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Criticwire Survey: Background Research

Criticwire Survey: Background Research

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?” can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: How much of a duty do you feel to research a review? Do you need to have seen all of “Veronica Mars” before writing about “The Veronica Mars Movie,” or be familiar with the writing of Stefan Zweig before reviewing “The Grand Budapest Hotel”?

Keith Phipps, The Dissolve

I do as much research as time will allow, which can range from “a lot” to “none at all,” depending on a lot of outside elements and depending on the movie. In other words, I think it’s helpful for critics to be as informed as possible but also to remember that they’re ultimately judging a movie as a work onto itself. For instance, I’d never read “Anna Karenina” before, so I used the release of the 2012 film as an occasion to finally catch up with it. It was a tremendous pleasure, more pleasure than the film, and I felt like I wrote a more informed review because of it. On the other hand, I don’t think I would have written a less valid review of the movie without it and would probably have come to many of the same conclusions and sometimes time and deadlines just don’t allow as much due diligence as I’d like. (Years ago, I did watch some episodes of “Pokemon” before reviewing one of the movies spun off from the show. If I could have that time back now, I’d probably do something different with it.)

Kenji Fujishima, Slant Magazine, In Review Online

Would an interviewer go out and conduct an interview without doing any background research into the subject he/she is interviewing? Would a hard-news reporter go out into the field and gather facts without knowing some background going into the assignment, the better so that that reporter would be able to provide readers with context in his/her story? I don’t think film criticism is all that different from other types of journalistic writing, even if it’s more creative in nature; thus, I don’t think critics are exempt from responsibilities to be at least somewhat informed about the films they are reviewing. 

Still, as much as I firmly believe that a great critic ought to be aware of other forms of culture as much as about cinema itself, no one can possibly know everything. Just as even the most well-renowned of film critics may have their blind spots when it comes to movies, they may well have the same blind spots when it comes to television, literature, music, and so on. Besides, if you haven’t seen any or all of the episodes of the “Veronica Mars” TV show before being tasked to review “The Veronica Mars Movie” (though one might hope an assigning editor would assign such a review to someone more well-versed in the series in the first place), have only a few days to turn a review of the movie around, and have a lot of other commitments on top of it — I mean, who has time to catch up with every single episode, right? 

Each film is a unique experience, just as each viewer is unique, and in the case of “The Veronica Mars Movie” or a “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” one’s experience might differ from another’s on the basis of what he/she brings into it going in. That doesn’t make one’s opinion more valid than another; as long as one is upfront about where one’s coming from background-wise, I think that’s all a reader asks for, and said reader can decide whether to take such an opinion into consideration or dismiss it altogether. Hey, as long as you sit through all of a film before spouting off any praise or bile its way.

Sean Axmaker, Cinephiled, Parallax View

I’m resistant to the idea of background research specifically to “get” a movie. I’m talking film review here, mind you, not an essay or scholarly study or in-depth think piece, where you want to reach out for background and context. No film comes out of a vacuum, of course, and all of your experience and knowledge informs your experience watching a film. But if you’re writing a review of a film for a general audience, it can often be helpful to come at it without intimate knowledge of the inspirations. I saw all of “Veronica Mars” when it ran on TV but I haven’t rewatched since and I won’t before I see the film. There will be plenty of reviews coming at it from the perspective of the minted fan telling other veterans of the show how well it stacks up to the series and how the passing of time, the transition to the big screen, and other factors make this experience different. And that’s great; I certainly am interested in that. But how about everyone who never watched the show? Does the film work if you come into it without intimate knowledge of the source? Does it stand on its own or is it a member’s only experience. And of course, there is that danger of getting caught up in what the movie isn’t instead of what it is. Doing that kind of research right before seeing the film tends to front-load the comparison in the mind. Or at least that’s my experience when, on a few occasions, I have read a novel only to discover that a film version is coming out soon. Sometimes it hardly makes a difference but there were time when I got caught up on the changes rather that following the experience the director and screenwriter were creating as they reworked the original material.

I did not read the work of Stefan Zweig before I saw “The Grand Budapest Hotel”. As far as that goes, I had seen a half-dozen screen adaptations of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (and that’s not counting sequels and variations) before I ever read the novel. And to be honest, I find it more rewarding to go to the source material after seeing the film (if I like the film) and expand upon my experience. That is when it is most rewarding to me, as a viewer and as a reader of reviews. 

James Poniewozik, Time

I have as much duty to research a review as an average viewer does. If you make a TV series or movie that requires your audience to do a syllabus of coursework to appreciate it in a “valid” way, you are in for a lifetime of deserved disappointment. Sometimes I’ll do the “research,” not out of obligation — e.g., I read the Song of Ice and Fire books before “Game of Thrones,” simply because I thought I’d like them. I sometimes regret not having gone into “Game of Thrones” without reading. But it’s a Schrodinger’s TV-Watcher situation; I can’t be spoiled and unspoiled simultaneously. Neither perspective is more or less valid; they’re just different.

The difference, I guess, is that where background knowledge or lack thereof is very important to how you see the work, then I should disclose it — have I read the book, seen the series, studied the history — so my reader knows where I’m coming from. In the case of “Veronica Mars”, honestly, I’m seeing so many fan reviews that I actually think we might be better served by more reviewers who haven’t done the research, for the benefit of non-viewers (if any) who want to see the movie. 

Stephen Whitty, the Star-Ledger, Newhouse

The short answer is, when my reviewing schedule was lighter — and studios weren’t premiering 16 films every Friday — I made a point of reading source material, watching earlier versions, etc. I still try, but sadly I’m more likely to be reading plot synopses these days than the actual book. But I do think it’s important, and I come to the screening as prepared as I can be.

The longer answer? I know the argument is that the film is the film, and needs to stand or fall on its own merits. But if it’s based on something else, whether it’s famous literature (like the recent “Much Ado About Nothing,” or “Romeo and Juliet”) or a pop sensation (like the current “Divergent” and upcoming “Hunger Games”) the more information you have, the more you can put this adaptation into context, and provide a deeper reading. That critique may be on the level of why this “Anna Karenina” is more feminist than others, or how “Noah” adds an ecological message (or it can simply be a carefully worded warning to fans that, yes,the Mandarin was, like, really rewritten for “Iron Man 3”). But approaching a movie in blissful ignorance — particularly when the audience it’s aiming itself at is more informed than you are — isn’t any way to do thoughtful criticism.

Which is also, yes, why I happily ceded the “Veronica Mars” movie to our TV writer. 

Richard Brody, the New Yorker

Research can’t make a movie good — in fact, with a mediocre film, it serves the demon of the “interesting” — but it may deepen the experience of a good movie. That’s why it’s hardly useful or necessary to do research in advance of a screening and often a pleasure afterwards. And pleasure is mainly what matters. As it happens, I had read “The World of Yesterday” a few years ago, but after seeing “The Grand Budapest Hotel”,” I read it again, not because it seemed necessary to do so (it isn’t) but because it was a delight, and now a greater one, not just for the book’s intrinsic merits but as another way of thinking about a movie I love. In a practical sense, I agree with the man from “His Girl Friday”: production for use. For a capsule review, research is hardly to the point; for a longer article or blog post, it’s often useful; for a book, it’s indispensable. But the very idea of research is inseparable from the whole web of allusions that any film is built of. What Hemingway said about education is how I feel about research: He prefers knowledge (and, I’d add, knowledge with passion). If I didn’t already love Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto as Kirk Douglas does in “A Letter to Three Wives,” the great scene with the radio executives — and the soundtrack joke that precedes it, lending lyrics to its opening melody — wouldn’t have the enduring kick for me that it does. Cary Grant’s conducting of the Academic Festival Overture in “People Will Talk” makes the piece better; so does Godard’s “King Lear” for Shakespeare’s play. He has claimed not to have read it before making the film. I had read it many years before watching it; but Godard made the play better (I’m not joking) — that’s the very definition of what a good adaptation does, and I’d say the same thing about Zweig’s memoir and “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” I didn’t read the play or the memoir as research; all one can do is live. 

Scott Renshaw, Salt Lake City Weekly

“Duty” probably isn’t the right word, though I’ve become a bit of an obsessive in recent years about trying to read source material before film adaptations of books. There are times when it seems to be far more relevant than others — specifically, when the source material is widely known and beloved, and the choices made in changing that source material are likely to be scrutinized by viewers. Adaptations of “The Hunger Games” and “Twilight”, for example, clearly feel far more inextricably linked to the fans’ connection to the source material than, say, “Winter’s Bone” (although I read that before seeing the movie, too). And, for selfish reasons, it feels like a value-added way to distinguish my own coverage of a movie from that of critics who may not be familiar with the source material.

When it comes to something like “Veronica Mars”, however, the subject of background knowledge feels like an entirely different case. I’ve never seen a minute of the series, and it’s hard for me to imagine I have something worthwhile to contribute to the conversation about a movie that exists *only* because of the enthusiasm of its fans. Is it possible for people to appreciate “Serenity” or “Fire Walk With me” without having seen any of “Firefly” or “Twin Peaks”? I guess so. But it’s absurd to think that it’s remotely as informed an experience.

Peter Labuza, The Cinephiliacs, Variety

I don’t really have an opinion about catching up with former material or what have you, but here’s one thing I’d see changed. Most critics seem to want to wait to write their own piece before engaging with any other writers on the film and reading their reviews. Obviously if it’s a new movie with no reviews (and you’re writing for a major publication) that makes sense, but I’d like to see more film bloggers read the work of others before writing their own piece. The usual adage is that reading someone else’s piece will mean their ideas influence them, but I see it as an opportunity to know what is already covered and expand on a different aspect instead (and also an opportunity to cite sources!). I prefer reading pieces that seem engaged in a dialogue than those that work as snow globes, which demand appreciation instead of function as part of a larger landscape.

Glenn Kenny, RogerEbert.com, Some Came Running

My friend James Rocchi has got it all summed up in his Twitter bio: “I write about movies. Which means, really, I get to write about everything.” That’s something that a lot of reviewers who willfully shut themselves in a circumscribed world ought to think about, I believe. But speaking strictly for myself, my idea of due diligence has, I think, a pretty conscientious baseline level, beyond which research becomes a matter of personal inclination. The matter of Stefan Zweig is kind of interesting, as I’ve seen more than one critic huffily contend that Wes Anderson just doesn’t get Zweig at all. Although, you know, “inspired by” shouldn’t necessarily be read as “You are invited to use your view of these works as a litmus test for the legitimacy of my own.” And you know, there’s an anecdote about James Ensor in Zweig’s “The World of Yesterday” that could have come straight out of a Wes Anderson movie. (See what I did there?) So the answer, as it is to so many things, is “It depends.” I’ve never read Stanislaw Lem’s “Solaris,” but I think my perspective has been informed by the fact that he rabidly despised both Andrei Tarkovsky and Steven Soderbergh’s adaptations of the novel. 

Ethan Alter, Television Without Pity

It really is a case-by-case basis for me, one that’s dictated both by the movie in question as well as the time commitment and my own interest level. I did wind up binge-watching the entire run of “Veronica Mars” prior to seeing the movie, because a) It was specifically created for the show’s fanbase and b) I’d been looking for an excuse to do so anyway. Similarly, if there’s a book I’ve always wanted to read, I’ll sometimes use the fact that there’s an upcoming film adaptation to finally get around to doing that. On the other hand, I don’t feel much personal incentive to carve out to, say, get caught up on “The Mortal Instruments” series or “Divergent” prior to seeing those adaptations. Ultimately, I think that old saw holds: no matter what inspired a particular movie, it still has to stand on its own. Familiarity with the source material can certainly provide context and a jumping-off point for a given review, but that’s only one part of a broader discussion. 

Luke Y. Thompson, Topless Robot

When I started as a critic, my editor made it a mandate for us to read the book if a movie were based upon one, and I expanded that to even playing the video game if it were a movie based on one. This was when “critic” was a full-time job and we had the luxury of time to do that.

Things have changed. Very few people are “just” critics any more. Those who are, I would hope might try to give themselves some context. And even for those of us who have multiple tasks, I think there is a mandate at times. If you’re reviewing a movie based on a hugely successful book like “Harry Potter” or “50 Shades of Grey,” where many of your readers will have read the thing, you should too. An entire TV series is a bit much to ask, but maybe at least an episode or two. And one’s discretionary budget comes into play — certainly nobody would suggest you need to procure the entire run of “Captain America” comics to understand a Captain America movie.

The most important thing, for any sort of criticism, is to disclose where you stand upfront. If you never saw an episode of “Veronica Mars”, say it right off the bat. A fan who would dismiss you for that need read no further nor feel time wasted. Every opinion is valid, but knowing where that opinion comes from allows the reader to assess its validity to them. And that’s how all criticism should be approached.

Tony Dayoub, Cinema Viewfinder, Press Play

I wish I had the time to research all of my reviews, But as a business owner and parent, I must admit that sometimes life takes precedence. Fortunately, I believe it is equally valid to approach a film adaptation from the perspective of familiarity or unfamiliarity with its source material. Foreknowledge of a film’s subject can help me fill in blanks for those unaware of a movie’s lineage. However, if I’m unfamiliar with the source, I usually make reference to that at least once in my review so readers know where I’m coming from. A virgin’s perspective can yield equally illuminating results in a movie review also.

Craig D. Lindsey, Nashville Scene, RogerEbert.com
When it comes to writing on any subject, I feel you must be equipped with your fair share of knowledge about it. You don’t have to go overboard — you’re writing a review, not a treatise — but you should know enough that the reader trusts that you know what the hell you’re talking about. You don’t have to be a rabid fan or a historian of a subject to write a review about it. This is something readers often mistakenly assume. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten flak from Harry Potter fans over the fact that I haven’t read the books, yet went ahead and reviewed several of the movies. (I mean, where the hell do I get off?) This fanboy culture makes it damn near impossible to write on anything without diehard fans ready to second-guess you and your opinion because you don’t know the subject inside and out. I remember when I reviewed J”John Carter” and spent an entire Sunday night making sure I knew all I needed to know about the books and its legacy, just in case fanboys felt froggy and wanted to leap. I feel I’ve accumulated enough info in my life to write about whatever. And even if I do write something I’m not well-versed in — hey, there’s always Google. 

Peter Howell, Toronto Star

I think critics should make an effort to understand a film’s larger context before attempting a review, whether it’s a news event like a West Memphis Three, a literary classic like “The Lord of the Rings” or a cult TV series like “Veronica Mars”. But the research doesn’t need to be exhaustive. Just as you don’t have to read the entire Bible to review “Noah,” you don’t have to see every last “Veronica Mars” TV episode to review the movie version. But in both cases a basic understanding of the story and the players would make for a better review. And with literary adaptations, there’s not much to be gained by doing a point-by-point analysis of how the film differs from the book, since they are two very different forms of artistic expression. That said, with a genuine classic like “The Lord of the Rings” or “On the Road,” it can make for a better review if you can bring some knowledge to just how much the film differs from the book, although that usually doesn’t require more than a paragraph to point out. And it works in reverse, too. I wasn’t terribly familiar with the writings of Stefan Zweig before seeing “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, but Wes Anderson’s enthusiasm for them, and my enthusiasm for Anderson’s film, have made me want to investigate Zweig further.

Joanna Langfield, The Movie Minute

With reviews, interviews and life in general, I feel it is essential to do your homework. Know as much as you can, walking in. Then, forget about everything. Or at least put it aside. It is also very important to approach each film and subject fresh, allowing for surprises to carry you along to somewhere you may never have expected. Does anybody else’s approach make them less valid? I’m certainly not going to say that, but the subject of what makes professional criticism separate from the casual (or rabid) fan’s reaction is a whole other, very long subject.

Edward Douglas, Coming Soon

This is a really good question and it can be stretched out to ask whether a film critic needs to have read the book (or every book in the series) to be able to properly review “Divergent” or other movies based on books, and to be honest, while I would love to have time to read every book and watch every episode of a show that’s transitioning to a movie, most film critics are too busy watching movies and writing about them. The truth — and every filmmaker will tell you this — is that books and television and films are different mediums, and the way I look at it is that if a movie doesn’t stand on its own and if it’s necessary to read a book or watch a couple seasons of a television to know what’s going on or to enjoy the movie as its own entity, then the movie is a failure. I’m sure there are a lot of reviews out there of “Divergent” by fans of the books who have that context… and fans of the books who want that perspective will probably find it. I write my reviews for those who are hearing about the book and are curious whether it’s worth seeing the movie having not read the book and usually I make sure that’s stated in the review. I see no reason to spend an entire review making comparisons. (And that goes for remakes as well.)

Josh Spiegel, Sound on Sight

I would say no in general, but I think the two examples cited in the question — watching “Veronica Mars”, the TV show before watching “Veronica Mars”, the movie; and reading the work of Stefan Zweig before seeing “The Grand Budapest Hotel” — aren’t entirely comparable. Having been a fan of the TV series during its airing, I can only presume that if someone never watched the “Veronica Mars” TV series, the movie wouldn’t work very well at all. But that’s also a case where, to me, the only audience for that film is the pre-existing fans. Whereas I can say that I loved “The Grand Budapest Hotel” despite not having read Zweig’s work. Outside of these examples, I’d say that research shouldn’t be necessary for a film to work; I’ve never felt terribly compelled to read a book before watching the adaptation, for example.

Mark Young, Sound on Sight, the New York Movie Klub

I do not do a ton of research, but I will often IMDB a director or actor whom I’m not familiar with. I’ll even do this for movies I hated, if there was any aspect of the film or performance which struck me. This doesn’t mean I went back and watched the complete run of “The Bill Engvall Show” after seeing Jennifer Lawrence’s stunning debut in “Winter’s Bone”, but it’s always useful to let the readers know where you can find someone’s early work.

Jeff Berg, ABQ Arts, Las Cruces Bulletin

I do research some material when reviewing some documentaries or pictures based on true stories, but for purely fictional things, I don’t bother. Maybe I should start reading those Marvel comics so I know what I am missing.

Marc V. Ciafardini, Go See Talk, Big Fan Boy

A film, at least in my opinion, should be evaluated as a self-contained entity and an experience unto itself. That said the whole issue of “doing research” is a very nebulous grey area that asks both filmmakers and critics to meet somewhere but not necessarily in the middle. That leaves a lot of room for interpretation (especially if the film is a sequel or part of a series) but it doesn’t mean a reviewer shouldn’t attempt to do some homework.

Contrary to what I wrote above we wouldn’t be very good at our jobs if we evaluated a film solely in a vacuum. On the other hand it really is up to the filmmakers/producers to tell a story in a way that caters to fans but also accommodates those new to the property; audiences aren’t just made up of critics. If you are seeing “Grand Budapest” it’s almost a certainty that you’ve seen something Anderson has done regardless of whether you even know who Stefan Zweig is.

Telling a story, in this case making a film, should be about the narrative at hand. Those good at it will take time to spell out some backstory (regardless of whether it’s entirely necessary or redundant) but it helps get the story going. J.J. Abrams and Christopher Nolan hit their mark, which is to say that sweet spot between a story stalling origin/flashback and laying the ground rules for the story they wanted to tell. But they also made sure they threw in the clever winks and nods that fans would appreciate and gush over.

But doing our homework should do more than let us know the just of what’s going on. I should help us as critics identify, evaluate and enjoy the stylistic merits or shortcomings of a film, not just the narrative ones. I mean “Hunger,” “Shame” and “12 Years a Slave” have very little to do with one another but aside from reading Northrup’s writings (which the film was going to cover anyway) seeing a filmmaker’s earlier work before the more current one allows more of the artistic appreciation that adds to the present film in question. Again, it’s a filmmaker’s job to make it accommodating for all eyes on screen whether any of us have the time, means or interest to do our homework beforehand. Filmmaking is a business so it doesn’t pay to pander to just us (or a niche audience). Now I realize I might have skewed off topic but this question doesn’t really have a simple answer. 

Peter Keough, Boston Globe, Critics a Go-Go

I read pretty much everything because I like to read. I drew the line at the third “Twilight” book, however. I find, though, that for series like “The Hunger Games” it’s best to read the books because if you get any detail wrong the fans will come and burn your house down. 

I don’t read to compare the movie to the book, which I think is fallacious. But I think it’s important for a critic to have as much background about the work that’s under discussion. It’s like being familiar with a director’s career, or the genre. One thing that distinguishes a critic from the average viewer is that we bring more knowledge and background to our assessment.

Danny Bowes, RogerEbert.com

Research isn’t a choice for me, it’s an absolute necessity. Given that my enthusiasm for Indian cinema outpaces my knowledge, every time I review a film for RogerEbert.com a minimum of a half-hour’s reading precedes writing. I’m getting better about recognizing names and faces, but even so, I need to doublecheck if that was Jackie Shroff playing the villain in that one movie (it wasn’t) or if that was the guy from Vicky Donor in that new rom-com (it was) or if this Kapoor is one of the Kapoors (a trick question). Now that I’m in the habit of doing this kind of due diligence I find myself doing it with American and European films too where I sometimes didn’t before, which is improving my writing a bit. I’ve always been a proponent of reading the book (substitute verb and noun for different types of source material as necessary) before seeing the movie anyway, and in most instances where one isn’t forced to bang out multiple reviews a day covering a festival or some such, there’s always a few minutes to brush up before doing the writing.

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

Other than making sure I have a general familiarity with a film’s source material, I don’t necessarily go out of my way to research. There are two reasons for this: 1) I’m only reviewing what’s up on the screen; and 2) there simply isn’t always time to read a book, or binge-watch a TV show, or play through a videogame that’s being adapted into a movie. If I happen to be well-acquainted with the tangential stuff, that’s all the better. If not, I don’t sweat it, because a large chunk of the audience won’t be, either. My review will reflect an outsider’s take, and will probably most appeal to other outsiders. If a reader wants a review from someone more intimately knowledgeable on, say, “Veronica Mars,” there are other critics they can read for an insider’s point of view. In other words, with so many diverse critics, we collectively cover all the bases. 

John Keefer, 51 Deep

The film is the thing. Much like a great work of fiction can be adapted into something unwatchable, or a dime-store pulp novel can be made into a great work of cinema, what matters is what is in the frame and also what is left out of it. If the film relies too heavily on a relationship the audience has with the source material the film will inevitably feel stunted somehow, even as it delights the initiated. The critic only needs the film he or she is watching to make a value judgment and to let their readers know whether the experience is worth the price of admission. But unfortunately we do not review films in the perfect endless vacuum of space. We are trapped in our bodies and in the collective pop culture unconsciousness wherein we can, say, catch a few minutes of a “Veronica Mars” rerun as we lapse in and out of a drunken Saturday night stupor. In this intoxicated state we could mistake “Veronica Mars” for “The Eyes of Laura Mars” and have the impression that Kristen Bell has some sort of psychic powers. Our whiskey-soaked brains could then make the connection to “That’s So Raven” in which Raven-Symone’s character actually did have psychic powers which the series slowly forgot about, much in the line of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” though the witchcraft was always kinda there… what was I talking about. Oh yeah, no, you don’t need to indoctrinate yourself because you already dove head-first into cinema and you’re there to review a film. Hmm… makes me wonder if I would have liked “Fire Walk With Me” so much if I had never seen “Twin Peaks.”

Sean Chavel, Flick Minute

I don’t feel it’s necessary for any film critic to have seen any TV episode of “Veronica Mars”, will it make me sound conceited if I said that sounds like a waste of time to watch old TV? I do wish myself I had read some Stefan Zweig before I saw “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, it’s my loss. There are plenty of internet critics to go around, I’d love to read a critic’s take on Budapest who has read Zweig. My take is that a film should hold up as it’s own entity and communicate it’s own merits, but of course, it helps to know if a film has bastardized a novel or not. An important novel. Not a trash novel.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing

I think it’s really situation specific, but in most cases I don’t think a lack of background research is a deal breaker. Sure, it helps sometimes to know a bit extra, but simply put…what percentage of audience members are doing the same? If you want your opinion/review to have value to the widest range of people, perhaps it’s even beneficial to go in as cold as possible? It obviously depends on your outlet in that case, but nine times out of ten I don’t think you’re missing out too much if you haven’t done that extra bit of due diligence.

Anne-Katrin Titze, Eye For Film

Never would I have expected to mention Stefan Zweig in three Criticwire surveys in a row. Of course, you can never research everything and the choices reviewers make are interesting to me. I like to read about connections I could never have made. If someone were a specialist on the history of the funicular or explained a choice of tempo or fabric, I wouldn’t miss Stefan Zweig if he were never mentioned. 

Edwin Arnaudin, Asheville Citizen-Times/Ashvegas

There’s no need to be an expert about a particular film to review it.
 Who has the time?  For the most part, a film should succeed or fail on
its own, apart from substantial background knowledge. Review
the film foremost.  If there’s sufficient research needed to to explain
the ins and outs about that film, save it for a separate article.

Gary M. Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

I think that a good film should encourage viewers to further explore the source material. Much of what I saw when I was younger sparked a curiosity to read the work by the author, visit a location from a film, or investigate something that was referenced, as well as watch more films by the same director. Yes, familiarity with the original material can enhance the experience, but a work of art should stand on its own. For years I wrote a column where I read books that were being turned into films. It was good fun for a while, but it soon detracted from the experience of seeing the film because I either knew what was coming (“No Country for Old Men”), or I got angry at the sheer wrongheadedness of the adaptation (“The Mysteries of Pittsburgh”).

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second 

I have no set approach. If a film takes hold of me I’ll return to the original text or seek out supplementary material, but more often that not I take a film as it stands (this includes not reading other reviews until after I’ve written up my own thoughts). That said, given my own auteurist leanings I’d be naive to say that “research” has no bearing on my own thoughts or approach. With the exception of debutante filmmakers everything that a director has previously produced plays in to how I approach a film. Taking the recent “Under the Skin” for example, Jonathan Glazer’s extra-textual activities (his hiatus, his experiences working in Hollywood with “Birth,” his background in advertising and as a music videoist) played i to how I went in to that movie in a similar way that having read the novel would have informed another viewer. 

Within my preferred areas my knowledge is strong. I’m well read, in terms of historic texts (both volumes tracing the history of, and tomes deemed historically important) and make an especial effort to keep up with my area particularly. One cannot be an expert on everything though, as I find out when attempting to review the seventh and a half Harry Potter movie with only the most fleeting of familiarity with it’s predecessors in the boy wizard franchise. To this day I maintain that my review was self-defacing in all the right ways, and perhaps even too much (I didn’t think it worthwhile to even question the idea of accessibility of the eighth film in a franchise to an unfamiliar audience, as worthy a line of enquiry as that might be), and fair as can be. Imagine my surprise upon discovering that my review had been cherry picked and placed alongside Armond White (a writer whose work, incidentally, I admire a great deal) in a national broadsheet’s round-up of “Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2” reviews deemed to be deliberately and provocatively contrary! 

Robert Levin, amNewYork

I take the research question on a case-by-case scenario, depending on the nature of the film. Being familiar with “Veronica Mars” the TV show seems far more conducive to a worthwhile review than reading up on Stefan Zweig for “Grand Budapest,” though the latter couldn’t hurt. It’s an instinctual thing. But
the larger, inescapable truth is that any sort of review of any movie,
with any amount of research or lack thereof, is completely valid as long
as the critic isn’t pretending to be something he or she is not.


Q: What is the best movie in theaters?

A: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Other movies receiving multiple votes: “The LEGO Movie,” “Her”

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