Critical Assessment 

Last week, Toronto film critic Geoff Pevere wrote a review of his review of Planet of the Apes. Upon seeing the movie for the second time with his daughter, he realized he had made an overestimation of the film’s quality and felt as though it was his responsibility to put his earlier, rapturous review into proper perspective. Pevere blamed his misjudgment on the rushed nature of his profession, which requires him to view a movie and then quickly offer his opinion in time for a press deadline. “Opportunities to reflect and ruminate, processes which are elementary to good criticism, are rare as white buffalo,” he wrote.

I applaud Mr. Pevere’s forthrightness and sympathize with his oversight. If I were a film critic and had to sit through the deluge of half-assed junk that passed for summer fun this year, I’d probably have reacted to Burton’s Planet of the Apes as a trove of cinematic marvels as well. The movie is far from perfect but certainly has more going for it than most of the high-tech swill on the market these days.

I think there are some important lessons to be learned here, though. We forget that criticism is subjective, and that art derives its power over time. In our information-overloaded era, things have become disposable to the point of blunting their potential impact. A couple of weeks ago, Scene film critic Noel Murray addressed this same topic when he took a look at how reviewers handled Spielberg’s A.I. He contended that most critics rushed to form an opinion without taking time to think about the film’s content and themes.

I was disappointed in much of A.I., particularly its Spielberg-ized last half-hour. But even so, I recognize that perception changes with time. I would easily concede that if and when I see A.I. at a later date, I may find resonance in the experience that I hadn’t found before. The film’s ideas came from Stanley Kubrick, a director whose work virtually defined the terms “delayed reaction” and “flawed masterpiece.” His films routinely opened to healthy amounts of both derision and praise, only to earn well-respected places in the cinematic canon later on.

This is something of which Spielberg himself is quite aware, as I learned in an interview with him not long ago. He spoke of watching a screening of The Shining with Kubrick before it was released, disliking the film, and then having to tell his colleague afterward over dinner. More than 20 years later, though, Spielberg claims that The Shining has come to be one of his favorite Kubrick movies.

As a culture, we seem to have begun using a one-time litmus test to evaluate our experiences. This discounts age, awareness, accumulated knowledge, and the evolving of taste that occurs over a lifetime. All too often these days, I think critics feel the need, or perhaps pressure, to speak in definitive terms about films or other works of art. They’re speaking to a vast and varied populace, and whether they’d like to admit it, they just might be influenced by Hollywood’s increased reliance on hype and marketing.

I’d like to see a little more personal accounting for opinion and taste rather than irrevocable declarations. I know I love to toss off kudos or damnation in this column. But I’d hope it’s pretty obvious that my own predilections are subjective—and subject to change. I know for a fact that my experience of things alters over time. A record that didn’t mean a thing to me when I bought it three years ago can easily become my newfound life-support system.

In the end, artistic endeavors of any kind are slices of life that transcend a mere grade evaluation. They can mutate and change shape in one’s mind without ever really changing themselves. Which is why I think maybe the critical cognoscenti should back off, at least a little, and let those who make art and those who experience it breathe on their own a little.

For the past couple of years, people in Hollywood have complained about the printing of gross receipts after every weekend for fear that the practice is influencing moviegoers. By the same token, maybe critics should wait a week before issuing their reviews—which would put them on the same level as the average audience member, rather than making them a member of the privileged few who get to offer their assessments before the work is even allowed to state its own case. Wouldn’t it be great if a film could establish its reputation on its own, without anyone’s prejudices involved?


Having gotten all that off my chest, I’d like to assume the role of a critic again. In particular, I’d like to make a personal appeal for someone to get Nicolas Cage’s career back on track. Last week the actor’s new movie, Captain Correlli’s Mandolin, opened nationwide. This hefty piece of Velveeta comes from the schlockmeisters who gave you the wretchedly stupid Shakespeare in Love. Predictably, advance word was that it was dog.

There was a time when Cage wouldn’t take on a film so mundane, or at least if he did, he’d provide such a bizarre spin on his character that you wouldn’t remember anything else in the movie except him. The Nicolas Cage I remember from the ’80s and early ’90s, in movies like Birdy, Raising Arizona, and Wild at Heart, had a taste for the outlandish and eccentric but managed never to come across as self-consciously strange. Even in conventional fare, he didn’t allow himself to be boxed in. Look at his character in Moonstruck. Here’s a fairly charming, by-the-numbers romantic comedy—except for Cage’s character, who doesn’t have a hand and rants with equal amount of passion about seeking revenge on his brother and falling in love. The movie would probably just be average without him.

But those days are long gone. After winning the Best Actor Oscar for his role in Leaving Las Vegas, he’s become a dull Hollywood big shot. Either he’s hamming it up with mindless button-pushers like Joel Schumacher or Jerry Bruckheimer, or he’s wallowing in fallow tearjerkers like City of Angels or the The Family Man.

Risky filmmaking has become rare for Cage these days. So I’m pleading: Please go do something gleefully bizarre; we need your perversity now more than ever. I may get my wish next year, when Cage stars in Adaptation, Being John Malkovich screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s account of his attempt to adapt Susan Orlean’s novel The Orchid Thief. Cage says it’s a cubist work. Sounds good to me.

Quotidian Challenge

“You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.”

Be the first to e-mail the origin of this useless bit of trivia to poplife the shame of your name printed in the paper and some free useless crap from the Nashville Scene!

Previous week’s answer: “What’s with these homies dissin’ my girl? Why do they got to front?”— “Buddy Holly” by Weezer.

Winner: Shawn DeMers.


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