Last week, reader Joseph Gibson submitted a follow-up to a recent "Ask The A.V. Club" question about whether older movies are generally inferior to modern movies. Gibson wrote, "Sometimes I feel like I have an inverse problem, which is neglecting modern film. When I watch Psycho or M*A*S*H* or The 400 Blows, I worry that I'm missing out on the film landmarks of the present. Even more troubling: Would I recognize one if I saw it? One of the things the classics have going for them is the ton of material out there to help me appreciate them. But is that cheating? If I don't really connect to, say, Citizen Kane on first viewing, but gain an appreciation for it on repeat viewings after reading various reviews and essays, can I really say I 'like' the movie?"
I wanted to answer this outside the regular column because I've been thinking a lot about the first part of the Joseph's question lately. But first, let me offer up a quick reply to the second: To think that studying a film would taint your opinion of it, you'd have to believe that there's such a thing as a "pure" opinion, and I personally don't. One could just as easily argue that doing anything other than watching Citizen Kane taints your opinion of Citizen Kane. I feel that in art as in life, the more you know, the better your opinion. At the least, if you decided that after everything you've read and watched, you still weren't excited by Citizen Kane, you'd be able to articulate your reasons with some authority.
As for the rest of the question (which isn't really a question I realize, but which I find interesting regardless): One of the biggest challenges in being a professional critic is trying to process a piece of pop art–or on rare occasions art-art–within days or sometimes even hours of first encountering it. In some ways, newspaper and magazine critics are more like reporters than proper critics: We record our reactions in the heat of the moment, and hope that history will vindicate us. Because of that, we sometimes go overboard in praising a movie or an album or a book that really gets our blood pumping, and we're sometimes too reserved in our judgment of work that takes a little more effort to get into. (We also sometimes give the benefit of the doubt to that trickier work, in hopes that we'll come around on it later.)
But critical misjudgment isn't always a matter of overhyping the okay and underrating masterpieces. Sometimes–especially during the headiness of the late-year "awards season"–the mandate to immediately declare a movie "great" or "disappointing," combined with the usual cycles of critical praise and backlash, means that critics can overlook qualities that might make a movie worth watching a few years on, after it's been removed from the withering spotlight to a more suitable venue.
Last week I watched Cradle Will Rock, the Tim Robbins historical drama that was much-anticipated upon its release in 1999, but received largely mixed reviews at the time. I missed the movie back then (for reasons I don't recall), and watching it now, I can understand why it was greeted with such general indifference. Robbins' conception of the '30s New York theater scene–and the drive to create a great socialist art movement using capitalist money–comes off a lot of the time as heavy-handed, too diffuse in focus, and historically suspect. But it's just as often entertaining, thought-provoking, and even moving (especially at the end). Time hasn't made Cradle Will Rock into a great movie by any means, but eight years after its release, it no longer has to be "great," because it's not competing for awards now, or to get on year-end lists. Cradle Will Rock, watched under more modest circumstances, is a lot closer to what Robbins always intended: a lively meditation on art and commerce, crossed with an homage to the idealism of an earlier age.
Last week I also spent several days in a row watching every single film in the Friday The 13th series, for a feature that should be running tomorrow. I'd never seen a single one of those movies before taking on the assignment, and I can't say I came away as a fan of any of them, with the exception of the first and the fourth (combined with pieces of the second and tenth). But even while suffering from "Jason fatigue," I still found myself greeting the start of each movie with something like happy anticipation, just to see what the series' producers were going to cook up this time, and how it would evoke the year in which the movie came out. If I'd seen Friday The 13th Part 5: A New Beginning in 1985, I probably would've been miserable. Twenty-two year later, its awfulness was tempered by soothing waves of nostalgia: for the clothes, the music, and even the cinematic style.
Of course by the time I got to 2003's Freddy Vs. Jason, none of those elements worked on me, because the era was too close. I noticed very little about the hairdos or tone, aside from an obvious debt to the post-modern horror of the Scream cycle. Show me Freddy Vs. Jason in a decade, though? It'll still be a bad movie, but it might be a more tolerable one, because I'll be recalling (and marveling at) what 2003's casting agents and film crews thought of as appealing.
We're naturally going to be blind to what will eventually "date" a modern movie in a charming way, just like we have no idea when we look into a mirror how ridiculous our fashion sense will appear in 20 years. There's nothing we can do about that. There's also not much we can do about a hype machine that pushes critics to decide immediately whether something we've just seen is an all-time classic. (Because according to the hype machine, if it's not an all-time classic, why bother?)
The best we can do as critics is to know our history and know ourselves, and to try and see the redeeming qualities in the mediocre and the timeless qualities in the great. And then to try and explain the opinion that results, and brace for the reaction–which can be the toughest part nowadays. It's easy in some ways to go to bat for, say, the new DVD edition of Days Of Heaven, a film that's not necessarily easy for everyone to like, but which has such a devoted and distinguished group of devotees that not many people will fault a critic for joining the choir. But even the most praised film of this year–which will likely turn out to be either No Country For Old Men or There Will Be Blood–will have very vocal detractors, eager to offer what Anton Ego in Ratatouille called "some fresh, clear, well-seasoned perspective." Add in the disappointed people who walked into the theater with impossibly high hopes because of rave reviews, and it's a wonder that anyone dares to call anything even "good," let alone great.
But all that's just the fray. The fray inevitably subsides. And what we're left with are the movies, which usually prove to be sturdier than all our attempts to lift them too high or knock them too low.