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What every movie critic should know, part 2

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

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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.

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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

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