April 19, 2009

Random Musing: How To Be a "Good" Film Critic

It is common knowledge that the film industry would not be the lucrative market it is without the assistance of film critics. Critics’ “blurbs” can make or break new films in the advertising stage (even more so for independent and limited release films). However, film critics also depend on films as the source of their criticism. Therefore, the marriage between the film industry and its critics is a tenuous one, each depending on the other, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant the results. In addition, a similar marriage is true for a film critic and his or her readers—film critics need readers, and readers need film critics for advice on which films to see. When a critic writes his or her reviews, he or she has to keep certain things in mind in the process in order to accommodate to his or her readers and to ultimately be deemed “good” at what he or she does. He or she must be a critic who is able to transform a single film evaluation into a powerful weapon capable of molding the opinion of any reader through a variety of ways which I will outline...

Consider the audience.
It will do no good for readers if a reviewer full of film jargon is unloading his arsenal on a group of people uneducated in film studies who just want to know which new release will be best for a Friday night date. Therefore, a critic for “Cineaste” magazine is not going to be the right one for the people of Bloomington, Indiana, who read the local “Herald-Times.” A reviewer should recognize who his or her audience is going to be and tailor his or her reviews to said audience. This does not mean, however, that a reviewer must essentially “dumb down” his or her knowledge of film for his or her less academic audience, but it does mean he should be careful to make his thoughts on film approachable for any “Joe Plumber.”

Stars are a film critic’s best friend.
The star system might well be the fastest and most efficient way a film critic can inform his or her audience as to what he or she recommends for screening. (A reviewer must be careful, though, to make sure his or her star ratings match the opinion in his or her review!) Many reviewers use a four-star system to judge films. For example, in my reviews, ★ means that the film is horrendously atrocious, ★★ signifies an “average” film, ★★★ stands for a well-done film, and ★★★★ represents an absolute masterpiece. Be aware, though, that the star system’s meaning differs for film critics. For example, I judge films based on how well they achieve what they set out to do as films (usually on merit alone—as in, I judge how well film systems have been constructed). “Moonstruck” would get four stars, “Dirty Dancing” might be three stars, and “Yentl” is two stars. However, for other critics—Roger Ebert, for example—some use the “genre system” and compare films by genre:

When you ask a friend if “Hellboy” is any good, you’re not asking if it’s any good compared to “Mystic River,” you’re asking if it's any good compared to “The Punisher.” And my answer would be, on a scale of one to four, if “Superman” is four, then “Hellboy” is three and “The Punisher” is two. In the same way, if “American Beauty” gets four stars, then “(The United States of) Leland” clocks in at about two (Ebert).
When passing judgment on a film, in general, though, it might be helpful to some readers if a critic’s criteria are more or less spelled out somehow. One way is to compare the film at hand to other similar (and well-known) films. Another way is for the critic to inform the reader as to what his or her personal tastes are—if he or she hates war movies, then he or she should explain why he or she had difficulty connecting to “Platoon” or “The Thin Red Line” and not just slash it to pieces without explaining why.

Knowing something about films is always good.
Even if excessive film jargon should be removed from a film review, this does not mean that a reviewer should ignore his or her own knowledge of film. Often, being a cinéphile (like many reviewers, such as Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, and all of the Cahiers critics) has its advantages. For example, in a review about “L.A. Confidential,” a critic could compare it to the film noir of classic Hollywood, including such films as “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Big Sleep,” and “Double Indemnity.” Using such films as a “foil,” it can prove why the film at hand is good or bad at what it does. Moreover, comparisons can simply be more helpful for readers so they can get a better idea about what the film at hand will be like.

There is no “I” in review. Ok, maybe there is, but ignore it for argument’s sake!
One of the worst reviews that can possibly be written involves an introduction concerning a reviewer’s entrance into a movie theater. In what will be dubbed the “Sour Patch Kids review,” the reviewer takes us on a journey of his or her time of arrival at the theater and/or his or her candy selection at the counter. These reviews tend heavily on the side of the reviewer’s experience in the theater instead of his or her experience with a particular film. As film critic Rex Roberts (“Film Journal International”) once told me, “No one cares about you. They want to know about the film.” Therefore, a “good” review should focus exclusively on the film’s merits (or shortcomings) and nearly efface the “I.” At the same time, readers also do not want to hear about a reviewer’s “life story” in comparison to the film unless it serves a crucial point. Contentious statements are accepted, but personal histories are not. After all, readers want to know why they should see a film, not why a reviewer could not believe that “The Master of Disguise” was actually a terrible film, despite what Betty and Veronica said (unless he or she explains why!). As you can see, there is a fine line between the valid use of “I” and the gratuitous use of “I”, so a reviewer should simply be careful which kind he or she employs. When in doubt, the “I” is best when it makes a contentious claim.

Raise your voice. Make contentious claims; be opinionated.
Active verbs and first-person statements can be the key to making a reviewer heard. Remember that a film critic’s first job is to criticize. Even if it is difficult to connect to a film, it is still necessary to mention that difficulty, even if a reviewer feels that he or she should have felt a connection with a widely regarded film, such as “Casablanca.” A reader will have a much more difficult time following a passive review of a “great film” than a review that contains solid, well-argued thoughts about a film, no matter how scandalous they might be (i.e. ““Casablanca” is the worst film of all-time because…”).

Do not be afraid to use a template.
In the reviews I have read by critic Bosley Crowther, they all go something like this, no matter the film: introduction, identification of theme, narration of plot, recognition of every single actor onscreen, acknowledgement of director and perhaps cinematography, etc., and conclusion. Even if this template can get repetitive after forty or so years of reviewing, sometimes it can be a great way to set up a review when a reviewer is struggling with its genesis. When a reviewer becomes more and more comfortable with his or her writing, though, he or she will realize that his or her thoughts will be able to flow together more economically and less rigidly. Until then, though, a template is still an acceptable resource on which to fall back.

Be funny.
This is one of the key points I remember Rex Roberts explicitly telling me. Wit is absolutely necessary in a film review, as in most writing. Different styles of wit match different authors’ voices—for example, Roger Ebert is a bit laconic, but Pauline Kael is sardonic. What is important is the fact that a sense of humor can inject flavor into a review, just like in conversation. Sometimes, even witty remarks can make points about a film.

Avoid the cliché.
You can call a film “Best Picture of the Year!” once, but make sure not to call twenty films in the same year by that signification. Also, avoid insignificant “fluff” that means nothing to readers—after all, calling Stallone’s performance in “Cobra” “dynamite” (You know who you are…) is not going to say anything about how his performance is constructed. Essentially, too much cliché can rob a critic of his or her credibility. Without something thought-provoking to say, readers might hit the road.

“Laundry lists” are unnecessary.
It is not necessary to identify absolutely everything about a film in a review. Bosley Crowther does this excruciatingly in some of his reviews, for example the ones of “Mrs. Miniver” and “The Graduate,” but this approach is unnecessary. A “complete” film review only has to identify the most important main points of a film. Endlessly identifying everything about a film could call into question a reviewer’s credibility and ability to connect with readers.

Some jargon is okay.
Although an “average” reader might lose the concepts of montage, racking focuses, or tilting in translation, it does not mean that a reviewer has to eliminate film jargon completely. “Average” readers still likely have some idea what cuts, shots, and cinematography are, so these terms can still be applied to help readers get a sense of the film. In addition, jargon might even be essential to identifying a film’s strengths.

You can narrate the plot, but never give away a big secret!
When reviewing a film, at some point it is, of course, necessary to give readers an idea of the plot. Sometimes a critic “narrates” the plot, as in he or she retells the whole film sequence by sequence, but generally some kind of analysis that accompanies it saves it from complete monotony. (However, sometimes the critic’s whole review might be a plot summation, which is not “good.”) In any case, the best plot summary is a short, concise one that gives readers a good idea of what to expect, but a longer “narration” is still acceptable (I think Ebert would say so!). When a reviewer comes close to describing the climax, though, it is in good taste to leave the reader with questions about what comes next. Film critics are, after all, notorious for being the guardians of a film’s secrets. For example, in early 1993 at a pre-Academy Awards discussion between film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, Ebert accosted Siskel for giving away one of the biggest secrets of the year—the one in Neil Jordan’s “The Crying Game.” Even if some film critics might tell a film’s plot to the length of a short novel, film critics are wise to continue hiding the ending—after all, readers still need some secret to which to hold on until they can see the film!

With all of these points in mind, any film critic can become a “good” film critic ready to put his or her opinions into the public eye to shape its “viewing pleasures.” Not only are film critics essential to the film industry as the “gatekeepers” to a film’s critical and financial success, but perhaps more importantly, they are essential resources in connecting the value of films to audiences by way of their reviews. Jonathan Rosenbaum once called film criticism a “social act,” and as I have outlined above, a film critic’s work is essentially contingent upon the consideration of and sharing with others. Therefore, perhaps the greatest rule of all: You cannot be a “good” film critic without remembering your responsibility in writing for others.

Originally written for my independent study in film reviewing in the spring semester of 2009. In this study, my professor and I studied, compared, and contrasted the works of everyone from Roger Ebert to Pauline Kael and the Cahiers du Cinéma critics in order to find out just what makes a “good” film critic.

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