The Art of the Pan

If you’re looking for a diversion from the never ending political sh*t show in America, I highly recommend English Patient Twitter, where just about everyone in media is talking about Sarah Miller’s Popula essay about her struggle in 1996 to get away with panning “The English Patient” for an alt weekly paper.

Even before seeing that “racist, boring, laughable, pseudo-intellectual movie,” she knew she’d pan it. Her perspective on popular movies often ran counter to the mainstream — more bluntly put, she didn’t like most movies. But it wasn’t just a pose; she came by her negative criticism honestly, and made salient, compelling arguments for it.

This was a movie about good looking mostly white people talking complete rubbish to each other, the end. But it was based on a LITERARY NOVEL with LONG SENTENCES using BIG WORDS. It had RESPECTED ACTORS. PEOPLE DIED in it. Also, WORLD WAR II WAS THERE. Everyone had agreed to care about this thing, to call it good, to give it nine Academy Awards. But it was just a piece of shit sprinkled with glitter that everyone, including me, agreed to call gold.

But Miller wasn’t the only person at the time to lampoon the drama — Seinfeld‘s ‘The English Patient’ episode, which drew more than 31 million viewers when it aired in 1997, centers on Elaine’s hatred of the film:

Still, Miller’s editor considered her opinion of the Anthony Minghella screen adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s novel to be scandalous.

My review of The English Patient was not really a review. I began by extensively praising Kristin Scott Thomas’s hair, and used this as a way to transition into discussing the other good things about the film. One was the chance to see Naveen Andrews, who I had liked so much in The Buddha of Suburbia, which I spent a paragraph praising, and which, I stressed, had a good story and was actually about something—unlike The English Patient, which was about British people fucking in their colonies, and not nearly often enough to be any fun. I recounted the moment when Fiennes stuck his livery tongue into the alabaster hollow of Scott Thomas’s throat, and Sam and I cried out in unison, “Ewwww.”

It was the best thing I’d ever written.

I pretended to read the paper as Jennifer read my review. I waited for her to start giggling and making appreciative sounds. But she was silent. When she finally turned to speak to me her face was white. She said, “Sarah, we cannot print this review.”

“But the movie was really, really, bad,” I said. “I mean seriously, it was the worst.”

“That is not the consensus from people I know who are smart,” she said. She was pretty mad.

“I swear to God that no one could possibly like this movie,” I said. “I mean, anyone who likes this movie is an idiot.”

Fearing it would threaten her future freelance work with the paper, Miller re-wrote the piece, dishonestly she says — in such a way that, “I didn’t go so far as to say that the movie was great, but I know that overall I ended up recommending it.”

Now, 22 years later, there are those on Twitter who view the essay as scandalous — calling it smug and flagrantly contrarian. But there seem to be more in favor of it, who appreciate Miller’s brutal honesty, and her irreverence toward the Serious Film establishment.

Read the story