Films are not Novels – Please Mind the Gap

Mad as Hell

Mad as Hell — image source: Brian Hochman’s WP blog

This week on Twitter, Third Contact director Si Horrocks shared the March 24th response of Matt Zoller Seitz, Editor-in-Chief of RogerEbert.com, to Sam Adam’s CriticWire query of the week: “Do movie critics need filmmaking experience or an understanding of film theory to do their jobs?” Seitz argues that critics should “write about the filmmaking.”

While I am not a professional movie critic (yet – wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more), Seitz’ response nevertheless prompted me to think about my own writing about films, especially about my focus when writing a review. Prior to reading his article, I had already realized that I had been writing primarily about plot and character (and, by extension, screenwriting and acting). Not that these aspects of a movie are not important — they are. Yet, since a movie is primarily an audiovisual experience, other aspects of filmmaking are equally important — cinematography, sound, music, editing, special effects, not to mention directing and producing . . . and the list goes on. As Seitz puts it,

Movies and television are visual art forms, and aural art forms. They are not just about plot, characterization and theme. Analytical writing about movies and TV should incorporate some discussion of the means by which the plot is advanced, the characters developed, the themes explored. It should devote some space, some small bit of the word count, to the compositions, the cutting, the music, the decor, the lighting, the overall rhythm and mood of the piece.

My bias in favor of plot, characterization, and theme is probably an occupational hazard for anyone who teaches reading and writing and also reads and writes a lot in his or her spare time. Nevertheless, it’s a serious limitation when writing about cinema. So, a couple of months ago, I took the opportunity to begin a self-directed study of film theory, history, technique, and technology. Combined with some of my prior experience with filmmaking and cinema studies students (in a prior grad school experience) and my past current movie watching habits, this material came to life.

It is fascinating stuff — so much so that I’m thinking of applying to do graduate work in the Film Studies Department at the university where I am working on my Master of Education degree. As some of my friends and I like to joke, this is par for the course for an “academia addict.” So I have started to learn how to watch and write about movies from the perspectives of the theory, history, and art of filmmaking.

This is neither here nor there with regard to filmmakers. Producers, directors, and their cast and crew members could probably care less if I “word up” about their professional work and world and about what I think about their movies. Indeed, based on my page-view stats, not many other people give a rip, either (although, recently . . . but I digress).

Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960)

Deliciously terrifying — Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960)

Horror movies, for which I have recently developed an obsession, are a case-in-point for Seitz’ argument. My view is that it is difficult to fully enjoy the delicious terror that these films offer without making an effort to appreciate how they were made. As Seitz points out, “art is not just about content, and it’s not just about the emotions we feel as we contemplate it. Art is also about process. It’s about form. It’s about expression.” So, in future posts, I will attempt to include at least few more insights than I have in past reviews about the art that went into making the movie under review. I say “a few” because my knowledge and experience comes nowhere near that of a professional filmmaker or critic. But, I’m learning . . . .

Allons-y.