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A parable about film criticism andintelligence analysis from AMC's Rubicon

So far (four episodes in) I am enjoying AMC's Sunday night "Mad Men" companion, "Rubicon," the "seductive conspiracy thriller," as the ads say. What I like most about it is its "Twin Peaks"-like snail's pace (a two-chord repetition in the score echoes Angelo Badalamenti's) when it comes to unraveling the central mystery, which has something to do with crossword puzzles and four-leaf clovers and suicide and murder/accidents and sets of characters who haven't even met each other yet. I'm in no hurry. The worst parts of any mystery come when they start explaining things.

But this speech, in which a CIA intelligence analyst analyst tries to explain to officials at a National Security Council meeting something about the reliability of subjectivity, taste and evidence, struck me as an interesting parable for the practice, and uses, of criticism. Check it out and see what you think...


OK, now that you've watched the clip, let me tell you how I think the parable works (with, I hope, no need to point out that no analogy can apply in every respect).

I will start by saying that the idea of film criticism as a consumer guide is utterly phony and the worst thing that ever happened to movies, to criticism, and to reader/audience expectations. Nobody can predict whether you will "like" or "dislike" a movie, and no responsible film critic would pretend to try. If that's what you want from a professional source, you should consult market-research services that can compile ratings for demographic groups similar to yours. That's what the studios do. Film criticism, on the other hand, is maybe 10 percent somebody's opinion and 90 percent observation, interpretation and analysis. Only the 90 percent can justify the 10 percent; otherwise the 10 percent is worthless.

So, about that necktie. As we have established, I am virulently opposed to the preposterous notion that any critic should claim to be your wife, unless she actually is, in which case you and only you know the many possible ways to interpret her judgments. Film criticism, on the other hand, isn't about pretending to be your wife, or your friend. You may have wives, husbands or friends who can fill those roles in your life. They may be quite familiar with your tastes. But, on the other hand, so are you. If a review is doing what it should, it will tell you what the critic thinks and provide you with reliable information and observations to consider before or after you see the movie (if you decide, for whatever reasons, to do so).

I don't care if you like the whole tie or not, but tell me exactly what you see in it that you like or don't like, and why. Even on "American Bandstand" they had to give reasons related to specific elements in a song ("It's got a good beat. You can dance to it."). The majority of so-called "movie reviewers" today can't even delve that deeply into a feature film. That's getting "too technical."

The reviewer (David Manning aside) is not part of the studio's promotional campaign, and has no stake in selling you a ticket or a DVD. But most valuable of all, the thing that separates the critic from your friends and family, is that the critic doesn't know you. If he/she is any good, the critic knows how to explain what the movie looks like.

P.S. I cut the very last line of the speech here, which is, "You can trust him." I hate it when people say they "trust" a critic -- when what they really mean is they think writer and reader share similar tastes. (Conversely, it's assumed to be a terrible insult when somebody says of a critic, "If so-and-so hates something I know I'll like it!" But if all you're looking for is a consumer guide, isn't that just as valuable?) I have critics I trust, too, but by that I mean that I trust them to provide me with interesting angles on what they see, and to write about them engagingly.

I am reminded of one of Roger Ebert's favorite stories, about the man who called to ask whether he and his wife should see, I believe, Bergman's "Cries and Whispers." Roger said, well, he thought it was probably the best movie of the year, to which the man replied: "Oh, that doesn't sound like anything we would want to see."

By the way, notice how nicely directed (by Jeremy Podeswa) the scene above is. I appreciate the little touches -- like the irritating, enigmatic OCD pause that inevitably comes before Truxton Spangler (Michael Cristofer) says "that tie"; the way the light plays across the chest of the tie-wearer the second time you hear the phrase; the subtle shifts in focus between the men's faces toward the end of the scene...

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