Criticwire Survey: Off-Limits Language

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by Sam Adams
January 6, 2014 11:32 AM
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eFilmCritic.com

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: As evidenced by Erik Childress' annual survey of blurbmeisters, there's nothing studios love more than a good readymade phrase: your "laugh riot"s and "the best yet"s and so on. So let's role-play. In 2014, you're allowed to remove one hollow, overused turn of phrase from the critical lexicon: Which would you axe, and why?

A.A. Dowd, The A.V. Club

I would give away my entire DVD and Blu-ray collection if it meant I'd never have to read the phrase "Oscar-worthy performance" -- or some permutation of same -- in a film review again. First off, it's an impossibly generic and nondescript compliment. What does the reader learn about the performance in question, other than the fact that the critic thinks it's in some way "good"? Secondly, it simply contributes to the widely held misconception that the Academy Awards are a reliable barometer of cinematic achievement -- that winning one says something really significant. I enjoy the annual award-season circus as much as the next guy; I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I get caught in the excitement of rooting for a favorite or against a least favorite. But none of that nonsense belongs in a film review. Even those critics hoping to boost an actor's awards chances could certainly find a less lazy, more eloquent way to stump.

Danny Bowes, RogerEbert.com/Movies By Bowes

I'm excising any phrases having to do with a movie's chances of winning Oscars from reviews printed on the movie's release date. First of all, no, you don't know that Robert Redford or whoever is a shoo-in for an Oscar. That kind of thing isn't even determinable until the nominations come out, and even then there are huge numbers of moving parts and variables like voter irrationality (or just plain, "This is the only movie I saw so I'm going to vote it straight up and down in every category") factor in, so even if someone is clearly the best a given year, they might not win. Second of all, the awards bloggers spend six months out of the year ripping each other's throats out anyway, so critics talking about Oscars just makes their constant state of total war even more messy. Third, why not talk about the movie itself, not what a bunch of other people are going to say about it? It's crazy, I know, but it's worth a shot.

Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly 

After a year of fighting against lazy critical writing in HackStamp columns, I'm still far less interested in the use of blurb-y terminology favored by obviously incompetent quote-whores than I am in the shortcuts taken based on a movie's subject matter by lots of film journalists who should know better. So come on, everyone: Never again with a "it soars" for anything having to do with flying, or any sports metaphor in reviews of baseball movies, or "doesn't cast a spell" when the Now You See Me sequel turns up. Just consider a fundamental rule of any kind of writing: If you're pretty sure a dozen different writers could have used the identical turn of phrase, start over.

Cameron Williams, Popcorn Junkie 

"Instant classic" deserves to be banished. Instant coffee? Yes. Instant classic. No. I've been guilty of using it in the past but trust me, I have given myself a double uppercut to make sure it never happens again. People forget that it takes time for a film to earn cult status or be considered a classic which is why the line deserves to be sent to the outlands!

Joanna Langfield, The Movie Minute

I always cringe when I even think the term "instant classic." I actually looked it up and, no, that isn't a contradiction in terms, but it sure feels that way to me.

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

Hands down, I'd lose the phrase "instant classic." The term is an oxymoron. A film becomes a classic over time. We're literally incapable of identifying which movies will become classics now, because we have no idea which ones will maintain their relevance or power decades down the road. Using that term is like trying to write tomorrow's history book today. It's foolish to put those words next to each other.

The fact that there's even a reason to ask this question speaks to the serious negative impact of quote whores. A couple months back, I wrote an expose of Shawn Edwards, who tweeted that The Hangover III was a terrible, zero-star movie that should be "avoided like the plague," despite the fact that he'd been quoted in TV ads saying "the funniest trilogy ever comes to a glorious end!" As I said in that piece, these blurbsters -- with their for-sale opinions and hackneyed turns of phrase -- harm the credibility of film critics who try to operate from a place of professionalism and ethics. In 2014, we need to make it our goal to band together and run them out of the business. Okay, I'll step off my soapbox now.

Edwin Arnaudin, Ashvegas

"Tour de force" must go. I remember first seeing this phrase on the My Dinner with Andre VHS cover and most recently noticed it during the All Is Lost trailer. These laudatory French words seem intended to get audiences gassed up for some sort of exciting international adventure, but all I see is a writer being lazy.

Alissa Wilkinson, Christianity Today

This is a terrifying question, because I feel like no matter what I say, someone will go dig up a half dozen instances where I used this in the last, like, month. But here goes nothing: well, obviously, "the indomitable human spirit," because what on earth does that even mean? And is it really indomitable anyhow? No, just, no. Runner up is -- also obviously -- "tour de force." To misquote The Incredibles, if everything is tour de force, then nothing is.

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap, What the Flick?!

I'm all for retiring "a triumph of the human spirit," a phrase so hackneyed that it diminishes any movie that might actually be a you-know-what of the you-know-what. The human spirit, and triumphs, deserve better.

Carrie Rickey, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Happy new year, indiebrothers and sisters, If there were as Strunk & White for critics, it would advise: OMIT SUPERLATIVES. No more "most," "best," "funniest," "fastest." Here's to more nuanced writing in 2014.

Stephen Whitty, The Star-Ledger, Newhouse

We can start by getting rid of "a roller-coaster ride!" or, at least, restricting it to real roller-coaster rides. Also, calling anything "the best/funniest/scariest/whatever of the year" any earlier than December results in the immediate revocation of all blurbing privileges.

William Bibbiani, CraveOnline, The B-Movies Podcast

As far as common sense and I are concerned, no film critic has the information necessary to declare a movie "the best [blank] of the year" or "the [blankest] film of the year" until the year is at least mostly over. Even before I did this professionally, if I saw an advertising blurb declaring a comedy "The Funniest Movie of the Year!" before at least November, I knew that I would never be able to trust that critic's opinion ever again.

Also, I invite all my fellow critics to get a thesaurus and look up the word "compelling." A lot of great synonyms are available. I suggest we use them more often.

Christopher Campbell, Nonfics, Movies.com

Rather than a phrase I'd remove a few words from being allowed in any documentary reviews (and I’m not saying I never use them): interesting, fascinating and important.

Richard Brody, The New Yorker

Your question refers to phrases, but it struck me at the granular level of words. One editor told me that my fall-back word is "sublime"; another, that my go-to term is "apt"; and, though it drives me batty when other writers cite the "moral" as a cinematic virtue (and even more when they refer to the "social" to mean politics rather than to people chatting), I know that I respond with an equally habitual "aesthetic," usually in conjunction with "experience" and often with regard to the "cinematic" (and, for that matter, "virtue"). There are only two words to avoid; one is swell and the other is lousy. For all the rest--well, we're condemned to make new ideas with the much-rubbed common coin of language, since, though they're still making more of it--such as selfie and, God help us, belfie -- they're not doing it fast enough to keep up with the ever-shifting and accelerating flow of, yes, cinematic experience. It's not phrases or words that are in need of renewals, it's ideas -- and for those, we're at the mercy of the muse and, aptly, of sublime movies themselves.

Robert Greene, Sight & Sound, Hammer to Nail

Here's the thing: I should join Adjectives Anonymous and I know it. I'm still warming to the idea that I'm actually doing more with writing than filling time between productions. I admire so many critics that I guess it's been hard considering myself a "real writer." But as I do it more, I'm finding it increasingly difficult to stomach how superfluous and hyperbolic some of my language can be. So for 2014 I'd like to try to strike the word "exhilarating" from my vocabulary. According to my wife Deanna, who is always my first editor, I was very rude one time when she tried to cut that word. I am addicted and I need help.

Peter Keough, Boston Globe, Critics a-go-go.com

I am almost never blurbed by anyone, but three words I have tried to cut down on are "chthonic," "oneiric," and "chimerical" -- for obvious reasons. Also, if I stop using them I might get blurbed more often.

Peter Howell, The Toronto Star

The whore quote I'd most like to see terminated with extreme prejudice is the one that describes a comedy as being "laugh-out-loud." It's the most insincere of qualifiers and I think also physically impossible. Can you laugh without making a sound, anywhere other than in deep space?

Farran Nehme, New York Post, Self-Styled Siren

I try to avoid public pronouncements about this sort of thing. Instead, when I realize some word or phrase is becoming a crutch for me or others, I make a note to avoid it. I have a file I keep for that purpose. It is a long file, and I don't share it, because perhaps I'll want to let some of these convicted cliches out of jail one day. But I will disclose that I jettisoned "pitch-perfect" a while back. I am unlikely to need that one in future, unless someone invites me to review a biopic about a piano tuner. 

Jordan Hoffman, ScreenCrush, NY Daily News

My answer is a pain-in-the-ass dodge, but it's true. I try to only read the critics that I think are better writers than I am. (To steal from them, mostly.) Having curated a pretty fine list, I don't come across these hackneyed phrases too often. But one little crutch I'm trying to wean myself from is overuse of the word "may." Example: this may be the best family drama to come along since blah blah blah. If you catch me using it again, call me out on that shit. It's cheap.

Glenn Kenny, RogerEbert.com, Some Came Running

I've been through my period(s) of trying to tell people what to write and what not to write, and come out the other end with mostly burned bridges. Of the blurbmeisters and the vendors of other varieties of hokum (e.g., people who claim that David O. Russell is a "virtuosic" filmmaker -- see what I did there?), I say go with God, or, on the other hand, "let them lose their souls." As for my own practice, I hope to like things more, or less. 

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2 Comments

  • NeilFC | January 7, 2014 9:53 AMReply

    I second that critics should never, ever describe a performance as being "Oscar-worthy" as it doesn't tell you anything about the performance. It could mean it's a good performance like Jane Fonda's in "Klute" or Jack Nicholson's in "Cuckoo's Nest", or it could mean an awful, shameless, hammy performance that the Academy often reward (I'm thinking of Al Pacino in "Scent of a Woman" or Renee Zellweger in "Cold Mountain".
    I wish someone would point out to Stephanie Zacharek the number of times she refers to a film as being "alive" - she really needs to retire that one for good.

  • woo | January 6, 2014 12:04 PMReply

    This whole article is proof that a lot of criticism is bad writing. Bad writing is often an indicator of insincerity. Insincerity is the enemy of real film criticism.

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