BROOKE GLADSTONE This year's best picture, Gladiator, walked away with five Academy Awards, so problems it may have had attracting audiences, as if it needed any more, disappeared. Other films are not so fortunate, but if they are something less than contemporary classics, you'd never know it by their overheated advertising.
BOB GARFIELD:A few months back New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell screened the movie 15 Minutes for which he wrote a complex, ambivalent review. He credited the film for storytelling impact but ultimately dismissed it for trading in the very cynical manipulation it purports to expose. Curiously, considering his generally negative tone, the movie ads for 15 Minutes quoted Mitchell -- not the part of his review that said "big turnoff" but the part that said "fleet-footed, merciless entertainment." Mitchell was a little surprised.
ELVIS MITCHELL: I never thought of merciless as being a compliment unless you were Genghis Kahn, but you know I'm - I don't work for a movie studio.
BOB GARFIELD:That was not exactly an isolated incident. Andrew Johnston, writing about the flop Baby Geniuses in US Weekly compared the film unfavorably to 101 Dalmatians. The 101 Dalmatians part made it to the cover of the video box; the unfavorably, needless to say, did not. And the Sacramento Bee's Joe Baltochi [sp?] saw a movie called Next Friday that provoked him to use the word "shameless" in his review. Not "masterful," not "transcendent" --"shameless." It showed up in the ads as if it were a superlative. Welcome to the world of movie marketing -- a fifth dimension of context wherein critics' words or phrases are cut, pasted, trimmed, re-arranged and generally defiled in the name of suggesting journalistic endorsement, whether real or imagined. Elvis Mitchell.
MAN: They're put together like ransom notes. You know, a word at a time.
BOB GARFIELD: Arris Cristofidis [sp?] operates the web site Critics.com.
ARRIS CRISTOFIDIS: Studio PR people - they seem to be the masters of the ellipsis. The best one this year, it's from a DVD of a movie called Immortality, and the quote on the box is-- in quotation marks: "Jude Law...terrific" Film.com. Now I went to Film.com and tried to find if there was a review of Immortality, and there isn't. What they did was simply to take the name Jude Law and take the "terrific" out of a review of a movie that Jude Law was involved in and simply put it on the DVD box and there you have it!
BOB GARFIELD:So, yeah. When you see extremely brief bursts of apparent gusto attributed to name brand critics, it's safe to assume they've been printed out of context. Almost always with one or more exclamation points appended to suggest even more critical enthusiasm! Exclamations, Mitchell assures, never show up in actual reviews unless meant ironically.
ELVIS MITCHELL: Outside of the Marvel Comics of the 1960s when Spiderman even his thoughts had exclamation points on the end of them, no, I don't know anybody who uses exclamation points.
BOB GARFIELD:Of course most often if you read the fine print you're apt to discover that the critics quoted are not from the New York Times of the World; they're from the-- [PAPERS RUSTLING] KMAX-TV Channel 31 Sacramento's of the world. Andrew Johnston of US calls them quote-machines, seduced by free junkets to studio events where they get to briefly interview stars in exchange for fulsome blurb material. But the movie ads print the raves in big type and the source in fine print, elevating the obscure to iburtian [sp?] status. Andrew Johnston.
ANDREW JOHNSTON: There are you know people from, you know, small-market TV stations who are willing to just like basically say whatever the studio wants them to say to get their name in the paper.
BOB GARFIELD:And if just the right words don't spring to mind, no worries; the studios apparently are happy to provide those as well. Tim Gray [sp?] follows the blurb wars for Daily Variety.
TIM GRAY: The funny thing is the quotes keep staying the same; the names keep changing; but you'll always see, you know: Funny, Funny, Funny; You Will Never Forget-- fill-in-the-name-of-the-movie -- you know The Most Fun You'll Have This Summer -- you know all those quotes -they keep re-appearing every year.
BOB GARFIELD:A lot of them are attributed to a particularly ubiquitous blurbographer by the name of Jeff Craig of a mysterious media outlet called 60 Second Preview. Craig is quoted everywhere, and he is always deliriously excited about the movie. He loved Cheryl Ladd in Permanent Midnight. Free Willy III was "breathtaking." The Kevin Pollack/Sheryl Lee Ralph [sp?] vehicle titled Deterrence wasn't one of the top 10 of the year; it was "One of the Most Important Films of Our Time." Now there's a movie lover. So we naturally wanted to speak to him, but we couldn't find 60 Second Preview -- not any trace of it anywhere we looked. We don't even know what medium it is.
ARRIS CRISTOFIDIS: I'd have no idea who he is. I have no idea what he does. I have no idea where he is published; if he is published somewhere. It's, it's a great mystery.
BOB GARFIELD: Critic.com's Arris Cristofidis.
ARRIS CRISTOFIDIS: He's very enthusiastic; there is no doubt about that. Anybody that enthusiastic has, has to be alive!
BOB GARFIELD:We had the same difficulty finding a movie studio interested in discussing this topic. We called six of them and they all declined to answer questions about blurbation. But if the studios have created this parallel universe of irrational exuberance, that doesn't mean there are no natural forces working in their favor. Between the grotesquely twisted ellipses-filled, exclamation-appended, cut-and-paste blurb and the bought-and-paid-for quid pro quo of blurb whoredom, there is the just plain friendly practitioner. Variety's Tim Gray.
TIM GRAY: There's a guy named Lou Lumenick [sp?] at the New York Post who last year in March called What Planet Are You From "the funniest movie of the year," and then a few months later called Best in Show "the year's funniest movie." You figure all right, it's - 6 months have passed - it's like - yeah, that's enough - that counts as a year.
BOB GARFIELD: Lou Lumenick, are you a soft touch?
LOU LUMENICK:Not to-- my knowledge. I mean I basically like movies. You know? There are different kinds of critics. I mean there are critics who are basically focused on nit-picking and tearing movies apart. I mean I'm working for a tabloid; I'm basically doing a consumer guide. I mean is the film worth going to see or not?
BOB GARFIELD:Lumenick also acknowledges sometimes getting a kick out of seeing himself quoted here and there. To him, it's a minor bonus. To Owen Gleiberman [sp?] who reviews films for Entertainment Weekly, that little thrill is quite sinister -- a sort of ego-payola pervading the trade, fundamentally skewing the judgment of even the most established critics.
OWEN GLEIBERMAN: It's vanity. When you see a quote of yours in a movie ad, it can - it can make you feel important; it shouldn't, because it doesn't make you important. But there are people who really get off on it, and-- it can [...?...]-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BOB GARFIELD: Well how about you, Owen Gleiberman, have you ever gotten a little charge or even a big one out of that? [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
OWEN GLEIBERMAN: I, I -- yes, I've gotten the charge. I'll admit it.
BOB GARFIELD:For the record, Elvis Mitchell of the New York Times unequivocally denies any ego satisfaction out of being cited which he sees as merely a byproduct of his labors.
ELVIS MITCHELL: The blurb is just well what's the negative of gravy? Whatever that would be, that's what a blurb is.
BOB GARFIELD: In any event, next time you plunk down 8 bucks to see the Feel Good Hit of the Summer, make sure you've read the fine print, extrapolated to account for the ellipses, and most of all, considered the source. You might also want to make sure it isn't still June. [MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, Hugh, as Barbara Walters would say, that was eye-opening. What's a moviegoer to do?
BOB GARFIELD:Well one thing you might consider is saving 5 bucks and going to the video store to rent M instead, you know, with Peter Lorre? Don't think of it as a downer! Think of it as the Feel Bad Hit of All Time. [MUSIC] 58:00
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price and Katya Rogers, engineered by George Edwards and edited-- by Brooke. We had help from David Serchuk, Kathleen Horan and of course John Keefe. Amy Pearl oversees our web site.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mike Pesca is our producer at large; Arun Rath our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison produced our theme, and Bob Garfield with his wife Malena [sp?] this week produced Ida Rose Garfield. Yes, ladies and gentlemen - another Garfield. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts at Onthemedia.org and e-mail us at Onthemedia[at]wnyc.org. This is On the Media for National Public Radio. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bye, dad. [MUSIC TAG]
ANNOUNCER:Funding for On the Media is provided by the Cardassian Empire, providing tractor-beam support technologies since star date 44429.6 and the House of Plantagenet. Visit us on the web at Plantaga.net.