Thursday, April 19, 2012

The disconnect between the movie reviewer and the one review is for

I just watched "The Tree of Life." I think I was supposed to really like it. That's what the movie reviewers say. I wanted to like it. It had artists shots of nature and lots of classical music and Brad Pitt, and I'm a Brad Pitt fan, who is, strangely, an underrated actor because of his looks and ability to date the world's most beautiful women.
But I have a confession. I didn't get "The Tree of Life." In fact, I think I hated it.
I was supposed to like it because movie reviewers told me I should. If you go by Rotten Tomatoes, 85 percent of the critics liked it. It was on the Top 10 lists of many critics I trust, including my favorite, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone. He even makes fun of people like me, apparently, who want silly things like some semblance of a story or dialogue that isn't whispered like I'm engaged in some sort of creepy pillow talk with the actors.
"Artistic ambition is a bitch," Travers writes in his three-and-a-half-stars review of the movie. "Mainstream audiences yawn you off."
OK, so reviewers liked a movie and I didn't. It happens. But then I watched "The Future" yesterday. This movie wasn't as highly praised as "The Tree of Life." I don't think it made many top-10 lists. Yet more than 70 percent liked it. Many top critics liked it too. And that movie SUCKED. It was bizzare for all the wrong reasons, and by the end, I hated the characters so much, I was rooting for zombies to attack them, and that reminded me of the second season of "The Walking Dead," and then I became angry and folded laundry. Folding laundry when you're angry is never a good idea. You get a little too pissed off when you can't find a matching sock.
And it hit me that movie reviewers never seem to review movies for their readers. They seem to review them for other reviewers.
I believe I can say this because I am a movie snob. I'm not, as Travers seems to think, "the mainstream audience." In fact, I think I probably watch movies in the same way reviewers watch them. I look for depth of story, originality, real characters, great dialogue and writing and artistic, inventive direction. I try to watch all the movies on reviewers' top-10 lists. I usually like them.
I hate the Twilight movies without even watching them and any Michael Bay movie. My soul weeps when Transformers makes trillions of dollars. I, like most critics, believe a lot of mainstream movies suck.
I watch well-reviewed movies almost exclusively and prefer deep, thought-provoking ones the most.
I've had this conversation with my wife many times:
"Hey, do you want to watch this movie with me?"
"Is it one of your weird movies?"
So why am I writing this screed because I didn't like a couple of experimental films? Isn't that a bit much? No. It's actually a symptom of a much larger problem.
I rely on movie reviewers to tell me what's good. I have three small kids. I have lots of other things to do. I run. I work. Sometimes I play with the kids and the dog. I can't just "go to a movie" most of the time. So when I see something like "The Future," I've not only seen a bad movie, I've lost two, precious, jewel-encrusted hours of free time.
I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who has a busy life. I'm pretty sure, in fact, others get angry too when they see a lousy movie.
Now I don't always need reviewers to pick my movies for me. I knew I'd love "The Descendants." Alexander Payne? Sold. I'll watch anything by Pixar. The new Batman movie? I'm there. I'll see "The Artist" because it won Best Picture, and if I hate it, I can blame the Academy, which is cool by me.
And in fairness to reviewers, my trust in them is well put. I put "Take Shelter" in my Netflix cue because it got great ratings, and I loved it. I saw "Phoebe in Wonderland" and wound up buying it as an all-time favorite. I discovered Payne this way. I doubt I would have heard of any of those movies otherwise.
Lately, though, my trust seems misplaced. I was on the fence about "Tree of Life." I'm not a Terrence Malick fan after the disaster that was "The Thin Red Line." But so many critics raved about it. Travers, for instance. So, OK. I rented it.
Movie reviewers, in other words, are getting it wrong perhaps more than they should, at least this year and last. And I think I know why.
It's their job to sit through movies all week, every week. They don't get to avoid the Twilight films like I do. They have to see them. They have to see Transformers. They have to watch all those horrible romances and torture-porn flicks and reboots and remakes and mindless children's crap like "Happy Feet Two."
Last year, sequels made up one-fifth of the nationwide releases, according to Box Office Mojo. That doesn't include reboots, remakes or swill like "Jack and Jill." Not all sequels are bad. But even Pixar made "Cars II," and that was Pixar's only bad movie ever. When Pixar can't deliver, you know you're having a bad year.
Eddie Murphy once joked about sex and how a woman controls our minds with it. She will make us wait forever, he said, until she finally gives in, and you think it's the best ever.
If you're starving, Murphy said, in a paraphrase here, and someone gives you a Saltine, you're going to think it's a Ritz.
If I were a movie critic, in other words, I'd like "The Tree of Life" too. In fact, I'd LOVE it. A movie with its own artistic vision? One that doesn't have vampires that look like GQ cover models who just gave a pint too much of blood? One that has some semblance of originality? Something different from most of the crap being shoveled my way? And it isn't a sequel, and it's ambitious? Sold. Three-and-a-half stars.
I'd probably even somehow like "The Future." The movie was awful, but at least it was an attempt to be original.
I probably wouldn't even care that those movies were difficult to watch, weren't enjoyable or actually kind of sucked too. They were different, didn't feature aliens blowing something up and had some decent acting. They were original. They were ambitious, even if those ambitions fell short. Sold.
So why don't I follow the same theory? I don't have to sit through movies all day. I don't have the time for it either. I get to watch what I consider the good stuff. When a movie sucks, then, it stands out even more. Critics are far too used to sitting through swill, and it's clouding their vision for the rest of us.
I kind wanted to be a movie critic, but lately I've reconsidered that job. Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe just won a Pulitzer for his movie reviews. In one of his essays that won, he reviewed "The Tree of Life." He wrote that the vision was lovely but not easy to understand. He sort of liked it for its originality but also seemed to wonder if it really was a good movie.
Morris earned that damned prize.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Operation Tonsils

Hospitals still give me the creeps, the kind that raise goosebumps on your arms, and that, like many things, can be traced to my childhood.
Every year for a number of years, since I was small, I had to have tubes put in my ears so they would drain properly. It was a 10-minute procedure. I had this done five times. I always got sick from the anesthetic.
But the reason I think I'm still afraid of hospitals isn't because of the tubes. Not one of those operations traumatized me nearly as much as the time I got my tonsils out.
I was 5, and I think the gas mask was the worst of it. They strapped me down to the bed, which was really a cage with sheets, and held the mask over my face as they wheeled me into a room filled with stern faces, alien-bright lights and a lot of cold steel. Now, remember, I was 5, and as far as I knew, they were going to do all kinds of horrible experiments on me, the kind I did to one of my teddy bears a couple months ago, because no one had told me any different. No one explained anything to me, in fact. That book I got explaining the surgery and how I was going to get to eat dump trucks full of ice cream after it was over? LIES. So I fought. Nurses, back then, were all sized to be NFL linebackers, and they were about as mean, and they sat on me and held me down, scowling at my tears. Then they put the mask over my face, again, and a thorny python wrapped a dizzy body around me. 
"I feel funny!" I screamed, and one of the doctors laughed, which sounded evil at the time, and this horrible blackness swept over my eyes, as if I was being thrown into a pit.
When I woke up, kicking and hollering, because, remember, I was being tortured when I fell asleep, I cried for Mommy, and one of the linebackers came over, grabbed my legs and strapped my arms to the bars on the side of the bed. Then I noticed my throat felt as if it had been torn out. 
Then I threw up blood that night.
Needless to say, when we learned Jayden's tonsils looked to doctors like the size of beach balls - some of the biggest ones he's ever seen, one told us later - I was dreading the day they would have to come out.
That day was last week.
Jayden was in tears as I pulled in the garage from an eight-mile run with our new dog. I told him I would meet him there. I needed to shower. I also didn't need him to see me. I would pull it together in the shower, I told myself, and put on a brave face for him. But now wasn't a good time.
• • • 
When I walked into his waiting room a half-hour later, he was dressed in blue spaceman scrubs, which looked cozy, and watching Elmo on a TV that came with the bed, which looked like a bed, not a cage with sheets.
And yet his emotions were the same as mine 35 years ago.
"Daddy," he said. "I'm scared."
Well, I'm glad you can tell them that, I said. It's OK to be scared.
Three times, a nurse, a doctor and the guy putting Jayden to sleep came in and explained what was going to happen. Apparently medical people have figured out that most kids, just like most adults, do better when they know what's going to happen to them.
They've also figured out Elmo helps as well.
Sleepytime Doc came in later, heard that Jayden was nervous, as he told everyone, and said he could give Jayden something for that. Jayden said sure. Doc brought back a cherry-flavored liquid. Jayden gulped it down because, hey, it looked good, and it WAS good, and five minutes later, he was loopy, like he'd had a few too many shots. Jayden, apparently, is a happy drunk.
The doc wouldn't tell me what it was. I don't blame him. I could make a killing on the street. Give me that before a marathon, and I'm qualifying for Boston.
Then a nurse came in two minutes later and had Jayden try on the mask. Ah, the dreaded mask, I thought to myself. There's no sugarcoating this. 
Jayden took a sniff.
"Yum," he said.
"Yeah," the nurse said. "The gas smells like Skittles."
Are you kidding me?
I turned to Jayden and used a cliche. I rarely use them. But this time it was appropriate.
"Jayden," I said, as I hopped off the bed, right before they wheeled him away, "this is not your father's tonsil operation."
• • •
They called me in a half-hour later, one of the very few times that Jayden's wanted me over Mommy, and Jayden was in bed with an orange popsicle in his mouth. It was his second one already. He was not strapped down. His nurse didn't look like an NFL linebacker. She looked a little plump, a little cute and very sweet.
"You'll see some blood on his hands or face. Don't let that worry you," a nurse said.
"Cool," I said.
I'm big on battle scars. I always liked to bring home a small gash after climbing a mountain. We called them souvenirs. Besides, there had to be something from this operation that made me squirm.
After his third popsicle, the nurse told Jayden she could move him to another room. There was a TV in there. He could watch a movie. They had "The Incredibles." She offered him a slushy. Blue.
"I have a secret recipe," she said.
Of course she did.
• • • 
Lest you think I was hoping my son would suffer, of course I didn't want that. But HOLY COW I couldn't help but feel a little, well, jealous of how much better the experience was. It made me feel proud that our country actually has evolved in some areas. We CAN make improvements on procedures and things other than cell phones. Technology does have a purpose beyond Angry Birds. But it also made me feel old. My operation seemed like from another time, like it was back during World War II or something.
That was, until we brought him home.
We've been up every night at least a couple times since that night. The third night, when we moved him back to his room from our bed, he woke up screaming and shaking the pain was so bad. We haven't been up this consistently in the middle of the night since the girls had their first birthday.
Just the last couple of nights have been better. When he does get up, it's briefly, and after some medicine, he goes back to sleep. He doesn't demand slushees around the clock now. His scabs appear to be healing a bit. But if I ever did get tired of his whining and was tempted to tell him to suck it up a bit, all I had to do was look at the gaping holes in the back of his throat.
• • •
Technology has helped us as well as Jayden. We have a ice treats machine that I relentlessly teased my wife for buying a year ago — it seemed to me to be like a salad shooter, an appliance invented just because our basic needs were so met that we think we need something that can fire a radish across the kitchen — that's now, I think, the best thing we've ever bought. It makes one of those slushys in two minutes, and when it's 2:30 a.m. and your boy is hollering from the pain upstairs, it's a lifesaver. I wish they had one for breast milk about five years ago. It would have saved us a lot of sleep.
He's spent a lot of time on his Nintendo DS. Super Mario, like Coedine, tends to numb the pain.
I don't remember much beyond the hospital after my tonsil operation, but I do remember that first night. Dad stayed up with me most of the night as I tried to cry my pain and sickness away.
Despite the cushy parts, this hasn't been easy. We've made about a billion of those slushees now. Jayden is so sensitive that he wants one of us to sit next to him at night at all times, especially when it's time for him to go to bed. He's been nasty and sad and sometimes he's still been our first baby despite the fact that he's 6.
He needs us now.
Technology will never replace parenting. At least I hope not. If Jayden doesn't have to go through these rough patches with his own kids I'll be jealous again. Only I'll also be a little sad for him.