"Of course I'm respectable," John Huston tells Jack Nicholson in "Chinatown." "I'm old. Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough." Those aren't the only entities that gain respectability as they age. Many schlocky old movies also acquire bewildering luster if they hang around long enough.
Revisionist history is practiced in many different fields, but it's absolutely rampant with regard to movies. Press pundits and general moviegoers are often guilty of blithely misrepresenting the earlier films that they pontificate about.
Admitting that you've had second thoughts about a movie is fair enough. What's peculiar about some of the fast-and-loose revisionist criticism that has become so commonplace is that critics and ordinary moviegoers often cavalierly fail to acknowledge that they're rewriting history. Invidious comparisons can be a convenient way of putting down a new movie while idealizing the good old days.
To cite a current example, many reviews of the hit comedy "Old School" complained that it was far tamer than an earlier frat-house romp, "National Lampoon's Animal House," which helped to make a star of John Belushi in 1978. Variety's David Harvey mocked "Old School" as "this year's kinder, gentler 'Animal House.' " In the New York Times, Elvis Mitchell ticked off the similarities between the two movies, leaving no doubt as to which he preferred. "Animal House," he contended, "raised the stakes with a kind of ruthless bad taste that was actually refreshing," while "Old School" is "like a half-empty glass of Coke that's been sitting out for a couple of days."
Reading the reviews would lead readers to conclude that "Animal House" is pretty universally regarded as some kind of classic, but their memories may be playing tricks on them. It's true that "Animal House" was a box-office smash that inspired a wave of teen gross-out comedies, from "Porky's" to "Road Trip," but was it really a good movie?
It got very mixed reviews back in 1978, with critics leveling exactly the same charges at the picture that today's reviewers (who in many cases are the very same people) are now directing at "Old School." Writing in the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, Michael Sragow noted that "Animal House" was "surprisingly tame. It's a latter-day Hellzapoppin' that in every important way is too pooped to pop."
So what's going on here? Have critics gained new appreciation for "Animal House" because of all the inferior movies that followed it, or are they simply forgetting the imperfections of that earlier film, which has grown more than a little foggy in their memories?
Sometimes a touch of revisionism is relevant. Many gangster movies and film noir melodramas were dismissed when they first came out, but they're more legitimately appreciated now. On the other hand, some of yesterday's trivia has been laughably overinflated. (Even "Gilligan's Island" is now dissected with hushed reverence.) It's healthy for critics to keep an open mind and rethink opinions that might have been formed a little too hastily.
That's what Joe Morgenstern (currently the critic for the Wall Street Journal) did in his famous re-review of "Bonnie and Clyde" back in 1967. In his original review for Newsweek, Morgenstern panned the movie. A week later he went back to see it again and filed a second review extolling its virtues and confessing that he had misjudged the picture the first time.
Sometimes the good old days that beguile revisionist critics aren't even that far off. In his review of "Chicago," Variety's David Rooney carped that the new picture was "arguably less buoyant or inventive than recent unconventional and artistically controversial tuners such as 'Moulin Rouge' or 'Dancer in the Dark.' " Writing in a similar vein, Time magazine's Jess Cagle charged that "Chicago" "doesn't have the stylistic daring of 'Moulin Rouge.' " The Los Angeles Times' Manohla Dargis seemed skeptical of both movies, though she indicated a clear preference when she said of "Chicago" director Rob Marshall, "Like Baz Luhrmann in the superior 'Moulin Rouge,' he simply refuses to sit still."
These comparisons are truly bizarre because when "Moulin Rouge" first came out, it wasn't especially well received. What suddenly turned this frenetic, headache-inducing MTV clone into a "superior" film musical? The original reviews were mixed to negative. New York's Peter Rainer wrote astringently, "Luhrmann is once again in attack mode: He may think he's resuscitating the musical genre, but it's more like he's stomping it." The studio's effective Oscar campaign helped to blunt the bad reviews and convince academy members -- who have notoriously short memories -- that "Moulin Rouge" was some kind of significant artistic achievement. But we shouldn't surrender to mass amnesia and pretend the movie was better than it actually was. History is now rewritten with startling speed. It's one thing to be a little fuzzy on "Animal House," which was made 25 years ago. But "Moulin Rouge" is exactly 2 years old.
'Titanic' fans now bashful
Of course this curious revisionism does not always work in a movie's favor. People can be shamed into dissing movies that they enjoyed on the initial go-round. Do you know anyone who will admit to having liked "Titanic"? Although it's the most popular movie in history, almost everyone I've encountered now describes that epic romance with moans and giggles. People who want to appear hip scoff at its box-office success and at its 11 Oscars, but they might be surprised to be reminded that it generally got superlative reviews -- with only a couple of exceptions (including The Times' Kenneth Turan).
Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times, "Mr. Cameron's magnificent 'Titanic' is the first spectacle in decades that honestly invites comparison to 'Gone With the Wind.' " "This fabulously expensive watery epic is actually a very good movie," David Denby declared in New York magazine. And the New Yorker's Anthony Lane, who mocks most Hollywood efforts, was wowed by "Titanic." "At the close of the century," he gushed, "Cameron is pushing at cinema much as D.W. Griffith did at the start."
So how did a movie that earned such glowing reviews from many of our toughest critics turn into a laughingstock in just five years? Cameron's embarrassing "king of the world" speech at the Oscars may have started the backlash rolling; such extraneous factors often contribute to a movie's demotion or elevation to the pantheon.
Actually, if you have a bit of historical perspective, you'll often see reactions travel a full 360 degrees over the course of a generation. "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) won the Academy Award as best picture as well as a slew of critical accolades. But over the next decade its reputation fell precipitously -- partly because of the growing influence of Pauline Kael, who was a notorious detractor of David Lean and his meticulous style of filmmaking, and partly because of the failure of Lean's overblown production of "Ryan's Daughter" in 1970, which led critics to reevaluate all of his earlier work. In 1972, when the British magazine Sight and Sound polled a group of about 80 international critics on the 10 greatest movies in history, I was the only one who included "Lawrence of Arabia" on my list.
By 1989, when Lean supervised the restoration of the film, its reputation had risen again, partly because of the support of a new generation of directors like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.
In 1998, when the American Film Institute came up with a list of the 100 greatest movies of all time, "Lawrence of Arabia" ranked No. 5, right behind "Citizen Kane," "Casablanca," "The Godfather" and "Gone With the Wind." So history finally righted itself, even if there were a couple of decades in the interim when a masterpiece was consigned to the dust heap.
All of this topsy-turvy criticism should make one skeptical of any definitive, sweeping judgment. The chances are that it won't stick. Who knows? Twenty years from now, maybe "Old School" will be championed as a far more penetrating study of the male psyche than whatever that year's hot release happens to be.