This is a second peek behind the curtain. I’m going to talk about how I go about researching and reviewing films. You can read about how I select films for review here. Enjoy!
Once I have chosen films, I always like to know ahead of time what angle I think I will take for my review. If I feel an angle is overused or if I can’t find new information or an interesting way to develop it, I will rethink my selection.
By angle I simply mean a line of research and discussion. If a film is obscure enough, reviewing it at all is angle enough but for something more well-known, some more care is needed.
For example, anyone can say that Buster Keaton is funny but when I reviewed The Frozen North, I decided to chase down the oft-repeated theory that Keaton made the film for revenge. William S. Hart had called for Hollywood to be cleaned up in the wake of the Arbuckle scandal and, supposedly, Keaton saw red. Except he didn’t.
Another angle is examining my own attitude toward the film. For example, I am not exactly the biggest fan of Captain Robert Falcon Scott but when I reviewed The Great White Silence, I opted to do so with an eye to figuring out his appeal and why his heroic image lasted half a century after his death. I also discussed his flaws and mistakes but I feel that my decision to try to understand Scott the Hero made my writing more balanced.
Both of these reviews are what I call monster reviews: long, long, LONG reviews with dozens of sources and long arguments. They generally take months to complete, which is why I only publish two or three a year. However, I try to have an interesting and unique angle with every film I review. Whether or not I succeed is, of course, up to the reader but that is my goal.
For a less ambitious example, I decided to research the decision of the Warning Shadows filmmaking team to set their story in the late 18th century and try to determine why that time was chosen. (The story did not depend heavily on time period and really could have been set in any age.) This was also better than the same old same old “is this Expressionism?” question that I deal with every time I review a German film.
Rooting for an underdog is also a fun angle to take. For example, I feel that many critics and historians have been unduly harsh to Asphalt and so my review angle was a defense. On the other side of the coin, Les Vampires never really worked for me despite its enduring popularity. And I have spent several years trying to understand the appeal of Norma Talmadge and by George I got it at last when I reviewed The Devil’s Needle. Hurrah! And sometimes, I am righteously indignant, as I was with the flagrant plagiarism found in The Cossacks.
Bottom line: I feel that I need something new or interesting to add to a film’s history and reputation or I will not review it.
Any review of a classic or silent film benefits from even a dab of research. Reading contemporary reviews, biographies of the key players and technicians, researching the techniques used can call be rewarding.
I also often enjoy putting the films in context by examining the events that surrounded their creation. For example, for my review of Within Our Gates, I studied the prevalence of lynchings, race riots and the denial of basic services to African-Americans, all of which helped me appreciate Oscar Micheaux’s world and worldview.
Information is my business.
I generally take what I read in fan magazines with a grain of salt. Most of it is harmless piffle but the really interesting stuff comes when you read between the lines. For example, poor Mildred Harris, Charlie Chaplin’s child-bride, stated that she couldn’t please a genius. Given the rather squicky and almost certainly emotionally abusive nature of their relationship (as recounted by Chaplin himself), I like to put in a good word for Mildred wherever I can, as I did in my review of The Cruise of the Jasper B.
(I don’t generally enjoy delving into the love lives of stars but I make an exception for Harris, who is often dismissed with a smirk. She died young and nobody else seems to be defending her so I have taken up the cause. Anyway, she is a charming actress and I always enjoy her performances.)
Researching Cecil B. DeMille’s films is always a pleasure due to the high volume of quality information available. Budgets, box office receipts, multiple accounts from different sources, studio notes, personal correspondence, etc. Not every star or director is so fortunate. This came in handy when I reviewed The Captive and discovered that the famous narrative of an extra dying on the set was actually based on a misunderstanding of a paraphrasing of someone who did not actually witness the event firsthand. I know!
I’m certainly not perfect but I try my best to be accurate and I try to look at stories from multiple angles. What could this person gain from this story? Have they been reliable in the past? Is there a reason to lie? Is there a reason to tell the truth? Is the original quote accurately rendered? Do other accounts back them up? Do historical events back them up? Is the story too good (or bad or interesting) to be true?
Of course, research is great but the soul of the review is in the writing and that is what we are going to discuss next.
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