One of my favorite Saturday Night Live anecdotes comes from Bill Hader. The story takes place when he was new enough to the show that he still felt insecure about his place on the roster, and he had finally gotten a piece that he'd written past the dress rehearsal stage and ready to go live on the air. He was waiting in the hallway in full Vincent Price make up waiting for his cue when Lorne Michaels stopped him and said, “I like this, but why now?” And then bam, Hader had to step into the spotlight and play his part.
I hear Hader’s impression of Lorne saying “but why now?” in my head a lot, particularly when I’m about to write a negative review of an old movie. With a good movie the why is obvious – because quality is timeless. But with a negative review, it’s a little stranger. Take for example The Paper Chase. I suspect that most people haven’t heard of this movie – so why should I bring it to people's attention just to dismiss it?
My personal why is easy: I’m a bit of an Oscars obsessive and John Houseman won a best supporting actor Oscar in 1973 for his role as a stern law school professor. The reason why I didn’t like it is also straight forward: it’s a very well observed movie about freshman James Hart's struggles in his first year at Harvard Law School, but that sort of day in the life stuff feels mundane to me. After all, I have several friends who went to law school and I never asked them about what their day to day experience of going to class was like - so why would I care about a fictional person's experience? If I could have met Hart at a bar and talked with him about movies (like I did with my IRL law school friends) we probably would have gotten along like gangbusters - but unfortunately, that's not really an option with a character from a movie that's nearly ten years older than me.
It’s not that the Paper Chase is bad – in fact, I suspect it will appeal to people who like character studies, or who are particularly interested in the early 1970s, since the film captures that specific era very well – but it isn’t for me. To me, it was just slow.
Here’s where the whys get a little bit more complicated: if I didn’t find it interesting and I don’t think other people are interested in it, why bring it up at all? My primary reason is because when I started this project I said I was going to write about every movie that I saw and this is a movie that I saw. But am I only doing this because I’m an anal weirdo? Possibly. (Actually, let's just say yes to that and move on.) But part of the reason why I put that policy in place was to challenge myself – I knew that allowing myself to pick and choose what I wrote about would lead me to me dismissing works of art that were challenging in favor of movies that were easier to mock or celebrate. The theory was that having to engage with every type of art was going to force me to work harder and that would end up making me a better writer.
While that is good in theory, it does run into the wall at certain points... And for a few weeks the Paper Chase looked like it was one of them, because I just couldn't find a compelling way in to write about it. However, today something finally clicked for me.
You see, every now and then I get asked why I don't want to go to grad school, and I generally answer that I don't think I need to because I'm doing such a good job of studying cinema on my own. Basically, for the last ten years I've been doing what a cinema grad student would do - watching difficult films, and seeking out obscure films, and reading about the history of the medium, and analyzing what works and what doesn't, and then trying to refine my analysis - and I've been doing it without having to pay tuition. One of the biggest reasons why I think my independent efforts are on the same level as what a student would do is because I give myself deadlines and ultimatums and I stick to them just like I would if I was actually in an academic setting.
Which means that I do have more in common with Hart than I thought I did, because his story is about a man struggling to educate himself. He knows that he is capable of living up to his professor's demands, but it's harder than he thought it would be, and it's so taxing that at times he can't help but stumble, and when he stumbles he can't help but ask himself "why am I doing this?" Ironically, the Paper Chase gave me a similar experience, because I had to work so hard to find an angle that I could use to write about this semi-obscure movie in a relateable way that I kept thinking: why am I doing this? Should I just give up on this movie? But the same way that Hart wouldn't let himself quit until he satisfied his demanding professor, I wouldn't let myself quit until I satisfied the anal part of my dumb brain. It only took me a few months to make a personal connection with this film, but now that I see some part of myself in the Paper Chase, I feel like I have a good enough why to write a review of it.
That said, I would rather get shot in the face than watch a well observed movie about the struggles I faced in the first year of writing these reviews. Hart's story might have been boring, but at least it was boring at Harvard, while my story is boring and it just takes place in a dumb apartment with a dumb cat.
(Well, maybe I would watch that movie if the focus was on the cat. Cat videos = good. And I say that with all the authority of a man whose been studying cinema at a grad school level for a decade.)
Winner: The Cat