Originally published in July 2013
Today, I received a very interesting email. It was from a guy who, for reasons unknown, decided to offer some unsolicited advice on being a film critic. His message began, “I just discovered your reviews and I’d like to say that you are off to a good start.” This was my first tip-off that something strange was coming. I got my first paying film critic gig twenty-four years ago and have written thousands of reviews since. I’ve worked in print, online, on radio, and on television. I’m by no means a newcomer. I’m also not especially thin-skinned, so I continued reading. The guy – we’ll call him “Paul” – said that my writing is “efficient” but “lacks context.” He then went on to mention Armond White, whom he offered up as a prime example of what a film critic should be, saying: “His connections enrich one’s understanding of a given work and provide context within cinema history.” Paul’s advice to me in a nutshell: Write more like Armond.
Truth be told, I found the tone of Paul’s message arrogant and condescending. By his own admission, he’s never written a single movie review, and he continued to email me all day long with variations on the same complaint, eventually badgering me for a detailed summation of “what Django Unchained says about Quentin Tarantino in 2012.” (At that point, I blocked him. I had too much work to do.) He even gave me reading assignments, telling me to check out the writings of Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, and James Agee – critics whose work I’m very acquainted with. I responded to him the first time, as politely as I could, assuring him that my style has served me pretty well over the past two decades and gently asserting that I had no intention of trying to be someone or something that I’m not. That didn’t deter him. In another of his emails, Paul enumerated more perceived deficiencies in several recent reviews I wrote. Again, Armond White’s name was invoked. (”The best critic currently writing.”) Paul recommended that I explore how things in films are “heightened by the aesthetics,” and consider things like “what’s being done with shadows,” or whether “the shots are geometrically composed.” He sited my review of 42 as being inadequate for not connecting the film to all the other baseball and/or racial equality movies made over the decades. He couldn’t believe that I didn’t comment on whether the baseball scenes were photographed in “shallow or deep focus.” He told me that “specificity equals edification.” By this point, I was pretty sure I was being punked.
All this brings up a very interesting point that’s well worth discussing. I’ve long believed that there are basically two ways to write about film. The first, for lack of a better term, is the “academic” way. This approach looks at a film much more technically (and therefore notices things like the geometric composition of shots), while attempting to place it into some sort of historical and/or cultural context. It’s a mental way of looking at cinema, an intellectual distancing of oneself from the work being considered so as to view it in relation to the larger whole. The academic critic will look at how technical elements within a scene are used to help achieve the overall tone or theme, and will often judge it against other pictures aiming for the same thing. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with this approach. I like and admire numerous critics who work in this style.
The other way to write about film, again for lack of a better term, is the “conversational” way. This is the method I have chosen to utilize. A critic taking this approach will write less like a college film professor and more like the hardcore movie buff who runs the student film society. It’s an emotional way of thinking about cinema, as it focuses more on how a film makes one feel, or what one’s personal experience of watching that film was. A conversational critic is more likely to write from a first-person perspective and to use shorthand connections most readers will instantly comprehend. (Paul noted that, instead of comparing 42 to dozens of dramas about race, I compared it only to the more recent The Blind Side. This is true. It was a convenient, easily accessible way to help my readers understand the tone.)
This is not to say that the two styles are mutually exclusive. As a conversational critic, I try to be insightful and informative about technical elements in movie, as applicable to my overall viewing experience. Conversely, many academic critics will use their thoughtful, in-depth analysis as a means of getting to the emotional impact (or lack thereof) of a picture. Some critics can even straddle the line between these two methods; the late Roger Ebert was prime example. The larger point I’m trying to make is that working in one style or the other is a conscious choice. Both are legitimate. There was a time when there were very few film critics working. Most of them were, indeed, of the academic variety. The advent of the internet changed film criticism, though. It allowed for new voices and new kinds of voices. Readers who weren’t necessarily interested in an academic dissertation of a movie could now find critics who adopted a more congenial approach.
Since Armond White is the example brought up by Paul, let’s leave his controversial nature aside and just look at his style. White’s review of Pacific Rim says that director Guillermo del Toro’s “homage lacks the simplicity of Ray Harryhausen special effects that were enjoyable for their handmade creativity.” He then goes on to add that “Del Toro’s best moment is only half-great: when Raleigh drifts into Mako’s dream and the evocation of WWII American-Japanese relations, the ambivalent panic and sexual security, almost becomes a theme.” In the first statement, he rightly notes the influence of Harryhausen on the movie’s aesthetics. In the second, he picks up on imagery that clearly ties in to a notable period of history. Both remarks are perfectly insightful.
I’ll use myself as the other example, as per Paul’s initiation of this topic. In my review of the same film, I also made mention of the connection to previous monster movies (”Even if del Toro hadn’t given an onscreen dedication to famed monster creator Ray Harryhausen and noted Japanese creature-feature director Ishiro Honda, it would have been obvious that their legacies infuse the spirit of Pacific Rim.”) I concluded my review with a summation of how I felt watching it: “When I remember the summer of 2013, this is the movie I’ll think of. No, it’s not technically perfect, but it is perfectly fun. The special effects are great and the action is exciting. The comic relief made me laugh. The entire visual scheme of the film is endlessly inviting to look at. It all adds up to a thoroughly enjoyable two hours. Pacific Rim is a first-rate sci-fi adventure that made me feel all giddy inside.”
Which style is better? Depends on what you want. Some readers want to explore the idea that a big summer tentpole movie might have thematic connections to historical events. They may want to know how the monsters in this movie compare to the screen monsters that came before. Other readers want to know briefly what works, what doesn’t work, what the tone of the film is, and what kind of experience they can expect to have.
The beauty of modern film criticism – and the thing that Paul doesn’t seem to get – is that the academic and the conversational can exist side-by-side. I can name two dozen talented film critics worth reading, right off the top of my head. Give me a few minutes and I can come up with a dozen more. Some of them are more conversational than academic. Some are more academic than conversational. Some perfectly rest one foot on each side of that line. All of them, like me, chose the format that felt most comfortable and which best reflected their personality.
Could I write in the style used by Armond White (or David Denby or Andrew Sarris)? Sure, I just don’t want to. Could Armond write in a style more akin to my own? I’m sure he could, but he doesn’t want to either. Our readers seek us out because they want to read the kind of film criticism we provide. That’s a good thing. No matter what you’re looking for, you can find it online. There’s no need for all of us to sound the same. The diversity of voices is beautiful.