March 21, 2014

Film Criticism: Finding a Voice

The Tree of Life

I’ve been thinking lately about my voice as a writer, especially when it comes to film criticism. It’s easy to watch a movie and quickly jot down thoughts about it, but do I have a unique perspective? The Internet is teeming with film blogs, and there are thousands of ambitious writers that are trying to build an audience. The challenge is finding a way to stand out from the masses. The point isn’t just to obtain more hits. Instead, it’s about feeling like my contribution is worthwhile in some fashion. Most of us are using our sites as a creative outlet and not for a long-term career. This approach necessitates developing a voice that’s providing more than a like/dislike assessment of a film.

In his excellent podcast The Cinephiliacs, Peter Labuza frequently asks his guests about this topic when exploring their perspective on film criticism. Some take a more academic approach, while others can’t help but get personal. It’s clear that there’s no right answer about how to approach a film. Developing an objective method for critical analysis rarely works because there’s no way to separate our own biases and life experiences from the piece. It’s important to embrace the subjective aspects without letting them take over the discussion. If I’m inclined to dislike a film by Zack Snyder, how do I approach his work and not make it all about his frustrating past? On the personal side, how do I consider the outside life of Woody Allen or Roman Polanski when approaching their films? The difficulty is not ignoring who they are without making it the entire point of the piece.

Oblivion, starring Tom Cruise

Looking inward, I’m a 38-year-old white guy who lives in the mid-size city of St. Louis. I’m married and have two young girls, which has a definite impact on the way I look at the representation of women. I adore the work of John Sayles, Whit Stillman, and Michael Mann. My favorite genre is sci-fi, yet I recognize that a majority of that genre’s films are unsatisfying. I took a series of film courses in college that shaped my thinking, yet I’m still a film history novice. I’ve grown wary of the online culture’s insistence on reaching a consensus. On the other hand, I find that contrarianism rarely solves that issue. All of these aspects of my life and movie tastes shape the voice that I bring to film criticism. Even so, they’re hardly the only factor in what makes my writing follow a certain mindset.

The idea of developing a voice is a tricky subject when it comes to writing about films. It’s about more than deciding whether to use the first person. I spent years reviewing DVDs, yet I’m not sure the writing improved much over the years. Because the pieces followed a specific format, it was easy to fall into a pattern. It became a paint-by-numbers situation with a formula of intro/plot/acting/directing/conclusion. While that’s hardly a terrible way to talk about a movie, it grows mind-numbing when employed across hundreds of posts. I started this blog three years ago, and I’m just beginning to feel like my voice is escaping the formula. Whether this shift is always positive is a different question.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

An interesting factor in writing consistently is developing a process that leads to the best result. Ignatiy Vishnevesky often uses longhand for his reviews and then types them up from that source. He’s also discussed putting together his work on an old typewriter. While my approach is much different, it shows how there’s no correct route. I tend to type up longer drafts and then work to cut down each sentence to its essential parts. Unnecessary phrases and adjectives are trashed in the hope of finding a style that flows. I’m not there yet, but it’s starting to come together into something that works for me.

It’s an exciting time to write about films. We can connect with readers around the globe, yet we’re so fragmented that it’s difficult to find them. There are currently 247 critic reviews posted about 300: Rise of An Empire on IMDB, and that’s just a small percentage of all the writing that’s out there. Is there a point to focus on that type of movie? That’s another side of finding a voice. Do we pursue niches with dedicated fans or try to climb the mountain of others hoping to attract the masses? There’s no easy answer, and it comes down to the purpose for writing. I started this blog as a way to explore blind spots and document my experiences, but it’s evolved considerably since that point. There is something invigorating about joining the present-day conversation about engaging films.

Wong Kar Wai's 2046

What I’m describing is the natural progress of developing an approach to any artistic pursuit. There’s a skill to film criticism that’s often overlooked in the age of Rotten Tomatoes. Truly engaging with readers is quite a challenge and separates most of us from the greats like Roger Ebert and the rising young stars. It takes serious practice and diligence, and there isn't an easy way to build those talents. All we can do is continue to write and strive to do more than a generic review. I may not always succeed in that goal, but it inspires me to keep plugging away at this appealing passion. Where it will lead is anyone’s guess, but trying to find a voice should be a fascinating journey.

18 comments:

  1. I pretty much do the intro/plot/acting/something/something/conclusion formula, altering it here and there based on the film and what's more relevant to discuss. But my style has definitely changed since I started 6 or however many years ago now.

    I also find I much prefer my reviews that leave that formula. But I also don't find the inspiration to leave that formula with a ton of movies. However, as I've discussed in the past, I also think there is a big difference between a reviewer and a critic. Reviewers want to help people decide if a person should watch a film based on its base attributes (acting, directing, writing, etc.). Critics want to be deeper and discuss what's important about the film and what resonates about it. How it affects them personally or the world at large. They want to discuss a film's grand merits and symbols and what things mean and if it's even worth a damn at all. I am a reviewer who rarely (but it's been known) dips his toes into critiquing. I prefer reviews when I read. Critic posts tend to rub me the wrong way for some reason, as a majority (not all, but majority) seem self-indulgent or pretentious. Reviews just get right to the point and tell me what I wanna know--what's good, what's bad, what'd you think. There are some critics who I don't feel that way about and I enjoy--you, Steve Honeywell, and James Blake Ewing being at the top of that list.

    I enjoy my formulaic review pattern with the occasional deviation. It makes the deviations that much more exciting and fun. Plus, I don't do this for a career or for readership. I do it because I just want to have fun with friends and know what they liked and didn't like about certain movies. And although I am certainly capable of producing it myself, I don't require or necessarily want deep discussion and/or in-depth looks at film to satisfy that need.

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    1. Nick, I think there's merit to both approaches that you describe and think the reviewer approach can be very interesting if the writing feels fresh. I don't think you adhere as much to a formula as you claim. I can definitely hear your voice behind the reviews, and they don't feel like they're taking some type of fully objective view on a movie.

      You bring up a good point in the last paragraph about what you're getting out of the writing. I also don't have any misconceptions that this is more than just a fun creative outlet. I'm trying to get better at it, but I'm not expecting anything in terms of a career from it. I know that can vary depending on the site for sure.

      Thanks for the great comment!

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  2. Another terrific piece that, firstly, fills me, as a fellow online film writer, with the encouragement to continue adding my two-penny-worth to this grand sea of cinema opinion.

    But you're right - it is an exciting time because we haven't had access to such publicly available film criticism previously. What's more, the quality is incredible and, specifically, blogs are getting much more credit than they did in their early life.

    Finding a "voice" is an interesting topic and it is one that I have grappled with. I do believe that our personalities/social/political interests have to come through the reviews and be one of the clearest ways we differentiate ourselves as critics. But that can, I admit, turn readers away if they find something disagreeable that regularly surfaces. If we don't add these elements to our writing then it becomes robotic.

    I'm also influenced by critics and in some ways try to emulate them by writing in a similar fashion - Mark Kermode who writes for the UK's Guardian newspaper is one of them.

    I tend to look at how a film has affected me good or bad and draw on aspects of it that highlight that. This can be in its technical proficiency or based upon its themes and ideas and how it expresses them. I hate reviews that feel like they've been put together by filling in section headings - Intro, Synopsis, Direction, Acting, Script, Cinematography, Editing, Score, Conclusion. For me it is about key elements that work or don't work and drawing my appreciation from that.

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    1. Dan, I agree that putting too much of our personal views and interests into reviews can turn off some readers. It's all about personal preference when it comes to reading, and I know that everyone has certain types of writing they enjoy. The big challenge is finding the right approach that works for you, and emulating writers you enjoy is definitely a good route for getting there. Thanks so much for the excellent comment!

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  3. Dan, thanks for your thoughts on voice in film writing. Although I've given a lot of thought about this in other writing I have done, not so much in my writing on film. I need to consider what I am specifically contributing to the film community. Thanks for giving me an opportunity to do so.

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    1. Steve, I think it totally depends on what you're looking to do with your writing. There's no set way to do so, but if this helped you think about it at all, that's great. I appreciate the comment!

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  4. Love this piece, Dan, the personal, searching tone. In a lot of ways, this piece itself is, I think, what blogging is all about - or, should be what blogging is all about.

    I can say that in finding my own voice I learned that voice is just sort of an extension of style, if that makes any sense. Like, I needed to get past focusing on any overriding structure in every review and essay and instead focus on precisely what I wanted to say about a film and how the film made me feel. Then the piece that you're writing just kind of takes you where it wants to go. (I fear that sounds esoteric.)

    I still feel like A.O. Scott & Manohla Dargis are the grandmasters. They can combine reviews AND criticism in a single piece and their style feels so loose and free, even though I'm sure it's precisely honed.

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    1. Nick, Scott and Dargis are great examples of writers that find a way to say what they think about a film yet still make it feel natural and easy. He also was very good at this when he appeared on At the Movies near the end of its run.

      You make a great point about not focusing on some overriding structure and sticking with the feelings about the movie. That doesn't mean that following an outline or format is bad, as long as it contributes to the goal.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  5. It SHOULD be a fascinating journey, indeed. I was listening to the Bret Easton Ellis podcast the other day, and he recently had Chuck Klosterman on the show, and something Chuck said really grabbed me, because it was so true. He said that there are 8,000 people writing reviews about a popular film the weekend it comes out. And in today's world, the only ones that stick out are either the insanely positive ones, or the brutal bashes. This is a market (if you can even call it a market, since so few of us actually make money from this) that is so over saturated, having a unique voice is all that really matters, for me, anyway.

    "Developing an objective method for critical analysis rarely works because there’s no way to separate our own biases and life experiences from the piece." I loved that line. So, so true. Art is really nothing more than a reflection of ourselves. It's what we bring to it, which I think is fascinating.

    I really enjoyed this essay, Dan. I don't imagine it was easy to write, but it is a very important topic that you articulated wonderfully.

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    1. Alex, you're definitely right that it's hard to stand out when writing about a popular film. That doesn't mean we should ignore them, but it does make it a real challenge to stand out with our writing.

      I was surprised by how easily this piece came together. It's probably because I've been thinking a lot about this topic during the past few months, if not a lot longer. I'm glad that you enjoyed it!

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  6. Having written criticism for nearly 15 years, it took me some time to find my own voice as it's evolved over the years where I've learned not just from Roger Ebert but also J. Hoberman where I try to create something that is my own but also to get better at everything I've done. Still, I don't know if I've made any mark in the world of online film criticism with my reviews though I think my Auteurs piece has helped given me some notice.

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    1. I think you'd probably be surprised at the mark you've made, especially with writing for 15 years. The main thing (which I'm still figuring out) is discovering your own style and where you want to focus. The Auteurs pieces are great examples where you're doing more than just hitting the usual films and directors.

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  7. Feeling frustrated with the typical structure of reviews is one reason I've pretty much given over writing them. As people have brought up, I think it CAN be done quite well - Scott and Dargis are great examples. I don't tend to like reviews much in general, though (I rarely read even those by people I enjoy, like Scott and Dargis) just because I don't like reading reviews of things I haven't seen, and if I HAVE seen them, a review isn't as satisfying as a more in-depth analysis. I haven't been very successful at deviating from the standard review form myself, so that combined with the fact that I don't even enjoy reading reviews just made me wonder why even write them. I've enjoyed my forays into other types of film-related posts this year quite a bit, and I haven't missed writing "reviews" at all.

    I don't know that I have a strong "voice", though. I tend not to go through drafts, but just write free-form and edit a bit as I go, so my writing probably sounds like me, but I don't know if that's good or bad. :) It's unexamined. Cultivating a voice just isn't something I've ever bothered to do beyond just allowing myself to creep into my posts more and more thinking about it.

    For what it's worth, your marathon reviews tend to have a pretty solid structure (with the questions you ask and answer of each film), but I think it works quite well. The fact that you don't ask the same questions in every marathon, but pick ones that fit for what you're doing makes a BIG difference and keeps it from feeling stale while still providing the reader a kind of roadmap for where you're going, which I personally find helpful - and it's something I've not seen from other writers. So I think you're already on the right track.

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    1. Jandy, I totally understand what you're saying about reviews. I find myself skipping over the plot summaries unless the writer is particularly great. I also now avoid reviews of movies I haven't seen. It's tricky to find the right balance of analysis and giving an opinion on whether a movie is "good", even among professionals.

      I appreciate the compliments on my writing with the marathon reviews. The interesting part is that one my ongoing internal debates is whether to ditch the question and answer structure because it can be confining. I'm not there yet, but I'm still working out how to make them flow better.

      Thanks for the great comment!

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  8. Fantastic piece here Dan! I don't know if I have my own voice after 3 yrs of blogging but y'know what, I do think it's a fascinating journey. I remember when I first wrote my first review I was basically only rehashing the plot, ahah. A friend actually told me about that and truthfully it was painful to hear but it made me strive to be a better critic. I don't know if I've achieved that but at least now I realize to actually write how I FEEL about the film instead of just talking about the play-by-play of the film, as there is really no right or wrong about one's opinion.

    Your post makes me think about trying a new method to film critic though. I never took notes as I'm watching a movie or even after that. I should give that a try and see what happens :D

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    1. Thanks Ruth! I've found that used to write a lot more about plot than I do now in my reviews. I figure most people who read it closely have already seen the movie.

      It's interesting that you bring up taking notes. When I've tried to do so in the past, I tend to get distracted from the movie. I've also been thinking about it again recently. I've only taken notes lately on longer posts where I've already seen the movie and am looking at a certain part of it (journalism in Citizen Kane). I think it really comes down to what works best for you. There's no right way to write about a movie or to watch one.

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  9. Somehow this post got lost in my bookmarks, but I'm glad I noticed it today. This is a terrific read, Dan, and it raises a lot of concerns I have had recently as well. I think writers in general always struggle to find their voice at first, and for many it's plausible that they never will. It's always a work in progress, no doubt. I'm nowhere near the level I want to be -- I still find myself becoming too formulaic -- but I know I have improved drastically since I started my blog. And really, that's what it's all about: continuing to improve and evolve.

    You've inspired me to start looking at this from a new perspective. Great post.

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    1. Eric, you make a good point about improvement that comes with having a blog. I thought that I was a decent writer when I started, but I look back and cringe a bit at the early posts. Writing so much definitely makes it feel more natural, though I still have a long way to go. Thanks for the comment!

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