On Liking

August 26, 2008

I noticed something rather strange while I was poking around metacritic the other day. This is from their methodology:

Q: I read Manohla Dargis’ review of [MOVIE NAME] and I swear it sounded like a 9… why did you guys say she gave it an 8?

Our staff must assign a numeric score, from 0-100, to each review that is not already scored by the critic. Naturally, there is some discretion involved here, and there will be times when you disagree with the score we assigned. However, our staffers have read a lot of reviews–and we mean a lot–and thus through experience are able to maintain consistency both from film to film and from reviewer to reviewer. When you read over 200 reviews from Manohla Dargis, you begin to develop a decent idea about when she’s indicating a 90 and when she’s indicating an 80.

Fine. But then:

Q: Hey, I AM Manohla Dargis, and you said I gave the movie an 80, when really I gave it a 90. What gives?

A: …This does happen from time to time, and many of the critics included on this site (such as Ms. Dargis) do indeed check their reviews (as well as those of their colleagues) on metacritic.com

I’m not going to spend this post talking about the intricacies of Ms. Dargis’ reviews. Dargis has been called something of a contrarian and lambasted for her bizarre reviews. Ok, an example. Gawker considered her review of “How to Eat Fried Worms” part of a “post-modern contest” writing that “if you can wend your way through the convoluted structure she erects in today’s review…consider yourself granted an honorary M.F.A. in comparative literature.”

I’ll focus instead on the content of the review. First there is the use of the phrase “plangent realism.” Plangent is a nice word, meaning “having an expressive and especially plaintive quality,” but totally out of place in a review of a children’s/young adult movie. After all, the intended audience of the film might want to know if the movie’s any good. Even more surreal is her claim as to the movie’s message.

Directed by Bob Dolman, who also wrote the fine adaptation, “How to Eat Fried Worms” is an easygoing entertainment in which a sensible message about growing up also rationalizes the abuse of power. However lightly played, this is, after all, a film in which children learn to stand up for themselves, and for one another, by killing animals.

Gawker’s right to question the sentence structure; just think about how many ideas are placed in the first sentence before we get to the “abuse of power” claim. The claim itself is so bizarre that it needs no comment.

With reviews like this, it’s easy to understand how scoring can be difficult. I like to emphasize meaning and the “aboutness” in my reviews, which sometimes means focusing on particular well done moments and interesting aspects of the movie rather than evaluating all its virtues and defects. It’s not hard to write like you love something, or write like you hate something, for that matter, when you actually liked it or found it ok. Extremes lend themselves to easier prose.

One last note: I think it’s great that metacritic has people who research particular reviewers in order to decode their intended meanings, almost as if film criticism were samizdat. I’m glad someone’s out there coming up with jobs for humanities phds.

I’ve been thinking a lot about titles 071209_there_will_be_blood.jpgrecently, and part of me couldn’t help but wonder what might happen if Paul Thomas Anderson traded titles with Joel and Ethan Coen. Would “No Country for Old Men” capture the scope of Anderson’s vision? Joel and Ethan Coen’s “There Will Be Blood” would have more than met every viewers expectations of carnage, but I’m not sure if “No Country for Old Men” would have fit PTA’s movie (none of its old men have any country, but that that’s another story). There’s something both prophetic and alarming about the statement “There Will Be Blood.” The phrase is both a prediction and a demand. There will be blood. One way or another, there will be blood. This hesitancy is a quality that would have been lost in the Coen brother’s film, with its instant payout of violence, but perfectly elucidates Anderson’s genius. The movie is a slow build resisting all expectations, resisting all allegiances, yet mesmerizing in its beauty.

Midway through the movie, with the bodies not flying everywhere , I began to think about what the title might mean. Anderson has said that he changed the title from Oil! because there wasn’t enough of the novel in the movie for it to be a proper adaptation. The title was picked for the movie, for the story unfolding on screen, and not any other. There are no lost referents. One of the movie’s unquestioned themes is family, particularly male relationships. In the Times, Manohla Dargis emphasized the masculinity of this world, remarking that “Like most of the finest American directors working now, Mr. Anderson makes little on-screen time for women.” (This is true.) Dargis also seizes on the title, praising the movie for its historical sweep, “its raging fires, geysers of oil and inevitable blood. (Rarely has a film’s title seemed so ominous.)” Yet in her praise, she seems to miss the larger implication of the title. Blood certainly refers to violence, but also to family, to belonging. “There Will Be Blood” is the story not just of an oilman and the birth of the modern west, but a story about the need for family, for the need for everything family promises. Read the rest of this entry »