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On Second Thought: Carina Chocano on the doubts that rise while critiquing films

July 23, 2008 |  3:55 pm

Everyone has had the experience of disagreeing with a critic, but do critics ever second-guess themselves? We asked Calendar’s critics whether there are any reviews they regret. One in a series of occasional articles.

Second_thought_220_3 This is a question that comes up a lot when you review films for a living, and, like the dreaded “What’s your favorite movie?” it never fails to incite violent fantasies. Not because I have or haven’t ever revisited a movie and entertained second thoughts (though not exactly in the way I think the question implies, but more on that later) but because of what the question says about the way we think now about movies, critics, reading, writing and cultural discourse.

Of course, I’m probably reading too much into it. You would too if you were accused of being “out of touch” with audiences every time you found yourself underwhelmed by some overhyped tent pole. I see a lot of overhyped tent poles, and, believe me, sometimes an actual tent pole would be more fun to watch.

During the last year, for instance, I found myself going back and forth a little on “Juno” and “Knocked Up,” both of which contained elements I admired and elements I didn’t. I tried to express both feelings in my reviews but wondered later if I’d tilted too much to one side. It’s not that I changed my mind about the movies so much as I waffled on the function of the review: I tend to see them not as recommendations or warnings but more as part of a conversation with readers about what the pop culture we produce says about the times we live in. But the trend lately leans toward the former.

That’s why there’s a small part of me that’s relieved when it doesn’t fall to me to review a movie such as, say, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” which arrived in theaters so shrouded in reverence it’s a wonder we didn’t all choke to death while waiting for the smoke to clear and dust to settle. As critics, it’s our job to see through the smoke and dust, but it isn’t always easy to trust your gut when marketing, pedigree and expectation obscure the view so thoroughly, creating the illusion of success and popularity before a movie has been released. It works the other way around too. Some movies get hit with a backlash before they even premiere, so that praising them can feel like going out on a dangerous limb.

Carina Chocano, Los Angeles Times Film Critic


What does any of this have to do with the regrets question? I guess it’s that the question seems to contain a world of assumptions I don’t subscribe to. Among them is the idea of the critic as an automatic judgment machine who emerges from the theater spitting out fully formed, hermetic and probably snobby and “elitist” (why is it that only elites don’t get called elitist anymore?) nuggets of opinion, when most of the time, it’s a process.

That’s not to say that there aren’t movies  I instantly love or hate, but these are few. Most fall somewhere in the middle, and it takes going home and hashing it out to try to express in some artful and entertaining way what a movie is trying to say, what it succeeds in saying, what it fails to say and what it says inadvertently.

Writing criticism requires taking the vague feelings and conflicting impressions we often take from the theater and wrestling them to ground, not spouting the first thing that comes to mind. On a good day, readers write to say thanks for putting into words exactly what they were feeling.

That’s not to say I haven’t doubted my first impression before, but in those cases I’ve tried whenever possible to see the film again. And in almost every case, I’ve concluded the doubt was fostered by the hype and my initial impression was confirmed. This is how I came to subject myself to “Sin City” and “V for Vendetta” not once but twice, which, come to think of it, I kind of regret now.

REPEATED VIEWINGS: Jessica Alba in "Sin City," courtesy Dimension Films.