I’m going to use this forum to work out some ideas I’m having about film criticism. One of the advantages of using this page is that I can look at this material wherever I am and edit it online. So this is also an experiment in using the Blogger system as a creative tool of sorts.

Towards a Methodology of Journalistic Film Criticism

In thinking about reviewing films for the newspaper Tablet, I realized early on that there was no point in writing film reviews in the standard style. Specifically, I’m referring to the style seen in Tablet‘s primary competitors, The Stranger and Seattle Weekly, and to a lesser extent that seen in the two daily newspapers. This style is the predominant one of film criticism, and descends directly from academics: it is the style of film-studies critical analysis. As new generations of film journalists have graduated college and entered the profession, they have taken their stylistic cues from their classes. In turn, film-studies education is thoroughly the child of the French new wave, and is best exemplified in the work of Pauline Kael.

It isn’t necessary to identify particular elements of this style, because looking for specifics misses the point entirely–this is genuinely a case of not seeing the forest for the trees. Modern film journalism is built on a flawed foundation, and its entire approach is askew as a result.

When students study films and write papers on them for class, they are doing so for a particular audience: the professor. His or her status as a professor isn’t the issue; the issue is so simple it’s easy to overlook. The professor has already seen the film.

In short, academic film criticism is meant to be an analysis between people who are all familiar with the subject. It is not intended for people who have not seen the film, because in the classroom environment the audience and the critics are one and the same.

That is fine in an educational context. It’s even fine in film-criticism magazines like Cahiers du Cinema–that kicked off the new wave by introducing the auteur theory and so forth.

The problem is this: academic film criticism has become the standard approach for journalistic film criticism. That is, the film criticism that appears in traditional periodic media for a broad audience–an audience who has not seen the film.

Film journalists write their reviews using the same approach they learned when writing academic film criticism, or they are aping the style of those who learned it that way. But because they know they are writing for an audience unfamiliar with the film at hand, and because they recognize that they are serving something of a consumer-guide role–is the film worth your money?–they are forced to hobble their review by keeping important elements of the film a secret. Readers rarely appreciate it when a film critic reveals plot twists, for example, or which characters live and die, and so forth.

As a result, journalistic film criticism limps. The demands of the academic style create tension with the restrictions of the journalistic mission. Academia demands that the review must be long enough to have substance–which probably means a couple thousand words or more–while journalism demands that it not give away too much of the plot. And where the academic style often leads to an idiosyncratic viewpoint, a preoccupation with some particular agenda or vision, the journalistic style demands a broad-based, somewhat populist viewpoint that is accessible to the publication’s target demographic. A film critic who wants to write about the roles of women in action films cannot write a review of a new Steven Seagal flick that focuses almost exclusively on the obligatory girlfriend character; he or she needs to write about the entire film or the audience is likely to complain.

The academic style is perfectly fine for forums where the audience can be assumed to have seen the film. But daily and weekly newspapers, where these reviews appear, are not such forums.

This suggests that there could be another way. That there could be such a thing as a journalistic film criticism style. This would be an approach that does acknowledge the consumer-guide nature of the material, while still providing insightful analysis and cinematic context.

I’ve come up with a draft version of such a style, and it goes like this.

Journalistic film criticism should, first and foremost, be brief. As a rule of thumb, 500-700 words seems sufficient. This is in part to exert discipline on the craft, and to ensure that the most important points are made clearly and swiftly. It is also to decrease the likelihood of giving away too much of the film.

A brief digression: when I criticize the practice of revealing too much, I’m not just talking about plot twists and big surprises. Even discussing a scene late in the film for purely aesthetic reasons–“the lighting during the scene where Sam finally tells off his boss…”–can spoil that scene. I’ve read reviews that have analyzed a particular scene, even briefly, and without it being a critical plot scene; but even so, when I watched the film and we got to that scene, I was thrown out of the experience. My first reaction was, “Oh, it’s that scene I read about.” The fact that the review intruded so far into the meat of the film meant that it likewise intruded on my thoughts as I watched the film. This should be avoided in the journalistic context.

So, we have brevity. Within our brief space, what are the key elements of a successful journalistic film review? In no particular order, I think they may be:

1) The nature of the film. Most simply, this is the genre. But beyond genre, it is possible to describe the emotional or tonal nature of a film. An action film could be oppressive, or light-hearted, or even moving. A romance could be tragic, uplifting, or merely predictable. What, in broad strokes, is the overall experience provided by the film? This is its nature.

2) The investment characters. The audience is expected to invest emotional value in some of the characters–usually the protagonists. Describe the characters and the actors’ portrayal, so that the reader has a sense of the people he or she is going to spend an evening with.

3) The context of the film. Compare and contrast the film to other films, perhaps of the same genre, by the same filmmakers, or whatever category is appropriate. This could be as simple as, “If you liked X then you’ll enjoy Y,” or it could be a brief description of how a romantic comedy defies the conventions of its form without actually mentioning any other films by name. The point is to place the film in its cinematic context, enabling the reader to better understand the likely nature of the experience.

4) Your opinion of the film. Most obviously, this is your summary of the film’s merits and flaws.

There are two key points I want to emphasize about this methodology.

First, its focus is holistic. Rather than waste space describing the plot, step back and look at the film as a whole–and more specifically, look at the film as an experience, the way you might describe a roller coaster or giving birth. Stop being obsessed with narrative, getting bogged down in who does what. Treat the film the way it deserves to be treated: as an art form that is not merely a story. Write about the holistic experience of watching the film.

Second, the goal is to let readers discover the film for themselves. You describe the experience, and from that the readers get a decent idea as to whether or not they will enjoy the film. Thus enabled, they may decide to see it. And because you have not rambled on about the rising action, the complications, the dynamics, they are free to discover the film, mindful of your overall impressions but fresh to the particulars of the experience.

The best experiences I have had watching a film have been when I didn’t even know what film I was about to see. By that I mean complete ignorance. I didn’t know the title, I hadn’t seen a poster, I knew nothing when the curtains parted and the projector started. I think this is the ideal way to see a film.

But such circumstances are rare. The closest we can come, perhaps, is to review films on the basis of the overall experience and context, leaving the film’s flickering moments untouched for the audience to discover and savor for themselves.

So, with the above in mind, here’s a review of a film I saw tonight.

The New Women

Armed with a digital video camera, a sharp script, and an energetic cast, writer-director Todd Hughes has crafted a lusty, funny tale of gender apocalypse. A freak storm puts the world’s men into comas, and the women of a small Arizona town are left to put things back together. Short on food, long on spite, and gleeful over the occasional comatose erection, they do their best in this proud-to-be-a-B movie.

Mary Woronov is Lisa, a middle-aged alcoholic with a cheating husband and a mountain of self-loathing. She is a grimy, trash-talking dame ready to crawl into a bottle when the world goes weird. That she remains eminently watchable is a tribute to Woronov, who keeps Lisa grounded in accessible reality even as she rises in true heroine fashion to the challenges of the surreal disaster.

Sandra Kinder is Tabby, a lecherous old broad with bottle-blond hair. She’s so lusty and vital that she emerges as a real favorite, ready to dish out insults and pseudo-wisdom at the drop of a dime. “Maybe it ain’t too late to get me a man–even if his name is Marge!” she cackles as she surveys the new social landscape. Tabby is written as something of a minor sidekick character, but the force of Kinder’s personality and raw-boned charm elevate her. You always want to know what she’s going to say next.

The other actors are all game to have fun. The film is full of saucy put-downs, shrieking harridans, and satires of feminist ideologies. The combination is a ribald stew of post-apocalypse movie cliches and powerful women, transforming the world of films such as The Road Warrior, Dawn of the Dead, and A Boy and His Dog with the sweeping force of its female perspective.

The whole film is clearly tongue-in-cheek, but the dynamics of the main characters are credible and the whole thing is grounded by Woronov’s un-Hollywood performance and perpetually hungover looks. She’s just superb.

I found the first few minutes to be a bit rocky. The DV look was initially something of a turnoff, and it took some time to get in tune with the script’s trashy-fun style. But soon I was hooked, and the movie just flew by. It’s often laugh-out-loud funny, and the more I studied the image quality the more impressed I was with the technical achievements of this digital feature film. The audio is also excellent, especially given this film’s utterly independent, self-produced nature.

I don’t know how you’ll ever see this film. It’s playing at various festivals, but it doesn’t have any other theatrical release and isn’t going to show up at Blockbuster. But should it cross your path, don’t be concerned that it might be some humorless diatribe about male fascism–it’s just a B-movie cocktail of tough chicks and trash talk that’s pure entertainment.

Well, there’s a first time for everything. That review is just under 500 words. I think it covers the four points sufficiently, and hopefully it’s clear that you don’t have to cover them as mechanically as I did here.

So the test of this review is simple: if this film were playing at your local theater, do you feel you have enough information to decide whether or not you’d like to see it? Even if you didn’t go see it, was the review itself interesting enough to be worth reading? And is there anything else you really want to know?

Some other thoughts:

I didn’t mention that the film is in black and white. It just didn’t occur to me that this would be important. Is it?

There was a bit of dialogue that was really great, and I very much wanted to talk about it in the review. But unlike the bit of dialogue I did quote, explaining the context of that line would have revealed some plot chunks. They aren’t necessarily critical or even important chunks, but I think describing the scene here would have lessened your hypothetical enjoyment when you actually saw it on screen. That was hard to leave alone, because I so wanted to share it–and in an academic film review, I could have. But it’s for the best.

Although I only cited two main characters, there’s a third–Lisa’s sister, who is really the co-star of the film. But I never got very invested in her. Her role in the film is mostly to annoy Lisa, and their eventual reconciliation isn’t very affecting. In a traditional review I would have talked about this, and analyzed why that’s the case. I didn’t here. Because really–what does it matter? Yes, it’s something of a flaw in the film. But it’s not an important flaw, and having me tell you that the sister isn’t very affecting doesn’t really have much impact on your decision to see it. At most, it interferes as you watch because you’d keep thinking, “Damn that guy was right. The sister is kind of blah.” It’s not informative, it’s just analytical. And while analysis clearly plays a role in this methodology, it’s within something of a narrow field.

I also wanted to praise the main title graphics, but that’s just being pedantic.

Well, that’s enough of this for now. If you’ve read this far, please email me and tell me what you think of that review and this whole internal dialogue I’m spitting out here about journalistic film criticism.

And if you’d like to know more about The New Women, check out the official website.