Saturday, February 21, 2004

Eighteen Cubic Actors: Topdog/Underdog, Boston Marriage, and Copenhagen at LiveArts

With a strong talent pool of actors, directors and musicians to draw from, Charlottesville's LiveArts is as good as community theater gets. Still, with a major new facility nearing completion, and a fairly large production of the Maury Yeston/Arthur Kopit (yes, that Arthur Kopit) musical "Nine" in rehearsals, the organization is spread a bit thin. The last three shows have been small, repertory works -- smaller even than the typical no-budget offering for the annual LiveArts Summer Theater Festival. Suzan Lori-Parks' Topdog/Underdog features two characters, while David Mamet's Boston Marriage and Michael Frayn's Copenhagen offer three apiece. Multiply all three casts, and you get a grand total of eighteen cubic actors -- roughly the cast of a typical community-theater production.

Suzan Lori-Parks's Topdog/Underdog

Now that I've seen Suzan Lori-Parks's Topdog/Underdog, I don't understand how it could have won a Pulitzer Prize. My only explanation is that the critics responsible must have thought it was about the "Black Experience," since both its characters are African-American. But at heart, Topdog is just another Cain-and-Abel tale with a couple of small-time three-card monte dealers at the center. If its dialogues and speeches weren't so engaging, the whole affair would reek of cliche.

Still, Lori-Parks manages to burden her play with plenty of overwrought racial symbolism. Take the characters -- two brothers named Booth and Lincoln. With names like that, one brother will quite naturally kill the other, and since we have only one set and two characters, one presumes the proverbial hammer will fall onstage, rather close to drama's end. (Because we already have the room, murderer and time of death figured out before the play even begins, the only thing left is to establish whether the killer will do it with the revolver, the candlestick or the lead pipe.)

Such too-obvious symbolism would be enough to sink a regular evening out, but alas, Lori-Parks's posturing doesn't stop there. Lincoln works as a carnival attraction, sitting perfectly still inside a small tent so that passers-by can walk in with a cap gun and pretend to shoot him in the head. Here I pause to ask you: Do you believe that Americans would pay money for a chance to shoot Lincoln -- even a fake Lincoln -- in the head? Apparently the playwright does. But I'd say that, given Lincoln's ongoing presence in the national memory, we'd rather pay to shoot Booth.

As the sacrificial lamb Lincoln, Richard Cooper evokes a young James Earl Jones. But first-time actor Matt Horn simply isn't up to the complex and shifting character of Booth. I can't tell if he flubbed his lines during the performance I saw -- if he did, he did it at least twice, and took Cooper down with him. Entrances and exits were slightly off; Horn's delivery stalled scenes and created "dead" patches; and worst of all, the two actors never seemed to inhabit the same stage. The play is never better, or better-paced, than when Cooper holds the stage by himself -- and never worse than when Horn and Cooper appear together.

The production had two directors, Larry Goldstein and Shawn Harris. That's one director for each actor, and I wonder who directed whom. Unfortunately, both directors appear convinced that Topdog/Underdog conveys an important social message. I can't say what this message might be, other than that killing your sibling is wrong. Considering that this climactic murder occurs because one brother envies the other, the usual left-wing suspects of American racism, prejudice and puppy-bashing don't seem particularly culpable. After all, envy has been a fixture of fraternal rivalry -- regardless of race -- pretty much from the beginning. So the directors miss the point, we miss the point, and it's likely Lori-Parks herself missed the point.

In short, there's not much to see.

David Mamet's Boston Marriage

If David Mamet's dramatic oeuvre is like a gallery of prizefighters, then his most recent play Boston Marriage is strictly a flyweight -- short, slight and fast on its feet. Mamet delivers his standard verbal exuberance, deceptive plot twists, and politically incorrect misogyny (this time, directed against Lesbians). But since this play is also a three-act drawing-room comedy set in nineteenth-century Boston, it also possesses hilarious one-liners, wacky situations, and a retrograde structure. In short, Boston Marriage plays like an impeccably crafted sitcom episode, and that's pretty much how LiveArts stages it.

The play concerns a "Boston marriage" between two middle-aged, upper-class Lesbians, Anna and Claire. Anna acts as mistress to wealthy men as a means to supplement her inheritance, while Claire, an activist for women's suffrage, may be on the verge of leaving Anna for a younger woman. But Claire's new flame has an unexpected connection to Anna's meal ticket, and the secrets and lies between these two women might tear their relationship apart. All the same, we needn't take these characters too seriously. Mamet obviously doesn't, since the life partnership between Anna and Claire seems to possess little emotional basis beyond stinging repartee.

This gruesome twosome could have been played like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, so I'm grateful that director Amanda McRaven opted for Lucy and Ethel instead. McRaven takes a tricky approach to her material, glossing over Mamet's bitter subtext for superficial, knockabout farce. For the most part it pays off: I laughed unreflectively at the twists, unexpected punchlines, and marvelous physical comedy from all three actresses in the cast.

Ronda Hewitt plays Anna's ditziness to the hilt (all but crying "Waaah!" when things go awry), while Kara McLane Burke plays Claire as a voice of relative sanity with foibles of her own. But the play's biggest belly-laughs go to Kara Duncan, as their long-suffering maid Catherine. Since she's the lone heterosexual character in the play, Mamet treats her with greater sympathy than the others. It doesn't hurt that, like any good Mamet female, she'd rather fuck than vote -- and says as much in Act II, to the man-hating Lesbians' consternation.

The play's final minutes offer a wild twist that turns the entire relationship between Anna and Claire on its head: Suddenly the solid Claire becomes emotional, and the flighty Anna grows calculating. The transformation doesn't register immediately, but it does require us to take the couple seriously for the first time. Alas, on that score it's too little, too late. Still, for the woolly Mamet, this sort of triple-lutz ending is business as usual: His last joke, it seems, is always on the audience.

Ironically, LiveArts' relatively benign production of the borderline-homophobic Boston Marriage has slowly gathered considerable interest within Charlottesville's Gay and Lesbian communities. Around here, any acknowledgement of Gay characters or themes -- even within the arts -- is a novelty. But I wonder how my Lesbian friends, especially those currently in committed relationships, would appreciate Mamet's curtly dismissive treatment of their forebears.

By the way, Boston Marriage is a regional premiere -- which means that, once again, Charlottesville gets to view a play before Washington, DC, performs it.

Michael Frayn's Copenhagen

The author of the backstage farce Noises Off! invades Tom Stoppard's turf with this meditation on human memory. In this case, quantum physics provides metaphor, context and subject matter, as the characters of Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, and Bohr's wife Margrethe -- all speaking from beyond the grave -- try to hash out what actually happened between Bohr and Heisenberg on a certain night in 1941. As theatrical concepts go, this one's a humdinger: Hapgood meets Rashomon, with some uncertainty theory and a "Ban the Bomb" protest thrown in for good measure. Luckily, the play lives up to its high concept.

Thanks to William Rough's able direction and Nicholas Lawton's poetic lighting design, the LiveArts production of Copenhagen is two and a half hours of riveting theater. The staging makes a virtue of budgetary necessity: Since the tiny LiveArts LAB space makes naturalistic sets impossible, Rough stages this play in the round, with three chairs and minimal props. For a play about the uncertainty principle, staging in the round proves astonishingly appropriate, if only because any sense of the action depends on one's personal vantage point -- a touch that Heisenberg himself would have appreciated. I found myself sympathizing with Heisenberg, but had I taken a different seat, my experience would have been radically different.

The performances range from excellent to breathtaking. Doug Schneider, who tends to mug shamelessly through Charlottesville's annual Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, tones down his trademark histrionics to play the tense, restrained Bohr. As Heisenberg, David Holton doesn't maintain a consistent German accent, but he has such a solid grasp of his character that it feels churlish to complain. But the best performance -- so natural, so apparently effortless, that it hardly seems like "acting" at all -- belongs to Boomie Pedersen, who embodies Margrethe Bohr. Pedersen can make the act of serving tea emotionally compelling, and when her character emerges in Act II with ideas and explanations of her own, she turns the moment into a personal triumph.

I had only one quibble: The cast tended to pronounce "Copenhagen" with a long A, as if they were referring to a tin of snuff rather than a Danish city. (I suppose this is what one gets for watching contemporary theater in the semi-rural South.) Aside from that embarrassing error, this LiveArts production was of professional caliber: daring, thoughtful and, thanks to Lawton's ingenious lighting effects, delicately poetic.

Boston Marriage and Topdog/Underdog closed on February 7; Copenhagen closed on February 21. The company's next production, Nine, opens March 19. It's a difficult show to pull off, but if Boston Marriage and Copenhagen are any indication, LiveArts should be up to the challenge.

Friday, February 20, 2004

In Defense of Wal-Mart

If any of you remember my post on those nifty little "Bush is Hitler" ads at, you know that I plucked the relevant clips from, a Frisco-area media collective who thought these ads were right-on. What you may not have known is that this site was a progeny of the equally extreme Independent Media Center, at Sample headlines: "Political Repression in the Belly of the Beast" (the title refers to Florida, not Iran), "A Fountain of Lies - The Bush regime spins Iraq," and, my favorite, "Knock-off 'Democracy' - Made in the USA" -- which protests US efforts to keep Hugo Chavez from turning Venezuela into a second Cuba.

It looks like this mother of left-wing extremist websites has birthed yet another bastard, this one in My Stupid Dog's own backyard. I'm talking about Granted, the targets of our local "indymedia" collective are a bit less grandiose, as is appropriate for the left wing in Charlottesville. Our leftists don't have so much to say about world peace; they'd rather rail against growth, roads, parkways, SUVs, industry, etc. But most of all, they're against Wal-Mart. You'd think leftists would approve of a place that enables even the poorest of the working poor to afford the things they need. But our leftists claim that instead of relieving poverty, Wal-Mart causes it. Wal-Mart, you see, does not kowtow to labor unions.

Well, "Ben," a former boyfriend of mine (I'm like the Marines in that I don't have "exes"), has seen firsthand what labor unions do. The department store where he works as a part-time cashier is "closed-shop," which means that if Ben wants to keep ringing the registers, he'd better fork over a good-sized chunk of his salary to the official labor union. He can't exactly spare this cash, but that never stops his union from taking it away. And even though the union is perfectly happy to take money from low-paid, part-time employees like Ben, it refuses to represent Ben's interests to management. He is paid a lower wage than full-time employees, he lacks benefits, and his union reduces his take-home pay even further. Worst of all, his union prevents part-time employees from rising into the ranks of full-time employees (let alone managers). In short, Ben's union makes him worse off than a part-time, non-union employee at Wal-Mart. So from his point of view, unionization is basically a fraud, a coercive scam that robs hard-earned cash from part-time employees and grants extra privileges to the relatively well-paid full-timers.

Gentle readers, I'm sure you must be quite surprised to learn that today's labor unions are frequently corrupt, and that they may prove counterproductive to the interests of low-paid workers. Who would have thought it -- other than the workers themselves, I mean?

So with Ben, his dead-end closed-shop job, and the corrupt labor union in mind, I placed this nostalgic piece praising "big box" stores in the comments section of, to enlighten left-wing activists who frequent the site and don't know what Wal-Mart really stands for. I promise, gentle readers, to let you know when or if my post is taken down -- and to share any particularly outrageous comments it may provoke.

A Store for the People

I grew up in a small town in Arkansas, and I remember what the local Wal-Mart did to all our lives in the community.

Before Wal-Mart came, we couldn't buy very much locally, because the goods weren't available. Local stores were five-and-ten cent affairs; their irregular inventory and limited supplies offered us no assurance that we could get the things we wanted at a competitive price. Usually, we'd have to mail-order our purchases through Sears or Montgomery Ward catalogs, and sometimes those orders would take weeks to arrive.

Wal-Mart changed all that. Suddenly, we had access to a large, well-stocked emporium, full of items we could only get through a catalog before. Because Wal-Mart offered bargain prices, my parents found that they could make their meager teachers' salary go much further. Our community's standard of living rapidly improved, not just because Wal-Mart helped us to save money and buy more of the things we wanted, but also because it provided dozens of new jobs for our locality.

Those jobs were low-paying, at least at entry level. But local five-and-tens paid their starting employees even less than Wal-Mart, while making raises and promotions more difficult to come by. Because our town's five-and-ten cent stores were all "family-owned," their management positions were reserved for the owner's kith and kin. Employees who were not of the family always remained on the lowest rungs of the ladder, no matter how long or how well they worked for the owner. In contrast, Wal-Mart used merit rather than nepotism to fill its management positions. So these long-time retail workers quickly abandoned their old, dead-end jobs for upwardly mobile careers at Wal-Mart.

What's more, unlike many local businessmen who practiced discrimination on the QT, Wal-Mart served African-Americans and hired them. Only a short time before, our town had resisted integrating its public schools, but when Wal-Mart integrated our business life, nobody seemed to mind.

Wal-Mart made basic goods less expensive to obtain, brought jobs to our town, placed Black American workers side by side with Whites, and enabled its employees to work their way up the corporate ladder to a solid position and a good wage. In short, it changed our traditional way of life.

I don't have any grand conclusions to make about social justice, by the way. I just wanted to let you know what we're trying to put the kibosh on around here.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Fracas in Frisco

Unfortunately for Jonah Goldberg, a debate doesn't magically disappear just because he's tired of it. Frankly, I'm tired of the Gay marriage question, too. But marriage licenses are legal documents, and marriage law is a function of state government. As long as my Gay friends and I are treated as second-class citizens under the law, the debate over same-sex marriage will continue, here as elsewhere. (Forewarned is forearmed, gentle readers.)

All the same, I'm not sure that the cereal-box "marriage licenses" Gavin Newsom is currently issuing in San Francisco will prove beneficial in the long run. Of course, anything that gets the Far Right's proverbial knickers in a twist has some value -- though anything that makes their actions appear reasonable does not. But when Newsom placed himself at the center of this particular action, he transformed an act of mass civil disobedience into a publicity stunt.

I'll illustrate with an example: In 1871 and 1872, hundreds of women throughout the United States registered to vote. Only Wyoming permitted women's suffrage at the time, so the act of registration was literally against the law. But women did it anyway, and law clerks simply signed them up. Susan B. Anthony, living in Rochester NY, was one of these dissenters, and she voted in the 1872 Presidential election. A few weeks later, federal marshals arrested her for "illegal voting," handcuffing her and escorting her to jail at her own insistence. (She was eventually found guilty.) Of course, everyone remembers Anthony, but no one remembers the clerk who signed her onto the register. He remains a cipher in this drama, and that's precisely as it should be. Women who registered to vote did not see suffrage as a boon to be conferred upon them by a beneficent government. They saw it as a right they already possessed, which they had to claim for themselves.

Newsom has reversed this time-honored dynamic by casting the case for same-sex marriage in authoritarian terms. He is granting marriage rights to same-sex couples out of the goodness of his heart, through his supreme power as a government official. Other powers, probably judicial, must intervene to stop the mayor -- and they will, in a day or two. In the meantime, San Francisco's Gays and Lesbians are grateful to have such a beneficent master. Their guaranteed support may prove important for Newsom's political future, since his credentials with the city's left-wing voting bloc were considered a bit iffy prior to this incident.

Of course, thanks to mayor Newsom, thousands of same-sex couples have had their rightful place at the center of this debate usurped. It's one thing for the government of California to remove a mayor for a few thousand blatant abuses of power. But if it were to state that these couples had no right to claim equality, that their unions should be forcibly dissolved and their persons thrown in jail because they had the effrontery to claim human rights that heterosexual couples take for granted, we'll get to what this particular debate is really about: Individual liberty and equal protection under the law.

Moderate Americans who think same-sex marriage an affront to their religion might reconsider their position when they see people actually going to jail over it -- just as they reconsidered their position over African-Americans' voting rights when they saw Birmingham police hauling Black children away. But they won't object to a mayor recalled for a blatant abuse of power. (Neither, for that matter, will I.) Gays and Lesbians must move this story away from benevolent-autocrat Newsom, and onto the brave individuals who have pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor for the right to marry.


The theme of this post is "Be careful what you wish for." Example: I wanted Gay marriage to be an issue this year, and it looks like I got my wish. Boy, did I ever get it. Luckily, I'm just a blogger, so I'm not actually, you know, responsible for anything I say. (I hope.)

But then again, neither are the regular columnists for The Advocate, America's leading Gay magazine. In this week's issue, Paris Barclay goes straight (ahem!) off the deep end. Gentle readers, if you think my political commentary is nutty and/or hysterical, then take a look at this. I don't think I'm quite that far gone yet, though with our president's help I could get there in a month or two.

Of course, a sizable chunk of our Gay community already believes such a scenario could happen if Bush is re-elected. And perhaps a sizable chunk of the Far Right might be happy if it did.

Fear, loathing and paranoia can only spread from here. Ah, the joys of an American election.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Imagining Cinema: Seeing and Watching

If you're like me, you probably watch John Huston's Maltese Falcon on television every time you get the chance. If you haven't yet, Turner Classic Movies is showing the film this Saturday evening. It's one of the great detective thrillers, and it follows Dashiell Hammett's original novel almost page for page.

There's a big scene near the middle of the film, when Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade confronts the "Fat Man," Kaspar Gutman, in his apartment. After he leaves, he pushes the elevator button, but hesitates for a moment. Now, the big question: Why does Spade hesitate?

If you're watching Maltese Falcon in an honest-to-God movie house, the answer is obvious: His right hand is shaking. Spade looks at that hand with a subtle expression of terror. This is the only moment in the film where Huston and Bogart crack Spade's hard-boiled facade, ever so slightly, to show us that the man has been spooked. Badly. Despite Gutman's strained civility (or perhaps because of it), Spade seems aware he's barely made it out of that place alive. He might just be in over his head.

Without this insinuated information, our hero's actions in the second half of the film are undermotivated. They seem like mere plot complications, obfuscation for its own sake, rather than a character's increasingly desperate efforts to get himself out a deadly situation. So although Spade's hesitation at the elevator may seem like a throwaway moment, every ounce of suspense in the rest of the film is ultimately predicated on that trembling hand. Yet the hand, and Bogart's reaction, are utterly inscrutable on a television screen, because a television image is too small and fuzzy for those vital details.

I wonder how much of our "movie mythos" stems from television images we could never quite discern. Take, for example, the famous chariot race in William Wyler's Ben Hur. On a cinema screen, the images are crisp and sharp; more importantly, you always know precisely what is happening, where, and to whom. Martin Scorsese uses this same example to advocate letterboxed telecasts of old movies, and no wonder: The chariot race is probably the best action sequence ever filmed in widescreen. At least, I can't think of a better one, and I certainly can't think of an action sequence that is integrated so thoroughly into the story. But I think the sequence provides a compelling argument against letterboxed images as well as pan-and-scan.

When the chariot race is telecast in a letterbox format, its images become impossible to read for telling details. The facial expressions of Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd, which drive the onscreen action, are indistinct at best, while the chariots and charioteers look like ants from the camera's high-angle vantage point. Shots that communicated frantic action in the cleanest, more comprehensible manner possible, now possess a strangely distancing effect. The visual compositions have been retained in a very general sense, but the particular components of each image, and most importantly the thunderous excitement of the scene, have been lost.

Of course, if you view this scene in a standard "pan-and-scan" format, the effect is even worse. When Boyd turns his whip on Heston, it's not just important to the scene; it's a pivotal character moment. With a pan-and-scan image, you might see the whip, you might see Heston, but you won't see who swings the whip, and you can't figure out who did what. Mostly, you see close-ups of horses' heads (and not well-framed ones at that), with occasional arms or legs jutting from the edge of the frame. The excitement comes from what you can't make out, rather than what you actually see.

The result bears a disturbing resemblance to contemporary action films (most notably, Ridley Scott's Gladiator), which with their epileptic editing tend to espouse the principle of visual confusion: Bombard the spectator with "you-are-there" images that don't quite add up to a scene, and the spectator will be aroused whether anything interesting happens onscreen or not. The similarity between "pan-and-scan" telecasts of classic films and today's action blockbusters can't be mere coincidence. Most of today's Hollywood directors have grown up on a diet of televised images, so it's natural for them to replicate those images in their own work. I wonder if today's American cinema would be more exciting, perhaps more interesting, if our directors had the chance to see these films as they were made to be seen -- on a screen, in a theater, on film, with an audience.

If Clint Eastwood's films are any indication, it would. Eastwood is the one of the few working American directors who came of age before television transformed filmgoing. He has seen "classic" movies as they were meant to be seen, and his own output as a filmmaker consistently reflects that difference. Even in his lesser efforts -- like Absolute Power, Pale Rider or Space Cowboys -- the films have a different "feel" than most mainstream Hollywood product. His shots are generally longer, both in duration and in distance, so they communicate a great deal of narrative information with apparent ease. I say "apparent" ease, because there is consummate craft behind them: A shot-by-shot analysis would reveal just how carefully controlled these images are, and how deliberately (and comprehensibly) Eastwood presents his visual information. I don't think it's a coincidence, either, that older audiences attend Eastwood's movies, while they wait for others to arrive on video or DVD. They seem to understand that Eastwood's films play better in a theater.

But then again, most films play better in a theater -- at least as long as they haven't been shot for television. That's why I may say that I've "watched" a film on DVD, but I don't claim to have "seen" it until I view it in its natural habitat. Naturally, with the loss of repertory cinemas, this means I'll never "see" most classic films, even though I'll "watch" them a hundred times or more on DVD. For example, Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game is emphatically not coming soon to a theater near me, so I'll never fully comprehend how he would direct my attention to characters who are close to the camera and others who are far away at the same time. (On film as in life, people who are far away from a spectator's position can still be "read" for facial expressions and body language; on television, however, background characters are usually just a collection of tiny dots, signifying nothing.) Likewise, although I've already "watched" the DVD of Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street, I'll probably never have the chance to "see" it, or any of his other films for that matter (except for White Dog, which I kind of liked). Even though Fuller's medium shots and close-ups are much easier to "read" on a television set, there's a major difference between seeing his trademark montage of facial close-ups on a 19-inch TV and a forty-foot screen. One gets the sense that Fuller's output would be much tauter, oppressive, claustrophobic, if it were seen in the latter environment.

Most of the time, alas, I find myself imagining vintage cinema rather than experiencing it. For a thought experiment, I picture myself in an old theater with a balcony, like the ones I attended as a kid, watching the films I can now see only on my TV. But the images are not the same anymore; they're twenty feet tall, and I can finally see everything I'm supposed to see. People are all around -- they're crying, clapping, laughing, booing, maybe even throwing things. It's less sanitary, I suppose, attending a movie house where one risks flying popcorn kernels or an occasional deluge of Raisinettes. But I still wonder how movies would affect me here, in this setting, among these people. Would Bogart seem more of a man, or less, once the picture got bigger? Would I cheer on Charlton Heston, like the rowdy kids in the balcony? Would those toughs look tougher, and would I be frightened of them?

God, I wish I knew.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Terry Teachout plays another fun game of "Five Questions"

Terry Teachout would make a terrific interviewer, don't you think? Here's his latest set of questions directed toward his co-blogger, Our Girl in Chicago. Do I smell romance in the air, or is it a mutual admiration society? In either case, it's one of the best collaborations on the Web.

Since I predict every culture blogger worth his/her salt will take a crack at Teachout's questions, I'll give my own answers here:

(1) What book have you owned longest—the actual copy, I mean?

I have a copy of Plato's Symposium from high school. Every other year or so, I pick it up, reread it, and wonder what the hell happened.

(2) If you could wish a famous painting out of existence, what would it be?

I'm too busy wishing things into existence to wish them out of it. But I wouldn't miss that Andy Warhol painting of a Campbell's soup can.

(3) If you had to live in a film, what would it be?

This week, Bertolucci's The Dreamers. Next week, Cukor's Philadelphia Story.

(4) If you had to live in a song, what would it be?

"Quando m'en vo" (from La Boheme) -- only I'm the one singing it.

(5) What’s the saddest work of art you know? And does experiencing it make you similarly sad?

Whenever I see the Stephen Sondheim musical Passion, I'm devastated for days. I don't know if it's the saddest work of art I've ever seen, but it's the one that hits me hardest.

Update (2/18): Aaron Haspel, "God of the machine," takes me to task for dignifying Teachout's fun little questionnaire with a response. Haspel seems to take people to task quite a lot; one imagines he must get lonely up there on his dais. In this case, I daresay the rebuke is somewhat deserved -- for Teachout's questions were not addressed to me.

Of course, Haspel answers at least a few of them himself. But pay no attention to that inconvenient fact, gentle readers. Even the most serious of self-professed gods needs an occasional diversion.

Written in the Stars: Film Reviews and Essays

James Berardinelli writes some of the best film reviews on the Web, all for his own Reelviews website. Now he's added a feature called "ReelThoughts." This particular blog may not be a mainstay of the scene yet, but in a little more than a month's time, he's written several excellent posts on movie piracy, the advantages and disadvantages of seeing movies in a theater, and the business of movie reviewing. My favorite so far is an attempt to justify the "four-star" rating system. (Since "ReelThoughts" doesn't have a link to individual entries, you'll have to scroll down to January 21 and look for the headline "Twinkle, Twinkle.") Berardinelli writes that the rating tends to determine a review's content, rather than the other way around:

But, as easy as the shorthand is to misrepresent, it still offers advantages. The most important of these is that it forces me to focus my writing, so that a three-star movie gets text appropriate to a three-star movie, not a two-star one.

I can see the use of star ratings, but I don't think I'd last long with them. Most films that I remember possess some elements I like, and some I really dislike. Take a film like Northfork, which is one-half masterpiece and one-half twaddle. If I were using stars, could I give the film two ratings at once? Then there's Gospel of John, which fails as entertainment, yet makes for fascinating cinema. And how to rate a so-bad-it's-good piece of fluff like From Justin to Kelly, or a so-good-it's-bad avant-garde work, like just about anything from Jean-Luc Godard? Do I give them four stars? None?

Frankly, I'm much too ambivalent about individual films to try my hand as a true reviewer; I almost always find something I like, or at least something to write about. To my mind, whether a film is good or bad -- or, more to the point, whether you should shell out between eight and ten of your hard-earned dollars to see it -- is a far less interesting question than what actually happens on the screen. That's probably why my posts on film have become more like essays than reviews (and why I have so few scruples about dropping major "spoilers" in my posts). I'm more interested in studying movies than recommending them.

Frankly, if I thought a film completely devoid of interest, I probably wouldn't write about it at all. But I have written on several films that were devoid of artistic merit. Even in those pitiful cases, something of note happened on the screen, or in my mind while I watched. So it's probably good that the resulting posts haven't been "written in the stars."

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