The Film in the Glass Case, or, How Far Should a Review Go?

“Your review just isn’t fair! You didn’t give the film a chance! You just don’t like the genre!”

If you review films, you’ll eventually get correspondence like this. I thought it would be fun to discuss the process of reviewing and the decision to lay on the snark.

I should first point out that I am a niche blogger in a little corner of the internet. Big time critics and activists have it much worse than me.

For example, note the hysterical responses from the crew of The Lone Ranger aimed at critics who panned the film and Native Americans who expressed concern about the content. (If you want evidence that men are the emotional ones, this is it.) And then there’s the little matter of death threats issued in response to negative reviews of DC comics films…

DC fans react calmly to reviews.

So, my experiences are very minor in comparison. That being said, some issues have been raised that I think need addressing and so here we are. Forgive me if this is elementary but let’s start with the basics to make sure we are on the same page:

  1. When I review, I compare apples to apples. That is, a romantic comedy is stacked against other romantic comedies from the same basic era. I also take time period into account as it would be unfair to review, say, a Georges Melies film from 1899 and complain that the camera technique does not compare to The Last Laugh.
  2. I make allowances for time, place and budget. A mega-budget Hollywood epic is going to be given a more thorough roughing up than an indie production from a country with no established industry.

So, let’s dive in.

What I owe to readers

Me reviewing films, usually.

I don’t owe you agreement. I don’t owe you praise for your favorite film. What I do owe you is honesty. If anybody reads my reviews, they deserve to understand how I reached my conclusions and they deserve to know what the pros and cons of the pictures are, at least to my eye.

There’s an online commentator whose motto is “Critique the media you love” and I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment. When a sommelier samples wines and lists the pros and cons of a particular bottle, people don’t fly into a tizzy declaring that he or she must hate wine because a flaw was found. Quite the opposite. This person loves wine and has great experience in tasting it; if they rubberstamped “good” on every bottle, their opinion would be worthless and such hollow praise would mean nothing to the vintner.

There used to be a film critic in a small town newspaper that I read and his work became something of a running gag in my family. Every single film he reviewed was heartily recommended. “Don’t miss it!” he chirped. There’s a difference between a film fan and a critic when writing. Saying that a film is good but could have been better or that it doesn’t really work as an entry in its genre is what makes a critic worth reading. Smart dissection should always be the goal, whether to explain why a movie is wonderful, terrible or anything in between.

I meant to do that

They meant to do that.

For example, there are cases of zany movies using title cards or a narrator to say, “Oh, we don’t want to talk about this or show it or we don’t have the money, so let’s skip ahead.” And if it’s done well, this can be a delightful bit of meta humor.

But then we have the “I meant to do that!” excuses. “Oh, this film was never meant to be good and that’s the point!” is no more convincing than Pee Wee Herman’s famous catchphrase. I’m all for dry humor but it really is best to give some hints that you’re kidding around. I mean, otherwise people might think that your movie is really bad and you’re just trying to save face after the fact. Could such a thing ever be possible?

(I am reminded of the Space Mutiny cast trying desperately to convince the IMDB boards that their film was satire. It was supposed to be stupid! Really!)

What’s fair

I was shocked– SHOCKED– to see a western movie with gunplay.

So, how far should a review go before we label it unfair? That is a difficult question but I’ll tell you what I think is unfair:

  1. Complaining about a film made in a particular era not using techniques from a later era. (“It’s a silent film and therefore awful!”)
  2. Bad faith arguments. For example, pointing out a plot hole in the film but failing to mention that it is resolved or explained later.
  3. Not taking into account the circumstances of the viewing. This applies to silent films more than anything. For example, this review in which somebody dismisses a silent film entirely after skimming a battered YouTube version sans score.

I’m sure there are more but these are the ones that I notice the most. However, a smart dissection of a film’s eccentricities and flaws is not unfair in itself. In fact, I rather enjoy this type of review, especially if it is calm and ruthless.

“It doesn’t matter!”

This is an interesting one. On occasion, I have had people state that whatever I am objecting to in a film “doesn’t matter.” A more accurate statement would be that it doesn’t matter TO THEM. It would be the height of arrogance to assume that everybody processes a film the same way we do. Everybody brings a different perspective.

In my case, I have always been obsessed with the structural underpinnings of fiction and how the world in which the work is created affects those underpinnings. Like, I’m pretty sure I was the only tween/teen in my neighborhood who was obsessed with how the fall of the Soviet Union and its aftermath would alter espionage and action movie tropes. I did the same thing when cell phones became ubiquitous and rewrote horror and suspense tropes. (Good heavens, I wish I had saved my film writing from back then!)

So, my reviews tend to be analytical and obsessive about structure and balance and order and proportion within the fictional world of a film and how all these tie in with the tropes and expectations of the film’s genre, era and country of origin. Is this how everybody sees films? No! But there’s a difference between recognizing that somebody else is processing a film in a different manner and stating that my perspective “doesn’t matter.”

“But I like the star!”

The presence of a favorite star may be enough for some viewers to give a film a free pass. Not here. If I won’t spare Ivan Mosjoukine, I am sure as heck not going to spare somebody else’s favorite.

“But it’s just a little comedy! It’s just a light film!”

I have watched my share of bad rom-coms and children’s films, two genres that are often used to shield poor filmmaking. It’s “just” for the kids, it’s “only” a light romance. Why worry about little things like plot holes and pacing?

Because I love rom-coms and children’s films, that’s why. I think it’s disrespectful to place them inside a cake dome and pretend that they can’t stand up to criticism. Oh yes they can and the number of enjoyable, well-made films in these genres prove that they need no such protection.

The culture of fandoms and brand loyalty seems to have encouraged this notion that only wholehearted praise is acceptable for a fan of a particular art. How dare anybody call this anything but brilliant and perfect? Of course, this is the opposite of good reviewing.

(Frankly, it’s a bit ironic that fans of light comedy would be so humorless.)

“You like movies that make you think!”

This was once hurled at me as an insult. Guilty as charged, though I enjoy fluffy trifles too. All work and no play…

However, there does seem to be a strain of anti-intellectualism in these complaints. “I don’t think about movies, I just turn off my brain and watch” is a perfectly fine method but it is not the only method. I have no right to call someone ignorant or lazy if they prefer to keep things light but they have no right to suggest that thinking about a film is wrong.

Everybody has their preferred depth level when discussing films and that’s okay. What’s not okay is shrieking like a bonobo whenever somebody chooses to go for a deeper examination.

The Conclusion

I dare say that there is not a single reader who agrees with me 100% of the time– some may NEVER agree with me– and that’s fine and normal and the natural order of things. I often disagree with my favorite film writers but I keep reading because I enjoy learning about their perspective.

However, my pet peeves are having somebody ‘splain to me what my taste is or acting as though their subjective opinion is somehow superior to that of anybody else. I really don’t have time to deal with solipsism, thanks.

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18 Replies to “The Film in the Glass Case, or, How Far Should a Review Go?”

  1. You are so on target, especially about children’s films. Children have brains, too! When I was writing reviews locally, my best friend said that if I gave a movie a negative review, he knew he would love the movie. But as you said, honesty was key for me.

    1. Thanks so much! Yes, too many poor filmmakers use “for the kids” as a fig leaf but there are just too many great children’s movies. I mean, look at Pixar’s run, for heaven’s sake.

  2. Dear Fritzi,

    I suppose in this day and age of internet rage and intolerance this article was a tragic necessity. Your love and knowledge of silent film is obvious, and your reviews display a keen intelligence, humor and insight which ought to be respected and taken at face value, but there will always be folks who need this stuff explained. Sad. As for me, I look forward to every review and am willing to keep an open mind in the hope of expanding my own knowledge and experience of the beautiful art of silent film. Thanks for everything you do!

    BTW: great GIF of Ivan Mosjoukine, who could say more in the slight raising of an eyebrow than many could say in an extravagant gesture.

  3. Great post. It’s important to remember that reviews are expressions of personal reactions; they are not the same as criticism, which attempts to show how a work of art conforms or fails to conform to certain standards. That’s why reviewers can enjoy films while admitting they may not be formally very good, but critics can’t – or shouldn’t.

  4. One of the aspects of your reviews I most value is your obvious depth of knowledge about your subject matter. Whether or not I agree with you, I always learn more about the topic.

    I think the only time I find a review unfair is when the critic has an ideological axe to grind. They seem to relish grinding it in the readers’ faces, often distorting the facts of a film to make it fit their political narrative (koff koff NY Times koff). This is something I’ve never seen you do. Any social criticisms you reference or imply are always relevant and justified.

  5. the fact that you felt it necessary to make a post like this is truly upsetting. the silent film community is niche enough as it is and one would think that a blog as comprehensive as yours would be more welcomed than berated. i know i’m grateful for it. just goes to show how ungrateful and cruel people are online. no need to feel an obligation to explain yourself to these kinds of people.

  6. I loved reading this post because you hit many nails on the head like kid’s movies. Just because they are for kids doesn’t mean they are off limits, brats…um..I mean kids need to know what is good and what isn’t. I love many a film which I know is not that great but i love it. Overall, people really need to chill and understand that each person has a mind of their own

  7. The reviews here are certainly interesting, even though my personal taste appears different – with the exception of The Wind which I adore and whose excellent myth busting brought me here.

    I wonder, which do you prefer to emphasise – the film historical value or the value for present day viewers. For example, racism can never spoil the historical value of certain classics, but it can harm the movie experience. On the other hand, some movies didn’t invent anything nor affected the history of cinema, but they just used existing techniques very well to make a great movie.

    I want to see some historically important films for curiosity, but it’s the value for present day viewer that really makes me love silent cinema. To me, few movies of the 1910s have stood the test of time, whereas many from 1920s have absolutely nothing to shame compared to new films.

    Then there are some films that I think have gained value over decades, like True Heart Susie, my favourite from Griffith. Its simplicity makes it like a time machine, where even the victorian morality theme perfectly fits. In contrast, the same morality theme combined with an overly melodramatic story makes Way Down East feel outdated.

    1. Everything else is a matter of taste but when it comes to racism in classic films, I feel that a major myth has sprung up. Voices, particularly African-American voices, are utterly ignored and the well-heeled white urban moviegoer is treated like the default. Racism in movies has ALWAYS been condemned and the brave men and women who stood up to the gags, stereotypes and calls for lynching (which is what Birth of a Nation is) deserve to have their voices heard. The more I read of these voices, the less I am inclined to forgive racism in older films. It was wrong then, it has always been wrong and black moviegoers (along with those of other races) have always spoken out against it. In fact, these racist films actually had filmed responses from members of the maligned group. For example, Sessue Hayakawa making films that positively portrayed Japanese culture, Oscar Micheaux and Noble Johnson’s films designed to “uplift” African-Americans, etc.

      It’s easy to glibly say “Ignore the racism” but a great many viewers of the silent era did not have that option and they did not suffer in silence. I utterly refuse to let them be silenced now.

  8. It seems I became misunderstood – there was no intention to discuss or defend racism.

    The point was that in many reviews (not so much here), silent films are praised for what new they brought – who invented which technique and how much did this and that film influence later cinema. The amount of innovation seems to be the main criterion.

    I don’t like that kind of reviews, because it’s so easy to make a conclusion that cinema constantly improves; that silent films may be important for film historians, but others can omit them and just keep watching ”more advanced modern films”.

    I think that especially the films of 1920s can easily stand on their own, without any historical excuses.

    In the previous comment, Birth of a Nation was just an easy example of a film that will always be important in film histories because of its undeniable influence, but that is at the same time difficult to fully enjoy.

    1. There’s definitely an over-emphasis on “firsts” in silent movie coverage. It’s so difficult to prove and, you’re right, it is used as a way of dismissing earlier “primitive” cinema that actually has charms and delights of its own.

  9. One thing I really hate is when I’ve taken the time to review a film (or a book or album) on my blog or at Amazon, and then someone leaves a comment explaining, in excruciating detail, why my personal reactions and opinions are so wrong. That person is welcome to hate something I love, or love something I hate or feel is mediocre, but that doesn’t mean every single person has to share those views!

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