Essay

CONFESSIONS OF A CRITIC

Opinions forged in the heat of a film festival sometimes can’t be trusted

Brian D. Johnson September 8 2003
Essay

CONFESSIONS OF A CRITIC

Opinions forged in the heat of a film festival sometimes can’t be trusted

Brian D. Johnson September 8 2003

CONFESSIONS OF A CRITIC

Essay

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Opinions forged in the heat of a film festival sometimes can’t be trusted

“SO WHAT DID YOU THINK?”

For a film critic leaving a cinema after the lights come up, it’s the dreaded question. If I love the movie, or hate it, the answer’s easy. But a lot of the time, I don’t know quite what to think. While I’m watching the movie, if it’s any good I get drawn in to the point where I forget I’m a critic, and sometimes even forget it’s a movie. Long after it’s over, unless it’s mere eye candy, the film continues to develop, like a photograph emerging in the darkroom of the mind’s eye. Only when you write the review do you “fix” it with the embalming confidence of opinion. Problem is, sometimes the film won’t die. Its zombie images keep on playing, and mutating, in the imagination. Then you see it again, months later, and it doesn’t look like the film you remember.

Do film critics ever change their minds?

Well, yes. Often it depends when and how we see a movie. Most of the time, we’ll see it at preview screening a few days, or weeks, before it’s released in theatres. We tend to see smaller, independent films in small screening rooms with other critics. For blockbusters, Hollywood studios prefer to plunk us in with a large, invited audience, hoping the reaction might rub off. For me, watching a movie is an essentially a private experience. If the movie has cast a spell, when the end credits come up it’s like waking from a dream, and I try to hang onto it as long as possible. I’m impressionable, so as I leave the theatre I avoid comparing notes with other critics—unless the movie is so good, or so bad, that I feel I have to talk about it. Or unless I’m completely mystified by it. Usually, I just go off and interview myself in that tortured ritual called writing.

At festivals, however, the protocol changes. As I write this, I’m about to plunge into the Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 413). Instead of seeing three or four movies a week, I’ll see three or four a day. And because I’ll watch them with a much larger audience of colleagues from around the

world, exchanging views doesn’t seem so incestuous. In fact, it’s expected. Gorging on films for days on end, and talking about them, is what film festivals are all about. Talk is chic. Ever since the ’50s, when New Wave critics like Godard and Truffaut analyzed movies so profoundly that they talked themselves into making them, the Discourse has been a kind of sacrament—even if, in our age of two thumbs up, the Discourse gets dumbed down to the Buzz.

At any rate, when you see several films a day it’s easy to lose your critical marbles. And unless you write for a trade publication such as Variety, you don’t write full-scale reviews during a festival. You wait for a film’s commercial release, which can be many months later. Then, unless you want to base

a review on a vague memory, you have to see the film again. And it’s not the same film. Sometimes it’s literally different—it’s been recut. But even if it’s identical, your reaction won’t be. It’s like stepping into a river; you can’t see the same film twice.

The only sure thing is that a movie will get better or worse on repeated viewing. Usually the difference is just a matter of degree. But I’ve been known to do a complete about-face, on two occasions with films by David Lynch. In 1990, when I saw Lynch’s Wild at Heart, from the first shot of a lit match filling the giant screen in Cannes I was electrified. Months later, when I saw it in a Toronto screening room, it looked like sensationalist drivel. It was like reviewing a regrettable one-night stand.

In 2001, after seeing Lynch’s mind-bending Mulholland Drive in Cannes, I cynically conceded that the film had “funny moments, and lashings of hot lesbian sex,” but accused Lynch of “bogus surrealism” and concluded he was “selling smoke and mirrors like so much aluminum siding.” Pretty unequivocal. But then I saw Mulholland Drive again, months later, and I was utterly seduced. Dancing as fast I could, I rationalized my 180-degree shift by writing, “perhaps a reversal of opinion is appropriate for a film that operates in a kind of reversible reality.”

The heat of competition in Cannes, and the collective hysteria of the Croisette, can play tricks on the mind. Everyone is impatient for the great consummation. And in trekking up and down the sands of the Riviera, seeking the cinematic grail, the masterpiece that will change our lives, you can embrace a mirage, or overlook an oasis of quiet genius.

Recently I ran into Atom Egoyan at a literary fundraiser. Last fall, in the thick of the most tortured review I’ve ever written, I’d called his movie Ararat “a brilliant failure.” A fence-sitting phrase if ever there was one. But the paradox was sincerely felt. With its intricate maze of characters deciphering the legacy of the Armenian genocide, Ararat is a fascinating, provocative and valuable exploration of memory and guilt—a film far more interesting than most, and definitely worth seeing. But as a drama, a story, I felt it suffocated under the weight of too many ambitions.

“So what happened since Cannes?” Egoyan asked, reminding me of how Canadian critics seemed favourable at the time.

“I reserved final judgement until I wrote my review,” I said, explaining that I’d seen the film again. In fact, I ended up seeing it three times—once at a pre-Cannes screening, again at the Cannes premiere (to gauge audience reaction) and six months later to write the review. Then there was the damn Discourse—I probably spent as much time discussing Ararat as watching it. But at least it was worth discussing, and to the film’s credit, even on the third viewing, I was never bored. Ararat still haunts me, as does that slippery phrase, “brilliant failure.”

As for the movies I saw in Cannes last May, I don’t think I’ll be revising my uncomplicated love for Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions, which opens the Toron-

to festival this week (in the same gala slot occupied last year by Ararat). But I guess I’ll have to take a second look at Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny, which was the laughingstock of Cannes and rears its fuzzy head again at the Toronto festival in a reedited version—I just hope Gallo didn’t cut the Gordon Lightfoot song.

Chatting with a fellow critic on the sidewalk after a recent screening, I asked if he’d

written reviews that he no longer agreed with. He rolled his eyes as if to say, “Far too often.” Most embarrassing, he said, are positive reviews of bad films that had suckered him. “Ifyou’re going to be hung out to dry, it’s better to criticize a film that everyone likes than fall for one that everyone hates.”

I’m not sure I agree. All I know is that Ararat is now out on DVD, and I’m tempted to give it another shot. [¡fl