I can’t have been the first person to use that title, right? Originality is not something I concern myself with, a truth which you will see in just a moment as I attack the question of how to write about movies a full week after everybody else has had their say. Deal with it! Anyways, last week Matt Zoller Seitz wrote a blog post at rogerebert.com imploring film critics, especially those on the internet for some reason, to write about the formal aspects of filmmaking in their reviews. The whole article is interesting but if you’ve already read it or don’t want to, allow me to remind you or inform you about the two most relevant quotes.
[I]n criticism of every kind there is appallingly little careful consideration of form. I see a lot of writing that describes what a piece of art is about, not so much about how it is about it.
Movies and television are visual art forms, and aural art forms. They are not just about plot, characterization and theme. Analytical writing about movies and TV should incorporate some discussion of the means by which the plot is advanced, the characters developed, the themes explored. It should devote some space, some small bit of the word count, to the compositions, the cutting, the music, the decor, the lighting, the overall rhythm and mood of the piece.
Otherwise it’s all just book reports or political op-eds that happen to be about film and TV. It’s literary criticism about visual media. It’s only achieving half of its potential, if that. And it’s doing nothing to help a viewer understand how a work evokes particular feelings in them as they watch it.
Aha. Interesting stuff there. A few misconceptions about how literary criticism works (or, how it should work), but some insightful critiques about modern film writing. Except, of course, that it’s kind of baloney.
While I agree with MZS’s premise that movie writing could have more technical discussion overall, I don’t think that everybody necessarily needs to write about shots or whatever. A favorite blogger of mine, Jessica over at The Velvet Café, doesn’t often write about shot length or editing techniques, but she almost always captures the way the plot and characters interact and become living people in the two or so hours of a film. That’s what film can do and she captures it in her writing. I’ve never regretted taking time to read her reviews, even if it’s not a film I’m interested in.
Another blogger I enjoy, Martin Teller, has a different reason to read his reviews. He does often talk about structure and form in his pieces, but he also brings a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of film history (especially in film noir) to bear in most of his reviews. I’ll often end up adding more than just the film he’s writing about to my ever expanding list of movies to watch. In fact, he was the reason I finally got around to Fanny and Alexander, which turned out nicely for me. And his site collects all the reviews he’s written over the many years he’s been writing about movies, so it’s a fantastic resource for reading up about a movie which will delve into both thematic and formal considerations.
And yet another blogger has yet another approach to film writing. Melissa at A Journal of Film writes these giant reviews that pull in literary analysis and references (her day job is as a college writing and literature teacher), formal observations, and a superb writing style the rides the lines between blogging and academic writing (see her amazing review of We Need to Talk About Kevin for an example). She’ll explain how a shot or use of color or sound is used to further the theme of the film and that’s exactly what Matt Zoller Seitz was imploring us to do.
And now to turn these ramblings inwards. What do I write like, what do I want to write like? Well, let’s start with what I used to write like. Here’s my first written review, as far as I can find.
I just watched The Chronicles of Narnia: TLTWATW. I liked it a lot, but I also liked the book a lot, so I might be biased. There were a few pluses and minuses though. The bad: I didn’t much like the child actors. I’m sorry to be mean, but whoever played Lucy really got on my nerves. Also, I didn’t like that they started with (to me) the second story. The order my set was in started with The Magician’s Nephew. While I agree that Wardrobe is probably the better introduction to the series for non-readers, I prefer it the way I read it. Now on to the good: I really liked the way that the filmmakers captured the feeling and look of Narnia. This is exactly how I pictured it as a kid. It was awesome seeing Aslan being the big boss lion. I liked the choice of Liam Neeson as Aslan, I think his voice suited the role perfectly. Ditto with Tilda Swinton as the evil White Witch. I knew from the moment I saw her that she was the perfect embodiment of evil in Narnia. And finally, the battle scene. While it was a different kind of battle than the ones in LOTR, I liked it just as much, and possibly better. This was the kind of thing that you can’t quite get from a book. It was the kind of battle that I always wanted to see, with all the animals and creatures fighting each other. It was awesome. That’s about it for my review. I give it an A-.
Hmm, not exactly high art there – in the film or my writing. That was from the end of 2006 and I like to think I’ve gotten at least a little better since then. 7+ years will do that to you. So will a demanding teacher. I went to the University of Connecticut (go Huskies!) and had a fantastic film professor there. Bob Smith liked to give us these giant scene analysis assignments where we would have to describe a scene from a film we watched in class shot by shot. It was an exhausting exercise but it did give us the tools to describe what was happening on screen in simple and straightforward terms. It would also train us to see repeated setups or times when the director would change his shot. We learned to spot composition and framing and shot length and important props and all that jazz. And that was only half the paper. The other half, which had to be at least as long as the first part, would be an explanation of why the scene was made that way. Since the assignment required us to watch the scene over and over again, we got to know it quite intimately and after the tedium of the description, the freedom of the interpretation meant that the words often flowed out of me and onto the page. It was obvious why John Ford shot each of the sons standing up in the How Green Was My Valley dinner scene from below. Not only was he calling attention to the fact that they were standing, he was painting them in a heroic context. They were defying their father who had, until recently, lorded over them like a sometimes-benevolent dictator. Their refusal of him broke the family so John Ford broke the normal compositions he was using until those instances. It all made so much sense. Bob Smith was teaching us how to watch movies and how to write about them intelligently.
I hope you’ll notice an improvement from that horrible first review to my most recent two, those of Noah and Mistaken for Strangers. I don’t put all of my reviews here, any movie about which I don’t have much to say will stay over at my Letterboxd page where they belong. But if I think I can find something really interesting to write about it’ll come here. I named this site Benefits of a Classical Education for reasons beyond just using a fun Die Hard quote (surely you knew it was a Die Hard quote), it’s because I feel like I genuinely benefited from my near-classical education. I like thinking about thinking, and I like writing about the things that I see or read or listen to. I am intensely interested in the way movies are constructed, so I’ll often write about a shot or sequence which caught my eye, like the creation montage in Noah. In that I think I am fulfilling Matt Zoller Seitz’s demands for more formal discussion in film reviews. Of course, that sequence served a thematic purpose in the film, furthering its half-biblical half-humanist vision of the Noah story, so it wasn’t just pretty pictures. I hope I captured that. I didn’t do much formal discussion in my review of Mistaken for Strangers because it’s pretty much a standard documentary for the majority of its running time. The relationship between the two brothers at the center of what started as a typical rock doc, though, was really really interesting to me. And I guess I did write about “the most euphoric credit card I’ve ever seen,” so that’s something formal. I guess what it boils down it is that when I feel compelled to write about a movie here it’s because I’ve found something in it that speaks to me in some kind of way, and it doesn’t have to be formal or thematic or character based, but it can be any of those and an combination of them. All those bloggers I talked about earlier do the same, I believe. That’s why they’re all so interesting despite (because of?) their different approaches. I still have a long way to go. I think I talk too much about plot and I am super self conscious about my propensity for lengthy sentences split up, seemingly at random, by commas. But that’s miles better than where I was and that’s good. I’ve dedicated myself to a career in the classical education system, so I might as well embrace it here and now. I hope you get something out of it.