I always thought film critics were the most inward-looking navel gazers on the planet, but based on the number of pieces they’ve written in recent weeks about their own profession, it looks like lit critics are making a play for that title. Last week in The New York Times Magazine, Dwight Garner wrote “A Critic’s Case For Critics.” Just a few days later, J. Robert Lennon responded with his own piece for Salon entitled “How to Write a Bad Review.” Not all of his advice is applicable to the world of film — much of it is aimed at authors who also moonlight as book critics, a practice that is a lot less frequent in the world of movies — but there are a few interesting thoughts. His sixth and final point seems particularly useful:
“Sixth, be balanced. If there is awful writing in the book you’re reviewing, and you want to quote it, go right ahead. But if the book is 5 percent awful and 95 percent fine, don’t spend 75 percent of your review quoting the worst passages. People do this when they’re angry. I understand: sometimes, when I am reading a book, I hate the things I hate far more than I like the things I like. But succumbing to the hate means that you are giving your reader an unbalanced view of the book. Indeed, your job is to characterize what the book is like — to give as full a picture as possible of the experience of reading it. This means, analyze the writing style, the flow of thoughts, the narrative approach — not just a plot summary and a bunch of rotten quotes. Control your emotions. Want the writer to be good. Want all writing to be good. If this writing is not good, regard the situation as regrettable, rather than cause for an end zone dance.”
This is something film critics should be aware of in their own work. I often find myself frustrated by reviews that read like devastating pans but end on a note of conciliation and a rating of two and a half or three stars, or a letter grade of B-; the writer spent so much time focusing on what they didn’t like that they forgot to mention that overall they enjoyed the movie. The amount of good and bad discussed in a review should be commensurate to the amount of good and bad in the film: if a movie is five percent awful and ninety-five percent good, then roughly those same percentages should be carried over to the critique.
This brings us back to our conversation from a few weeks ago about nitpicking and “The Dark Knight Rises.” If you can’t see the forrest for the trees, neither can your readers. Overall impact should take precedent over harping over minutia (unless, of course, you think there are so many problems with the minutia that it overwhelms and destroys the impact of the work as a whole).
Lennon has another piece of advice that relates to film criticism, but I’m torn over how to follow it: “Cut [a young] writer some slack,” he says. This is something film critics, especially ones who focus on independent movies, grapple with regularly: you’re at a film festival, you see something by a first-time director made with heart, good intentions, and very little talent. Do you ease up because the director is young and meant well? Or do you review it as you would any other movie by any other filmmaker?
Some film critics I know say yes you do, but others I’ve spoken with follow a code in these situations: they don’t trash bad indies that don’t yet have distributors. If the film isn’t going to make it to theaters or reach a wider audience, they argue, why inflict emotional insult to financial injury? I see their reasoning, although I imagine some studios looking to gauge potential viewers’ interest in smaller films might not appreciate the fact that they only hear how terrible their new acquisitions are after they’ve already picked them up.
As Lennon says in his piece, there is a way to walk the line here: to write a negative review empathically, and to offer encouragement along with criticism. End zone dances in reviews should come during pieces about the discoveries of exciting new voices, not in smackdowns of struggling artists who’ve yet to find theirs. After all, you celebrate touchdowns, not incompletions.
Read more of “How to Write a Bad Review.”