Screen capture from The Corridor
As the day neared for me to see my brother’s debut film, it was hard to say which of us was more anxious. For my part, I worried the movie would be terrible and that I wouldn’t know what to tell him. For his part, he worried I’d think it was terrible and that I’d explain precisely why. More anxious than either of us, perhaps, was our mother, who fretted from the sidelines, hoping I could, for once, just be supportive. “Now Scott, make sure to say only nice things,” she would admonish during my weekly telephone calls home. I knew she said this exclusively to me, not to my sister or father. They could be counted on to say nice things without being told. I envied them that.
For better or worse, I don’t tend to confine my opinions to the page. I’m opinionated in person, too, and I’m almost constitutionally incapable of softening an appraisal to spare someone’s feelings. I’m not proud of this fact, and to mitigate it I try to avoid volunteering my opinions unasked. Perversely, I can do this quite easily with strangers — probably because I don’t care if they get the “real” me — but I can’t help saying what I truly think when I’m with friends and family. And that goes double when I’m with my brother. Josh and I, we know one another too well, and we love movies too much to be anything less than totally sincere about them. Moreover, our tastes are ridiculously similar, and if either of us even tried to be insincere, the other would almost certainly know.
Josh is four years older than I am, and he’s pretty much entirely responsible for my borderline unhealthy obsession with movies. Most of my earliest movie memories aren’t even of moviegoing — they’re of listening to him recount the plots, which he learned either by seeing movies with our parents or by reading fan magazines and comic book adaptations. (I suspect he made a lot of stuff up, too.) While he unfolded to me scenes of unspeakable terror or wonderment (easily our two favourite emotions), I would project those scenes onto a little screen inside my brain, quietly thrilling to whatever I saw there.
Later, when I was old enough, Josh would take me along on his afternoon paper route — this was in Halifax in the early ’80s — and the last stop on the route was a small neighbourhood movie theatre called the Hyland. The owner of the theatre, unable to leave his spot at the ticket window, would send us down the street to a nearby taxi stand to buy him coffee. In exchange, he gave us coupons to see movies for free. Needless to say, this was mind-blowing to us. Our family didn’t own a VCR then, and going to a theatre was the only way to see movies. I think Josh bogarted most of the coupons, but often enough he would take me along, usually to a weekend matinee. I remember seeing E.T. there, and Time Bandits, and an old print of Jason and the Argonauts.
Cut to: adulthood. Josh is now a fairly established stage and screen writer, while I am trying my hardest to become an established film critic. It’s no accident we ended up where we are, on opposite sides of the artist-critic divide. Josh is more the dive-into-the-pool, make-stuff-happen sort, whereas I’m more about sitting beside the pool and observing. (I’m sure this goes right back to our formative days, with him performing scenes and me watching.) It never occurred to me this might one day result in awkwardness between us. It took years for Josh to get his first screenplay produced, and even though we talked about his efforts all the time, the talk felt abstract; I’m not sure I quite believed there would one day be a finished product. But sure enough, in 2010, he got the film made. It didn’t get much of a release, but it got made.
Adapted from a play he wrote called Halo, it was a comedy about a fictitious Nova Scotia town that goes nuts when Jesus appears in a stain on a coffee shop wall. Unfortunately, the title Halo had recently been used for a big-budget adaptation of the Ã¼ber-popular video game, so the producers and the director gave the movie a new, really terrible title: Faith, Fraud, and Minimum Wage. This was, for me, when the fear began. All along, Josh had been bemoaning the millions of little compromises — the requisite script changes, the budgetary constraints, the on-set challenges — and yet still I harboured hope the movie would turn out well. But when Halo became FFMW, I knew it was doomed. The sheer blandness of the name felt like a hex. Faith, Fraud, and Minimum Wage is the sort of title you see when you’re scrolling through the Roger’s VOD menu at 2 a.m. and you think, “What the fuck is that?” Suddenly, despite my best efforts to be enthusiastic, I found myself dreading the inevitable screening.
Needless to say, this was not good brotherly behaviour. A good brother would say, “Hey, Faith, Fraud, and Minimum Wage isn’t so bad, and who cares about the title anyway, it’s what’s onscreen that counts! Your movie is gonna be awesome!” But I didn’t say that. I just avoided saying anything at all, which was easy to do since I live in Toronto and Josh lives in Halifax. Avoidance only works for so long, however, and soon the time came for me to settle in with a DVD screener copy. Josh had already shown it to the rest of the family (and they, of course, had very nice things to say), but he refrained from showing it to me for as long as possible. “Ugh, you’re just going to hate it,” he’d explain, and I’d say, “Noooo,” but inside I’d think, “Maybe.” At any rate, I dimmed the lights, pressed play, and crossed my fingers.
To cut to the chase: I hated it. Okay, “hated” is too strong a word, but I definitely didn’t like it. Not only was the original play much better, the movie version was almost a betrayal of it, turning the once endearing townspeople into comic grotesques. And so the question now was: should I say this to him? For most people, the answer would be: “No. Of course not. You asshole.” But rightly or wrongly, I’ve always felt people have a duty to be honest with those they love. I mean, if you’re not going to be honest with them, who is? But then another part of me wonders if maybe this is just plain old douchebaggery on my part. Where do I get off thinking my opinions are so valuable?
Complicating the situation was the fact that Josh himself seemed to have lost all sense of the movie’s qualities (or lack thereof). He definitely had a strong suspicion it wasn’t great, having spent years bewailing the changes made to the material, but by this point in the process he just didn’t know anymore. This tends to happen to filmmakers. By necessity, everyone involved in a film gets so high on it that, even if it’s terrible, they convince one another — or they almost convince one another — that it isn’t. Accordingly, Josh was eager, as well as terrified, to get outside feedback. And because our tastes are so similar, no one could give him feedback that would better resemble his own.
In the end, I disappointed my mother yet again and told Josh what I thought. I may have mumbled and peppered the conversation with nervous laughter, but I told him. He took it well, on the whole. I could see it wasn’t what he wanted to hear, and he maybe even thought I was being a jerk, but he dutifully absorbed the information. I still don’t know if it was the right thing to do, but if our roles had been reversed I would have wanted him to be honest with me. At any rate, he never held it against me, and we’re still close.
In the end, maybe the best argument for the honesty-at-all-costs approach is that, when that same person you love does good, they know your praise isn’t empty. The happy ending to this story is that Josh forged ahead and got another movie made, one that played festivals around the world, received a bunch of acclaim, and debuted in New York and on VOD last week. It’s a slow-burn horror movie called The Corridor, and it’s infinitely better than FFMW (in my opinion, of course). He and the director, Evan Kelly, made it independently, without all the red-tape and compromises of the typical mainstream Canadian production, and it shows. I’m damn proud of it, and if it wasn’t completely unethical of me to do so, I’d have written a thumbs-up review of it this week. Does this make up for being a jerk before? Probably not. But at least my brother knows he always has someone he can go to who’ll level with him. And the best part of all: mom is finally speaking to me again.
Scott MacDonald writes about cinema for Toronto Standard.