Saturday, February 16, 2008

But Who Will Review the Reviewers?

I meant to do some sort of timely follow-up to my post about how I review, but never got around to it, for one reason or another. I had several ideas that never came to fruition. I thought I might do a historical overview of film criticism, but I’m a long way from having done the research required. I thought about doing a list of my favorite film critics and bloggers, but that also merited more time spent exploring the internet and sifting through sites. Today’s theme is a little more general and, hopefully, should make for better discussion.

I’ve come up with a set of spectrums to classify reviewers. None of them attempts to describe how “good” or “bad” the reviewer is, but they get at some deeper questions that I’d like to address. I hope that by asking yourself which positions on the spectrums you prefer, it might help you better understand what you look for in newspapers, magazines and blogs. I know my own tastes are pretty variable, but when it comes down to what I actually and consistently read, there are a lot of things in common. I’ve also tried to give some idea of where I think I stand (or would like to stand) on each spectrum.

I’m presenting the spectrums as a scale (I’d recommend a seven point scale) with a descriptive terms that describe the approaches at either end. I should start by mentioning that one side or the other is not objectively better, but I do have my own preferences. I tend to think the extremes are not usually optimal. As usual, expect some overlap.

1) Focus <-------> Coverage

A website or blog with focus has some particular premise around which to organize the reviews. These range from fan sites for actors and actresses to themed reviewers like giallo fever. Their advantage is usually an extreme knowledge within their field and plenty of dedication. The disadvantage is the narrow perspective and marginal utility for casual fans.

Coverage refers to reviewers who will write about just about anything. These people generally have broader tastes and a more eclectic variety of interests, but they can lack consistency and the type of obsessive immersion that makes focused writers so compelling. Most professional critics like Roger Ebert are high in coverage, though some have such strong biases in their scoring that, in practice, they are actually focused.

A distinction I would like to make is that coverage does not mean merely the quantity or percentage of films reviewed, but rather, the variety. I have favorites in both the focus and coverage camps, but I tend not to read amateur reviewers who cover every single film released (like the hard-working Reelviews) since I just don’t have the time. When I need that type of extreme coverage I rely on collaborative efforts like Metacritic, AllMovieGuide, IMDB, Greencine Daily, Indiewire and the Netflix community (I abhor Rotten Tomatoes because of the site design and dull, narrow-minded conformity) though I approach their ratings with skepticism since none of these sites cater specifically to my taste.

When I started this blog, I thought I was going to be a focused reviewer either in Asian cinema or Italian gialli. Of course, that’s not how thing played out. I could hardly keep my enthusiasm for all cinema boxed into a single distinct label. The only thread that still noticeably runs through my choices is my love for unusual cinema (cult films, B-movies, art house, etc.) by directors who think outside the box-office. I think I could do to be a little more prolific (I’m constantly beating myself up for not working harder), but I’m pretty content with the range of material I cover.

2) Casual <-------> Expert

This one is often linked to focus/coverage. I consider a casual reviewer to be a hobbyist with little or no film training who has viewed hundreds of films, but probably not thousands. A casual reviewer loves movies and sees them as a great source of entertainment, but generally has plenty of other hobbies and interests besides. They tend to lean towards big-named wide-release titles and have less interest in older films, foreign films and art films. The biggest advantage of casual reviewers is that they are very much in touch with the majority of the population and the predictive power of their ratings is often more effective than paid professionals.

I considered putting “professional” instead of “expert,” but opted against the idea, because being paid is hardly the key criteria on this spectrum. An expert reviewer is someone who tends to be more knowledgeable and obsessive. They often have an education in journalism or film production, analysis and theory, though this is also not necessary; an understanding of film on a technical and artistic level is more important. The advantage to experts is that they are often more rigorous in their reasoning and more open-minded to new approaches. They can often relate disparate films to each other and have a keener eye for originality and style. The disadvantage is that they can often be aloof, picky, jaded, esoteric, pretentious or egotistical.

I definitely prefer the expert reviewers and would qualify most of the writers I read as such (whether they are paid or not), though insightful newcomers often provide the freshest perspectives. Recently I’ve grown somewhat disenchanted with one of the great cinema experts, Jonathan Rosenbaum, but he may be the last of a dying breed in a culture increasingly saturated with non-professional experts. I personally strive to fall towards the expert side of the spectrum, but I consider myself in a constant evolution to improve my understanding and appreciation of film.

3. Harsh <-------> Accepting

This is basically a scale for how hard it is to please a reviewer. A harsh critic only places his stamp of approval on a very small fraction of films and tends to tear into perceived flaws. Meanwhile, an accepting reviewer will usually play up the best aspects of a film and will try to judge the movie by on its own ground. The harsh critic is perfect for people who only intend to see a few of the very best films available, but they are only useful when their opinions are nearly identical with your own. An accepting reviewer is useless as a sieve, but excellent for someone striving to broaden their horizons, even if it means spending more time and money and risking more duds.

Though many of the most famous critics like Vincent Canby and Jonathan Rosenbaum made their reputations on the strength of their discriminating taste and astronomically high standards, I dislike almost all harsh critics. Part of reason is that I hate to read people bashing films I really that I found worthwhile. I enjoy the vast majority of the films I see or I wouldn’t spend so much time watching, reading about and writing on them. Accepting reviewers are also generally more open-minded, a quality which I highly value.

Obviously, it’s important to have some standards and to distinguish between the great, the merely good and the waste of time. Someone like Harry Knowles gives so many positive reviews that he seems to be helping distributors rather than viewers. This is why you can see his name praising a conspicuous number of movies with “revenge of” prefixes and Roman numeral suffixes.

That said, I think viewers would get the most out of their experience (both intellectually and in terms of sheer pleasure) if they at least tried to appreciate everything they see. Still, some films are just terrible and I love a witty thrashing handed to a truly deserving failure. So do many readers, if the sales of Ebert’s “I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie” and “Your Movie Sucks” are any evidence. I consider venting my rage at dreadful films to be healthy in small doses, but I usually write about them only when they serve as an example of something not to do or can trigger further discussion.

4. Entertainment <-------> Art

There are many ways to classify a reviewer’s tastes, but I think that this distinction is probably the most important. Is the reviewer more concerned with entertainment and the pleasure that can be derived from movies or are they primary interested in the artistic value and social relevance? You could map this pretty closely to Mainstream vs Independent, but its not a perfect fit. The pros and cons are strictly a matter of intended audience; cinephiles have very different reasons for watching films.

These aren’t mutually exclusive, either, but anyone who samples a reviewer can form a general idea of where they stand. My own opinion is that the American advertising complex has the entertainment side pretty much covered with trailers, promos, banner ads, magazine covers, posters, commercials, TV shows, tie-in, etc. and so I mostly read reviewers who explore and expose material on the less publicized art/indie side of things. I often rely on these reviewers to make me aware of films I would never have otherwise discovered.

This spectrum doesn’t really work well when I try to place myself. I really like the two edges, but I tend to be unenthusiastic about the center territory where generic dramas and unremarkable genre installments lurk.

5. Opinion <-------> Analysis

An opinion writer is someone who reviews a film based upon their overall reaction, taking into account their emotional response, their excitement and interest throughout the film and their general assessment of the quality by their personal criteria. Typically, story, acting and pacing are highly valued. The vast majority of professional reviewers and bloggers are bunched deep onto this side of the spectrum.

An analysis writer is often times a film theorist or academic who is more interested in the form, operation and technical qualities of the film. They may write reviews, which are by nature opinions, but they often emphasize elements like editing, cinematography, staging, set design, lighting and sound mixing that opinion writers might not notice or care about.

I prefer reviewers who are somewhere in the middle-to-right (analysis-leaning). One reason is that I find few people who match my opinions (and even then, I prefer my own), but almost all analysis can be interesting and illuminating. I also think that good analysis is a rare skill, whereas opinions are ubiquitous and do not require talent.

My original thought on writing this article was to focus solely on this issue, but ultimately it is just one factor amongst many. I had observed a significant distinction in reviewers: some felt that the most important thing to write about was what they brought to the film whereas others tried to focus on what the film brought to them. The first type of reviewers is an opinion writer who is ultimately judging the film on things like their attention span, worldview, moral sense and personal taste.

These are important aspect of a reviewer and help define their personality in a way that makes them dynamic and appealing to readers. However, it can be dangerous if these are the sole criteria used for judging a film. It creates millions of reviews that dismiss movies because they have sex or violence or that celebrate films because the reviewer thinks someone in the cast is hot or, most banal of all, whine that the film is “boring” without providing any real information about the content. It is no wonder that these reviews often end up being short-sighted and short-lived: as culture (fashion, politics, discourse) changes, so do the opinions that we bring to movies.

Yet the movies themselves never change. The composition of each shot, the movements of the camera through space and the aural and visual elements that went into the film are constant. It’s a fact that seems obvious, but is often overlooked or ignored.

I blame the late, great film critic Pauline Kael for lending mainstream legitimacy to the implicit idea that the reviewer is more important than the film. Kael was a brilliant writer and always an informed and engaging read, but in retrospect, I think she popularized the primacy of subjective responses and the reviewer’s personal agenda. She had an enormous influence on the professional critic establishment and I’m not always sure it was for the better (a very unpopular statement, I know). I would compare her to Freud, who was foundational in developing his field, but whose specific ideas were often in the wrong direction.

Alternatively, I hail David Bordwell as a much needed alternative. Many are familiar with him from his textbook “Film Art,” the most widely used introductory survey for film analysis. In his books and blog he has always sought to understand cinema as an art and even a science, a series of images and sounds that invite many interpretations, but which exist and interrelate in highly concrete and objective ways. He certainly has opinions, but he is astonishingly capable of understanding what shapes them and what elements of a film could cause other viewers to reach different conclusions.

6. Style <-------> Substance

Lastly, I’d like to address the issue of prose. A style reviewer is a writer in the sense of the novelist, whose word choice, sentence structure and references affect our enjoyment of reading the review. A substance reviewer is a writer in the sense of a reporter, who primarily presents the plot summary, the cast listing and so on. The advantage of style is in the enjoyment of the read, while the advantage of substance is in the need to be informative.

I believe that style is an important element of all writing. With film criticism, it can distinguish one writer from a sea of millions and make all the difference. Since I don’t consider the statistics about a movie to be all that important, I often keep the plot summaries short and I skip out mentioning the cast unless I think it might matter to readers. I try to provide trivia only when it is interesting and I leave IMDB to handle the exhaustive details.

Going Beyond:

These spectrums are not the only traits of film criticism, but hopefully they provide a broad approach that is of some use. Is there anything I missed that you feel is worth mention? Want to defend where you are on one of the spectrums or explain why you prefer one end to another? Let me know!


Mad Dog said...

I would like to defend my harsh stance by saying that there are more than enough people out there willing to give a bad (or maybe even just mediocre or average) movie a nice review. Netflix can back me up on this "It's a good film to watch with kids!"

I may be alienating some readers, but I prefer to think of it as self-selecting readership to people that are sick and tired of namby-pamby bullshit ambivalent reviews. I realize this means I give out less "two star" reviews, but really, if I feel a movie is two stars... I don't think it's interesting enough to write about.

FilmWalrus said...

I don't consider the Grump Factory to be all that harsh, but you probably are the bad cop to Tim's good cop more often than not. For a quick estimate I flipped through the GF movie reviews and found I tended to be more critical about three times as often as I was more accepting. I don't think that necessarily makes me all that harsh, but I do tend to get excited about a different set of criteria.

I don't think you need worry about alienating readers by giving harsh reviews to films widely regarded as crap. Canby, Rosenbaum, Kael, White and other notoriously harsh critics often slammed even highly acclaimed and prestigious films. They occasionally made me wonder if they even enjoyed movies all that much. When harsh casual reviewers tear into old films and art films I sometimes cringe, wondering if they really understood the film when they dismissed as "boring and stupid."

I think your policy of avoiding the "two star" films is a wise approach, one I would say I ascribe to. The ambivalent middleground is hardly helpful for anyone and rarely interesting. The burden for professional reviewers is to make these reviews worth reading. Considering that reviewing every film is their job, I'm not sure it is fair to criticize them for writing so many "namby-pamby bullshit ambivalent reviews." They can't help it if mediocrity is the norm in theaters. Then again, I don't tend to read them very much either...

Patti said...

Brian, I could just as easily apply the same standards to music and the way I review. I approve of your standards.