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Everybody’s a Critic : LOVE AND HISSES: The National Society of Film Critics Sound Off on the Hottest Movie Controversies, <i> Edited by Peter Rainer (Mercury House: $16.95, paper; 560 pp.)</i>

<i> Drucker is a Bay area free-lance writer</i>

Movies are a profoundly democratic art form. Snoop around the water cooler on a given Monday morning and you’ll find it doesn’t take much to be an armchair critic. Safer than politics or religion, less fragmented than literature and the arts, distinctly more worth talking about than TV, the movies are our cultural common ground, a forum where anyone can step up to the plate and take a swing at an opinion.

That spirit of “one person, one vote” democracy infuses “Love and Hisses,” an anthology of movie reviews with a novel approach. This book gives us paired reviews of the same film--the first generally positive, the second generally negative.

Sheila Benson’s Los Angeles Times review of “Under the Volcano” calls it a “lean, immaculate, superbly crafted film,” but Peter Rainer, writing in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner (he’s now at The Times), sees it as a “maundering movie about a portentous drunk.”

Jay Carr (Boston Globe) says about “sex, lies & videotape,” “The acting . . . is flawless. I’d give them all Oscars in a minute. ‘Sex, lies & videotape’ is a cool, fresh, funny, almost unnervingly assured treat.” Meanwhile, Gary Arnold (Washington Times) writes that “Despite its catchy lowercase title, ‘sex, lies & videotape’ proves to be about as schematic, shallow and insufferably dinky as a movie can get.”

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Structured like a thematic multiplex, “Love and Hisses” organizes its dueling reviews under such catchy headings as “Psycho Dramas,” “Sex Wars,” “The Zeitgeist Zone,” “Vietnam Hot Damn” and “Auteur/Hauteur.” One particularly amusing chapter that departs from the format, “On the Contrary,” features rave reviews of several movies that subsequently bombed with the great mass of critics and public alike. (You’ll recognize lots here: “Hudson Hawk,” “Ishtar,” “Heaven’s Gate” and “One From The Heart.”)

While disparate reviews are an entertaining concept for an anthology, the truth is that not all “Love and Hisses” couplets are so neatly polarized. The book also includes several solo pieces on broader themes, such as anthology editor Peter Rainer “On Male Weepies,” Queens College professor Morris Dickstein “On Peter Panavision” and Chicago Sun-Times critic Robert Ebert “On Violence.”

Spared the burdens of “objectivity” that shackle their colleagues on the “news” beats, these critics are free to use movies as a vehicle for exploring the issues, values and messages that shape our times. Early in his review of “The Godfather: Part III,” John Powers (L.A. Weekly) notes that “When ‘The Godfather’ and ‘The Godfather: Part II’ came out, during the Watergate years, they seemed to encapsulate a whole corrupt era when evil was done behind closed doors, politics and business appeared a higher species of gangsterism, and America was stained with the blood of its victims.” It is hard to imagine a political reporter comparing Nixon to the Corleones.

A similar cultural-studies approach is employed in Stephen Schiff’s Boston Phoenix review of “Reds” (1981), a movie he praises for being daringly released at the beginning of the Reagan era, yet shrewdly packaged so as to provide solace for revolutionary radicals and rigid conservatives alike.

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The implied message of the book’s collective erudition is that the critic isn’t there for a simple thumbs up or thumbs down. “The point,” Rainer declares in the introduction, “is that good criticism is less about the judgment one finally arrives at than the journey one takes to get there.”

The cumulative impact of reading those journeys is both empowering and disarming. Look, says the book, here’s one review, and then another. Critics have many opinions, and they’re certainly not always right. In contrast to the monolith of a single review, the presence of two invites the participation of a third. What do you think? Jump in and take your swing.

On the other hand, the book seems also to say, Do you really think you have what it takes to write about movies for a living? A critic’s propensity for intellectual showmanship could lead even the most die-hard buff into a cul-de-sac of self-doubt. J. Hoberman’s review of “Cape Fear” includes allusions to 27 movies. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s analysis of “Do the Right Thing” (Chicago Reader) wings into an exploration of whether Spike Lee is more Godardian or Reynaudian. Those are the moments that inspire me to say, “Hey, you try making a movie.”

These heavy doses of name-dropping and plot-hopping are the reason I recommend reading this book intermittently rather than all at once. After all, listening to too many movie critics reminds me of a friend who, weary of my allusions to Francis Ford Coppola’s oeuvre , cried out in exasperation, “I’m not asking if I should see ‘The Conversation.’ Just tell me: Is it worth paying $7.50 for ‘Apocalypse Now’?”

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The answer you’ll always hear from the critics--joined by the ever growing chorus of armchair movie aficionados--is yes, of course it’s worth it. No matter how horrible the film, none of these “hisses” speak to time wasted or intellectual capital squandered. It’s always worth it.


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