Monday, July 20, 2009


A film review reviews a film just being released; after a free lunch and sometime over hot brewing coffee & here in Dubai over nachos and tantalizing cheese, a film is dissected into ordinary pieces of information - some taken from release publicity information and sometime out of thin air. This post dissects a film review. Pay for your own popcorn!!

A film review can tell us much (who looks great, what’s stupid, what’s funny and what’s not), its limits, its tasks largely for evaluation rather than other forms of engagement that are the provenance of academic film studies.

The terms in which many praise the best cinema as an art produced by individual genius directors invite critical scrutiny too. In the genre of writing about cinema most familiar to you, the popular press movie review, you’ll find those terms circulating abundantly. Superlatives rule, of course: best, greatest, fastest, most horrific, most realistic, most gripping, most provocative, funniest, and so on. If acting frequently recedes in the language of film analysis, it reigns in the genre of the review, where thick description of appearance (soft blond hair, a curving upper lip, a boy honed by workouts for a year) vie with assessment of the plot. Thumbs point in two directions only: a film is a winner or a loser.

Here is a review in its entirety of a loser, the 2005 film Wolf Creek:

An initially promising horror film that turn exploitive, “Wolf Creek” fails to deliver the requisite payoff considering its leisurely pace. It bears the almost always dubious label “based on true events,” and details the unfortunate fate that befalls the two young British women, liz and kristy visiting Australia, and the local bloke, Ben, they hook up with for a road trip across the inhospitable outback.

Writer-Director Greg Mclean admirably attempts to breathe some life into the genre by taking his time to get into the gore, but rather than yielding interesting characters it merely deflates the suspense. The ambling first half follows the trio as they make their way to isolated world creek crater, and though the actors are appealing enough, their characters remain ciphers. Its difficult to care one way or another whether they win the lotto, get abducted by aliens or are cut to ribbons by homicidal Samaritan. (crust 2005)

Calculating his own response according to genre conventions of the horror film, Kevin Crust’s review condenses the essential evaluation into two terse paragraphs: featured actors, director, short plot summary, adherence to generic expectations, final say so. Since the press relies on the promotional junkets engineered by the studios and their personnel, moreover, they tend to repeat the very language and sound bites of the press releases or “exclusive” interview: several reviews may use the same phrases (“inhospitable outback”), tell the same story of on-location romances (like fabricated by publicists), faux-bemoan costly set construction or the like. Focusing on plot, starts and directorial intention, most popular reviews (and there are exception and exceptional reviewers) assume passive audiences and rarely access those elements of the cinema I have argued to be most powerful: its capacity to provoke, enlist, and stimulate our imagination and critical engagement in acts of world-making.
The thoughtful critic is aware of himself as responsive to a given film in all these ways, yet careful not to take the self as the measure of all possible forms of engaging with it. He or she is careful, too, not to take the text as fully present or yielding to the critic’s tool, either; Raymond Bellour’s close analysis remains paradigmatic for their awareness of the elusivity, or unattainability, of the film text as such.

Second, the “text” may be high or low or in between. Bollywood films, Hong Kong action films, B-westerns, melodramas, and dated instructional film all solicit responses worthy of understanding. As with the school of popular culture are wont to lob exaggerated claims for its “subversive” or “progressive” potential. But careful ethnographic studies of working class television viewers or of women who habitually read romance fiction teach us that these lowbrow text live in fascinating worlds: where housing estates become microcosms for studying familial relations, or where the very act of reading becomes a vehicle for housewives to claim legitimacy as autonomous people with expanded knowledge of the world and right of time for learning and imagination. Studies of film fandom similarity reveal extraordinary cultures of reception, in which acts of productive engagement (fan fiction, contributions to story lines, blogs and fan sites) blur the lines between original production and derivative reception, professional makers and amateur watchers.
Constance Peley’s studies of Star Trek “slasher” fiction in which fans rewrite the social and sexual lives of Kirk and Spock, appreciate the fan’s intimacy with the series.
There is no better critic than a fan. No one knows the object better than a fan and no one is more critical. The fan's stance towards the object could even be described as tough love. The idea is to change the object while preserving it, kind of giving a strenuous deep massage that hurts at the time but feels so good afterwards (penley 1997)

If you ever tried to explain to a friend what the film you just saw was “about”, you find yourself stumbling in the realm of meaning-making: if you risk the further effort of condensing it into a sound bite what a given film’s message was, you are in deeper. As you know from both of these experiences, however, the terms fail satisfactorily to translate the experience of watching an interesting film, coming to understand the terms or assumptions of the world it constructs, and bringing those assumptions with you back into the light of the day outside the theatre or its your everyday world.
“Making meaning” is of course, a slippery phrase. One constantly thinks, even or especially when one claims to be simply “taken in” by a narrative or an experience.


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