duh. "I didn't like it because I can't stand looking at beautiful people without their clothes on." Say what? "I didn't like it because it skipped the decades-long soap opera of human drama and gave us the action -- and although the characters are rubbery figures, I wanted less action and more stuff about people doing mundane things." Good gods. "I didn't like it because when they depict people being ordinary human beings, they're drinking and flirting and getting sexy, and it's gross when animated characters get ribald." Says who? "I didn't like it because the monster was only gruesomely decayed, deformed and hideous, 20 feet tall, and munches people alive, head-first, and tears bodies apart with his bare hands, he wasn't remotely scary." Yurk.

The bottom line is about subjectivity. Some critic, somewhere, will bash anything ever written. As I began, as a writer, I'm interested in this stuff. I get bashed by critics, all writers do, and it's vitally important to sort sense from stupidity. If you couldn't differentiate an objective criticism from subjective egocentrism, you'd give it away and get a job in a shop.

Here's my parting shot. A rave review from a flaming fan of THE DARK KNIGHT. Get this one: "It was fantastic, amazing, but I wouldn't want to see it again."

Now, that's how your movie takes two billion at the box office, and another one on DVD. Right?

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