Between Reviews: Critical Condition

Posted on January 8, 2011


Thoughts about being a critic, addressed to those who keep writing in wanting to be inducted into the profession, as well as those who demand year-end lists.

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JAN 9, 2011A REQUEST THAT UNFAILINGLY makes itself known at the end of the year is the year-ender list, that ritual of ranking the top ten or twenty films of the past twelve months like they were runners at a race who breasted the tape, first to last. How can you claim that a film that you saw in mid-March, the one that made you laugh and cry and reach for stellar superlatives, hasn’t collapsed into a crashing bore by December, and how can you say that the film that you fidgeted through, the one whose essence eluded you at a first viewing, hasn’t grown in stature? Long back, in one such column, I wrote, “One reason they’re called ’motion pictures’ could be that they’re never at rest inside your head. They infiltrate, then gestate, then mutate – sometimes combining with memories from other movies and morphing into a different genetic creation altogether, and sometimes overlapping with your own wishful thinking to become an amalgamation of the film you saw, the film you thought you saw, and the film you wanted to see.” By the end of the year, how can you be so sure that the films seen earlier – through the prisms of expectations and hype, and fraught with first-viewing problems – are the same films that you, so imperiously, are ranking now?

Should you view the films again? But who has the time for that? Better to add a disclaimer, that this ranking is based on the opinions you had when you saw these films the first time, and that this need not necessarily be the ranking you’d come up with tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year. And that’s the same sort of implicit disclaimer that would accompany a film review – that this is a set of thoughts based on a first viewing, and that expectations and hype have contaminated this viewing, and that the bad films we’ve been exposed to in the past month have made this reasonably okayish film seem better than it really is, and that this film was seen on an empty stomach and that one through a piercing migraine and that other one while the mind was weighted by a family crisis, and so on and so forth. A review is an ephemeral snapshot of a one-time viewing of a film, not a stamp of quality that will qualify the film till the end of time.

And it’s certainly not an indication of how “good” or “bad” a film is in any absolute sense. While you may glean a sense of whether the film was good or bad in the reviewer’s (one-time) estimation, that need not necessarily be your opinion. I get a lot of mails from people along these lines: “Big fan of your work. Love watching movies and reading about them and would really like to write about them… Would like to know how one should go about writing on film in a professional manner… Would really be grateful if you could offer some tips.” In other words, they want to know how to become a reviewer, and I’d say that, first, you have to forget about the film being good or bad in any overall sense. Forget ratings. Forget stars. Those are vestigial remnants of a long-established and corrupt system, necessary evils we have to live with, and they deserve nothing but contempt – as if something as fluid as a film, as abstract as art, could be measured by a stopwatch or weighed on a scale.

If you’re going to argue that the viewing public that’s about to fork out hard-earned money depends on reviews to make viewing decisions, I say no longer. Social networking has brought word of mouth to everyone’s fingertips, and by the time your review finds its way to print, the film has already been declared “worth seeing” or not. Reviewers who think they can convince people to go to theatres, or not, are dinosaurs in a territory of gazelles – everyone else is twenty steps ahead. What a reviewer needs to do, first and foremost, is communicate his experience of the film. What did you feel when this happened? What did you feel when that happened? Did this bring back memories from childhood? Did that scene remind you of a breakup, a child’s first smile, a bout with a near-fatal illness? If you’re honest with yourself, if you don’t seek to soar over the film with a bird’s-eye view, if you burrow into it instead and monitor the minutiae, even your one-time viewing will provide a prism with which to view the film.

A reviewer’s duty is to evoke responses along the lines of “Oh, so this scene, this performance, this line reading, this stage setting could be seen this way too… That’s interesting, even if I’m not fully convinced.” And a number of such individual and idiosyncratic responses will build a dialogue around the film, and a useful reviewer is someone who will initiate such a dialogue instead of finalising an opinion about the film. You’re putting out there the innermost workings of your heart and mind, and hoping that others won’t laugh but instead come and talk to you about what you felt and if it resembled what they felt and thus share with you the innermost workings of their hearts and minds, and thus a conversation evolves that may last for decades. If you want to become a good reviewer – and I’m not claiming that I am; just stating who I’d think is a good reviewer, how I’d judge someone a good reviewer – you have to learn how to articulate on paper what went on inside your head. Despite the title you’ll get, that of a “critic,” your job is not to criticise – it’s to engage, to experience, and to communicate that experience.

To be a good reviewer you need to be honest with yourself – you really, really, really have to put yourself out there, out on a limb. You need to know something about local cinema and world cinema and a bit about shot-taking and scene-making. But more than anything else, you need respect and empathy, which are oftentimes the same thing. Respect the work you’re about to review. It’s fun to be attacking, sarcastic, condescending, and those are the reviews that will make you popular. Everyone likes to cheer from the bleachers at the coliseum as you make bloodsport of the weaker opponent, but as heady, as powerful as it can feel, you need to step back and give the work a considered review. Even if you don’t like it, you need to say why and you need to say this in a way that convinces your readers about your opinion, if not theirs. And you need to be empathetic to the situations, the characters, and you need to put yourself in their shoes – not expecting them to behave the way you’d want or expect them to, but allowing them to be the way they are and then commenting on what they do.

And then comes the most difficult part, the writing. Your review should be an essay that’s worth reading on its own, not a bland and boring set of statements, and for that you need the right tools, the right techniques, the right words. I know many people who can talk wonderfully about films but are bad writers and therefore bad reviewers. (A reviewer, remember, is first a writer. If you’re not an expressive writer, how will you express your views about a film in a written review?) It’s tough to take a swirling set of thoughts, vague and nascent, and crystallise them into a solid shape, and the toughest part, often, is choosing the adjective that will best describe a performance, a scene, a line of dialogue. Deadline-driven reviewers – and I include myself here – will take recourse to “terrific” and “excellent” and “exquisite” and “terrible” and “dreadful.” While these are all valid validations, they are generalities – they mean everything and nothing. Have you hung around a woman as she selects a blouse for a newly purchased sari, rifling through bolts of blue till she finds the right blue, the one and only blue that matches the border? That’s what picking words is like – there’s only one that’s absolutely right, and that’s not a generality but something specific and sharp.

It’s not easy, and a question I’d ask is why you want to become a reviewer and subject yourself, weekly, to this process that will most certainly leave you drained, and expose your failings to the public at large, and incite feelings of self-loathing at being unable to reach, or even scrape, the standards you set for yourself as a writer. If writing is what you want to do, why pick reviews? Why see bad film after bad film after bad film and then stumble upon a not-bad film that might appear to be good only because of the number of bad films that preceded it? It’s good cinema that makes you want to write about cinema, makes you want to be a reviewer – but once on this side of the fence, you’ll see that these good films are few and far between, and they are outnumbered by films you wouldn’t venture anywhere near if you weren’t a reviewer in the first place. If writing is what you want to do, why not become a travel writer and at least experience fresh air instead of, Friday after Friday, the dank insides of darkened theatres?

But assuming you want to write about movies and nothing else, consider this excerpt from an essay by Stephen Dobyns about The Titicut Follies, a film directed by Frederick Wiseman about the treatment of criminally insane patients at a state facility. (The essay appears in Writers at the Movies: Twenty-six Contemporary Authors Celebrate Twenty-six Memorable Movies, edited by Jim Shepard.) Two guards lead a naked inmate, Jim, down a hall. A barber gives Jim a shave, and he’s led back to his cell. Now: “For the first time, Jim removes his hands from his genitals and touches his lips, where the barber cut him. Then he begins walking back and forth, doing a rhythmic stamping with his bare feet – ONE, two, ONE, two, ONE, two – that echoes loudly in the bare room… He has a sly expression and takes sly glances. Back and forth, back and forth, and it’s no longer walking. At times he stamps in place. Initially, it seems very primal, as if returning to some earliest archetypal image, and in a way it’s more disturbing than anything that came before – not that Jim is naked, but that he appears to be dancing; not that he is mentally disturbed or criminally insane or sadistically victimized, but that his last rebellion is reduced to this sly dancing. He has been beaten down 99.99 percent of the way and he is dancing. Not happy dancing or mournful dancing or triumphant dancing – this is fuck-you dancing. And his little prick in its sad bush bounces slightly as he stamps.”

You can see the scene in your mind’s eye, and that’s because the language echoes the filmmaking, because the endless repetitiveness of life is echoed in the endless repetitiveness of phrases – bare feet/bare room; sly expression/sly glances/sly dancing; back and forth, back and forth; happy dancing/mournful dancing/triumphant dancing/fuck-you dancing; even the number, 99.99, is a repetition of 9s. The strangeness of the scene extends right to the strangeness of the adjective describing the naked man’s private parts – sad bush. A part of the body that’s usually described in physical terms (in sex scenes in bad fiction, you’ll come across “wiry” or “tangled”) is ascribed an emotional state, and you are carried over to the emotional state of the man whose last semblance of dignity is stripped away. This is what good writing about film can do, should do, and this is what you’ll almost always never be able to do if you’re a weekly critic, because such writing takes time and repeated viewings and dedicated craft and fearlessness and discipline and the nose to ward off clichés and an unrestricted flow of communication between what you’re seeing, what you’re feeling and what you’re going to be writing. Think about that before you consider becoming a critic.

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