Features Jul 01 2008 @ 08:15 am
This is part the second of a two-part article examining the ways in which one might become a better film critic. You can find the first part of the article here.
I was surprised by and appreciative of the responses that I received on the first part of this article. I also must admit that I found it quite surreal to see my name jutting out from blog posts in Spanish and Vietnamese. Hopefully the second part of this article is as much of a conversation starter as the first was. Again, your feedback is warmly welcomed.
6. Don’t Be Dull
The grand majority of people who read reviews are not doing so because they want to figure out whether they should see Spiderman 3 or if Saw 18 is worth their money. They’ve typically made up their mind long before they reach your critical prose. Jim Emerson at scanners::blog had this to say about the motivation to read movie reviews: “As the founding editor of RogerEbert.com I can tell you that a lot of people still read Roger for guidance and suggestions — but a lot of them also read him because they enjoy reading HIM. Some of the most popular reviews are also some of the most negative ones, and I’m pretty sure it’s not because there were so many people anticipating Basic Instinct 2 and dying to know whether Roger thought it was any good.” People read reviews either for entertainment or because they like the style of the critic in question; often those two things are virtually synonymous. Reviews can be analytical, they can be clever, they can even be abstract; the one thing they should never be, however, is boring. Dullness will be the death of your future as a film critic. If you’re going to write a film review, make sure you have something interesting to say.
I’ve selected a highly entertaining bit by Pauline Kael on Rambo, a punchline from James Berardinelli that made me LOL (I apologize, I couldn’t help myself), and links to the full reviews for The Covenant by Nathan Lee and The Cat in the Hat by Mahnola Dargis. The latter two are unconventional and good examples of thinking outside the oftentimes tiny film critic’s box.
- Pauline Kael on Rambo: First Blood Part II:
“Rambo: First Blood Part II explodes your previous conception of “overwrought” – it’s like a tank sitting in your lap firing at you. Jump-cutting from one would-be high point to another, Rambo is to the action film what Flashdance was to the musical, with one to-be-cherished difference: audiences are laughing at its star and progenitor, Sylvester Stallone, who comes across as a humanoid Christ figure with brown leather skin and symmetrical scars. Rambo has been programmed with (a) homoeroticism, (b) self-pity, (c) self-righteousness, (d) sweat, and (e) an insatiable need to be crucified over and over. He has a sour pout on his face, and he’s given to deep enigmatic utterances, such as “To survive a war you have to become war.”… David Morrell, whose novel First Blood was the basis of the first Rambo picture, has written the novelization of this sequel, from the screenplay by Stallone and James Cameron. It’s a love letter to Rambo’s weaponry – his nasty serrated knife and his bow and exploding arrows. In the author’s note at the front of the book, Morrell tells us who “created” the weapons and where we should write to order them. I can hardly wait for my set to arrive.”
- The New Yorker, June 17, 1985, taken from “For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies”
- James Berardinelli on Shutter:
“The original Shutter is a Thai film, not a Japanese or Korean concoction, but there’s nothing to differentiate it from all the other movies where spirits have pasty faces and fail to recognize the value of the slogan “rest in peace.” Ghost stories are to the 2000s what slasher films were to the 1980s. There are only so many interesting ideas one can apply and, after a while, they all seem the same. What makes it worse with Asian horror is that most of these are re-makes of somewhat better foreign language entries, so they literally are the same (except for the obligatory changes necessary to create a comfort level among Western audiences). If a viewer wanted to argue that Shutter was the worst of all those to reach the market so far, I would have a hard time countering him. For a good clue to the quality level contained herein, take the title of the movie and replace the ‘u’ with an ‘i.’”
- Nathan Lee on The Covenant, from the New York Times
7. Invest Yourself in Other Pursuits
This point expands on the first and second points, broadening their scope. Not only should a film critic seek to expand their cinematic vocabulary (which is a veritable given considering the profession) and develop an appreciation for all the arts, but they should also invest themselves in other pursuits outside of the cinema or the arts. Although this may seem contradictory, the film critic who only watches films to the exclusion of all other pursuits will deliver introverted, myopic reviews. To put it bluntly, a film critic should have a hobby. To put it even more bluntly than that, a film critic should have a life.
Phillip Lopate in his introduction to “American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now” writes, “We also glean the critic’s other interests: that Otis Ferguson loves jazz, Manny Farber is knowledgeable about painting and prizefighting, Stanley Kauffmann has a deep feeling for the theater, Stanley Cavell is devoted to Emerson, James Agee seems interested in everything. Renata Adler, preparing herself to becomes the New York Times critic, commented: ‘The best criticism I read was still by writers who simply felt moved by film to say something about it–without reverent or consistent strategies, putting films idiosyncratically alongside things they cared about in other ways.’ Paradoxically, the really good film critic has to show an interest in something else besides movies; a well-stocked mind remains the mark of the true essayist.
I’ve included a single selection here from a critic you have not likely heard of, but I love the point he is making here and how he makes it.
- Greg Wright on Cassandra’s Dream:
“Early on in Woody Allen’s latest drama, Ian takes a female coworker for a drive in the country. As the couple romps through the hills and enjoys a picnic in a meadow, Allen’s camera lingers for a moment—and the shot is framed by some rather colorful yellow flowers. I particularly noticed these flowers because I’ve had some landscaping problems with them here in Seattle; and I’ve also seen them in meadows in the U.K., meadows not unlike the one that Ian shares with his date.
And I happen to know that these flowers are Tansy—which is actually a noxious weed poisonous to horses. And as I took in that shot, I thought to myself, Huh. Maybe Allen, that die-hard Manhattanite, doesn’t know he’s just framed his shot with poisonous (if beautiful) flowering weeds.
But the shot that follows this is also framed by Tansy—and even more prominently. I started to take notice a little more deeply.
And in the very next shot, we are introduced to the film’s femme fatale: a woman who looks beautiful enough, but whose influence proves very very poisonous to Ian and his brother Terry.
I’m pretty sure Allen knew what he was doing with the Tansy.”
8. Become an Excellent Essayist
The best pieces of film criticism could comfortably be included in a book of personal and intellectual essays. They are not so much about the film itself, but about the experience of the film (and whatever that entails). Great film criticism isn’t simply a plot synopsis. It isn’t a list of likes/dislikes and pros/cons. It should not attempt to address all of the usual suspects (i.e., the acting was _________, the writing was _________, and the special effects were _________), but instead should create a distinct impression of the film being reviewed. It’s the difference between writing the Five Paragraph Essay your high school teacher taught you to write (Introduction, 3 Assertions with Specific Support, Conclusion, shoot me in the face now) and writing passionate, creative essays that engage, ignite, and entertain the reader.
At Kevin B. Lee’s Shooting Down Pictures, he recently provided extensive notes on the NYU Film Conference, which featured Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin as speakers (I suggest you read all 5 insightful posts, starting here). Martin is quoted as saying that “powerful criticism [is] writing that both describes the sensual experience of watching the film while eliciting a profound, startling thought. [This writing is distinguished] from the mundane criticism that attaches synopsizing with general like/dislike responses to the acting and story.” As per point number 4 above, great film criticism isn’t necessarily about convincing someone to see or avoid a certain film (although that does enter in at times) – it’s about constructing an elegant portrait of the film that is sometimes personal, sometimes intellectual, and oftentimes both.
Phillip Lopate, in his introduction to “American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now” said, “The film critic we trust and read regularly becomes a kind of old friend whose conversation we cherish and to whom we turn eagerly for opinions and advice. Stanley Cavell said it best: ‘the writing about film which has meant something to me has the power of the missing companion. Agee and Robert Warshow and André Bazin manage that mode of conversation all the time; and I have found it in, among others, Manny Farber, Pauline Kael, Parker Tyler, Andrew Sarris.’ In this sense, the best film criticism verges on the personal essay, where the particular topic matters less, in the long run, than the companionable voice.” Great film critics, then, are great essayists.
It is impossible to provide selections to illustrate this point without including the reviews in their entirety, so instead I direct you to Roger Ebert’s Great Reviews column. I find his pieces on masterworks of yesteryear to be grand examples of the great essay, equal parts history, personal experience, and reflection. Here, then, is a brief snippet, his final paragraph for Bonnie and Clyde.
- Roger Ebert on Bonnie and Clyde:
“When I saw it, I had been a film critic for less than six months, and it was the first masterpiece I had seen on the job. I felt an exhilaration beyond describing. I did not suspect how long it would be between such experiences, but at least I learned that they were possible.”
9. Avoid the Reviews of Others Before Writing…Study Them Afterwards
As a critic, one of the most crucial skills you can cultivate is the ability to quickly distill your subjective perceptions of a film into a clear, well-reasoned, entertaining piece of criticism. Your experience at a film is truly unlike anyone else’s experience, and your work will be better the more unique and personal it is to you. Reading the reviews of others beforehand, apart from encouraging the pitfall of plagiarism, will simply dull and neuter your own experiences and thoughts. Do you really want to churn out a piece that resembles every other critic’s review? And on films that are particularly difficult to resolve in your own mind, don’t succumb to the temptation of looking into the opinions of others. The challenge (and time) it will take to enunciate your own loves/questions/disagreements with an obtuse work of art will result in a much richer review than if you had gleaned ‘help’ from others who had already successfully wrestled with the film.
However, once your piece is written, dive into the work of others. Discover points and observations that have been made that you may have missed. Study the composition of other critics and how they attacked the difficulties (or simplicities) of a given film. It’s a valuable exercise, one that the growing film critic can learn a great deal from.
10. Develop a Philosophy of Trash
One of the hazards of a critic’s job is being forced to sit through an unending parade of mediocre, boring, and just plain bad movies…and then having to write about them. After years, some critics crack with the strain of it, becoming bitter, unpleasant, armchair cynics who seem to hate anything the least bit commercial. Familiarity breeds contempt, and they disconnect with the public primarily because they’ve seen thousands upon thousands of the same films–the latest Bruce Willis action flick or Will Ferrell comedy offer them nothing but eye strain. Thus the critic who is in it for the long haul needs to divine a method for dealing with the flicks and flops that pander to the lowest common denominator, the kinds of films that Hollywood churns out on a weekly basis. Without such a method they will soon come to hate the very thing they had originally loved.
Phillip Lopate (I realize I have quoted from Lopate ad nauseum, but this book truly is an invaluable resource–by all means, purchase it immediately), in his introduction to “American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now” writes, “The film critic cannot be solely preoccupied with identifying instances of film art because to many movies are clearly not artistic in any manner. It won’t do to sound piously outraged at each instance of a movie’s failing to rise to the level of art. Working critics have to develop…strategies for writing about entertaining junk, either by isolating those gifted cameos or enjoyable moments that rise above the general mediocrity or by employing a variety of ironic, satiric, humorous tones to illuminate the triumph of tripe. Still, how do you find something fresh to say about the unremarkable commercial pictures that accomplish what they modestly set out to do, but frankly elicit no new exciting thoughts? How do you maintain the integrity to speak your mind, resisting coercions from the movie industry, your editor, your peer group, and the public?”
My first selection is from Roger Ebert’s 1/2 star review of Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever which I find terribly entertaining (I mean the review, although the movie is also entertaining, if only for all the wrong reasons). My second choice is from a piece by J. Hoberman, senior critic at the Village Voice, simply titled “Bad Movies.” And finally, I’m including another lengthy selection from Pauline Kael’s legendary essay, “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” not only because it perfectly illustrates this point, but because I love the essay, I hope you read it in its entirety, and it is the perfect piece with which to close this article.
- From Roger Ebert’s review of Ballistic: Ecks Vs. Sever:
“Both Sever and Ecks, once they discover this, have the same enemy in common: Gant (Gregg Henry), a DIA agent who is married to Talisa Sota and raising her child, although Sever kidnaps the child, who is in fact … but never mind, I want to discuss Gant’s secret weapon. He has obtained a miniaturized robot so small it can float in the bloodstream and cause strokes and heart attacks.
At one point in the movie, a man who will remain nameless is injected with one of these devices by a dart gun, and it kills him. All very well, but consider for a moment the problem of cost overruns in these times of economic uncertainty. A miniaturized assassination robot small enough to slip through the bloodstream would cost how much? Millions? And it is delivered by dart? How’s this for an idea: use a poison dart, and spend the surplus on school lunches.
The movie ends in a stock movie location I thought had been retired: A Steam and Flame Factory, where the combatants stalk each other on catwalks and from behind steel pillars, while the otherwise deserted factory supplies vast quantities of flame and steam.”
- J. Hoberman, from his essay, “Bad Movies”:
“There are a number of reasons to consider bad movies. The most obvious is that tastes change; that any, if not most of the films we admire were once dismissed as inconsequential trash; and that trash itself is not without its socio-aesthetic charms. Then too, bad movies have a pedagogic use value, even though the evolution of film form has largely been based on mistakes. A third reason is that movies, to a certain degree, have a life of their own. They mix the documentary with the fictional, and the worst intentions aspect of one can overwhelm the worst intentions of the other. In other words, it is possible for a movie to succeed because it has failed.
With their perverse, pioneering affection for the detritus of industrial civilization, the Surrealists were the first to cultivate an appreciation for bad movies. ‘The best and most exciting films [are] the films shown in local fleapits, films which seem to have no place in the history of cinema,’ advises Ado Kyrou in Le Surréalisme au Cinéma. ‘Learn to go see the “worst” films; they are sometimes sublime.’ This taste for Elixer of Pot-boiler–junky spectacles, cheap horror flicks, anonymous pornography, juvenile swashbucklers, movies ’scorned by critics, charged with cretinism or infantilism by the old defenders of rationality’–was based on the innate capacity of such films to produce (if only in random moments) that ‘crux of Surrealism,’ le merveilleux.”
- Taken from “Vulgar Modernism: Writing on Movies and Other Media”, by J. Hoberman
- Pauline Kael, from her essay, “Trash, Art, and the Movies”:
“Like those cynical heroes who were idealists before they discovered that the world was more rotten than they had been led to expect, we’re just about all of us displaced persons, ‘a long way from home.’ When we feel defeated, when we imagine we could now perhaps settle for home and what it represents, that home no longer exists. But there are movie houses. In whatever city we find ourselves we can duck into a theatre and see on the screen our familiars—our old ‘ideals’ aging as we are and no longer looking so ideal. Where could we better stoke the fires of our masochism than at rotten movies in gaudy seedy picture palaces in cities that run together, movies and anonymity a common denominator. Movies—a tawdry corrupt art for a tawdry corrupt world—fit the way we feel. The world doesn’t work the way the schoolbooks said it did and we are different from what our parents and teachers expected us to be. Movies are our cheap and easy expression, the sullen art of displaced persons. Because we feel low we sink in the boredom, relax in the irresponsibility, and maybe grin for a minute when the gunman lines up three men and kills them with a single bullet, which is no more ‘real’ to us than the nursery-school story of the brave little tailor.
A good movie can take you out of your dull funk and the hopelessness that so often goes with slipping into a theatre; a good movie can make you feel alive again, in contact, not just lost in another city. Good movies make you care, make you believe in possibilities again. If somewhere in the Hollywood-entertainment world someone has managed to break through with something that speaks to you, then it isn’t all corruption. The movie doesn’t have to be great; it can be stupid and empty and you can still have the joy of a good performance, or the joy in just a good line. An actor’s scowl, a small subversive gesture, a dirty remark that someone tosses off with a mock-innocent face, and the world makes a little bit of sense. Sitting there alone or painfully alone because those with you do not react as you do, you know there must be others perhaps in this very theatre or in this city, surely in other theatres in other cities, now, in the past or future, who react as you do. And because movies are the most total and encompassing art form we have, these reactions can seem the most personal and, maybe the most important, imaginable. The romance of movies is not just in those stories and those people on the screen but in the adolescent dream of meeting others who feel as you do about what you’ve seen. You do meet them, of course, and you know each other at once because you talk less about good movies than about what you love in bad movies.”