Movie critics may try to write for the ages, but what they’re often writing is next week’s ad and video-box copy. A feast for the mind gets boiled down to a phrase garnished with exclamation points and served up to an apparently blurb-gullible public. Such ”quotes,” increasingly, are from short radio or TV reviews and critics few people have heard of. The pre-Oscar Sunday New York Times shows how things have changed over a decade. On Feb. 20, 1983, the Times‘ movie section carried 50 blurbs, mostly from prestigious newspaper or magazine critics; only eight TV and radio nobodies were quoted. The Feb. 21, 1993, issue had 100 blurbs — about half of them broadcasters.
In 1961, producer David Merrick puckishly hired people with the same names as famous critics to blurb his flop Subways Are for Sleeping; nowadays any name will do, because it’s the extravagant word, not its source, that counts. Upbeat blurbmongers have proliferated wildly: Susan Granger (WICC/AMC), Dixie Whatley (WCVB-TV), Jeff Craig (Sixty Second Preview).
Even would-be Pauline Kaels are transformed by the ads into shrieking Ronco pitchmen. Everybody has a quote-ad horror story:
*Roger Ebert wrote that he’s usually a sucker for movies in which time is suspended so that a romance can leap across decades, but that Forever Young was a mediocre example. He says his blurb read: ”I am a sucker for such movies.”
*Seattle Times critic Jeff Shannon called Used People ”the kind of movie that earns laughs and Oscar nominations, but it’s just a bit too self-conscious to fully deserve either.” Mourns Shannon: ”Guess where the ad cut the sentence.”
*The Jodie Foster vehicle Stealing Home won this blurb, attributed to The Miami Herald‘s Bill Cosford: ”Beautifully written à la Moonstruck… you’ll spend a couple of hours lost in a wonderful world.” Somebody must have been. ”I still haven’t seen the film,” says Cosford. ”To this day, I haven’t figured out where that (quote) came from.”
*After a blurb applied the high praise of The New York Times‘ Vincent Canby for Ingmar Bergman to his 1971 stinker, The Touch, Canby fought back. He reported it to New York City’s consumer affairs czar Bess Myerson, who helped pass Regulation 520, making such extreme misquotes punishable by fine.
Blurbs also tempt critics to lay it on thick just to get quoted. ”It’s a pact with the devil,” complains Mike Clark of USA Today. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, A Few Good Men, Deadly Currents, and A River Runs Through It each earned a ”masterpiece!” rave from a major critic. Laudatory adjectives are devaluing faster than Brazilian currency.
But there is hope. The quote-ad spiral may get so overheated it collapses, like the mad tulip-bulb market in 17th-century Holland. ”The one good thing about quote ads,” says Canby, ”is when you look at what you’ve said and it looks so stupid you say, ‘Oh my God! I’ve got to learn to write all over again!”’