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Shane Danielsen: Among the Grifters

Shane Danielsen: Among the Grifters

The river is turning into
a place to drown.

— Frederick Seidel, “I Do”

Summer in Berlin brings many pleasures – and little incentive to stay indoors watching movies. There are the strand bars along the Spree, the lakes at Wannsee, the sidewalk cafes of Friedrichshain and Mitte. But I’d not seen “Cyrus”, the new film from the Duplass brothers, whose “Puffy Chair” I’d programmed at Edinburgh some years earlier, and admired; there was a press preview scheduled for Wednesday morning. Plus, it was at the Astor, on the Kufuerstendamm, one of the oldest and loveliest picture-houses in the city – and a close walk, afterwards, to the great, gourmet food hall atop the KaDaWe department store. All in all, it seemed a good way to spend a morning.

Arriving at the Astor, I signed in, and so did the woman behind me. There was something familiar about her. When I glanced again at the list, I saw that she was Anne Troester, the film editor of ExBerliner, the city’s main English-language monthly. Which was good, since I had a question to ask Ms. Troester.

Here – I think sanctioned by the laws of fair use – is Troester’s own review of Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” featured in the magazine’s combined July/August edition:

“There isn’t anything that Nolan has done that hasn’t been superb. ‘Inception’ combines everything he’s revered for [sic] by film freaks: his fascination for [sic] how the mind works – its incredible potential and its fragility; his interest in illusion and surprising plot twists; his commitment to visual brilliance – although here he’s not as original as he can be – and the way he brings out pitch-perfect performances from an ensemble cast of first-rate actors at the top of their game.”

78 words. A capsule review, like almost all of ExBerliner’s coverage. And, on the surface of it, not much to argue with, at least from my point of view. I agree that Nolan is an amazingly gifted filmmaker, by far the most interesting “event movie” director working in the U.S. today. And Troester does correctly identify and list most of his finest qualities.

She even gave “Inception” a score: three out of four.

None of this is what aroused my curiosity.

It was the fact that ExBerliner’s summer issue had hit the streets on June the 29th. More than seventy-two hours before my friend and colleague Justin Chang, of Variety, had watched “Inception” in the screening rooms of the Warner Bros. studios in Burbank – at what was, I believe, its first press screening. And while the film reportedly plays fast and loose with empirical reality, I could not quite see how even Warner Bros.’ marketing department could bend the laws of physics thus.

I went into the theatre and sat down. A moment later, Ms. Troester came in and, as fate would have it, took a seat directly in front of me. I leaned forward and asked if she was from ExBerliner. She said that she was. Our conversation thereafter went like this:

“I’m just wondering, how did you get to see ‘Inception’? Friends of mine in L.A. only got to see that the other day. And I didn’t think there were any long-lead previews.”

For just a moment, it seemed to me, she looked slightly surprised. Then her composure recovered. She smiled. She seemed very agreeable. “We didn’t,” she replied.

“I’m sorry?”

“We didn’t see the movie. With our deadline…there was no time.”

“So why did you run a review on it?”

“We didn’t. We just did a piece.”

“But you gave it three stars.”

“Well, hearts,” she demurred. “Three hearts out of four.”

“Hearts or stars, lady – you reviewed the film.”

She shrugged. Her expression remained blandly serene; I might have been asking to borrow a cigarette.

I tried again: “What I don’t get is, if you hadn’t seen it, and you had no time to see it before you went to print, why do a review at all? You could have just previewed it…’Oh, this looks pretty cool, it’s by the guy who did “The Dark Knight”…'”

Troester: “But that’s what we did.”

“No, you didn’t. You offered an opinion on the worth of the movie. You said, ‘here, Nolan’s not as original as he can be.’ You gave it stars, or hearts, or whatever. I’m sorry, but that’s a review.”

“If you’re unhappy, you should talk to the editor,” she said.

“But you’re the film editor. It’s your decision, surely?”

She hesitated. “I’m not sure why this matters to you.”

“If you hadn’t said that line about originality – if you hadn’t offered an opinion on the actual worth of the film – I mightn’t have so much trouble with this. But there’s no way you could have known whether Nolan was ‘as original as he can be’ this time around, or not. Or if it was a three-star movie and not a four-star one. Because you hadn’t seen it.”

Once more, the shrug. By now, Ms. Troester was looking at me with a kind of irritation. Why was I spoiling her quiet moments of contemplation before “Cyrus” – a film which she had made the effort to actually attend – with these pesky semantics? She’d seen it, she’d not seen it…who cares? “It’s only a short piece–” she began.

“I don’t care if it’s short; that’s not the point. You’re offering an opinion on a movie you haven’t even seen. Not even part of it.” (Because god knows, I’m not a believer in sticking around when something indisputably sucks.) “Have you just got no professional pride whatsoever, is that it? Does none of this matter to you?”

“Not really, no.”

“Then I got nothing to say to you. You’re a hack.”

I sat back in my seat. A few minutes later, the film began.

*

We can argue about the value of film criticism, and either lament or relish its decline, depending on our relationship to the profession. But it would take some doing, I think, to argue that this behavior – blithe ignorance masquerading as critical authority – constitutes a good thing, or a worthwhile development in the relationship between filmmakers and their audience. For the latter, it’s a betrayal of trust, a violation of the implicit contract between a writer and their readers; for the former, it’s either useful (when the piece is favourable, as this one mostly was) or insulting and infuriating (when it’s not).

I have, I know, an inordinate, Harlan Ellison-like capacity to become angry; anger fuels most of my days. And a 78-word blurb, in an expat magazine in central Europe, is, let’s face it, fairly small beer.

But the principle…the principle is worth defending.

Ms. Troester, it should be noted, is hardly alone. People do this every day. I mentioned this incident to two friends, one in London and one in Sydney, before I started writing this piece, and each could name one or two of their peers who function in exactly the same way. But I think about friends of mine who’ve lost their jobs in the past twelve months – good critics, smarter about film and more diligent in their professional responsibilities than Ms. Troester and her ilk will ever be – and think how galling it is to see their ranks diminished, replaced by people for whom the work is cheap and meaningless and without honour or self-respect. People no better, in essence, than those shit-eating, merch-grabbing junket whores who’ll happily stump up a positive quote for anything, provided it comes with a night in a hotel room and free sandwiches in the hospitality suite.

You don’t look to ExBerliner for its film coverage. Before I learnt of their Impressionistic, almost clairvoyant approach to reviewing movies, I was frequently puzzled by their judgments; even in this issue, they – almost alone on the planet – preferred “Shrek: Forever After” to “Toy Story 3”. And that’s fine: criticism is subjective, and should be – anyone who pretends otherwise is an ass.

But what I wanted to believe, as I want to believe of any critic, is that they engaged honestly with the work. Even if they hated it. Even if they walked out of it. That they saw enough of the actual film to form a judgment of its worth. I wanted, I suppose, a sign that the job still meant something, that we were not in the hands of grifters and shills. But it doesn’t, it seems, and we are.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Born in Sydney, Australia, Shane Danielsen is the former Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. He now lives in Berlin.

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