A Tale of Two Film Critics

Did the New York Times hire film critic A. O. Scott from the ranks of IMDb commenters? Many of those one-time reviewers tell us how a movie fits into their personal history (as if we care) and Scott also uses this frame.

From his appraisal of the late John Hughes, yesterday:

[John Hughes' and Michael Jackson's] deaths make me feel old, but more than that, they make me aware of belonging to a generation that has yet to figure out adulthood, for whom life can feel like a long John Hughes movie. You know the one. That Spandau Ballet song is playing at the big dance. You remember the lyrics, even if it’s been years since you heard them last. This is the sound of my soul. I bought a ticket to the world, but now I’ve come back again. Why do I find it hard to write the next line?

Awww. More references to the critic's '80s youth crop up in this earlier writing, about the movie version of Watchmen:

Indeed, the ideal viewer — or reviewer, as the case may be — of the Watchmen movie would probably be a mid-’80s college sophomore with a smattering of Nietzsche, an extensive record collection and a comic-book nerd for a roommate. The film’s carefully preserved themes of apocalypse and decay might have proved powerfully unsettling to that anxious undergraduate sitting in his dorm room, listening to "99 Luftballons" and waiting for the world to end or the Berlin Wall to come down.

Wow, did that anxious undergrad grow up to be...a film critic? Tell it again, Dad. Ironically, a much better critic than Scott, Ted Goranson aka tedg, has been quietly building an opus in the cheap seats of the IMDb comments, in the form of hundreds of mini-reviews. Compare the originality and focus he brings to the recent Transformers movie, next to A. O. Scott's muck:

In an ordinary movie, the framing and staging is expository: you are shown what you need to see to make sense out of what is happening. If it is a boxing match with Sly Stallone, you see what is essential: you see perhaps the possibility, the actor, the action and the effect. Its all there, very carefully engineered. In fact, this engineering — a very constrained subset of what can be photographed — is what constitutes the contract we have in communicating visually.

What I first saw in Black Hawk Down was an engineering of what you do not see. Some of the action happened around us, the camera eye moving as if it were panicked and seeing only a part of what is going on. You could not make out the sense of what caused what. Because we so solidly expect to see everything that causes things, when we deviate it is a powerful statement.

What we have here are transformations and fights that are only partially framed. We are denied enough information to know precisely what is happening. We know there is an exact order to how the many parts fold into an automobile or plane, but we often see just motion. The effect is most pronounced in battle scenes when the viewer would be panicked in the motion and threat of war. Confusion and lack of comprehension is part of the effect. It isn't just random noise though; we know that though the screen is filled with scores of metal shapes apparently in chaos, they belong to two beings. We cannot sort out who is who. We know that within those beings, the animators have programmed coherent bodily motion. We know that each blow is basically like those of Stallone, but we do not know any of the physics behind it, or even which way it is going.

See also tedg's review of the Vincent Van Gogh IMAX movie.

Would love to read this kind of analysis of John Hughes: how the content proceeds from the shots, the film language. Hughes is underrated on that score, and if tedg can do it with Transformers it can be done with Hughes. An area ripe for discussion is the way JH's deliberate, laid-back pacing sets us up for jokes. Farmer Ted the Geek in Sixteen Candles makes a wrong movement and a slow sequence of destruction unwinds. This seems the opposite of slapstick but it works. In Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, the almost slide-show-like progression of images leading up to the Frozen Dog. Or in Ferris Bueller, when the shattered Ed Rooney climbs on to a school bus full of stunned children after the credits: a series of tableaux vivants and reaction shots peaking when the nerdy girl in the only open seat offers him a gummi bear. The images unfold systematically, painfully (for the rageoholic Rooney); his humiliation is complete. That's what the anti-Scott might tell us about.

Update, April 2018: The links to the tedg reviews are dead. The only way to find the sources now is to go to the movie pages [Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) and Van Gogh: Brush with Genius (2009)] on IMDb and scroll through the comments. The Transformer movie has hundreds of comments; the only way to find tedg's is to sort by "prolific reviewer" and scroll down. Brilliant.