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Critical Confessions 27: Forget Me Lots

No one likes to redo a job they've done before. In the realm of film criticism, it's amazing it doesn't happen more often.

It rarely happens, but when it does, it definitely sets you back a bit. The other day, I was assigned an upcoming theatrical release for review. The title and the core concept sounded vaguely familiar, but in the realm I was dealing with - horror movies - that's par for the spook show course. Thinking nothing more than beyond the upcoming deadline, I settled in with my screener, watched as the movie unfolded a bit like I expected, and marveled at the message buried subliminally within the standard haunted house (or in this case, haunted family) dynamic. By the end, I was mildly impressed, capable of coming up with the mandatory 600 words-plus to meet my obligation.

As I sat down to write the review, I felt odd, a bit uneasy. There was a weird sense of pseudo deja-vu running through my thoughts, an aura of undeniable if I had been here before, commenting on the exact same thing. Again, I chalked it up to the copycat conceits of the genre and the hundreds of movies I have seen over the years. In May, I will have been a quasi-professional film critic for 10 years, and in that decade I have seen close to 5000 films. I average between 7 to 10 per week (between theatrical and DVD/Blu-ray), not including the rare instance where I actually enjoy a movie for personal fun. Any sneaking suspicion I had could be chalked up to a kind of aesthetic repetitive stress disorder.

With the review edited and ready for publication, I headed over to the site's database and began inputting the proper information. I called up the automatic cast/crew menu, clicked on the various categories and tags, and made sure that all the coding and internal links were active. The final step was to make sure that the final copy was sent to the editors for approval. Following a system by which I labeled the file with my last name, and then the title of the movie, I was shocked to see the computer assigning it the duplicate label of "Gibron-X1," in this case "Gibron -Intruder1." Using the 'Search' component of my word processing program, I discovered the original "Gibron-Intruders" file.

That's right - I had already reviewed the 'recent' Clive Owen vehicle. Way back in October (I dug through my pile of screeners and found the original disc sent to me) I had watched this tale of two families terrorized by a wannabe fright icon labeled 'Hollow-Face' and had given it my half-hearted approval. I was unmoved by the fright, but found the underlying context rather riveting (not to spoil things, but the reason this fiend is stalking the family has less to do with the supernatural and more to do with a nasty crime narrowly averted decades before). I praised the director for his use of atmosphere and the desire to avoid typical scary movie stereotypes. The end result was a moderate success and I said as much.

Stunned, I went back to the review I had just posted and read the text. This time around, I picked up on a few different things, but for the most part, my thoughts were the same. Exactly the same. Like some kind of automatic writing. I didn't find Hollow-Face scary (and frankly, have to wonder about those who would) and thought that the last act de-evolved into the kind of fairytale dread that others have done better. I was amazed at how much alike the two pieces really were. In fact, it got me thinking about my career choice, the overload of information I have to process each week, and the possibility of repetition that's apparently inherent within such a spread thin situation.

Remember, no one is getting rich being a writer. Unless you're last name is Rowling, Meyer, Collins or King, you're probably not living the high life off of your words. Instead, you are more than likely involved in a "real job" (teacher, editor, IT tech guy, PR person) or just freelancing your ass off. Some are lucky enough to land salaried gigs, but the days of a journeyman journalist sitting back in the office punching out a collection of reviews for the evening edition are long...long....LONG gone. Instead, it's all about the scoop, about being first among a sea of bloggers who (theoretically) have nothing better to do than sit around their parents' basement parsing through their latest cinematic obsessions.

Yet you'd think a smart man - and I do consider myself educated and learned - would remember seeing a movie where the main motivating factor is an inference of pedophilia and the lingering pain produced by said familial dysfunction. The reason "Hollow-Face" returns is rather obvious (especially when you recognize the connection between the two seemingly divergent narratives) and the resolution avoids direct clarification to keep everything ethereal and unreal.

Now, granted, I do end up having to revisit titles, my initial reaction in the theater modified or moderated thanks to another viewing on home video. But to almost completely forget a film is just too surreal. So the question becomes how does one forget such things - and better yet, how can they spend hours rewriting a review they've already written, without recalling a single element from the first opinion and yet come to a startling similar conclusion?

Perhaps it's like the athlete who stops competing for a while, only to take up his particular sports mantle again and fall directly back into it with little or no effort. Maybe it's a kind of mental muscle memory, the product of a decade's worth of critical decisions. It could be even more personal, a propensity for or against certain stories or cinematic circumstances resulting in oddly similar responses. Or it might just be one of the many rarities that come with the job. After all, reviewing film is the essence of managing mediocrity. Remember, if you see 300 films a year, only a dozen or so are going to be great and/or god-awful. That leaves hundreds huddled right in the middle, making the most minor of impressions.

In some ways, that's the case with Intruders. The one facet that made the film fascinating carried over across several months, but the rest was interchangeable and uninspired. There was no great central performance, no moment when director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo announced himself as the next Guillermo Del Toro or J.A. Bayona. Instead, the premise was placed within the usual suspense struggles and came up empty. In fact, the reason for one's lack of memory could be nothing more than a lack of being memorable. Given the nature of the professional beast, it's no wonder something like this doesn't happen more often.

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