Thursday, October 15, 2009

Conflict of interest

I am on the verge of writing my first film review in which I have a potential conflict of interest.

First, a little background.

Among my wife's friends in Australia are a couple filmmakers who may be on the verge of making it big. They're a married couple -- a director (let's call him Mark) and a composer (let's call her Beatrice) -- who both had a good list of credits in Australian television, but had also collaborated on several shorts and (I believe) one feature. In 2006 they were hard at work on a second feature, called Noise, which Mark wrote and directed, and for which Beatrice composed the music. Noise is about a Melbourne police officer who has tinnitus, the ailment that causes a permanent ringing in one's ears, and the ways in which he becomes involved with two high-profile (and possibly linked) murder cases, while he is also grappling with his hearing becoming further and further degraded.

Noise was accepted at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, where it was well received. Some of the people receiving it well were my wife and I, who traveled to Park City, Utah just for the purpose of seeing it -- and for the rare opportunity to see Mark and Beatrice, of course. In fact, we slept in the extra double bed in their hotel room. The producing team was angling for a release in the U.S., but sadly, it never transpired -- even though, after emerging from the theater, I eagerly proclaimed that such a release would be a foregone conclusion. (And no, I do not think I jinxed the film.)

As is my custom, I put in to review Noise right after returning from Sundance -- almost three years ago now. Since the film did not have a fixed release date, my editor suggested that I just write the synopsis for the movie now, and wait until it was released to write the review. I also pitched the idea of interviewing Mark for a feature on the website, but not with much enthusiasm -- since he was unknown in the U.S., an interview with him wouldn't be a very exciting draw for most readers, so my access to him was not a very useful selling point.

So I wrote the Noise synopsis, and waited for its U.S. theatrical release. (It was released in the theaters in Australia and got great reviews.) That U.S. release eventually came on DVD, at which point, I was eligible to review it. In most cases, I don't feel the need to revisit a movie before reviewing it, even if a year or more has elapsed. In fact, when I first started writing for this website, I routinely submitted reviews for films I had not seen in ten years, though you can understand if I was a little vague on specifics. At that point, they just needed content, and I was there to provide it.

However, since I know Mark and Beatrice, I wanted to give Noise a second viewing before I wrote the review. I knew my review would be glowing, but I also wanted to be sure I could latch on to specifics, to make it the best possible review it could be. After all, it's not every day that you know for certain that the person who directed the film will be reading your review.

As sometimes happens, though -- and perhaps it was this subconscious pressure of writing the perfect review -- my second viewing of Noise made its way to the back burner. I got approved to review it some time ago, but it just didn't make it to the top of my online queue until late summer. (And the filmmakers should be pleased to know that you can get Noise through Blockbuster, thank you very much.) Since late summer, my wife and I have both been very busy, and I knew this was a movie she wanted to see again with me. After all, they're her friends -- my friends my proxy, though I'm quite fond of them as well. Plus, the subject matter of Noise is quite heavy, so it never felt like the soothing balm of dumb escapism we usually needed to relax from our busy schedule. We were trying to wait for the perfect time and place for our second viewing.

Not that we're any less busy, but we finally found that time this past Sunday. (Ironically, it was about two-and-a-half weeks after the director himself was in town for meetings with Hollywood types, during which we had dinner with him, and I told him that I was about to review the movie.) Not that there was any doubt, but the second viewing confirmed that Noise is a very good film.

Knowing various members of the crew as we did -- at Sundance, we met and hung out with the producer, the DP, and several actors -- we decided we should definitely check out the DVD extras to see what was there. Lo and behold, there was a making-of doco (to use the Australian slang for documentary) shot mostly by Mark himself. I say "mostly," because as it turns out, my wife shot some of the footage as well. That's right, it was with surprise and delight that we were suddenly looking at familiar footage from our Sundance weekend, where my wife did some videoing and actually asked Mark a few questions. So her voice is in the film as well. I was even on the lookout for whether I might find myself in the background of one of the shots, but I never did. The doco also contained an extended interview with the film's editor (let's call him Greg), who is also one of my wife's friends, and has become my friend through our mutual obsessive love of films -- though I've met him in person only once, briefly. In fact, before the doco, I'd forgotten that Greg was even the editor of Noise -- hence my failure to include him in this piece before now.

As I was taking all this in, I thought, "Wow, I may really have a genuine conflict of interest on this film."

But what is a conflict of interest when it comes to reviewing films, really? Are you supposed to recuse yourself when you know some of the participants? If so, how does someone like Roger Ebert handle that situation? In a 30+ year career, he has certainly met hundreds if not thousands of actors, writers, directors and producers, and presumably developed a friendly relationship with some of them. Does he question his own ability to submit an impartial review when these people appear in a film, or behind the camera?

The thing is, I'm probably one of the only ones -- though I can now include you, dear readers, in that group -- who knows that I have some sort of personal stake in this film. There's little chance that my editor remembers that I know the director (and composer, and editor) of Noise, a film that is probably not even on his radar. So the question is not really one of professional ethics, or at least not in terms of ethics where I have a chance of getting caught and paying some kind of price for my actions. Even if my editor knew I knew the director, I'm sure he wouldn't care. In fact, at the time my editor delayed my initial request to review the film, he certainly knew of my friendship with the filmmakers, and didn't discourage me from being the one who ultimately submits the review. Hey, it's just a website visited by film lovers. It's not going for a Pulitzer or anything.

But there's also the issue of what to say. I'm really lucky that Noise is a good film, because my job should be easy. In fact, if it sucked, I probably would have just gone easy on myself and left the money on the table to leave it unreviewed. As Noise wasn't assigned to me, but rather, a film I requested, there would have been no point to piss off my wife's friends -- people I was only just getting to know -- to prove some kind of principal of journalistic integrity.

The thing is, though Noise is a very good film, it's not a perfect film. That's not some kind of indictment, it's just a simple fact that is true of most movies, and with which Mark, Beatrice and Greg would no doubt agree. One thing the second viewing of Noise gave me -- which an initial viewing that included the intoxication of attending my first Sundance couldn't give me -- was a couple logistical questions. Why did this happen this way? Why did that happen that way? How was this thread of the plot resolved?

Most of these questions are ultimately not that important, because Noise is a film that is purposefully unresolved in certain ways -- which is one of its towering strengths. It is also more about mood and character than it is about point A to point B to point C plot development, another shrewd attribute. So any minor complaints I have would be too insignificant to prioritize in a 300-word review.

The only question is -- would I consider them more significant if I approached Noise knowing nothing about it? Knowing no one who made it?

Like most questions on this blog, that one's pretty academic. I loved Noise, and was blown away that people I know personally could make such a strong film. That's what will, should, come out in my review. Ha ha -- the fact that it was made by people I know won't come out in the review -- that would indeed be a problem. But the sensation one gets from being impressed by a piece of art, regardless of who made it, and then having that sensation enhanced by knowing the artist -- that's what will come out in my review.

And there's one other unspoken undercurrent of this whole discussion, a truth I can't deny: It probably doesn't matter all that much what I write. Since this is a retroactive review, it doesn't have the ability to help get the film released in the U.S., or change the nature of the DVD distribution agreement. In fact, if I'd been approved to review it when originally requested, there was some chance, however small, that my review could have done this. But now, the film is already filed in its place in cinematic history, and all I'm doing is helping shape the historical perspective on it.

Then again, I am doing something else as well. Sure, I'm clapping my friends on the back, giving them one more chance to feel the love for Noise. But I may also be helping add it to the online rental queues of the people who will read my review. I may just be helping bring the movie to a wider audience, in fact. And when you come right down to it, setting aside the potential monetary gain, prestige, and respect among colleagues, that's what a good filmmaker really wants: for his or her film to simply be seen.

Now all I have to do is write it.

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