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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Classics Corner: “Citizen Kane”

28 10 2010

Rosebud.

It’s the secret of “Citizen Kane,” the movie considered by many film scholars and critics as the greatest ever made.  So pardon me for being a little shocked when I got to the conclusion of Orson Welles’ masterpiece and realized I knew the ending thanks to watching AFI’s “100 Years, 100 Quotes” special on CBS.

The search for the meaning of “Rosebud,” however, was still quite enthralling.  Welles’ take on newspaper giant William Randolph Hearst, here under the guise of Charles Foster Kane, is a power chronicle of greed and power are still just as resonant today as they were in 1941.  So relevant, in fact, that many people pointed out the thematic similarities between it and David Fincher’s “The Social Network.”  Curious to see the connection to the chronicle of Facebook I was so highly anticipating, I watched them both on the same day to really have a comparison.

I debated it on the LAMBcast, but I don’t see all that much similar between the two other than the main characters.  Both Kane and Mark Zuckerberg start with humble origins, setting out to revolutionize the way people see the world.  There is success right from the get-go, and there is acclaim.  So both set their sights higher and see no ceiling on their ambitions.  This causes them alienation from friends and loved ones, yet for them this a small price to pay for the success they are having with their ideas.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that Orson Welles completes the story of Charles Foster Kane, a luxury that allegories can provide.  Since Aaron Sorkin made no effort to hide the fact that “The Social Network” was the story of Mark Zuckerberg, however fictionalized, he would lose credibility if he tried to extend beyond what is already known of Facebook’s short history.  He chose to document the site’s origins and the effect that meteoric success had on its founder.

The future of Facebook as is difficult to forecast as the rest of Zuckerberg’s life.  Who knows what kind of life the world’s youngest billionaire will lead?  At 26, he still has a whole life to live, one that would be tough for anyone, let alone Aaron Sorkin, to predict.  When “Citizen Kane” was released in 1941, William Randolph Hearst was 78, and his life work was nearly complete.  While he was still influential (probably more so than Zuckerberg has been in his vehement disapproval of his cinematic treatment), there was a reasonable amount of closure Welles could provide.  Aaron Sorkin left “The Social Network” fairly open-ended, and I found a certain amount of joy in being able to interpret the movie as I wanted.  How I chose to interpret it, however, was very similar to the message that “Citizen Kane” communicated.

It’s a great sign of a movie’s longevity when it can be compared to something as modern as Facebook seven decades after its release, but “Citizen Kane” did more for movies than offer up thematic depth.  The movie was a watershed event in the development of the craft of cinema for decades to come.  It’s easy to look at the movie and notice nothing, but I had heard that the movie was a true revolution, so I looked deeper.  Since I can count the number of movies I have seen from before 1941 on one hand, I went to my good friend the Internet to find out the changes.  According to Tim Dirks, we take a whole lot of Orson Welles’ techniques for granted now.  Notable first in “Citizen Kane” include:

  • Subjective camera work
  • Unconventional lighting
  • Shadows and strange camera-angles
  • Deep-focus shots
  • Few revealing facial close-ups
  • Elaborate camera movements
  • Overlapping dialogue
  • Flashbacks
  • Cast of characters who ages throughout the film
  • Long shots and sequences, lengthy takes

Can you imagine movies without any of these of these things?  What would “The Social Network” be without the overlapping dialogue?  Could Mark Zuckerberg really be like a StairMill to Erica if they paused nicely to hear each other?  Orson Welles did cinema a huge favor with this movie.  While other people have taken these techniques to towering heights, “Citizen Kane” is a necessary watch for anyone who claims to love movies because it is the origin of so much cinematic development.





FEATURE: Mindless Moviegoing?

11 08 2009

I’ve heard a fair few jokes that start with “There are only two kinds of people in this world.” Many people think there are two kinds of moviegoers in the world: those who rush to go see the latest blockbuster just because of its stars or because it has stuff blowing up, and those who prefer what they perceive to be more substantive and tasteful filmmaking, usually independent or art house films. I say, why can’t you be both? I most certainly am. I love little indies like “The Hurt Locker” and “(500) Days of Summer,” but I also enjoy movies like “The Hangover” and “Star Trek.” I live for November and December when the majority of the movies nominated at the Oscars are released, but I also get excited for May and June when the summer puts forth movies for all tastes.

But, alas, I am one of very few people my age that can make such a claim. I can guarantee you most of my friends haven’t even heard of “The Hurt Locker;” heck, some of you all reading this probably haven’t. And that’s alright, but we won’t be seeing any movies like it in the future if Americans consciously choose senseless entertainment like “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” over higher-brow movies. On occasion, the two have been able to blend successfully, in movies like “The Dark Knight.” Yet few will dispute that movies with such a plot might not have been so commercially viable if they had not worn the front of your typical blockbuster.

The legendary movie critic Roger Ebert has some harsh words for my generation, saying that we may be headed for a “Dark Age” in cinema, mainly due in part to teens who throw their money mindlessly at the big-budget studio movies. He thinks that because we don’t read reviews from critics regularly, we are more prone to drink the blockbuster Kool-Aid. He even goes as far as to suggest that we don’t even care about reviews and that we don’t even have the brainpower to go see the movie that isn’t showing on the most screens at the multiplex. The root of this mindset is “the dumbing-down of America” that has sprung from our worthless education, failing to provide us any sort of curiosity in anything beyond what we see constantly advertised.

Ebert does bring up some good points. It is the teens who swarm the theater every weekend and never fail to go see the hit movie of the week. It is the teens who demand more action, more star power, and bigger explosions. It is the teens who line the pockets of Michael Bay and the studios that let him put such garbage on the screen.

But I don’t think he is entirely right. There is hope for this generation, and I have seen it. Back in December, I was among the first to see “Slumdog Millionaire.” Before it was the sensation that it became, I couldn’t get anyone to go see it. I had a friend who ridiculed me for seeing it instead of “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” That same friend is now one of the movie’s biggest fans. I also convinced him to go see movies like “Frost/Nixon” and “The Reader” before they were nominated for Best Picture over movies like “The Unborn” and “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” I spread the word about these movies and I got my friends to see them, and I think they were pleasantly surprise when they not only knew, but had seen many of the nominated films at the Oscars.

That hope is extending past Oscar season, when it is easy to support indies. Many of my friends are discovering “(500) Days of Summer” and “The Hurt Locker” without a huge media push (or even my own push). These are the same people who saw movies like “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and demanded more for their money and their time. I think what Ebert fails to comprehend is that although many of us go see these movies, that doesn’t mean we love every one we see. We are a curious bunch: curious to find the next “The Dark Knight” in a heap of blockbusters and curious to find the next “Slumdog Millionaire” in a mass of indies. Critics and parents often have different tastes from ours, and how will we know unless we take a look for ourselves? One man’s “G.I. Joe” may be another man’s “Citizen Kane.”

It is easy to look at all the terrible movies that have been released recently and think that American cinema is in a bad state. And yes, my generation has been the driving force behind the spawning of so many of them. But give us a break. We want to be enthralled by movies just as much as any adult. We seek out good entertainment too, but blockbusters are usually the first place we look. We teens are the target audience of comic-book movies, and that has produced beloved critical darlings like “The Dark Knight” and “Star Trek.” We love raunchy comedies, and that genre brought “Knocked Up” and “The Hangover,” both of which were lauded more than Best Picture nominee “The Reader” (according to Metacritic). We are not the root of the problematic dearth of great entertainment at the movies, but we are the easiest to blame. Even if you were to eliminate the types of movies that give critics such a headache, such as comic book adaptations and frenetic action movies, there would still be bad movies. But whether you prefer blockbusters or indies, we can all do our share to demand better quality from the movies that we watch.

Until the next reel,
Marshall