It’s not about opinions: on film reviewing

Does the world need more film reviews? There have never so many critics, so many people providing opinions on, well, everything, people keen on stating their reactions to the latest releases. And yes, some people are great in finding the precise words to communicate those reactions: they do it in ways which are clear, emphatic, funny, elegant, precise.

This blog will also be engaging more generally with the art of film, current films and films of the past. Sometimes through specific reviews, sometimes through articles on film style and history. It will also turn my reactions or insights into words. However, I tend to think that when the main thrust of reviews are personal opinions, then we are talking about ourselves rather than about the films.

Most reviews are about recommending movies or panning them, readers want to be encouraged to either go and see or buy the film or not, sometimes they seek an opinion that coincides with their own; often reviewers are putting in writing or in their vlogs the thoughts a particularly movie has elicited. The idea is that there is somehow an easy, transparent, clear relationship between the images on screen and the critic, as if context, history, psychology, conventions, ideas, cultural noise, prejudice or even emotional states did not have an influence. As if, indeed, the reviewer could provide, after just one viewing mind you, a final, settled, verdict on what she or he has seen. Actually, this kind of clarity is what readers often prefer. But the fact is that whenever a reviewer or critic starts with these principle of transparency in mind, he tends to be talking about him or herself, not about the film.

Of course such reviews have their place, as long as there is a demand for them. But given so many people are doing them, I will try to avoid exactly this. Although you may catch me with the occasional snark or earnest opinion founded on a quick impression (such impressions are often hard to avoid), I will as far as possible try to follow similar principles to the ones I expect of students in analysis:

  • A review is neither subjective nor objective: it merges both. It will of course be coloured by personal reactions, by emotion and even prejudice, but needs to articulate its discourse in objective ways, in some kind of knowledge about where stylistic choices come from, about the context in which the film is made and received, about the effects it may have on audiences.
  • Engaging with film is not just about explaining that you like something (or not) or even being precise about your personal reasons, it is about looking into what makes the film special, discovering how it works, taking it apart. That’s actually what “analysis” means: taking apart.
  • A good review or critical analysis will always provide some objective context, will always inform its readers about the circumstances in which the film was conceived. Context carries meaning, even if the historical context of the film is now distant, there will be a tension between that moment when the film was produced and the present.
  • We are not equally reponsive to all kinds of film. And this makes subjectivity unavoidable. But this idea also means humility is important. My authority in dealing with a musical may be stronger than when dealing with comic book adaptations, and I cannot pretend equal expertise at both types. Personal experience can be valuable at putting your cards on the table: you see this in this film because this is where you come from.
  • Reviewing after just one viewing is always tricky. Sometimes one must, as immediacy is expected by readers, but beware: the second time around most films are completely different. The first time one is more likely to be influenced by personal state of mind. And occasionally we may not be completely alert to what the film is attempting.
  • Value judgements can be great, an readers almost expect them, but they are not necessary, and they are not what the review is about. At the very least the value judgment needs to arise out of the review, rather than of the subjective reaction to the film.
  • While we’re at it, value judgements can be also about how the film fulfills an agenda: I may not be particularly moved by a particular film, may not “enjoy it”, but can also acknowledge the film is doing something interesting and engages fruitfully or efficiently with a particular tradition or has its heart in the right place and is a “necessary” or socially relevant movie.
  • Taste is important, but taste needs to be educated. And always expressed in an informed way. Taste is, like emotion, a cultural construction. Sometimes it is used as a synonym for emotion, sometimes it carries meanings that suggest cultural prestige
  • A good review needs to say something that goes beyond the obvious. And beyond the personal reaction. If the only thing your reader learns after reading your text is that you hated a particular film maybe it was not necessary to write a review.
  • Style matters. One has to be clear. It is as important to be generous. And wit is fun, but wit is about the reviewer, not about the film. Never forget the film.
  • Then again, there is nothing simple, straightforward, transparent about what art can do to us. It is a great confluence between us, the world and language.

Of course these are not fixed rules. But having a checklist, having limitations, is more likely to improve your review than to damage it. Of course having a voice is important, but don´t forget there is a film out there, brimming with history, myth, aesthetics, story, art, emotion, economics, ideologies and life.