Tuesday, December 17, 2013

AIFF 2013: Bambi or Invective - Thinking About Film Criticism

Seeing lots of movies last week has me thinking about movie reviews, their purpose, their effects, and one's qualifications to write them in the first place.  I do want to write about some of the films I saw and also about the festival's awards.

So, when I found Maureen Dowd's column in the Anchorage Daily News today, (in the NY Times a couple days ago) on the "Bambi Rule,"  I read it with care.

Should reviewers be nice or critical?  Here's the argument for being nice:
"Eggers chided Harvard students: 'Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic, and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them.'”
And here Dowd quotes Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic:
“'Rebecca West established what she called ‘the duty of harsh criticism,’ and she was right. An intellectual has a solemn obligation to speak out negatively against ideas or books that he or she believes will have a pernicious or misleading effect upon people’s understanding of important things. To do otherwise would be cowardly and irresponsible. “If one feels that a value or a belief or a form that one cherishes has been traduced, one should rise to its defense. In intellectual and literary life, where the stakes may be quite high, manners must never be the primary consideration. People who advance controversial notions should be prepared for controversy. Questions of truth, meaning, goodness, justice and beauty are bigger than Bambi."

It's much harder to critique a film when you've met the film maker.  And this is good.  It forces me to distinguish between the film and the film maker.  I need to write about the film, I need to write about it from my perspective (rather than an omniscient reviewer perspective), and I need to be constructive.  When I wrote during the festival, it was to give potential viewers an idea of quality and topic so they could decide among the many choices, but I didn't want to do spoilers.  After the festival, now that I've had time to think, I can write more meaningfully about the films.

Basically, I want to write so that the film maker is not mad at me after reading a review.  (Well, not mad for long anyway.)  It's hard enough to make a film without having people who haven't made a film tear it apart.  I try to write using the same frame of mind I used to critique my graduate students' papers.  The point is to help the student write a better paper next time.  That requires me to avoid evaluative terms as much as possible and use concrete examples of what I liked and disliked.  I'm usually right about what I like and dislike, but the odds go down when I talk about what's 'good' and 'bad.'

That said, standing up for important values when someone trashes them is also important.  I've only been harsh in my AIFF  movie criticisms over the years when I thought the film makers had acted very badly (The Dalai Lama's Cat) or when there was a particularly ethnocentric movie (Exporting Raymond.)  But even in those reviews, I tried to stay objective and gave detailed examples of why I was bothered. 

The Dowd piece, I'm guessing, looks to the extremes - the smarmy reviews that almost seem part of a public relations campaign (and NPR and ADN participate in this along with all the other media) and the nasty insults that are often more reflective of the reviewers' problems than the work reviewed. 

All that said, I'm hoping to post my thoughts on the features - narrative and documentaries - and on the animation program.  And I'll slip in a few of the shorts, but I didn't see enough of them.  Coming soon. 

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