24 Lies a Second: Twenty Years in the Dark

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Twenty Years in the Dark

When I wrote the first edition of what soon became 24 Lies a Second, I didn't expect it to become a wildly popular, influential success, or to change the world in any significant way. And these expectations proved to be well-founded, for – other than providing a reliable bit of ballast mid-way down the Post's contents page every week – I am fairly sure it retains its status as one of the most dispensable things on the Internet (and, as I'm sure you're aware, that's up against some formidable competition).

And yet here I am, having given serious thought as to what to write about in this, the 20th anniversary column (#711, give or take, for anyone keeping score – the fact it's not remotely close to 1040 should tell you something about what an irregular artefact the column was for most of its first decade). I saw a revival of 2001: A Space Odyssey last weekend, which was as usual a transcendent experience, and well worthy of a special occasion, but of course I've already covered it, nearly seven years ago. I saw another extremely good and impressive film the previous day, but I worry it may be just a bit too frivolous for this China and/or Platinum anniversary occasion. (Have I finally succumbed to the kind of movie snobbery I always swore to avoid? It's a concern.)

One of the nice things about the insatiable beast that is a weekly topical column is that, pandemics and cinema closures notwithstanding, you're not particularly prone to suffer from this sort of soul-searching and self-doubt – you just check the listings every week and decide which films look promising, or at least interesting, and then you just trot along. Doing this on an amateur basis means you're not being paid to watch the latest Michael Bay or James Corden film (what salary would truly justify this, one wonders), so you can just pick the stuff that takes your fancy (looking back, I do wonder what the hell I was thinking of seeing the likes of the most recent Bad Boys sequel, amongst many others).

So of course it has been an inherently biased undertaking pretty much from the start, with the additional wrinkle of being written from non-English-speaking countries on a couple of occasions. (Japanese cinemas have an excellent no-dubbing policy for grown-up films, which is sadly not shared by Italy or the Kyrgyz Republic – this didn't stop me attempting to write about Watchmen or Crank: High Voltage, both of which I initially saw in Russian.) Even so, is it a track record to be proud of? What keeps your correspondent awake at night as he contemplates the closest thing he has to a life's work?

Well, first of all, there are all the films about which were perfectly competently made and great exemplars of their genres, but which I just couldn't find anything particularly insightful to say about. This is the kind of territory where extended comic conceits or particularly laboured and convoluted introductions or summaries tend to make an appearance, simply to ensure one hits the (self-imposed) minimum word count. (I'm quite inflexible on this these days, my last major transgression having been in 2016 when I attempted to review the experimental single-take thriller Victoria in a single sentence. Suffice to say reaching the necessary length defeated me.) I suppose one should just be brave enough to say ‘this is a decent film but nothing special' and just move on, but the shade of Clive James is always at my shoulder, bringing memories of finding insight and profundity in the most unpromising places.

Then, of course, there is the odious phenomenon of wanting a film to be good so much that you come out having convinced yourself it was much better than is actually the case. I was one of the many people who went to see The Phantom Menace in 1999 and came out certain it was well up to scratch as a film, whereas nowadays I can't watch it without noticing the immense and fundamental structural flaws in the script. Luckily this was in pre-column days, but I still fear I may have been just a bit too generous to many films simply because of the subject matter or the key personnel – I was very kind about the Ang Lee version of Hulk, if memory serves, and quite ridiculously generous to The Matrix Reloaded in the same year. Then again, as we have discussed, this has been a column born of enthusiasm and so this is bound to colour its contents occasionally.

The reverse phenomenon – panning films because you expect them to be poor – has been less of a concern because, as noted, I so seldom see films that don't interest me on some level (though family dragged me off to see the Downton Abbey film and various other things in a similar vein). What does occasionally happen is that some mechanical-looking potboiler turns out to have unexpected style and class and life to it, or just a surprisingly high level of competence in all departments, and here again there is always the danger of overpraising. It's hard to be objective in these circumstances – watching (to choose a recent example) Nobody again on TV in a few years time, will it really be as entertaining as I remember? It's hard to be sure. Some films are all about their initial impact; others take root in your psyche and grow with subsequent viewings (I suspect the latter kind are the really significant films, but I'm sure there are exceptions here too).

And then, of course, there are the times when my just-plain-got-it-wrongness took the form of being quite rude about films which I have subsequently realised were actually much better than I realised. I am probably the only person in history to be on record as thinking that Die Another Day was a better movie than The Bourne Identity (this is the sort of thing that makes me want to pay someone to have the h2g2 servers selectively wiped) – of course I have revised my views since then, but it's still quite embarrassing. The Bourne Identity is the example which has stuck in my memory here, to be honest, simply because the first two sequels were such genuinely brilliant thrillers (leading me to revisit it more often than many films), but I'm sure there have been other examples.

On the whole, though, I think I would stand by the majority of my verdicts, which must mean something over such an extended period. I'm certain I've never made or broken a career, and I'm fairly doubtful I've ever appreciably changed anyone's opinion (though the individual who apparently printed out the review of Catwoman, photocopied it and stuck it up as posters around their place of work was clearly more optimistic than me). In the end the column has been its own reward as it has given me an incentive and justification for going to the cinema. A lot. And that at least I have no regrets about.

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