Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Dedicated to Film Critics.

Their job is to watch early previews of new movie releases and tell us, the audience, how they felt about a given film, and whether it would be worth spending our precious money and time on it at all!

All I can recall from most professional critics’s reviews that I read is mostly a long summary of the movie story/plot, without revealing the «who dunnit» of course, then its comparison to some of the universally accepted ‘best’ movies in the genre (often doing this to boast about the depth of their own cinema knowledge, and amplify the weight of their opinion), and finally loathing or loving what they saw. Often the loathing is overly critical, cynical and far too unfairly negative. We are then supposed to simply and unequivocally trust their opinion. Also, a fact well known, it is practically a few select leading critics, whose opinion is universally respected for all sorts of reasons, who set the primary trend on a given new movie, and most of the remaining critics will continue to pompously echo the few experts’ «loathing or loving», just like a herd of «His Master’s Voice» doggies... The fact that far too often films loathed by critics became huge box-office success tells a lot about critics too.

Compare this with product reviews we see in YouTube. A world of difference. We see and hear almost everything concerning a given product, even experience its unboxing. We won’t have to see or even feel it ‘in real’ anymore. We could easily trust our
acquired knowledge obtained during these online reviews, as most reviewers actually test them products right in front of our eyes. If we feel that certain aspects are not covered sufficiently, we dig further until we find someone to provide satisfactory answers to all our remaining questions. By the time we have purchased and received the product, it’s like we already used it for ages.

Not with movie reviews, though. With most of them it seems like someone asked a few blind men to describe an elephant by simply touching parts of its body. Some feel soft, some wet, hairy, hard, huge, especially huge. Opinions are like a-holes they say: everybody's got one... Descriptions of the beast will be all over the map. Likewise, most professional critics appear too ‘blind’ for the job, as they are often much too incapable of seeing through the movie and grasping the genuine
message of the movie's Director. This is why most successful moviemakers despise and are dreadful of critics for their poorly informed, partial, opinionated and unfair coverage of the formers' work. In a spirit of justified avenge, moviemakers will then claim that most critics are in themselves failed moviemakers. However, jokingly, they could still be ‘acceptable’ but only as critics, it is claimed. Like, bad wine can still make excellent quality vinegar !

Movie making is an art form that is extremely complicated and expensive to execute properly. Distinguished from most other art forms, it is being pursued by large groups of people working together on the movie project, often with opposing and contradictory philosophies, ideologies, preferences, and talents. Colours and tastes, like the French say... Movies will have then to be completed within tough constraints of time and budgets, and after formal launch, they need to become genuinely popular among audiences
in order to 'cover' their incurred expenses and turn out some profit. In each and every movie, most of the ‘public’ figures involved, actors, directors, cinematographers, music composers, producers, studios, with each and every single new movie project, they all take a tremendous personal risk concerning their future survival in the industry. And that's despite how glorious their ‘past’ work has already proven to be. Unfortunately, movie failures remain strong in audiences’ and critics’ memory. In each and every new project the leading and visible contributors (especially directors and performing actors) risk to become unemployable for the rest of their careers. Never forget that... Movie making is as risky as gambling... maybe riskier! It can make or break the moviemaker!

First and foremost, movie making is about manipulating audiences and carrying them along a story telling adventure, in which the movie Director, leading/managing each and every member in his/her crew, will tell the audience what he/she wants them to hear, and convince them about his/her own truth of reality... the latter being the "movie story". The key words here, again, are the combined conscious/unconscious audience manipulation. Conscious for moviemakers, unconscious for audiences. Audiences do indeed want to get fooled by watching a movie, and experience the sense that even for the couple hours of its duration they'll live magic like in a dream. Or a nightmare...

Audience manipulation is a difficult feat to achieve properly. The tools and techniques moviemakers use to achieve their goals are technically complex and come in multiple shapes and colours:

a. The script and storyboards. The narrative story a Director wants to tell audiences and how he/she plans to do it with pictures.

b. Actors and character roles. How well actors understand and perform inside their character roles and how effective both, characters and performing actors, fit the Director's storytelling approach and overall film goals.

c. The Stage Design during location and studio takes. The movie's post production color grading as well as the appropriate lighting used during takes that will yield the ambiance and atmosphere
aimed for. All objects in a scene. Costume design. Special Effects. CGI. The works. How well will they all support actor performance and story telling? Up to the wee-tiny details that camera lenses can and will see.

d. Movies are made by shooting thousands upon thousands of different photographs (a.k.a. frames) projected at the rate of 24 frames per second in front of a viewer’s eyes. Frames are two dimensional depictions of the three dimensional world (the stage) in which actors perform and story-lines are being deployed.

e. Space and time are being heavily manipulated by movie makers to create the necessary emotional reaction among audiences. Movie watching is more about emotion than it is about logic inference. As Tarkovsky, a genuine artist moviemaker, once suggested: «I want audiences to experience my films, not to understand them.»

f. The selected camera angles used to shoot given scenes are also a critical factor in story telling. Different angles trigger different emotions. The eyes are triggered by and focus upon evolving changes in frames. Things that move or do something. Therefore, aesthetics and composition are important. Camera moves are important too for the same reason, especially with static staging and performances (a sleeping actor, for instance - to be remarked here, Warhol didn’t mind much about this particular rule). Also the covered scope during each and every camera angle is critical. Ranging from long shots to extreme closeups, they all have to be used for a reason. Like someone, whom the 19 year old, now celebrity French Film Director Luc Besson, asked to watch his first ever short, told him: If you have nothing to say, shut the fuck up! Every scene and cut and picture we see parading in front of our eyes has been put there for a reason. For their own specific ‘emotional’ message towards the audience. All of course serving and advancing the same story-telling, remember? The particular point,
exactly where in space the cinematographer decides to depict a ‘change’ occurring is equally critical. Even focal lengths of lenses used, as well as filters attached, add emotional punch in their own implementation of the movie language towards audiences. True story!

g. Sequences of frames are stitched together in what is a.k.a. «the Cut». Many cuts compose a scene. Scenes together built story lines and movie Acts. All of that put together creates The Movie. The very exact frames selected by film editors to cut shots are often the most critical factors used to build audience emotion. Cuts are indeed one, if not the strongest, implementation of movie language! Suspense moments, especially in horror movies, is the best proof of this argument.

h. Last but not least, the sound and music attached to cuts, and their timely positioning in the selected sequence of frames are among the key contributing factors in emotion creation too. Moviemakers know that extremely well. Sound and music are indeed among the strongest triggers of viewer emotions. ‘Graphic’ shots without the right accompanying sound or music lose two thirds of their potential emotional impact. If,
every time you hear Wagner’s «Valkyries», many years after you saw «Apocalypse now», and you still experience in your mind’s eye the horror of napalm firebombs devastating Vietnam forests, and ‘smell’ the odour of burning flesh... this is the living proof of the role of effective soundtracks in engraving into audiences' collective memories unforgettable emotional experiences.

Audiences progressively learn to communicate
passively (ie. being at the receiving end) in the «language» of movies via their cumulative film viewing experience, through their continuous exposure to movies upon movies in the different genres, over years of movie watching. This is Gadamer's point of view too. Audiences learn this language without specific knowledge of its structure and rules. Like I mentioned, the language is formed and expressed by all contributing factors described in points (a) to (h) above. It’s very much like toddlers learn to speak before they can even hold a pencil or learned to read. The learning happens almost unconsciously, a combination of feeling and logical inference, where the feeling becomes the stronger aspect. It’s how biology and evolution works. Nothing we can do about. 

On the other hand, moviemakers learn and use the movie language all too well, its structure and rules. They are all trained in exactly that at Film Schools. Directors, DPs, Film Editors, Producers, Actors, every single one of them.  They learn to 'consciously' manipulate their audience's emotional 'unconscious' and guide them through the storytelling process. However, in the passage of time, and during the last 130 years of movie viewing, audiences have had tremendous watching exposure and have become quite demanding and sophisticated indeed. They have learned what to like and what not. They have become quite difficult to please and convince, for sure... by either critics or moviemakers...

Therefore, descent cinema critics should pay attention to these (not too) humble ideas of mine:

First of all, when a movie critic decides to inform an audience about a film, all and foremost, he/she should understand, once and for all, that their own personal experience and knowledge about cinema subjects is the least relevant aspect of the review as far as audiences reading the reviews are concerned. Critics are not the subject of the review. Nobody is interested in them personally, anyways. The films under review are the real focus! Parallels and comparisons to past ‘films’ in the critics’ Knowledge-Base are not relevant either.

Critics should abandon using obnoxious superlatives and pompous language 'normal' readers happen to come across once in a lifetime, and mostly needing a dictionary to decipher. We don't need that level of intellectual arrogance thrown at our face. We need to understand the article in plain English, not requiring a PhD in literature to grasp its meaning...

Furthermore, we, the audience, know from the start that we are destined to be manipulated by each and every filmmaker, anyways! We may decide to watch the film regardless. We actually want to be manipulated, most of the time. Rather subtly though. The subtler the better! We hate the faking being too transparent, especially in actors' performances, failing to convince about the character roles they play. Therefore, what we are interested in reading a critic’s review is his/her ideas about the skill (or lack) of the movie's filmmakers in their approach and tools used to tell their story. And how effective this all has been. Was the story understandable? Was it any good? Regardless whether we agree or not with the filmakers, that is... Shall we experience a personal change at all, or not? Shall we learn anything we didn't know before? Did we... yes indeed, did we become 'better' persons in any conceivable way after watching the movie? A movie critic who can touch upon subjects of the "movie language" used and create an accurate picture in our mind about how well or not the filmmakers achieved their goal is, IMHO, a critic worth his job-title.

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