Film

No Show: Did Elvis Even Enter the Building?

Elvis Mitchell is destined to go down as the journalist who hated Source Code without seeing it, when such a conclusion could be as misguided as the original mix-up.

After a brief three month tenure as the revamped website's leading critic, former print publication Movieline has decided to part ways with Elvis Mitchell. The reason is still up for debate, but apparently centers around the recent Duncan Jones film Source Code, a critical pan, a comment about a character smoking a pipe, and the eventual acknowledgement that no such scene exists within the finished film. For clarification, Mitchell disliked the recent sci-fi hit and made an offhand remark about Jeffrey Wright's project leader defiance of Federal 'No Smoking' laws - the only problem being, said moment did not appear in the final cut. Jones acknowledged a sequence in a previous draft of the script, but wondered aloud if Mitchell had simply reviewed the screenplay and not his final product.

Thus began a surreal set of circumstances which, after three weeks, lead to the noted journalist being let go. Facts suggest something beyond a question of ethics. Summit, the studio behind the film, says that Mitchell did appear at a 24 February screening. The review itself did not hit online until 31 March. The minute the comment went out, the social network went into overdrive, many questioning how a critic could comment on something that wasn't there. Movieline vowed to investigate, the result being Mitchell's sudden departure. Now the same malingering members of Messageboard Nation that pointed out the disparity in the first place is drawing its own unfounded conclusions as to why someone so supposedly respected and regarded would do such a thing.

The main theory bouncing around is that Mitchell did not attend the Source Code screening and simply wrote his review based on a reading of a leaked script. This allegation would charge the long time movie analyst with violating one of the preeminent laws of the profession - "you never comment on what you haven't seen". Yet the charge seems suspicious, considering the studio's contention that he was there on 24 February, and no one is suggesting that a critique based on a viewing and a reading of a bootleg script is completely invalid. No, the main argument against Mitchell appears to be that he disliked a movie which almost everyone in geekdom thinks is great (for the record, yours truly had trouble with the effort as well) and that this minor contradiction in facts is paramount to professional malfeasance.

In general, there are three major crimes in movie journalism. The first - and foremost - is plagiarism. With the advent on the Internet and the easy access to other people's opinions, wannabe critics have often resorted to stealing outright (or in part) to make a name for themselves. Famous examples include UK magazine The Dark Side and the case of YouTube personality Tom Perkins and his direct theft of content from JoBlo.com. The second, and perhaps most specious film felony, is a kind of communal payola. In the '50s and '60s, radio stations and disc jockeys were investigated for taking money and other gifts from record companies in return for better placement on broadcast playlists. In today's movie marketplace, sites like Ain't It Cool News are constantly questioned for their seemingly unlimited access to sets and behind the scenes information, only to turn around the praise the final product in defiance of critical consensus.

Then there is the concept of reviewing what you haven't seen. There are two parts to this particular crime, and the first is easily dismissed. Websites, desperate for hits (and accompanying advertising dollars), will cotton to almost anything, including the random 'early review' that comes from a questionable - or illegal - source. Be it scripts, rough cuts, or actually copies of a film far in advance of its release, there seems to be no qualm in commenting on or discussion content which others simply do not have professional access to. Sure, some studios favor particular writers, but for the most part, publicists and the companies they work for want to control the way their highly expensive creation is viewed. Those circumventing the process may be akin to web rioting Robin Hoods, but they are bucking the system to its own detriment.

Then there is the situation where a critic takes on a title without having seen it. It happens rarely, but there have been rumors involving famous critics who walked out of screenings early only to write up a review later. The intent of the rule is clear - your opinion cannot be taken seriously if it's based on only part of a whole. Some liken it to eating only the side dishes of a main course and then complaining about the entire five course meal. Sure, some journalists are so biased or cynical that they can see where a movie is going in just a few minutes (this happens a lot with horror and its girlie mirror image, the RomCom), but few base their judgment on that primary reaction. On the opposite end, however, is the needs of the beast. Many publications barely allow for 500 words on a film, wanting a consumer-style evaluation and a number grade over in-depth analysis and plot details. Thus, the maw must be filled.

Granted, going in to Mitchell's actual review, it is obvious that he's seen at least "some" of Source Code. While the trailers can give you an idea of the film's first few minutes (and there were even sneak peeks of this material everywhere prior to release), his insights into the material appear to come from experience, not conjecture. Even better, he ties the repetitive nature of said sequence to one of the film's main flaws - a disconnect emotionally between the players. So it's probably safe to say that Mitchell was at that 24 February screening, and came away with a less than favorable impression of the film. So what about the smoking sequence? Perhaps he did see a copy of the script and added that in to undermine Wright's otherwise underwritten "villain." Or it could be a case of seeing part of the film and then walking out, using his knowledge of the screenplay as a means to finish things up.

This hasn't stop the baseless conjecture from all sides (including, one imagines, from this particular piece). Many in the blogsphere are licking their chops over the notion of Mitchell being once again dropped down a peg, his prestige - in their mind - a combination of politics and blind film biz favoritism. Even better, in the lack of detail dramatics of Twitter and Facebook, the story is being scored as "critic did not see film then reviewed it", failing to actually read what Mitchell wrote. The blatant "No Comment" from both camps isn't helping matters much, and in the schadenfreude of our current cultural clime, nothing argued on either side will change the manufactured mythos. Mitchell is destined to go down as the journalist who hated Source Code without seeing it, when such a conclusion could be as misguided as the original mix-up.

Factual slips are part of the film critic process. You can't see several hundred films a year and regurgitate intimate knowledge of each one without crossing a name or confusing a narrative point. For a while, a convalescing Roger Ebert was taken to task for getting a character tag or motivation wrong, and comments all over Rotten Tomatoes and the like revel in pointing out pragmatic flaws. Yet somehow, Mitchell's move seems to spark something much deeper within the wwwatchdogs. Again, more than simple ethics could be involved here -not that the forever shifting Internet dialogue will ever dig that deeply.


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