Tuesday, 11 November 2008

A Manifesto: Indulgent film-crit talk, part 1 of 14

Roger Ebert recently posted a list of guidelines for being a critic. These are his rules to live by.


It's an entertaining read, but Ebert is only scratching the surface. Some points, such as that critics shouldn't ask stars for autographs, have really no effect on one's reviewing capability, and are just about appearances. I don't care about that. Critics are free to act like sycophants in their own time; it's none of my business. Let the work speak for itself.

A lot of his list seems obvious, but I like that Ebert points out how hyperbolic critics like to get. We should be careful when handing out words like "masterpiece."

I'll add some more. These are some of the words that I try to live by.

- Don't brag about how brave you are for watching a movie few people in your age bracket would generally go to. It's your job to keep up with movies, and most people envy your job. If you write about how when you went to see Pooh's Heffalump Movie by yourself, the parents all shielded their kids because they figured you were a pedophile, that's good. Just don't look for sympathy. Sometimes a day at a movie theatre is just like anyone else's office job.

- Also, don't publicly complain about work conditions. Nobody feels sorry for Ebert and Roeper if there isn't an early screening of The Amityville Horror they can attend. I live in Halifax where I have to see most movies with paying customers after they're released. That is not the sound of me complaining. (eg. Ebert and Roeper)

- Never review a movie you haven't watched in its entirety. This is basic.

- Don't bash movies you haven't seen, even off-handedly. Any idiot can do that. The point of your job is that you're not supposed to be an idiot. (eg. Jeffrey Wells saying Pride and Glory was by far the best movie opening in its week when he clearly hadn't seen Saw V and High School Musical 3. Now, neither of those movies are that good, but I only know because I saw them. They're both better than Pride and Glory.)

- Have an open mind. Don't walk into Gigli planning to hate it. The more your prejudices rule you, the more you're irrelevant.

- Accept that "critical consensus" is swayed by hype. A critic should never use the phrase "that's supposed to be good" as a recommendation for a movie he/she hasn't seen.

- Understand that movies are artworks. I know that they're there to sell tickets, but it's not your job to look at them that way.

- Do not distinguish between highbrow and lowbrow art, you pretentious New Yorker wannabe. You should be able to recognize that there's more artistic merit in Resident Evil: Extinction than in Blindness.

- On a related note, important subject matter should not be mistaken for important movies.

- Stop worrying that a movie "doesn't know who it's made for." This is a marketer's concern, not yours.

- Nobody likes a hater. I make a conscious effort not to single out individual people for the reason a movie isn't working.

- Know why you're doing this job. Figure out what makes you different than the 500 other film writers out there. Have something to contribute.

- Know your subject. In the words of Armond White, "I'm not interested in the opinions of people who don't know what they're talking about."

- Know what the hell you're talking about.

- Have style. Memorizing these rules isn't going to teach you how to write.

However, I will give you the following three points:

-Don't write more than you think. This problem is huge amongst critics.

- Quit referring to stars you're not close friends with by their first names. This tends to sound dumb even when non-critics do it in conversation. "Oh, I loved that Dane and Jessica film, but thought Brad's new movie would have been better if they cast Angelina instead of Frances as his co-worker."

- Writing in cliche is a symptom of thinking in cliche. Avoid pseudo-intelligent phrases like "the fact that" when a "because" will suffice, and avoid backwards sentences like "explosions and nudity do not a good movie make."

- Be consistent. Don't pretend to suddenly hate Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull after the online community turns against it. Have some morals.

- Be honest. If your review of A Beautiful Mind ends with, "This movie taught me that schizophrenics are people too, and from now on I will always think about their plight," no one will take you seriously. (eg. A review of A Beautiful Mind that I once read. Author forgotten.)

- Be patient. Don't declare something "THE BEST MOVIE OF THE YEAR" if it's still June.

- In fact, stop thinking of everything in terms of years. You just end up promoting the system that gets movies made so they can win Oscars.

- Realize that movies aren't invalidated simply because they're not tailored to your demographic. Case in point, IMDb voters who hate movies about sports and black people.

- Don't aspire to predict what people will think, or to reaffirm popular consensus. This forum has been given to you, not Joe the Plumber. Critics are being fired all across America because newspaper editors can just as easily hire the sports section guy to tell people what they think. I don't ask my dentist for opinions on sculpture. But every idiot thinks they're versed in movies.

- Remember why you liked movies in the first place.


riley said...

OK, but RE: trying mostly to ignore 'best of the year' type assesments.. i really love your years's end ranking list, since i always fully agree with your top five.

my favorite demonstration of your evident critical genius -- when we left the theatre after 'Dawn of the Dead' and you said, 'the first ten minutes of the film were better than anything else I've seen yet this year', and that translated on paper to:

"I wasn’t sure what the hell I’d been watching, but those ten minutes are delivered with a leftfield forcefulness that truly seemed to be “updating” George Romero’s satiric 1978 masterpiece (itself a sequel to Night of the Living Dead, which had a remake 14 years ago) into some untapped 21st century social critique."

you are smrt.

i also loved that movie. not so much all the out of context vanessa hudgens pics in this post. you have her poster on your wall, don't you?


Mark Palermo said...

As High Fidelity taught us, qualitative lists are an incurable male trait. The point is, great movies have to survive beyond an Oscar season.

Thanks. I should dig out that Dawn of the Dead review again, as I trust your opinion when you say it's good.

Hudgens: Those random pics are partly my sense of humour, and partly related to another point I should have brought up. Know your reader. I assume that my readers are horny.

Joefilmfan said...

Ebert seems to have a thing about chilled shrimp. He mentions it about 50 times. I think Ebert really likes chilled shrimp. What's your take on chilled shrimp, Palermo? Do film critics constantly wage moral battles over shrimp bribes?

I don't think many people in the universe will understand how you can rank extinction's artistry over blindness in a completely serious way, but I know you are serious. That's why you are a bad ass.

Mark Palermo said...

Damn right, I'm serious. Acting arty doesn't make a good artist.

I have never noticed Ebert's chilled shrimp obsession. But I will say that as someone who gets below-Ebert critic-wages, I'll take all the chilled shrimp I can get.

Ebert may be trying a little experiment with his shrimp mentions. As a character explains in the motion picture Repo Man:

"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidents 'n things. They don't realize that there's this, like, lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. Give you an example: Suppose you're thinkin' about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly someone'll say, like, plate, or shrimp, or plate of shrimp out of the blue. No explanation. No point in lookin' for one, either. It's all part of a cosmic unconciousness."

Maybe Ebert saw that movie, and now says "shrimp" a lot, just hoping someone nearby was thinking about shrimp, so they'll do a double-take.

Mark Palermo said...

But I notice I haven't really answered the question. Freebies are good. i remember being mailed a box of blackberry candies as a tie-in for the Jennifer Aniston film The Good Girl, and the studio behind Kinsey sent me a ruler, which was kind of inappropriate. But I'm shocked at any critic who would sell his/her morality like this. I can't build a substitute conscience out of chilled shrimp.