Thought Bubble: What’s Really Wrong with Film Criticism?

Jay Sherman

Film criticism is a shambles right now and it doesn’t need to be. I can’t think of a better way to put it, and it kind of hurts my heart. As I begin writing this piece hot on the heels of a heavily talked about, tweeted about, and snarked about debate on what the “rules” of film criticism should be (or if there even should be any), I write this not as a plea for peace across some sort of drawn up, potentially self-aggrandizing battle lines, but to try and reason out aloud why film criticism bothers me so much these days.

Despite the fact that I love my job and I love to be able to share my thoughts, feelings, insights, notions, and ideas about cinema with readers, I love reading film criticism just as much. I won’t often agree with everything being said, but I love living in a time when there are so many viable, vibrant, and informed voices out there for readers to choose from. There has never been a time of greater academic, feature, or review styled writing about film. It is, as they say about many endeavours before they reach a tipping point, a growth industry.

That growth combined with a culture that relies heavily on social media-styled reductive arguments has made the world of film criticism splinter and move apart in many ways to form new worlds much like how continental drift works. Just 30 to 40 years ago, there wasn’t too much choice when it came to film criticism. There were academics, formalists, reviewers/beat reporters, essayists, and the occasional auteurist. That was pretty much it. Then – largely because of the internet – the world started breaking apart into newer unexplored worlds. Roger Ebert, Andrew Sarris, and Pauline Kael were no longer islands unto themselves, but larger islands with an ocean’s worth of smaller islands orbiting them. Now, we have bloggers, fanboys, contrarians, vulgar auteurists, cinephiles, and whatever else you can to call out there that can be derided as potentially false or very narrow minded criticism.

Once the water starts rising with every new writer getting into the ocean, that’s when it comes time to take a step back and ask what the goals of film criticism should be. It’s no longer the age old debate of what the difference is between a critic, a scholar, a reviewer, or a hack, but it has become a discusson about a set of standards and tastes that are determined by an unseen panel of possibly non-existent judges who think they know what’s best for the medium.

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It was an entirely semantic based debate that opened up this week when IndieWire asked its weekly CriticWire poll participants – film writers of various backgrounds and outlets – to answer a question about the discussion of cinematic form when it comes to film writing. Suggested by a piece written by Jazz critic Ted Giola where he states that “music criticism has degenerated into lifestyle reporting,” the question asked if film writing has fallen into the same trap and if writers today often talk about the more obvious aspects of cinema (story, acting, emotional investment) as opposed to actual cinematic form and function as a visual medium.

The question got out of control quickly, branching off into any number of potential arguments about the validity of film writing in general. A largely polite, sometimes contentious, but positively exhaustive firestorm arose from the question. Noted writer Matt Zoller Seitz implored writers to keep form in mind in a very strongly worded and deeply impassioned missive outside of the IndieWire piece he participated in. CriticWire editor Sam Adams responded with a lovely response closer to my own thoughts by essentially saying “Yes, but…” Tweets were hurled in every direction, some angry that someone like Seitz (who is an exceptional writer) was seemingly telling people how to do their jobs (but honestly if you’re a critic, why should that bother you in the first place).

It wasn’t a particularly productive debate; one that took many of my favourite writers away from probably spending time doing what they should have been doing in the first place instead of worrying about what everyone else was doing all at once. But since it’s out in the open now (and since the week is at an end and all my day to day critical duties are over and done with), I might as well let it be known where I stand on the issue since it’s something I’ve been thinking about and writing about over the past few weeks.

What bothers me most about this argument over what constitutes good film writing is that it has almost completely overlooked one very crucial question that needs to be asked of any culture writer:

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Who is it exactly that you are writing for?

No culture writing exists in a vacuum solely for the edification of the person writing it. Like any kind of writing, if you are only in it for yourself, all you are keeping is a diary. My biggest fear – and it is a very legitimate one – is that far too many people think they can be a film critic or culture writer simply because they see a lot of movies or hear a lot of music or whatever.

There needs to be an education in place, and it’s one that needs to be strengthened and honed before someone decides to take on such a profession seriously. My short answer to the original question asked is, yes, we do need to talk about form more often, but no, I don’t always think that the form is what makes or breaks a film in many cases. The question I am asking above, however, is one that should inform the answer of the original question being asked without getting too far up one’s own ass with theoretical and semantic arguments.

The “market” today is “flooded” with “film writers” who have very little clue about the mechanics of filmmaking. The heck with talking about form and visuals, there are plenty of writers out there who have no clue how basic storytelling mechanics work. Rotten Tomatoes is full of writers like these (and they have been there for what feels like eons). I’ve had university professors not have fully formed understandings of film theory or storytelling because they either came exclusively from English Literature, philosophy, or photography backgrounds. Maybe there’s a question of education there that needs to be addressed.

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I think to a certain degree even someone reviewing films on a daily basis for a living, and not only those who write long form critical or academic treatises on singular works, need to function a bit like a teacher. Does the story suck? Explain why the story sucks in detail with what you know about how film works. Does a single performance redeem a film? Explain what it is exactly in detail what this person is doing to make the film better based on what you have learned. How does the style of the film inform the story? Get specific and show that you know how mood and tone are created through visuals. How does the editing inform the written narrative? Cite specific examples of how a cut in a film is an extension of the screenplay.

More specifically to the earlier point about talking more about visuals in film writing, I try to do it whenever I can. Sometimes the visuals are so pedestrian that they aren’t worth talking about or I can’t think of a way to make the reader care about them without it feeling out of place in a piece.

To counter Seitz’s suggesting that even writers with a limited word count include at least one line about a film’s form, I would say that when I review 10 films a week like I normally do (because I don’t make a cushy enough living from only writing one or two pieces a week and resting on my laurels the other 5 days of the week, and no, this is not a dig or shots fired against anyone with a cushier job than mine) maybe 4 of them are at all worth consideration on a visual level. If I get stuck watching a low-rent slasher film with rudimentary camera placement or a shaky aesthetic that’s trying to create a faux-sense of realism, I might not mention it because, honestly, who reading that piece is going to give a shit about it unless I am describing how versatile or incompetent it is? Similarly, if I watch a great human drama or a riotous comedy that doesn’t look particularly earth shattering but has a great story, characters, performances, themes, and subtext, I refuse to go out of my way to say “But maybe you could have put the camera here, instead,” or try to shoehorn in one really great bit of set design if it doesn’t make sense for the rest of the piece to have that.

The problems with visuals are this: They are visual. You can describe them with any amount of words that you want to use and still not do the best visuals any real justice. Similarly, it comes back to education and specifically to knowing who it is you are writing for. I don’t believe that visuals can be adequately conveyed without first actually showing people what is so great about them and explaining them in the moment. I don’t want to say it’s always a “you had to be there” sort of thing, but at times it certainly can be.

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This is especially true of gorgeously shot, composed, or edited sequences that have little bearing on the story or plot. How do you describe an individual moment of beauty, and more importantly what about that moment could be quantified and put into writing? It’s considerably easier when writing about a film that’s been out for a very long time and has worked its way into the public consciousness, but are you even doing it justice when you describe what makes it great without having it play out while the reader reads the critique? Such is the folly of any culture writing (the worst of which is probably concert reviews and awards show re-caps, which for better or worse are kind of at the bottom of the critical writing spectrum). There’s a tendency to overthink things in both directions.

It’s a delicate balance, and I don’t want to get into a fight that pits “mainstream” writing against “technical” writing. They both have their place and there should be overlap between the two. How someone writes about a film will ultimately come down to their personal mindset and how they approach criticism. Personally – and although I do many different types of writing on film – my day to day mandate is to play a consumer advocate. That’s how I see my job. I love film. I have studied film (and literature, theatre, and sociology) and I continue to learn about it every day. I am also a realist: film is both an art and a business. I am a writer first and foremost, so maybe I do approach film from more of a structural, literary, and subtextual approach than a formalist one. I have seen films with awful stories redeemed somewhat by great visuals, and I have seen terrible looking and sounding films that have kept me enthralled. Both need mention. A terribly edited or sounding film can be one of the hardest things to sit through. Then there’s this issue of “bland competency” that I have heard some of my colleagues speak of: films so run of the mill and almost painfully average that talking about them in terms of form is a complete waste of everyone’s time. Some people will even give a film a failing grade PRECISELY because they can’t talk about the form regardless of anything it might be getting correct.

When I sit down to write a review and because I don’t believe in giving out any sort of grade, stars, or ranking to a film, I ask myself why someone should or shouldn’t spend money on this film. What are the strengths of the film? What are its weaknesses? Which outweighs the other? Are there pivotal sequences that the film hinges on and how can I talk about them without ruining the film for someone who will see this with or without my recommendation? (I don’t want to spoil a new release whether I like the film or not, but I have no problem analyzing something several years old shot-by-shot if I have to.) Where is the story here? What is the approach? Most importantly, what does the audience expect from my writing and how can I deliver that? No two films are the exact same, ever. So why should they all be written about the same way and from the same playbook?

I’ve been around for a while now, and it has come to a point where I can more or less gauge who keeps coming back to read my writing. It doesn’t ever level out and some things bring in more readers than others, but I can see trends, and for whatever reason what I have been doing for the past 15 years has worked for me. I’m proud of what I’ve done and how I have progressed as a writer. I definitely think I still have further to go. I do not think implementing some sort of rules over what I should or should not talk about in a review is going to help me in any way.

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I think the second you say something like “all film criticism must talk about form,” you have dug a massive hole for yourself. Sure, there will be people that agree with you on that topic, and for the most part I’m one of them. But it’s a stance that has to be relaxed. Not everyone has infinite word counts that the internet offers (heck, in most cases outlets still have word counts for pieces) to go that in depth. Not everyone will write a book about their favourite filmmakers. Some people already only barely have the time to finish their day to day film work every week. The hole that someone digs when they make a grand declarative statement on behalf of all criticism is that the second they betray that edict, they open themselves up to scrutiny. If it’s something that you can personally stick to, fine. As a writer and a lover of films of all kinds, I would rather not paint myself into a corner where I need a checklist of things I have to hit in every piece I write. It would bore the audience I want to read the piece and it would bore me even more as a writer. It can become toxic and nerve wracking to not combine your gut feelings with your knowledge. You can’t agonize at the end of something and say “Shit! I didn’t mention one camera angle!” or “I need to go back and say something about the music even if I don’t think I remember any of it.” You can literally drive yourself mad with all the second guessing that can be done. Trust me, there are some pieces I wish I could re-do of have stricken from the record precisely because I did forget something or I couldn’t find a way to make it work. It happens. Hang on tightly, let go lightly.

But even more so than pigeonholing film writers into specific groups with specific mindsets, there’s a deeper problem: there are way too many of us. I think that’s what’s leading to so much frustration among established writers. It’s a pie getting divided up into infinitely smaller portions that are becoming unsatisfying and almost impossible to eat. The waters are beginning to be diluted by too many writers who can’t give consideration to form or function or intent in a film. Any of those things can be credibly written about by people who have the necessary background – either through higher learning, rigorous self-education, or by actually making a film.

I’m all for everyone having a voice and everyone having an opinion about culture, but how many people out there writing about film today are actually informed enough or decent enough of a writer to really contribute to thoughtful discussion? I’ll be generous and say maybe 40% of all the film writing that exists today is credible to me because I couldn’t honestly be asked to keep up with all of it. Then again, what I find credible might not be credible to another reader. It’s ultimately up to the reader to decide what they want to read about. It’s as much of an investment of faith as going to the movies is.

I know what I like to read and the approaches to the things I like to read are all different. I’ll read academic texts and treatises specifically about special effects design. I often pick up American Cinematographer, Cinema Scope, and Fangoria at the same time because they tend to all come out on around the same time at my local newsstand. I can’t exist in a vacuum where I can talk about the same things all the time and I can’t read about the same things all the time. All I know for sure is that I know bullshit when I read it, and I like to think that most readers of film criticism are capable of knowing what bullshit is when they see it.

This has gone on for far too long and gotten kind of out of control, both this piece and the arguments about modern film criticism in general. The best and simplest way I have heard it all summed up was from Glenn Kenny in the aforementioned IndieWire piece that started this all when he said:

“Do your own work the best you can, don’t appoint yourself the Internet’s Critic Police, and when you see someone you think is a moron or an intellectual opportunist or morally/aesthetically reprehensible retweeted, don’t punch the nearest mirror or refrigerator. Kids, I know. I’ve been there. It’s not a fun place.”

But in the end, I do want to leave with a piece of advice that at least speaks to a plea for balance in film criticism.

If you fancy yourself a film writer and you are only in this for yourself or to get free movies or get access to celebrities or to make money over everything else, stop. Please. For all our sakes. If you aren’t writing to educate or inform a filmgoer in some way and you’re just delivering baseless opinion, either become better informed or just continue to be a passing cinephile and engage with a film on your own terms or when you think you have something important to say and you can back it up. There are too many writers out there espousing “awesome performances” or “kick ass action” or calling things “the best (blank) of the (blank)” or any number of other hyperbolic, click-baiting statements that sound way cool but ring completely hollow to anyone who might actually want to hear a nuanced, balanced, or genuinely passionate take on something. THAT is the problem that should be rallied against, and it’s what might end up turning film writing into the kind of lifestyle writing the initial piece that started this whole debate was referring to.

We film writers, much like the people who make the films we talk about so very often try to do for viewers, should be focusing on the readers and what they expect. Don’t blow smoke up their asses and we’ll be all set. It’s as simple as that. And don’t forget that the reader is the reason you even have a job in the first place.

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