The Movie Club

The Dangers of a Good Review

Hi all,

A lot going on at this site since I last looked in some six hours back. For one thing, Jonathan Rosenbaum will surely be thrilled to see all the attention his book is getting here. (Has anyone noted that parts can be read at So far as the New York Times goes, the paper’s movie reviews were more interesting in 2000 than at any time that I can remember.

Tony (since I’ve never met you or Sarah Kerr or Roger Ebert, I feel a little odd starting on a first name basis, but I suppose that’s cyberspace), your account of the negative reader responses to your favorable review of The Wind Will Carry Us is fascinating. When David mentioned it, I thought that it just might have been political hostility (which there can be) to the very idea of an Iranian film. That people were angry because they felt duped hadn’t occurred to me. (Perhaps there should be a special rating for so-called difficult films.) I assume you know that back in the early ‘70s, Roger Greenspun–a very intelligent and film-literate second-string reviewer–wrote a rave review of Robert Bresson’s Lancelot. Evidently some Times big shot (it might have been Abe Rosenthal) went to see the movie on his lunch hour, expecting some sort of Camelot-like spectacle. Naturally, he returned to the office furious, and, according to the legend, Greenspun lost his job soon after. Rosenbaum makes the point that it’s necessary for a critic to deliver a regular quota of positive reviews. (He asks rhetorically how much freedom Roger Ebert would have to give everything a “thumbs down” for three or four consecutive weeks without jeopardizing his show.) Indeed, I’ve been struck on more than one occasion by your own incredulity at some of the stuff that a daily critic has to write about. Obviously, it can be dangerous to give something a good review as well.

I, too, was struck by the critical popularity of Yi Yi and You Can Count On Me–something that I attribute not only to their relatively naturalistic treatment of complex family relationships but also their relatively unsentimental humanism. That’s a rarity–I don’t find it in Dr. T or see it in Traffic (although I think that’s a better movie)–and I’m always impressed with how deeply students can respond to Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. It’s like they’re experiencing a point of view that’s become totally exotic. When I wrote that Yi Yi was great television, I was thinking specifically of its hearthlike qualities. I don’t discount the movie’s visual quality–particularly some of the Taipei street scenes (a Yang specialty) or the beautiful exteriors outside the Japanese hotel–but unlike any number of cooler, more detached films (including Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day), it was in some ways enhanced by video. After watching it on the screen, I looked at it again on tape in three hour-long intervals and was struck by how the material lent itself to that format. (So does the narrative, which could be extended indefinitely–I would have loved to know more about the mother’s retreat as well as the neighbor family.) So that’s what I meant by great TV–something I assume David was invoking in another context by citing The Sopranos. Incidentally, I feel even more strongly that the 10 films of Kieszlowski’s Decalogue (but not the two movies taken from it) work better on a small, intimate screen. This is also true of the movie that I thought the year’s best, Ron Havilio’s six-hour Fragments * Jerusalem.

Lots of European cinema (including much Fassbinder and Zanussi) appeared first on television. It’s a reproach to our own that we don’t have comparable presentations–although we do have fantastic spectacles like the postelection extravaganza, which, among other things, incorporated a very savvy critique by Roger Ebert. Well, I guess I’ll forge on with my readings here.

Jim Hoberman

P.S.: A quick postscript regarding love stories. The South Korean fladge fest Lies and the sometimes ridiculous, sometimes sublime Pola X positively reek of l’amour fou–which is to say that their highly explicit sex scenes are filled with tender emotion. On a more repressed front, The House of Mirth has at least one and maybe two great love scenes. The Australian film Praise may be too naturalistic a love story for some, in which case the charmingly romantic Two Family House might serve as a corrective. Forwarding this to Dr. Ruth,