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cinema

12 Rules for (the Review Reader’s) Life

An Antidote to Cinematic Chaos

I’ve been writing reviews for 10 years now (coughs), reading them from as long as I remember. As years pass, I think there is a lot of obfuscation that goes around within the columns of movie reviews, it either ends up describing something else and leaving the reader in the lurch. 

As a reader first (and writer later), here are my rules for review readers esp those who want an antidote to the chaos that is film reviews (also try and make sense of them).

Rule 1: Almost always, when a reviewer says if a movie is socially important, it most certainly isn’t.

Social importance, historical importance, cultural importance are acquired over time, it is most certainly not acquired over the popcorn counter at Devi Theatre and especially not immediately. What’s relevant now, is not relevant next Friday, so yeah.

If a movie captures “this-very-moment” then it’s just that, look for signs of ascribing importance just because the movie addresses current events. 

Rule 2: Almost always, when a review says that the movie can never be classified as good or bad, it can surely be.

This limbo state only represents the inability of the reviewer to share his/her true feelings of the movie at the time due to whatever compulsion.

While there is a set who focus on what are apparently good and bad elements within the film, if they are not able to make up their mind about the film, it is not the film’s fault. It is the writer’s. 

The reasons could be anything and we don’t need to go into that. 

Rule 3: Never trust a movie review that captures audience reaction. Sample: “at that every moment half the audience had their jaw hitting the floor”

Urgh Hmm it shouldn’t matter. Maybe the writers were not hitting their word count.

Extend this rule to providing trivia, and then assigning value to the trivia, so that the overall importance of the film increases. 

The rules fundamentally rise from the fact that reviews have moved away from being observations but into the realm of accreditation, hence assigning momentary importance. 

Assigning importance can be done subtly in many forms, like social norming, by describing how people were howling in the theatre makes us immediately believe that there could be something ‘important’ at the moment. 

Rule 4: Always disregard should have/ would have criticism. 

“They should have killed off the Amudha character early in the movie, like in Psycho” like samples.

This is the “I watch so many movies so I know how better to make them” mode. Much like “how I go on a field trip to Sriharikota and the next month advising ISRO on what they should do on Mangalyaan” mode.

Rule 5: Almost always do not take seriously anything about shot division, color grading, production value , cinematography, sound mixing, box office predictions

Rule five deals with technicality. If reviewers were technically sound, they would (you know) be making movies etc. Especially now, when anyone can make and upload a movie, while here they are uploading umm reviews?

While I do not deny there could be observational critics who could get a sense of how a technical element informs the story element, they are few and far in between and from what I have read, they now function with an arsenal of adjectives, that when overused come with diminishing ‘awe’. 

Rule 6: Semblance of truth can only be found when reviewers write about what they felt while watching the movie.

It ties to some of the earlier rules, reviewers tend to go into social importance, audience reactions, limbo wording when they are not truly able to come to terms with what they feel about a film.

Rule 7: Almost all observations about how the story made the reviewer feel should always be the most important part of the review.

This is because humans have been reacting to storytelling for centuries, it’s built into us. That’s the power of story. So yeah that’s the only valid point to keep reading reviews. Whether the story engaged the reviewer or not. also since reviewers are humans too 🙂

Rule 8: When reviewers tell that the movie-story is predictable, they are thinking that the audience sees the same number of films as they do. 

It is also an addition to rule 7, it only proves that this movie story did not engage reviewers so saying predictable etc.

Rule 9 All of decoding should be avoided, completely.

A movie is a contract between the maker and the seer, and the maker puts in interesting elements consciously and mostly unconsciously. Let the seers make their own connections. When we make our own meanings, imagine the possibilities.

Rule 10 Treat with suspicion, those who say film reviewing is an art form.

Reasons people give to themselves stay in certain professions should not be treated as fact. A film review has high depreciation value. Only the best of the best survive and that too because the movies are great. The movies are always greater than the impression.

Rule 11 You must consider a possibility that you are in the wrong part of the forest if you are reading the reviews for the words and falling in love with it.

Any movie can be simply expressed without much adoration, ornamentation, alliteration, turns of phrase. These are things writers do to keep themselves interested. 

Stay vigilant, sago, reviewers also slip in “we”, when they mean “I” and immediately make us believe that we also fully buy their versions.

Vigilance is key. 

Rule 12 Always read reviews only after seeing the movie.

Please do not settle down and fill your head with opinions before you watch something. If you need recommendations to catch/thrash it then it means that you are better off not seeing something that friday. 

Movies don’t run away. There’s always time.Let movies collect days and dust. 

In our brief period on earth, each person gets to see a finite set of movies. The good news is we can make this a unique playlist. Do not fall for friday fever.

But of course obvious exceptions for some of the rules apply and I can be accused of breaking almost all of them. But this is my observation over the years

This is not an imaginative piece like ” a world without movie reviews” Of course not. But these rules will question the unnecessary ones (them reviews) and strengthen those who seek guidance in understanding them.

Take it or leave it. 

Honest story based impressions are the best form of reviews. And even these represent the frame of mind of the reviewer at that point in his/her life.

Reviews always tell more about the writer-commentator than about the movies itself. So movies first, reviews next. 

It is also important to have specific taste, and such can be developed only when not overly influenced by others.

For those asking: logical fallacies and plot holes are still game in good reviews as they fall very much into the story. While watching a movie, we are first following the story. Discovering a well hidden plot hole/ gap in a movie is like uncovering a magic trick!

Thank you for reading. Hope it was useful.

Thanks to Alex on Film for the Mayor Ebert image from the movie Godzilla

Categories
Books cinema cinema:english Essay

THE REVIEWING LIFE: THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF ROGER EBERT AND HOW IT AFFECTS US

ebert

Roger Ebert.com is the internet’s equivalent of a cavernous traveller’s place that wanderers happen to chance on an unending quest, although in my case it wasn’t a chance finding but more of a destination.

For a year or so(years ago), I’ve thought and rethought about writing to the Far Flung Correspondents column, backspaced paragraphs of introduction now only vaguely remembered by an embarrassed self, deep down I knew that primarily the writings would not be accepted because they simply weren’t good and I had to improve enormously, the reason to be part of the Lowly Laureate is I guess a compromise and an acceptance of mediocrity.

But ever since sheepishly I had tried to ‘tweet’ the articles of that we published to Ebert with half hope that he will read it and half hope he never does, this was till the day of his passing in 2013.

Idols is a kind of distancing word, an un-achievable state, close to ideal perhaps; Roger Ebert was not my idol, I could see that one man can have all the fun in the world by just watching movies and this was the time when I was just watching movies and not having fun.

If there has been some amount of clarity in what we write right now here, is entirely because we know that we are thereabouts and it is quite possible to pursue something wildly. If Ebert had been an idol, our blog wouldn’t have come out.

Although having never met the man or corresponded with him, it is possible for me to imagine how an interaction would have been, it is experienced-smiley uncle vibe that comes out not only in his videos but pervades all through his writings.  Roger Ebert was a great writer, my definition of a great writer would therefore be not to put thrust too much of oneself into one’s words but not being completely absent, even a bad movie review would only reflect the passion he had for writing what he had seen.

Roger Ebert was the hardest working movie critic on the planet even when diagnosed with a terminal disease and the only person to have successfully found a balance between the serious movie critic and the fun movie reviewer on TV.

Life Itself, his memoir or the reason behind this blog post captures that balance to the truest, it is impossible to approach different films with the same amount of seriousness but it possible but still difficult to watch all types of films with the same passion.

Movie reviewing at the end of the day becomes like suggestion generator, what to catch and what to miss, that is not we are interested in; a (any) movie that should lend itself to discussion or in a sense opens your mind about something is a great film, how the film was made/acted/technicalities are perhaps secondary or mostly irrelevant, to see through all these and arrive at the core idea of what a movie really wants to say to you.( the idea might not be singular and open to interpretations).

But mostly things covered in reviews are these secondaries which are quite evident for anyone to see and seriously not a reason for anyone to see a film or not, this is mostly what we try and avoid at our blogs.

We still feel that this is achievable but we have a long way to go. It is also not the motive to be an ‘influential’ blog, we just want to be well informed and well written. I

Influential being the guiding word in these social media times.

Odd it now seems that once you read a memoir of a person that you get to know his entire life, it is still better than reading an overview on Wikipedia and it will be the closest that we would be getting to Ebert himself and the book is a revelation.

Not only can he not write a bad sentence but he is also brutally honest as people tend to become in their twilight, the chapters on his friendship with Siskel notably among the best.

Multiple emotions rush out after a film, it is in translation of these emotions into words without having to apply intellect in-between is the greatest achievement of the movie writer as how it is for the director to bring the word onto the screen, and this is a beautiful process: emotion->word->screen->emotion->word and somehow Ebert has cracked that.

It is highly impossible to see so many movies and not have anything to say about it, most of the best conversations that I have had have been in and about the movies and these discussions never contain themselves to first level opinions but more of a learning process.

Maybe life is just one big movie and probably Ebert’s memoir is one of the best reviews around.

See you at the movies.