Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Paper trail

Last week I suggested that reading about movies could be nearly as much fun as watching them. I would go further and suggest that, in the case of some movies, reading about them is even more fun than watching them. This, of course, is when the film critic is much better at his or her job than the filmmakers are at theirs. In fairness, it is a lot easier to sit down and right one’s impressions and opinions than it is to manage all the resources and cast and crew necessary to make even the lowest-budget movie. For this reason, I don’t really want to give the impression that I think the critic who spends an hour at the keyboard is somehow superior to people who spend months working on a major project. But the sad reality is that sometimes that hour spent at the keyboard provides more joy than all those months of hard work. Go figure.

It is human nature that people who like to go to the movies or to rent them or otherwise pay to view them want to maximize the odds that the flick they pick will be one that they will like. There are various ways to go about this. Recommendations from friends whose taste you trust is one way. Ads in the newspaper may give you ample confidence that you will like a certain pic. Or maybe you are the type that just likes to have your curiosity satisfied about new movies that everyone seems to be talking about. Many people have a favorite critic that they like to read or hear, trusting him or her, based on prior experience.

But an even more basic question than whom to get movie information from is what medium is the best way to get it. After all, you can get movie reviews from the newspaper or certain general interest magazines or you can buy magazines or journals devoted entirely to film. Or you can get film info from television or radio. And let us not forget the internet, which is completely awash in movie web sites of all sorts. In the end, this is really part of the larger question: what is the best way these days to get information—full stop. Some people cling to paper as a medium. Others, perhaps too busy to sit down and read a newspaper and magazine (or maybe more interested in fresher news) catch up by watching television or listening to the radio during their day. And still others actively seek out the specific information they are interested in by surfing the web in their street clothes, pajamas or underwear. Most of us probably do some combination of two or three of these.

But which best serves the film buff? The short answer: whichever one(s) he or she prefers. I can only tell you how I prefer to get info. But you probably have your own preferences, and if this lowly site is one of them, well, then I am quite flattered.

So, without further ado, my personal short answer for my best way to get movie info is: print! Ha! You thought I was going to say the internet, didn’t you? Well, that’s right too. In practice, I rarely buy a newspaper or magazine anymore. This is quite a turnaround. I grew up in a home where we got the newspaper delivered seven days a week and it was thoroughly read by the whole household. I have worked for a number of newspapers in my life and have always felt very loyal to them. I even went to journalism school, where I was indoctrinated in the religion of the printed newspaper. For years I had a daily newspaper delivered at home, even when I didn’t have time to read it and often wasn’t home to pick it up off the doorstep. My dedication to the daily newspaper habit seemed unshakeable. But things changed. And I don’t just mean the internet. When we first moved full-time to the west of Ireland, I eagerly signed up (and paid big euros) to have The International Herald-Tribune (basically, the Paris edition of The New York Times) delivered six days a week. But there was a problem. Not only was this luxury very dear, the newspapers arrived two to five days after they were published, since the paper (edited in Paris, printed at the time in London) had to be sent through the mail. Not only did I have precious little time to read them after they arrived, I also had little incentive since the news seemed ancient by 21st century standards. I eventually let the subscription lapse.

You might be asking, so why didn’t you subscribe to an Irish newspaper, you American-centric, imperialistic, non-assimilating foreigner? Home newspaper delivery does not seem to be a custom here, as it is in the States. It certainly isn’t here in the rural hinterland. Newspapers are expensive to buy here, compared to what they cost in the U.S., and ordinary people seem less likely to pay to read them. Instead they will stand for an hour in the newsagents’, reading them for free. Subscriptions seem out of the question, escept maybe for businesses. Some people do reserve copies of a particular newspaper or magazine at the local newsagent, but this entails going into town to pick it up. No, I soon realized that my newspaper subscribing days were over. But it wasn’t a hard adjustment—thanks to the magic of the World Wide Web. Radio and television (the reach of which is vast, thanks to the magic of the satellite antenna and dish) suffice for breaking news and headline summaries. For more in-depth information, I have my pick of practically any major (and, seemingly, nearly any minor) newspaper in the world on the web. And, while I do not have the patience to read a very long article on a computer screen, happily most articles are easy enough to print on my own paper.

The wonderful result is that I get a lot more info and I waste (i.e. recycle) a less paper than I used to. We are getting closer to the ideal newspaper situation, as depicted once on an episode of the great sci-fi series Babylon 5. On that titular space station, readers simply inserted their previous newspaper in a slot and had a brand new paper—customized to reflect their pre-programmed news preferences—immediately printed on the recycled newsprint. There is a potential danger, however, in the fact that I am daring to make my own editorial choices, in terms of deciding which articles are most important. One of the arguments for newspapers over the internet as a primary news source has always been that, online, people would tend to read only things that they already know something about or have an interest in or already agree with. The newspaper, this argument says, provided an invaluable service in prioritizing news by its importance, by putting the most important stories on page one and the most important of those stories at the very top with the biggest headline. But you know what? Decades of experience in various forms of journalism have convinced me that most of these professional editors don’t actually do that good of a job. I am now convinced, at least in my own case, that I (working with Google) can do a better job. And, in the end, most web sites also prioritize news in one way or another, so it is still merely a matter of finding a news source whose news judgment you trust.

So my personal favorite source of film reviews is the newspaper, but accessed from the newspaper’s web site. I check lots of them but tend to gravitate to The New York Times (basically, the New York edition of The International Herald-Tribune) and The Irish Times (basically the Dublin edition of my university newspaper), not only because they generally have good film writers but also because I am fairly sure to catch feedback on every movie released in the U.S. and in Ireland that way.

I don’t mind listening to movie reviews on the radio (National Public Radio is the only source that I hear regularly), but I don’t tend to find them particularly useful either. At best, they just tend to pique my interest and make me want me to go read a newspaper review. As for television, I have a real problem with watching movie reviews on the boob tube. Years ago various friends told me that I should watch Siskel & Ebert because I was sure to like their show because I liked movies so much. So I watched them. At first the idea of these two guys talking about and debating movies seemed pretty cool. But a funny thing happened. The more I listened to their well-timed, succinct arguments ending up in a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down,” the less interested I got in wanting to go see the movies being discussed or, for that matter, movies in general. For a start, I have always had a problem with the thumbs up/thumbs down thing. Movie quality is not binary. It is best described as a long, intricate scale. The up/down judgment is invariably arbitrary and over-simplified. Also, this format had the effect of turning movies into commodities, rather than entertainment or, dare I say, art. I was getting all the enthusiasm about movies that I might get from Consumer Reports about, say, various brands of vacuum cleaners. In the end, I was simply getting precious little insight into film beyond “I liked it” and “I didn’t like it.” Life is too short. So I haven’t watched Roger Ebert—or other similarly formatted TV shows—for years.

A staple of British and Irish television, by comparison, is an “arts” or “culture” show, featuring a panel that discusses all sorts of various art (books, exhibits, etc.), including film. These are also painful to watch, since the panelists are inevitably and obviously trying to say something interesting and insightful and outdo the previous speaker and, thus, focusing more on their own performance than that of the work they are discussing. Amazingly, I was actually approached a year ago about appearing on such a show to discuss the Oscars the day after the awards. I had about a day of panic, wondering how I would stay awake during the drive to Dublin after pulling an all-nighter watching the telecast before I was informed that, thanks, but they had found someone more interesting. Perhaps coincidentally, the show was soon yanked from its afternoon timeslot. (And, after this little diatribe, I presumably won’t need to worry about being asked again.)

This isn’t to say that there aren’t newspaper reviews that can’t be as useless or worse that the TV movie programs. But there is a lot more choice. If I don’t forget to come home during the Easter school break, I might talk about some of my favorite reviewers next week.

-S.L., 29 March 2007

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