A Peek Behind The Critical Curtain

Hey folks,

In a way, this is gonna be the most informal thing I’ve written. I’m working on a few things that’ll take some time, including the last 3 of my Top 10 Films and my hot-ass take on Netflix’s Stranger Things vs. The Get Down. Spoiler: One of those is WAAAYYY more up my alley than the other, and it’s not the one you’re thinking.

But I had an interesting conversation or two about this recently, so I think it might be worthwhile to explain a bit about how criticism works (as I do it) and the process that I take to actually you know…write about a thing. We’ll go step by step.

STEP 1: LEARN THINGS.

Criticism starts before I ever actually touch the movie that I’m watching.

Just to give you a little background, the job of a critic is not simply to tell you whether or not a movie is good or bad. Besides the fact that most of you are grown-ass-adults who can make that decision, things like Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, and word of mouth have already generally done that job before I get to touch it. I can implore you to watch things and warn you against them, but in all likelihood, that dark and Satanic forces of Marketing have already helped you make that decision.

Rather, my job is two-fold. As a critic, I contextualize and analyze. We’ll get to analyze in a bit. But let’s talk about contextualization.

Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. By the virtue of being created by a person in a society, art is imbued with a specific philosophical and political context. Furthermore, despite being created by a person in a society, the intentions of that person aren’t necessarily king. They help us understand, but being other people in a society, we can read from and understand different contexts and intentions. This is sort of the wildly simplified version of Barthes’ Death of the Author, which someone will come along to tell me I got totally wrong, but anyway. It’s the principle I kind of go in with, understanding that there was one thing imbued, but thinking about how I reacted to and interpreted it.

In film too, we must understand it as a part of commerce. Film is a business, how do we read it in the landscape of competition and in the landscape of an industry with an artistic intention? What is the struggle against it, and what is the swimming with it?

In other words, in a no-fucking-duh statement, all this means that I have to attempt to give the work context. To understand its place in the art world, the political world, and the industrial context. That requires a lot of reading and watching.

I try to keep up with the news. I read about historical events (especially those of the 20th century). I learn about art movements and artists. I’m in the process of learning about theater as an art form, as well as literature, music, and (increasingly becoming important) video gaming.

I also consume film in some way or another constantly. I’m watching films, old and new, to understand the process and grow in how I speak that language. I’m reading about films, reading histories of, listening to podcasts, trying to write and make them. I’m also reading other critics pretty much every day. In case anyone’s curious, this is the list of critics I read:

      • A.O. Scott, The New York Times
      • Matt Zoller Seitz, Rogerebert.com
      • Jen Yamato, The Daily Beast
      • Amy Nicholson, MTVnews.com
      • David Ehrlich, Indiewire.com
      • Drew McWeeny, Hitfix.com
      • Matt Singer, Screencrush.com
      • Scott Tobias, Freelance
      • Wesley Morris, The New York Times
      • Jordan Hoffman, The Guardian
      • Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly
      • Bilge Ebiri, The Village Voice
      • Siddhant Adlakha, Birth.Movies.Death
      • Tasha Robinson, Verge
      • Mike Ryan, Uproxx
      • Charles Bramesco, Rolling Stone
      • Samuel A. Adams, Freelance
      • Eric D. Snider, Freelance
      • Nathan Rabin, Freelance

And those are just the regulars I check in with/follow on Twitter.

The long and short of it is that in order to contextualize, I do everything I can to be able to talk about context in a way that feels like I can actually pull some meaning out of the world this film lives in/was made in.

STEP 2: WATCH THING

Now, the process of actually sitting down and watching a thing I’m going to write about.

First things first, I don’t take notes. Not extensively. Sometimes I think of a good line or I write down things I’m pretty sure I’m going to forget but 90% of time I’m just letting the film wash over me. This is a personal choice and everyone does it differently. But I find the process of note-taking distracts me from actually consuming the film as an artistic entity, and I think preserving that is paramount.

Second, probably the thing that will most explain my grading. First off, I hate grading. I really do. I think it helps people get a quick snapshot, but I think reducing an artistic work down to a letter is hopelessly reductive, as well reductive of the thoughts.

(Note my artful gliding past the question of reducing an artistic work down to a pithy 1200 words written by a young unprofessional with a Film Studies degree and a penchant for insulting turns of phrase)

But I do grade no matter what. I’m personally of a philosophy that I go into a work with a grade of 100 and the films earns the mark downs. Essentially, I’m looking for the mistakes with an expectation that the thing is going to be fundamentally getting it all correct. That’s why particularly bad movies seem to irk me as much as they do, and I think that’s why I tend to lean more towards the positive side of the grading scale.

I also grade based on the intentions of the thing. Think about it less like a multiple choice test, where movies do right things and wrong things, and more like an essay. What is this thing trying to be and what is it trying to do? Do I think it succeeds in that and do I like what it’s trying to accomplish? This is the Roger Ebert approach.

Now what am I looking for? I’m breaking the film down and building it back up. I’m looking at the disparate pieces of a work. The acting, the writing, the direction, the design, the cinematography, the sound. I’m assessing each of those and asking the question of how I think that contributes to an overall thematic and cinematic whole. If each element accomplishes what it sets out to do, does it do so in a cohesive way? Does it create some meaning for the work, does it have a larger significance, does it feel like it’s part of the work or a weirdly jutting out piece on the side?

STEP 3: WRITE ABOUT THING

Now’s the time for the analysis. At this point, I’ve seen the movie, and I usually have a pretty good idea of the quality. I’ve also probably filtered it through my biases.

Yep, I’m biased. I’m biased as hell. And if you’re an actual critic/writer/human being, so are you. You have specific likes and dislikes and specific knowledges and specific ways you’re feeling when you’re processing something that will all contribute to what you think. For example:

  • I like controlled filmmaking. Filmmaking where the filmmaker feels in control of the work, even if it’s chaotic. This can range from the incredibly tight David Fincher to the incredibly loose Baz Luhrmann. It just matters that it feels like they’re putting things to work for a specific purpose and telling their specific artistic tale. It also means I don’t like voiceless filmmakers. Something like Morten Tyldum work in The Imitation Game is going to irritate me more than anything out there or seemingly messy.
  • “Important” films have a much higher barrier to clear with me. I respond to works that use fantastical or cinematic settings or techniques or modes of storytelling as a way to impart moral philosophy and stories much better than things that are realistic and telling an important story. That means a lot of Oscar-bait biopics tend to leave me cold.
  • I did a lot of work with blockbuster filmmaking and its development and I’ve always had the greatest sympathies towards it. Which means I’m more likely to give blockbuster filmmaking greater attention and weight than others might. Compounding that is the fact that I’m a huge comic book nerd, which means our current cultural moment hits a sympathetic sweet spot.
  • There are filmmakers who instantly raise my hackles no matter what. Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu and Tom Hooper are my most documented ones, but there’s others that one could certainly unveil through my writings. On the other hand, there are certain directors like Spike Jonze, David Fincher, Ben Affleck, Wes Anderson, or Guillermo del Toro that I vibe with and are likely to get a positive review just because their films almost always work for me.
  • Stories about childhood or teenagedom and themes dealing with death and loss, hope, becoming something greater, dealing with finding your place in the world or the experiences of aging, dealing with mental illness or depression, or self-acceptance (especially of the weirdest parts of us) are always going to have a resonance with me.
  • I despise bad use of needle drops and I love good use of needle drops. A film’s skill with those will definitely have an lasting impression on what I think of it overall.

These are just a few. I have hundreds.

Analyzing film is about synthesizing those into a critical world view and then using that to read. What does this film mean to me, how does my reaction inform how I view this film? What did I think and why did I think it? What does this film mean? What is it trying to say and how is it saying that? Once I answer those questions, I write it down and there we have it.

Now, you’ve figured something out. All of this is on me. What I think and know and reacted to and interpreted. Well, no shit. That means every review I write is subjective, every review is from my perspective.

It means that you may not agree with me. I’m not wrong, and you’re not wrong. I mean, I’m right, but regardless. We just both got different things out of it. I don’t want to be judged on how often I’m agreed with, if I usually think something of a movie that you do. Because I won’t. I have my own things I bring in and take out.

This goes for every critic. Judge based on the conversation that is had and whether the work adds something to the experience. Whether it made you reconsider the quality, laugh about a bad movie, appreciate a movie you already loved, or think about something. Criticism is a piece of writing first, and a product review second.

This has been my self-indulgence for today. I’ll return to my standard self-indulgence shortly.

Edit October 10th, 2016: I struck a name off the list of critics. Devin Faraci was a writer I deeply admired for his critical voice and giving me the initial belief that I could discuss the things I loved without compromise. Against my better judgement, perhaps because I could and perhaps because I never paid attention, I ignored much of the bad behavior I saw others speaking about. It became clear that I can no longer in good conscience do that, and it’s become clear that going forward in my career, I should reflect on the environment that got him to that point, and what I can do to help make my era of critics a better and less toxic environment. 

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