To Synopsize or not to Synopsize…

So yesterday I logged into my computer at about 7:30 local time and discovered some overnight commenting, which is pretty normal. We’re all in different time zones and on different schedules. One of those comments, though, was not exactly in the realm of normal for me.

The commenter was hot and bothered, proclaiming that the review was not really a review at all but rather a “running retelling of a story” and, therefore, phooey!

The comment was valuable in itself as an example of an angry D.W. Griffith fan in the wild and I immediately captured it in a bell jar for future study but the synopsis thing actually opens up a really interesting topic: how much of a synopsis should reviewers include?

First of all, let’s acknowledge that all films are not created equal. Someone who reviews new movies in wide theatrical release can assume some knowledge on the part of their readers. We don’t necessarily need a blow-by-blow of every scene in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 to get the film’s flavor as we are surrounded by previews, ads, etc. Plus, modern audiences have grown steadily more adverse to spoilers– to the point of paranoia!

However, any film off the beaten path does not have the same level of recognition. Many of the silent films I review are forgotten by the general public and some have never been made available on home video. And as I like to discuss the overall structure of a film’s plot, I usually include a fairly meaty synopsis. (The comment in question was on Lady of the Pavements, a film that is a festival fixture but is not easily obtained by the average Jane.)

Further, reviewers have different styles and lengths of coverage. I prefer longer reviews with a 1,000 word minimum. (My biggest is the hefty Ben-Hur, which clocks in over 15,000 words. I was mad to do it, it took months but I’m pretty proud.) As a result, I do include a healthy chunk of plot in my reviews. Other reviewers are masters of the miniature, packing information and insight into punchy 300-500-word packages. Obviously, they would not have room for lengthy synopses.

Bottom line: I feel that synopses are useful to me personally but everyone has different wants, needs and styles.

So… How do you feel about recapping plots in reviews? Love ’em? Hate ’em? Write ’em? Never touch ’em? Please share!

Oh, and have a poll! (This poll is never going to close and the results should be immediately viewable to participants. Let me know if you have trouble seeing them.)


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    1. Fritzi Kramer

      It depends but usually about two or three weeks from drafting to final editing. If I plan a review far in advance (as I did with Over the Fence, for example) I have several months to start organizing my thoughts and doing background research. Some reviews have unexpected rabbit holes that end up taking more time. The Ben-Hur review took months and my review of The Artist took years from the initial draft to final publication.

  1. Matthew Walls

    Hi Fritzi, while I do certainly appreciate all of the work you put into your reviews, along with the rest of the work you do for the site, I don’t read the reviews. I am one of those you describe in the paranoid category. For example, on TCM, I think Ben goes way too far into the story, as do some other of their hosts’ introductions. They give good information, but it would be better after the movie. So, my solution is to tape the movie. I mute the intro when it is “live”, watch the movie, and then go to the recorded version and go back to the beginning and listen to the comments AFTER I have seen the movie. For your reviews, I am very appreciative that you call my attention to the film as I may not have known about it otherwise. I usually go to the section where you note if it is available for home viewing and follow the link to the selling site, and then sometimes to your final thumbs up/down. Other than that, I skip the rest. I am sure most other people read the whole review and I am the oddball in this regard, but when I watch a film I want to know nothing.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      It definitely depends on the individual viewer. I like to know as much about the product as possible before paying $$ and spending time to see it but I certainly appreciate that some viewers prefer the wonderment of discovery.

  2. Dulcy Freeman

    It seems the epidemic of using words that one imperfectly understands (or worse, uses because they “sound right” [don’t get me started on “momentarily”!!]) is here to stay. Your commenter should look up the word “review” in Webster’s or just look at the word itself: RE VIEW. Particularly for those of us who have never seen, and perhaps never will see, the films you write about, this is our way of viewing them with a knowledgeable guide to provide context and analysis as well as witty commentary. And for those films we have been privileged to see, perhaps a title card was missed or misunderstood; one or more scenes were missing from the print we saw; things commonly known or used “then” don’t exist, even in memory, now. Your RE VIEWS create the closest we may ever come to sitting in a restored movie palace, partaking in and contributing to the shared experience of movie magic. Thank you.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Aww, thank you so much! I do try to review with the home viewer in mind, the person who may not have access to these films because of availability or budget.

  3. popegrutch

    This is something I debated in my own blog. When I started out, I was writing reviews of less than 500 words regularly, so there was no question of recapping the plot in any detail. Over the years, they’ve gotten way longer, and I have started regularly giving pretty full descriptions of the action. I was actually pretty critical about other blogs doing it at first, but what changed my mind was the desire to give very explicit discussions of what struck me as significant: THIS particular shot, edit or camera movement, which heightens tension at THIS particular moment in the film. You can’t do that with vague non-spoilery “previews.”
    For the most part, I actually avoid reading reviews of movies until after I have viewed them, because there’s no way for me to understand the reviewers’ arguments about the movie in context. Your reviews are so entertaining, however, that I usually make an exception here.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Thanks so much! Yes, it very much depends on the space limits set by a publication or by the writer. I agree, a synopsis is essential when you really want to get to the meat of that exact moment when the film did XYZ.

  4. Ian Chodikoff

    I would tend to support Fritzi’s philosophy (or I would probably not read her reviews at all). Although one should never forget about the struggle of restraint, it is the movie itself which reveals the full story.

    There is certainly an argument to be made that Fritzi’s reviews are a kind of “documentation” of silent films–of which many are rare and/or will not be watched by her adoring fans, or otherwise. For this, I am grateful.

    Also, film plots are naturally intertwined with the movie’s cast. This seems obvious but it is essential if one wants to fully appreciate cinema that is over 90 years old. And so, it is therfore useful to know both context in which the characters acted, and the film’s relative importance to their career. How else could one appreciate Hobart Bosworth anyway? And why the obsession with Mosjoukine? (OK, I get it, Fritzi!) Revealing the plots makes Valentino look good, and maybe makes Griffith look bad.

    I have made plenty of decisions as to whether or not I should purchase or find a way to watch the titles reviewed on this site. And while I may not always agree with the views and opinions expressed–this is perfectly normal since I am not Fritzi. Her reviews are an excellent resource and insight: They are developing into a kind of catalogue raisonnée.

    Given this audience (i.e., silent film fans/amateurs/afficianados/academics/freaks), I am believe that many of us think visually. Therefore a written description of a film’s plot is unlikely to fully “spoil” our experience if we have yet to watch the photoplay in question with our own eyes.

    I for one am attracted to movies where the visuals come first, the plot comes in second. And the physicality of actors usually trump dialogue. I prefer books too, along with abstract ideas–especially when it comes to the visual arts. But that’s just me. And maybe these beliefs are what defines the essence of a silent film.

    A friend of mine once held back about telling me the ending of a recent Seth Rogen film for fear that it would spoil my experience should I decide to see the movie.Well, I was never planning on seeing the movie (it was Office Christmas Party). The movie poster (and maybe the trailer) was enough to tell me everything that I could possibly need to know–and more–as to whether I should spend the money on a vainglorious film about non-essential zeitgeist, or buy a silent DVD from Amazon based on one of Fritzi’s reviews.

    And so, do we want less plot or more GIFs? More sly commentary or less back stories? I think Fritzi’s reviews reflect her struggles to get the story out there and both her writing and selection of images successfully conveys her process and the value of the films she discusses.

    I think we want to learn about whatever silent films still exist out there so that we can watch them. No matter how many words Fritzi is tallying up in her prodigious way. Ultimately, it’s the movie that tells the story.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Thanks for adding your thoughts! Yes, it’s all extremely personal, the viewing, reading about and discussing cinema. We’re all just trying to strike an agreeable balance for both our readers and ourselves.

  5. mercurie80

    I never have liked writing synopses so I have never done them. The fact that many today are so touchy about spoilers really discourages me from ever doing so! I remember one time on some social media site we were discussing Psycho and someone actually complained about the movie being spoiled for them! Honestly, I would think the plot of Psycho would be so well known (much like other well-known classics, like Casablanca and Gone With the Wind) that even those who have never seen the film would be familiar with them! Of course, I can sort of understand people being unhappy with less known films being “spoiled”.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Yes, there’s a certain point where it gets silly. I mean, you obviously wouldn’t run down the aisles of a theater screaming the twist ending but Psycho has pretty much entered the realm of common knowledge. Even people who know nothing of the film will recognize the shower scene from countless references and parodies.

      I will say that I have no qualms about discussing historical films based on real people. “Lincoln dies” is not a spoiler.

  6. Antony Gould

    Hi Fritzi,
    I agree entirely with what Ian Chodikoff has to say. I think I’ve said before that it was reading your reviews of the silent era films that got me into being a big fan. I try to find or watch as many of the films as I can and even after watching them I go back to reread your reviews again. What you have to say really enhances the whole experience and that includes the synopsis.I find some silents need clarification of the plot so I have no problem at all with you going over it. You always stop short of revealing the endings anyway,so again no issues for me there. I think that what you do is brilliant, making your own waves against established opinions but always revealing an enthusiasm in a fresh and often very funny way.
    I think you are building a definitive body of work in the reviews you do that can easily act as springboards for encouraging newcomers into the silent film world and synopsies are a big part of that.
    Please don’t change a thing.


  7. Marie Roget

    The first review I ever read on Movies Silently was of Hell’s Hinges. Being a huge Inceville fan and lover of all things William S. Hart (and being completely new to MS) I have to admit I braced myself a little, just in case………and was immediately so delighted with the review’s content and style that I bookmarked Movies Silently. Then I dove into the A-Z reviews link, where I’ve been happily cavorting ever since. Later on that evening I told my partner, “Have I got a silent film site for you!” We both read avidly here, as do several movie buff friends, relatives, and fellow AMIA members, tho’ I seem to be the primary stalker of the comment threads (except for you, Janice- I see you lurking over there 😉

    Guess what I’m trying to say is “like your style and content, absolutely love your dry wit and sense of whimsy.” Simply put: Carry On, and a heartfelt thanks for all the great reviews and an all ’round terrific site!

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Thanks so much! Hell’s Hinges was one of my very first reviews, I was just blown away by the whole thing. So glad you are enjoying the site! I hope to keep growing it and making it bigger and better in the years to come.

      (Waves at Janice!)

  8. floodmouse

    Keep on keepin’ on!

    – “Two thumbs up for Fritzi’s reviews.”

    BTW: I love how you hide the ending of your “fun-sized” reviews under the black bars that go away when you click them.

  9. Ross

    A bad review certainly can be a “running retelling of a story” if that’s all there is, and those can be found often in the press release/publicity run media. A quick skim of your reviews shows that synopsis is the framework of your evaluation of the film from which you build critical value. I can’t see how else you could. It would of little help for those seeking knowledge of films that are often new to them if there were only comments on the skills of the director, actors, technicians etc. without relating these to plot. Otherwise you’d be a cataloguer, not a pundit.

  10. Michaela

    When I initially started my blog, I had no clue how to write my reviews. I’m still in awe of Ruth at Silver Screenings — she can write such short posts, but they always cut right to the heart of things and they’re always delightful. For me, I discovered that writing detailed reviews with lots of screenshots worked best. I want to be sure that I’m getting across why I love the film I’m discussing and why I think others would enjoy it. As someone else pointed out, it’s also vital if you’re going to talk about certain camera angles, pieces of dialogue, etc.

    Your blog is fabulous. I don’t think any of us should ask you to change a thing.

  11. Caren's Classic Cinema

    If people are about to watch the film that is being introduced or written about, I think it’s appropriate to NOT give anything away. Because I give introductions to films that are being screened, I try to only give related information on the people involved in the creation of the film, my opinion at times, or some interesting aspect about its making. It’s harder to do when I haven’t seen a film because it’s possible to inadvertently give something away. I’m one of those people who like to read the review of a film after I’ve seen it, whether it’s a modern or contemporary review. If you read reviews from Variety or the New York Times, they are written as trade reviews and they have no qualms telling you “who done it”. Although I don’t write much anymore on my blog, I have to admit that for some of the films that I did write about, I did give a blow-by-blow description of some of the more obscure films that I watched. So I did break my own rule. But usually I try not to. As for a film like BEN HUR, I think anyone who is interested in watching it probably knows the story–there is a wild chariot race–so there!

    I always enjoy your reviews Fritzi and many of them lead me to watching something, whether it’s a film I’ve seen many moons ago or something new.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Thank you! Yes, it’s actually quite funny to read the old reviews because they give EVERYTHING away. “Darth Vader is Luke’s father,” sniffs Mordaunt Hall. Live intros to films are an art unto themselves. My favorite ones have dealt extensively with restoration factoids, which gave me something to look forward to without actually revealing any plot twists.

  12. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman)

    I recently did a piece on Laurel and Hardy’s Me and My Pal. It was a synopsis, but within the synopsis a reader might glean a review, if that is what they wish. I had great fun commenting on the funny movie by telling what was happening.

    I like to think I am light on the synopsis, in most instances, as I wish viewers to seek out the film for themselves.

  13. Chris H

    Interesting question! When I started out blogging, my posts focused more heavily on recapping. There’d be an intro, a recap of the plot up until before the climax, and then a short-ish to decently sized review section. As for why I stopped, it’s partially because I didn’t want to keep doing it that way simply due to feeling like doing something different, but also because I was paranoid I’d be inundated with hate for ‘spoilers’, and that revealing what happens short of just the conclusion would somehow make it worse, and that I’m really a ‘terribly blogger!’.

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