Monday, August 16, 2010

Monday Reviews: Welcome to V.O.R.

The site changes a bit this week, and I have two people to thank for it. One is that jackal, Christopher Nolan, who made a movie I didn't much like that I nonetheless haven't stopped thinking about and no one has stopped talking about. I couldn't see my way toward more than a C–, but low grades like that, when they aren't bolted onto lame dross like The Eclipse or 3:10 to Yuma, often find themselves attached to films I disliked but in ways I found provocative, or that got under my skin even though I didn't much appreciate what they did once they arrived there: Inglourious Basterds, Splice, A Serious Man, Two Lovers. Sticking only to grades, especially when my time for full-scale reviews is often at a heavy premium, doesn't make it easy to separate interesting failures from dead weight, or vivid B+s and Bs from well-executed niceties that I barely remember at year's end. For a long time, I have wanted a little more "give" in my rating system, even or especially when I don't have time to write much, so I have instituted a second scale called the V.O.R. value to accompany my grades. You can read more about this small, additional feature and about my whole approach to grading here.

The other person I have to thank is a reader who sometimes posts comments under the name "Evanderholy," and whose real name I am withholding in case he prefers to keep it private. I have never met him, but he wrote me the most detailed, thoughtful, inspiring, and utterly unanticipated message that I have received in a long while, near the beginning of the year. I am disgusted to say that I still haven't answered this note, partly out of the pressure to write something even halfway as lovely, and partly because of my own bad habit of saving my favorite e-mails till the end of the "Response Due" box, which means I often never get to them. One thing Evander gently suggested in this note is that just a few lines of response about the films I grade but don't fully review would be the most welcome change I could possibly institute at the main review site. He is by no means the first reader to request this, and believe me, the writer has often requested it of himself! But a few months' practice on Twitter, a million consecutive days of writing other projects at this computer, and the desire to succinctly disentangle what is "good" or "bad" about a movie from what is "valuable" or "not valuable," "urgent" or "not urgent" about it have given me the kick I needed to find some middle-ground between my usual prolixity and my even more usual motto, "Not yet reviewed in full."

So, a grudging thanks to Christopher Nolan, and a very effusive, very public thanks to Evanderholy. Here are two full reviews of Cairo Time and the delectable Everyone Else, a medium-length reaction to Life During Wartime, and short write-ups of Greenberg, Wild Grass, and Salt, on the eve of "the Fifties" for 2010 and as an experiment in this new ratings system. Yes, this means I still haven't said anything about the dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream that ostensibly sparked this sudden outpouring of verbiage, but I'll get there. I also (full disclosure) have an application filed with the Online Film Critics Society, and they may as well see that I am occasionally capable of dragging my fingers to the QWERTY and offering up more than "A–" or "C+" about movies people are actually seeing, at the moments they are seeing them.

Let me know what you think. If I drop the VOR, I pledge to try hard not to drop the capacity to bang out a paragraph to go with each grade. I'm not seeing a ton of movies these days anyway, so it oughta exist in the realm of possibility.

Lastly, and not for the first time, a huge and ongoing thanks to all of you, for continuing to follow along, being excited when I'm productive and understanding when I'm not, and keeping the level of enthusiasm and civil discourse around this site one of the great pleasures of my life. I would write these pieces anyway if no one ever read them, or cared. But it's more fun to write them with you in mind, and to hear what you say back.

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Blogger James T said...

I love this!

And I find really interesting that you consider Inception a "must see" since your "whatever" comment at Twitter made me think it was just an ambitious waste. I guess you thought its ambition is a strong enough reason to seek it. This new feature is kinda spicy :)

3:54 AM, August 16, 2010  
Blogger Colin Low said...

A huge, resolute YAY to this. It's been a while since I came to believe, mostly thanks to the exhortations of Jim Emerson over at Scanners, that the "interesting-ness" of a movie is its chief value, especially since quantitative aesthetic valuations like letter grades don't account well for our tastes and reasons for enjoying movies. To put it differently, I still enjoy renting from your Favorites list more than your Bests, because I feel less pressured to like the movie for its formal technique, and more invested in catching its flavours and flaws.

And what can I say? I'm hankering most to see all those D-range movies that you come to peg as 5s, tastelessness be damned. =D

4:52 AM, August 16, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Out of interest, what similar films would you grade quite lowly but give a high VOR score to?

5:19 AM, August 16, 2010  
Anonymous Guy Lodge said...

I fully relate to the problem you describe -- not least since InContention forces me to grade on the even less nuanced four-star system -- so am intrigued to see how elegant a solution this turns out to be. (If that sounds non-committal, it shouldn't -- I'm just someone who places more stock in even a Twitter-length worded response than the most sophisticated grading curve. And I tend to find your haiku-form criticism so crisply worded as to render grades a mere bonus feature.) Bless you for making life even more complicated for yourself for our benefit!

7:24 AM, August 16, 2010  
Blogger Calum Reed said...

Am I right in thinking that this VOR scale is an assessment of how a film provokes discussion itself, as opposed to other factors like media hoopla etc. that encourage us to see depth of thought where there really isn't? Regardless, I'm really pleased that you're adding another element to reviews that I can happily digest. The potential for bitchiness when the middle-of-the-road Awards-Season dirge rolls around is immense.

I'm also thrilled that you're going to be doing more write-ups (allbeit shorter) since I've already been enjoying your 140-character zingers on Twitter. I expect it's especially difficult to condense your views, since you're used to writing such lengthy assessments, but if you give something I love a B- I'm always curious as to what your qualms with it are. That's the case with Life During Wartime by the way, although after reading your thoughts I suppose that I just found the political jokes more uproariously dry than you did?

9:38 AM, August 16, 2010  
Anonymous Evanderholy said...

I was very surprised and honored to find myself mentioned on your blog today. It was really wonderful to hear how much my e-mail meant to you. And please don't feel bad about not yet responding, your kind post today (in addition to your initial response on the blog) said more than I could have ever anticipated anyway.

Besides, I feel I owe an apology for being so quiet on the blog lately. Know that I'm always reading with near daily regularity. I'm often just so impressed with your other reader's comments that I'm not sure I have much to add.

It's been great following you on Twitter and reading some brief thoughts on recent movies and I'm thrilled to hear that you're planning to carry that over to the site.

In particular, I really enjoyed the "Greenberg" review and agree with almost all you had to say. I was really surprised at how little anyone seemed to have to say about that film as it's really stuck with me despite its faults.

I think the V.O.R. value is a really unique idea (I don't know anyone who has used anything like it) and look forward to seeing its use in the future. I really think it will be informative and certainly it's an interesting experiment.

Quite sidenote: One of my favorite of your reviews is for "Holiday"- a great film that we both love and that I watched again tonight. For me, like you, it's a movie I put on to make me feel happy. Despite being a melancholy film in many ways, it exudes such warmth and has such lovely characters that it really makes me glad to be alive. As you said in your review, "What else do we want out of movies? What else do we want out of life?"

Movies have truly enriched my life and I have to thank you again for the role you've played in that. As always, I look forward to whatever your site/blog brings in the future.

2:22 AM, August 17, 2010  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

this is a brilliant idea really and the extra text on the other page is very thorough.

can't wait to see how it pans out and your "examples" from 2009 are spot on INGLOURIOUS, PRECIOUS and HURT LOCKER as the must-sees regardless of actual quality.

that you can see the difference between your own opinion and this factor is another reason you are brilliant.

plug plug


9:36 AM, August 17, 2010  
Blogger Dame James said...

Re: Your review of Everyone Else. The film was playing at a local arthouse and, as I had never heard of it, I watched the trailer to see what it was about. I was all about the movie...until some critic compared it to Antonioni and then I was like, "I'm out." I can take a lot of things, but nothing described as anything close to Antonioni-esque. After reading your review, though, I feel like I missed a corker of a film. I guess I'll have to catch it on DVD now, but I thought you should know I will be catching it at some point.

11:08 PM, August 17, 2010  
Blogger Unknown said...

I feel confident in saying that I am only one of many who now regard your reviews to be as essential today as some of the "old time" greats used to be in the pre-internet world, such as Pauline Kael (whether one agreed with her or not.) For me, your reviews achieve one of the prime goals of criticism: your reviews make me want to see the films you admire and to see them again if I have already seen them. Keep VOR. I'm all for it.

11:34 AM, August 18, 2010  
Blogger David said...

That's great! You're pretty much the only film critic I read or have ever read in the past few years, so it'll be exciting to see you writing more often.

8:56 PM, August 19, 2010  

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