Posted by Greg Ferrara on April 24, 2013
I’ve been writing for some time now and in the last decade or so of feverish online opinion, I’ve learned a couple of things about myself and others when it comes to discussing films. One, I’ve learned that there is nary a movie in existence that isn’t like by someone and, two, panning a movie, any movie, usually makes me feel awful inside. It’s why, in just the last couple of years, I decided clearly and boldly: No more!
The first lesson, that practically every film out there has its supporters, was a tough one to get used to but I finally did or, should I say, I finally resigned myself to it and stopped worrying about who liked what. Before I began publicly writing out my views for all to see, I had several presumptions about movies that I held close to my heart only to have them shattered before my eyes. One of them was that I actually knew a lot about movies. Yes, to the average Joe at the water cooler who thinks a real stumper of a trivia question is “Who directed Jaws?”, I do. But online I found that fellow readers and writers constantly mentioned movies that I’d never seen, and in some cases, movies I’d never even heard of.
Another presumption I had was that certain movies were universally derided, disliked or disdained. I was wrong. I found out I was wrong on numerous occasions. You see, every time I thought I’d be clever and deride a movie by referencing another movie just as bad, I would inevitably have readers tell me they liked the first movie, or the second, or both. At first, I actually tried to combat this by second-guessing what I had written. One time I was writing about a Hitchcock film (I can’t remember which now) and remarked something to the effect that it wasn’t one of his best but, hey, it wasn’t like it was Topaz either. And then a reader or two said, basically, “I like Topaz!” I backpedaled and offered up another, maybe Torn Curtain. Same result, different readers. I may have tried Under Capricorn before getting the same result and giving up. This has happened, oh, eighty, ninety times by now.
The evidence is clear: Most movies, even ones you might think are awful, have fans somewhere and, odds are, they’re reading you just as you decide to use their cherished movie as a whipping boy. It doesn’t mean I’m not going to state my opinion clearly (I have no love for Topaz, Torn Curtain or Under Capricorn. Sorry.) but I’m probably going to be a little more diplomatic about it and a lot less snarky. In fact, I’m getting to the point where I can’t stand snark or flippancy in a review. Which leads me to…
… Panning movies. I’ve never really done it but it’s only recently (last two years or so) that I’ve really developed a strong distaste for it. Now, understand, I don’t mean a bad review. Heck, if the movie’s bad and your job is to review it, give it a bad review. State what’s wrong with it, why it doesn’t work and pull no punches. With the truth, that is. But you can do that without making fun of it. Or getting mean. That’s a different thing entirely. I can even take a rant or two (I’ve done a few of those) where you’re complaining about a movie’s approach but even those have lost their appeal for me. (I’ve thought of taken some of my older ones down though, for now, I feel like it should all be there to see, warts and all.)
There are many reasons I feel this way and many events along the way that changed my mind. One of them left me genuinely upset with and disappointed in myself. It was a documentary I was reviewing some years ago (I won’t reveal which or who I’m talking about) and, being younger and dumber, I made fun of one of the interviewees. He was a bit boring and dry and rather than ignore his interviews completely or simply state they were a little dry and the director should have taken a different approach, I made a few jokes about human sleeping pills and thought I was oh-so-clever and witty, my own self-serving Algonquin Round Table. And then, though I won’t reveal how, I was made aware that the subject of my disdain had most likely read my review. That he was an older gentlemen, fairly unaccustomed to the internet and not a young, brash kid ready to give it back to me, made it ten times worse. I really can’t express how awful I felt. I immediately edited out the jokes but it was too late. I have never done that again.
But it’s not just about feeling bad because someone got offended. It’s about how much work goes into making a movie, any movie, and how no one goes into making one thinking, “Okay, I’m going to purposely make the worst movie I can just to anger patrons.” Why make it worse with a pan? Again, there’s nothing wrong with a bad review. An artist, however good or bad, should know the reviewer’s honest opinion. Tell it like it is. But that can be done without snarky jabs, crude insults and condescending superiority. Since I don’t review new movies here, it’s easy to just write about what interests me. In other arenas, I do write about new movies and if I see one I don’t like, I try to express that without getting mean. The idea of scoring snark points at the expense of the work of dedicated craftpeople and artists is off-putting to me, to say the least. It’s made worse by a lot of writers intent on making a name for themselves by scorching all the earth around them. Sadly, it works, as a lot of them get plenty of good, paid gigs.
I prefer to write about what I like and try to persuade the reader to like it, too. I also like celebrating greatness a lot more than deriding badness. And celebrating greatness has rewards much greater than snark anyway. A couple of years back I wrote a tribute, on another site, to the great Maureen O’Hara on her birthday. Apparently, someone showed it to her. A day later, I was contacted by her personal secretary, at Maureen’s request, to let me know how much she liked it. I don’t have to tell you, no amount of smug self-satisfaction from a snarky comment will ever match the satisfaction of that one.
Maybe I’m too soft (I probably am) but when I hear people talk about how hilarious this or that pan is, or how humorously this critic savaged that movie maker, I don’t share in the mirth. Yes, I’ve enjoyed good pans in my time and found lots to laugh about, but I rarely feel better afterwards. And I can only speak for myself. I’ve written some reviews I wish I could take back, gone off on some rants I probably should have reigned in, but as I move forward and really cherish the greatness I see in cinema and the desire to share it with anyone who’ll listen, I have to be honest about it. I don’t like running things down and there’s too much good to celebrate to waste time picking apart movies I don’t like. We all have our personal boundaries for these things and from now on, mine will be clearly marked: No Pan Alley.
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