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A Certain Tendency in Contemporary Film Criticism (1 Viewer)

Thomas J.

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The discussion I have been engaged in this past week in the Sight and Sound Challenge thread has inspired me to write my thoughts about the role of serious cinema criticism and analysis. Recently (meaning in the last decade), I have noticed a tendency in film writing to veer toward any number of inappropriate points of emphasis that I feel is limiting the potential effectiveness of film criticism, which, as a result, has hurt the cinema.

The first is the overuse of hyperbole to get one’s point across. It seems that in every review nowadays, every film is “great” in some regard, or has the “best” this, “a truly touching and emotional experience” that. I guess it’s easy for me to point the finger, because, after all, I’m aware of what serious film criticism is up against. Due in large part to new technologies such as the World Wide Web and its blogs and message boards, everyone these days with a computer (i.e., the non-impoverished classes in society, since the working class and certainly those below, still don’t have a voice in the media) can be their own film critic. What the Web has changed is that now people can put their criticism in writing and make it available to read the world-over, thus lending every armchair critic an air of authority. In this light, what is a professional film critic to do? Have they become irrelevant? Judging from decreasing magazine and newspaper subscription rates, readers seem to be saying yes. Therefore, one method for professional critics to counteract competition from their own readership is to inject more and more hyperbole into their reviews. The more sound-bites a professional review has, the greater a chance there is that the reviewer’s writing will appear in film ads in the trades, on TV spots, and the like. Right now, we amateur reviewers don’t get quoted on movie posters, for example, so professional reviewers seem to use this outlet to their advantage. Of course, increasing the use of hyperbole dumbs down reviewing practice to a level of populist rhetoric that appeals only to the basest of cinematic concerns.

One of these skewed foci is the overemphasis on reviewing the quality of a film’s acting. It’s an old adage that if one doesn’t know how to review a particular film, he/she could sigh, “Well, it certainly looked beautiful,” as if that were a legitimate enough justification of a film’s merit. These days it seems to be the case that, more or less, if a film has great acting, it automatically is in contention for being “one of the best films of the year,” one with “Oscar written all over it.” I take it Running with Scissors was a broad Oscar-hopeful not because it was a great film, but because it had a great performance. So it’s a shame that at least popular film criticism has lost its bearings. Cinema is a director’s medium, along with the producer in some cases, such as classical Hollywood film, since he/she was just as likely to carry the film along from conception to final filmic expression. True, good acting aids a film, but, by and large, acting doesn’t make or break a film -- the direction/production does. The stage is an actor’s medium; traditionally TV has been a writer’s medium (say what you want about reality TV, but, still, that stuff is written in post via the editing, so to speak); cinema, again, is a director’s/producer’s medium, since it is he/she/they who inject their work with meaning(s) and determine the methods the film will use to convey those meanings.

This exposition, then, provides a convenient transition to my presentation of what I consider to be the role of dutiful and serious film criticism. When watching a film, the viewer’s duty as a serious filmgoer is to:

1.Figure out what the film is trying to accomplish
2.Determine how well the film accomplishes what it intends to accomplish

Sounds non-too-complicated, and really, in theory, it shouldn’t be. Now how have I come to this conclusion about the modus operandi of film criticism? Well, it’s not just me who’s saying this. I’ve talked with some members of the intelligentsia with non-populist ideals such as graduate film students at UCLA who haven’t disagreed with me, as well as seen a popular critic such as EW’s Owen Gleiberman (one of the good mainstream critics, imo) basically agree with these objectives in his publication as well.

I’d like to now discuss a little bit about exceptions that you might be raising, or you might be asking for a little clarification. Have you ever watched a movie and thought, “I can see why most people like that film, but I don’t. It’s just not my cup of tea.”? In that instance, your instincts are probably telling you this: Whatever it IS that the film is trying to achieve, you can innately tell that the film does it well. It’s a well-made film, but its goals don’t speak to you. Therefore, you didn’t emotionally connect with the film. In this case, the film has accomplished #2, but no matter how well it accomplishes its intentions, the film will never be more than “well made” because its intentions do not speak to you and your mental framework, your worldview.

Separately, at one time or another, we’ve all been befuddled about a film altogether. “I don’t know what I just saw.” Or, “what was the big deal with that film? All that praise for THAT?” It’s likely that in these instances, you were unable to figure out what the film is trying to accomplish in the first place. Cult films are more often than not bred of this ilk. For example, with regard to David Lynch’s films, obviously there a method to their madness, but the reason they only have a cult following is that they speak only to a niche audience who “gets” their message(s). In some cases, audiences affix their own meanings to a film, one that the film proper doesn’t intend – but, still, is this not an example of an audience identifying a film’s meaning, intentional or otherwise?

A great film is great to you, because you understand its message, and you think its message is conveyed effectively. A classic film is one in which it does this for a great many people and peoples, which is quite an accomplishment when you consider classic films must appeal to audiences across time and cultural boundaries.

This approach to film criticism has the potential to lead non-astute viewers astray, however. One should be careful not to discredit a film on grounds of one’s own prejudices rather than on the film’s self-contained merits. Let me use the most popular film of recent memory, Titanic, as an example. Simply put, I as a viewer cannot discredit that film on the basis of, “This is a film about the Titanic, which I know going in is a luxurious ship that will sink in the mid-Atlantic Ocean by film’s end. Therefore, I expected the film to be supremely suspenseful. However, even though the film had some suspense in the second half, by and large the focal point was on the love story between Jack and Rose. This let me down, so I don’t like that film as a result.” You see, that’s false grounds on which to discredit the film, because the film didn’t INTEND to emphasize suspense first and foremost. Ultimately, that’s not what the film set out to accomplish, so to knock the film based on whatever prejudices you have going in to the viewing experience is YOUR fault rather than the film’s. The only serious way to discredit the film is to place your critical eye on the love story more than any other element, since that is where the film places its emphasis. If the love story doesn’t do it for you, then so be it, but at least you’re approach to critically analyzing the film is from the appropriate perspective. And if the love story works for you, but everything else pales in comparison, then it’s still a GOOD MOVIE, because, again, you need to look at what a movie attempts to accomplish and how well it does that, rather than what YOU want it to accomplish.

Now, if you think I’m emphasizing only a single, filmmaker-intended reading of a film, I’m not. In fact, I’m emphasizing the point that, indeed, viewers can come up with their own readings provided they approach the film viewing experience with the proper frame of mind. Viewers can deny the intended message, change it around, turn it on its head, and claim the film doesn’t convey its message accurately or effectively, etc., as long as their point of focus is on target to begin with.

Some of you might be reading this and saying, “I watch movies to be entertained – period. If a film doesn’t entertain me, it isn’t good.” That’s ok, but…hopefully your definition of entertainment is broad enough to encompass stories concerning love, suspense, inner conflict, comedy, etc. – all should have the potential to be entertaining to you, otherwise you’re being too close-minded to be considered a serious film analyst. Plus, let us not forget that most films ARE intended to be entertaining, since films are commerce, and filmmakers want to make a profit on their investment. If the filmmaker makes unpopular films, he/she won’t be able to keep making his/her unentertaining films. Honestly, what was the last film that you saw that was not intended to be entertaining to some degree? Even the European art-house movies of the early 60s were made for mass audiences.

To wrap-up, I wish more contemporary film criticism took this dutiful approach rather than frequently commenting on the simple and easy elements. But, as I stated in the beginning, I understand it’s a business, and one needs to attract readers, so it’s very tempting to want to dumb-down one’s reviews to appeal to a broader audience. (This applies to professional and amateur reviewers, who influence new reviewers, resulting in a vicious cycle.) However, this also hurts serious critical practice…and the movies themselves.
 

JohnRice

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I think you miss what is possibly the most important aspect of film, or any art for that matter. The intended message is only the beginning. The greater the art, the more it will reach beyond what the creator intended. This factor, according to your 2 point assessment of the goal of film criticism is of no importance. We all have different experiences, perceptions and such, and the greater the art, the more variety it will produce.

I find your assessment that acting is only peripheral rather puzzling. Films are a complex blend of many skills. Each of them can strengthen or weaken the result. What about writing? Is it not even worthy of mention?


And, yes, technology allows many unskilled people to feel talented simply because they have a piece of equipment and the ability to put whatever they produce out there to be seen. Most of the time, they are just untalented hacks with the ability to easily make their garbage available to others. In most cases, they believe technology makes them talented. It ain't true.
 

george kaplan

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I'm not sure I can really respond to your post Thomas, because I think I have a serious disagreement with what I think is one of your (unstated) assumptions. Namely that somehow "professional film critics" are better at judging a film than the rest of us.

I also have problems with your statement that I don't think at all that it's my job to try to figure out what a film is trying to accomplish and how well it does so. Nor do I think that viewers who don't do that are somehow "nonserious" about cinema. I enjoy critically analyzing deep aspects of great films, but only films where the director has succeeded in telling an interesting story in the first place. If Vertigo wasn't such a great and engaging film in the first place, I'd never have studied it further.

I know what John Waters was trying to acheive in Pink Flamingos. I also think he acheived it. I also think that it's a horrible film.
 

Brian D H

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Ah, but that's not true. You may hate the film, but it is, by definition, a 'good' film if it acheived it's goal. It is perfectly OK to hate good films or even great ones. Of course, most of never even see films like this because we know going in that we'd hate it simply due to it's subject matter no matter how well it's done.

The only difference between hating a movie like Pink Flamingos and a movie like Schindler's List for their respective subject matter, is that many people would be scared to label Schindler's List as 'bad' simply due to their own personal preferences, while labeling a cult film like Pink Flamingos as 'bad' is unlikely to offend anyone. But really it's perfectly fine either way. There is nothing wrong with not liking a film's goals, or in not finding those goals in the least bit entertaining or of any value - just keep in mind that the film may still be "good".

Heck, if you don't review films with this in mind then you would be totally incapable of reviewing entire genres just because you don't like them. Not that this doesn't happen all the time; how many times have you seen a review that starts out with, "I don't care for kid's movies (or Superhero, or Sci-Fi, etc) and this one doesn't make me change my mind..."? When reviewing a movie you have to put aside your own expectations.
 

george kaplan

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So If my goal as a film maker is to make a bad film, and I succeed in making a bad film, then I've made a good film? :)

To me, a filmmaker has to do more than acheive his/her goal to have a great film. The goal has to be something that yields a great film, which I think many films that have met the directors goal fail to do. Hence for me, those are not great or even good films, even though the director was 'successful' in some sense, cause it's a sense that does nothing for me as the viewer, and greatness is in the eye of the beholder, not something objective in the film itself. Nor am I willing to cede greatness to the subjective nature of the film with the director. It has to suceed in it's subjective interaction with me for me to consider the film great, good or a success.
 

Adam Lenhardt

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It's so sterile, though. The interaction between film and audience is so important to a films success, to elliminate it would elliminate so much of what cinema is all about.

My criteria is as follows:
When watching a film, the viewer’s duty as a serious filmgoer is to ask:
  1. Did the film move me?
  2. Did the film inform my perspective?
  3. Did the film entertain me?
  4. Am I better off for having seen it?
  5. Did it make me laugh?
  6. Did it make me cry?
  7. Did it express something human?
  8. Do I feel better or worse after seeing it?
 

Thomas J.

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I did mention writing with regard to TV. Also, how often do you hear a critic praise a film's great performances compared to praise its writing? The ratio is far from balanced. My point is that the scales are tipped too far by some critics toward hinging the success of a movie on its acting.
 

Thomas J.

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Interesting. Care to share why it's horrible, then?

And, yes, prof. film critics in theory should be better than us because they should know how to approach film and should be better versed in how to approach it. My point is that that's far from the case these days.

Why do film students have to take film appreciation classes? Why can't the school just give the students the cameras and be done with it? Because students need to learn what makes a good film and what doesn't, to a certain extent. True, at the end of the day, the average moviegoer and the film critic each has his/her opinion based on his/her personal, intellectual and emotional reaction to the film. But not all opinions are created equal. There's a difference between an informed opinion and an ignorant one.
 

Thomas J.

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I agree with you. I mean, if the film's message makes sense to you, and you think it was pulled off successfully... successfully meaning you had a strong intellectual and/or emotional reaction to it that you feel was appropriate to conveying the theme vis a vis the intentions of the material, then it is a good film.
 

george kaplan

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Yes, but their both still subjective opinions.

I think we should get clear what a critic's job is. Is it to somehow magically tell the reader the objective truth about the greatness of a film? Or is it to share that one critic's subjective interaction and perception of the film, in such a way that maybe the reader will be able to decide whether it's worthwhile to watch the film? Cause once the reader has watched the film himself, he has his own subjective perceptual interaction with the film and he knows that better than anyone, and no matter how much it might disagree with some critic's, it's 100% correct for him.

Now, a critic can also be an expert on certain objective elements of a film (who, what, when, where, etc.), and certainly be more informed about that.

But in the end, if Joe Blow down the street has never been to film school and wouldn't know a mise en scene from a missing scene, it doesn't change the fact that the true greatness or lack thereof of the film is, for him, based entirely on his own interaction and perception of the film. To pretend there's some objective aesthetic that trained film critics can "get" that Joe Blow can't is a Nietzschean position that I would completely reject.
 

Brian D H

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If your name is Ed Wood, then yes. (Or Roger Corman?) :)

OK, I know that Ed Wood never set out to make a bad film and that he simply found an audience, in spite of his incompetence, due to sheer ethusiasm and love of film; but I hope you get my point.

I am not suggesting that someone's opinion is invalid simply because he cannot say a film is 'good' when he doesn't appreciate it's goals. I AM saying that that person's film review will be of little use to a reader. A reader of a film review has already decided whether or not they like the film genre and the film's assumed goal, they are reading a review to see if the film accomplished it's goals well. In other words, I don't want to read my father-in-law's review of a foreign film when I know that he's a xenophobe.

So, I do agree (for the most part) with what Thomas has said. A good film review needs only two things:
1) Tell me if the films goal might be different from what I assume. You don't have to tell me that 'Superman Returns' is attempting to be a good superhero movie, I guessed that. But you might need to tell me that 'Titanic' is primarily a love story and only secondarily a historical drama.
2) Tell me if it accomplished it's goal. You can use ten pages of riveting prose or a ten point scale, but as long as you've done these two things I might find your review useful to me. In fact the main reason I'd read the longer review is not to find out more about the movie (I can get spoilers anywhere), it would be to discover whether or not the reviewer has similar tastes to my own, so I can find hidden bias that might make me agree or disagree with the reviewers opinion.

Frankly a reviewer who can remove his own biases (or at least admit them up front) is the one I prefer. That's why I like Ebert. He never compares apples to oranges. Many times he has explained why he might give a summer blockbuster AND a dramatic indie picture both 5 stars - it's because they both, independently, were the best films in their respective categories. For example: In his 'Spiderman 2' review he compared the film ONLY with other superheroe movies - on a scale with 'Superman the Movie' being 5 stars and 'Fantastic Four' being 1 star (I may, or may not, agree with this, but it tells me how useful the review will be to me). He is also the first to admit his bias; we all know that he will never give a bad review to certain actresses that he has a crush on. These reviews are pretty useless (and entertaining), but at least we know that going in.
 

Nick Martin

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That's interesting. I would have thought it would be the exact opposite - Easier to look at tapes, listen to recordings, read articles and biographies etc and simply imitate the real person documented rather than create a character. When people like Jamie Foxx or Charlize Theron win Oscars, is it because they fully inhabited the essence of the real person which is supposedly challenging, or did they just pull off excellent impersonations effortlessly?

Developing a personality, eccentricities, tone of voice - expanding on what is written on the page...I would have thought that would be far more difficult.

That's my guess, anyway.
 

Brian D H

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I completely agree, though it may be hard to make a real character your own and not JUST an impersonation I still think it's more impressive to bring a fictional character to life (or at least a person who we don't already know on film).
 

Thomas J.

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I don't know which one is more difficult in actuality, but the common wisdom is that playing a real person is more difficult, because the audience can compare the actors' performance to the real person and easily determine the merits of the performance. The audience cannot compare the fictional character.

I also think the common wisdom is that it's harder to CG animate a real animal, like a dog, than a completely fabricated creature, such as an alien, because the audience can compare the CG dog to a real one and conclude, "That dog looks so fake!" whereas the audience can't compare the CG alien to a real alien, so usually they're more forgiving.
 

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