Five stars? I don't f*****g think so

Sat, May 5, 2012, 01:00

On a bus near you, a DONALD CLARKEquote is selling'Charlie Casanova. The problem? He didn't like the film and he really doesn't like the ads

WHEN I’M ASKED to list my favourite films, I rarely fail to include Alexander Mackendrick’s great Sweet Smell of Success. The picture, released in 1957, features Burt Lancaster as the malevolent journalist all hacks secretly wish to become. JJ Hunsecker can destroy careers with a few carefully placed syllables. Politicians quake when he raises an eyebrow. More to the current point, he has his name written on the side of all the newspaper’s vans. When Tony Curtis, playing a dishonest publicist named Sidney Falco, stops for a cup of coffee in Times Square, the street behind him swells with automotive advertisements for Hunsecker’s column.

This week, I finally got a sense of how it must feel to be JJ. Are you reading this in Dublin? Then glance out of the window and, likely as not, you’ll see my name emblazoned on a passing bus. They’re everywhere. Ten per cent of the fleet appears to be wearing the new Clarke livery. Why am I not happy? The vehicles are carrying commercials for a new Irish film, Charlie Casanova. Apparently Donald Clarke of The Irish Times thinks that Terry McMahon’s social satire is “a pretty jaw-dropping piece of work”. Mine is the only quote on the advertisement. The lettering is not small. It looks as if, like Pauline Kael standing up for Bonnie and Clyde, I am going out of my way to promote a brave new experimental film.

Here’s the problem. I would rather drink dilute caustic soda then sit through Charlie Casanova again. The quote is drawn from my report on the 2011 Galway Film Fleadh. After admitting that jaws may drop, I went on to say that the acting was satisfactory and that (a bit generous, this) the “tech-work is up to scratch”. The paragraph finished: “As the existentially troubled antihero engages with this contemporary Hades, large lumps of quasi-philosophic waffle squash the preposterous voiceover into puzzling indigestibility.”

It would be wrong to say that my notice was a total evisceration. One is inclined to go easy on low-budget films when they emerge blinking into the festival sunlight. But it is clear that I didn’t like the blasted thing and that “jaw-dropping” was not intended as a recommendation.

We will, for two reasons, refrain from detailing too closely the abundant deficiencies of Charlie Casanova. Firstly, it is polite to delay such rabbit punching until the week of release. Secondly, given the film’s marketing to date, it looks as if there is no comment, however savage, that it is not prepared to regard as a recommendation. In the “reviews” section of the film’s website, it extracts the phrase “borders on audience abuse” from Variety’s unremittingly negative notice. If I were to say that the film plays like the deranged, over-reaching ramblings of a glue sniffer who has read the jacket blurbs – but no more – of too many Albert Camus novels, there would be every chance of that phrase appearing prominently in the publicity material. So I’ll say something else instead.

This business of pulling quotes out of context for promotional purpose has been going on for aeons. My favourite example of the art involves another Irish film. A little over a decade ago, an unprepossessing little picture called The Most Fertile Man in Ireland made it into British cinemas. Mark Kermode, standing in for Philip French at the Observer, was not in the least impressed. “Sadly, The Most Fertile Man in Ireland is every bit as hilarious as its title suggests,” Kermode wrote. When the film emerged on DVD the sentence was quoted on the box. But there was a tiny, significant omission. The word “sadly” was nowhere to be seen.

Kermode has granted that, in this case, you really have to admire the marketing wonks’ chutzpah. Whereas the misuse of my quote in Busgate involved a degree of creative ambiguity, the distributors of Most Fertile Man were implying Kermode’s phrase meant precisely the opposite of what he intended.

THE LEGAL POSITIONis slippery. When I mentioned the bus business to fellow critics, few of whom were any more fond of Charlie Casanova, they made comical side-clutching gestures and fell theatrically from their seats. After pulling himself together, one then commented: “That has to be illegal.” A phone call to The Irish Times’s lawyers confirmed that such quote-mining could conceivably involve an infringement of the journalist’s copyright. Misrepresenting a critic for financial gain is not considered “fair usage”.

It hardly needs to be said (relax, Terry) that, even if I were on sounder legal ground, I would not consider suing. My main emotion is amusement. Still, it is only fair to hold the distributors to account. Element Pictures, which handles the film in this country, explained that its partner Studio Canal, the French-based company that acquired the film for the UK and Ireland, was responsible for plastering my name on all those blameless buses. The company’s London office offered a bland response: “The marketing assets for Charlie Casanova were created following close collaboration with the producer/director. The quote was directly taken from an Irish Times article on July 12th, 2011.”

Though the law may be ambiguous, there is a degree of moral dubiousness to such Machiavellian jiggery-pokery. When excerpting a misleading quote, the distributors are exploiting the consumer’s trusting nature. We are grown-ups. You don’t have to be Umberto Eco to grasp the uncertain nature of language. Of course, “jaw-dropping” can imply both delight and horror. If, however, one encounters that phrase in promotional material one, quite reasonably, assumes it was intended as a compliment.

Yet these sorts of games are played all the time. In recent years the movie trailer has become increasingly unreliable. A recent promo for Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus portrayed the film as an unremitting action picture loaded with explosions and trademark grimacing from the fearsome Gerard Butler. Few excerpts of dialogue are longer than six words. Why, it’s almost as if they don’t want you to know the film is an adaptation of a play by William Shakespeare.

Distributors frequently issue trailers of foreign-language pictures that conceal the product’s origins. You could sit through the promotional slots for The Lives of Others or the original version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo without getting any sense that the dialogue was, respectively, in German and Swedish. Most promos for Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd did an admirable job of concealing the fact that the film was a musical.

Why do we put up with it? Well, moviegoers may be trusting, but few of them are complete idiots. Surprised by iambic pentameter, Swedish verbs or Steven Sondheim melodies, average punters sigh and remark, once again, upon the dubious nature of marketing. No sane person really expects that yogurt to reverse heart disease or that unguent to turn you into Rachel Weisz.

Let us return to Sweet Smell of Success. In it, Hunsecker muses upon the treacherous aspects of Sidney Falco’s business. “Mr Falco, whom I did not invite to sit at this table tonight, is a hungry press agent, and fully up to all the tricks of his very slimy trade,” JJ remarks. The columnist is a little harsh. But we have to allow a degree of artistic licence. Don’t we? As we’ve seen, that’s the way of the world.

David who? The Manning who wasn't there

All sensible folk remain suspicious of single-word quotes on film reviews. “Fantastic” could well be drawn from a sentence that reads: “The fantastic idiocy of this project stuns the senses.”

But we can assume the quoted critic exists. Right? Not necessarily. In 2005 a US judge forced Sony Studios to fork out $1.5 million when it was found that quotes on the firm’s advertising material had been fabricated.

It seems that five years earlier a marketing executive at the company had invented a fictitious critic named David Manning. The brazen nature of the fraud still defies belief. Credited to the Ridgefield Press, one quote, when discussing A Knight’s Tale, praised Heath Ledger (pictured above) as “this year’s hottest new star”. Sounds plausible. More suspiciously, the mysterious Manning described The Animal, a Rob Schneider atrocity, as “another winner”. Manning’s quotes also appeared on promotional material for The Patriot and Vertical Limit. The fraud was eventually uncovered by a reporter for Newsweek magazine. The Ridgefield Press, a Connecticut paper, certainly existed, but its proprietors had never heard of David Manning.

After settling out of court, Sony agreed to offer a $5 refund to any fan who felt cheated (and could be bothered to make a claim). In the months that followed, Manning became a sort of virtual celebrity. Harry Shearer “interviewed” him on his public-radio show. The admirable Bryan Cranston, then appearing in Malcolm in the Middle, jokingly quoted the imaginary writer in an advertisement aimed at Emmy voters. You wonder why the marketing people bothered. A Knight’s Tale was actually a cracking film. They can quote me on that.