Friday, February 25, 2005


The suddenly ironic term “Afghanistanism” has long been used for newspapers writing about things that are far away and of little local interest. This goes on because it’s more dangerous to write and have opinions about what people know than what they do not: Write a scathing editorial about your mayor taking graft and there’ll be a firestorm, and that makes you vulnerable; write a scathing editorial about corruption among Afghan warlords and there probably won’t even be a sandstorm. And if there is, so what? It’s in Afghanistan.

This correlates to a possibly apocryphal poll in which readers were asked how accurate their newspapers were on matters local, statewide, national and international. Readers thought them entirely unreliable on local issues, but, strangely, the less local the coverage got, the more wise and accurate readers considered it.

Because, of course, they had no way to judge.

Now we come to A.O. Scott, of The New York Times, who went to see Keanu Reeves in “Constantine,” apparently just to make fun. Jeering at Keanu Reeves is about as controversial, easy and rewarding as frowning on child molestation, and this makes it easy to trash any movie he’s in. The problem is that “Constantine” was not that bad, and that Scott apparently couldn’t be bothered to actually watch the movie he’d decided to trash.

The movie has “a promising opening,” Scott wrote Feb. 18, when “a dusty scavenger finds a pointy object (a bit of preliminary text has dropped the clue that it might be the Spear of Destiny) and is promptly crushed by a car that drops from the sky.”

This is all of five minutes into the film. The car does not drop from the sky. It very clearly drives into the dusty scavenger, who crossed the street without looking.

This is important because the scavenger survives and walks off — the spear makes him superhuman — and the car is trashed. A car falling from the sky make no sense. That Scott accepts that a car would do such a thing reveals him as either stupid or cynical, too cool to bother to pay attention even five minutes into, what is, after all, just a Keanu Reeves flick.

It gets worse. Scott writes:

Meanwhile, John Constantine is wearily patrolling the border between this world and the one below — a landscape bathed in flaming caramel syrup in which there seem to be an awful lot of cars. (Are cars capable of sin, or do some sinners get to take their wheels with them to hell? This is one of many intriguing doctrinal questions never answered by “Constantine.”)

But the movie makes it, again, very clear that heaven and hell overlap Earth, meaning that our physical world is mirrored in hell. The cars that exist here exist also in hell. But they look, well, like hell.

My irritation at this sloppiness more than doubled when, prodded by the death of Hunter S. Thompson, I happened to read the Times’ 1998 review of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” which insists that

because a different actor narrates the story, [Johnny] Depp’s largely nonverbal role seems more like a pantomime than a three-dimensional portrait.

The reviewer — Stephen Holden — has misinterpreted the credits. He thought the narrator of a brief film within the film was actually the narrator of the entire “Fear and Loathing.” But he tried to make it into a serious point. Depp’s performance may still seem like a pantomime to Holden, now that he knows the truth, but it isn’t because a different actor is narrating (as did, in fact, take place on the 1996 audio version of the book, with Harry Dean Stanton as the narrator and Jim Jarmusch doing Raoul Duke’s dialogue).

There’s something brutally revealing about these errors — criticisms based on inattention from people who expect to be taken seriously as professionals and speak so from the most exalted of pulpits. It would be easiest for these filmmakers to be outraged, and rightfully so, but it’s also worth wondering what it says about critics and the critics’ relationship with (or obligations to) their readers.

They’re writing, after all, on pop culture. On films people are expected to see, not on obscure rubbings available to visitors who risk death trekking to some crumbled temple outside Kabul.

Keanu Reeves may be the new Afghanistan, but we expect our critics to actually go there. Contract a disease, suffer from heat exhaustion, get a sunburn, get bored, whatever. At least pay attention for the two hours required for the journey.


Indri said...

This was something we discussed at theater critic boot camp, as it happens. A critic can say anything she wants, as long as she's got the facts right. Seems basic, and I do my best to live by it, but I've seen some stunningly awful breaches of the cardinal rule.

You totally lose credibility as a critic if your facts are off.

Anonymous said... me when you want to publish this stuff in hard copy. E

Scape7 said...

Critics would seem to have a tough time hurdling the fact that what they do is, after all, subjective. What sets them apart from every jerk with a ticket and an opinion is their ability to analyze, and every analysis relies on accurate data. So getting the facts wrong should be the unrelenting, waking nightmare of the critic.

That it isn't to some should be cataclysmic. That it isn't cataclysmic is, I think, thanks to the dulling of our national outrage by fact abuse by reporters, pundits and our own government.

When you can't even count on the government to supply the straight dope, how can you afford to have your faith shattered in the guy reviewing "Police Academy 12"?