Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

How compulsiveness winds up seeming random

Every once in a while I get email from someone wondering why I haven’t reviewed his or her favorite movie of all time. The range of films mourned has included everything from Lawrence of Arabia to the Back to the Future trilogy. This is, of course, in addition, to the regular, run-of-the-mill messages I get telling me I have my cranium up my respective rectal cavity because I didn’t like someone’s favorite movie or, worse, liked someone’s least favorite movie.

In particular, I often get asked how I can dare to have a page of Irish movies (actually, “Irish themed or related” movies, since most of them are actually made or produced by people who are not, strictly speaking, Irish) on my web site and not include The Secret of Roan Inish. For the record, I enjoyed that movie very much back in 1994. It was a delightful mixture of fantasy, blarney and sentimental nostalgia. It is also worth noting that I saw it because I took the Missus to see it on one of our early dates, thinking it would gain me points by showing sensitivity and appreciation for her culture. But rather than eliciting a lump in her throat the way, say, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington would have if I had seen it after being homesick for months in Europe, her reaction was like that of so many Irish people: to dismiss it as a false and exploitative use of Irish stereotypes. It didn’t particularly help that the director (John Sayles) was an American. (My personal observation has been that the Irish actually don’t mind wallowing in their own stereotypes and clichés; they just don’t care for non-Irish people doing it.) In my defense, I seem to be one of the few Americans who claim no known Irish ancestry whatsoever and so may actually be a bit less prone to Irish sentimentalism than others.

Anyway, the point of all this is to explain why so many of the movies I have seen in the course of my life are not reviewed on this web site. It is simply because my charge to myself was to review every film I see in a cinema from the day I began the web site. Being the sort of compulsive personality that I am, I couldn’t attempt an impossible task like trying to review every movie I had ever seen. And I couldn’t dredge some up from the long ago past for a commentary and not others. So, I just write on movies I have recently seen no matter when they were originally released or whether or not they were ever released. That’s why most movies released before the middle of 1995 are not included. If one is included, it’s because it has had a re-release or a repertory screening or, in the case of some movies (Titanic is a relatively recent example), because it was still playing six years later. (A few movies are not included due to rare instances where a condition of seeing the movie was not to let anyone know that I’d seen the movie, e.g. the Seattle International Film Festival’s infamous secret film festival.)

But why only films seen in a cinema? Why not films seen on television or home video? (Let’s not even get into seeing movies on airplanes.) Again, it goes back to my compulsive personality. Do I review every movie I see on TV? What about the ones where I missed 15 minutes? Or 30 minutes? Or the one where I got a telephone call in the middle and had to hit the pause button and lost my concentration? Or the one where someone in the room was talking the whole time? Where do you draw the line?

Don’t get me wrong. I am not a cinematic snob who thinks there is something wrong with watching a video in the comfort of your own home. It’s just that it’s a very different experience than seeing the same movie on the big screen. I think we’re all aware that editing goes on when a theatrical release makes the transition to television. Not only are scenes cut, but the edges of the picture are cropped, certain offensive words are dubbed, and, in the case of American network TV, commercial breaks chop up the flow every six or seven minutes. Even when watching a video or DVD, the experience is still usually shaped by the size of the screen, the quality of the sound, and ambient distractions that usually don’t occur in a movie theater.

Since the big screen is the intended venue, at least initially, for most films, it seems only fair to comment on a film when it is seen in the manner originally intended. This policy occasionally has some strange consequences, like when made-for-cable movies (e.g. A Bright Shining Lie, Pirates of Silicon Valley) get reviewed because they show up at film festivals. And, to be truthful, I have bent the rules from time to time because it seemed pertinent to comment on a movie and I didn’t want to silence myself simply because of a policy that I myself imposed on myself.

So much for web site policy. The philosophical question remains: Under what circumstances can you be said to have really seen a particular movie? Only in a cinema? Do television broadcasts count? What about home video? DVD? DVD with a really big screen and stereo sound in your living room with the lights off and lots of people around you eating fresh popcorn? What about in one of those tiny matchbox size multiplex suburban cinemas during a matinee when you are the only person in the audience? Should that count?

I shall attempt to deal with this Question of the Ages next week.

-S.L., 6 April 2000

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