Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Where The Truth Lies

Can I tell you about a little ethical dilemma I had last week? The Buffalo alt-weekly, the ArtVoice, asked me to review the new Atom Egoyan film, Where The Truth Lies. It’s a whole lot more fun to write about things I like than things I don’t, and I did not like this film. Which was a bit awkward because I’ve been an Egoyan fan for years. I’ve seen virtually everything he’s made, and because he is Toronto’s best-loved film celebrity, I’ve witnessed him speak many times. He’s smart, articulate, and really understands this art form.

A year ago, I was having a conversation with the manager of a local art-house theater. He told me something curious: the lead paragraph of the review in the local press — there are only two major publications here: the mainstream Buffalo News and the alt ArtVoice — can sometimes have a big influence on a film’s local box-office numbers. To contrast two leads: (1) Dogville got an excellent review that opened with the words: “This is a challenging three-hour movie” (the movie lasted barely a week); while (2) Swimming Pool got a lukewarm review that started off with something like “It’s been a while since a major-release European film boasted this much nudity.” (The movie played for three months.)

It would just be too easy to destroy the Egoyan movie with a snarky review. (And I was tempted, I confess.) I happened to mention this dilemma to a friend who suggested sagely, “Why not use the sandwich approach? Open with something nice, then say the bad stuff, then close with something nice.” I also happened to remember J. Hoberman’s review of Todd Solondz’s Palindromes, a movie I hated with all my heart. He wrote a fascinating piece, full of ideas, without every really indicating whether he liked the film or not. I later discovered that he had disliked the film — it just wasn't evident from his write-up.

In my review of Where The Truth Lies, the most generous words I ended up using were “interesting” and “stylish”, and I sandwiched all my criticisms in the middle of the piece. The all-important lead paragraph? It was spent on the film’s close brush with NC-17. And the review opened with that mighty word: “Sex”. If sex was the only reason some people were going to see this film, by jove I wasn’t going to stop them. In fact, I was going to help Egoyan by sending them his way.

If you're interested, the review is over here in pdf format, on page 22.


Blogger Ed Garrity said...

Where the truth lies! This is quite ironic, Girish - As your review walks all around the truth ... how you really feel about the film. Having read your take on the review (a review of your review), I was privy to your motivation and thus I found the review intriguing from multiple viewpoints.

Well, I'll have to skip this film .... but I'll be sure to keep checking the ArtVoice and your blog. As usual, quite interesting. By the way, I always have thoughts on your postings ... I just stay on the sidelines a lot and enjoy your growing base of fans. Your blog audience is intellectual, articulate and artsy ... like you!

November 02, 2005 8:00 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

I'd never considered that you were looking out for indie theaters. Huh. Some advice I gave, then. :-X

November 02, 2005 8:54 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Tuwa, it was a funny ambivalence I felt. I didn't want to recommend the film (and I didn't) but didn't want to trash it either. It's playing at a locally owned art/indie theater that had the guts to open Claire Denis' Beau Travail a few years back. (It's one of my favorite movies of recent years, but *not* one I expected would ever play in theaters outside of the large markets--NYC, LA, etc.) So, I do admire their venturesomeness.

November 02, 2005 9:30 AM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

If Girish starts calling us his "base", I'm high-tailing outta here. :)

Egoyan's comment on separating public mythology and private memory sounds as though it revisits the implications of mother-son relationship in Felicia's Journey. Another film that came to mind was the documentary Mutter by Miklòs Gimes who is the son of a Hungarian national hero and freedom martyr, except that his memories of his father weren't of the "official version" of heroism and devoted family man, but rather, about his affairs with other women and how he had "abandoned" them. It's a fascinating theme.

November 02, 2005 9:31 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Interesting points there, Acquarello. I've never seen Mutter.
There are many thematic (and stylistic) connections in this movie to other Egoyan films. My favorite scene was set at a clinic for sick children, and involved a surreal theatrical performance (by the kids) of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" with the kids in bunny ears. Later, a Lolita-style sex scene followed. (Echoes of attractions of older men to young girls, and the unsettling depiction of minors, as in Exotica).
Oh, and Rupert Holmes (whose novel this is) was, you may remember, famous for the hit, "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)". ('Nuff said).

November 02, 2005 9:44 AM  
Anonymous Chuck said...

Interesting comments, Girish, about the film and about the rhetorical effects of reviews, especially in a smallish city like Buffalo. I was planning to see the film last weekend but was too tired on Friday night and too busy the rest of the weekend. I may skip it now because I have too many other movies on my plate, but the dilemma you raise is an interesting one.

On occasion, I've held back a little from criticizing some indie films because I do have a goal in my blog to support a sometimes fragile indie scene. This is probably especially true of political docs whose intentions I appreciate.

November 02, 2005 10:49 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Chuck, occasionally a film comes along that makes me really angry (whether for moral, humanist or fundamental aesthetic reasons). And I'd have no problem ripping into it. But the Egoyan wasn't offensively bad like that...just eye-rollingly disappointing.

November 02, 2005 10:56 AM  
Blogger girish said...

If I had kids, I'd be envious of Jeannette and how well she gets along with hers.

November 02, 2005 11:09 AM  
Blogger Musing said...

Thanks for the link, Girish. With four young adults in the house life is certainly never dull!

And I enjoyed reading your review. Good job balancing the positive and negative. Also, Ikuni will *love* that Art Voice cover.

November 02, 2005 12:33 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Jeannette. Glad you enjoyed it.

Some reading:
First, get eye-smacked by this post and its title.
Then, discover that Anne "Vampire" Rice is nuts about posting reviews on amazon.

November 02, 2005 1:15 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Well, it's a thoughtful review you made of it, at least. :-) Pity the film didn't live up to expectations, though.

November 02, 2005 1:18 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Girish, I enjoyed your review of Egoyan's film and appreciate the way in which you wrestled about how you approached it. Criticism can be a tricky thing, I think. There are definitely many films (and novels and music, and so on) that deserve to be torn apart, but I think you're right to suggest that doing so can have implications that go beyond just the review and the film. I do believe that, as reviewers, our ultimate obligation is to the art we are reviewing, but there are definitely times when other considerations or obligations can creep in.

I love Egoyan's films, but I haven't been in a rush to see this one, partly because of the premise of the story. Having read your review, I may just wait until it arrives on DVD.

November 02, 2005 1:34 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Here's an interesting case.
You would think from reading this review that Hoberman liked We Don't Live Here Anymore.
Glancing at the Film Comment star ratings a few weeks later, I discovered he had given it a 2-star rating.
But the review is still intelligent and interesting and worth reading.
And the film (to me anyway) worth seeing.

November 02, 2005 3:27 PM  
Anonymous dvd said...

This whole issue of responsibility to a greater good has always troubled me. Even if I had hated Where The Truth Lies (or perhaps in your case, Girsh, with Palindromes) I'd still be grateful that it exists, because it is representative of a higher form - a form not necessarily achieved, but certainly aspired to. It is that aspiration that sets the film apart, and makes it worthwhile, no matter how frustrating it may be. And when the film is by a director I admire, I'm inclined to be less stringent in my criticism, because his or her past work mitigates, in a way, any current failure.

It's even more difficult to maintain objectivity when you know firsthand how difficult it is to make a film.

I reconcile my conflict with my belief in the artistic value of strong criticism (which is also why I entirely reject the practice of a starred or letter grade rating system). I like to think that, even if I have a negative opinion of a film, my review will ultimately be positive in that it inspires the reader to think, and (hopefully) see the film and form their own opinion.

Not that I have time to review much these days anyway...but these thoughts do occupy my mind a lot.

November 02, 2005 4:16 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Good points, David.
And with you being a filmmaker, it's particularly interesting and valuable for us to hear your perspective on this.
I think you and I had a similar take on the Egoyan and I liked your review of it.
And how cool that you get to interview filmmakers on a regular basis for your blog.

November 02, 2005 4:28 PM  
Blogger Id it is said...

I liked the way you packaged it! Thorns enfolded in linen.

Language is often used to disguise the truth. However, as a reviewer one has an obligation to the public that spends time and money on an art form based on your recommendations... and that's 'Where the Truth Lies', and that's also why the true must not lie.

November 02, 2005 4:30 PM  
Anonymous Darren said...

What did you think of the soundtrack?

November 02, 2005 5:04 PM  
Blogger girish said...

The soundtrack was excellent.
Great mix of original score and well-chosen pop/jazz. The score was so Herrmann-like. And during two key scenes towards the end, they snuck in Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat", which he wrote upon Lester Young's death, and so that gave it sort of an eerie resonance.
I was also reminded of the fantastic score Mychael Danna did for Exotica, a sort of fusion between trip-hop and Bollywood, with an orchestral template.
Plus, the way they used Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows".
Egoyan and Danna must share a really interesting creative vibe.
Darren, did you like the soundtrack?

November 02, 2005 6:32 PM  
Blogger girish said...

And I'm curious: how was the Q&A with Egoyan after the screening?

November 02, 2005 6:42 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

"I reconcile my conflict with my belief in the artistic value of strong criticism (which is also why I entirely reject the practice of a starred or letter grade rating system). I like to think that, even if I have a negative opinion of a film, my review will ultimately be positive in that it inspires the reader to think, and (hopefully) see the film and form their own opinion."

Very well said, and I think this is, in part, the purpose of criticism. I'm not a fan of stars or letter grades or thumbs up; good criticism does more; it is qualitative and evaluative and inspires vigorous debate.

November 02, 2005 7:21 PM  
Blogger girish said...

In yesterday's Voice.
Hoberman on Sam Mendes' Jarhead:
"Although Jarhead is more visually accomplished and less empty than American Beauty or Road to Perdition, it still feels oppressively hermetic. The precise mise-en-scéne and elegant sense of space—not to mention the snarky attitude—pay homage to Stanley Kubrick, but Mendes lacks Kubrick's Olympian formalism and touch for sarcastic pop."

November 02, 2005 7:32 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Just found this: A few choice motion picture scores.

November 02, 2005 7:59 PM  
Anonymous Darren said...

I liked the soundtrack until he dropped in that Mahivishnu Orchestra song, and then I loved the soundtrack. Egoyan mentioned during the Q&A that he had originally thought to use a bunch of Brian Eno-era Roxy Music tunes, but then he decided to just trust Mychael Danna to assemble a band and compose an original, Roxy Music-like score.

Most of his Q&A centered on the rating controversy. He had come to Toronto straight from LA, where he'd been cutting and cutting and cutting. His theory was that he'd only get the R-rating if he cut completely the film's most essential scene.


Egoyan was convinced that if his film didn't look like a big-budget production and if it didn't star Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth, the ratings board would have let it pass. Until he mentioned it, it hadn't occurred to me just how transgressive it is to film two male Hollywood stars performing a sex act.

November 03, 2005 8:14 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Oh that's fascinating, Darren.

Roxy Music, huh?
Reminds me a bit of Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine, in which he couldn't get the rights for all the glam-rock recordings and commissioned present-day bands to re-record or write new glam tunes (including Roxy/Ferry covers).

November 03, 2005 9:05 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Nick Rombes:

"At their boldest, blogs do not simply remediate other accepted textual forms (the journal article, the book chapter, the essay, etc.) but experiment with and re-activate more marginal modes. In this sense, the blog has something in common with the Arcades Project Walter Benjamin's massive, unfinished collection of scraps, quotes, and musings, and Guy Debord's 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle, his collection of 221 short, aphoristic theses about the domination of the spectacle."

"We make blogs, digital movies, playlists, links, because we want to be consumers of our own media. A endless playback loop. A sort of narcissistic confessionalism, a blank publicity, our own 15 minutes of fame, every day."

November 03, 2005 9:52 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Sure, there's some narcissistic confessionalism on some blogs--LiveJournal and MySpace both have a reputation for it (unfairly or not)--but I wonder how this is any different from the kinds of conversations where one person is obviously not listening but instead just waiting for the other person to be done talking.

Also, this bit strikes me as a bit too certain and absolute: "We make blogs, digital movies, playlists, links, because we want to be consumers of our own media."

I'd imagine some people, at least, do those things not to consume their own media but to begin producing it. Seems a reasonable enough response, doesn't it? Sort of a cultural dialogue. Or maybe I just have a rosy view of it.

November 03, 2005 10:37 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Tuwa, since you mention MySpace, here's the Guardian.

November 03, 2005 11:35 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Tim on Maureen Dowd.

November 03, 2005 11:49 AM  
Blogger girish said...

I didn't know James Agee was from Knoxville.

November 03, 2005 1:07 PM  
Anonymous davis said...

Yo Girish, I very much enjoyed your review of Where the Truth Lies (which I haven't seen), both the review itself and your noble wrestling with how to present Egoyan and the movie to newcomers. It's a tricky position for a critic-fan to be in. I've thought often about how a writer's tendency toward structure, or humor, or style, or snark, can be at odds with the greater goal of truth (greater? maybe not always). In stories, a style with too much momentum can force characters, like puppets, into contrived positions. In reviews, the rhythm of a good thrashing can obscure a bad movie's positive aspects and can tangle the very real human and economic threads hanging from the film -- or from which it hangs.

Honesty is the key, I believe. If I didn't like a movie, if it's weak, if it's a lesser movie, I have to say so if I'm writing a review. Otherwise who am I but a cheerleader? In your review, you package that message elegantly. Not only do you offer the people looking for sex what they want at the front and back (no pun, please), but you gave the skimmers their just desserts. No wait, I have a better analogy: you deprive those people who jump from the appetizer to the crème brulée of their needed protein! Which will become apparent over time! In diminished muscle mass!

November 07, 2005 2:15 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Rob, you write so good.

November 07, 2005 3:00 PM  

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