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

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire March 26, 2014 at 4:21PM

Film criticism doesn't need your rules, man.
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Statler

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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