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Film Criticism Blog-a-Thon!

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Andy Horbal's Film Criticism Blog-a-Thon -- the center of the movie criticism universe this weekend.

This is another contribution to Andy Horbal's Film Criticism Blog-a-Thon at No More Marriages!, a blog which is itself devoted to the subject of film criticism. As Andy introduces the Blog-a-Thon: "I regard film criticism as simply the larger conversation about film, and this is a conversation about that conversation. Many of us read and write a great deal of film criticism, and this is a chance to think about what exactly we're doing." Here's to the occasion!

The few of us who are fortunate enough to get paid to write and think about movies are constantly asked for advice about how to do it -- or, even more often, how to get a job doing it.

My answer to the second question is simple: There is no "career track" for a movie critic. See a lot of movies. Read a lot of film history and criticism. Practice writing. If you're in school, submit reviews to your school paper. If they like your writing, they'll probably ask you to write more. Or publish your own blog or web site. The best way to get the attention of people who may give you writing assignments is to get your writing somewhere it can be read.

The first question (which boils down to: How do you write film criticism?) is far more difficult, because everybody does it differently. The worst thing that could happen would be for a critical Bob McKee to come along and turn film criticism into a formula, the way most Hollywood movies have become illustrated formulas. (Actually, most print reviewing has been an inverted-pyramid-type formula for a long time: Intro that sets up the verdict; plot description; something about the acting; something about the cinematography or costumes or sets or whatever; summary.)

But, as I've said before, reviews are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to film criticsm. But they're still a necessary part of the discussion that makes movies a living part of popular culture. As I wrote in September:

... I see films and film criticism as two sides of the same coin ("The unexamined film is not worth watching").... Imagine what it would be like if the conversation about movies (whether academic study, criticism, or casual after-movie talk) ended with the final credits. What if the movie was just over and you never thought about it or discussed it with anyone again? It's unthinkable, about as likely as the prospect that movies themselves -- storytelling with moving images -- would cease to exist.

But writing is only the first stage of critical engagement with film (or any art) -- or maybe the second, after initial verbal discussions (see David Bordwell's essay, "Studying Cinema," here). Next, come responses to the original written criticism, for which a blog Comments section is ideally suited. It gives readers a chance to critique and enlarge upon the initial post, the original writer the opportunity to clarify and refine his/her thoughts, and everybody a chance to discuss amongst themselves. This, to me, is where criticism really starts to get exciting. The primary piece stands, but can be read and re-read in light of the ensuing discussion. In ideal situations (as with my piece on two reviews of "Nashville" in light of "Bobby"), it's possible to quote not only from what the critics have written, but to "quote" (with frame grabs, or even clips) directly from the movie(s) under scrutiny.


Jean-Luc Godard's frequently cited pronouncement is that the best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie. (And I would argue that this little variation on the "Bobby" trailer is so cogent it makes further criticism of the movie -- indeed, makes the movie itself -- practically unnecessary.) Godard's early films are clearly intended as critical appreciations of other movies. And Altman's "The Long Goodbye" and the Coens' "The Big Lebowski," for example, are unthinkable without reference to a tradition of Hollywood private eye movies in general, and "The Big Sleep" in particular." (It's like certain kinds of mainstream jazz -- you have to be aware of the original melody in order to fully appreciate and understand what the artist is doing with it.)

"The Pervert's Guide to Cinema" takes film criticism in yet another direction. It's an essay in the form of a documentary, incorporating clips and placing the critic (Slavoj Žižek) into the film-worlds he's examining and interpreting. As I wrote from the 2006 Toronto Film Festival:

This isn't quite the first film of this sort ("A Journey Through American Cinema with Martin Scorsese" springs to mind) -- but there ought to be more. The genre of movies about movies -- in-depth appreciations and evaluations of films that go beyond clip reels like "That's Entertainment!" into something deeper and, well, more entertaining -- is something I hope will blossom over the next few years. It's something I've been thinking about a lot: Film criticism needs to expand beyond mere words, and make better use of other media, including the web and film/video itself, where the images themselves can be seen while they are analyzed.

That's where I hope we're going. I love film criticism as much as I love film (as I've said -- neither lives without the other), and I'm excited to see where we can take it. Meanwhile, here are just a few basic, mundane guidelines I set for myself whenever I'm writing about movies. Not that always I live up to them -- or that you should. These are just the rules I try to play by -- and I don't claim that they all originated with me, by any means. Some of them will already be familiar to Scanners readers:

1) Know as little as possible about the movie before you see it. This isn't easy -- especially when you're buying a ticket or renting a DVD -- but be aware that anything you know about the film in advance will create some kind of expectation in your mind, whether you're conscious of it or not. And that can mislead you, or deflect you from what is really happening on the screen. It's practically impossible to not know who some of the actors are, or who the director is, but images implanted in your head by trailers or TV spots can really throw you off -- whether it's because you find yourself expecting them to show up, and fitting them into what you're watching while you watch it; or because the trailer images aren't actually in the movie itself.

2) Do your research afterwards. If the movie leaves you with questions, see what you can find out about them. Consult reference books, look up filmographies on the web. Refresh your knowledge about the subject(s), whether they're historical, philosophical, biographical, literary, scientific, religious... You never know what enlightening tidbits you may discover or re-discover. But experience the movie fresh first -- and, if you feel like it, revisit the movie.

3) Trust your instincts. Then don't. Or, as I like to say: "Whatever you're feeling while you're watching the film, whatever questions you may have -- those are essential to your experience of the film. That's what you should write about." And be aware that your initial impressions may be misleading. If you find yourself asking, "Why the hell would this director do that?" -- rephrase the question. Try asking: "What the hell do I think the movie is doing? Why do I think it's doing that? And might it be doing something else instead?" Re-run the movie in your head.

4) Pay particular attention to the opening shot, or opening sequence. Look for visual or verbal motifs that may repeat throughout the film. Maybe you'll find an indication of what direction the filmmaker intends to go, how the movie will go there, and what its deepest concerns are. Compare the final image/sequence with the first one to see how/if they're related.

5) Always cite examples directly from the film. Try to use a specific example -- a line (or line reading), a composition, a sequence of shots, an actor's movements or expression -- to illustrate any point you're making about the movie. Fight the urge to make general pronouncements, unless you can show how they're rooted in a particular observation.

6) If you're writing a review, intended to be read by people before they see the movie in question, don't describe the story beyond the basic premise. OK, you have to tell 'em something about the story. But I prefer to summarize who the characters are and leave it at that as much as possible. Think of the review as a party invitation: You want to give people an idea of what kind of party it is, where it's held, and who's attending -- but you don't have to spell out where everybody winds up at the end of the evening.

7) Pretend you're not a consumer guide. We all know that some people read reviews (or at least check thumbs or star ratings) to help decide what movies to see. Reviews are the moviegoers' first defense against marketing, since critics are the first to weigh in after actually seeing the movie. But don't get pompous about it. Don't tell your readers they "must see" a movie, or (even worse) urge them to "don't see" a movie. You don't know the individuals who are reading your stuff. Respect them enough to give them your opinions, and allow them to make up their own minds.

8) If you write something that reads like an ad blurb, re-write it. The last thing you want to do is come off like a quote whore. Besides, if the marketeers really want something for an ad, they can just pull out an adjective or two. (See my inspired contribution to the current campaign for "Borat": "Hilarious.")

9) Don't hedge and don't exaggerate. If you're not sure if you really mean something, don't say it. (I find this is a handy rule for daily life, as well.) Don't directly anticipate imagined counter-arguments ("There are those who will object that..."). Just make your argument as best you can. Some critics (especially inexperienced ones) are forever crying "Eureka!" -- certain that they've discovered the best or the worst thing ever made. That is hardly ever the case.

10) Some other rule I don't remember because I can never remember all the rules I make up for myself.

Now, get thee to Andy Horbal's Film Criticism Blog-a-Thon!. To the Blog-a-Thon -- go!

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