March 21, 2014
Film Criticism: Finding a Voice
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.
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.
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.
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.