To be a movie critic for an American publication and to live in England are, as states of being, wholly incompatible. I find it thrilling to wake up every day knowing that I am, professionally speaking, a logical impossibility and that, if Bertrand Russell had ever had occasion to quiz me on the matter, he would have declared after three minutes, without visible regret, that I do not exist. Given that this is precisely how I feel most mornings anyway, the argument leaves me cold.
There was an age when the time lag between the American and European releases of a major film bordered on the perverse. "You ain't seen nothing yet," crowed Mr. Jolson, and it was indeed the case, among British moviegoers, that we didn't see nothing for a very long time. As jaded New Yorkers trooped into the premiere of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, their London counterparts were rumored to be gearing up for Raiders of the Lost Ark. These days, the gap has shrunk; whether through fear of piracy, or because a patriotic Hollywood wants to play its part in the new Bush doctrine of first strike, movies tend to land and explode pretty much everywhere at the same moment. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for instance, opens in New York on Nov. 15th and across Britain on the same day—five hours ahead, no less, which will presumably bring a planeload of bug-eyed Ron Weasley fanatics into Heathrow for the first available showing. Within days, Earth will be Pottered into submission, and the only sure way to avoid seeing the film will be to seek cinematic asylum in Baghdad.
To view it in advance, however, is a more exasperating matter. The days when Pauline Kael would not only see but write about a rough cut of Nashville seem as lost and celestial as 14th-century Florence. The current equation appears to be that for every hundred million dollars that you expect your movie to earn, you may cut by one day the amount of time that critics will be given to review it. Aiming to attend a screening tomorrow night, Thursday, I rang the Warner Bros. office in London:
"Hello, I'd like a ticket to the Harry Potter tomorrow night, please."
"Who is that?"
"This is Anthony Lane, the movie critic from TheNew Yorker."
"Could you spell that?"
"L, A, N, E."
"And you're calling from New York?"
"No, from TheNew Yorker. I live in London but …"
"Is that a newspaper?
"No, it's a weekly magazine."
"New York Magazine."
"Is that national or regional press?"
"Well, it's national, but in America. The nation is America."
"So, not British."
"No, but …"
"This is the U.K. press office. Shall I put you through to international sales?"
"Could I possibly have one ticket? Just for me?"
"Hang on a moment, I'll ask. … Actually the screening is full. If anything comes up I'll give you a call. Cheers, bye."
Now, this sort of Noel Coward patter occurs with such frequency in my life that I have ceased to be mortified. My only quibble concerns the cinema itself. Any movie featuring Hogwarts will be shown at one of the cavernous theatres in central London, most of which seat over a thousand people. I would not dream of claiming precedence over the throngs of viewers who have legitimately gained entrance ahead of me, but, to put the question delicately, who the fuck are they? Crew members? Apprentice wizards? Goblins with a grudge? I suspect that they are ordinary citizens who have won tickets to the preview by calling a radio station and answering such fevered brainteasers as, "What is Potter's first name? Is it a) Harry b) Puff c) Gandalf?"
Whatever the case, I congratulate them on their acuity and wish them well. As fans of the first picture, they are more likely than I to derive intellectual profit from its successor. So, no Harry Potter review from me for a while, unless I delve into my stores of courage and do what I have prayed, or promised, to do for a long time. Dare I review a film without seeing it? It sounds unjust, but it may be the way forward: a time-saver for me and more chance of a rave for the film's distributors. After all, gazing back on the movies that I have seen in the past decade, I am convinced that I would have been infinitely kinder to them, to all the potential that was tamped down within them, if I hadn't been muscled into the grisly business of actually watching them. I am pleased to report that my plan is backed by an unimpeachable authority—Sydney Smith, the wisest of English wits. "I never read a book before reviewing it," he wrote. "It prejudices a man so." If only I'd thought of that before Pearl Harbor.