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From the Wire: Ten Principles For Aspiring Critics

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by Matt Singer
May 23, 2012 4:33 PM
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"Ratatouille."

You've only got a few weeks left to apply for Indiewire's Locarno Critics Academy, so if you're an aspiring critic looking to get a little on-the-ground training at a major European film festival, you better get a move on (details at the link above). And if you are an aspiring critic, here's a recommended read by the Washington Post and Washington City Paper's Chris Klimek. Klimek was recently invited to speak to the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Young Critics Program, and his presentation included a list of ten principles of criticism, which he later reprinted on his blog, Swagger Not Style. His lessons are geared toward theater critics, but almost all of them apply equally well to film criticism as well.

Klimek clearly lays out the various objectives of criticism -- consumer guide, intellectual investigation, vicarious thrills -- and offers plenty of smart advice: rule #3 says "Research Will Save You Time;" rule #7 warns "NEVER Be Mean." Of all of Klimek's tips, though, this one struck me as the one that is most frequently ignored, even by working film critics:

8. Show Your Work: Don’t say, “The acting is fantastic. The costumes are beautiful. The sets are astonishing.” Those are abstractions. None of those sentences put a picture the reader’s mind. I want you to tell me what you saw, what you experienced, as specifically as possible. “I like the suspicious, feral quality Liam Hemsworth brings to the role of Prince Hamlet,” is better than “Liam Hemsworth’s acting as Hamlet is truly outstanding.”

Roger Ebert's famous line about film and film criticism is "it's not what a movie is about -- it's how it's about it," and I think Klimek's suggestion here is a variation on that theme. Saying "Liam Hemsworth's acting is fantastic" -- something you see in probably one third to one half of all movie reviews published on the Internet, including an embarrassing number written by yours truly -- is the what; "I like the suspicious, feral quality Liam Hemsworth brings to the role of Prince Hamlet," is the how.  Always go with the how.

Also: Liam Hemsworth's acting is fantastic? Really?

Whoops, there I go breaking rule #7.

Read more of Chris Klimek's "On Criticism."

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