Saturday, April 23, 2011

On Film Criticism and the Ways I Watch Films

When I see a movie, there's a part of me of course that dissects the movie, that criticizes it. But I could never be a film critic because those criticisms are for me, so that I can become a better filmmaker hopefully by understanding what worked and didn't work for other filmmakers. I don't see the point of publishing my criticisms, particularly when the chances of the filmmaker seeing them is zero to none. Why should I criticize if not to be constructive?

When I see a movie, there's a part of me of course that has a gut reaction, that likes or dislikes the films for a variety of reasons that likely aren't technical. They can turn technical quickly, though. Liking the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice because it is so pretty ends up a compliment to the art direction and the fluid cinematography. Finding Twilight hilarious when it isn't supposed to be derides a bad story, bad acting, and so on and so forth.

When I see a movie, I want to enjoy it for whatever reasons. I never go into a movie wanting to hate it. Sometimes I'll go in expecting to not find it a good movie, but that doesn't matter because I still want to be entertained, which is why I've seen all three Twilight films despite holding no love for the franchise - they entertain me even if I don't think they're good.

It does matter to me if I think a movie is good or bad, but it matters equally if I think a movie is entertaining or not. As a movie-goer, I am an expert in neither, but in constant practice of deducing both.

Which one is more important to me? Well, that depends who I am watching that movie. If I am Sarah the Aspiring Filmmaker, it probably matters more to me if the movie is well-made or not. If I am Sarah the Amateur Movie-Lover, I don't really care about any faults of Tron: Legacy because I'm enjoying the ride so much. So I'll miss them, I won't discuss them, and I won't care.

These two sides overlap, of course. There's no helping letting them get in the way of one another, but that's good, because my favorite movies - maybe not the best movies ever made, but my favorite movies - fulfill both sides.

And I will criticize movies that people will roll their eyes about and tell me that it's not a "thinking" movie or that it doesn't deserve analysis or that I should shut up and just enjoy the ride, though honestly I don't do that to the extent several people I know do. To that I say it doesn't matter what the intention of the film was, it's what I take away that matters. If I take away from Tron: Legacy that lightcycles are badass, that's fine. If I take away from The Twilight Saga: Eclipse that Bella faces a common, old choice in fantasy fiction of choosing between the fantasy and the normal world in having to choose between her suitors, that's fine too. It's a selfish cause for me, to criticize films, because it gives me more to understand, helps me become better at my craft.

So what's the point of me rampantly denouncing the Twilight series as atrocious all over the internet? Sure, I do think they are bad movies, but who the hell is it going to help for me to criticize? Sure, some people have to do it as their careers and I don't deride them for that because they tend to be higher-profile, people listen to them (I amongst them) and listen to their advice based on their criticisms of films. That's great, because that can keep me from having a movie-going experience I might have regretted. Or, perhaps, it might keep me from having a movie-going experience that I would've enjoyed just the same, though it's likely hardly a life-ending dilemma if I miss out on Sucker Punch since the reviews came back bad.

It's the role of some to do that. It's not my job. Nobody's paying me, and even if they did, I don't want to. I don't like tearing down people's work for an invisible audience.

It always comes back to Ratatouille for me any time I breach these topics. Anton Ego knows where it's at. Even "bad" art takes effort, takes time, takes skill. Somebody wanted to do this and, likely, someone wanted it to be good. I'm sure there are the cases where it's ALL marketing, but honestly, there is something to this superhero trend - superheroes are interesting, fascinating, and sure, marketable - more than just some fat cat producer-type thinking it'll be a cash cow. That's part of it, but considering the things we see that work in these big budget flicks, even they have parts that stand up and shout "I WANT THIS TO BE GOOD." Everyone's definition of good might be a little different though. Put your cynicism aside, I'm not talking about one of those definitions being "it made money" - the definition I think would be most similar to that is "those explosions were so well-done the audience loved them." And sure, it takes some work to make good explosions, let's not pretend otherwise.

Whether it's a "bad" Hollywood blockbuster or a "bad" independent production, someone wanted to do something they thought would be good/entertaining. And why should we begrudge them that? We don't have to buy the tickets to see the movie if we don't want to, and if your cynicism is right, and in this case I imagine it is, not buying movie tickets will hurt all of these productions more than some scathing reviews. Saying "this is shit" will only go so far. Word-of-mouth is still powerful. For instance, I saw a rather terrible musical production on my college campus recently. What was I going to do to make sure none of my friends suffered the unfortunate fate of wasting their time seeing it? Not writing a nasty review in the school paper - I just told them it wasn't worth their time. Obviously, they'd make up their minds in the end if they were determined to see it, but it was one of those cases where it was so truly bad, I had to tell people it wasn't worth it. But my defense wasn't "well, the art direction was bad and the sound levels were rough and the script was jumbled" even though it was all true. My defense was "it's bad. It's boring. It's not worth it." Simple and still true.

Anyway, I'm going off on about fifteen tangents right now, so I will leave it at this. I think film criticism is, at a professional level, a generally good idea. However, as an aspiring filmmaker, criticism to me is important but a subject that must be handled well. When it comes to criticism, that's where we get into the specifics, complimenting and deriding different aspects. But if you criticize my film and you don't offer any suggestions, why should I listen to you? If you could make it better, then tell me how and I'll take your advice to heart. And if you have a gut reaction, an emotional reaction, a reaction that doesn't fit nicely into a proper critique, that's probably more important to me. I don't care as much if these small factors are good - if you liked my piece, or it made you feel something, that's important to me.

One of my classmates recently said that the best thing she ever heard from our professor was that her piece was doing what she had been trying to get her piece to do.

That's a pretty awesome feeling to know you're doing it right.

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