Personal Post: Vagueness and the Movie Reviewing Process

Preamble

Honestly, I don’t know whether to breathe a sigh of relief or hyperventilate into a brown paper bag over this blog post. For a while, I’ve observed a trend in movie reviewing that I’ve wanted to give voice to. But in so doing, it’s made me reflect on the movie reviewing process, and why it remains my favourite form of writing. So, to that end, after the jump, let’s take a journey together into vagueness and film criticism. But before we start, I’d like to preface that in tackling these concepts, I do not want to throw shade at anyone. I will always advocate and champion people voicing their opinion in whatever manner they see fit. Instead, I’m a mere bystander who is just commenting on a trend, and reflecting on what it says about today’s culture etc. What do you think about vagueness in reviews? And do you think there are essential elements to a movie review? Let me know in the comments below.

Personal Post

So, our starter for ten is what is a vague movie review? Well, it resembles a shopping list insofar as the reviewer in question will list several things they like/dislike about the cinematic experience they’re talking about (akin to ticking off items on a shopping list). Many superlative or buzz words will be employed to make it sound enticing or abominable.

An example of one would be the following: Movie x has a great story, wonderful acting and a pitch-perfect musical score. The vagueness comes from nothing being elaborated about these aspects. To compound matters, further thoughts on a movie are usually omitted for the reason of spoilers or not wanting to give things away. Finally, the review will end with a rating for the film in question (be it a numbered or star rating).

On a basic level, this may be enough to get someone to see a film. For example, if you’re in a social situation, and you want a brief encapsulation of what someone thought of something etc. However, this type of review (primarily in video form) has become quite rampant in recent years. By itself, it’s pretty harmless, but as a trend, it has given me pause for thought.

For me, a movie review is something that feels as though it’s been considered; whether that’s in video or written form, you get a sense that the reviewer has a point of view, which in turn sparks a discussion. Vague movie reviews have no such aspirations. Instead, they timidly dance around the movie with generic appeals to extremes, be it positive or negative.

This desire to be uncritical is ultimately what makes these reviews quite alarming to me. It speaks to a larger aspect of our culture. There’s now this idea that being critical is a bad thing as opposed to something meaningful. This even comes into play when there’s a comparison between two movies. In reviews like this, there’s either a point of pride in not wanting to compare a film in a series or a blink, and you’ll miss appeal to positivity when someone says movie x resembles movie y etc.

I’m a great believer that no movie exists in a vacuum. Instead, depending on the genre, directors use previous movies as a template and source of inspiration for their mood, tone and cinematic aspects. With this in mind, it’s almost impossible to not compare a movie (relative to genre expectations or as part of a series).

In fact, one of my favourite movie podcasts (The Next Picture Show) tackles this idea head-on by looking at a recent release through the lens of a paired movie from the past. This approach results in many varied and fascinating discussions that further illuminate aspects of the contemporary film in question. For example, one of my favourite episodes is a discussion about the theme of spiritual isolation in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed compared with Schrader’s screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film- Taxi Driver.

At the same time, vague movie reviews reveal further things about today’s culture. It speaks to how we conduct our conversations and debates. There’s a tendency to ask what we think of something as opposed to why we think that etc. This differentiation tends to favour short bursts of thoughts and not the deeper aspects of any given review etc.

Ultimately, it makes me feel as though the movie review discourse has been watered down. Between an over-reliance on ratings and vagueness, talking about movies has become akin to complimenting a badge that someone is wearing, and not a discussion that can lead to a richer appreciation. And in my mind, that devalues something that’s become an art form in and of itself. With critics such as Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert and Matt Zoller Seitz, film criticism has become a hobby that I always strive to be better at. And I’m constantly learning from these critics too.

Kael has inspired me to trust my gut on a first viewing of a film. Ebert has taught me the importance of giving a bad movie its day in court by making it sound enticing for someone who may want to see potentially see it. And Seitz has gotten me into the habit of talking about filmmaking. And the benefits of movie reviewing have ranged from organising thought, being articulate and developing a better understanding of such a young medium.

Despite learning these lessons, I feel I’m not there yet. I don’t think I ever will be. However, the movie reviewing process will always fascinate me, whether it’s expressing a visual motif in a director’s work or how a single shot expresses an idea. But above all, film reviewing is akin to writing about a dream whereby you remember small details and out of those seeds, you start to build a picture of comprehension, meaning and judgement.

About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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