Ugly scenes last week when the New Yorker published a short story by the actor Jesse Eisenberg entitled “An Honest Film Review”. The illustration showed an obese, ponytailed viewer, whom we can take to be the narrator, asleep across three cinema seats, with a jumbo bag of popcorn standing at his feet. The story that followed prompted some gnashing of teeth from real-life film writers.
“I was shaken by it,” wrote Noah Gitell on a site called Movie Mezzanine. “Injured, even.” Poor Noah went on to spend “the rest of the day trying not to think about it” but unfortunately it “gnawed at” him all day.
I write about films for a living, too, though I didn’t feel personally impugned. Partly that’s because the story isn’t very good; if it is an “attack” on critics, as some sites were reporting, then it is one carried out with rubber hammers and water pistols. It’s hard to be upset by something that hasn’t hurt or hit its target.
Still, it’s interesting to look at what Eisenberg is saying, or what he thinks he’s saying, with the piece. The title is classic provocation, suggesting that this, unlike all the others, will be an honest review. He’s socking it to the man (in the stalls), speaking the truth to power (the sort of power that hands out star ratings).
As the piece was published in the New Yorker, it would have been nice to think that Eisenberg was nibbling at the hand that feeds him by giving his protagonist some resemblance to that magazine’s own film critic, Anthony Lane. No chance of that. Our guy is a slob and a philistine, whereas Lane is a sophisticated sort who uses a knife and fork to eat his popcorn.
Right from the get-go, his narrator is upfront about why he doesn’t like the (fictional) movie that he has been sent to review – he takes umbrage with it “because the press screening was all the way uptown, and there were huge delays on the J train”.
Eisenberg puts another, nameless critic in the story, a man from the New York Times who speaks in film allusions that whoosh over our narrator’s head, in order to make the distinction between bad critics and good ones, or at least ones that know their onions. The narrator, you see, is not really a critic at all: he’s a blogger who can’t understand why life isn’t sweet for him when he has, “been writing movie reviews for a blog that attracts more than eight hundred and forty-five unique views a month”.
This, I think, is why the story doesn’t scratch the skin, let alone draw blood. Eisenberg is having a dig at part-timers who dash out to the toilet during the film, daydream about sleeping with the PR assistant who set up the screening, and write for a piddling blog where the traffic is still in three figures.
Under cover of appearing to lash out at those who abuse their power (way to go, Jesse!), he’s actually twisting the knife into those who have none anyway, which is not so sporting. Why not make the character a more influential blogger? Goodness knows those exist. Or an esteemed critic high on his or her own reputation? Possibly because these are not comfortable times for critics, laid off en masse (particularly in the US) by news organisations who believe that, since everyone has an opinion, anyone can be a critic.
The one part of the story that overlapped in any way with reality was the narrator’s decision to give the film a positive notice “in the hope that the studio might print my name after a blurb on the movie poster. And I’ve always wanted to have my name on a movie poster. How cool would that be?”
It’s clear to anyone who reads reviews (or who even just reads advertising copy) that there is no shortage of writers so eager to get their names onto the poster that they will happily do the PRs’ jobs for them. If the movies that have the word “Masterpiece!” on their advertising really were masterpieces (Steve Jobs and Suffragette are two that are currently being advertised with the dreaded m-word), then what word would we use if another Vertigo or Battle of Algiers – or, to use the film referred to in passing in Eisenberg’s story, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie – were to come along? We would have run the vocabulary dry.
Sorry, we would have to say, you may well be the new Hitchcock or Pontecorvo or Buñuel, but we’re all out of the word “masterpiece”. We devalued it by applying it to middlebrow awards-bait like Steve Jobs and Suffragette, and now we don’t have another word to put in its place.
No one is in any danger of calling Eisenberg’s story a masterpiece. Of that he can be certain. It would be an odd choice for any writer to pick on an already enfeebled archetype for cheap laughs. That the author in question is a published one on his way to earning serious literary respect makes it an act of obscure bullying. Honest is the last word that springs to mind.