Saturday, September 4, 2010

Everyone's a Critic

As I'm about to embark on a separate undertaking only tenuously related to this blog, I began thinking about what it really means to review something; to ingest a film or book or album, whatever may be one's field of choice, and pick it apart, holding each aspect up to one's own standards of excellence and then presuming they have the knowledge to tell others what is worthy of being seen and what should be discarded. How do we decide who has the right to make these calls? And just what in the hell is the point of it all anyways?

Opinions, much like assholes, are within even the simplest minds' capabilities. "I like this." "That sucked." All rather eloquent and to the point. These are the examples of what the typical person would say to sum up an experience with a film. Rarely do they offer up any substantial points to back up their opinion. When they do, it falls along the lines of "It was boring," or "That ending fucking sucked." If we were having just a simple conversation to kill time, I would have no trouble accepting such remarks, and as such, is the method of the majority of how the general populace discusses film, and as casual moviegoers, that's their right. However, these people end up making a lot of their film choices based upon the word of the "professional" critics, strangers they have never met but are willing to place their hard earned money (and let's not forget time) on a movie decided on by which direction the critic's appendage is pointing or some arbitrary scoring system which could range from 1-10, 1-5, 1-100, or any number of little tokens, i.e. "five stars," "five points," or, in one particular website, "five stabbys." What exactly is the conversion factor in stars to stabbys anyway?

Since the dawn of art, there have been professional critics there to tear the work asunder. They are always there, telling you what you should see and how to see it. They state their remarks along with whatever trivial scoring system they use just in case the reader hasn't the capability for the reading comprehension needed in order to get the gist of the review when reading the main text, and leave it as gospel. How exactly do we choose these figureheads, these cultural trailblazers? It can't be for writing prowess. Here's an excerpt from the first review I came across on the website for Roger Ebert, probably the most well known and respected movie critic of our time (go to hell, Peter Travers), where he judges the recent George Clooney film, The American:

"His weakness is love. Clara, the prostitute, should not be trusted. We sense he uses prostitutes because he made a mistake in the relationship that opens the film. In his business he cannot trust anybody. But perhaps Clara is different. Do not assume from what I've written that she isn't different. It is very possible. The film ends like a clockwork mechanism arriving at its final, clarifying tick."

Now there's nothing wrong with that, other than it feels like something no more profound or insightful than what a high school freshman is capable of, it's perfectly serviceable for alerting others that this is a decent movie. However, as a serious film critic, a film scholar some would say, it is not what I would call engaging film discussion. I want some finesse, some style, some fucking meat in my film discussion (probably because I don't feel like my writing is adequate enough to do so enough on my own-ed.). Ebert's typical reviews consist of primarily recounting the major plot points and adding his own insights on them as he goes, witty or not, that's up to the reader I suppose. And that's fairly typical review writing no matter the source from what I've gathered by reading dozens of them a day. The excerpt above comes from the concluding paragraph of Ebert's review, a place where all the threads of discussion and any points he may have been bringing up are typically woven together into an overarching comment on what the movie means and its merits, much like how every aspect of the film's plot should come together as one final denouement that sums the entirety of its parts into a cohesive meaning (much unlike my writing, apparently - ed.). There is no more thought put into the review than the first ramble of shit that came to mind before he had some lemonade and quit for the day. And sadly, this is considered the best film criticism in the world, it seems. I will say this for Armond White, he writes his fucking heart out, even if it doesn't make any sense in the end.

Now, that's the typical viewpoint of critics. In my dealings with the human race, I'm perfectly aware that there are such feeble minded patrons out there that actually need to be told what they should see. The senior citizens that go see films such as District 9 just because they're nominated for Best Picture and end up walking out halfway through after realizing their ungodly mistake are such an example. But I believe the rest of the world are perfectly capable of making the call on what to see on their own. They know what they want to see and look for the critics' opinions to back them up. For some reason, mankind is determined to always be right. If a person likes a movie, they'll look for others' reviews online. The ones that disagree with their own personal opinions "can go fuck themselves" while the reviews that fall in line with their own views "know what they're talking about. Man." God help you if you want to discuss a film you didn't care for while the other person loved it. They'll take it as a personal attack, even in an environment such as a film school where you should actually be active in discussing and comparing views on film. Go ahead and try it sometime, see how the other person reacts.

But I think that's a negative view on why people are obsessed with reviews. What I'd really like to believe is that we're all just looking for some real discussion. Those that are passionate about film love to push their favorites and talk about everything they can. At least for me, when I see a new movie that I love, I need to tell someone. I need others to see what I've seen because I feel like it needs to be shared. For example, I recently watched Code Red's release of Primal Rage, a great 80's precursor to 28 Days Later. I know for a fucking fact no one around me has seen that movie. Even my wife, my go-to liaison for such things, had to sleep when I watched it so she'd have no idea what the hell I was talking about. I did pop it back in so she could at least see the great costumes made up for the Halloween sequence. When you get into the really obscure titles, the internet is sometimes the only place to turn to for any thoughts on subject at all. In Primal Rage's case, the DVD sold piss-poor numbers (something you could help rectify by checking it out yourself) so there's not a lot in the way of internet discussion either. Still, there's someone out there willing to talk shop with you, even if they're thousands of miles away.

This is where I think blogs come in handy. Just from a horror fan's perspective, there are hundreds, nay, thousands of them littering the information superhighway, each barking their opinions and views for others to ingest. And that's not counting the insurgence of podcasts either. These are people with varying degrees of education or experience in the film industry, if any at all, so you can access a vast ocean of ideas and discussions. There's every style of writing for any kind of reader. They can range from a very specifically focused subject such as only dealing with Paul Naschy films, to grab-bag blogs where they go on about anything under the sun, kind of like this damn thing. They typically follow the pattern of running through the plot and summing up their experience in their reviews, followed by whatever scoring system they've chosen to adopt. But the thing that differentiates them from the "professional" reviews is that there is no pretentiousness. They know they're fans and they're really using these blogs as a means to discussion and pointing out films others may like. Most telling is that the passion is still there. If you read Ebert's reviews, you'll notice almost a dejected feeling coming through. They typically read as he was there, he saw, and this is what he saw. Even the films he loves read across as disinterested anymore. It's just a job. Bloggers and podcasters are doing it out of love for their field. It takes more hours than you'd expect for even the simplest of posts, and they're not expecting anything out of it save for maybe a comment every now and then. True some make money off their sites, but I'd hardly call it a career. The motivating factor is out of the honest love for the genre, something that gives anyone of their articles more heart than anything Ebert's shuffled across in years. There's an honesty there that can't be found on your major news-sites.

I know, I know. Who the fuck am I to go about Roger Ebert and criticism and blah blah blah? Well, I'm nobody. I have absolutely no pretensions about who I am other than I've been reading this shit for a long time. At this point in my life, I've become obsessed with film criticism and discussion, reading everything I can and spending at least three or four hours a day listening to various podcasts, and these are the things I've noticed. I won't pretend to not fall into the same traps that I just bitched about. I will say, I have yet to do what I'd offically call a "review" on this site. I consider what I have been doing no more than what I'd call little "write-ups," amounting to just whatever's on the tip of my tongue about any given movie when I write about it. I don't really put much thought into and spit it all out, word vomit if you will, and chug on through to the next one. I've yet to go back and do a polish or re-write on any of them so everything's been pretty much rushed-through first drafts so far. Probably not something you want to read on a blog you're visiting, but I'm being honest. I'll probably do real reviews at some point when it's called for but for now I'm fine with the way things have been going. I'm not pretending like I know what the fuck I'm doing, just that I want to write about my film experiences and hopefully point the way to some films that a reader may otherwise have overlooked. If some are actually entertained by my ramblings, then that's great to hear. Otherwise, I'm not really looking for anything out of this other than discussing film and inciting discussion, which is what I believe is the whole purpose of film criticism in the first place.

Just watch some fuckin' movies, man.

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