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.