May 10, 2009

Cinematters: The commandments of criticism

I’m currently finishing up an A Level in Film Studies. One of the things we’re studying is Fandom, and I was asked to give a presentation about this blog for class, as a demonstration of my expression of my film fandom. On opening up to questions the first that came back was, essentially, why? Why do I write criticism, and why should anyone take it - mine or anyone else’s - seriously? Having spent ten years now writing criticism, beginning with a little email newsletter at the request of a few friends, and ending up, well, here I think I’ve developed my own style of criticism, and I’ve definitely developed something of a philosophy of how criticism ought to be done. Hopefully this list of what are, for me, the unarguable rules of being a decent critic will shed some light on that whole question of why?


Really, if you aren’t doing this, what’s the point? Criticism IS opinion, and if you don’t have a strong one, or aren’t prepared to state it – whatever it may be – then you just can’t be a critic. I’m always nervous when someone I know and like asks me to watch something they’ve made, and more than once I’ve asked “are you sure you want me to watch this, because I will tell you what I think”. I always try to find something complimentary to say, and so far I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to mention something good to build on. BUT, and this is the salient point, even if there was nothing good to say I’d still be able tell people, even people I know and like, “This is bad”. The same, of course, goes for major releases. I don’t care if most audiences liked Crank 2, I don’t care that a lot of critics gave it a warm reception (the excellent Onion AV Club bestowing an A minus on it) I thought it an inept and offensive piece of dung and I gladly gave a long, detailed, case for that opinion. I did the same with The Dark Knight, striking out almost alone to declaim it as 2008’s most overrated film. I’ve sometimes been accused of doing these things because I want to appear different, really, so how do you explain my love of critical and audience darlings like The Princess Bride, or Say Anything…, or this week’s none more mainstream Star Trek? It’s all about not running with the herd simply because the herd IS running, if you think they’re running in the wrong direction it is your job, your responsibility, as a critic to run the other way, shouting “Follow me”.

Opinion is one thing, but here’s a difference between the ability to say “That was bollocks” or “This is ace” and actually making a case for why you think that. Good criticism is an argument, it has a viewpoint, lays out that viewpoint, and then reasonably and robustly defends that viewpoint. I can, for instance, go blue in the face telling you that The Hottie and the Nottie is a contender for the title of worst film of all time, but it amounts to nothing unless I tell you why I think that (because it’s badly acted, hideously written, appears to be shot by a blind teenager, and has a terrible body fascist message) then the opinion alone is basically meaningless. There isn’t too much professional criticism out there that is unreasoned, but there is an absolute dearth of it on the Internet. Just take a quick glance at the imdb message boards.

I love music, love it, but I only really became a big music fan in my early 20’s (off the back of seeing Almost Famous) and though I own over 600 albums on CD and about 250 more on LP I don’t review music, because I don’t believe I have anything like enough knowledge of it to comment with any real authority. You MUST know what you are talking about, and with film that means having a sense of the history of the medium, having some knowledge of how films are made, knowledge of why certain films are made, and an understanding of how audiences interact with film. I’ve seen staggering errors in internet criticism (note to online critics; if you can’t be bothered to look up the correct spelling of Steven Spielberg’s name then anything you have to say about his or any other film is immediately devalued), but what bothers me more are factual errors in professional criticism. The London Times’ Wendy Ide (of whom more later) sticks out in my mind here. Ide recently participated in an article listing the 20 worst movie endings of all time, and, writing the entry on Magnolia, referred to the rain of frogs as that film’s ‘ending’. Of course the rain of frogs comes some 30 minutes before the film ends, and we even spend much time in the aftermath of that strange weather event. She may think it’s a stupid sequence, but it’s patently not the ending, and that kind of factual lapse is just laughable.

I recently saw State of Play, and was mixed in my reactions to it, but you won’t see a review here unless I watch it a second time because, for just a few minutes, I fell asleep. It is very possible that during those few minutes there was an amazing sequence that would have made me appreciate the film immeasurably more, it’s equally possible that that time was taken up with the single worst sequence I’ll see in a film this year. It’s probable that neither of these things is true, but the fact that I don’t know renders me unqualified to write up a review. A tougher journalistic standard than I’ve seen, of late, from at least two professional critics. Wendy Ide walked out of Martyrs before its crucial final act, and yet still felt she could review the film, and give it 2 stars (out of five). Andrew Collins, filling in for Mark Kermode on Radio 5 Live walked out of Crank 2 (hard to blame him really), he, at least, had the decency only to review it up to the 25 minute mark, but still, as a paid critic it’s part of your job to see awful movies so other people don’t have to


Dear Harry Knowles, I know you think that the whole of a ‘cinema experience’ should be captured in a review, and sometimes you’re right, because seeing Robocop at the Prince Charles with 300 people who completely get it is different to seeing it on DVD, but that’s not true of everything, and it certainly doesn’t mean you have you start your review by telling us what you had for dinner before you left for cinema. It also, especially, doesn’t mean that, as you did in your frankly vomit inducing review of Blade II, you should give half the text over to graphic descriptions of cunnilingus (yes I KNOW what the Reapers mouths look like, and it was more interesting when it was unremarked on). Please, review the movies and stop sharing.

Now, clearly, this isn’t really a problem for me on a large scale and, in the interest of full disclosure, I have once invited an amateur filmmaker to quote a line from my (glowing) review of his short to use on the packaging of the screener DVD he was using to tout it. However I never wrote the review for that purpose, nor did I, as is common practice in some circles of this business allow any words that were not my own to be used. Frequently the quotes seen on posters will have been written by studios, which then allow ‘critics’ to put their names to them. For me the second you do this you are off the roll, you are no longer a critic, you’re a corporate shill, putting your name to what someone else, thinks, shoving things down an audience’s throat rather than doing your job of simply stating and reasoning YOUR opinion.

Even before I abandoned grades as reductive beyond usefulness I made sure I used them with care. In the years I’ve written criticism I’ve tried using a couple of forms of grading; the n/5 system that all British magazines and newspapers use, and, when I first arrived at the Joblo forums, the n/10 system that’s prevalent there. Even grading out of 10 I found the system too specific, too widely spread, and I found that I was frequently having trouble defining what was, for instance, a 7/10 and an 8/10. I’ve never really had that problem with the n/5 system, because it’s got a small enough selection of grades (I’ve never used half marks with any system) that they are each a broad and easily definable band and combining that with the rule that, if in doubt, you round the grade down, serves me well. The problem I find with a lot of grading is that it seems frequently to go against the wording of the review, countless are the times I’ve read “this movie was horrible, the acting was dreadful, this guy shouldn’t direct traffic let alone movies…” 5/10. A 5 on a 10 scale is average, not bad. Equally I’ll often see reviews that damn movies with faint praise, declare them utterly and completely average marked at 7/10. It’s a confusing way to grade, and essentially makes the use of grades meaningless. Half grades are one thing, but if you give something 8.3/10 (as I’ve seen people do) you had best explain why it’s not 8.2 or 8.4, and if you can’t, revise your grading system. Clarity is important.

People come to critics to find out, as best they can, if a movie is any good, no more, no less. Of course you have to give a flavour of the film, because if you don’t understand what it’s trying to be then you can’t say how well it has achieved its goals, but you must never, unless it’s impossible to write about the film any other way, spoil any surprises for an audience. Some people think there’s a statute of limitations on this, I’m not so sure, even when I’m reviewing very old films I’ll only ever discuss the plot in the barest terms possible, because I know as an audience member that the best time I have at the cinema is watching something with no idea of how it will unfold, and I want other people to have that experience too, because those surprises are what cinema is all about. So frequently I see print reviews that are three paragraphs long – two paragraphs of plot and two sentences of review. That’s not criticism, I understand their space is more limited than mine, but that’s a synopsis, and that’s not the job. That’s not shedding light on a film, it’s ruining it, and that’s unforgivable.


I’m sure I’ve said a few things people might quote and say are stupid, and I’m sure I’ve been guilty of some hyperbole in my time, but I try very hard to keep what I say in check, to make sure that there are caveats. If you don’t do this first you run the risk of sounding like a quote whore, and secondly you run the risk of looking very stupid. I hate to keep picking on a lady, but Wendy Ide comes to mind here too. One week she wrote a feature on staggeringly average Ryan Reynolds romantic-comedy Definitely, Maybe saying “It’s the best rom-com since Annie Hall”. The following week she “reviewed” the film, giving, in two paragraphs, just one line of opinion and rating it 4/5 stars. So, honestly, the best romantic comedy in 32 years doesn’t deserve a top grade? The mind boggles. Then there’s Ben Lyons, a critic so poor that the great Hollywood Bitchslap devotes an article to quoting the stupidest thing he says on each episode of his TV show, and recently named him one of the Whores of the year, mainly for saying that a certain film was "ONE OF THE GREATEST MOVIES EVER MADE!" That film? I Am Legend. Leaving aside the fact that even Will Smith likely doesn’t believe that (I doubt he even believes it one of the greatest Will Smith movies ever made) how the holy living hell do you get to say that and be a professional critic, for the love of God the film didn’t even look finished. More damaging, Lyons forgot to put I Am Legend on his initial best of the year list – he rectified this at his blog, posting a completely different list. Is that the kind of critic you want, one who forgets what he says, or changes what he thinks based on his audience? I sure as hell don’t.

Why do these rules matter? And why do I continue to write criticism? Well, I’ll defer to the late Anthony Minghella, who said “Something so powerful as film deserves to be celebrated and understood”. I think that’s a perfect encapsulation of a critic’s job. I love doing it, and I hope I do it well, but that’s not my call to make, it’s yours, all three of you.

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