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Film Critic, Review Thyself

Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

“Amores Perros” opened in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago and I should have been delighted. I wasn’t. All signs pointed to my reviewing it. I didn’t. That wasn’t an accident, it was a conscious, in many ways difficult, choice. I’d like to tell you why.

The debut feature for Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, “Amores Perros” has won so many honors at festivals worldwide that they barely fit on the full page allotted to them in the admiring press notes. A Golden Hugo in Chicago, a Golden Frog at Camerimage, the Golden Audience Award at Bogota, prizes at events from Tokyo to Oslo to Cannes, even Mexico’s first slot in 26 years as one of the five films competing for the best foreign-language Oscar.

All that was as nothing to the transcendent reviews “Perros” received from some of this country’s most important critics and film writers. Blurbed in pre-release ads that ran here and in New York, they were nothing if not impressive. The New York Times’ Elvis Mitchell called it “the first classic of the new decade with sequences that will probably make their way into history” (and his Sunday magazine colleague Lynn Hirschberg said it was “the most ambitious and dazzling movie to emerge from Latin America in three decades”). To Time’s Richard Schickel, “Inarritu’s debut film is as fine as any in movie history,” while the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern saw it as “one of the great films of our time, or any other.”

Obviously, if I’d felt this way about “Amores Perros,” nothing would have kept me from reviewing it. But I didn’t. And, conversely, if I’d loathed the film (it happens), I also would not have hesitated to write about it. Standing against a tide if you are so moved is obviously part of what criticism has to be about. But that didn’t happen either. What did take place was a bit more disconcerting. Or so it seemed at first.

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Clocking in at more than 21/2 hours and set in today’s Mexico City, “Amores Perros” opens with a catastrophic car crash that has equally devastating effects on three sets of characters. Although these people live in the same city, their social spheres couldn’t be more different, and although their stories are intercut in the film, they don’t otherwise connect.

“Octavio and Susana” is about an impoverished young man who resorts to dog fighting to earn money to run off with his brother’s wife. “Daniel and Valeria” is about an influential married man and the gorgeous model he moves in with. And “El Chivo and Maru” deals with a street person with a complicated past who considers the lives of dogs of more consequence than those of people.

When I first heard about “Perros” last year in Cannes, everyone mentioned its dogfights and the violence surrounding the animals, and I thought that would affect me, but it didn’t. In fact, what struck me most strongly about the work was how little anything affected me. After enduring a film that stubbornly refused to end, whatever it was I was supposed to be feeling never happened. Aside from irritation at the length, I didn’t think I felt anything at all.

On the other hand, it was immediately clear from the film’s somber tone and, if nothing else, all those minutes, that not only all those critics but the creators themselves thought they were doing something Significant. Given the disconnect between the strong passions everyone else felt and my own lack of involvement, it didn’t seem that I’d made enough of a connection to “Amores Perros” to write about it, and it was in that frame of mind that I passed on reviewing it.

This was worrisome to me because, like a chef who has lost his appetite, a critic without passions for what he’s writing about is in a dicey position. I began to think of Tony Curtis’ dysfunctional fake millionaire near the end of “Some Like It Hot” who kept saying he felt nothing despite the attentions of French upstairs maids and Marilyn Monroe. Nothing. What a thing to feel.

Then I remembered the most obvious thing, that Curtis’ millionaire had said he’d felt nothing for a reason. Even if they weren’t strong ones, did I actually have thoughts and opinions about “Amores Perros” that I was reluctant to share, and if so, why?

What I found while looking over my screening notes for the film was a low-level but definite irritation. “Amores Perros”’ much-touted grittiness seemed more like a pose than an authentic vision to me, its lauded visual technique felt too insistent, its self-satisfied glimpse of the street contrived for an audience eager for the titillation of the real.

Instead of echoes of Bunuel’s riveting “Los Olvidados,” which also dealt with unexamined aspects of Mexican society, I found tedium and the kind of crude dramaturgy that thinks having rats infest a luxury high-rise is making some kind of profound statement. Instead of realism or even neo-realism, I found neo-neo-realism, a sensibility too many steps removed from any real feelings. While I didn’t feel as hostile as these comments probably indicate, clearly I wasn’t as completely without opinions as I’d first thought either.

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When I realized I’d shrugged off a clear reaction as a non-reaction, I could have changed my mind and reviewed the film, and I almost did. But it seemed that while a review is a review is a review, it might be of more interest to use my indecision as a way to look into issues of criticism that are not often explored. I could both include my opinions (and, obviously, I have) and get into larger themes at the same time.

The first thing I remembered in that context is what I tell my students when I teach film reviewing at USC. If you come out of a film and aren’t sure what your opinion is, it could well mean you do know but are not comfortable with your thoughts. The truth was I’d been more or less bored by this widely lionized, would-be classic, and I’d allowed what I call the tyranny of the masterpiece to let me think this was an unworthy reaction.

For though I know from personal experience the tendency critics have to want to discover greatness under every rock and to overpraise films in order to validate a lifetime spent in the dark (what I do is of value, look at the masterworks I deal with every day), it can still be daunting to confront the combined front of thoughtful people you respect if you don’t have the strength of anger to sustain you.

An additional factor is that no one wants to be the reincarnation of Bosley Crowther, the New York Times critic who so missed the boat when reviewing “Bonnie & Clyde” that he immediately became the poster child for endemic fogeyism. It’s easier to find a seat on the critical bandwagon, a safe haven in which you don’t have to worry about being behind the curve and the last to applaud the latest phenomenon, anointed in large part because designating phenoms is one of the things critics most like to do. In a blurb-happy atmosphere where no film ad is without a quote, however dubious, calling the work a triumph, reviewers often seem to feel that it’s only by resorting to hyperbole themselves that they can call attention to a worthy film.

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Whenever I get to moments like these, I reread, as I did this time, a passage from critic Robert Warshow’s “The Immediate Experience,” thoughts that were first pointed out to me by Roger Ebert. “A man goes to the movies,” Warshow wrote. “The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man.”

By reminding us that anyone who writes about film is a person with idiosyncratic tastes before he or she is a critic, Warshow underscores how human and personal a job criticism is when it’s done right. I am who I am, what I like and dislike is what I like and dislike, and if from where I sat, “Amores Perros” was a tedious, irritating film, that’s the way it would have to be. As embarrassing as that might be to admit, even if it meant realizing some time down the road that I’d missed the boat on the “Citizen Kane” of our time, the alternative was worse. To pretend either to like the film or that I didn’t really have an opinion, to pretend in effect that I was someone else in order to save face and be one of the gang, was simply unacceptable. Criticism is a lonely job, and in the final analysis either you’re a gang of one or you’re nothing at all.


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