Does buzz belong in reviews?

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An overview of reviews regarding “Georgia Rule” and “Waitress,” two recently released female-oriented films, raises questions about whether a critic’s use of background information drawn from outside a film?s onscreen presence might verge on transforming platforms for serious discussion into vehicles for tabloid exploitation.

We refer not to reviewers’ references to other films made by the director, cast and crew, or comparisons to other films within the same genre, nor to commentary that sets a film within the context of history or current world events– rather to tidbits regarding the personal dircumstances of artists involved in the making of the film.

Fans obviously hunger for behind the scenes gossip about the stars, but when should a reviewer include news of already much publicized extracurricular factoids and foibles in order to help audiences evaluate whether or not they’ll enjoy a film?

Using “Georgia Rule” and “Waitress” as benchmarks, AWFJ asked members to weigh in with their diverse opinions regarding this issue. Here’s what they had to say:

  • SUSAN WLOSZCZYNA: Movies don’t come out in a vacuum. Not with the massive marketing machines of summer out there. And, most informed moviegoers carry more than just a box of popcorn in with them when they go to see a film.

    Besides early word of mouth, they often have some knowledge of any gossip or anecdotes that concern what happened off-screen. That can perhaps unfairly hurt a star vehicle, such as “Mission: Impossible III,” and often makes it impossible to avoid judging a performance through a filter of an actor’s off-screen antics. Tom Cruise suffered for it.

    Lindsay Lohan will, likewise– although it might have helped if her film were actually good. It’s also a rather coy ploy if anyone associated with “Georgia Rule” dares to suggest that the lifestyle parallels between Lohan and her character weren’t apparent– and even seen as a come-on to audiences from the beginning.

    I think it’s not only fair game, but a reviewer’s duty to address any element that would color the experience of watching a movie. Back when Hugh Grant had his Divine Brown episode, he happened to have a rather smarmy little childbirth comedy coming out called “Nine Months.” The movie wasn’t good, but it felt even more painful whenever he made a double entendre quip.

    And as sad as Adrienne Shelly’s murder is, it does color viewers? perceptions of what they’re seeing if they know the backstory of the filmmaker. For both good and bad. Perhaps some will be drawn to “Waitress” to see what a talent struck down in her prime created as her unintentional final work.

    Is it fair for the film, which is not reaching for tragic overtones, to be placed in the context of a horrible crime? Maybe not. But in this case, it may bring more attention to a small, charming film that might have passed through theaters a lot quicker.

    Reality just has a way of stepping on art from time to time. Reviewers have the responsibility to respond to that reality in context of the movie as much as they do to what is on the screen.

  • CARRIE RICKEY: I review movies, not the personal lives of moviemakers and stars.

    Yet, in reviewing “Waitress,” I thought it pertinent to note why Adrienne Shelly’s film wouldn’t have a followup. But I saved the behind-the-scenes exposition for the review’s end because I didn’t want it to color the response of readers who were unaware that Shelly, a new mother, had been murdered.

    Where “Georgia Rule” is concerned, I didn’t mention the extracurricular activities of its star, Lindsay Lohan. Nor would I have mentioned Jane Fonda’s religious conversion experience. Or Felicity Huffman’s charitable efforts. Didn’t seem apposite.

  • MAITLAND MCDONAGH: I felt I had to mention Shelly’s murder because I beliEve it led many reviewers to over-praise what is, ultimately, a minor and uneven film. Shelly was improving steadily as a filmmaker, and it’s sad that she’ll never progress beyond “Waitress.” But the film itself isn’t a triumph or a breakthrough except for Keri Russell, whose performance in the lead role is so beautifully realized that it helps smooth over the screenplay’s awkward mix of broad comedy and domestic melodrama.

    Overall, this isn’t an issue unique to women: Think about how much Jonathan Larson’s death the day Rent opened figured into reviews of the show, or Marlon Brando’s crazy behavior

    informed coverage of The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996).

  • ELEANOR RINGEL GILLESPIE: It’s an interesting question, and I’m still trying to decide if it can be broken down along gender lines. After all, as far back as, say,?Beckett,? the stars’ raucous behavior was considered good copy– though, speaking to the point we?re considering, I don’t recall whether their antics were referred to in the reviews.

    In my “Georgia Rule” review, I chose not to mention Lohan outside the context of her work in the movie, but it seems that Bad Girl Behavior has become part of the daily line-up in the media. Sort of like, in a far more serious context, the body count in Iraq. In the case of “Georgia Rule,” specifically, I don’t think it’s inappropriate to mention Lohan’s tabloid side. First, it mirrored her character. Second, the infamous dressing down for being late, etc., is pretty much common knowledge.

    Again, whether it’s a gender-related issue, I’m just not sure. I remember when Johnny Depp was still trashing hotel rooms, it seemed as if he wanted his behavior to become part of the critical conversation.

    As for the Shelly tragedy, I spent a few days with her on a film festival jury and I just couldn’t get her death out of my head while watching– and then writing about– her movie. But again, that could be said to fall under the subjectivity of criticism in general. Because I’m an animal lover, I may pay more attention to reports that horses were killed while shooting “Flicka” than others might (I mentioned it in my review). Or because I’m from the South, I may put a special emphasis (consciously and unconsciously) on how my region is portrayed in a movie.

  • CAROL CLING: If off-screen, real-life events have something to do with a movie, then I might mention them in my review. (Example: Adrienne Shelly’s murder while working on “Waitress,” which I haven’t had the chance to review as yet because it still hasn’t opened here in Las Vegas!) But I prefer to concentrate on what’s up there on the screen. When I reviewed “Apocalypto,” for example, I focused on Mel Gibson’s movie– and found there was plenty in it to criticize– and did not address his drunken anti-Semitic rants in my review.

    At all times, my goal is to enlighten readers– and if that means providing crucial real-life context, then I do so. It would be nice if all movies could stand on their own, but in this instant-info, spin-centric age, that’s not always possible. Never before has there been so much information available to people– and never have we done less thinking about all of it.

  • MARTHA NOCHIMSON: I think it gives depth to a review to refer to previous works of the director, the actors, the cinematographer, or the writer of a film being reviewed. Depth also comes from comparisons with similar films by other directors. I almost always go outside the film itself to include these concerns. Comparing a film with its source material is almost always enlightening. Gossip? Yes, if a reviewer wishes to discuss the harm of reducing a film to dubious or mean-spirited backstage stories. No, if the gossip is intended to rachet up interest in the review. I remember writing about the negative consequences of reviews of Ally McBeal that obsessed about Calista Flockhart’s

    weight.

  • SHELLI SONSTEIN: Personally, I don’t think audiences give a hoot about Lindsay Lohan’s troubles, not do I think her high gossip-profile will draw audiences to “Georgia Rule.” If people think the film is good, they?ll come to see it.

    The tragic murder of Adrienne Shelly is different. Most people hadn?t heard of her before the tragedy and subsequent release of ?Waitress.? In a very morbid way, the curiosity factor may drive more people to see her film. That, and the fact that it’s getting good reviews.

    ?Georgia Rule,” on the other hand, has pretty much been panned.

    I think anything’s fair game to include in a story about a film.

    A little anecdote here: I was assigned to cover the press day for the Ben Affleck film, “Paycheck,” four years ago, at the near-end of Bennifer. I dared question Ben twice about the rumored demise of his relationship with J.Lo, when a Paramount rep in the back snapped, “Can we please stick to quesitons about the film?” Ever since, I have been blacklisted by Paramount, no longer invited to press days and rarely allowed into day screenings– despite my pleas that because I must wake up at 2-20 A.M. to co-host my morning radio show, attending evening screenings means I have to give up a night’s sleep.

    I don’t think we need to endorse this sort of studio-enforced precedent of separation of personal life and career.

  • CYNTHIA FUCHS:I actually make it a practice to consider movies as cultural products — reflecting and even sometimes challenging mainstream presumptions. In that context, the individual travails of actors and makers are less compelling of the ways their films reflect, exploit,

    rehearse, or make sense of said travails. Shelly’s murder has little to do with the movie Waitress (though it has everything to do with being a woman in a world where you’re both objectified and feared, let alone being a white woman viewed by a young man who is threatened by his illicit immigration status).

    On the other hand, Lohan and Fonda’s performances are ongoing and meaningful, however perversely (Fonda appeared on Martha Stewart to announce she was always “available to Lindsay”; Lohan appeared on Martha Stewart to be chastised, to be told she is beautiful but should behave herself, etc.). Set up as both object lesson and scandalous selling point, she’s not singled out for her gender, though she is part of an apparently tabloid-ready, white-chick pack (Britney, Paris, et. al.) It’s troubling that the movie only repeats tab-media’s simplistic moralizing, pop psychologizing, and salacious use of her sexed-up/blow-jobbing persona. And that makes the media business relevant, because the movie is part of the same process. That makes the “buzz” relevant, sometimes more relevant to viewers than the movies that recycle the buzz.

  • JOANNA LANGFIELD: Recently, I had a wonderful conversation with a filmmaker about his mostly autobiographical film– a dark drama about gambling. He was thrilled to talk about how his life influenced his work. In cases like this, or when a novel is translated to the screen, it ?s not only appropriate but it?s part of the critic?s job to factor (or at least note) those influences into our reviews. But those are the easy calls. Are we entering more dicey areas when we look for signs of Mel Gibson?s notorious anger in his filmwork?

    When housewives in Peoria are quoting box office results, how can responsible reviewers not relate what?s seen on the screen to what?s reported in the world around it? So much knowledge (gossipy or otherwise) can inform not only the work itself, but the audience?s response to it– if they base their decisions to buy tickets on outside influences, at all. Frankly, sometimes it ?s more fun– and certainly more challenging intellectually– to analyze the relationship between the filmmaker and the work than it is to watch the often perfunctory stuff that?s up there. And, we know damn well that?s what our readers/audiences are doing, too. Shouldn?t we be a part of that conversation?

    It?s not just whether Lindsay Lohan is shadowing her real life problems in ?Georgia Rule.? As the MPAA is announcing its intention to include the appearance of cigarettes in films as a factor in its ratings decisions, we see the old lines between art and influence becoming fuzzier and fuzzier.

    In a time when critics are often fighting to keep their jobs, it only makes sense for them to reach out and engage their constituency in all ways possible.

  • JENNIFER MERIN: I think critics’ decisions about the use of outside information should be made on a case by case basis. I’ve reviewed neither “Waitress” nor “Georgia Rule,” but consider the Shelly and Lohan factors to be decidedly different.

    With regard to “Waitress,” it seems some critics include remarks about Shelly’s death as a way of indicating/explaining their inclinations to support the film out of respect for its murdered director. “t’s hard to view this film without having Shelly’s untimely death come to mind” is the gist of their commentary. To some extent, their coverage may be guided by the film’s marketing– there is a sort of ‘this is Picasso’s last painting’ undertone, one that might come into play at a Sotheby’s auction, for example. Whether the ‘last is more’ notion became part of the “Waitress” selling scheme intentionally and explicitly, or not. is something only those attending what must have been painful meetings will know for sure. But the death knell factor certainly does raise audience awareness and curiosity about the film. As a result, ?Waitress? is probably getting more attention than it would otherwise have received. Shelly’s untimely death doesn’t, however, change the quality of the product. Critics who focus too much on the murder may actually be detracting from recognition of Shelly’s cinematic achievements and may be, thereby, disrespectful of the artist.

    Different, however, is the case of Lohan and coverage of “Georgia Rule.” The film, which I’ve seen twice, is uneven– even flawed– but that’s not La Lohan’s fault. Her performance in a challenging role with dauntingly emotional undertones is actually quite good. And, she was barely 20 years old when she undertook the overwhelming exercise of exploring the traumatizing effects of sexual abuse, alcoholism and drug abuse. Yet, she’s being dismissed and discredited as an actress and person. Part of the cause may be mis-marketing, which set up reviewers (and audiences) to expect “Georgia” to be a trivial comedy instead of an issue-rife drama with uncomfortably funny moments. I’ve heard people say they were suprised by the film’s subject and tone– and then move on to discuss Lohan’s famously tricky performances behind the celluloid. I’d prefer to see “Gerogia” reviews that’re more balanced and don’t target La Lohan’s shaky persona, which is so prevalently covered outside the film review realm. I think tacking the phrase ‘if she’s an irresponsible, scandalously ill-behaved child” to the back end of the question “can Lindsay Lohan act?,” foments societal tabbloidism and, inadvertently, contributes to the dumbing down of Americans, including moviegoers.

  • We’re interested in knowing what you think. Please leave us your comments, or sent them to us by email at awfjinc@gmail.com.

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