Thursday, December 13, 2012

Movie Critics Who Don’t See What is On the Screen,

or  My Fourth Major Pet Peeve (Don’t ask about one through three)



When the movie “Gods and Generals” came out in 2003, I recall a review that claimed that there was an anachronism in the film. According to one reviewer, there was a reenactment of the Christmas Truce of World War I that the movie set in the American Civil War. The Christmas Truce was an unofficial stop to the fighting that involved a sizeable number of troops on both sides of the line in Belgium between Allied (mainly French and British) and Central Power (in this case, mainly German) soldiers during Christmas of 1914. Men not only stopped fighting but visited each other across the battlefield and shared holiday festivities.


The reviewer of “Gods and Generals” claimed that the movie anachronistically recreated that event only setting it in 1860s America. The reviewer was right that, historically, this did not happen. Unfortunately, it also does not happen in the film. The closest thing to it occurs when one Confederate and one Union soldier meet each other at a creek and decide not to fight each other. Two soldiers do not a Christmas Truce make, and, historically, such isolated instances of one-on-one truces did take place in the course of the Civil War.


A 1985 movie review in the San Jose Mercury News criticized “The Color Purple” for having Celie (Whoopie Goldberg) make an anachronistic “power salute” to her abusive husband, Albert (Danny Glover). Again, the movie reviewer did not use his eyes to see what was actually on screen. A power salute would be a closed fist raised up; Celie’s gesture is arm thrust forward with the pinkie and thumb sticking out, significantly suggesting the horns of the devil. The gesture is not an anachronistic power salute, but a universally recognized cursing gesture. At the time that “The Color Purple” is set, it was known to country people in places as diverse as Italy and the American South. But, of course, the urban movie reviewer would not know about rural gestures. Still, his ignorance is no excuse for not seeing that the gesture on screen is not what he wants to make it into for his convenience. Movie reviewers, of all people, should know how to see what they are looking at.


In 1979, Boston Globe reviewer Bruce McCabe opined that he had found an inconsistency in the movie “Being There” in which Peter Seller’s character, Chance the Gardener, laughs when a Russian tells him a joke. McCabe thought it was out of Chance’s innocent character to pretend to get a joke in a language he did not understand. In this case, McCabe might be forgiven for not having read the book, “Being There,” which explains that the reason Chance laughs is that the Russian, by whispering the joke close to Chance’s ear, tickles him. McCabe made a similar mistake to the Russian in thinking that Chance’s laughter was a reaction to the words rather than to the breath. Perhaps McCabe only demonstrated the film’s point: how we see what we expect and want to see, how plausible a case of monumental self-deception is. Or perhaps he demonstrated how lazy he is not to have read the one book that can be finished in less time than it takes to watch the movie version.

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