Thursday, March 17, 2011

Rules of Criticism

I think there are four types of reviews: Good, bad, favorable and unfavorable. Granted, we'd all prefer favorable reviews, but given a choice between a bad review that's favorable and a good one that's not, I think I'd go with the latter. A good critique teaches the artist as well as the audience, and there are some simple rules for formulating a good critique.

Is The Artist's Objective Clear? If you're watching a movie, is it a comedy or a drama? What's the point of the novel you're reading? The artist has asked you to invest your time in this particular piece. Why? If you're looking at a painting, is it classical realism or Jackson Pollock abstract expressionism? In music, is it a lullaby or a dance tune?

Does the Artist Achieve The Objective? Did the comedy make you laugh? The drama give a catharsis? Did the themes make you think? Is the realistic portrait objective? Does the artist's hand show in the abstract? Did the lullaby ease your tension? Did the dance number make you move? Was it all worth your time?

Finally, Do You Like It? It is important that this is the last question. I remember both Siskel and Ebert giving Rambo: First Blood positive reviews, even though neither of them liked the movie very much. If the artist's objectives are clear, and they achieve them in an interesting manner, then the critic is obligated to say, "if this is your cup of tea, you'll like it, even though I don't."

Following these rules is how a good critic can review a movie one minute and a bottle of perfume the next. What is being reviewed doesn't matter. How the thing achieves its goals, does.

Which leads us to this week's short film submissions.

We've had a slew of submissions that start with the old 8-second leader with the 2-pop – which I've always wondered, is that were the rapper got his name? Folks, we know you're shooting digital. Even if you shoot on film, you don't need the 8-second leader on your DVD submission. The projectionist doesn't have to sync up you reel changes, and we hope that you've already got your sound right. If you get into the festival, we're going to ask for an HD tape and Michael might instruct you to put on an 8-second leader, I don't know. I finished on film. I do know that: 1) you do not want any festival screening the same DVD you submitted. They get scratched, have a high failure rate, and a tendency to drop a couple of frames out of sync. I know a lot of festivals do screen off DVD or hard drives where they've copied the submission over. We ain't that cheesy, so that leads to: 2) we don't need to see the 2-pop.

But don't worry, and don't write in. Having it will not affect the first two rules of our critiques.

I was reminded of another theatre saying that filmmakers would benefit from burning into their brains. Savvy stage directors will often say to the lighting designer during technical rehearsals, "turn the lights up, I can't hear." They aren't kidding. If we can't see an actor's face, then it is harder to understand what they are saying. Our brains tell us we can't hear them, but in fact, we can't see them. This happens a lot in DWF submissions.

The music has been better this year. I had that thought as we watched a film done by someone who obviously didn't read my blog last year. Slow piano... over slow shots... of people walking... slowly... or people... sitting... or people... doing nothing. If that isn't bad enough, slow synthetic cellos are brought in to make sure that anyone who might still be awake is given artistic Quaaludes. Counterpoint, folks! Slow music is fine if you're setting us up for something – or have so overwhelmed us in action or plot or emotion that you know we need the tiniest of breathers – or maybe the action on the screen is the craziest car chase ever, then try a slow piano cord here and there as a juxtaposition. But dragging music over slow action is like putting lead weights on a jelly fish.

Speaking of weights on jelly fish... we often see films like one last night, where there is nothing blaringly wrong with the final product, except that every aspect of the movie – writing, acting, design, tech, etc. – falls just a little short on quality. Together, these little problems bring the whole down enough that it is ultimately a pass. Those are tough for us, because we hope the filmmakers will keep at it. All they need is experience.

We had another soldier coming home from war movie that just gave lip service to an important issue. In trying to help, they insulted. I don't know if the filmmakers have real experience in the subject matter or not. If so, they don't have the filmmaking skills to pull off their goal. It takes both experience and skill to handle such difficult subject matter.

I know I've harped on opening credits in shorts before – please don't pretend we're about to see an epic, just start the damn movie. The same applies for end credits. When you're watching a studio movie and you see a bunch of credits at the end, then the title of the movie, then the same credits over – like Cast (in order of appearance). That's because they are contractually obligated to each person whose name you see before the title to have "above the title" credits and a certain kind of credit "in the crawl." If the producers don't want all of that crap playing over action at the beginning, then they have to put it at the end. It's not an artistic choice, it's a legal one. In most cases with DWF submissions, you don't have those problems, so credit you're cast and crew, of course – but don't go crazy with it.

That's it this week. Thanks for reading and comments, questions, and suggestions are appreciated.


Anonymous said...

Oh no! Your (literal) reference to jellyfish might not mean the best news for my submission in particular. I'm not trying to be too presumptuous, but if it's indeed my film to which you've referred, I can at least feel good about not falling into most of the more obnoxious trends/traps that you keep mentioning on this blog.

Regardless, I've really enjoyed reading.

Jim Vendiola

RSMellette said...

Here I try and make a reference that couldn't possibly have anything to do with a specific movie, and look what happens...

Nope, didn't mean your film. If it's been screened, then it was in the other room, so I haven't seen it yet.

Good luck.

Now, I have to get back to my own script, which I'm desperately trying to keep from having the same pitfalls I mention here every week.

Anonymous said...

Hah, ok good! :) I just have actual jellyfish in my short, so please excuse my paranoia...

Regardless, thanks Robert. Best of luck with your script.