Open Forum Friday: Should Film Critics Need to Know How to Make Movies Before Writing About Them?

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The world of music criticism was given a bit of a wake-up call last week when music critic Ted Gioia wrote a piece for The Daily Beast proclaiming that today’s music criticism has “degenerated into lifestyle reporting” with very little actual discussion of the music itself. Since then, the debate has spilled over into other mediums as well with film criticism also coming under fire (surprise, surprise!). It’s true that people always seem to be questioning the value and validity of film critics these days, and some people have an unfair image of critics as snooty, bitter blowhards that are simply incapable of making their own art. But there are some decent points to be made, as evidenced by Matt Zoller Seitz in his editorial entitled “Please, critics, write about the filmmaking” over at RogerEbert.com.

Seitz paraphrases Ebert himself when he says that most of the writing out there today “describes what a piece of art is about, not so much about how it is about it.” His main point is that critics tend to focus on narrative, plot and even celebrity culture as opposed to the visual elements and the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. While you could argue that these writers are simply appealing to the masses, Seitz thinks critics have a responsibility to educate and inform readers about how movies use all of their individual components to get across a message or theme. What do you think? Are today’s film and TV critics too caught up in surface level stuff? Do you prefer film criticism that delves into the “nuts and bolts” or is that too dry and academic? Can someone adequately critique a film if they’ve never made a movie themselves? Give us your thoughts here on Open Forum Friday.

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  • Maureen W.

    On Bret Easton Ellis’ podcast the other week, Joe Swanberg (director of Frank’s all time fave movie Drinking Buddies) stated a similar opinion. However it seemed like he was saying that more out of frustration that he and his friends weren’t being understood by critics. I think it would just lead to more sycophantic reviews than we already have in this world. While some of the writers of Cahiers du Cinema ended up being among the greatest filmmakers of all time, that doesn’t mean everyone who can analyze film well should be trusted behind a camera. I think for the most part these are two separate arts. I went to film school for criticism and analysis. I HATED the film making classes. My projects were so embarrassing!

  • Lori Cerny

    Film reviews should always depend upon the type of film being critiqued.

    For example, Psycho (1960) and Alien (1979) are two horror films whose reviews should mention their direction and score as they enhance the suspense – a necessity in good horror films.

    In contrast, movies, such as This is Forty (2012) or Jack and Jill (2011), have direction which is utilitarian and the score may be non-existent; consisting only of a soundtrack. In that case, discussing directorial or score choices would be moot.

  • rvancetal

    No never.

    A film has a goal to obtain a response from the person watching it (the specific response being gone for changes from film to film). It does not require the skills to create the movie to accurately described if the film succeed for you.

    Opinion is subjective as are individual critical perspectives so there will obviously be some who know more about the process but that just changes how they write about the same thing not that thing and if it is successful or not.

  • Bas

    There is room for different types of critics. Readers that long for a dissection of the technical aspects of a movie will find a critic that suits their needs. People that enjoy nutshell reviews will find another critic.

    At the end of the day, all critics have to earn their readers with quality writing that makes them come back for more, either for more entertainment or for more information.

  • John Abides

    What is the point of film critics, anyway. Some films are critic-proof (Michael Bay, Harry Potter, big franchises) and other movies will not see a wide audience no matter the critical response (foreign, weird, Lars von Trier). But is the point of a critic to drive commerce? Or are critics in a dialog only with aficionados?

    If it is the latter, then by all means delve into film-making, lighting, compositing of CGI, and the like. The former? Keep the technical knowledge to a minimum, talk about story and gossip.

    But I guess that is the question at hand and I have done nothing to address it, which probably means I do not have a good answer. Write what you know, so if you went to film school and like writing about it, do that. But if you are a movie buff and want to share your encyclopedic knowledge of actors, do that.

    Now, if this is a fishing question for the podcast, I’ll say that I can always do with more technical details. I really like watching commentary tracks, making-of’s, and the like. But I have a good friend who does not care a whit about the craft of film-making and only cares about the experience of watching it. Different strokes …

  • Lisa

    Good comment for a great topic (thank you, Sean).

    From my personal experience, “movie criticism” is something that exists in every viewer when he watches a film. ‘I might like this film, but not that’. The question then comes up is: ‘why it is like this?’ And that’s what originally motivated me to the watch film, and still does. I entered serious film discussions and boards as a 10 year old, and I loved films like Gladiator, The Lord og the Rings, The Rock, The Notebook and Star Wars: A Phantom Menace back then. And I was never afraid to defend these films: one time I entered a long discussion about Pearl Harbour, where I made 10-12 posts, each with about 700-1000 words each, defending that film.

    But few years later, as I got older and my movie knowledge expanded by the number and variety of films i experienced, my view og the mentioned films changed drastically — some more radical than others. The same thing eventually happened with new blockbusters I saw in the cinema. The buzz around them, and the modern and “fresh” technicalities around them made them look good, when I a year later could see that they truly weren’t. This has led me to always wait at least a week and decompose the film critically before I decide what I think about it.

    In return, this continuous understanding of how films work, that grew the more of films I saw, gave me new perspectives of how I view a film. The first two times I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey I hated the film. It was just a pompous, pretensious film with good technical works. Then one day I sat down with a friend who convinced me that the film was built up as a poetic piece of sequences, and gave med little clues of what certain things meant. The third time I watched it, the film climbed up from 3/10 to 9/10, as one of my top films of all-time. I was completely enchanted and scared of the film when I for the first time understood it. So much that it was the only thing I could think about for an entire month.

    Then there is the feeling one gets by watching a film: you love it, but you don’t know why. This is my principle motivation for film criticism. Paul Thomas Anderson’s films are great examples of this. I was completely blown away by Punch-Drunk Love when I saw it in 2006, and There Will Be Blood when it came out in 2007. It took me repeated viewings, however, to understand why I loved those films so much.

    This is one of the reasons why I prefer watching foreign and independent and art films. I always want to be challenged when watching a film, I want to be provoked to think about the ideas and topics the films presents. Film is after all a medium of art, and all art have something to say about the society.

  • german critic

    It certainly helps if the critic knows as much as possible about the things she or he writes about. But the main (democratic) purpose of the critic is to be the mediator between artwork and public – it doesn’t help to know how to set up a camera if the critic doesn’t get that.

  • Jameson

    The average person who reads a film review for a newspaper/magazine most likely wants to know simply if the movie is worth paying for or not. Those who care about the technicality of a film will look further and perhaps listen to critics they are familiar with. I’d say film critics who write for more film-orientated sites and blogs should be expected to go into detail about the craft of the movie.

  • ECONOMYpolitica

    Told!

  • i am not sam

    I’m curious, fellow commenters, aside from the Film Junk crew are there any critics that you consistently read/listen to? For me it used to be Ebert but now I have no one. Maybe A.O. Scott and Peter Traverse occasionally. Everyone’s a critic now, though. I usually just read a couple short thoughts from users on letterboxd after watching a movie..

  • Gerry

    I agree Lori Cerny.

    The only thing I require from a critic is the possession of enough intelligence to judge films by different criteria depending on the genre.

    e.g. most comedies today are silly in the extreme (but some are funny and enjoyable) and to assess one of them using the same criteria you’d use to judge The Godfather is silly and ridiculous.

    An appreciation for all films, from Summer blockbusters to Oscar bait is important or, if a critic realises he despises a certain genre or type of film then please Mr / Ms critic have the decency not to review these films.

    I enjoy reviews with an appreciation of cinema craft and gut level non technical reviews equally, provided they are coming from an appreciation of and an enthusiasm for cinema and are non cynical.

  • Lior

    Yes, obviously, serious film critics should be well-versed in the art of filmmaking, but the article talks about the fact most film reviewers don’t mention form at all or very little.

    I think there’s a confusion here between film reviews and film analysis. In a typical film review, form takes a backseat simply because these reviews are aimed at the mainstream audience who just wants to know if a film is recommended or not. I think the reason for that is twofold:

    1) The Rotten Tomatoes effect

    Many people don’t even bother reading reviews. They go to Rotten Tomatoes (or Metacritic) and just look at the SCORE. Sometimes they’ll even bother reading the review snippets.
    So it’s as if movie reviewers subconsciously know that most people will read the highlights of their review so that’s what they aim for. Catchy words. snappy sentences, clever comments that can be quoted. They can be super knowledgeable in form but it doesn’t really matter when the average Joe just wants to know if the basic elements work – story, acting, effects etc.

    And in general, there is also a dumbing down of film culture. Open IMDB’s front page and you’ll see it’s all about celebrities, box office and posters.

    2) The spoiler-fear culture

    It is very rare to find specific scenes analyzed in detail in reviews of modern films simply because culturally, any kind of revealing detail is not acceptable. This “spoiler anxiety” is a relatively new phenomenon. Yeah, you can put a “spoiler alert” but then people won’t read it.
    In the past, spoilers were usually very major plot points or major twists. Nowadays, a film reviewer is afraid to talk/write too much about a film because he’s not sure what would be considered a spoiler. So best to tiptoe and not write a whole paragraph about how one scene is constructed from A to Z.

    Film analysis is something different and that’s where form should come into play. Watch any of Matt Zoller Seitz’s video essays or read a book like Understanding Movies and you’ll see the difference between the two.

  • Lior

    The only critic I consistency read these days is Brian Orndorf from Bluray.com (he does theatrical reviews. He used to review discs at DVDTALK.com) Anyway, he’s very good and knows his stuff.

  • John Abides

    I listen to a lot of podcasts since my day job is mostly physical work. The Dissolve, Village Voice, Filmspotting, Filmspotting SVU, Fighting in the War Room, Filmsack, F This Movie, Battleship Pretension, and others. Many of these aren’t really review shows, but more discussions for after you’ve seen the movie. But I do listen to these folks every week. I quite like Scott Tobias, even though I frequently disagree with him. Extra Hot Great is a great podcast as well, but they are more TV focused with the occasional film discussion thrown in.

    I don’t read reviews much except for a glance at rottentomatoes or a write up after I’ve seen the movie.

  • John Abides

    Do you think people use reviews to make viewing decisions? I look at Rottentomatoes more as a curiosity, but I’ve usually made up my mind which movie to see almost before they come out. Or after listening to some podcasts, if I need the push to see or skip.

    For example, I’ve been dreading the release of Noah because I was sure it was going to get hammered by the critics. It had all the hallmarks of an art director getting big budget, making a passion project, and failing miserably. But look at rotten tomatoes, and it doesn’t seem to be the case. Now, should I see the movie? Did I learn anything from RT, or was it just a curiosity? I heard positive reviews from critics I know and really want to see it now.

    Not sure I buy the dumbing down of film culture though. Pick and choose the stuff that’s good, and right now I have access to more good film discussion than I have in the past. Sure there’s a lot of shit with TMZ, IMDB reviews, Youtube comments, and fanboy fervor. But I try not to focus on that.

  • Lior

    I myself don’t check Rotten Tomatoes on a regular basis but it is nevertheless a very influential tool with many people when it comes to deciding on what movies to watch, and it doesn’t even include full reviews. So complaining that reviews are not analyzing mis-en-scene and composition is almost funny.

  • j-diggle

    I feel Mark Kermode’s book Hatchet Job tackles this subject fairly well, it’s well worth a read especially if you’re a Kermode fan.

  • j-diggle

    I disagre, to say Rom Com direction is utilitarian basically rights off all rom com directors. Woody Allen is a fine director who works heavily in rom coms and his direction can be scrutinized by critics to great effect. I think direction should discussed in any review if it is worth discussing, no matter what the genre.

  • Jr

    Yea, it’s important. Someone who has no knowledge of film theory, history and craft has no business being a professional film critic. The same goes for literature, fine arts, video games, music, etc. But here’s the deal: Criticism in the arts used to mean something. Then we got the internet.

  • Jr

    Subjectivity only goes so far. There is such a thing as a “bad” film and a “good” film.

  • Gerry

    I disagree.

    There may be badly made films, e.g. low budget genre films, or films that may be percieved by people as in poor taste but for me film, like any other art, is subjective.

    I like lots of cheaply / poorly made genre films.

    The main thing for me that makes a good film is entertainment value.
    I am able to suspend my disbelief regarding almost anything film-wise and submerse myself in the world of a film.

    For me the only time you might approach the existence of an objectively bad film is when humanity ceases to exist and a collection of artificial intelligence’ judge the film based on accepted criteria of what makes a good or bad film.

    Wait, isn’t that what a body of critics with a knowledge of film theory, history and craft already does?

    I’m sure all those critics loved Citizen Kane. I thought it was a bit meh, despite introducing innovations in film making techniques.

  • Film Watcher

    Depends on the intended audience and the purpose of the review. Academic discussion is for academics. Most movie goers are not concerned with the merits of the film making or the technique; they are more concerned with if it is worth their 10 dollars. It is fine for a critic to focus on the surface stuff if their audience is only concerned with the surface stuff. The same critic can also write about film theory, technical aspects, and art elements for a different audience in a different forum. To think that film criticism HAS to be art criticism is unrealistic and a bit snooty.

  • devolutionary

    I did a weekly night class on Film studies and discussion for several months while our professor would constantly inform us how he wished his alternate film making class would enroll with us also. Instead, they were constantly obsessing over the coolest cameras and film-editing software to use and couldn’t care less on the directors or film genres they were subconsciously trying to emulate. To be good at one does not necessarily mean that you have to be good at (or even competent at) the other.