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BOOK REVIEW: Sarah McLean Mullen's How to Judge Motion Pictures
by Charles Tatum

You remember the scene, I know you do. In 1989's "The Dead Poets Society," teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) is leading his new class in how to measure the enjoyment of a poem. The exercise involves graphs which students dutifully copied, and measurements strictly observed, when suddenly Keating insists that the students rip this section out of the textbook and toss it! Poetry cannot be measured like you would a temperature, or a quantity of liquid. It's inherent beauty comes from what it does to your head and your heart.

Well, while skulking around the local university library, I was browsing in the film books section (which is impressively diverse for a college with no film studies program). Tucked among the larger books by James Agee, and old Halliwell's Film Guides, I found a 63-page pamphlet entitled "How to Judge Motion Pictures, and How to Organize a Photoplay Club" by a woman named Sarah McLean Mullen. The pamphlet trumpeted its foreword (by a William L. Lewin) and was published by Scholastic, a weekly newspaper for high school students. I sat down to read, and found the copyright date for this revised edition- 1936...oh, boy, this was going to be good.

While the yawny foreword talked of Lewin's nationwide research into using films for education, Mullen's material was the best part to digest. In the back of the pamphlet, I found what Mullen has called a "Scholastic Score Card For Rating Photoplays." Ten aspects of a judged film is rated on a weighted scale, the scores are totaled, and the total weighted score, after a little more math, gives you a percentile rating that tells you whether a film is good or not. As an audience, we all have expectations when seeing a photoplay (their term for movies, and an irritating one at that), and the Score Card slices through all the physical discomforts we experience at the theater, giving us a true indication of a film's worthiness.

The ten items judged are: Entertainment Value, Basic Theme, Story, Title, Dramatic Plot Structure, Social Value, Direction, Characterization, Settings-Costuming-Make-up-Properties, Lighting and Photography, and Sound and Musical Effects. Interestingly enough, the sample Score Card printed is for a real 1935 film featuring Henry Fonda called "I Dream Too Much." Someone named Syms C. Armstrong of the Burr High School Photoplay Club paid 35 cents to see this, and the film's final percentile score is 63-1/3% (Mullen warns us that very few ever pass the 90% mark, much less score a perfect 100 percentile). When I looked "I Dreamed Too Much" up on, only a few hundred people had seen it, but it's weighted average score was 5.5 out of 10. Apparently, Syms found more to like seventy-five years ago than today's jaded audiences.

So, which film should I test Mullen's hypothesis out on? Last year's Best Picture Oscar winner? A contemporary film from Frank Capra or John Ford? No, no, no. I'm going for a short film, so I can look back and forth between Mullen's ingredients for good photoplay-making, and the screen. Yes, I believe 1987's "Gent Video Centerfold #4: Stacey Owen" on VHS will do just fine. Don't judge me, and no, I am not L. Pete Morton.

The video is just twenty-six minutes. For Entertainment Value, a big-busted Scottish lass waking up nekkid, rubbing herself, fixing breakfast half-nude, showering and soaping up, more rubbing, lotioning the yams, and then posing for a pretend photo shoot does have some Entertainment Value. On the +3 to -1 scale, I scored this a +1. The Basic Theme has no significance, so a -1. No Story, either, so we'll goose-egg that section. The Title onscreen is different from the video box, and none of them is listed on IMDB (yet), so I score it a -1. While the Dramatic Plot Structure is stupid, there is some, so +1. Social Value? Um, yeah, zero. Direction gets a +1, Peter Kay does his job and shows off every aspect of Owen's physical talents. Characterization is supposed to include Acting and Speech. The film is narrated by Owen, and photographer James Campbell, but Owen doesn't do very well even playing herself- her real strength is playing with herse- oh, you know what I mean- so another zero. The Settings, Costumes, Make-Up, and Properties are all consistent with a direct-to-video centerfold tape that served as an introduction for Owen to eventually move to more hardcore efforts, so a +2. Lighting and Photography were both blinding and bleached out, so another zero. The Sound and Musical Effects were horrendous. When Owen isn't pleading with you to look her up the next time you are in Scotland, some song I think was called "When a Woman's Alone" assaults your ears. Definitely, a -1.

Now then, I multiply the scores by the weight, add the weighted scores, and then divide the total by three. According to the Sarah McLean Mullen Scholastic Score Card For Rating Photoplays, "Gent Video Centerfold #4: Stacey Owen" gets a pitiful 8.33%. Sorry, love.

The rest of the pamphlet covers how to start a photoplay club in high school, which involves complicated parliamentary procedures and sexism (girls will appreciate the social aspects of the club, while boys will be more interested in how the film equipment runs). The main focus is Mullen's formula, and it was a hoot to read aged passages like "we are all familiar with climaxes. We have sat breathless during many of them, and have slumped back with a sense of deep relief when they were over," which had me laughing so hard, I did slump back.

I thought about following the inspiring civil disobedience of John Keating, and ripping this pamphlet to shreds, but this was the original 1936 copy. It is so old, I looked at the yellowed library card in back, and it was signed by a humanities professor who taught at the university so long ago, they died, and then had a building constructed and named for them over thirty years ago. I think I'll hold onto my Score Card, though, putting it up on the fridge alongside Syms C. Armstrong's "I Dream Too Much" judgement. That film, and "Gent Video Centerfold #4: Stacey Owen" received equal scores in Dramatic Plot Structure. Oh, Syms, if you only knew what photoplays would be like in seventy-five years!

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originally posted: 04/21/10 07:36:28
last updated: 04/21/10 07:38:00
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