Friday, September 3, 2010
Why I Am the Most Important Part of My Reviews
Last week I wrote a piece that, like maybe all the best ones do, began as a simple fluff piece and somewhere along the way found root in something specific and took flight. It started out about one sentence on Rotten Tomatoes and ended up being a discussion of film criticism. In the comments section a lot of people threw in their two cents. Some agreed with me that criticism at it's best isn't really about the movie, it's about the writer and is a reflection of their experience and some, notably Vancetastic of The Audient, said that no, the critic should stand back and take him/herself out of the piece as much as possible. Vance used an example of Roger Ebert panning a film for not presenting cancer in the kind of light he himself experienced it in (could he have been talking about The Bucket List, which, let's face it, was garbage whether you've had cancer or not?). Isn't that fair? Shouldn't the opinion of a cancer patient, after all, hold special interest over all others? Is it even possible or fair, I countered, to logically expect someone who has struggled with such an life changing ailment to reasonably disconnect themselves from it in order to simply tell if we should see a movie or not? The point is that all perception is based on a concept of self and all criticism, in one form or another, is perception. That's what makes it breathe. That's what makes it interesting. That's what we all, as people who write about films should strive to achieve, no? The truth is, and herein lies my overall viewpoint, that I couldn't care less if Vancetastic or Roger Ebert or whoever liked a movie or not. What I'm interested in is why these men liked it or not. What about them was it that triggered this reaction to this particular work? Everything else, in terms of writing reviews, is pure hearsay. Why, I may ask, settle for the opinion of, to repeat my example of Requiem for a Dream, some kid who writes reviews in his parent's basement when what's truly interesting wold be the viewpoint of a real heroin addict? Maybe they'd hate the film. That'd be interesting criticism. You see, to me, a white middle-class male from a small town who has never had any encounters with heroin, Requiem for a Dream presents a horrifying vision. It's also, for the film scholar in me, a great use of aesthetics in order to capture a mood because, after all, that's where the film's success lies for me. In my reality, it's the only truth on the subject I have: that I know film but not herion personally. That's my review. The movie is the jumping off point in order to express something about myself. To a heroin addict maybe the film is overblown; the drug use too extreme; the scenario unrealistic. I don't know. Haven't been there or done that. But he might be right because A) he's not considering the artistic concept of the Selby book, which is the destructive power of the American dream because B) the film is depicting something which to him, is a mirror of a reality he knows. His reaction to the film is as equally valid as mine because we are approaching the film from two different angles, on two different sets of terms, from two different backgrounds which have shaped two different sets of perceptions. Somewhere between his take and mine, there is a complete critical picture. This is what I'm talking about when I say that all criticism should not be a check list of the goods and bads but a reflection of the experience of the critic. Where I think some people misread me was with regards to the use of the first person in writing. I write from the first person because I like to make my pieces both as personal and as conversational as possible and try not to do so in any sort of overbearing, self-indulgent way. I fully agree that, when used by poor writers, the first person point-of-view is like nails on a chalkboard. I came across this passage today and although I have nothing against the writer, let's take a look: "I finally got around to seeing the new Julia Roberts movie. I was really looking forward to the movie, I really liked the book. Mostly I was really curious to see how they could make someone's personal inner journey come to life." When I read this I have three thoughts: 1) It's boring, 2) Me, me, me, me and 3) Who cares? If it was written engagingly and was building up to an overarching point about something profound, well then yes, but this is more like "My Personal Movie Journal" writing which, sadly, a lot of criticism, especially online, is. The first two words in this paragraph may as well have been "Dear Diary," My problem is I've studied film too much. I'm too quick to break films down into pieces and dissect them on an aesthetic level which, needless to say, is criticism but not really personal. I've ceased providing my experience of a movie and sharing why it worked for me and started preparing an argument for why it is a good film. There's a difference. The best critic is the one who studies everything but film. The person who knows everything about art, life, politics, theatre, literature, society, psychology, philosophy and so on. They've read the best books, seen the best plays, listened to the best music, done the best drugs, followed the most important world issues and so on. Ultimately they are completely in tune with themselves because they have reaped the knowledge of all this culture and can now use it as a tool to look within themselves . That's interesting criticism because it not only does the generic task of assessing a movie but it gives us a glimpse into the soul of the writer. I once told someone that if they ever read everything I ever wrote about movies they'd have a more compete a picture of me than ever has existed. Why would I want anything less? Note, although he may think to the contrary, I would place Vance into this category of critic who does express himself through his writing. Even though he says he tries to take himself out of his work as much as possible I still feel I learn something about him every time I read his posts which, above all, just means he's a better writer than he gives himself credit for.