6 More Obvious Tips For Writing About The Movies

Devin returns with some thoughts on film criticizin'.

A couple of years ago I shared with you my five obvious tips for people who want to write about/for the movies. In the time since I have found myself wanting to revisit these tips, because I don’t think five was enough. And because I was talking to not just critics but screenwriters, the tips were a little broad.

So here are six more obvious tips, but this time they’re really just for people who write about the movies.

Tip #1: Read Pauline Kael

There are a lot of great film critics (there are way, way more shitty ones), but there’s one film critic you must read. If you are interested in writing about film you must read Pauline Kael, the greatest film critic who ever lived.

Kael’s opinions don’t matter - I rarely agree with her - what matters is how she presents them. Pauline Kael taught me a lot about writing, and a lot about how to watch movies. Kael taught me that criticism can be smart but not academic. She taught me that you can have a strong voice and a definite point of view. She taught me that you could be ribald and analytical at the same time. She taught me that you can be wrong - and I mean, objectively wrong - but still write something compelling.

Pauline Kael’s writing shows that criticism is still writing; you should be crafting prose that is appealing on its own, even if the reader has not seen or even heard about the movie under discussion. The writing itself is the reason the criticism exists, and the writing and the opinions service one another.

Tip #2: Watch Movies In Context

When SPECTRE was coming out we had a spate of James Bond revisits, often from younger critics. Many of them had the same angle - ‘Can you believe how racist/sexist/retrograde these 50 year old movies are?’ Yes, yes we can believe it.

Movies are products of their time, and if you’re to write about old ones (old these days meaning ‘predates Iron Man’) you should get an understanding of that time. You should get an understanding of their world. You should understand why a certain piece of casting is meaningful, and what it was supposed to represent to then-current audiences. You should understand when a movie pioneered a technique or a trope that is now old hat. You should understand what a contemporary audience would have taken from an exchange or a reference (this is especially true with Production Code era films).

Understanding the context of a movie will not just help you understand it better, it’ll make you like it more.

Tip #3: Don’t Assume You’re Smarter Than The Movie

There are many ways to express this concept, but I think this is the most direct and abrupt way, the one that gets to the heart of the matter. Yes, many movies are sort of stupid, and many movies - especially big budget blockbusters that have many fingerprints on them - are poorly constructed. But if you’re writing about film you should always give a movie the benefit of the doubt that it knows what it’s doing.

Yes, the thing that happens in the first act may be weird or out of nowhere, but is it actually a set up for something that will make more sense in act three? Don’t tweet about it until you know! (Maybe in the next version of this piece I will include “Don’t Live Tweet A Movie You’re Watching For The First Time,” an activity in which I see too many ‘critics’ engaging. And very often they’ll tweet something like “WTF would he tell her that?” early in the movie, only to have that question answered by the movie itself later. You’re watching a movie like those chatty old people we hate sitting near at the theater, the people who say “Who is that?” every time a new character walks onscreen). In general approaching a movie with the assumption that there’s basic competence on display is a good idea, and it’s just the most decent way to do it. You can certainly walk out thinking you’re smarter than the movie, but at least at that point you’ll have proof.

By approaching a movie on its own terms you'll be able to give the movie a chance, as opposed to stubbornly demanding the movie prove itself to you. You're here to serve the movie, not the other way around.

#3a Don’t Judge A Movie By Its Advertising

This is a subset of 3 because it is also about walking in and not giving a movie the benefit of the doubt. The filmmakers, when they were actually toiling on this movie, were probably not considering how it would cut together for a trailer. And the people who made the movie are not always (are often not, in fact) the people who put the marketing together. The trailers and posters may stress one aspect of the movie (see a recent commercial for the Todd Haynes movie Carol that positioned the film as a crime thriller by using the few scenes with a gun and a wiretap) that does not represent the film. Your job is to engage the film on its own terms, not the marketing team’s.

Tip #4: You’re Not A Memoirist

Unless you are a memoirist, in which case you can skip this.

There has been a lot of toxic fallout of the ‘fanboy’ movie site culture from which I emerged, but perhaps nothing has been as irritating as the tendency for writers to make reviews or essays all about themselves. It shouldn’t take four to six paragraphs of your life story to get to a movie review, especially because I guarantee your life story isn’t that interesting.

The personal does have a place in film criticism; after all, this isn’t math - there is no objective standard by which to judge films. Your history and background and tastes inform your reaction to a movie, and it’s fair to give the reader information about this. But that information can be imparted quickly, subtly and with grace. More than that, this information should be spread out across your body of work; a film critic creates a relationship with her readers, and part of that is slowly letting your readers get to know her. But that information should be imparted in small dollops, and only at times when necessary - sure, you’re the child of divorce, but that doesn’t have to get mentioned in every review.

Your personal details should be used not just sparingly but with accuracy. There’s a rule in storytelling - the more specific the details, the more universal the impact. It seems counterintuitive, but it’s true, and it works in criticism as well. A small moment of personal disclosure that is actually germane to the movie/situation will go much further than a half dozen paragraphs of off-topic meandering.

Tip #5: See Movies On The Big Screen

This might be a losing generational battle, but it’s one I’ll fight to the end. Movies should, whenever possible, be seen on the big screen, or at least the biggest possible screen. Almost every single movie ever made was created with the intention of being seen on the big screen, and the psychological impact of the vision-engulfing silver sheet is baked into shot choices and editing.

I came of age at a time when it was not just hard to see old movies on the big screen but when home video was in its infancy; most of the older movies I saw were TV broadcasts. I’d watch them on my bedroom TV, which was probably a tiny 15 or 20 inch. I’d watch them pan and scanned, and I would watch them with commercials and I would watch them edited for broadcast standards. It was the best I could do, and sometimes you just have to do the best you can do.

But in later life I had the chance to revisit many of those films on the big screen, and the difference was stunning. King Kong was always a favorite, but the difference between watching Kong on a TV and having Kong looming over you in a movie theater is as monumental as the ape himself. That movie was created at a time when the only way to experience it was on a giant screen, and that was exactly how it was meant to be seen. The power of a movie like King Kong or Casablanca is completely different when shown at the proper size. These movie stars were meant to be seen as larger than life, not as tiny people trapped in your television.

More and more I see that critics are experiencing movies for the first time on their laptops (at best), and I despair. You can’t fall into that screen. It doesn’t swallow your attention whole. If anything, it’s a great place to have your attention divided, as little apps and notifications bleep away in the corners, inches from the video player window. Even if you’re full-screening the movie you’re still mixing your spaces - one of the great things about going to a movie theater is that this the space where movies happen. You’re entering a space dedicated to one thing, and you’re participating in that one thing. When you watch a movie on your laptop you’re repurposing a space where you work and where you chat and where you waste time. It’s the same reason you shouldn’t have your workspace and your sleeping space be one and the same - you lose your boundaries.

Not every movie can be seen on a big screen, but modern technology has allowed us to bring bigger screens into our homes. A decent sized TV is no replacement for the cinema, but it’s miles better than a Macbook Air. Meet the movies halfway, at least. And put away your goddamned phone while you’re watching (these are tips for people writing about movies, after all. If you’re not paying attention you cannot adequately write about what you’re watching).

The power of the movies isn’t just in their storytelling or their artistry - it’s in their size.

Tip #6: Be Political

Movies are political. Who and what is shown onscreen, the morality of the story, the themes of a film are all political. All art is political, whether you realize it or not. All art is either supporting or refuting current systems of control, and the way that you react to and analyze that art should be political as well. 

More than that, movies can change the world. They can change our attiutudes and our understanding of not just each other but ourselves. If Tip #2 is to watch movies in their proper context, tip #6 is the immediate version of that - what is the current context in which this film was produced? What does it mean that one group is represented but not another? What does the film's depiction of certain people or classes tell us? What messages are films giving us, and are we paying attention to them or are we subconsciously letting them permeate our brains? 

This isn't to say that every film review needs to be a Marxist rant, but if you've written a piece about Selma and somehow not mentioned modern race relations you have failed. Hell, if you're writing about Mad Max: Fury Road and don't mention the film's gender politics you've failed. You're not engaging these films in their fullness. I often read old reviews of old films and I am stunned by how much political subtext critics simply leave on the table; your job as a critic isn't to simply say if a movie is worth seeing or not (that can be done by an algorithm at this point) but rather to analyze and digest the movie, to help the reader understand what the film is and what it means. Not every review is going to be that in-depth (Christ knows I've shat out reviews in fifteen minutes at festivals - there's no other way) but we're talking about the ideal to which all film writers should aspire. 

Don't shy away from the deeper social and political implications of the films about which you're writing - embrace them. This is what is going to lift your writing above consumer advice and into the realms of philosophical literature that will still be worthy of reading decades from now. Just like Pauline Kael.