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Criticwire Survey: Off-Camera Info

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by Sam Adams
October 28, 2013 9:21 AM
2 Comments
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Francis Ford Coppola on the set of 'Apocalypse Now'
Francis Ford Coppola on the set of 'Apocalypse Now'

Scott Nye, BattleshipPretension.com, CriterionCast.com

Offscreen factors can deepen and inform what we come to understand from a film, but it's not the whole story. It is helpful to know what Francis Ford Coppola went through in making Apocalypse Now, or Herzog with nearly anything (seeing the behind-the-scenes look at that boat going up the hill in Fitzcarraldo really is quite striking), as their journeys were reflected in the films they created. Even Jean-Luc Godard's relationship with Anna Karina, which informed so many of his early films, is worth discussing in the same breath. By the same token, however, it should not become the dominant appreciable attribute, as when critics and audiences are just so amazed that some actor lost a ton of weight or learned a new language or whatever. Nor should a filmmaker or actor being reportedly "difficult" or "irresponsible" on set make one scrutinize the film for shortcomings, which almost inevitably happens whenever a production goes vastly over budget or schedule -- I don't know what drives so many critics to be so concerned about the finances of large corporations, yet it's a new issue every year or two.

In my own work, I try to see what I see in the film, and if some offscreen factor plays into what I already have to say about it, I may mention it, but never as a way to highlight the negative aspects of a film. It's too cheap, too exploitative, too speculative. Every negative thing that has happened on a film set and ruined one film has benefitted another. It is not the sole way to explore a film's attributes, and saying that it is comes across as terribly gossipy and as a desire to appear "in the know." They're interesting pieces of trivia, but they are not criticism -- use them as launching points, not as concluding evidence.

Kevin B Lee, Fandor

Shortly after the release of my video essay "The Career of Paul Thomas Anderson in Five Shots," I came upon a blog post that pointed out a major flaw in the video: that in mapping out the progression of Anderson's artistic use of cinematography, it failed to get into the details of how director of photography Robert Elswit as well as camera operators and technicians contributed to that vision. Only a hardcore auteurist would decry the legitimacy of this argument. This had an unsettling effect on my approach to evaluating films. I realized that critics, in publicly performing the function of how one should think about a film, are routinely guilty of neglecting the invisible, below-the-line labor that goes into movies. This neglect sheds light on how films operate as systems of control: industrial, cultural, social - that extend into how people see themselves and the value of their own work (this is especially true of today's film critics, who unknowingly exploit themselves more than they ever have in the history of the medium). Unfortunately, as most coverage of the Dan Harmon and Blue Is the Warmest Color production problems demonstrates, these issues are more commonly discussed on the level of TMZ than Theodor Adorno. This has the unfortunate effect of turning issues of labor into more disposable entertainment fodder, rather than as a starting point for rethinking how all of this shit should matter to our lives in the first place.

Edwin Arnaudin, Ashvegas

For a review, I think the work should exist on its own as much as possible. As critics, we review the film, not the director's personal life or whatever went on during the production. I keep trying to come up with exceptions to this rule, and while there are all sorts of possible violations that could occur in the filmmaking process (really, just let your imagination run wild into the wide world of human and animal rights offenses), unless these factors directly affect the content or quality of the film, I don't think they're relevant to the review. Now, if you want to write an essay after the review...

Kenji Fujishima, Slant Magazine, In Review Online

Frankly, my first instinct, in responding to this question, was to flat-out say, in no uncertain terms, that no, a critic shouldn't deal with offscreen factors in a review, because it's what's onscreen that's ultimately of paramount importance, and that is what a critic should be focusing on at all times. But of course, that's the ideal, at least for me, and reality rarely, if ever, conforms to such high ideals. We're all human beings after all, and even the best of us, as hard as we may try, can't help but be influenced, in ways small or large, by offscreen factors, especially if they're as highly publicized as those of Blue Is the Warmest Color have been. (The problem is perhaps even more pronounced with Hollywood blockbusters and the multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns that usually precede them.) I would hope, though, that critics are at least smart and/or self-aware enough to be able to separate those offscreen factors from the results they may or may not have wrought onscreen -- and if knowledge of offscreen factors does contribute to one's response, one ought to be forthright enough to admit that to his/her readers.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing

I think, and this is only how I personally deal with it while writing a review, the off camera info should inform you as much as feels right. For example, I didn't feel the need to address anything involving the sniping between everyone in regard to Blue is the Warmest Color when I wrote that review...I felt what was on the screen spoke fully for itself. On the other hand, with World War Z I did address how it had all the makings of a boondoggle and epic disaster, mainly so I could then praise it for turning out to be a competent and entertaining flick. It's situation specific for me, but I do think that one should never focus in on it too much. There's a sweet spot to be found.

Scott Weinberg, FEARnet

I was taught (yep, I studied film criticism!) that nothing should exist in a review except the film and the reviewer. No hype, no other critics, no marketing, no hype, no expectations, etc. I really try to honor that when I review a film, but sometimes (like with World War Z) the behind-the-scenes information is actually pertinent. In many cases I'd just ignore a film's "troubled" production stories, but given how widespread the information on WWZ was, combined with my assertion that the film actually turned out to be pretty solid despite all of its problems, I thought my readers would get some interesting perspective if I included it. 98% of the time, however, the film's the thing. Shakespeare said that, I think.

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

My general rule is that what's up on the screen is all that matters. Budget overruns, troubled productions, and cast/crew fighting mean little because, in the end, our job is to review what we can see playing in front of us. The only time I ever make reference to off-screen matters is if they somehow directly impact the movie itself. For example, this summer, I felt that World War Z (which I generally liked) had a pretty significant flaw, that being a major tonal shift in the third act. This shift was a direct result of the filmmakers rewriting and reshooting the final 40 minutes after discovering that the original ending didn't work to their satisfaction. Those cases are rare, though. By and large, even if I know a film's behind-the-scenes drama, I ignore it. Besides, some of the greatest movies in history had difficult makings.

Josh Spiegel, Mousterpiece Cinema, Sound on Sight

Ideally, I'd say that a critic should attempt to shut out any kind of production-related controversy, but what's ideal versus what's practical is rarely the same thing. I'll be seeing Blue is the Warmest Color in a few days, and even seeing the headlines of what Abdellatif Kechiche is saying about his lead actresses or the open letter he wrote or whatever makes it difficult to not wonder how much the final product was inspired by such an allegedly contentious filming process. Again, ideally, I'd want to avoid such arguments, because what happened between Kechiche and his leads, in this case, shouldn't have an impact on the final film or my reaction to it one way or the other. But realistically, I'd attempt to ignore a similar controversy while watching any film, even if that's increasingly difficult to do these days.

Tony Dayoub, RogerEbert.com, Press Play, Cinema Viewfinder

Your question is its own answer. I generally believe a film should stand on its own, as it ultimately shall in the future when it shall be divorced from the ins and outs of the processes it took to make it. That's why I try not to get caught up in reading about bloated budgets, like in the case of The Lone Ranger and John Carter, two movies I otherwise found enjoyable and ambitious despite their flaws. But the more a movie's behind-the-scenes are essential to understanding its significance, the greater the chance I'll discuss it. To truly understand why Avatar is essential viewing, one must understand what a game changer it was in the arena of special effects, for instance.

Marc V. Ciafardini, GoSeeTalk

Movies by their very nature don't exist in a vacuum. If the off-camera shenanigans, drama, and antics that inevitably occur for every single film released in theaters don't matter in any strict sense, they can still inform the way that we view an individual movie or at the very least shine some light on the filmmaking process. That's a long-winded way of saying that what happens outside of the frame shouldn't be ignored wholesale; rely on that information on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes, off-camera goings-on can just amount to nothing more than gossip fodder, but sometimes they actually matter. There's a reason that the malfunctioning mechanical sharks in Jaws actually mean a damn to us as cinephiles.

John DeCarli, FilmCapsule.com

My response to external information about a film is largely one-sided because: offscreen factors can sometimes make a project more interesting, but will rarely sabotage one for me. For example, knowing about Werner Herzog's tactics to go so far as to hypnotize his actors in Heart of Glass gives you some insight into his thinking about the themes and style of the project, and may even tell you a bit about Herzog as a filmmaker that could be helpful in analyzing his work. In general, though, I think it's both possible and preferable to separate the artist and the work. While it does sound like Abdellatif Kechiche went to some extreme measures making Blue is the Warmest Color, I will only consider whether the results work artistically when I get a chance to see the film.

John Keefer, 51deep.com

This is a question of reader expectation: if a reader sees a hundred reviews all mentioning, dancing around, or directly engaging with off-film antics then they will expect you to address the issue as well. If you don't you may stand out in the reader's mind as a reviewer committed to the business of reviewing the film in question and you will have gained a loyal follower. Once you have amassed a large number of these loyal followers you can incite them to riot in your name, taking over city after city until you have most of the East Coast under your control. The still free West Coast will then rise against you setting the stage for Civil War II: East vs. West. When you are finally betrayed by those closest to you and your kingdom lies in ruin reviewers will return to the practice of addressing all issues raised by the film's content and cultural impact.

Christopher Campbell, Nonfics, Movies.com

The fact that I don't know anything about any controversy with Blue is the Warmest Color makes me think I don't care about that sort of thing. At least not with the behind the scenes production information on fiction films. With documentaries, though, I like to know about some of the circumstances of filming certain scenes, such as when we see a teen house party with lots of underage drunkenness in the upcoming Medora or why all indication of evangelical Christian motives are hidden from Sundance winner Blood Brother. I'll raise questions about filmmaking ethics in a doc review that I wouldn't be concerned with when writing on a drama. Except maybe a drama directed by someone like Herzog or von Trier where that might actually be relevant to what's on screen.

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second, Periodical

I'm a big fat hypocrite when it comes to this subject. I've often said that Polanski's misdemeanors ought not be taken into account when looking at his work, but am equally guilty of doing that very thing with other filmmakers. Be it Xavier Dolan's age as a positive contextual element, or the divorce of Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina as an important shadow bearing over Pierrot Le Fou, a filmmaker's personal circumstances often play an essential part of understanding how their work functions.

Gary M. Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

I think a critic assigned to review a film is responsible first to what is on screen, and second to the story behind the story. That's not to say one can't influence or discuss the other, or that critics should not write about anecdotes surrounding a hot film, but it's one thing for a filmmaker to talk about something that influenced his work, and another for something to happen in the media that overshadows the film altogether. Lars von Trier gained more attention for his Cannes rant while publicizing Melancholia than he did for the film itself. Likewise, when Paul Schrader's The Canyons received ink about the filmmaker stripping naked on set, it was much discussed, but really just a fun fact or footnote. Neither of these examples contribute to the character studies on screen -- or do they? I am all for addressing the behavior of filmmakers and/or actors on set and off, but I think when reviewing a film, the responsibility should be to the filmmaker's art not his antics.

Adam Kempenaar, Filmspotting

I already hate that I'm even the slightest bit aware of the controversy and will continue to tune it out until after I have seen the movie. If after seeing it I feel that the controversy informs my take on the movie in an interesting way, I'll reckon with it during our discussion on the show.

Calum Marsh, The Village Voice, Film.com

There are of course exceptions, but in general I think context only matters if it is evident in the text. Certainly an awareness of off-camera information helps inform your reading, but no more or less than, say, a familiarity with American history informs your reading of Lincoln. But when it comes to controversy, in particular, my thinking is this: I care less that a filmmaker is (say) racist or misogynistic than if a film is racist or misogynistic.

Luke Y. Thompson, Topless Robot

Ideally, those off-camera factors should not be germane, but if the final product somehow reflects them, it can be hard to avoid. A good case in point is Victor Salva, who did time for lewd conduct with an underage boy, then makes movies about a pants-sniffing ancient demon who wants to eat male teenagers - when his camera lingers on urination scenes or male crotches, it's tough not to think of the director's proclivities. Certainly nobody can watch something like The Passion of the Christ or Battlefield Earth without thinking about the beliefs of the big names attached, but I think it went way too far with After Earth this year - Will Smith donated money to a Scientology school once, and therefore the entire movie (and no other one he's ever made) is religious propaganda? Methinks not.

Last year, there was talk that a werewolf subplot was excised from The Lone Ranger; given that hints remain in the final cut that that might have been true, speculating aloud isn't off-base. But rumors of troubles, budgets, reshoots and affairs bore me; in the end, I don't think any reviews of Titanic, for example, really lingered on those, because the movie spoke for itself, as it should.

Slave

Q: What is the best movie currently in the theaters?

A: 12 Years a Slave

Other films receiving multiple votes: All Is Lost, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Gravity

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2 Comments

  • Albert Sanchez Moreno | October 28, 2013 2:54 PMReply

    I don't think what happens behind the scenes during filming should affect a critic's review of a motion picture. Sometimes, when a stage play is filmed and things go wrong during a filming, the critics use that as an excuse to trash the film. That's not fair. A bad film adaptation of a play or musical should be considered bad on its own merits, not on whether it would have been better if there hadn't been behind-the-scenes bickering or dismissals.

  • Brian W. | October 28, 2013 10:03 AMReply

    This was a really good question and an important one to address, but I think it goes beyond just controversy, and most of the critics seemed to reflect that in their answers, and they mostly likewise share my view on this.

    As a journalist, I don't think a critic should write about anything in a vacuum. Including narrative details and historical background about a film, a director, an actor or any or all of their influences into a review is what tends to make modern criticism great.

    And yet what happens quite often is the media narrative begins to color the perception of the work. It's not to say that the critic does not have strong, compelling points about a film, but they construct their review in such a way to make a tangential connection between the offscreen drama and the onscreen work. It can for one be a forced metaphor, but it can also seem as though these reviews are written before the critic sat down to watch it.

    I see this happen a lot in music criticism more so than film, especially at Pitchfork (maybe the Dissolve too for that matter), where I respect the hell out of the writers there. You get three massive paragraphs that go into the entire history of the band and all their trials and tribulations on stage and off before finally getting to the nuts and bolts of the current album. Does that serve a purpose when every other writer is making the same comparison? What if you had listened to that album without any preconceived notions? It's not to say you're oblivious, but how would you write your piece differently if you didn't know what you already knew or were convinced ahead of time was an important detail?

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