RadioBDC Logo
Decibels | Sonic Red Listen Live
< Back to front page Text size +

What every movie critic should know, part 2

Posted by Ty Burr March 30, 2007 11:10 PM

I'm still mulching over that Guardian blog entry I ranted about earlier, in which film critic Ronald Bergan established what was for him the benchmark qualifications of this strange job we do. I'll try to be less glib this time and get to the bottom of why the piece annoyed me so much.

The truth is, on a number of levels Bergan is dead on. Unlike theater criticism, literary criticism, or art criticism, movie reviewing is perceived as a layman's game. As with TV and pop music -- "people's mediums" like the movies -- film criticism is something "anyone can do," because (simply stated) everyone is familiar with enough examples to have a well-versed opinion. With movies, everyone's a critic. But are they?

Yes and no. If you come out of a film, and I don't care if it's "Talledega Nights" or "Rules of the Game" or "2046," and you have thoughts about it and can articulate them, then you are indulging in criticism. Bergan worries that professional film criticism has become "subjectively evaluative rather than analytical," but he forgets that A) this is how most people process art, B) that's not a bad thing, and C) objectivity is a mirage. Dig deep enough into any critical opinion and you'll hit the motherlode of value judgement. To admit to that is honesty, not a failing.

So what does a critic bring to the table? In a word: Context. I spent my high school and college years and post-college years watching movies, reading about film history, learning about the movie industry (Hollywood and elsewhere), studying film theory, parsing the mysteries of shot language and the grammar of editing. When I (or Wesley or David Denby or Manohla Dargis or Peter Keough) write about a movie, we're partially presenting our gut emotional or cerebral reaction, but we're also setting that reaction within the context of how the movie is told, and who the people are who made it, and where it sits in its genre, and how it plays fair (or not) by the rules of that genre.

We do this not only to give readers an idea of whether it's the kind of movie they might want to see but also to give them several angles from which to think about it. Even the shallowest no-think entertainments say things about the assumptions of the people who made them and the society they reflect. It's fun and interesting to tease those out. For instance: "300" -- macho war whoop or neurotic, willfully stoopid insistence on manliness in a deeply uncertain culture? Or, hey, the new Mark Wahlberg movie "Shooter": liberal reimagining of "Dirty Harry" style vigilante movies? Or the same old reactionary impulses gussied up with trendy anti-government rhetoric?

Or maybe it's just an entertaining shoot-em-up -- if that's all you want out of it, fine. My job is to let those who want their meat and potatoes know whether it's good meat and potatoes while also giving some sustenance to those who want to burrow deeper into what a movie says versus what it thinks it's saying.

Of course, some of you think the "Shooter"s and "300"s of the world are pure pop trash and would never stoop to contemplate them. "The Lives of Others" or the films of Lars von Trier are more your speed. Conscious art rather than heedless commerce. Also fine. Then it's my job to place the jewel in its setting: What does the film aim for and does it succeed? Where does it fit in the filmmaker's body of work? What's the smaller message and the larger one? How is that conveyed? Or is there a message at all? Do you come to this film seeking incident and atmosphere rather than a statement?

For this kind of film, a critic requires the arsenal of education that Bergan talks about -- he or she needs to work at the same level of sophistication as the filmmaker and the film's most receptive audience. Otherwise it's like sending a pizza delivery boy to lecture on Picasso: He might have some interestingly fresh things to say but they won't come from an informed consideration and their impact will be scattershot at best (unless he's an art history major). There are strengths in naivete but they may be nullified by the weaknesses.

So, yes, a working critic needs to have the tools -- needs to, in Bergan's words, know "the difference between a pan and a dolly shot, a fill and key light, direct and reflected sound, the signified and the signifier, diegetic and non-diegetic music, and how both a tracking shot and depth of field can be ideological."

He then goes on: "They should know their jidai-geki from their gendai-geki, be familiar with the Kuleshov Effect and Truffaut's "Une certain tendance du cinéma français", know what the 180-degree rule is and the meaning of "suture".

"They should have read Sergei Eisenstein's The Film Sense and Film Form and the writings of Bela Balasz, André Bazin, Siegfried Kracauer, Roland Barthes, Christian Metz and Serge Daney.

"They should have seen Jean-Luc Godard's Histoire du Cinema, and every film by Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Jean Renoir, Luis Buñuel and Ingmar Bergman, as well as those of Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet, and at least one by Germaine Dulac, Marcel L'Herbier, Mrinal Sen, Marguerite Duras, Mikio Naruse, Jean Eustache and Stan Brakhage. They should be well versed in Russian constructivism, German expressionism, Italian neo-realism, Cinema Novo, La Nouvelle Vague and the Dziga Vertov group."

And guess what? In theory he's right. I caught 95% of those references without blinking (Mrinal Sen? Sorry, haven't been there) and if I hadn't, you'd have every right to want someone else writing up reviews for the Globe. But if a critic has inhaled all those things and exhales them with every review, he or she will speak to no one but a self-contained coterie of academics and elitists. To hold the body of cinema, which includes by definition every corrupt and suspect frame of popular commercial cinema, to the standards of the most rigorous aesthetic is to close the door on an immense audience of readers. Worse, it cheats the critic out of reading the same tea leaves the masses do, just in a different and informed way. Junk speaks, often louder than art, and not everyone has ears trained to hear what it's saying.

What does a critic need to know? Before anything else, he or she needs to know how to write. This sounds obvious until you read much of the online film criticism out there, not to mention some of the professional press. You can't break the rules if you don't have the tools, by which I mean the basics -- grammar, spelling, how to construct an argument -- and the advance courses of how to establish a voice, how to make it flow, how to carry a readers along to understanding a point they might not have considered. (Or how to get readers to see a film they might not have considered -- in the final analysis, that's the only reason I do this job.)

For proof, I point you to the collected works of Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Pauline Kael, and Manny Farber. (Graham Greene wasn't shabby either, back when he was writing film criticism.) A brilliant writing style can only get you so far, of course: The New Yorker's Anthony Lane is a supremely enjoyable read but why do I suspect that, in the end, he doesn't care all that much for movies? A critic has to have a love for his or her subject way down in the bones; otherwise, why even get out of bed?

So: writing and love. But a working reviewer also needs to know everything about everything, and not just movies. If a documentary on string theory comes along, I need to be an instant expert on string theory, so I can tell you if and where the film falls short. This, obviously, is an impossible task, but we learn what we can and fake the rest as best possible, and our knowledge of film technique and history helps us fill in some of the gaps.

Really, though, we need to bring only as much of our film-geek knowledge and analysis to bear on a particular movie as it calls for -- and then add a little more, to broaden the argument. Talking about the mise-en-scene of "300" or its unnerving lack of indexical images is pointless, at least in those terms. Talking about why the sterile CGI look of the film connects it with video games and comic books while safely divorcing it from conventional realism -- and how that lack of realism might reflect interestingly and unconsciously on our current foreign policies -- is perhaps taking the discussion out of the ivory tower and into the head of the average reader, for agreement or disagreement but at least engagement.

That's what every critic should know: How to engage readers. How to make them see the thing afresh, whatever it may be, and even more than that the world that contains it.

The week ends

Posted by Wesley Morris March 30, 2007 10:34 AM

Some closing thoughts.

Mia Farrow put down some orphans to drop in on Beacon Hill then go on the attack. The former UNICEF goodwill ambassador and Soon-yi’s mama accused Steven Spielberg (and whichever mega-corporations are working with him on the Beijing Olympics) of implicitly backing the genocide in Darfur by making China look good. Well, I guess somebody had to say it. [Radio Telefís Éireann and]

"Blades of Glory" opens today, and in writing today’s review I remembered the aerobics tragedy that was 1985's “Perfect.” It’s amazing how the, uh, thrust of the entire movie can be summed up in one cheese-tacular video. [YouTube]

First, no kidnapping movies can advertise near college campuses. Now no billboards for movies about suicides. Even if they're actually interesting and have Tom Waits and the "Almost Famous" kid in them. This doesn’t bode well for marketing movies about dudes who play violent pranks on each other for fun and horror flicks about hot American tourists. Oh, wait. [CNN]

Hemingway and Dietrich were totally hot for each other. []

Ty's picks for Friday March 30

Posted by Ty Burr March 30, 2007 09:18 AM


As far as box office goes, it'll probably be a toss-up between the Will Ferrell/Jon Heder ice-skating comedy "Blades of Glory" or the Disney CGI romp "Meet the Robinsons." I'm guessing "Robinsons" and I'll be curious to see how much of that business goes to the 3D print. If it's a big enough number, you can bet there'll be Hollywood suits spending Monday trying to figure out how to jam out "Spiderman 3" in 3D within a month's time.

Both films are perfectly okay; both films are product. If you seek deeper meaning, o ye cineastes, ye need search elsewhere. Like the Jim Henson Muppet Festival at the Brattle. (Come on. "The Muppet Movie." You know your inner Fozzie needs feeding.)

Seriously, though, Turkish films at the MFA. This year's fest -- further details here -- looks like a solid one, with Sunday being the big day: "Destiny" director Zeki Demirkubuz will be present to accept an award at the afternoon screening, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Climates," which has been getting raves on the festival scene, will play that night.

The Harvard Film Archive continues its retrospective of the films of Quebecois directors Michel Brault and Claude Jutra. On Monday Mike White (the writer/star of "Chuck and Buck" and other discomfitingly funny things) shows up with his directorial debut, "Year of the Dog," which gives the eternal Molly Shannon a rare dramatic role.

"The Prisoner, or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair" is one of the better Iraq docs, because it focuses on one story and tells it straightforwardly. "The Lookout" is a solid little crime drama, but, really, wait for the DVD. "Live Free or Die" is a shaggy-dog caper comedy for those who haven't yet resolved their conflicted feelings about New Hampshire (the blogger hesitantly raises his hand). And if "The Boys and Girls Guide to Getting Down" is half as entertaining as Wesley's review, it's pretty darn good. Too bad it's only playing at the Fresh Pond.

Or you could just go see "300" again and have your skull sucked dry. I swear I feel my IQ dropping when I even walk by a theater playing it.

What should a film critic know?

Posted by Ty Burr March 29, 2007 03:55 PM

That's what Ronald Bergen of the Guardian UK's film blog asks in an interesting, maddening, theoretically-correct-but-bollocks-in-practice essay defending ivory tower elitism. And I say that as a working reviewer who knows from jidai-geki and Stan Brakhage but also understands that they have no bearing on "Wild Hogs" or the audience that goes to see it. The comments following the article are priceless.

Katzenberg says, sorry, 3D's here

Posted by Ty Burr March 29, 2007 02:58 PM

On the eve of the release of Disney's "Meet the Robinsons" to nearly 700 3D-equipped theaters, Jeffrey Katzenberg met yesterday with Wall Street analysts to talk up the immediate future of the format. The Hollywood Reporter has the story right here, but its worth calling out some of the Dreamworks Animation CEO's blue-sky prognostications:

Katzenberg says that moviegoers will eventually bring their own custom 3D glasses to theaters rather than rely on the freebie handouts. Sounds good; I've already got my pair picked out.

We'll also be willing to pay up to 50% more to see a film in 3D than in the old flat format. This dovetails with my theory that all tentpole blockbusters will be available in both 3D and 2D within five years, and that most audiences will go for the former.

In a neat bit of cross-corporate tattling, Katzenberg revealed that Disney-Pixar will make "Toy Story 3" in 3D. A Disney spokesperson, clearly caught with his or her pants down, replied "Homina-homina-homina."

If enough theaters are equipped for the format by 2009, Katzenberg says he'll send the upcoming "Monsters Vs. Aliens" to theaters in 3D only, saving 2D for the DVD release. That, friends, is a paradigm shift.

Of course, Jeffrey's evil side did surface when he suggested that 3D rereleases of classics like "The Godfather," "Lawrence of Arabia," and "The Bridge on the River Kwai" would be profitable. I'm sure they would. I'm sure a heavy metal version of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony would sell a lot of tickets. But it would suck. Didn't anyone learn from the colorization fiasco? Don't mess with the classics. You don't bring in enough new audiences and you enrage the purists.

She feels bad about the Edwardses

Posted by Wesley Morris March 26, 2007 11:46 PM

Nora Ephron writes to the Huffington Post about the mysterious "some people" of Katie Couric's unyielding interview with the Edwardses last night on "60 Minutes."

Weekend box office: Shell game

Posted by Ty Burr March 26, 2007 10:54 AM


Those David O. Russell videos Wesley mentioned are taking an eon to load -- if we find a better link, we'll let you know.

Maybe it's all those people starved for entertainment. "TMNT" the number one movie in the country? Really? Seventeen years after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were a pop culture phenomenon? That $25 million may be more due to nostalgia than anything else: kids who saw the original are now grown up and possibly parents themselves. Which means that the Macaulay Culkin comeback is due any minute. Duck.

It was a very crowded weekend, with six new releases hitting theaters, but "300" still came out close to the top, its $20 million guaranteeing the #2 spot. (I finally caught up with the film this weekend, and all I can say is -- America, how could you? This isn't even fun trash.) Mark Wahlberg's little ordnance thriller "Shooter" was next with $14 million, then "Wild Hogs," then -- surprise -- kid sci-fi pic "The Last Mimzy."

Interestingly, "The Hills Have Eyes 2" eked out a middling $10 million, meaning this franchise is probably dead with an axe through its skull. Even more interestingly, the Adam Sandler post-9/11 drama "Reign Over Me" pulled in a weak $8 million (at, admittedly, a comparatively few 1,671 theaters, half of what "TMNT" had to work with). Guess the masses aren't ready to see Happy Gilmore play an anti-social nerd version of Bob Dylan.

Box Office Mojo report is here. Leonard Klady is here.

Russell's Tomlin freak-out

Posted by Wesley Morris March 26, 2007 09:31 AM

In case this wasn't emailed to you 400 times last week, David O. Russell tells Lily Tomlin "I heart you" on the set of 2004's "I Heart Huckabees." It just doesn't sound like I heart you. It sounds more like something you can't print on a family blog. (I just typed "family blog," didn't I?)

As a fan of Russell and this movie, the footage is painful to watch. He never seems completely irrational in person. But if memory serves, this was part of Russell's mysterious directing tactic, to break the actors down, apparently by humiliating them, all of which was captured in a highly entertaining account the New York Times's Sharon Waxman wrote a few years ago after she visited the set. Naturally, the details of her account sparked a feud between journalist and director.

(If you don't have a New York Times subscription -- which you'll need in order to read Waxman's piece -- Defamer has picked out relevant highlights.)

Here's the office scene. Here's the car scene. (Both are camera-phone ugly, complete, on one occasion, with incriminating fish-eye effect.)

Tomlin, heroically strikes back, unhinged, in a way that feels like an outtake from a Altman picture that's fallen into Cassavetes's hands. She spares no one, not even poor Naomi Watts, whom we can't see in the rear, but who lets out a giggle that Tomlin attacks. Dustin Hoffman tries to conciliate, while Isabelle Huppert and Mark Wahlberg can barely contain themselves, as if they've never experienced such a raw reaction to a director's mixed signals. It's also as if they're all trapped in that car, adding a layer of real family dysfunction to the proceedings, with "kiddies" Wahlberg and Watts in the back seat, with the veterans up front. This is totally wild.

What's funny is that nothing of the sort comes on the DVD's audio commentary, which is nothing but great memories between Russell and some of the cast. Gawker has Tomlin characteristically putting the leaked footage in perspective.

About Movie Nation

Movie news, reviews, and more.


Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.

Janice Page is movies editor for The Boston Globe.

Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.

Katie McLeod is's features editor.

Rachel Raczka is a producer for Lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment at

Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer for

Video: Movie reviews

Take 2 Movie Reviews
Take 2 reviews and podcast
Look for new reviews by Ty Burr and Wesley Morris at the end of each week in multiple formats.

Browse this blog

by category