Saturday, November 10, 2007

I hope you're out of the theater a half hour Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

A friend called yesterday and asked if my wife and I wanted to go see a movie with her that she wanted to see because it had gotten good reviews—Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.

We went to a funky, bedraggled, four-screen theater owned by a film buff and generally patronized by film buffs. When we saw the early show crowd streaming out while the credits were still rolling, we clucked that we always stay till the end of the film. Little did we know.

If you like on-screen sex, you’ll love the first five minutes: Marisa Tomei, very naked, very hot (requires willing suspension of disbelief that she’d be caught dead in bed with Mr. Marshmallow, Philip Seymour Hoffman, though).

Otherwise, save your money. The movie goes downhill fast and never gets better. The smartest people in the theater last night were the couple who gave up and left before the end. When the lights came on, the rest of us (total of six: three middle-aged adults and three Yale Law students) spontaneously struck up a conversation about how we all wished we had bailed, too.

We were unanimous that this is a truly awful movie, and I posted an online review to that effect.

Then I started to read other people’s reviews, both on Yahoo! and on nytimes.com.

Hmmm. Half the people hated the film as much as we did. Half loved it. Hardly anyone gave it a middling score. Reading the positive reviews, I’m mystified as to whether these people saw the same movie. Apparently they did not. In any case, I can’t make head nor tail out of their rationales for praising it.

It turns out the movie is another litmus test along the lines of the dispute over the 2000 presidential election results in Florida: How you react to the situation is based not on objective reality (as if there were such a thing) but on how your brain is wired or conditioned. This is always a valuable lesson to keep in mind when you’re shaping words for an audience: all you can do is try to avoid ambiguity and seek clarity; there’s nothing you can do to guarantee that outcome.

Writing is a dialogue with an unknown and unknowable reader. What you write matters. But the writing isn’t complete until it is read, and you have no control over how or where that happens or over how the reader will react.

Words matter. Story matters. Editing helps. Not taking criticism personally helps, too.

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