Right Robot, Wrong Model

“Do you want a sound check, or shall we just go straight in?”

At one-off events the tech crew always want a sound check, and I insist on one. Still, I know this venue and its staff. We’ve never had a technical hitch here, and the equipment ran perfectly for the previous film. It ‘s a formality, but professional courtesy dictates that one should ask. So I ask.

The bar is crammed with interesting people and I’m in mid-conversation with several of them: the topic – the show we’re about to see. It’s part of a well-established franchise, its history is interesting and the director has done a magnificent job. I’ve been looking forward to talking about this particular version. It’s the kind of film that deserves to be shown off on a big screen with a top-notch sound system. A home setup, however good, just isn’t the same.

“I don’t think we need a sound check,” says the venue manager, aware I’m having fun. “I’ll just go and make sure everything’s ready. We’ve got about ten minutes.”

The talk turns to the recent live-action version of tonight’s anime. The general feeling is that it is – how shall I put this? – unlikely to challenge any of the works of Akira Kurosawa. Editorial shortcomings, plot holes and an ending that would be at home in a high-class cheese shop are all mentioned. I maintain that it’s an honest attempt to entertain its target market – in this case, pre-schoolers and elementary pupils – and that the rush of seeing giant robots battling on the streets of Tokyo is worthwhile in itself.

I am about to expand on my view that adult Western fans should remember anime is often intended for a much younger audience, when I catch sight of the manager coming through the crowd. I can read faces, and something is amiss.

“We’ve got the wrong movie.”

That’s most definitely amiss. That’s a failure to hit a barn door with a rocket launcher at close range.

It’s five minutes to curtain-up and I am about to go and introduce a film – but it isn’t the film that the audience expects to see, the film I so admire that I’ve been looking forward to this evening for weeks, the film for which I have carefully researched and prepared words of wisdom and wit. It’s the film that has been dissected and dismissed in the bar five minutes earlier – same franchise, same basic story, different crew, different outcome.

I am overwhelmed with gratitude to whatever minor gods watch over film critics. I was able to advocate – OK, devil’s-advocate – its virtues in the bar because I watched it at home just a few weeks before. My left brain is scrambling to assemble that memory into a viable ten-minute talk (who the hell was the director?) My right brain, whose instincts are normally reliable,  is gibbering.

The manager is deeply apologetic and offers to go on before me with explanations and apologies. Normally I’m up for anyone else taking incoming flak, but fronting the event is, after all, what they’re paying me for.  Besides, my right brain has gone catatonic and my left brain thinks it can conquer the universe. That’s a dangerous combination but it might be just what we need right now.

I take the stage, explain and apologise. It’s just one of those things. Mistakes occur. I offer a refund to anyone who wants one providing they leave before the film starts, but suggest they stay and hear  my introduction before they make up their minds.

Nobody leaves.

I refer to the conversation in the bar, raising a few laughs from those who took part and those who overheard, then segue into my prepared talk about the history of the franchise, the original creator, and the movie we should have seen. My left brain purrs into top gear and I improvise as much as I can on the movie we’re actually going to see – those lovely little neurons have even excavated a director’s name from somewhere in the depths of my grey matter. I check later, and it’s the right director’s name. The gods on duty in the Film Critics’ Welfare Office definitely like me.

I get to the end of my introduction without mishap. Most people stay, and most enjoy the film.

So what do we learn from this? Firstly, nobody’s perfect so you really do have to check everything well in advance. Those obsessive souls who wash their hands before and after testing every window latch three times prior to leaving the house may be taking the principle a little too far, but it’s sound. Secondly, it’s surprising what you can dredge up from the recesses of your memory when you have to. Thirdly, resist the temptation to get involved in bar-room put-downs, they may rebound hard enough to floor you. Fourthly, even a bad film looks and sounds better in a cinema. And finally, time spent watching cheap disposable entertainment is not always wasted.

Franchises have many incarnations – comics, animation, movies, games, novelisations. Most are likely to be filler, there to milk as much profit as possible from the franchise before its popularity wanes. Even the most devoted fan rarely loves every single product in the range. For a writer or critic, awareness of the whole range and the variation in quality is essential – but for the average consumer it also serves a useful, if unintended, purpose.

Seeing a wide range of writing, direction and acting skills focussed on characters and situations you know and love often helps people develop their critical faculties.  In the early days of Star Trek fandom in Britain – before video took off and when fan fiction was photocopied and stapled rather than posted on the net – fans gobbled up everything they could find, but gradually began to discriminate.

To begin with,  this was largely on the basis of personal taste – “I like novelisations/scripts/fanfic from writer X better than writer Y.” With supply short and demand huge, there were limits to how picky us Trekkies could afford to be. Over time, though, the conversation developed to include skill with plotting, characterisation and language. A number of good writers came out of Trek fandom, and the scenario has been repeated in many fandoms since.

Taking the good with the bad, absorbing and considering material on many levels, is an essential step to developing a real critical faculty. We need to read and see great material, but I think we also need the less elevated stuff.

Besides, watching two giant robots trash Tokyo is never a complete waste of time.

One thought on “Right Robot, Wrong Model

  1. Pingback: citrus spp » Blog Archive » 10 Things Movie Critics Won’t Tell You (10 Things)

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