Monday, March 24, 2014

Criticwire Survey: Filmmaking Experience & Film Theory

Q: Jazz critic Ted Gioia recently lodged a complaint that "music criticism has degenerated into lifestyle reporting" because most music critics lack a musical background and theoretical tools. Do movie critics need filmmaking experience or an understanding of film theory to do their jobs?

I think there is actually a few different questions here. The whole “lifestyle reporting” question is  a problem in film criticism, as we have become a culture obsessed with celebrities. For the most part, it barely interests me at all – and it’s gotten to a point where I very rarely read interviews with celebrities anymore – because it’s never about their work, which is the only thing about them that I find interesting. But as the profession of film criticism becomes harder and harder to actually make a living at, critics are now expected to be “film reporters” as well as critics – meaning they have to write about a lot of crap that has very little to do with criticism – they have to be Oscarologists, box office experts, do set visits, do fawning celebrity interviews, get into twitter battles with other critics and fans etc.  It’s boring.
The second question as to whether film critics need filmmaking experience, I don’t think so, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Other than a six minute high school film – which at the time I described as being in the style of Jim Jarmusch – basically because in the whole six minute film, I had three shots, I have never attempted to make a film – but more experience would definitely not hurt what I write. Certain filmmakers I would love to see do some film criticism – Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino (even if I would disagree with him more than not), Paul Thomas Anderson spring to mind, because when they talk about other films and filmmakers they usually have something interesting to say. Others, like Steven Soderbergh, I think would drive me nuts as critics. Still, I think knowing what goes into making a film – and how long and difficult a process it can be – would help – at least in terms of some critics treating the films they are reviewing with respect.

As for film theory, yes, I think it’s necessary to have an understanding of at the very least the basics of film theory. No, I don’t think it is necessary to gather that understanding in an Academic setting. There are tons of film books you can read, lots of great film criticism, DVD commentary tracks, etc. in which one can gather that knowledge without spending 4 years in a film program – not that I think there is anything wrong with that either.
I don’t think I really need to tell anyone reading this that I do not spend much time either delving into the particulars of how a film is made or talking about film theory. That’s just not the way I write about films. I try to imagine the audience of what I write as I try to explain the about the film in question, what it’s about, and the effect it had on me while I was watching it. I know that some find my approach simplistic – others I know think I take film too seriously and just want to know if a film is “entertaining” (I’ll always remember one conversation I had about a film, where I when I asked if I liked it, I responded by saying that I thought the film was poorly acted, ridiculous in terms of plot, and was about to go on when I was interrupted and asked – “Yeah, but was it fun?”) the but it works for me and I’m comfortable with how I write.

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