Friday, June 15, 2007

Critics, Can We Declare A Moratorium On This One?

Spotted in a review of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer:
"Jessica Alba...still can't act her way out of a paper bag"

Now, I haven't seen Silver Surfer, and I'm not debating Ms. Alba talents as a thespian. Regardless: this phrase needs to be retired. It makes no sense. Who acts inside a paper bag? Who wears a paper bag at all? How could acting, even under optimal circumstances, help in the removal of a paper bag? If you put, say, Laurence Olivier inside a bag, would he have been capable of acting his way out of it? The way I see it vigorous physical activity could remove all but the most carefully lodged paper bag. And you don't need to be a great actor to perform vigorous physical activity. Jean-Claude Van Damme, therefore, could probably "act" his way out of a paper bag better than Ms. Alba, but should we hold that against her?

I have no idea where this phrase began, but here's where it ends. Therefore, "acting his/her way out of a paper bag" is now officially banned from criticism. You're all on notice. The only way this phrase is ever permissible again is if someone physically wears a bag on their head, and then, through sheer force of acting will, removes it. Otherwise, just say they can't act, okay?


Blogger Pete said...

according to the unimpeachable internet, it seems it's eithe derived from "can't find your way out of a paper bag" or "can't fight your way out of a paper bag". Either way, it means the person would suck even doing the simpilest thing... in this case acting in a starring role in a film to be seen by millions of people.

12:41 PM  
Blogger Matt Singer said...

Well, yes, obviously I know what it's meant to suggest. What I mean is if we look at the actual phrase "act their way out of a paper bag" it makes no sense.

12:47 PM  
Blogger Pete said...

ah, I see. I agree it makes no sense. That reviewer can't colloquialize his way out of a paper bag.

1:14 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Anderson said...

Dear Matthew, before I read your post, I thought perhaps you were suggesting that critics practice a moratorium on reviewing "The Rise of the Silver Surfer" in toto. To me that might not be a bad idea. Now, I'm not suggesting that critics not see the latest box office dreck - though in this case I most certainly will be extending my own moritorium to not seeing the film, ever - but if it turns out that it is bad as we have been led to believe, why waste the space? So yes, maybe critics should be assigned to see films they don't end up reviewing.

I know, I know, people want to hear about movies they might actually see, but do pans really matter for a film like "...The Silver Surfer"? Likewise, would someone not buy a New York Times, Wall St. Journal, Des Moines Register, et al. were it not to include a review of "... The Silver Surfer," but instead a piece on say the new German picture "Longing" of which few will have ever heard? Isn't the point of a newspaper to provide us news, new information? The fact that "The Rise of the Silver Surfer" may be bad is neither newsworthy nor does it have any place in a culture section, whose point ostensibly is to point out cultural events of note. The fact that a lot of people are doing something is not newsworthy. The fact that a lot of people buy beer on a really hot day is not newsworthy, nor is the fact that a lot of people go to a recognizable franchise that has an ad budget in the tens of millions. Both are predictable practices; neither are newsworthy.

Now, if "The Rise of the Silver Surfer" is interesting for some particular reason, cover it. That is, if it is counter-intuitively worth someone's time (like "Deja-vu" last year or "Collateral" the year before) or if it says something really interesting about where we are as a culture - that is if it is newsworthy culturally speaking.

As for the act her way out of a bag thing, who cares?

1:16 PM  
Blogger Matt Singer said...

Okay but who is the arbiter, Mike, of what "is interesting." Obviously, in this case, you. But not everyone liked or thought Deja Vu was interesting. Not everyone liked or thought Collateral was interesting — including me. I didn't think Collateral was worth the time of day. But you're a much bigger Chris Cornell fan that I am.

Now I haven't seen The Silver Surfer movie. I did see the first Fantastic Four. It was terrible. I was disheartened to see they hired the same director and cast, such is life.

Probably the new movie is terrible (more likely, the movie is juvenile, and aimed at a very young audience). I withhold judgment until I see it myself, but The Silver Surfer character, at least as conceived by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, is indeed quite "interesting." His comics were amongst the most spiritual, and in a weird way, Sirkian of any of the Silver Age -- and yeah even though they mostly take place in space and involve a guy whose real name is Norrin Radd. Did I mention there's all sorts of Judeo-Christian allegory embedded into his origins? Now I've got your attention.

Yeah, the movie probably doesn't care about any of that. But isn't THAT interesting in and of itself? I can see your point to a degree, but ultimately who's to say. I think I would like to read both reviews of Longing and of Silver Surfer, assuming both are written by someone who understands the material and treats it with respect instead of automatically dismissing it without proper consideration or context.

6:35 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Anderson said...

Matt, though your points are well made, I think you are overlooking the fact that newspapers nevertheless make editorial decisions in what to cover - and in what depth. The editors are the arbiters, not me. And if "The Rise of the Silver Surfer" is interesting in his or her judgement, then run something. Even if it, or anything, is an interesting failure. And if you're the editor of a publication with limited space - a magazine, newspaper, et al. - and you don't think "Collateral" or "Deja-vu" is worth your reader's attention, then you needn't run anything.

Of course, all of this is basically academic as we are having this conversation on a blog, which frankly is where more and more interesting criticism continues to happen. And we don't have limited space - only limited time and limited finances. The real question is how to encourage discrimination - if we think that better movies beget better future filmmakers and enrich moviegoers.

7:40 PM  
Blogger Matt Singer said...

"And if you're the editor of a publication with limited space - a magazine, newspaper, et al. - and you don't think "Collateral" or "Deja-vu" is worth your reader's attention, then you needn't run anything."

I don't know that the studios that made Collateral and Deja Vu would really appreciate a newspaper not covering their project at all. I would assume that would be the sort of editorial decision that would result in advertising dollars being diverted from that publication to another. And if enough movies did that, well that might be a problem.

7:44 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Anderson said...

Certainly, my above comments have been overly-optimistic in their eschewal of market realities. I'm certain you're right that studios would divert ad dollars were publications not to cover their biggest releases. If, however, print publication advertising was a good investment, that could be made up by other sources (the market is far larger than the small cabal of big businesses that certain alarmists make it out to be). But of course its not; when newspapers lose 4 and 5% of their readership quarterly, nobody's going to want to invest. So you give your advertisers bang for their bucks by running puff-pieces on their latest trash, right? And then you say the film's lead actress can't act her way out of a paper bag, but people don't care and see it anyway, since the film is largely critic proof, and any attention given the film is positive because people don't read those reviews anyway.

I suppose what I was saying was forego the review when it's not going to add anything, other than to allow some journalist the opportunity to make snarky pot shots. Use that space for something that truly deserves your readers' attention. But I also suppose that puts me back where I began.

The point in all of this is to grow an audience for the most deserving works out there, and yes Matt somebody needs to make that judgement. Whether this can be accomplished through the pages of mass-market publications, in the highly-fragmented world of the internet or in the college classroom is another matter. But I do think its worth fighting for, don't you?

10:49 AM  
Blogger Matt Singer said...

It's weird to hear you using marketing terms like "growing an audience" when referring to promoting literacy of obscure German cinema.

Honestly, I think this last post sounds like what it is, which is the high-minded idealism of an academic. I think you're also forgetting how middlebrow the Times' audience is -- I kind of think the criticism they want is that sort of engagement with popular culture and celebrating the pieces they deem outstanding (your Deja Vu example, for instance). But maybe I'm wrong! Mine could be the ramblings of a low-minded cynic.

By the way, did you actually look at how small the Times' Silver Surfer review was? It was tiny! Like 300 words tops. So obviously they deemed it unworthy of more attention than that. Then again, they did have Nancy Drew as the lead review this week, so that's sort of one up one down.

12:34 PM  
Blogger P.L. Kerpius said...

The guy sitting next to me at work today said it! But his metaphor had a bit of a caveat: the paper bag was "wet!"

10:55 PM  
Blogger rockmarooned said...

Another, related cliche-of-sorts I'd like to see excised completely is the anti-metaphor of "just. can't. act." This usually comes through in conversation rather than print reviews and I "just." hate it: the way it's supposed to sound definitive even though it is essentially meaningless and contains absolutely no analysis. I would take anything, even the kind of petty physical snipes a lot of laypeople substitute for actual criticism of actors or maybe even the paper-bag remark, over the "just. can't. act" crap.

As for the question of not covering movies like Fantastic Four 2 at all... Michael Anderson notes that it would be preferable to reductive, snarky, pointless reviews... but I submit that it is possible to write an interesting review of a basically uninteresting movie like FF2. It is challenging, of course, especially as the uninteresting movies pile up in seemingly endless amount. I've only been writing film reviews for a few years, and part-time; I can't imagine how difficult it could become after five or ten years of doing it full-time. But Matt also mentions the Times doing a minimal 300-word review; that sort of flexibility makes sense and maybe you can give some cruddy movie to a second-or-third-stringer if it's not interesting enough for the bigger names. I would gladly review FF2 in 300 words in a third-tier slot behind A.O. Scott's take on "Nancy Drew." And I'm rarely for *decreasing* the amount of film reviews available to the public in print form.

7:45 PM  

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