Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Let the right film in

When critics argue over movies, they sometimes sound as though cinematic quality is something that can be measured objectively, like the way a diamond can be graded for quality. But the truth is that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. No matter how learned or experienced film critics are, they will still disagree over whether a particular film is good or not. It really all is subjective.

Part of that subjectivity is tied up in the age of the critic when he or she sees a particular movie and what movies he or she has previously seen or not seen. This point was emphasized to me the other day as I went through my weekly ritual of listening to the podcast of Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode’s film review program on BBC Five Live. I was taken aback to hear Kermode vociferously attack the movie Let Me In, which I myself had seen just a few days earlier. His main problem with it seemed to be that the Swedish movie on which it was based (Låt den Rätte Komma In, or Let the Right One In) was so good that it should never have been remade. My surprise at Kermode’s antipathy stemmed from the fact that I thought that Matt Reeves’s version was quite a good film, and quite a few professional critics seem to have thought so as well.

But Kermode’s reaction is one that I understand well. I yield to no one when it comes to being a snob about quality European films being remade by Neanderthal Hollywood hacks for the American mass market. I can cite as proof of this the piece I wrote six years ago lampooning the way Hollywood likes to remake foreign films with generally unimpressive results. But in attacking Let Me In, methinks Kermode made one leap too far. Asked by Mayo whether someone who had not seen the Swedish original and was not bothered with the comparison might find Let Me In just fine. Kermode insisted that such a person would or should find the American version just as annoying as he did. While Dr. Kermode is certainly entitled to his very well-informed opinion, he cannot possibly know for sure how he would have reacted to the American movie if, as far as he knew, the Swedish movie had never existed.

By the same token, I cannot possibly know for sure how I would have reacted to the American movie if I had seen the Swedish original. And I will never know for sure because, if I do as Dr. Kermode directed and go get the DVD of the original, I will never be able to erase the experience of having seen the other version first. I have every reason to believe that, on the strength of opinions of people I trust, that I would like Låt den Rätte Komma In just fine, perhaps better than Reeves’s version. But the opportunity to see it in the cinema never presented itself to me. Maybe someday I will get around to acquiring the DVD, but there is no sense of urgency at the moment.

When I think of Hollywood movies that were more or less ruined for me because of films I had seen previously, two movies of the mid-1980s always come to mind. Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill, with its cast full of familiar faces, paled for me because of the memory of John Sayles’s similarly themed 1979 indy darling The Return of the Secaucus Seven, which seemed so much more real. And John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club similarly suffered in my mind because of its young celebrity cast after having seen Peter Stein’s gritty, provocative, more powerful Klassen Feind (Class Enemy) a year or so earlier. If I hadn’t seen the earlier two films, I am sure I would have enjoyed the later two movies much more.

What all this tells me is that a critic’s opinion of movie has nearly as much to do with chance as it does with the ability to discern quality. Still, I have trouble understanding how Dr. Kermode could not appreciate the qualities of Let Me In in spite of the fact that he was so clearly in love with the original version. This leads us back to the consistently running theme of this web site. Movie reviews always tell you much more about the reviewer than they do about the movie.

Dr. Lang (1921-2010)

There was a lovely obituary in his local newspaper, The Burlington Free Press of Vermont, for Addison Powell this past Friday. So far I haven’t seen any mention of his passing in the bigger papers, like The New York Times and Variety.

Like my own father, Powell served in the Air Force during World War II and was based in England. He flew 30 missions as a navigator. After the war, he graduated from Yale Drama School and became a professional actor. For the next four decades he played many roles on the New York stage and in various supporting roles in movies and on television. He showed up on Gunsmoke, The Defenders, The F.B.I., The Mod Squad, The Bob Newhart Show and Law and Order. Powell had a striking shock of white hair and a deep voice that exuded authority. That is certainly why he was cast as a Chief Justice (The Man Without a Country), a reverend (The Adams Chronicles), Admiral Chester Nimitz (MacArthur), Admiral Harold Stark (War and Remembrance), a sinister CIA man (who menaced Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor) and quite a few doctors.

In case you are wondering how I happened to be reading a Vermont newspaper, it’s because I followed a link from a Dark Shadows newsgroup. That’s right, Addison Powell was a member of the large family of cast members of my favorite all-time daily serial. He had some bit parts on the show. He was a judge in a witchcraft trial in 1797, and he provided the ghostly voice of Jeremiah Collins, uncle to the vampire Barnabas. But his enduring acting contribution was as Dr. Eric Lang, the normal seeming medical professional who was actually obsessed with the idea of creating an artificial man. As a latter-day Dr. Frankenstein, he cured Barnabas of his vampirism and brought to life the being known as Adam.

When Dr. Lang first appeared in Dark Shadows, he seemed to have come from an entirely different show. He was like the standard issue doctors seen on soaps like As the World Turns, not one of the quirky characters in the gothic world of Collinwood. But somehow that made him seem more endearing. Eventually, Dr. Lang met his inevitable fate, but that still wasn’t quite the end of Powell in the series. He would return as Lang’s ghost.

Unlike Dr. Lang, Powell got to live to a ripe, and apparently pleasant, old age. To quote his Free Press obituary: “He loved country walks, landscape painting, good books and a good joke, not to mention Handel on his DVD player and a BLT from Burlington Bay Market.”

-S.L., 18 November 2010

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