Friday, July 20, 2012

I won't read, but I'll listen

In a film discussion group on Facebook in which I am a semi-active member, we've been discussing recently the idea that we don't like to read reviews of movies before we've seen the movie. Some are critics themselves, some are just film buffs, but most shared this sentiment.

This applies primarily to movies we're interested in seeing. With movies that utterly repel us, it might be fun to read what a particular critic we like has to say. At worst, it confirms our suspicions that the movie is terrible, and allows us to delight in the linguistic thrashing given by a writer whose style we like. At best, it changes our thoughts on the film, and maybe now we would like to see it.

So yeah, as a critic myself -- albeit one who is not currently working -- I am doubly disinterested in reading a review of a movie I have yet to see, in part because I always feel like I might eventually review it, and don't want to be unconsciously influenced by the criticism of that particular work that I've already read.

Reading is one thing. Listening? Quite another.

I've included as my artwork on this piece a picture of Joe Morgenstern, film critic of The Wall Street Journal, whose reviews appear in audio form on the local NPR station, KCRW. (See, Morgenstern is a fellow Angelino, even if his publication is located in New York.) I don't read Morgenstern's reviews. In fact, I don't think I've ever read a single printed word he's written. But I listen to everything that comes out of his typewriter when he is the person reading it to me, during his weekly Friday night reviews (which play at precisely 6:46 p.m.), or much more frequently, as a podcast.

When it comes to Joe Morgenstern, he's such a gifted writer -- a talent made only more impressive by his mellifluous readings of his own writing -- that I can't bare to skip a single morsel of his criticism. Which means that I frequently subject myself to the rich depths of his impressions of film, even the films I'm planning on seeing, despite the fact that this makes me uncomfortable, despite the fact that this unconsciously colors my own impression of the same films.

Why do I break this rule when it comes to Mr. Morgenstern? I doubt that it's he in particular who is so special, nor can it can't simply be the difference between listening and reading. After all, I'm doing all I can to render that distinction unimportant on my commutes to and from work. See, now that I live about 24 miles from my office (rather than a mere eight), I'm listening to audio books during my drives to and from work. When I'm perusing the available options on the shelves at the local library, I make sure always to select the unabridged version, so I can get full credit for having "read" the book. I contend that listening to every word of a book is the same as reading it, and I certainly want credit once I complete the final four discs of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, since I'm unlikely to ever have the time to read it in the traditional sense. Just as a blind person wants credit for "reading" his/her audio books, I want credit for "reading" mine. My brain has been doing the same work, it's just been using my ears as an instrument rather than my eyes. (And if listening to Hawthorne's sumptuous and literate work is making my own writing a tad more florid in the meantime, I wouldn't be surprised.)

No, I think it has more to do with my strict obedience to the unyielding structure of a podcast feed.

When it comes to the podcasts I listen to, I am a staunch completist. If I've committed to a particular podcast, I listen to all of its episodes. It would be very easy for me to skip one of Morgenstern's three-minute reviews of a movie I want to watch first, but then I fear I'll never get back to it, as it might get lost in the shuffle. The consequences of never listening to it are, surely, quite small, but I nonetheless do not want to entertain them. (This last sentence is definitely the spirit of Nathaniel Hawthorne speaking through me.)

Even more so than with Morgenstern, I encounter this problem with Filmspotting, the hour-plus-long podcast hosted by Adam Kempenaar and Josh Larsen. Kempenaar and Larsen begin each program with a review of a current release. And though they are very careful to avoid spoilers, their recent review of Magic Mike told me more about it than I probably cared to know. Even little, seemingly inconsequential things are revealed that I probably wouldn't want revealed. For example, their summary of the film basically concluded that it's more of a mood piece, and that the plot is somewhat incidental. Now I know that there are probably no huge revelations, no great scandals, nothing earth-shattering in this particular film. It conditions my expectations in a way I usually like to avoid.

But the idea of skipping an episode of Filmspotting is anathema to me. They do such an excellent job with their long-established format, and this format includes so much discussion of films that are not new and that I've definitely seen, that to discard an entire episode because I haven't seen the opening film they discuss would seem ridiculous. If I know I'm about to see the film, I can hold off on listening to the episode for a week or two. But I can't, in the meantime, skip on to the next one, because then the natural chronology dictated by the podcast feed would be all thrown out of whack. What's more, with my current busy schedule and the increased difficulty of getting to the theater, I may not see many of these films until they come out on video. So I wouldn't just be discarding one episode of Filmspotting, but probably three out of ever four.

You might use the logic I've espoused in this post to suggest that I should just read the reviews I want to read, regardless of whether I've seen the movie. After all, between Morgenstern, Kempenaar and Larsen, they are reviewing most of the movies that are coming out. I'm consuming these reviews one way or another, whether it's with my eyes or my ears. And if it's a really great critic who happens to appear only in written form, it means I'm just missing out on what he/she has to say, never to return to it.

I guess the conclusion is that the price to be paid for immersing yourself in the discussion of film is that you are inevitably going to be exposed to some criticism before you're ready for it. You may have strategies for minimizing that exposure, but some of them contradict other strategies, and some of them are just altogether fruitless.

In other words, it's hard to be selective. You just have to read/listen to what you like, and hope that you're able to maintain a strong enough movie-watching pace so that you'll get to compare your own thoughts with theirs, more often than you carry their thoughts with you to a screening as an unwanted viewing companion.

I guess I should be glad most people don't worry too much about this. Film criticism as a profession is built on the notion that many if not most people want to know what a critic thinks before they see a movie.

So if everyone wanted to avoid reviews before they saw movies, not only would I not have work as a critic now, I would not have work as a critic ever.

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