• http://travismcclain.blogspot.com Travis McClain

    I’ve been acutely aware of this deficiency in myself lately. My reasons are the same as most anyone else’s: A lack of confidence that I’m even qualified to discuss such things, and a sense that what can be seen and heard is already self-evident. I come at film criticism by way of training in history. My perception is more about placing the film in the context of its creation and release, and reconciling that with the unasked question, “Why should anyone care about it today?”

    I admit I’m also reluctant to put myself out there to be crucified by more knowledgeable viewers. Why risk being blasted for commenting that I noticed something that some readers will find obvious, others will find pretentious, and that both will agree I’m being self-important to even remark about at all?

    I’m a writer, so my thoughts are with the movie as the execution of a writer’s screenplay. I contrast the finished building with the blueprints. French windows are pretty and vaulted ceilings give a room a different kind of scale, but in the back of *my* mind, I see the completed structure as merely being the execution of the architect’s vision.

    Do French windows and a vaulted ceiling work in this room? If so, then I congratulate the architect who envisioned that they would. The builders get credit for not screwing it up. If the room doesn’t work, then I start asking whether the architect’s plans were half-baked, or if the builders botched the job.

    This is not meant to come off as a defense of my narrative-centric reviewing approach, mind you. I’m merely owning up to the way I’ve come at movies to date.

    I also do believe that a lot of the key form and technique elements are diminished in at-home viewings, and I think that too has something to do with the dearth of commentary about such matters in film criticism at large. For instance, in 2012, I finally got to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on the big screen. It was only in that viewing that I was finally able to really process the cinematography and how important it is to the film. There are very few close-ups, for instance, and a lot of long shots. The effect is that we get a visual sense that these two big fish are realizing how little their pond actually is.

    But then I’m left with my original questions: Who am I to talk about such things? Didn’t everyone else already see the way the movie is shot? Won’t I come across as trying to be “insightful” for stating the obvious? I remarked on the cinematography in my Letterboxd diary entry, but of course I write those for myself and not as formal critiques or reviews.

    • http://www.the-frame.com/blog Jandy

      The simple answer to your last set of questions is “no.” If you notice something, it doesn’t mean people reading your post have noticed. It may not be as obvious as you think, and even if it is obvious, that doesn’t mean it’s not meaningful within your greater analysis. I’ve seen Butch Cassidy, but I hadn’t come up with that interpretation of the use of long shots, so I’m glad you mentioned it. Next time I watch the film, I’ll have something new to consider.

      That said, I don’t actually agree with Matt’s apparent POV that we have to talk about form ALL the time. Your perspective as a historian and a writer is totally valid, and if you’re writing a piece from that particular point of view, I don’t think there’s necessarily a requirement to shoehorn form in there. At the same time, talking about HOW a film managed to realize the written screenplay in visual terms is exactly what Matt is talking about. If it’s effective, it’s effective not just because it was well-planned, but because it was filmed in such a way that it stayed effective in the transition from page to screen – even if that means the director got out of the way and let the actors put over the dialogue without much interference. That’s still a creative choice.

      • http://travismcclain.blogspot.com Travis McClain

        You’re entirely right about the matter of focusing on how the film executes the screenplay, as is he to call out the dearth of that kind of analysis. This brings me back to my own combination of insecurity and lack of training in those areas.

        I thought about this throughout the day. In the afternoon, I revisited The Dream Team (1989), and I made a conscious effort to scrutinize the film as the product of the seven key departments (writing, acting, sets, costumes, cinematography, music, editing).

        When I wrote my Letterboxd diary entry, just as an exercise, I focused on the set design and decoration, and how they make Billy (Michael Keaton’s character) incongruous with the setting of the Cedarbrook Psychiatric Hospital. There are no spoilers, and I don’t even address the plot, so if you’ve not seen the movie it should be safe to read unless you’re an absolutist about avoiding any and all preconceived ideas about a movie going into it.

        It actually felt kinda nice to flex that critical muscle, even though it’s just a little diary entry by a nobody about a largely forgotten, 25 year-old movie. So thanks for posting this and prompting me to be mindful of such things!

        • http://www.the-frame.com/blog Jandy

          I read it! I haven’t seen the movie, but did like how you brought the set design and art direction into it. That brought a read to the film that I expect most people may not have noticed.

          One reason I don’t particularly like writing reviews anymore is that I find it much more interesting to both read and write posts that focus in on one aspect of a film, like you did on the set decoration here, than to try to talk about every aspect of a film like we’re sort of conditioned to do with reviews. I don’t think reviews necessarily have to be that way, but that’s the stereotypical way to do them, and that’s why I’ve stopped calling what I write “reviews.” At least for this year. Lots of experimenting with how I do things this year. :)

          • http://travismcclain.blogspot.com Travis McClain

            It isn’t just movie reviewing; it goes back to grade school. We’re conditioned to value being comprehensive. “Don’t leave out anything!” That’s how we’re instructed to process information.

            It wasn’t until college – later into it than I care to admit – where I finally understood the value of succinct, specialized writing. “You mean I don’t have to cram into these five pages everything that happened throughout the entirety of World War II? You just want to hear about the Dieppe raid?” It was hard to buy into at first, but once I did, I found it liberating.

            I stopped trying to create the entire picture myself, and instead started to view my writings as tiles to be incorporated into the grander mosaic of all the stuff written about a given topic.

            I’ve resisted applying a lot of that training to writing about movies until recently because I still haven’t bought into the idea that I’m a movie reviewer/critic/whatever. I don’t know that I’ll ever really see myself as such a person, but again; I have to admit that it did feel nice to flex that specific writing muscle earlier, even if you’re probably the only person in the world who’ll bother to ever even look at what I wrote about The Dream Team.

            So verily, I say unto thee: Seek not to make a mosaic, but rather tiles. I think that is, indeed, where you’re likely to find your satisfaction as a film critic. Plus, from what I’ve read of yours and conversations we’ve had, I’m entirely certain you’ll kill it. It’d be a shame for you to treat your writing muscles the way I’ve treated mine!