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Criticwire Survey: Background Research

Features
March 17, 2014 8:57 AM
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Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, "What is the best film in theaters right now?" can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: How much of a duty do you feel to research a review? Do you need to have seen all of "Veronica Mars" before writing about "The Veronica Mars Movie," or be familiar with the writing of Stefan Zweig before reviewing "The Grand Budapest Hotel"?

Keith Phipps, The Dissolve

I do as much research as time will allow, which can range from "a lot" to "none at all," depending on a lot of outside elements and depending on the movie. In other words, I think it's helpful for critics to be as informed as possible but also to remember that they're ultimately judging a movie as a work onto itself. For instance, I'd never read "Anna Karenina" before, so I used the release of the 2012 film as an occasion to finally catch up with it. It was a tremendous pleasure, more pleasure than the film, and I felt like I wrote a more informed review because of it. On the other hand, I don't think I would have written a less valid review of the movie without it and would probably have come to many of the same conclusions and sometimes time and deadlines just don't allow as much due diligence as I'd like. (Years ago, I did watch some episodes of "Pokemon" before reviewing one of the movies spun off from the show. If I could have that time back now, I'd probably do something different with it.)

Kenji Fujishima, Slant Magazine, In Review Online

Would an interviewer go out and conduct an interview without doing any background research into the subject he/she is interviewing? Would a hard-news reporter go out into the field and gather facts without knowing some background going into the assignment, the better so that that reporter would be able to provide readers with context in his/her story? I don't think film criticism is all that different from other types of journalistic writing, even if it's more creative in nature; thus, I don't think critics are exempt from responsibilities to be at least somewhat informed about the films they are reviewing. 

Still, as much as I firmly believe that a great critic ought to be aware of other forms of culture as much as about cinema itself, no one can possibly know everything. Just as even the most well-renowned of film critics may have their blind spots when it comes to movies, they may well have the same blind spots when it comes to television, literature, music, and so on. Besides, if you haven't seen any or all of the episodes of the "Veronica Mars" TV show before being tasked to review "The Veronica Mars Movie" (though one might hope an assigning editor would assign such a review to someone more well-versed in the series in the first place), have only a few days to turn a review of the movie around, and have a lot of other commitments on top of it -- I mean, who has time to catch up with every single episode, right? 

Each film is a unique experience, just as each viewer is unique, and in the case of "The Veronica Mars Movie" or a "The Grand Budapest Hotel," one's experience might differ from another's on the basis of what he/she brings into it going in. That doesn't make one's opinion more valid than another; as long as one is upfront about where one's coming from background-wise, I think that's all a reader asks for, and said reader can decide whether to take such an opinion into consideration or dismiss it altogether. Hey, as long as you sit through all of a film before spouting off any praise or bile its way.

Sean Axmaker, Cinephiled, Parallax View

I'm resistant to the idea of background research specifically to "get" a movie. I'm talking film review here, mind you, not an essay or scholarly study or in-depth think piece, where you want to reach out for background and context. No film comes out of a vacuum, of course, and all of your experience and knowledge informs your experience watching a film. But if you're writing a review of a film for a general audience, it can often be helpful to come at it without intimate knowledge of the inspirations. I saw all of "Veronica Mars" when it ran on TV but I haven't rewatched since and I won't before I see the film. There will be plenty of reviews coming at it from the perspective of the minted fan telling other veterans of the show how well it stacks up to the series and how the passing of time, the transition to the big screen, and other factors make this experience different. And that's great; I certainly am interested in that. But how about everyone who never watched the show? Does the film work if you come into it without intimate knowledge of the source? Does it stand on its own or is it a member's only experience. And of course, there is that danger of getting caught up in what the movie isn't instead of what it is. Doing that kind of research right before seeing the film tends to front-load the comparison in the mind. Or at least that's my experience when, on a few occasions, I have read a novel only to discover that a film version is coming out soon. Sometimes it hardly makes a difference but there were time when I got caught up on the changes rather that following the experience the director and screenwriter were creating as they reworked the original material.

I did not read the work of Stefan Zweig before I saw "The Grand Budapest Hotel". As far as that goes, I had seen a half-dozen screen adaptations of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" (and that's not counting sequels and variations) before I ever read the novel. And to be honest, I find it more rewarding to go to the source material after seeing the film (if I like the film) and expand upon my experience. That is when it is most rewarding to me, as a viewer and as a reader of reviews. 

James Poniewozik, Time

I have as much duty to research a review as an average viewer does. If you make a TV series or movie that requires your audience to do a syllabus of coursework to appreciate it in a "valid" way, you are in for a lifetime of deserved disappointment. Sometimes I'll do the "research," not out of obligation -- e.g., I read the Song of Ice and Fire books before "Game of Thrones," simply because I thought I'd like them. I sometimes regret not having gone into "Game of Thrones" without reading. But it's a Schrodinger's TV-Watcher situation; I can't be spoiled and unspoiled simultaneously. Neither perspective is more or less valid; they're just different.

The difference, I guess, is that where background knowledge or lack thereof is very important to how you see the work, then I should disclose it -- have I read the book, seen the series, studied the history -- so my reader knows where I'm coming from. In the case of "Veronica Mars", honestly, I'm seeing so many fan reviews that I actually think we might be better served by more reviewers who haven't done the research, for the benefit of non-viewers (if any) who want to see the movie. 

Stephen Whitty, the Star-Ledger, Newhouse

The short answer is, when my reviewing schedule was lighter -- and studios weren't premiering 16 films every Friday -- I made a point of reading source material, watching earlier versions, etc. I still try, but sadly I'm more likely to be reading plot synopses these days than the actual book. But I do think it's important, and I come to the screening as prepared as I can be.

The longer answer? I know the argument is that the film is the film, and needs to stand or fall on its own merits. But if it's based on something else, whether it's famous literature (like the recent "Much Ado About Nothing," or "Romeo and Juliet") or a pop sensation (like the current "Divergent" and upcoming "Hunger Games") the more information you have, the more you can put this adaptation into context, and provide a deeper reading. That critique may be on the level of why this "Anna Karenina" is more feminist than others, or how "Noah" adds an ecological message (or it can simply be a carefully worded warning to fans that, yes,the Mandarin was, like, really rewritten for "Iron Man 3"). But approaching a movie in blissful ignorance -- particularly when the audience it's aiming itself at is more informed than you are -- isn't any way to do thoughtful criticism.

Which is also, yes, why I happily ceded the "Veronica Mars" movie to our TV writer. 

Richard Brody, the New Yorker

Research can't make a movie good -- in fact, with a mediocre film, it serves the demon of the "interesting" -- but it may deepen the experience of a good movie. That's why it's hardly useful or necessary to do research in advance of a screening and often a pleasure afterwards. And pleasure is mainly what matters. As it happens, I had read "The World of Yesterday" a few years ago, but after seeing "The Grand Budapest Hotel"," I read it again, not because it seemed necessary to do so (it isn't) but because it was a delight, and now a greater one, not just for the book's intrinsic merits but as another way of thinking about a movie I love. In a practical sense, I agree with the man from "His Girl Friday": production for use. For a capsule review, research is hardly to the point; for a longer article or blog post, it's often useful; for a book, it's indispensable. But the very idea of research is inseparable from the whole web of allusions that any film is built of. What Hemingway said about education is how I feel about research: He prefers knowledge (and, I'd add, knowledge with passion). If I didn't already love Brahms' Second Piano Concerto as Kirk Douglas does in "A Letter to Three Wives," the great scene with the radio executives -- and the soundtrack joke that precedes it, lending lyrics to its opening melody -- wouldn't have the enduring kick for me that it does. Cary Grant's conducting of the Academic Festival Overture in "People Will Talk" makes the piece better; so does Godard's "King Lear" for Shakespeare's play. He has claimed not to have read it before making the film. I had read it many years before watching it; but Godard made the play better (I'm not joking) -- that's the very definition of what a good adaptation does, and I'd say the same thing about Zweig's memoir and "The Grand Budapest Hotel." I didn't read the play or the memoir as research; all one can do is live. 

Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly

"Duty" probably isn't the right word, though I've become a bit of an obsessive in recent years about trying to read source material before film adaptations of books. There are times when it seems to be far more relevant than others -- specifically, when the source material is widely known and beloved, and the choices made in changing that source material are likely to be scrutinized by viewers. Adaptations of "The Hunger Games" and "Twilight", for example, clearly feel far more inextricably linked to the fans' connection to the source material than, say, "Winter's Bone" (although I read that before seeing the movie, too). And, for selfish reasons, it feels like a value-added way to distinguish my own coverage of a movie from that of critics who may not be familiar with the source material.

When it comes to something like "Veronica Mars", however, the subject of background knowledge feels like an entirely different case. I've never seen a minute of the series, and it's hard for me to imagine I have something worthwhile to contribute to the conversation about a movie that exists *only* because of the enthusiasm of its fans. Is it possible for people to appreciate "Serenity" or "Fire Walk With me" without having seen any of "Firefly" or "Twin Peaks"? I guess so. But it's absurd to think that it's remotely as informed an experience.

Peter Labuza, The Cinephiliacs, Variety

I don't really have an opinion about catching up with former material or what have you, but here's one thing I'd see changed. Most critics seem to want to wait to write their own piece before engaging with any other writers on the film and reading their reviews. Obviously if it's a new movie with no reviews (and you're writing for a major publication) that makes sense, but I'd like to see more film bloggers read the work of others before writing their own piece. The usual adage is that reading someone else's piece will mean their ideas influence them, but I see it as an opportunity to know what is already covered and expand on a different aspect instead (and also an opportunity to cite sources!). I prefer reading pieces that seem engaged in a dialogue than those that work as snow globes, which demand appreciation instead of function as part of a larger landscape.

Glenn Kenny, RogerEbert.com, Some Came Running

My friend James Rocchi has got it all summed up in his Twitter bio: "I write about movies. Which means, really, I get to write about everything." That's something that a lot of reviewers who willfully shut themselves in a circumscribed world ought to think about, I believe. But speaking strictly for myself, my idea of due diligence has, I think, a pretty conscientious baseline level, beyond which research becomes a matter of personal inclination. The matter of Stefan Zweig is kind of interesting, as I've seen more than one critic huffily contend that Wes Anderson just doesn't get Zweig at all. Although, you know, "inspired by" shouldn't necessarily be read as "You are invited to use your view of these works as a litmus test for the legitimacy of my own." And you know, there's an anecdote about James Ensor in Zweig's "The World of Yesterday" that could have come straight out of a Wes Anderson movie. (See what I did there?) So the answer, as it is to so many things, is "It depends." I've never read Stanislaw Lem's "Solaris," but I think my perspective has been informed by the fact that he rabidly despised both Andrei Tarkovsky and Steven Soderbergh's adaptations of the novel. 

Ethan Alter, Television Without Pity

It really is a case-by-case basis for me, one that's dictated both by the movie in question as well as the time commitment and my own interest level. I did wind up binge-watching the entire run of "Veronica Mars" prior to seeing the movie, because a) It was specifically created for the show's fanbase and b) I'd been looking for an excuse to do so anyway. Similarly, if there's a book I've always wanted to read, I'll sometimes use the fact that there's an upcoming film adaptation to finally get around to doing that. On the other hand, I don't feel much personal incentive to carve out to, say, get caught up on "The Mortal Instruments" series or "Divergent" prior to seeing those adaptations. Ultimately, I think that old saw holds: no matter what inspired a particular movie, it still has to stand on its own. Familiarity with the source material can certainly provide context and a jumping-off point for a given review, but that's only one part of a broader discussion. 

Luke Y. Thompson, Topless Robot

When I started as a critic, my editor made it a mandate for us to read the book if a movie were based upon one, and I expanded that to even playing the video game if it were a movie based on one. This was when "critic" was a full-time job and we had the luxury of time to do that.

Things have changed. Very few people are "just" critics any more. Those who are, I would hope might try to give themselves some context. And even for those of us who have multiple tasks, I think there is a mandate at times. If you're reviewing a movie based on a hugely successful book like "Harry Potter" or "50 Shades of Grey," where many of your readers will have read the thing, you should too. An entire TV series is a bit much to ask, but maybe at least an episode or two. And one's discretionary budget comes into play -- certainly nobody would suggest you need to procure the entire run of "Captain America" comics to understand a Captain America movie.

The most important thing, for any sort of criticism, is to disclose where you stand upfront. If you never saw an episode of "Veronica Mars", say it right off the bat. A fan who would dismiss you for that need read no further nor feel time wasted. Every opinion is valid, but knowing where that opinion comes from allows the reader to assess its validity to them. And that's how all criticism should be approached.

Tony Dayoub, Cinema Viewfinder, Press Play

I wish I had the time to research all of my reviews, But as a business owner and parent, I must admit that sometimes life takes precedence. Fortunately, I believe it is equally valid to approach a film adaptation from the perspective of familiarity or unfamiliarity with its source material. Foreknowledge of a film's subject can help me fill in blanks for those unaware of a movie's lineage. However, if I'm unfamiliar with the source, I usually make reference to that at least once in my review so readers know where I'm coming from. A virgin's perspective can yield equally illuminating results in a movie review also.

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