OPINION: The Versatile Movie Review

14 11 2010

NOTE: While this post is a direct response to the Central Florida Film Critic‘s post “I should have gotten the training,” I mean no ill will towards the author.  I only wish to express my own opinions on the matter and defend my own writings.

I’ve been a little busy doing clean-up work on my own site for the past week, but one thing I’ve been meaning to address is some criticism laid out against me by a fellow blogger.  In a post calling out flaws in himself and other bloggers, he specifically addressed my post on “Citizen Kane.”  For those of you who didn’t catch it, here’s the portion of the article that was written about me:

“The second thing I want to point out is Marshall of Marshall and the Movies, another fun writer. Recently he wrote a piece on CITIZEN KANE, and two things bothered me about it. Firstly, his declaration that he can count the films he has seen from before 1941 on one hand. While I can’t boast about being too much better (sixteen total, and seven came within the last few months), I do have to wonder if any of us can intellectually discuss cinematic worth with such a lack of foundation. Would you trust someone to discuss music without a foundation in understanding The Beatles or Bob Dylan? That is not to say any opinion is invalid; after all, anyone can judge art. However, a lack of classic cinema knowledge seems like it leads to false understandings of a film’s importance. Throughout his piece on Welles’ masterpiece, Marshall talks about the comparisons to THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Of course, there was a lot of talk about such comparisons, and I have referred to Fincher’s film as a modern-day CITIZEN KANE. However, I think Marshall spends so much time writing about the comparisons that it seems as if he views the classic as a building block to the Facebook movie. Welles made a masterpiece without any pretenses of Fincher, and it seems like a better way to judge it. I assume part of it is to encourage his readers to see the Welles film (like all of us, Marshall is young and his friends likely have not seen it), but I don’t think he gives CITIZEN KANE the proper critical overview, which needs more independent remarks.”

While I certainly see where James is coming from on a number of things, I think he vastly misread the intent of the post.  I don’t think I’m alone in recognizing that different movie reviews serve different purposes and audiences and should be written to reflect them.  In case you didn’t catch my October post entitled “A Great Movie Reviewer,” perhaps now is a better time than ever to check it out.  Here’s one of the five points I laid out, which I think is especially pertinent to this discussion:

Know why you write and who you are writing for. It’s important to know your purpose and your audience when you write because it will affect your tone, diction, syntax, and all those other things your English teachers loved to talk about.  If you are writing to tell people that they need to see a movie that is unknown, you need to use different rhetoric than what you would use to tell people they should see the latest James Cameron movie.  You can inform, persuade, and urge with a review, but know which you want to do when you write it.  And be sure to write in a way that can appeal to the people that will read you.  Intellectual ramblings will only get you so far if you write to an audience that just wants to know what to put on their Netflix queue.”

I write largely for an audience that could care less about classic film.  I myself don’t really care that much for it, but I know that it’s important that I see these movies to have a larger understanding of film.  The movies I choose to review don’t require an incredible amount of knowledge of classics, and referring to them in reviews or posts would be largely wasted intellectual ramble.  I choose to spend most of my time watching movies that help me make accurate comparisons to help my friends and bloggers.  It makes more sense to say that the latest indie comedy is no “Juno,” not that it’s no “Citizen Kane.”

My post on “Citizen Kane” wasn’t so much a review or an intellectual discussion so much as it was a reflection piece.  What I wanted to look at was how a movie 70 years old can be relevant to a movie about Facebook, and when I sat down to write, that’s what I was trying to convey.  I don’t have the education to talk about Orson Welles’ masterpiece in any great depth; besides, there are plenty of scholars willing to do that for me.  “Citizen Kane” means something different to an 18-year-old movie buff than it does to a film student or a filmmaker, and I found an interesting way to discuss what it meant to me through a comparison with “The Social Network.”  I’m not incredibly well-suited to write a piece on the movie many critics deem the greatest ever made, but I think my perspective mirrors most of my readers.

I’m sorry to put this bluntly, but if you plopped the average moviegoer down to watch “Citizen Kane” without them knowing what it was, I doubt they would think it was anything special.  I say this not in the sense that the movie is bad, but because it was so revolutionary, so many movies have mimicked it that what made Welles’ movie sensational in 1941 makes it average in 2010.  What better way to illuminate the exciting side of “Citizen Kane” than by placing it side-by-side with the sure-to-be generational classic “The Social Network?”  My hope was that the logic of my readers would go, “This worked in ‘The Social Network,’ so if ‘Citizen Kane’ used it, then it must be good too!”

I had no intentions to give “Citizen Kane” a full critical overview because I’m simply not qualified.  But I believe that taking into account my purpose and my audience, my post did what it was supposed to do.  I’m not asking you to trust me as a film scholar; I’m asking you to trust me as a teenager with an appreciation for film.  I’m willing to hear criticism of my work, but my overall message to James at Central Florida Film Critic is that you can’t judge all writing through one lens.  You have to take into account different perspectives, and I think your scolding of my post simply didn’t do that.  If the way I view movies doesn’t align with the way you want to view them, I can only recommend you finding another site to read.

But I certainly hope that isn’t the case.

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2 responses

15 11 2010
James D.

Last things first, I suppose. I enjoy your site and I read it almost daily.

At the risk of sounding incredibly judgmental, I think your appreciation for current cinema, particularly differentiating between something that is great versus something that is ordinary, may change with more viewing of classic films. I say this not to be condescending, but to reflect my own experience. Before I started my blog, I had never seen Citizen Kane, Psycho, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, The Bicycle Thief, and many other classic films. I had never seen a Charlie Chaplin film, nor had I seen most of the work of Stanley Kubrick. It has completely changed the way I look at contemporary films. Some films I loved have become less groundbreaking to me, while others I dismissed have risen in my view.

I do find it disheartening that you say you have little interest in classic film. Are you saying you enjoy things like Up in the Air and The Hangover more than Citizen Kane or 2001: A Space Odyssey? A lot of people tend to oversell the importance of classic films and the trashiness of contemporary cinema, but the classics are classic for a reason.

I acknowledged the likely intent of channeling The Social Network in reviewing Citizen Kane, and given our age and the age of our readers it was likely a helpful comparison. However, I do wonder if, while you were watching what many call the greatest film ever made, you saw it mainly through the scope of The Social Network, a film that might not be watched in ten years.

In the event that others do not read my full article, let me be clear. The piece was just as much about criticizing myself as it was Marshall or another blogger I named.

15 11 2010
Marshall

First of all, I do apologize for not giving your post the proper context. That probably made you come off as a lot more nefarious as I intended.

And sorry to disappoint you, but I would MUCH rather watch “Up in the Air” and “The Hangover” over “Citizen Kane” or “2001.” Watching movies is something that I still consider largely social, and I’d rather spend my time watching movies that I can discuss meaningfully with other people. I saw “The Social Network” twice, something I rarely do nowadays, because I knew how intelligently I could discuss it with so many people. Can’t really do that with “Citizen Kane” in high school.

Also, I read your site (although I don’t comment nearly as much as I should) often and have noticed a general pessimism towards the films out in release. I think you are turning a blind eye to the fact that there have been some great movies released in the present day. 2010 may be a little lacking, as some have gone on the record stating, but there are plenty of movies that can entertain, enthrall, captivate, and compel in a theater near you. If you measure them all by the stature of “Citizen Kane,” you are defeating the purpose and setting yourself up for a miserable experience. These are movies that are great for what they are, not for some monument in cinematic history.

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