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Tirade of the Week


9.26.98

On Second Thought


"Sorry! I fucked up!"
- Denis Leary

One of the sore spots for me in Leonard Maltin's MOVIE & VIDEO GUIDE over the years has been his two-star dismissal of TAXI DRIVER. Here it is in full: "To some, Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader's perception of hell -- as a crazed taxi driver's vision of N.Y.C. -- was brilliant. To us, this gory, cold-blooded story of sick man's lurid descent into violence is ugly and unredeeming. Judge for yourself. Searing performances and Bernard Herrmann's final music score are among film's few virtues."

Now, Leonard (or whoever wrote that impatient, short-sighted review) is entitled to his opinion, even if it's impatient and short-sighted. But you'd think in the 22 years since the movie's release, its general acceptance as a masterpiece, and its inclusion in the AFI Top 100 list, Maltin would've revisited the film to see if he still finds it "ugly and unredeeming." The odd thing, although only movie dorks like me would even know this, is that Maltin's review used to describe TAXI DRIVER as a "gory, cold-blooded story of sick man's supposed catharsis through violence." Starting with the 1993 edition, it got changed to "...sick man's lurid descent into violence" -- a subtle but telling difference.

My point isn't really that Maltin is a dick for not liking TAXI DRIVER. The point is, it got me thinking about movie critics who either don't change their minds or won't admit to it. In a moment of personal candor rare in his profession, Roger Ebert admitted that he gave UNFORGIVEN a much less positive review -- only two and a half stars -- than he later felt it deserved. This was because he was about to get married, his head was full of the impending wedding, and he couldn't properly appreciate or enjoy the movie.

Well, I'm glad Roger fessed up to that. Because it opens a whole other can of worms and exposes a dirty little secret of movie criticism. We try to give you a pure and honest assessment of what's on the screen. But sometimes it's hard.

Sometimes our experience of a film is unavoidably affected by what's going on in our lives at the moment: If you're in the middle of a complicated move to a new apartment, for example, you just might not have patience for a talky film like YOUR FRIENDS & NEIGHBORS, whereas two weeks later, after you're comfortably ensconced in the new place, you might be in a more receptive mood. Critics are also human and just as susceptible to prejudices as anyone else. If you've been cheated on, for instance, and you're reviewing a movie that treats adultery rather cavalierly or even romanticizes it (like THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY), odds are you're not going to be kind to that movie; you're making painful connections that someone else two seats down from you isn't making.

Which is fine, to a point. Criticism is subjective. When I review a film, I'm not trying to provide a consumer report and I don't present it as the end-all be-all final statement on the film; it's just my take on it. And if you read me regularly, or if you read Ebert or anyone else regularly, it's not necessarily because we always reflect your opinion; it's because you like how our minds work and how we express ourselves. I know that's how it works for me when I read some of my favorite critics, many of whom I often disagree with. I'm interested in what the film looks like through their eyes. Often they've seen a completely different movie from the one I saw, and it's because of the specific interests and experiences they bring to the film, which may differ radically from my own.

And my review isn't just my take on a film -- it's my take on a film at that specific stage in my development. A movie I don't like or don't get today may sneak up on me five years from now, kick my ass, kneel on my chest, and threaten to spit into my mouth unless I declare it an overlooked masterpiece. God knows this has happened before. Two films by one of my three deities, David Cronenberg (the other two being Kubrick and Lynch), struck me as unappealing and just flat-out stoopid the first time around. THE BROOD has since impressed me as a rigorous horror-movie study of dysfunctional families and repressed rage -- I've agreed to overlook the dippy-looking dwarf monsters -- and DEAD RINGERS, which left me utterly cold on first viewing, now reveals itself to be a melancholy masterpiece about self-delusion and the madness of loneliness.

Does this mean that, five years from now, I'll repent and place shiny gifts at the feet of Michael Bay for giving us the misunderstood gem ARMAGEDDON? I hope not. Does this mean that a movie that knocks my socks off today might make me yawn five years hence? It might. Some films don't age well; others do it for you at a particular moment in your life, and then years later, when you're a whole different organism, you may revisit a former favorite and wonder why you ever thought it was such sizzlin' stuff. PLATOON took my head off the first time I saw it. I haven't felt a burning need to see it since. Ditto THE ENGLISH PATIENT, BATMAN (of the quartet, only BATMAN RETURNS seems to reward repeat viewings), TITANIC (twice was enough for me), and others that didn't rock my world but were enjoyable at the time, like GOOD WILL HUNTING and JERRY MAGUIRE.

Siskel and Ebert routinely revisit their favorite movies -- acknowledged classics nobody could really argue with anyway -- and rhapsodize about them, but very seldom do they revise their opinions to reflect retroactive boredom with a movie they gave a thumbs-up or deeper understanding of a movie they didn't quite get the first time. They used to have a bit called "The Revolving Thumb," but this seems to have gone the way of the home-taped reviews sent in by viewers.

Every once in a while -- and I'll try to do it myself, just to prove I don't just talk the talk -- critics should revisit films they didn't like or understand or were just ambivalent about, see if they like the films more now, and report their findings. This is in the fine scientific tradition of updating data to reflect new discoveries -- and besides, none of us are the same people we were five years ago, or even five days ago. Retroactive criticism might freak some people out (my God, how can we trust these reviewers if they're gonna change their minds on us??), but it would at least be more honest. But then, honesty freaks people out anyway, doesn't it?