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Film Critics Should Definitely Write About Form, Except When They Don't Want To

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by Sam Adams
March 26, 2014 4:21 PM
11 Comments
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After giving what he described as a "diplomatic" response to this week's Criticwire Survey about whether critics need filmmaking experience to understand the craft, Matt Zoller Seitz went on a tear at RogerEbert.com, issuing what amounts to a manifesto called "Please, Critics, Write About the Filmmaking." 

Movies and television are visual art forms, and aural art forms. They are not just about plot, characterization and theme. Analytical writing about movies and TV should incorporate some discussion of the means by which the plot is advanced, the characters developed, the themes explored. It should devote some space, some small bit of the word count, to the compositions, the cutting, the music, the decor, the lighting, the overall rhythm and mood of the piece. 

Otherwise it's all just book reports or political op-eds that happen to be about film and TV. It's literary criticism about visual media. It's only achieving half of its potential, if that. And it's doing nothing to help a viewer understand how a work evokes particular feelings in them as they watch it. 

Noel Murray responded at The Dissolve, to the effect that he agrees, but...

Seitz's piece doesn't completely reject a literary approach to film and TV criticism so much as demand a proper balance of formal and literary analysis. Me, I'm not sure there’s any one right way to write about any one particular movie. I'm not talking here about the critic’s usual excuse for not writing about form (described by Seitz as, "The filmmaking was undistinguished, that’s why I didn’t say anything about it"). I'm saying that a film can demonstrate visual mastery and the critic still may find his or her best way into writing about it by talking about the plot, the theme, or the characters. Writing about the images may not fit with the argument the writer wants to make. I’ve read plenty of insightful film and television criticism that didn’t engage with the visual sides of either medium. I want to give critics the same benefit of the doubt I try to give filmmakers. 

Although they disagree with each other somewhat, I think Seitz and Murray are both right. I think a critic should always be aware of a movie's form, (or a TV show's, or a pop song's), and I think that deciding it's not worth talking about is a defensible choice.

Seitz lumps that rationale -- or, if you prefer, excuse -- in with others like "The editor wanted me to concentrate on the plot and characterizations and performances because, well, you know, we're mainstream," and "I'd love to write about the images, but I'm not a visual person, so that's not really my area," and responds with a blanket, "If you only have ten sentences to play with, set aside one sentence to make an observation about some aspect of the filmmaking. Otherwise you're not contributing to visual literacy. You're not helping."

Fair enough. Maybe you're not. But I resist the notion that "helping" is a critic's highest calling, anymore that I'd suggest that it's a filmmaker's. At its best, criticism is an art -- a secondary, even parasitic form that can't exist without something to write about, but an art nonetheless -- and art doesn't need your rules, man. On Twitter, Seitz mentions that talking about form is an easy way for TV critics to spice up what can otherwise be the rote business of recapping episodes, and I think it's helpful to think of film criticism in that spirit, in the sense that no one expects each episode recap to deal with every aspect of a show every week. Some weeks, you might focus on the acting or the writing, others on visual style or editing, with the hope that by the time you've come to the end of a season you've written about most of what makes the show interesting.

With film reviews, you're starting with a clean slate each time out; you can't set aside a discussion of Wes Anderson's compositional style for the next time he makes a movie. But the same principle applies, in the sense that you should be writing about everything, but not always at the same time. "If you only have sentences to play with, make one about form" is a tidy formula, but if the form's not interesting, or even if it's not of interest to you, that's one sentence fewer to write about what is. To an extent, the categories into which we divide formal analysis are arbitrary estimates to begin with: Unless you were on the set when a film was made, it's impossible to know whether the credit for, say, a given camera move goes to the director or the D.P. or the grip who knocked over a light stand and forced them to rethink the setup at the last minute. If I hadn't read an interview with "The Good Wife" showrunners Robert and Michelle King, I would have credited the decision to play Sunday's traumatic shooting on an overhead wide shot of an adjacent courtroom to the writing staff, but it turns out that decision was made in editing, which still doesn't answer the question of whether it was the editor or the director who made the call. (Seitz is drawing a polemical distinction between literary and visual criticism, but even so, the implied omission of writing and acting from the "filmmaking" category sticks a bit going down.)

I wouldn't say critics should always write about form, because I wouldn't say critics should always do anything. That's a little like saying all movies should have a three act structure, or every script should firmly establish the protagonist's objective in the first ten pages. Ideals exists for a reason, and you should know what the reason is. But you should also be comfortable enough in that knowledge to disregard it in favor of concentrating on what moves you, whether it's the acting or the costumes or the musical score. That's always where the best writing lies.

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11 Comments

  • jim emerson | March 27, 2014 7:55 PMReply

    Hi Sam -- This is a subject I wrote about at length (and somewhat incessantly) at my old blog, Scanners, so I'd like to elaborate a bit. First, let's be sure we make a distinction between form and authorship (or "auteur-ship," if you prefer). Where most critics who aren't familiar with actual filmmaking go wrong is in thinking it's important to attribute any particular decision (and there are hundreds on display every second; whether they have been made consciously or not, they're THERE) to any particular person involved -- whether it's the director or a writer or an actor or an editor or a prop master or a cinematographer... It's dumb, and unnecessary, to attribute things to a film when you really have no idea who came up with that particular thing. The more familiar critics are with how films are actually made, the more likely they are to realize the importance of that. But no matter who did it, or who decided to include or exclude something, for whatever reason, the only thing that matters is the finished work. The movie shows this or that, and you may detect a particular sensibility behind certain touches, and what the movie shows (including what it doesn't -- think of that shot through the doorway in "Rosemary's Baby" that is discussed in "Visions of Light") reveals what it's doing and how it's doing it. But even if a reviewer is just doing consumer reporting ("This movie made me feel this way!"), there's no sense in trying to predict how someone else will feel when exposed to the same thing. Isn't it smarter, and more helpful to the reader, to look into WHY the movie made the writer feel something? That's why I always like to quote Martin Scorsese -- even though a lot of people don't understand what he's saying: "Cinema is a matter of what's in the frame and what's out." Of course there are other aspects to cinema besides framing, but where the camera is situated, how it moves or doesn't move, who appears on the screen and how much of them is visible from a particular angle or distance, who isn't in the frame, the length of a given shot and how it relates to other shots, sets or locations, colors, shapes, light, texture, etc. -- it all comes down to what's on the screen and what isn't.

    So, my feeling is that the reason critics should be urged to discuss form is not to be esoteric, but to appreciate the properties of the medium that are unique to movies. What distinguishes this particular thing as a movie rather than a novel or an audiobook or a play or an opera or a song or a puppet show? As many filmmakers have said, if they could tell the story in print or some other way, why bother making a movie? As Manohla Dargis said years ago in an interview with Senses of Cinema (another of my favorite quotations): "To read most film critics in the United States you wouldn't know that film is a visual medium." And, really, if all a reviewer sees is plot and character and "acting" and "cinematography" ("beautiful" or "ugly"), then what do they have to pass along to readers that expand or deepen their experience of the movie? I'd argue that is what criticism is (going, to cite a Kael anthology title, deeper into movies). Everything else is journalism -- a valuable function, but not the same as criticism.

  • GUINNESS | March 27, 2014 9:56 PM

    You the man, Jim.

  • jim emerson | March 27, 2014 7:59 PM

    CORRECTION: That should be: "It's dumb, and unnecessary, to attribute things to *an individual* when you really have no idea who came up with that particular thing."

    Sorry.

  • Guinness | March 27, 2014 4:49 PMReply

    I like your style, Sam, and appreciate the respectful discourse. But from where I'm standing, "I don't need your rules, man!" sounds a lot like "My job should be as easy as I'm lazy, disinterested, or ignorant enough to make it." Or, more succinctly, "Get off my lawn!" (which, it should be noted, is the opposite of "I don't need your rules, man"). I completely respect that you're free to analyze a film in whichever way you choose and don't feel Matt's piece suggests anything that would compromise that autonomy. The thing is, a ground floor knowledge of this stuff is not hard to attain, and can probably be gleaned mostly intuitively by someone who watches films and TV for a living. But more importantly, shouldn't someone who's made a career out of this WANT to learn? Shouldn't they love it? I certainly do. I've spent years locked away in small rooms with blacked-out windows consuming the history and technique of film, and I've left those rooms and practiced it. I still know full well that I'll be learning for the rest of my life, and that excites me more than I can explain. Trust me, filmmakers don't desire incessant discussion of form. I think most appreciate that it's somewhat mystified and viewers can get lost in these techniques and appreciate the story. The ratio Matt suggests, although perhaps arbitrary, seems fine for public consumption. This will enrich the reviews AND the viewers, and I'm sure push filmmakers into wonderful new places we never imagined. We often forget how young this medium is, especially in today's hyper culture where things seem antiquated almost before they're conceived. And writing has been around for, oh I don't know, let's say four thousand years, and storytelling let's just say forever in the human calendar, so most people are obviously more comfortable discussing things in those terms. But if we only did what was comfortable, we'd probably still be slinking along the ocean floor. The world needs strivers and teachers. The world needs dreamers! So keep fighting the good fight, Sam and Matt. Heat means you're onto something. And the strongest swords are forged in the hottest fires. Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? We're gonna go to New Hampshire then Vermont then Ohio then Michigan--HIYA!

  • GUINNESS | March 27, 2014 5:46 PM

    Actually, it looks like writing is closer to 6000 years old, so maybe the rest of that is bullshit.

  • Nathan Marone | March 27, 2014 10:06 AMReply

    All in all, a balanced approach is probably best. You can write about anything from any perspective, if you have it. So if you choose, for whatever reason, to not discuss visual form in a movie review, that's fine. But, if you're going to stand up and call yourself a critic, you should have, and be able to display, at least a basic working knowledge of film grammar. To this end, Seitz's piece is a necessary polemic, because there's a good deal of film criticism (both online and in print) that doesn't even seem to consider the possibility of visual analysis. And while a 10:1 sentence ratio might not be acceptable as a rule, it's probably not a bad principle to keep in mind while writing, right?

    I too think that Seitz's choice of the word "helping" is probably unfortunate. But at the same time, the case can be made that despite being in a culture that is over saturated with visual information, visual literacy, on average, is very low. In this way, if a critic recognizes that he or she is writing about a predominately visual medium and can delineate how that component renders story and narrative, then said critic has helped the world gain a little bit of visual literacy. And a little visual literacy will never hurt anyone.

    But there is one aspect of your response that I'm curious about. If you are writing about "The Good Wife," what does it matter who made the choice to play the traumatic shooting as it did? We may want, perhaps in an egalitarian impulse, to give credit where due, but if it's in the frame and on the screen, the credit is ultimately superfluous. Are you saying that we should avoid (or be excused from) writing about a specific visual element if we can't trace who is responsible, or just cautioning against the exclusion of non-director collaborators in an attempt to focus on visual analysis?

    If it is the former, I wouldn't say that we shouldn't give credit to writers, editors, and other collaborators in the filmmaking process, but parsing out who is responsible for any given scene, shot, or musical cue is a fool's errand (unless, of course, you've got an interview to fall back on). Auteurism aside, the practical realities of filmmaking are collaborative. And that inability to pinpoint responsibility shouldn't be viewed as a deterrent to writing about a particular visual element. And hopefully, in focusing on something visual, we do not infer that writers or editors are not involved.

  • J.R. Kinnard | March 27, 2014 1:16 AMReply

    In my (admittedly) modest movie reviews, I try to evaluate each movie on its own terms: Did the film evoke an emotional or intellectual response, and how did the filmmaker achieve (or not) achieve this?

    That means determining the most important elements for that particular film and then evaluating its level of success with said elements. To evaluate "Need for Speed" and "Nymphomaniac" by the same criteria is to ignore the filmmaker's intention. They are two entirely different films that wish to connect with their audience in entirely different ways.

    So I only dwell on visuals if they really jump out (for better or worse), or if the filmmaker has made the visual style central to conveying the story.

    Oh, and structure... I'm big on structure. Since structure is why most movies fail or succeed in the first place.

  • matt zoller seitz | March 26, 2014 4:57 PMReply

    Fair enough, but I feel I should re-emphasize here that I never said anywhere in the piece that critics should ONLY write about form, or that they were obligated to make it the dominant focus of any given piece. In fact, there's this: "Write about form. A little bit. Not all the time. Just whenever you see an opening; whenever you think it might make sense, and call attention to the fact that we don't just mysteriously, magically feel things while we're watching movies and TV shows: that the filmmaking is what made us feel those things."

    Considering that the vast majority of mainstream criticism doesn't bother to write about the visual components of cinema at all, I'd say we're starting from ground zero here, and anything that improves on the status quo should be considered a major victory for people who want critics to write about movies as visual as well as literary or theatrical events.

  • Sam Adams | March 26, 2014 5:00 PM

    And your "fair enough" is fair enough. Fair?

  • Thomas Prieto | March 26, 2014 4:54 PMReply

    I don't think your comparison of Seitz's rule that every piece of criticism should comment on form to saying that every movie should have a three act structure is a good one. I think the more apt comparison would be to saying that every film or TV show should be formally/visually interesting. The idea that every movie should have a three act structure is ridiculous whereas the idea that visual mediums should be interesting formally/visually seems much more reasonable. I realize that the reason you made the comparison is to point out that no rules should be put on filmmaking and TV/film criticism because they are both artforms. However, I think that TV/film criticism (even if it is an artform) should be reactive to what is on the screen. If it doesn't ever really take the time to focus on the images, then it's kind of missing a large percentage of what is on the screen. It seems to me that the discussion of a medium of images without any mention of images largely misses the point.

    I know that in recaps you can focus on a particular element each week, but I have yet to see any TV recaps (except from Seitz) that focus on editing, cinematography, or direction. Then again, I'm not sure we can even call most recaps 'criticism' since they tend to just be recounting of plot details (Why do people that just watched the episode need to read these?), the occasional production details (this usually only occurs when it's an older show), and brief asides on what the writer thought was cool or not about the episode.

    I think TV criticism and mainstream film criticism (I think there are many more film critics with an understanding of form and visuals than there are TV critics) could stand to learn from reading a book like Raymond Durgnat's FILMS AND FEELINGS.

  • Sam Adams | March 26, 2014 4:58 PM

    I'll save most of my response and just say that everyone should read Raymond Durgnat, critic and non- alike.

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