Saturday, November 24, 2012

Lesser Miserables - The Wonderful World Of Movie Embargoes And Advance Screenings

Kudos to the wise wizards over at Universal Pictures for controlling the flow of information regarding Friday’s premiere of “Les Miserables.” Studio rules have not evolved up to modern culture’s 24/7 journalism world, so studios request embargoes on critical opinion until it is closer to a film’s release in order to properly utilize critical response as a commercial tool, turning critics into walking billboards. It’s an insulting practice, one that becomes even more ludicrous when an embargo is broken. If the embargo is broken for a positive review, then the “buzz” swarms over the film, and everybody wins -- extra exposure to the journalists who were “FIRST!” and a solid bit of publicity for the film. If embargo is broken and the review is negative, more often than not the publisher will find punishment at the hands of the film’s publicist, who will then limit their access to future screenings of other films. It’s all political, and it’s all in service of critics’ function in this day and age -- as soon as they begin writing a word, they must realize their prose is promotion first, criticism second. I'm doing it right now.

“Les Miserables” is one of the very last “prestige” films premiering to audiences this year, and as such, few knew what to expect before Friday‘s screenings. Fortunately, Universal has gamed the system expertly. Their embargo limits actual reviews, but it allows for “impressions” to be posted. It’s fascinating, distinguishing between “reviews” and “impressions,” as the word “impression” suggests an inarticulate, primitive response. We’re allowing you to print your unthinking reaction, is what Universal is saying, knowing they have a big, bombastic, expensive star-filled movie designed to bowl you over, for better or worse.

This reaction was further tweaked by the company shared by the critics in Alice Tully Hall this past Friday. The specifics are not completely thorough to me, but this was some sort of theater group of actors and performers, some of whom knew “Les Miserables” by heart. It was like attending a midnight screening of the latest superhero film, or a “Twilight” picture. They knew the words, they knew the act breaks, they knew the characters. And, Pavlovian to a tee, they knew to applaud rapturously at the end of each song as if it were performed live. One Jean Valjean song ends with Hugh Jackman flinging a torn-up letter into the sky, a fragment becoming CGI and sailing over the mountains like Forrest Gump’s feathers, and the tackiness of this was immediately swarmed by the hooting and hollering of the theater geeks in the crowd. Scrutiny is not welcomed here.

The screening was also followed with a Q+A, where the audience was allowed to genuflect in the presence of director Tom Hooper, and actors Anne Hathaway, Samantha Barks, Eddie Redmayne (who, it must be said, has the voice of an angel) and Amanda Seyfried. Because so what if our “impressions” are dotted with starfuckery? When the audience was given the floor, professional “journalist” Jeanne Wolf was given the first question: “Hi, this is Jeanne Wolf, friend of the cast! My question is, were you expecting this type of applause?” The second question was an actor who claimed to have starred in a play with Hathaway years ago, who wanted to say hi again (she didn’t seem to recognize him, but played it off well).

Moreover, many of the “critics” allowed to this screening also write about films in other aspects. A review isn’t enough -- their inarticulation has to take into account several outside factors, because discussing the film (even in “impression” form) is an impossibility. These critics go into overdrive near the end of the year, for one reason: OSCAR. That being, these men and women have so little professional pride in their own opinions that they have to instead discuss the collective “impressions” of an outdated, outmoded voting bloc that usually makes inappropriate artistic judgments that lack merit years, or even minutes, after they’re announced.

And those discussing Oscars at this point are in search of a narrative: with only a few potential Oscar films already screened, there had been no “front runner,” no home run Oscar pick just yet. “Les Miserables” being enthusiastically received by an audience of homers suddenly changes that for these people, in a grotesque chicken-or-the-egg situation: these writers say that the Oscar bloc will love this film, and the Oscar bloc catches wind of the buzz before they even see the film. And because these are the saps that will grant awards to the likes of “Crash” and “The Artist,” the buzz will work on them immediately before they even see “Les Miserables,” creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. And this all easily plays into the hand of the studio, who begin to count the opening weekend grosses with a big fat smile on their faces.

So… the embargo only exists for negative reactions. Therefore I cannot disclose my feelings about “Les Miserables.” I can’t say that it’s a loud, obnoxious, gauche mess with absolutely zero nuance. I can’t talk about how the orchestration is tinny, how the transitions are graceless, and how the visual effects are clumsy. I am embargoed, so you’ll never know if I thought the movie was worthwhile or not. Pity.