I think I may have just about had it with reviewers.
We, all of us, have our general gripes about movie reviews as well as a constellation of betes noirs among the reviewing community who can drive us crazy if we let them. When I was a kid, there was a reviewer for the city’s main daily who basically just offered a plot summary, culled, some believed, from the movie’s press kit, since this reviewer was famous for falling asleep during advance screenings. This narcoleptic approach to movies rendered the writer utterly useless as a consumer reporter, the primary reason for a reviewer’s existence. But some of the writers who stay awake are worse. They can be shortsighted, middlebrow, cranky, and write with some inexplicable chip on their shoulder.
Don’t get me wrong. I love reviews. I read them the way most of my friends scan box scores. They have been greatly important to me over the years, offering lessons (not that I’ve necessarily learned them) in clarity, as well as being founts of unexpected wisdom. But every once in a while you bump up against a national lock step reaction against a film that is inexplicable, a stance so dispiriting and surprising that it makes you re-think what reviewing is and why people do it. Such a film and its critical reception for me was the recent Orphan, and the phalanx of critics lined up against it.
Let me say right off that not only is Orphan a superior entertainment, but it raises interesting cultural questions. I rate it up there with The Hurt Locker as one of the best films I’ve sen this year.
No one, it appears, agrees with me. I won’t name names – you can find them easily enough at Rotten Tomatoes – but the critical community joined arms and moved in lock step against this film. A few writers set the tone, and the rest of the world followed suit.
Part of me understands their reaction. The first 15 minutes of Orphan were unpromising, with its pop out scares and dream sequences. But I kept my eyes open and grew to see that Orphan is a fascinating sociological document and a superior, intelligent entertainment.
Since you probably haven’t seen Orphan, here’s the plot summary. Kate Coleman (Vera Famiga) is a mother of two with a troubled past. Her career as a pianist and teacher is derailed, she’s had drinking problems, and she may have been the cause of her surviving daughter’s deafness (either me or the movie isn’t clear about this). She also has a son, but a third child died at or before birth. Kate and her architect husband John (Peter Sarsgaard), in the wake of all this domestic tragedy, decide to adopt. A visit to an orphanage results in the couple welcoming home Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), an Eastern European 13-year-old of preternatural talent and maturity. The son takes an instant dislike to the girl; but she forms an alliance with her deaf sister; meanwhile at school, Esther’s mean girl enemies start having accidents. Though the whole thing was Kate’s idea, she begins to have doubts about Esther and the adoption, especially since Esther has a knack for twisting the knife in the vulnerable woman’s psyche. John is unable to see what Kate is talking about, and Kate’s shrink also takes Esther’s side. At a certain point in the plot, the viewer is let in on the truth of Kate’s worries, and the rest of the film is a race to see who will prevail, Kate and her maternal instinct, or the unnaturally observant and seductive Esther.
This is pulp material and largely preposterous, but within those limitations, if such they be, Orphan (credited to writers Alex Mace and David Leslie Johnson, and directed by House of Wax auteur Jaume Collet-Serra ) is a rather fascinating scrutinizing of real concerns that people have. The critics couldn’t see this. For one thing, they viewed it as a horror film, when in fact, though it has the trappings of a thriller, in reality it is more of a old fashioned “women’s picture” a weepie about a put upon mother. The film is wholly behind the attitudes and experiences of Kate. It takes her side. It views the world from her perspective, so much so that we find ourselves as mad at John for not seeing the obvious as Kate is. The opening sequence of the film is a meditation on the horrors of childbirth; not everyone has such fears of this beautiful, biological act, but enough people do to that they will be particularly freaked out by certain medical moments in those first few minutes.
And we all know how hyper-protective and micro-managing today’s upwardly mobile parents are. Orphan preys on a fear that families have of The Other (whatever that other may be) invading the home and taking it over, casting out the mother and seducing the father. I don’t know how real such fears are, but any social class that obsessed with the minutia of their children’s day to day lives must have a bunch of irrational – and maybe even rational – worries. Orphan also utilizes whatever worries that westerners might have about Russia. Though perhaps it is not been publicized as being as scary as its old incarnation, the Soviet Union, that isn’t for want of trying by some governments. Russia seems now to be richly competent in oil barony, corrupt politicians, gangsters – and now bad seeds.
Just on the purely practical level of plot mechanics, Orphan has one of the great shock twists of modern cinema, one that the writers, when they came up with it, must have realized was pure gold. But getting to that twist is a journey of discomfort and creepiness for the average viewer. At one point, you wonder where in the hell this thing is going. When it gets there, you can only, or at least this viewer can only, shake the head in wondrous appreciation. Yes, of course, to the “mature” scribes of our national publications, such pleasures in the craft of storytelling are to be dismissed, because they are vulgar and childish, and bespeak a sick and twisted mind. Fie on them, I say, as Stephen King might also do. If good novels these days aspires to the addictive attractiveness of children’s literature, then our best films are rooted in fairy tales, Saturday afternoon creature features, and old time serials. This doesn’t make them dumb. They don’t have to be. But it suggests that the visceral and the intellectual make a great couple.
Movie reviewing is in a state of crisis. No one reads newspapers anymore, and few people take established print reviewers as seriously as they used to now that anyone with an internet service provider and a Typepad account can “be” a movie reviewer. As papers continue to fail, old guard print scribes are let go, and this is viewed in some quarters as a loss to the national conversation about art. Those few writers who remain, at least within the New York presses, attract the ire of readers across the globe, as suggested by the recent controversy surrounding Armond White and his review of District 9 , well covered by Roger Ebert at his blog and the people responding in the talkback. The weepy sentimentality about the death of newspapers is a bit paradoxical when you think of all the stories that journalism hasn’t covered over the years, or how difficult it was for the Washington Post to keep at the Watergate story when the rest of the nation’s press ignored it. Perhaps newspapers so derelict in their duty deserve to die. The same goes for movie reviewers. Instead of spearheading new and interesting ideas and films, they bring preconceived notions and use the great grand middle brow as their fallback position. The problems surrounding White have more to do with his not going along with the prevailing sentiments about movies (and the reactions of readers on Ebert’s site are so filled with logical fallacies as to make one grieve for our educational system – just because “everyone” likes something doesn’t make it good) but the real problem among reviewers is close-mindedness and conventional thinking. Most of them aren’t reviewing the movies in front of their eyes, but the audiences on the other side of the breakfast table. Conventional wisdom says that regular audiences won’t like such a thing as Orphan, so the reviewers, thinking that they are anticipating the public taste, won’t either. Thus are readers and film aficionados in search of spirited, inspirational, and unconventional writing about unexpectedly interesting films rendered the true orphans.
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