Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Why the lack of film blogging?

When I looked back recently on reaching 100 blogposts, I was surprised to note that I almost never blog about films. "Surprised" because, although I doubt I've seen many more films than average, I do love watching films and talking about films and hearing recommendations for good films to see.

So why is it that I don't seem to be able to write about films then?

Thinking hard about this, I've reached the conclusion that a big problem is:
  • If the film is really good, and it stays with me, I never feel I've got the writing skills to do justice to it.
  • If the film is really bad, I feel embarrassed for having watched it, and just want to forget about it.
  • If the film is somewhere in the middle, I find it hard to get motivated to write about it.

Another problem is what to write about. Let me explain.

I've mentioned previously that I hate having my enjoyment of a film spoiled by reviews that destroy elements of surprise or that tell me what's good or bad about the film in advance, thus shaping how I see the film. At the same time, how can I tell what films to watch? And once I've seen a film, where do I go to read interesting thoughts about it?

What I need doesn't seem to be available in the mainstream media. Typically we are provided with clever-clever reviews that show off the reviewers' knowledge, give away half the plot, and set up filters for my viewing that I don't want. I need sufficient information to help me decide whether I'm likely to find this worth seeing, and absolutely no more. I don't need the reviewers' know-it-all gloss on exactly why the film is good or bad, or exactly how it resonated with their personal experience and aesthetic (or didn't), or how it taps into the Zeitgeist, or what it says about the personalities or careers of the director and the actors, or whatever.

Once I've seen a film, though, all that kind of thing is grist to the mill. Except... after I've seen the film, these kinds of reviews are intrinsically inadequate: they inevitably contain as much chaff as grain because they have to avoid giving away too much of what happens to the characters. So before the film these reviews contain too much information, and after the film they fail to engage properly with the film as a whole, because of the need to be coy about giving away the ending.

So I think I'm wanting there to be short previews for those who haven't seen the film, and reviews for those who have. And those are the things that I would like to be able to write.

But again my skills are lacking.

Firstly, I find writing previews a challenge because I never feel very confident about delineating the kind of audience attributes that determine whether or not they might like the film. Good film critics are able to do this entertainingly and (for most people) accurately.

Secondly, I find writing reviews a challenge because I have a problem with exploring the mechanics of film-making. Anything that diminishes the suspension of disbelief seems to somehow reduce the film for me. That's clearly not true of very many people. The private lives of the actors; the quality of the plot, characters and dialogue; the intentions of the director; the skills of the cinematographer, the editor, the composer, the designers, etc. are often clearly fascinating, and for me too. But while many people's enjoyment is firmly enhanced by the "behind-the-scenes" story, by "the making of", by the rumours, triumphs, failures and career trajectories, I seem to get less pleasure from the film itself the more I know about the film-making.

This is in no way a criticism of film-makers. I love what they do, and I am fascinated about the choices and skills involved. But I am saying there is a failing in me: I should be able to maintain my enthusiasm for a film while also pursuing my interest in how it was made. But I don't seem to be able to do that.

Knowing how the Hurt Locker was made, for example, increases my admiration for the film-makers, and for the film too; but it decreases my engagement with the film. I have to pay attention to actors not people, dialogue not what I'm hearing, camera angles not what I'm seeing. Some people can pay attention to both process and product. I can't.

So this is why last year I resolved to avoid reading or hearing interviews with actors, directors or writers, and to refuse to watch behind-the-scenes clips. And this is also why I've been trying to steer away from discussing the film-making of films that I really like.

However, even with these strictures, I have found it difficult to finish reviews. I was strongly motivated to review Spielberg's Adventures of Tintin because I wanted to try to capture exactly how a film that had everything going for it turned out to be so unsatisfying for me. And with The Prestige I wanted to solve a tricky puzzle about the plot. But beyond that, I've not managed to click "submit" on any other film reviews.

And yet I do want to try to provide the kinds of reviews that I would like to read.

Maybe it's time to take a different tack. Perhaps a Twitter-style restriction - no more than five sentences, for example - might help me to preview and review.

We'll see...



  1. I know completely what you mean about the problems of penning a worthwhile, constructive review. In my own write-ups I swing wildly back and forth between being ultra vague, simply urging people to see the thing, and giving detailed analysis of important plot details (and everything in between those two extremes, naturally). Sometimes I've done both in one review (the good old "skip the next paragraph if you've not seen it").

    I think it helps if, when you set out to write, you know which style you want to be working in, thereby (hopefully) avoiding giving away either too much or too little. And it doesn't even need to be the same every time, so long as a) you know what you're with each piece, and b) your reader knows what they're getting -- no one wants to think they're safely reading something spoiler free before hitting on "so after the main character is killed..."!

    Final thought: I don't think giving a worthwhile, detailed review necessarily has to revolve around examining technical aspects of acting/writing/camerawork/etc etc. Roger Ebert is often a great example of this -- he largely talks about how a film made him feel, the impressions it left him with, the effects it had on him in whatever way, rather than filmmaking nitty-gritty. I believe some have criticised him for that approach, but considering he's one of the most respected critics it seems to work!

    1. That sounds like good advice. Thanks!

      Freeing myself from the tyranny of thinking that a review always needs to be a certain length or style might well help.