Is it possible to review books and movies without resorting to the following?
- It’s a true story. I’ll spare you Oscar Wilde on life imitating art, because I suspect a large percentage of Oscar’s epigrams came from scouring the papers for journalese that he could stand on its head. Invert a clichÃ©, produce a witticism. It’s a neat trick and I’ve used it myself, but it’s on the lazy side.
Sorry. I was talking about true stories. We have two words in English, realism and reality, for the excellent reason that they don’t mean the same thing. The lamest possible defense for an inconceivable plot is that it actually happened. Inconceivable events happen all the time. Fiction wants plausibility, not reality: for reality I can ride the subway. Of course, the less plausible the “real-life” event, the likelier it is to be turned into a book or a movie. (On a side note, have you ever noticed that the more sordid the work, the higher the praise for its, usually, “gritty” realism?)
- I laughed I cried. The Neanderthal version; “I was moved” is a slightly more evolved form. I cry at the movies. I cry at good movies, like Babette’s Feast and Brief Encounter; at good-bad movies, like Love Story and It’s a Wonderful Life; and at irredeemably bad movies, like Brian’s Song and Backdraft (don’t ask). This fact should interest no one and doesn’t much interest me. The point is, it’s easy to make the audience cry. Acquaint them with a sympathetic character and kill him, preferably her, off, preferably young, preferably with a lingering but picturesque disease. (Unfortunately tuberculosis is almost extinct. Consumption would have been the perfect choice: we make shift now with leukemia and sundry non-disfiguring cancers.) Cue swelling music, Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto or Pachelbel’s Canon or something of that sort. Pass out handkerchiefs.
Laughing is more reliable. But only a little. The Women is a funny movie, but the one line in it that always makes me laugh is a throwaway: a woman passes through a room with her daughter, saying, “And don’t think I didn’t hear that Princeton boy call me an old grizzlepuss!” Now I happen to find archaic insults funny. I would hesitate, however, to recommend the movie on that basis.
- Surprise! Nothing is worth seeing or reading that isn’t worth seeing or reading twice, and the second time you know how it turns out. Dickens wrote three endings for Great Expectations; Hollywood tests movies with alternate endings all the time. What happens in the last two pages or the last thirty seconds just cannot make that great a difference. The chick in The Crying Game is really a dude, and Kevin Spacey’s Keyser Soze, OK? If you’re watching a movie or reading a book to find out what’s going to happen, I suggest, with all due respect, a more productive use of time, like filing your corns or catching up on the details of Britney’s annulment.
- Nuanced, edgy, hommage, longueur, intimate (adjective and verb, also intimation), harrowing, dazzling (my eyes!), lyrical.
Thank you for your cooperation.
(Update: Terry Teachout comments, about suspense, and he has a point. Suspense is a joy of its own, and I could certainly be read as suggesting otherwise. I want to know how it ends as much as the next cultureblogger. But you shouldn’t be in it strictly for the ending, or even mostly, even the first time.)
(More: Rick Coencas also stands up for suspense, sort of.)