Saturday, January 20, 2007

How Not to Review a Genre Film

January tends to be the dumping ground for a lot of forgotten films. Studios want them out the door, and hope they'll make a little money, as they recoup the expenses of their end-of-year, award season marketing binges. While this type of thing might bother the Richard Roeper's of the world, it's a goddamn goldmine for horror film fans. This week we're treated to The Hitcher.

Now, I enjoyed the Hitcher, it wasn't the finest film ever made by any measure, but it was an entertaining little ditty that put you on the edge of your seat a number of times and served up a heaping spoonful of that sweet, sweet genre pleasure. I don't want to spend too much time talking about the movie though, because honestly, you know if you want to see it, and if you don't, there's not a whole lot that I can say that would change your mind.

What I am interested in however, is the critical response to the film, because it's in that response that we see a really pathetic level of understanding for how a genre film works, and what exactly it's supposed to do. This will be a common theme around these parts, and I'll try to spread the love evenly, but this week's offender is Jeffrey Anderson of Cinematical.

Mr. Anderson writes one of the silliest, most worthless reviews in recent memory. He also manages to wield a wholly undeveloped sense of the genre. More than anything else, it is this failing that undermines everything he writes.

Obviously, his review is negative, in fact it's resoundingly negative. But that really isn't the problem. As Harry at AICN shows, you don't have to like the film, but a valueable reviewer will at least examine it on its own terms. In the interest of thoroughness, let's take one paragraph, line by line:

In any case, we get one of those scenes in which the lovers cruise through the pouring rain at night, and they talk and the guy gazes over at his lady love for such a long time that you wonder: who's driving the car? During this moment -- predictably -- they nearly hit someone standing in the road. Jim wants to help, but Grace urges him to drive away. At the next rest stop Grace takes so long in the bathroom (a running joke -- ha ha) that the guy catches up to them. Guilty, they give him a ride this time, he tries to kill them, and they boot him out of the car. He winds up with Grace's cell phone, but the script forgets all about this potentially scary element.

This is just a sample from Mr. Anderson's incisive little ditty. The emphases are clearly mine, so let's look at each in turn.
  1. "One of those scenes" - Ok, nice start here. Anderson has identified a convention, and now he'll describe how it functions to heighten our pleasure. Oh, he doesn't do that? He was being facecious? That's a shame, for a second, I thought he knew what he was talking about.
  2. "Predictably" - Guess what. Predictability is the point. If, at some level, we as an audience didn't know and expect what was going to happen, then we wouldn't get the same kick. That scene's cache is premised on our expectation of that exact thing happening.
  3. "A running joke--ha ha" - Mr. Anderson, stop, god, your wit is killing me! Just so funny! Unfortunately, he created this whole thing in his head. Grace goes to the bathroom, an average viewer probably didn't even notice she was gone. She has to go to the bathroom. There's no gag. Move on.
  4. "This potentially scary element" - I don't even know what the hell he's talking about here. Grace loses her cell phone, it's a necessary plot element. It explains why they can't call anyone later in the film. I fail to see how this could have been scary at any level. Should Ryder have sent text messages to Grace's friends? That would have been scary!
It's pretty clear that Mr. Anderson has little to no understanding of how genre functions to inform our viewing of a movie like The Hitcher. But even more embarrassing, we can only assume that he went into this movie expecting not some run of the mill popcorn scare ride, but instead some sort of cinematic achievement. It's a fucking horror movie! Like any rational human, I would never argue that the movie is deserving of any Oscar nominations, but to fail to appreciate the movie as a successful purveyor of genre pleasure is just unacceptable. It's idiots like Mr. Anderson that pollute the world with uneducated opinions about things they just don't understand.

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