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Instrument of Torture

There it sits, seemingly every week among the movie ads in these pages, an advertisement for myself (to lift a snippet from Norman Mailer), but taken out by somebody else. "Thousands of Duncan Shepherd's Movie Reviews are now available on line!" it practically shouts, heedless of any fine distinction between full-length reviews and capsule reviews. And then more calmly and collectedly, "Search by star rating, year of release, or title."

It is a source of disquiet. Not only -- not even mainly -- does the unease arise from the thought of the thousands of movies that had to have been sat through or partly sat through. Nearing six thousand of them at last count, stretching out to around twelve thousand hours if you figure a couple of hours each (never mind driving time, never mind writing time), or more than a year and a quarter's worth of continuous sitting: a fractional answer to the question of where my life has gone. (Not at all does it arise from the thought of the untold additional capsules, dating from before the current computer system at the paper, that have mercifully been swallowed into oblivion.) Nor does it come so much from the loss of personal control, the inability to look over the work in the capacity of a proofreader, the immutability of opinions and appraisals laid down ten, fifteen, twenty years ago and unexamined ever since.

All of that -- especially the immutability bit -- is disquieting enough. The certified Sword of Damocles, however, is the aforementioned "search" feature, for of course you are free to search not "by star rating, year of release, or title," as suggested, but by anything you damn well please, broadly designated on the website as "keyword." To tell the truth, I myself have been known to take advantage of this feature. When, let's say, The Upside of Anger comes to town, I find it handy to be able to countercheck my initial impression that I had never heard of its director, Mike Binder, and to learn, by entering his name as a keyword, what other movies of his I have seen before and what I once thought of them. It would be fruitless to ask myself what I think of them now. (Blankman? I'm a blank. Indian Summer? Dead of winter.) Like many a useful tool, though, the search feature could be turned, in the wrong hands, into a weapon.

Such a thing would plainly be a boon to a Shakespearean scholar researching the Bard's use of disease imagery, for instance, once the Complete Works were poured into an Internet database. (Keyword: rot. ) Writers inferior to Shakespeare, on the other hand, might be more hesitant to open their labors to similar split-second scrutiny. As one who personally hates to repeat himself (to say nothing of repeating others), I squirm at the thought of my discoverable, demonstrable, quantifiable patterns and propensities. I am thinking at present -- I will undoubtedly think of something worse later -- of the stockpile of evaluative adjectives that a critic dips into when he wants to express his approval (or to exaggerate his approval) but can't take the time and space to hunt up, pin down, spell out the unique qualities he ostensibly approves of. The adjectives, that is, which litter the movie ads under the rubric of critical blurbs; the adjectives whose use by others I am in the habit of sneering at.

For certain, the online archive of movie capsules will not tell the whole story. (Only my troubled conscience can tell that.) It's merely the mound of evidence readily accessible for purposes of incrimination. The pressures of weekly deadlines can mitigate only so much. As can the writer's innocent misapprehension that he was writing bottom-of-the-birdcage ephemera. As can his open and frank admission of inferiority to Shakespeare. It was with no small degree of trepidation, then, that I selected some keywords from among the critical blurbs in the daily paper. How bad would it be?

Amazing. Matches: 32. Instant reaction: God Almighty. Acting as my own defense attorney, however, parroting the defense attorneys on Court TV, I must insist that judgment be reserved until all the evidence has been presented. Two of the counts against me can be dismissed up front, when the list of relevant capsules is seen to include The Amazing Panda Adventure and Lovely and Amazing. And it would seem quite probable, from the rest of the list of titles, that the employment of the term cannot often be an occasion of praise.

On closer examination, four appearances of "amazing" are in quoted lines of dialogue. Five more of them sneak in through graveside renditions of "Amazing Grace," usually in conjunction with bagpipes. The capsules for Spider-Man 2, Hulk, and The Indian in the Cupboard cite the antecedent of The Amazing Colossal Man. And The Rocketeer calls forth a period reference to the pioneering s-f and fantasy magazine, Amazing Stories. Four more appearances are unequivocally ironic or sarcastic, and several others are rather more neutrally descriptive than critically evaluative. Apt Pupil contains "amazing coincidences." The hero of Blue City enjoys "an amazing run of beginner's luck." And in Lawn Dogs, Sam Rockwell has "the amazing luck to find another role [after Box of Moonlight] in which he gets to live alone in the woods and go full-frontal skinny-dipping." Touching the Void tells an "amazing-but-true story." And in what can hardly be interpreted as a positive, Eureka "dribbles by with amazingly little impact."

That cuts down the possible offenses to a single digit. The Boogey Man (1980) indeed has an "amazing thing about [it]," and in As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson has an "amazing thing about him." Whatever is "amazing" in Blood and Wine or Far from Heaven is qualified by "mildly." (I may need to watch that. Let's see. Keyword: mildly. Matches: 33. Whoa.) The conspiracy theory in JFK, meanwhile, "is made amazingly clear." And, "for a movie about the tax system, especially a foreign tax system," Taxing Woman is "amazingly limpid." Amazing's close cousins, astounding and astonishing (matches: 7 and 3, respectively), scarcely require vindication.

Stunning (5), shattering (3), and staggering (11) would be weak cases as well. I snort in disdain. But striking (42), a gentler form of impact, bears looking into, even though it crops up in nothing higher than a three-star review. Eight occurrences of it allude innocuously to "striking" resemblances of one kind or another, and eleven are verbs rather than adjectives ("striking out," "striking a blow," "striking a match," "striking a pose," etc.). As an adjective, it tends to have strictly limited application ("striking figure," "striking effects," "striking portrait"), yet I must confess there are a few too many "striking images" and "striking imagery." Something to guard against.

Powerful (42) can be reduced to manageable proportions by weeding out the nouns ("the powerful," "the Rich and Powerful") and the descriptive-not-evaluative adjectives ("powerful deterrent," "powerful warlords," "powerful cattle baron," "powerful undercurrents," "powerful updraft"). Spectacular (39) will generally be confined to a small area ("a spectacular crash" in The Aviator, "the spectacular plane crash" in Cast Away, "spectacular stunts, explosions, chases" in Cutthroat Island, "rib-ticklingly spectacular action climax" in Barb Wire), and it rarely if ever tips the scales in a film's favor. Powerful and spectacular are prone to be matters of fact.

Compelling (42) and vivid (55), two of the lazier and vaguer approbations in the critic's lexicon, will sometimes manifest themselves in the negative ("uncompelling," "not especially compelling," "thoroughly uncompelling," on the one hand, and on the other, "less vivid," "not vivid enough," "too vivid"), but more often in the first case than in the second. And the dossier of evidence in the second case was fatter to begin with. Wriggle as I might, the repetition of positives in that case proves to be -- how else to say it? -- pretty "compelling." You have "vivid" supporting roles, "vivid peripheral figures," "vivid" characters, more "vivid" characters, "vivid caricatures," "vividly drawn characters," "vividly real," "vividly realized," "vividly individualized," "vividly captured," "vividly conveyed," a "vividly recalled" period, a "vividly recalled" era. Yikes.

In extenuation, or in diversion, I could point out that feel-good (10) has never been utilized in seriousness (Schindler's List is "a feel-good Holocaust film") and that, furthermore, laugh-out-loud funny and pitch-perfect will produce no matches whatsoever. (Whew.) On balance, a fitting penance, if I may volunteer one, would be a period of adjectival abstinence, let's say the remainder of the year, during which time I will be permitted to find nothing compelling, spectacular, powerful, or striking about any film at all, and an additional moratorium of the remainder of the decade on vivid.

Anyone whose thirst for blood is still unquenched should be invited to broaden the investigation to those well-worn words and phrases, ungermane to criticism per se, the mere glue and grout of sentence construction, which cause me to grimace every time I type them out, but which I don't seem nimble enough to maneuver my way around. Nevertheless, 64. (Ow.) Nonetheless, 88. (Oof.) On the other hand, 86. (Ach!) In other words, 92. (Argh!) Thus, 145. (Nnnnh!) Certainly, 186. (Eeeeee!) Actually, 219. (I have passed out.) Of course, 267. Etc. , 442. All of that's a session of self-flagellation for another day.

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There it sits, seemingly every week among the movie ads in these pages, an advertisement for myself (to lift a snippet from Norman Mailer), but taken out by somebody else. "Thousands of Duncan Shepherd's Movie Reviews are now available on line!" it practically shouts, heedless of any fine distinction between full-length reviews and capsule reviews. And then more calmly and collectedly, "Search by star rating, year of release, or title."

It is a source of disquiet. Not only -- not even mainly -- does the unease arise from the thought of the thousands of movies that had to have been sat through or partly sat through. Nearing six thousand of them at last count, stretching out to around twelve thousand hours if you figure a couple of hours each (never mind driving time, never mind writing time), or more than a year and a quarter's worth of continuous sitting: a fractional answer to the question of where my life has gone. (Not at all does it arise from the thought of the untold additional capsules, dating from before the current computer system at the paper, that have mercifully been swallowed into oblivion.) Nor does it come so much from the loss of personal control, the inability to look over the work in the capacity of a proofreader, the immutability of opinions and appraisals laid down ten, fifteen, twenty years ago and unexamined ever since.

All of that -- especially the immutability bit -- is disquieting enough. The certified Sword of Damocles, however, is the aforementioned "search" feature, for of course you are free to search not "by star rating, year of release, or title," as suggested, but by anything you damn well please, broadly designated on the website as "keyword." To tell the truth, I myself have been known to take advantage of this feature. When, let's say, The Upside of Anger comes to town, I find it handy to be able to countercheck my initial impression that I had never heard of its director, Mike Binder, and to learn, by entering his name as a keyword, what other movies of his I have seen before and what I once thought of them. It would be fruitless to ask myself what I think of them now. (Blankman? I'm a blank. Indian Summer? Dead of winter.) Like many a useful tool, though, the search feature could be turned, in the wrong hands, into a weapon.

Such a thing would plainly be a boon to a Shakespearean scholar researching the Bard's use of disease imagery, for instance, once the Complete Works were poured into an Internet database. (Keyword: rot. ) Writers inferior to Shakespeare, on the other hand, might be more hesitant to open their labors to similar split-second scrutiny. As one who personally hates to repeat himself (to say nothing of repeating others), I squirm at the thought of my discoverable, demonstrable, quantifiable patterns and propensities. I am thinking at present -- I will undoubtedly think of something worse later -- of the stockpile of evaluative adjectives that a critic dips into when he wants to express his approval (or to exaggerate his approval) but can't take the time and space to hunt up, pin down, spell out the unique qualities he ostensibly approves of. The adjectives, that is, which litter the movie ads under the rubric of critical blurbs; the adjectives whose use by others I am in the habit of sneering at.

For certain, the online archive of movie capsules will not tell the whole story. (Only my troubled conscience can tell that.) It's merely the mound of evidence readily accessible for purposes of incrimination. The pressures of weekly deadlines can mitigate only so much. As can the writer's innocent misapprehension that he was writing bottom-of-the-birdcage ephemera. As can his open and frank admission of inferiority to Shakespeare. It was with no small degree of trepidation, then, that I selected some keywords from among the critical blurbs in the daily paper. How bad would it be?

Amazing. Matches: 32. Instant reaction: God Almighty. Acting as my own defense attorney, however, parroting the defense attorneys on Court TV, I must insist that judgment be reserved until all the evidence has been presented. Two of the counts against me can be dismissed up front, when the list of relevant capsules is seen to include The Amazing Panda Adventure and Lovely and Amazing. And it would seem quite probable, from the rest of the list of titles, that the employment of the term cannot often be an occasion of praise.

On closer examination, four appearances of "amazing" are in quoted lines of dialogue. Five more of them sneak in through graveside renditions of "Amazing Grace," usually in conjunction with bagpipes. The capsules for Spider-Man 2, Hulk, and The Indian in the Cupboard cite the antecedent of The Amazing Colossal Man. And The Rocketeer calls forth a period reference to the pioneering s-f and fantasy magazine, Amazing Stories. Four more appearances are unequivocally ironic or sarcastic, and several others are rather more neutrally descriptive than critically evaluative. Apt Pupil contains "amazing coincidences." The hero of Blue City enjoys "an amazing run of beginner's luck." And in Lawn Dogs, Sam Rockwell has "the amazing luck to find another role [after Box of Moonlight] in which he gets to live alone in the woods and go full-frontal skinny-dipping." Touching the Void tells an "amazing-but-true story." And in what can hardly be interpreted as a positive, Eureka "dribbles by with amazingly little impact."

That cuts down the possible offenses to a single digit. The Boogey Man (1980) indeed has an "amazing thing about [it]," and in As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson has an "amazing thing about him." Whatever is "amazing" in Blood and Wine or Far from Heaven is qualified by "mildly." (I may need to watch that. Let's see. Keyword: mildly. Matches: 33. Whoa.) The conspiracy theory in JFK, meanwhile, "is made amazingly clear." And, "for a movie about the tax system, especially a foreign tax system," Taxing Woman is "amazingly limpid." Amazing's close cousins, astounding and astonishing (matches: 7 and 3, respectively), scarcely require vindication.

Stunning (5), shattering (3), and staggering (11) would be weak cases as well. I snort in disdain. But striking (42), a gentler form of impact, bears looking into, even though it crops up in nothing higher than a three-star review. Eight occurrences of it allude innocuously to "striking" resemblances of one kind or another, and eleven are verbs rather than adjectives ("striking out," "striking a blow," "striking a match," "striking a pose," etc.). As an adjective, it tends to have strictly limited application ("striking figure," "striking effects," "striking portrait"), yet I must confess there are a few too many "striking images" and "striking imagery." Something to guard against.

Powerful (42) can be reduced to manageable proportions by weeding out the nouns ("the powerful," "the Rich and Powerful") and the descriptive-not-evaluative adjectives ("powerful deterrent," "powerful warlords," "powerful cattle baron," "powerful undercurrents," "powerful updraft"). Spectacular (39) will generally be confined to a small area ("a spectacular crash" in The Aviator, "the spectacular plane crash" in Cast Away, "spectacular stunts, explosions, chases" in Cutthroat Island, "rib-ticklingly spectacular action climax" in Barb Wire), and it rarely if ever tips the scales in a film's favor. Powerful and spectacular are prone to be matters of fact.

Compelling (42) and vivid (55), two of the lazier and vaguer approbations in the critic's lexicon, will sometimes manifest themselves in the negative ("uncompelling," "not especially compelling," "thoroughly uncompelling," on the one hand, and on the other, "less vivid," "not vivid enough," "too vivid"), but more often in the first case than in the second. And the dossier of evidence in the second case was fatter to begin with. Wriggle as I might, the repetition of positives in that case proves to be -- how else to say it? -- pretty "compelling." You have "vivid" supporting roles, "vivid peripheral figures," "vivid" characters, more "vivid" characters, "vivid caricatures," "vividly drawn characters," "vividly real," "vividly realized," "vividly individualized," "vividly captured," "vividly conveyed," a "vividly recalled" period, a "vividly recalled" era. Yikes.

In extenuation, or in diversion, I could point out that feel-good (10) has never been utilized in seriousness (Schindler's List is "a feel-good Holocaust film") and that, furthermore, laugh-out-loud funny and pitch-perfect will produce no matches whatsoever. (Whew.) On balance, a fitting penance, if I may volunteer one, would be a period of adjectival abstinence, let's say the remainder of the year, during which time I will be permitted to find nothing compelling, spectacular, powerful, or striking about any film at all, and an additional moratorium of the remainder of the decade on vivid.

Anyone whose thirst for blood is still unquenched should be invited to broaden the investigation to those well-worn words and phrases, ungermane to criticism per se, the mere glue and grout of sentence construction, which cause me to grimace every time I type them out, but which I don't seem nimble enough to maneuver my way around. Nevertheless, 64. (Ow.) Nonetheless, 88. (Oof.) On the other hand, 86. (Ach!) In other words, 92. (Argh!) Thus, 145. (Nnnnh!) Certainly, 186. (Eeeeee!) Actually, 219. (I have passed out.) Of course, 267. Etc. , 442. All of that's a session of self-flagellation for another day.

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