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Why We Write

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | March 21, 2013 | Comments ()


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I never had any intention of being a film critic or writing for a pop culture website. But it's been four years at Pajiba and here we are. See, a fantastic bloke offered me a chance to write. Honestly, Dustin could have been running a Brony fan site, or worse, a jazz appreciation wiki, and I still would have said yes. Because writers write, and that's what he was offering. It made me feel like a jackass for quite some time too. I get paid to write about movies, while there are people out there actually getting degrees in film criticism who would kill for the opportunity that Dustin was offering to this guy from the comments section who hadn't been to a movie theater in two years at the time. And that was to see Pirates of the Caribbean 3: I Really Don't Care Enough to Look Up The Subtitle, having not seen the first two.

So I do my best, such as it is. I don't join the Online Film Critics Society on the logic that if such an organization accepted me, I wouldn't want to be a member. If there were a specially tailored list of the hundred greatest movies released before I was born, my guess is that I probably would have seen less than a dozen, and half of those only because of a freshman pass-fail Introduction to the Humanities class in which we watched a bunch of old movies. The making of movies is an impenetrable mystery to me, to such an extent that I'm not really sure what most of the non-acting and directing categories are even for at the Oscars. And I'm still convinced that "key grip" is some sort of industry inside term for a communal prostitute.

I'm not presenting any of this as a prelude building up to how the experience made me fall in love with film. I still like movies well enough, but there simply isn't the material to support a montage of me coming to love independent film through the local art house cinema. It's also not supposed to be a bragfest about being cool through ignorance. It's about trying to establish my point of view before presenting my utterly unqualified perspective on what makes for good film criticism. And probably make points that someone with an actual background in film criticism will find either trite or woefully wrongheaded.

When I first started writing movie reviews, I had a really difficult time. I had this idea that they were supposed to say "this movie was good/bad. Here are the reasons why." I had almost a template, in which I talked about each of the actors and tried to think of adjectives for their actressin', before moving on to saying whether the story was good or not, and concluding with a recommendation of whether you should or should not see the movie. I find the painting by numbers prodigiously painful to go back and read. But there was usually a paragraph or two in there in which I went off on a complete tangent about what the movie made me think about. This was invariably my favorite chunk of the review, and seemed to be the part that resonated the most in the comments. Gradually, this part of my reviews grew to take over most of the actual word count of the review. This culminated eventually in a review of Field of Dreams which is perhaps notable for not actually being a review in any dictionary sense of that word.

In academia, we are taught to rip things apart. My god, walk into a graduate student colloquium discussing an article, and you will see the face of hell. I think I still have printouts of journal articles that have to be kept in a box carved of the true cross lest they eternally weep tears of blood. But I had a wonderful professor who set a very basic ground rule for his class. He acknowledged that anything we read, we could rip to shreds, because we were trained for that like intellectual pit bulls. The ground rule, and challenge, was to only say nice things. To only say what of value you learned from what we read. In some fields they call this synthesis, the idea that everything you read needs to be integrated into what you think, into the simmering cauldron of knowledge brewing in the base of your skull.

I realized that what I was doing in those tangential paragraphs, was showing the work on my synthesis. It was saying, look this film connects in my head to this idea, and this idea, and this other book, and these other movies. The movie itself, and whether it was good or bad, was almost beside the point. What really mattered was how the film tied into everything else, and contributed something to it, tied together ideas or emotions once disparate.

I've said before that the reason I love science fiction is that no matter how terrible a science fiction story is, there is always something, even if only a single paragraph out of five hundred pages, that is original and interesting. And reading the piles of books isn't because I enjoy the countless bad pages, it's because of those little bits and pieces that make me think and get stirred into the pot of thought.

Sure, some part of film criticism is ripping stuff apart, if only because savaging a romantic comedy with words is wonderfully cathartic. But in general, criticism has nothing to do with ripping things down. It's not destruction. It's identifying bit by bit how the things you see change the way that you think. And criticism is about showing that internal process of yours to someone else, and sometimes that clicks and makes them think about it to. And sometimes they watch something again or for the first time, with eyes that are looking at it differently, through a lens that you provided. I remember that first summer that I was writing for Pajiba, I wrote a series of reviews of "Doctor Who" after which Dustin told me he would never have watched the show if not for those reviews. That's the gold standard for me, getting someone to see something they would not have otherwise seen, in a way that they would not have considered.

And the same thing applies to other articles on this site. Sometimes when we have a fantastic think piece go up like Courtney's article on rape yesterday, there is an inevitable comment or two lamenting that this "used to be a movie review website." Such comments are taken harshly to task by other commenters, pointing out that we have indeed reviewed all the major releases if you'd care to hit your browser's back button, and that if you didn't want to read the article, you didn't have to. This is because we have the best commenters in the world, which is not just fishing for good comments, it is an objective fact readily apparent to anyone who has taken a look at the comment sections of just about any other website on the Internet.

But those articles are part of the same synthesis process. The news, books, television, video games, and yes even pop culture, are part of that same synthesis of ideas in our minds. Just plucking out the movie chunks is artificial. It might be wonderful for organization purposes, but even those of us who really are film junkies (and yes, some of our writers are exactly that), who watch a dozen films each week and make that virtually their exclusive consumption of ideas, still synthesize from other sources. The perspectives on film are inseparable from the intellectual context of their consumption.

I love reading the articles here. Hell, sometimes when I'm supposed to be writing a trade news post, instead I'm reading the upcoming unpublished articles that have already been loaded into the system. I don't read their words in order to find out whether a movie is good or bad, and I certainly don't keep coming back just to see the evisceration of a crappy movie in print. I read them to see what these writers create, to see how they are building something in their own minds out of the art that is out there.

I cannot speak for other writers, but for me at least, this is what criticism is. It is why I write.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.



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Comments Are Welcome, Jerks Will Be Banned


  • Creeper

    I am in love with your mind. Like, I want to marry your synapses.

  • chanohack

    The other day I went to another site to read their rape discussion. The comments here were heartbreaking, but mostly thoughtful, honest, and respectful. The comments there were just... I can't. :( :( :(

  • I lapped this post up like chunks of delicious whiskey-soaked halloumi cheese covered with cocaine sprinklings. Lovely, SLW, fucking lovely.

  • Seth

    Get over yourself

  • AudioSuede

    "But in general, criticism has nothing to do with ripping things down.
    It’s not destruction. It’s identifying bit by bit how the things you see
    change the way that you think. And criticism is about showing that
    internal process of yours to someone else, and sometimes that clicks and
    makes them think about it to. And sometimes they watch something again
    or for the first time, with eyes that are looking at it differently,
    through a lens that you provided."

    I've been working on a critical essay on the fundamentals of arts criticism, its purpose, and its applications, and damned if you didn't just sum the most important point up in a few short paragraphs.

    Nicely done.

  • Thanks for writing. This is probably my favorite non-porn website because of the writing done by you and the rest of the group here. I waste a good chunk of my time after work here reading the articles and the comments.

    That said, a couple of changes so minor that I'm not sure anyone would notice could make this my favorite website. Just saying. Some teeny tiny changes. Minor adjustment to the contents. More boobs is what I'm getting at. Writing and boobs.

  • Mrs. Julien Would Never!

    This is probably my favorite non-porn website

    Isn't that (dental) damning with faint praise?

  • Tinkerville

    You are a gentleman and a scholar, SLW. Your articles are consistently some of the most thought-provoking I've read and Pajiba (and most of all us, the readers) are lucky to have you. Though I am deeply sorry that you had to see POTC 3.. that must've been a traumatic start to your career.

  • Mr. E

    I didn't even read the article. Just stared at that hilarious monkey typing for 20 minutes. I named him Reamus in my mind and he's writing a short story about the coming of age of a teenage girl in Fort Wayne, Indiana titled, ";lakdfjIUE$#94320ijJllksadsf".

  • it was the BLURST of times?!

  • brite

    Also....damn you sir, but you've got style and some introspective chops that I truly admire.

  • brite

    " being cool through ignorance"
    sorry SLW, had t stop half way through this just to ask: Is the above statement EVER EVER true beyond the age 15?
    Ignorance is never cool...acknowledging that you might know anything, but are ALWAYS open to LEARNING is another thing altogether.

  • Kballs

    *runs in*

    fart

    *runs out*

  • e jerry powell

    Quit it with the beans and broccoli, dude...

  • Zuffle

    We're the best commenters on Earth... Whoooooooo! Seriously though, that's a really lovely thing to hear from any website you frequent before all others every day. For the record, I love everyone who writes on this site like family, and want to face-punch Rowles like he were my real brother. If it weren't for Pajiba, I'm not sure I’d even go on the internet.

  • $27019454

    Several months ago, I was going back and reading movie reviews from the archives here and I read this one comment that gave me such pause. it was witty, pithy, filled with insight and peppered with biting humor (ooo my favorite kind!). Since it was from the "old" comments interface days, I had to scroll down to see who wrote it.

    It was me! I LOVE me!

    I know we all write for many reasons -- I write for a living, and I thoroughly enjoy it, especially because I am passionate about what I am writing. But one of the reasons I write is for my own ego. It is one of the only (marketable, legal) things I do well. It blows my mind that something that comes so naturally to me is really beyond so many people. My husband is an engineer and he cannot write a grocery list.

    I'm grateful I can write. I'm not good for much of anything else.

  • Superasente

    Bah! Pajiba-commenters are a bunch of smug, pseudo-intellectual, feminists who use sesquipedalians to sound smart and who don't realize what oblivious hipsters they are because they're too busy sniffing the odorous secretions of their own buttholes.

    And yes, I don't see the irony of my comment or my long-time patronage, which isn't even the right word probably because I don't pay nuffin. So shut up.

    Angry emoticon shakey-fist or whatever. Hakuna Matata.

  • I remember sniffing Dustin's odorous butthole secretion once, years ago. It smelled like... Superasentetongue. Delicious Superasentetongue

  • YOUR BIG WORDS MADE MY BRAIN BOX GET PAINED!! OW!! BAD PERSON!!

  • BWeaves

    You forgot to use the sarcasm font.

  • Robert

    Well said. I think all reviewers fall in and out of patterns that help make the process a little easier. I like to think that all reviewers make the effort to break out of those habits when they realize they're happening, but I know that's not the case. You're not giving an honest review, in the sense of a review being how you read a text in any medium, if you're relying on a formula you created as a short cut for your readers.

  • DarthCorleone

    And that's why we read what you write. Sterling work as always.

    One thing here particularly resonated with me: a friend once told me that he likes talking about movies with me, because I always enable him to look at the film in a different way or appreciate something that he might have missed. I still mark that as one of the best compliments I ever received.

  • Lurkey Turkey

    Great post. This is why I read.

  • Meggrs

    Bravo, and keep up the good work.

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