OnFilm on the internets: A reader wonders about Take This Waltz

May 30, 2013

Monkey note: My OnFilm column didn’t make it into the state edition of our newspaper this week, so here is it.

Some of you realize I retired the Mr. Big Shot Movie Man conceit some time ago, mainly because I was getting tired of it. (But also because some people have — or pretend to have— very literal minds.) But I still think this is a good forum to address reader questions from time to time. So I’m going to do that in a moment.

But first, one of the problems I have is I see a lot of movies, and I write a lot of pieces that will hang around on the Internet for the duration. Sometimes I forget why I said something in particular about a given movie and sometimes my opinion evolves over time; rarely is the morning after the best time to deliver a considered opinion. Ideally I’d review a movie a couple of weeks after its release, but I wonder if you guys would put up with that.

Anyway, I got a thoughtful e-mail from a young journalist about a film I reviewed last September; I thought I’d share part of it and my response:

Dear Mr. Martin,

I wanted to send you a message about your review of Take This Waltz. From the very get-go, you say you cannot provide an objective review, which is okay really, because there is no way for a person to be objective about anything, especially when it comes to reviewing art.

I watched this movie last night on Netflix on the heels of a bad break up with my ex-girlfriend. I am a “twentysomething” inasmuch that I am 25, and I quite enjoyed this film. It obviously doesn’t rank up there with my top five films, but when you’re continually dismayed by the quality of entertainment coming out of Hollywood (hell, even Sundance), it’s pretty refreshing to see a movie of this caliber. The pacing felt right, the dialogue was subtle and devoid of any trite, hackneyed phrases we might see in any typical romance movie and the acting felt very genuine. What I enjoyed most was that no one in this film was perfect. …

When reading your review, you seemed to be injecting much of your own personal issues. …

My point is this: I think you should accept contrivances. If you’re going to always ask yourself questions like “How can these characters afford this house? How can he pay his bills by driving a rickshaw?” then perhaps reviewing movies should be reconsidered. Reviewing and taking in films — good films — should be about seeing the forest for the trees. Not obsessing over every minute detail that goes unexplained …

I’ve been in journalism for a shorter period of time than you, I imagine. But I have reviewed movies and music and I think it’s important that the reviewer try to leave themselves out of the movie. Be critical, absolutely, but I feel you miss the mark when you make it clear to your readers that you have a personal vendetta against a certain generation and its characteristics.

My response:

I have no idea why or how or in what context you ran across my review, but I’m glad you did. Take This Waltz was a very disappointing film to me, because I know the director, Sarah Polley, can do better work. I was very much looking forward to Take This Waltz, yet it struck me as a lazy, trite and self-indulgent project that betrays the humanism evident in her earlier work. But then you read the review, so there’s no real reason for me to rehash it here. But let me just address a couple of your concerns.

When I used the term “objective review” in the opening paragraph of the piece, I was being ironic, as indicated by the quotation marks I placed around the word. I quite agree with you that objectivity is an impossible standard, even in so-called straight journalism; to my mind the combination of the words “objective” and “review” form an oxymoron. (In other words, it’s a joke.)

You are also entitled to your opinion, you are free to like or dislike whatever you please, and its not a critic’s job to make you feel bad about that. It is a critic’s job to find something interesting and honest and maybe true to say about a work. And the main thing I discovered about the movie was that it was about the human wish for “more,” which is a very rich and promising if not terribly original theme. I did not find it truthful in the way that it portrayed people — none of the characters seemed to be more than a few gestures and attitudes, basically stereotypes with a few hipster flourishes added.

And yes, contrivance bothers me when it’s in the service of a lie — which is what the movie struck me as. Beautiful, maybe, but not very convincing or particularly interesting beyond that. Your mileage may vary.

But as for keeping oneself “out of a review,” I think that’s pretty much the same thing as rendering an objective verdict. Which is impossible and dishonest. Different films lend themselves to different approaches, of course, and this one struck a very particular nerve with me. I know people with artistic aspirations who never manage to get anything done … And I know the smug and entitled type of people her characters represent. My animus toward the film has nothing to do with generational politics; it has to do with the shallowness of that remarkably thin script and the arch, self-important way Polley chooses to photograph the characters. Take This Waltz valorizes aspiration, not achievement, and suggests that the pretty and vain are better than the rest of us precisely because they are pretty and vain. It was a woeful misfire — but that’s my opinion. I think most “critics” probably liked it, at least a little. (They did — the Rotten Tomatoes score for the film is 78 percent positive.) And that’s OK.

A movie critic’s job is complicated by the fact that reviewing movies is like coaching basketball or practicing law: Lots of people think they are qualified to do it. Most of us have seen thousands of movies and a lot of us can be said to have constructed a style of living based largely on the films we’ve seen. The movies inform our self-perception; we measure ourselves against the screen’s two-dimensional characters, we talk like them, we borrow bits of business and fillips of transitory grace. We are the movies, the movies are us — of course we understand them.

The truth is a lot of people are qualified to write about movies. There are a couple of people in this office who know far more about film history than I do, and I get e-mail every day from perceptive movie fans (like you) who have the faculties and stylistic chops to write entertainingly about film. But it’s a buyer’s market — it’s easier to make a living as an actor in this country than writing about the movies. Film critics are like guitar players: There are thousands of pretty good ones, millions of hacks and some of the best might well be working in a sawmill or bookstore.

I just try to do the best I can.

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