My Defense of Film Criticism

by James Kendrick, “Charlie Don’t Surf” web site (no longer around), 1997

“I learn more from critics who honestly criticize my pictures than from those who are devout.”
     —Ingmar Bergman

“You highbrows writing on movies are nuts! In order to write about movies you must first make them.”
     —Orson Welles

Critiquing movies is not as easy as it looks. People seem to think that writing a review is a simple task because, in their minds, all people are critics. To a certain point, this is true. Nobody goes into a theater, spends two hours watching a movie, and then walks out without an opinion. As humans, we are naturally opinionated, and we tend to pass judgment on just about everything we come into contact with. Clothing styles, food preferences, car colors, music selection, IBM vs Macintosh—the world is full of things that we judge good, bad, or somewhere in that indefinable gray middle. Movies are no different.

Because movies are a cultural phenomenon that is an inescapable part of American culture, people tend to have stronger feelings about movies than many other forms of art. People are willing to be more forgiving of a painting than they are of filmmaking. In a museum, you are more likely to see a painting you don’t like, shrug your shoulders, and think, “Well, it’s not my style, but I guess someone likes it.” But with movies, it’s much different. Maybe it’s because we have to pay $7 a showing or because we have to invest at least an hour and a half of our time that we expect every movie to knock our socks off. The simple fact is, we expect a lot when we enter a theater or pop a tape in the VCR, and we feel cheated when we’re let down.

Enter the movie critic. In many ways, he is like a guinea pig. To the casual viewers, Siskel and Ebert perform the function of watching all the movies and then passing on information about which are the best, so no time is wasted on lesser films. Movie critics enjoy the good and suffer through the bad, so they can go to the keyboard and relay what they got from their experiences. That way, on Friday morning when the new releases are coming out, the casual viewer can scan though, find the four-star movies, and make his plans for that evening.

However, this is not all there is to a review. There is a subtle art to the movie review, and I openly profess I still do not have a complete grasp on it. Writing a review is like trying to trap a swarm of bees in a ragged net—no matter how hard you try to capture the whole swarm, parts of it are going to get away from you.

Every movie has many aspects that, as a reviewer, I want to discuss. Everything from the shooting locations to the performances to the direction to the music to the cinematography to the costumes and on and on and on. Take any one aspect, and it can turn into a labyrinthine paper in itself. For example, while thinking about the director, I find myself assessing his past projects and how I can relate them to the current one. And then I start thinking about how this particular film fits into its genre and whether the director has worked in that genre before and what the results were. Then I find myself trying to draw parallels between it and other films both similar and dissimilar. So, in that way, one of the strongest aspects of writing a film review is deciding what to leave out—that is, if you want to keep it readable.

The great movies reviews are the ones that capture the feel of the movie without droning on and on about what the movie actually contains. One of the biggest risks of writing reviews is the tendency to talk too much about “what happens” instead of “why it happens.” One of the distinctions between critics and opinionated people is that opinionated people can tell you “if” a movie worked or not, but only a critic can tell you “why” it worked or not. The casual viewer will say, “I couldn’t get into that movie,” while the critic will say, “I couldn’t get into this movie because the screenplay didn’t do enough to develop the main character, so the audience couldn’t properly identify and empathize with him.”

The ability to tell “why” hinges on several things. First of all, the best prerequisite for writing reviews is experience. The best filmmaking school is film itself, and no one will be able to persuade me differently. I admit that I have not seen as many movies as some people, but I try to see as many as possible and I also try to vary what I see. Someone who sees nothing but action films is no more an authority on dramas than a life-long Cadillac driver is an authority on Ferraris. While all films share basic elements, different genres employ different tactics, and it is important for the critic to be well versed in all of them.

Another important element is general knowledge about history, society, culture, and literature. One of the beauties of the movies is that they reflect periods of human history, so therefore, they can enlighten as well as entertain. To fully appreciate a film like Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” and its implications about the absurdity of the Vietnam War, it helps to have an understanding of that time period in American history and warfare in general. Or, in order to see Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” as something more than a senseless bloodbath, you have to understand the implications and necessities of social satire.

Movies and literature are intimately connected because they both rely on the same elements to tell a story (plot structure, pacing, dialogue, action), and if any one of those elements is missing or disjointed, the story won’t flow and the viewer will feel something is wrong. Many university English departments are beginning to meld the film and literature by offering classes in film. I enrolled in one during my undergraduate years at Baylor University, and it was one of the best classes I ever took. One of the main things I learned is that good films demand more than just being viewed. They demand to be poured over and studied and deconstructed, so that all their nuances and subtexts can be brought to light.

Of course, I understand that the casual viewer has little or no interest in doing this. Here is where the film critic once again steps in. We take apart the movies for you, study them, and then share what we have learned. Sometimes this is more difficult that other times. Critics have been deconstructing and studying Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” since it first came out in 1968, yet a full consensus still alludes them. This is, of course, not a bad thing, because great works of art mean different things to different people. As the old saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

As I develop this web site, I hope to employ the best critical means available as I discuss these movies. I will try to keep the site updated constantly with new additions, so it can grow and encompass as much of the cinematic world as possible. I feel very passionately about films, and I hope that passion comes out through my writing. That passion can either come through as absolute praise (for films like “Schindler’s List”) or abject derision (for films like “I Spit On Your Grave”). Either way, I hope I can help illuminate and educate, and in the process, be illuminated and educated.

I never have and I never will profess to know everything about film. Every day I learn more, and I hope I can pass that on to others. I am always willing to listen to contradictory criticisms and arguments about what I have written. As a matter of fact, I welcome it. Because isn’t that what it’s all about? Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, and that definitely includes the right to disagree with me.