Saturday, June 12, 2010

Do I assume too much?

I'm going to take a break this week from my normal Friday morning new release post, for two reasons:

1) I don't have a concrete perspective on either The A-Team (cast looks good) or The Karate Kid (remakes blah blah blah);

2) I don't know that I'm doing a service to these movies by issuing a concrete perspective on them in the first place.

You see, this week I got involved in a debate in the comments section of another film blog, about the intrinsic value (or lack thereof) of writing a post every Friday in which you make snarky predictions about the quality of the new releases. Of course, those of us who write such posts are not always trying to tear these films down -- sometimes we talk about how we're giddy with excitement. But the basic point of the blogger taking the other position was that whether we're excited for a film or cursing its name, "reviewing by trailer" is a dangerous practice, and the whole thing is speculative and a little suspect. It isn't giving these films a fair shot.

This debate has stuck in my craw the last few days, so I decided I'd move it to my own blog and flesh it out a little bit. And since the other blogger will probably be reading this, I'll address him directly now: I certainly don't want to just write a dozen bullet points about why you're wrong, precisely because I'm not sure you are wrong. Sometimes, I start writing without even knowing where my mind will be at the end. Today is one of those days.

The first thing I felt during this discussion was a defensiveness about my own Friday new release habits, even though the comment was not addressed at me specifically. So it caused me to look back and examine my tendencies when writing about Friday new releases. Yeah, there's some amount of assuming that certain films will be bad. But more than anything, I am trying to use these releases as what we in journalism call a "news peg." (I actually went to journalism school.) A "news peg," if you're not familiar with the term, is any kind of current event that gives you the opening to write about a more general trend. For example, if someone wanted to write a think piece about how we're allowing young people to take unconscionable risks, their news peg would be the 16-year-old sailor who was almost lost at sea while trying to sail around the world, solo. (Thankfully, a search team found her and she's okay.)

For me, the Friday new releases are often used as news pegs more than as specific films whose strengths and weaknesses I want to discuss. Take last Friday, when I wrote about Splice. I actually didn't write almost a single thing about the content of that particular movie -- instead, I used it as a news peg to discuss my wife's pregnancy, and to offer up a list of ten movies a person wouldn't want to watch while pregnant. But even when I'm being snarky, and making dire predictions about particular movies, it's usually so I can talk about other trends. For example, when I wrote about Date Night, I was less interested in whether Date Night in particular was bad (though I assumed it would be), and more interested in the idea that Steve Carell and Tina Fey are great TV personalities but not great movie personalities. And this was based on my opinions of movies I'd actually seen (Baby Mama, Dan in Real Life, Get Smart, etc.).

So okay, I was reacting too defensively during this week's debate -- not only was the comment not aimed at me, but maybe it doesn't even apply to me. I'm not "reviewing by trailer" at all -- I'm using trailers and release dates to get ideas of other things to write about. If you've read me much, you know that I don't do much in the way of actual reviews on this site -- I save that for my paying work. Even posts devoted to the quality of films, and not larger trends, are not things that I necessarily consider "reviews," because the reviews I write are only 300 words, and don't use the first person singular.

But I think I actually do want to support those bloggers who do "review by trailer," because I do think there's some value in it. Here's why: Writing a blog is about presenting your opinions to the world, and who's to say what limitations should be placed on a person's opinions?

Let's take things out a step. Any time you see a trailer for a movie, you are probably struck with one of three different impressions: 1) "That looks great, I want to see it!" 2) "That looks terrible, I don't want to see it." 3) "Hmm, that could be interesting -- I need to see the trailer again and process it a little more."

My argument is, if you are thinking these things anyway, what's the harm in writing about them on your blog? The only way you are really doing the films a disservice is if you are trying to convince people that you've already seen a movie you know you haven't seen, and are offering a bogus review merely out of some kind of spite. Anything else you write is the justifiable speculation of a consumer being sold a particular product. What's the harm in talking about whether the movie is doing an effective sales job, or isn't?

I guess it's really a matter of what hat you're wearing when you write your blog. If your blog is almost exclusively reviews, and you have a personal creed to give every film the benefit of the doubt, no matter how insipid it looks -- and you should if you are acting only as a critic -- then that's one thing. But me, I call my blog The Audient for a reason. Yes, I'm a critic, but I'm also a member of an audience, and I embrace that part of my relationship with movies as well. If I were wearing my critic hat on this blog, then it might be a violation of my principles to give some movies a fair shake, and throw others under the bus without all the information. But I actually started this blog to give myself an alternate way to write about films that wasn't reviewing them. Which I think is all the more reason for me to include content that relies on my own interpretation of the film industry, even if it involves certain low-level assumptions about certain films I may not have seen. The alternative is that you can't write about a film at all unless you've seen it, and I think that's just too strict of a stance.

I think it makes sense to pause at this point and support the general perspective of this other blogger: That every film deserves the chance to be the best version of itself it can be. There is no genre of movie, no type of movie (remake, reboot, etc.), or no intellectual level of movie where I could be 100% sure the movie would be bad -- any movie can surprise you and be better than it looks like it will be. I'm a firm believer in that, and I proudly tell people which movies that are generally hated are movies that I actually like (such as the first Transformers).

But I think if we prevent ourselves from assuming certain things about certain movies, we are basically just muzzling ourselves. Is it really unfair to adopt a weary outlook on the latest remake of a 1980s horror movie, and to write about that on your blog? I don't think it is. Your knowledge of the motivations that went into making that movie (financial rather than artistic) earn you the right to be skeptical, and you don't have to keep that skepticism to yourself. As long as it's clear in what you write that you are merely stating your concerns, and that you are basing those concerns on the apparent similarity of this films to other films you've seen, you are being fair enough, I think.

Might you be wrong? Hell yeah. And that's part of the fun of eventually sitting down and watching the movie in question.

I'd love to hear what you think. Do you take a post less seriously when it talks abstractly about movies the writer hasn't seen? Or do you think it's fun to have debates about new releases as they come out, when there's the greatest "news peg" relevance for discussing them, even if you are necessarily speculating?


The Mad Hatter said... might want to actually thank your comment section debate opponent, since they might have sparked you to a much more thoughtful Friday post than what your routine usually inspires.

First of all - very good post. You're touching on a very valid question about how we judge what we're going to see, and a lot of what makes trailers a loaded gun as a marketing tool.

Essentially, studios place their bets that in three minutes or less they can prefectly capture a feature's tone and sell it to the audince they want (plus some). The trick is to try and do that without turning people off, giving too much away, or creating the wrong tone. Ask yourself, how often do studios duck all three of those?

I for one, pay precious little attention to trailers. I never watch them more than once...don't really go looking for them online...don't talk about them at all on my podcast...and when it comes to posting them I usually only say "Here it is", and don't comment on what I think for better or for worse.

The reason is because trailers can be so amazingly misleading, that it feels unfair to weigh in with my reaction based on the sizzle and not the steak. Did you ever watch Entourage? Season four is all about the clammour that a trailer can cause and how that hinges on what its trying to sell.

I guess what I'm saying is that there's nothing wrong with using them as a measuring stick...but given how many times I've been misled (for worse and for better), I've primarily opted out.

If I might suggest something, perhaps you can start making your Friday feature a spot dedicated to highlighting something awesome that's lesser known. This weekend, everyone knows about A-TEAM and THE KARATE KID...but there's a movie getting massive buzz called WINTER'S BONE that you might be able to convince a few people to see by writing about it.

You could call the feature "Flying Under the Radar This Friday"...or somethin'.

Maybe that's the trick...look for something positive people don't know about, rather than being another negative voice on something they do?

Vancetastic said...

Excellent suggestions, and thanks for the comment, MH.

I'm really excited for Winter's Bone. I saw the trailer last week for the first time (it was not on my radar before then) and my wife mentioned that she really wanted to see it.

The thing is, I guess I like to let the ideas for Friday posts come to me, rather than having to research an idea for a Friday post in order to pursue a particular agenda. If I were to write about Winter's Bone, it would require me to write a post that was merely hyping it. And I almost always want to do something more than JUST hype something or JUST tear something down. I want to have an angle.

I also like to think I would never write the most obvious take on any film I write about, which gets at your "another negative voice on something they do [know]." Let's take the Date Night example. The most obvious perspective is "this movie looks silly and slapstick," and that's negativity for negativity's sake. I hoped I was being slightly more incisive by saying that I love these actors' work on TV (positivity) but have not liked their work in movies lately (justifiable negativity, at least given my own impression of their films).

Also, I referred specifically to trailers because of the much bandied about phrase "reviewing by trailer," but I like to think I consider numerous elements in saying either good or bad things about a film -- the previous work of the creative talents, the poster art, etc. I'm not saying all of these things are extremely deep, but I never agreed to be deep in every post!

Thanks again for the thoughtful comment!

Mike Lippert said...

It seems I've been inspiring a lot of people to write good posts this week in response to something I wrote. It's magical isn't it.

I'll start with an explanation of sorts. When I was consumed with the list all May long I was also reading more blogs than I usually do because I wasn't writing as much, I could have written more probably but by gosh I didn't want to take away anything from the list entry that day and so I stayed mostly by the sidelines. In that time I realized just how monotonous a lot of movie blogs are. Write about trailers on Monday, new DVD releases on Tuesday, Predictions for new releases on Friday, a list or two in between, and a slew of new release reviews all weekend. It's as standardized as the movies these blogs are railing again. So God bless you and Hatter and Travis at Movie Encylopedia (and a handful more) for not being confined by such structure, for writing something meaningful, some interesting, something that both enlightens me as a viewer and also gives me perspective into the writer. I love it. Sites like that should be cherished. When I come on and see sixteen sites weighing in on the 7 minute Mortal Kombat teaser/whatever it is, I think okay which one should I read because I certainly don't care enough to read them all. Let's be honest, unless you're reading a site like yours in which the writer has a strong voice and personality and has an opinion you value and seek out, once you've read about two you've read them all I'm sorry to say.

As I've said many times before, people used to read reviews not to know if the movie is good or not but to know what Pauline Kael or Roger Ebert and whoever thought of it. That's much more fun and enlightening. Too often today reviews are just checklists of why or why not you should see something. It's so utterly meaningless.

Mike Lippert said...

As for reviewing trailers, let's put it this way. Consider yourself one of the people who do it right because, as you said, you use it as a starting point. Shouldn't every review/post/whatever be a starting point for something bigger inside the writer? I think it should. What I hate reading is when people use this as a way to simply pass judgement on a movie. This especially makes no sense to me if said person is running a review site. As a reviewer isn't it that person's obligation to see that flick whether it looks good or not? I know I said it's sometimes easier said than done, especially since some (maybe most) of us don't make money doing this and only want to see good movies in the theater, but that's why I started One Minute Reviews, so I can say something about those ones I missed in the theater and that I don't have time to write a full out review of (I don't think watching from home provides the best conditions under which to view a film for review).

Maybe I'm going to piss someone off by saying this, and so be it (however I assume your readership consists mostly of classy people) but I always think of the line from Hearts of Darkness where Francis Ford Coppola said that one day technology will be to a point where any 13 year old girl can make a movie, and I always thought well yes, but why do we want that? I know we've gained a lot of great movies from young filmmakers who wouldn't have been given a shot otherwise, but do we want just anyone to be able to pick up a camera and be able to make a movie? Sure we may find the next Scorsese that way but looks at the side effects: the market is now overcrowded and you have to sift though piles of crap to find that one special one.

It's the same with film blogs. No long is criticism left up to the people who studied film and film theory and were given the title of professional at honourable publications but to any 13 year old girl who wants to do it (sorry Simon, pure coincidence, I swear) and although yes, a voice has been given to those who otherwise wouldn't have gotten it otherwise and do deserve it but man, the after effects have been about the same. Now we have kids who think Bazin is something in their spice rack and get wet over the 7 movie Mortal Kombat trailer which apperently has "beautiful, stunning, breathtaking, brilliant" cinematography. I guess I missed the meeting whether hocking the visual style from Seven was considered any of those things.

Anyway, my rant has gone on long enough to the point where I may as well have just made a whole new post out of it but regardless. You've provided the world with a thoughtful piece and one that, for the most part, I agree with fully, although it may have been helpful to link back to the original post where the debate started.

Vancetastic said...


Yeah, I totally should have linked to your post, especially since you aren't hung up on maintaining anonymity in the blogger world. (I err on the side of keeping people anonymous, which is why I didn't mention you by name in the post.) But actually, the original post (as you well remember) had to do with different kinds of film buffs, and only got sidetracked into the discussion at hand in the comments section.

Thanks so much for your compliments (and I'm sorry to inadvertently put you in the position of having to make those compliments again, since you already gave me the ego stroking I seemed to cry out for in your own comments section). I'm glad you do see my site as different, and I do agree with your comments about the average blogs out there with their predictable agendas. I've only made it to about the letter G in the list of LAMB blogs I'm checking out, so I assume I only have a lot more of those on the horizon.

As a guy who has been a paid critic for ten years but has never been able to support myself doing it, I'm certainly wary of the fact that criticism itself is becoming devalued to some degree in the blogosphere. It makes it even less likely that I'll ever be able to be a full-time critic. However, I guess it's just like anywhere else -- you have to find the critics you like in the blogosphere, just as you have to avoid the vapid idiots who are breathlessly quoted on posters for terrible movies in the "legitimate" critical community.

However, I must say your post had a very unintended side effect -- I am now very interested in seeing this Mortal Kombat trailer of which you speak. ;-)

Chris, a librarian said...

They once said don't believe everyting you read in the papers. I think that goes double for believing everything you read in the blogosphere. Anyone can make a blog and say whatever they want. It's great that everyone has the ablity to share their opinion and it's terrible that everyone has to share their damn opinion. I guess we have to be even more discerning about what we choose to read.

And I try to avoid trailers simply because they tend to give too much away.

Many good comments in this thread.