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Critical Confessions: Part 4 - The 'Ten Minute' Curse

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Sunday, Jan 6, 2008


I’m not sure if other film critics have it, but I know I do. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of, but then again, I can’t imagine that it’s completely my fault. I’ve met other people outside the journalistic community who definitely possess it, and for the most part, they have learned to live with. I too have discovered a way to balance its oppressive, off putting aspects with the rigors of what I do, but it can be a burden of unfathomable difficulty. You see, I suffer from what’s known as ‘The 10 Minute Curse’. What this means is that, in 99 cases out of 100, I can tell if a movie is going to excel or suck within the first 10 minutes of it unraveling on the screen (theatrical or TV). It almost never fails, and it really is a pain in the as…aesthetic.


From what I understand, it comes from a lifetime as a film fan coupled with a sudden burial in and barrage of the artform. For the last six years, I’ve spent my days mired in movies. Some weeks I’ve watched up to a dozen DVDs, and during awards season, it’s not unusual to attend seven or eight screenings in a scant five days. Conservatively, I’ve seen about 3000 films in a little less than 67 months. Doing the math, that’s just under 45 per month. Using the standard 4.5 week measure, that comes to about nine every seven days. Argh! And when you add in my college days, when going to the student union and catching a double feature was a daily doped up occurrence, along with the rest of my Cinephile status, I’m a perfect candidate for time tainting, as we sufferers sometimes call it.


You see, the brain is a baffling thing. It makes connections and sees similarities and synchronicity even when our conscious mind misses it. Over the course of a couple of decades, the mental chemistry gets shifted, creating a kind of celluloid dementia. It can happen with music too - I have an old friend who’s been part of the business for decades, and his curse is so refined now that he can today tell if a song is a hit or a miss in under 15 SECONDS. Because film contains facets that can temporarily circumvent your curse, 10 stands as most fatalities’ median mark. For some, it can take much longer. Those with times under have been known to freak out and find solace in a life spent in quiet contemplation - or in a sanitarium straight jacket.


In essence, the menacing motion picture mojo works like this: you sit down in your favorite recliner/assigned stadium seat, favorite beverage/overpriced theater snack close at hand. As the previews pass by and the anticipation draws near, the synapses in your head start switching over into preprogrammed predetermination mode. An actor’s name can trigger it, as can a specific genre (horror, CGI kid flick), or storyline (dysfunctional family attempts to reconcile). Soon, before the first image has been viewed, the mind’s eye is mirroring a hundred previous viewings and thousands of similar titles. As the opening unfolds, conclusions are being calculated, similarities are being sought out and shelved, and levels of predictability and possibility are ordered, defined, and prepped.


Then, right around 9:59, it strikes. It’s a sad, sinking feeling - even if the final formulation indicates that the movie is going to turn out good, or even great. Part of the magic of movies lies in the ability to be surprised and swept up in a world where you’re unsure of what’s going to happen next. But the 10 Minute Curse robs one of said discovery. It’s like a little voice in the back of your head whispering “I told you so” over and over again - and you don’t even know what the comments are referencing, at least not yet. Then, when the film finishes and ephemeral opinion proves correct, part of the pleasure simply dies inside you.


Let’s take a couple of recent examples. As I settled in my seat waiting for National Treasure: Book of Secrets to start, I recalled my minor appreciation of the original film. While Nicholas Cage has always been an odd action star choice, the historical hooey passing itself off as modern archeological swagger had some relatively enjoyable moments. But the sequel - silly, stagy, and slapped together in a manner that simply screams “created by committee” had me convinced it was going to underachieve from the moment Riley lost his beloved red Jaguar - and there was still over two hours to go. Imagine the distress of sitting in a theater, seats filled with entitlement minded freebie ticket holders, knowing that nothing you could do would improve the unspooling spectacle before you.


On the other hand, there’s been a lot of jawing about Juno, especially among critics who feel the film is all tween/You Tube pseudo Tarantino preening. Many of the arguments, while slightly overwrought, remain well reasoned and quite passionate. So approaching the studio provided Oscar screener with some trepidation, I was surprised to see how much I enjoyed it - and at the moment when a pro-Life protester convinced our heroine that fetuses have fingernails, I realized that the haters were hopelessly misguided. While not the major Oscar fodder championed by any far stretch of the imagination, Ellen Page’s excellent work and Jason Reitman’s whipsmart direction made the experience evocative and memorable. The only downside was that I knew this was going to be the case 80 minutes before the final verdict came in.


I feel lucky that this is a recent occurrence. Back when Miller’s Crossing first floored me, or I recognized 2001: A Space Odyssey as the greatest film of all time, it would have been horrible to have those epiphanies marred by the curse. Of course, it would have been nice to be so cosmically clued in when certified stink bombs like Battlefield Earth or Batman and Robin came calling. On the one hand, being bothered by such a stigma can be conceived as a blessing in disguise. In an environment where deadlines loom, workloads double, and demands battle expectations for continued career viability, knowing a turkey within a scant few scenes seems a critical godsend. Yet, in order to be completely fair, to make sure one’s not relying on the otherworldly guidance time and time again, a reviewer has to reject the curse and work twice as hard to combat it’s influence. A good critic, that is.


Take the case of Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. This nauseating little cinematic turd, based (badly) on the real life case of tortured and murdered teen Sylvia Likens (killed by her certifiably psycho guardian Gertrude Baniszewski) tries to get away with an air of amiable nostalgia countered with hints at the horrors beneath the surface. It wants to be Blue Velvet with a sickening swatch of pedophilia soiling the storyline. Viewed on DVD, it tricked the curse for a while, keeping the final outcome in question for more than 80 complicated minutes. But then, when the final act proved nothing more than one adult’s uninspired mea culpa and callous cry for attention, the obvious heinousness heretofore hidden landed like a big steamy motion picture pile. It practically made you ashamed for previously drinking the celluloid Kool-Aid.


Then there’s Joshua. Your typical evil kid doing horrendous things that only the post-modern Bad Seed could possibly conceive of thriller, the slow pacing and deliberate plotting from co-writer/director George Ratliff and scribe David Gilbert threaten to invert and implode on viewer contact. As the movie meanders, dragging both logic and intelligence through the brazen brat genre run of the mill, we can’t imagine that anything good will result. The curse clamors for attention, already rendering its decision, and yet the film won’t finalize the assessment. Then the title character launches into a haunting little last minute ditty, complete with condemning lyrics and a montage loaded with exposed secrets, and the blithering blight disappears. Suddenly, the already acknowledged dullness transforms into a begrudging admiration, and a flop finds a way to save itself.


Still, it’s important to note that this really is not a benefit, nor is it ever used as an unearned shortcut to getting one’s ever present work done. It is truly a curse, a stinging little personal pain that permeates the pleasure of cinema and robs the sufferer of the medium’s majesty. It’s like never getting comfortable in your seat, or that constant car alarm that goes off while the neighbors are away. You hope it doesn’t happen, and yet it never really leaves. Sure, some films (No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood) are so rock solid that it doesn’t feel the need to arrive, while others announce their awfulness (Norbit, Shrek the Third) so early that a hasty conclusion actually acts like an afterthought. So remember, the next time you’re grooving on your favorite film and the DVD counter clicks over onto 10:00, somewhere in the artform universe, there is a critic enjoying the very same title - and their fun has just fallen into formula. Consider yourself lucky.

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