Getting the Job Done

27 September 2015

Some notes on my 'process' when reviewing at a film festival...



At the Berlinale in February this year I filed most of my 13 reviews within an hour of the press screening ending, some of them within 45 minutes. At a festival like Berlin, where many of the big films are world-premieres, a critic sees a film at a press-only preview and has, say, five or so hours before the public screening—the world-premiere. That leaves a ‘trade critic’ (writing for The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Screen) around two hours to write a review of about 600-800 words, give or take, so that everything can be filed, fact-checked, put to print (if necessary), formatted, sub-edited, and so on, so that it can be published when the embargo on press lifts—which is usually the start of the public screening. But what happens if you need to see another film in that two-hour window, and what if you need to review that one too? The work piles up, the turnaround shortens.

In journalism—and, lest we forget, critics in their multifaceted functions are sometimes journalists too, though some of us never trained as such—the deadline is king. Whatever happens, it’s met. There are two ways of looking at this: the aim is to minimise any loss of quality that a deadline threatens, and the aim is to allow the deadline to determine your scope. Either way, you work with what you have, which means that the first task of writing anything is to recognise the limitations of the brief. If people still read reviews (and, I’m told, they do), then there are obviously a lot of different contexts in which a review can be written and read. For instance, reviewing a film within the specific context of a film festival is partially different to reviewing one for theatrical release. In the latter case, a reviewer commonly gets a longer lead-time, where the film has some days, even a week, to settle in one’s mind before the deadline nears.

When reviewing a film from a festival, however, there’s a particular journalistic pressure to write to a quick deadline: the festival is ongoing, there might be other public screenings of the film in question (and so a published review serves a social interest), there’s a cultural buzz surrounding it in local news outlets and online media, and there’s an immediate discourse you can (and want) to participate in. (I realise these disciplines, of reviewing from a festival and reviewing for a theatrical release, often overlap: circumstance allowed me to see a film in Bitola, Macedonia, this week that I’ll be reviewing for its UK release next month.)

Film reviews, when done properly, provide and incorporate synopsis (but don’t merely synopsise), analysis, and myriad contexts (social, political, cultural, critical, biographical, etc.). Forty-five minutes isn’t too unreasonable a window to write, say, 500 words (it’s twelve per minute, one every five seconds). But having to write critically, on something as incredibly complex as a film that maybe finished two minutes ago, isn’t an easy task. And the task is this: to absorb one’s emotional, intellectual, phenomenological response to images, sounds, narrative, acting, lighting, to the transportive qualities of ‘the moving image’ (which is never just a moving image), and having to channel all of that subjective experience into a literary form.

Writing and criticism are complex forms of expression, results of a complicated and organic process, and writing an 800-word chunk of critical writing in less than an hour isn’t a sustainable writing speed. It’s nice, though, every once in a while, to remind oneself that under certain circumstances it can be achieved. For what it’s worth, I read those reviews I filed in Berlin and don’t think they’re any worse than other reviews I’ve spent longer on. Needless to say, a review written under the pressure of a quick deadline is necessarily limited in scope and in the extent to which it can express one’s emotional-intellectual response.

But the operative word here is limited, not wholly preventative: reviews are meaningful so long as they have a social need, and in this way they become, by definition, of immediate historical interest. I think good writers, besides making anything they write about of interest, recognise the limitations early and work within it, play to their strengths. I like writing reviews because they suit my need for breezily kneejerk prose, but I’ll qualify that by saying this isn’t my only need, and that breezy prose needn’t be thoughtless. When this article, which I wrote last summer, got a second round of attention in the States when an Indiewire article quoted it months later, some of its more trollish provocations pricked the ears of a few other critics, who found my ‘grating but sincere’ opinions a bit much, or else nonsense. Daniel Carlson put it down to the ‘folly of youth,’ having ‘smiled’ upon reading my piece—cognac in hand, no doubt—and sadly never once replied to any of my direct responses, which came, belatedly, in the form of a long thread of tweets.

You can’t write proper criticism when working under a tight deadline, so the general counterarguments go. Words like ‘jam’, ‘churn’ and ‘burn’ come out here, pejoratively sketching an outline of someone hunched over a laptop typing for the sake of typing, thoughtlessly and recklessly, not checking to see if any of it makes a jot of sense. Critics like Tim Robey, Guy Lodge, Jay Weissberg, Scott Foundas, Neil Young and Robbie Collin—to name just a few—are proof that a quick deadline and thoughtful (sometimes inspiring) criticism aren’t mutually exclusive. I wonder how many critics who subscribe to the notion that considered analysis can only happen with a long lead-time and repeat viewings, also hold Roger Ebert, known for his quick turnarounds, in high regard. Critics, if they are distinct from journalists, are never one-trick ponies; put another way, critics often fulfil journalistic aims, whereas not all journalists are critics. (Meanwhile, if I ever account for someone’s criticism due to the ‘folly of youth,’ bludgeon me to death.)

The opposite’s also true. I read too many film articles that bear symptoms of belaboured tosh: just because someone has the luxury of viewing a film twice and going through several drafts before it meets the page, doesn’t mean it’s an inherently better, or even more informed, piece of writing. (Too many academic careers are founded upon crippling lethargy and misplaced priorities.) To reiterate, I know that aspiring to writing super-fast and super-well more often than not results in a loss of quality, and isn’t quite sustainable for long stints. Hence, I think, the ‘super’ prefix. But my question here, is why can’t someone write an 800-word analysis that also happens to be fairly cogent (reasoned, considered, insightful, useful) inside an hour?

You can’t have it both ways: endorsing a sharp, bang-on political commentary written while a significant event is still unfolding, and then claim that a film can’t be given justice in a similar manner. The reason why we hold a Richard Seymour or a Paul Mason in high regard is precisely their ability to channel analysis of an incomplete history into clear, lucid prose. (I think I developed a fascination with inexhaustible outputs when I discovered Lenin and, especially, Trotsky, both of whom wrote indefatigably on matters still unfolding without losing perspective or analytical strength.)

I don’t see, frankly, why films must be any more complicated or difficult to report on than real life. I also like to think that I know an emotion when I feel it—including confusion and bewilderment. Both of these are fine, legitimate emotions, and if a film prompts either, why can’t it be incorporated into the prose? If the film warrants a second look, it’s the journalist’s right and even duty to give it one; I wrote my Aferim! review from Berlin in around 50 minutes, and felt compelled enough by the film to write a longer piece for the German-language Austrian journal Kolik a few months later (without, as it happens, the luxury of a re-watch, which is why taking notes and generally paying fucking attention to the film and to your own experience of it are so important).

Physically and mentally, this acquires its own momentum, its own internal energy. I can feel the adrenaline as I take my seat in an auditorium full of critics—all of whom, when the whistle blows, I view as rivals who I need to crush, their professional giddiness reminding me of my own conflicted desire to be there. This competitive mood isn’t one I’m interested in sustaining beyond the cinema, but for the purpose of my own adrenaline—which helps to sharpen my critical instincts, my attentiveness and the speed with which I filter subjective experience into literary expression—I feel the need to treat it as such. Part of this is psychological, about placing oneself in a position in which confidence can breed itself. Even if you’re not ‘the best critic in the room’ (a meaningless mantle), it’s paramount to assume it, I think: with it, there’s a self-imposed pressure to perform. I need to write to the best of my ability under the variable circumstances I am given.

Such mindsets won’t come naturally to everyone, because no two psychologies are the same. One can train oneself, or at least work at it, though. These lines can probably be read as merely arrogant, but I’m particularly happy to share them because of that—and I’ll take my kind of fleeting, comical arrogance over those many ‘busy’ editors who never reply to my repeated pitches. There’s an amusingly fictive element to all of this, too, where one promotes the nuts and bolts of one’s profession to an almost mythical status: in my early teens, my favourite author was Tom Clancy, whose recurrent protagonist Jack Ryan was once referred to as ‘a good man in a storm.’ I thought that was a good description to aspire to. To use the snooker player Steve Davis’s analogy, you have to play as if it means nothing, when it means everything.

But of course writing is only half of everything: it’s everything because it earns you money, and it’s not anything at all because nobody gives a shit. Eating a slice of orange just before one goes on stage—either literally, as in when I introduce a film or conduct a Q&A or appear on a panel discussion, or figuratively, such as sitting down in the Berlinale Palast to watch Knight of Cups knowing you have 40 minutes in which to find a wi-fi hotspot and write a first-and-final draft reviewing its plot, themes, grammar, meaning, place within Malick’s career and so on—can help to remind oneself of this fundamental contradiction, can help instil the intuitive knowledge that none of this really matters in the grand scheme of things, and so you better treat it as a life and death matter. There are two equally important sides to that contradiction and if you only fulfil the latter side you’re doomed.

Before the film starts, I write on a blank page in my notebook the film title, the director’s name, the date of the screening. If I’m not sitting with friends or colleagues I know, I’ll often doodle in the corner, or write over the title to make it thicker. I will flick my torch on and off, check it’s working. I don’t know exactly why—boredom, possibly—but I have a feeling that it helps the brain and wrist connect with one another. Their sustained connection is the magic upon which all writing is founded. There’s a third element, too: eyes. Your eyes will be flicking back and forth between page and screen—which is why I tend to sit at the back, to minimise head movement that might otherwise make me miss certain moments or important lines of subtitled dialogue. (This happens. So it goes.)

Before the film starts, sometimes I’ll sit with my eyes closed to retain concentration and to reserve my energy; sometimes I’ll minimise my body movement, to get into the pattern of not twitching or shifting or allowing myself to feel too uncomfortable—all of which might affect one’s attention span, and also the immediate need to just simply pay attention to what’s happening in the film. I don’t mean to make everything sound robotic or mechanical. But this is a profession requiring, on many levels, discipline and focus. Given that it’s also often so poorly paid you don’t really get the chance to eat properly, you need to find ways in which you can maximise your energy with such little resources. To limit the variables when, in reality, no two screenings are the same. (It’s especially the case when I see films in countries with scorching heat and uncomfortable cinemas.)

When the film begins, I take notes. I number my notes. I took 43 notes in Sicario—an average of about one every three minutes. That’s a good example to use: the film’s dialogue doesn’t always explain everything (apart from at least one howler when Emily Blunt confirms for those ignoramuses in the audience which country a city’s in), and it can often relay information through these means at the same time as advancing plot through visuals alone. So, it’s on the denser, perhaps more demanding side of Hollywood fare. The nature of my notes changes as the film develops. In general, I take less notes as the film goes on but my notes get longer: early in the film, I’m noting place names (“chandler, AZ”; “wild pony pub”); character names (“EB - KATE”), as you’re not always going to have an IMDb page at hand to note this stuff; little fragments (“cop’s severed hand”; “van crashes thru wall”); dialogue (“deep inside the American heartland (TV)”); and contextual facts gleaned from the film (“CIA cnt operate w/in int’l borders w/out a domestic agency attached”). Often, I will star something that I would like to research later on, such as the background of a conflict depicted in the film, or a philosopher quoted in the film.

Of the 43 notes I took during Sicario, 15 were written before Josh Brolin’s character appears, and 19 before Benicio Del Toro’s appears. That’s a third of my notes written before the film even establishes its plot. That’s a very heavy frontload, and I think it’s a combination of recording observations for the sake of it, in order to train my mind into a state of high alertness, and also because an attention to detail regarding the finer, contextual things is a good foundation for building your analysis from. Opening lines of dialogue are important, as are opening text-cards—because these are the first impressions the director wants us to have. Later, my notes are less descriptive and more opinion-based: “gripping – fast/slow balance”; “BDT’s acting – oof!”; “final (?) op – BDT looks like a deep sea diver”. Taking less notes as the film develops but shifting into more analytical reflections: there’s too many critics, even working within the trades, who misquote dialogue or get things plain wrong, and yet they expect us to trust their critical faculties when they can’t even pay attention to who’s saying what. Such laziness, such fraudulence. Criticism should be evidence-based not prejudice-driven (fine line, I know).

Sometimes, I will add an asterisk to one of my notes or circle it, as I know that that’s the line or observation I want to begin my review with, because it allows me to get to the crux of the matter quickly. When you have 45 minutes to file the review, you’re not necessarily going to have time to pore over these remarks, but in the mere process of giving them form, of allowing them to bleed onto the page in a very instinctive, brain-to-hand mechanism, you’re filing it in some kind of mental space, to draw upon when the film finishes. Sometimes, if I already know who I’m writing for, it changes my mindset going into the film. If I’ve been commissioned to review a film for Sight & Sound, which requires a 250-word, opinion-free synopsis alongside the review—regardless of the review’s length—I will take a lot more notes regarding the actual plot throughout the film.

For The Canal, the recent Irish horror film that lasts less than 90 minutes, I took 68 notes. Early notes include: “who wants to see ghosts?” [first line of dialogue]; “David Williams, Claire McManus” [character names, both circled, so I can find them easily on the page, since I’m not great at remembering such details; as a kid I’d refer to John McClane simply as “Die Hard”]; “1895-1905”; “Carl Laemmle” [reference points made in the film that might give some clue as to its inspirations and/or the level it wants to be judged on]. The last two notes turned out to have little bearing on the film’s plot, but I wasn’t to know that at the time. I did compare the film, unfavourably, to James Whale’s Frankenstein—because if a film ‘pays homage’ to its influences it better earn the right to quote them.

Another reason I tend to take less notes as the film goes on is because I settle into its established tone, and feel more comfortable being taken into an increasingly predictable unknown. Another reason still is that reviews rarely discuss plot in detail beyond a certain narrative point—though a skilled writer will find ways in which to incorporate some commentary on this without going into ‘spoiler’ terrain. This pattern of note-taking is often reflected in the review’s template: you outline the specifics and then open out to speak more broadly about the work. As a rule, thinking about it, I want readers to know I've paid attention to the film but that I also want to leave some space for them to experience it themselves. All reviews are necessarily incomplete.

Later points in my Canal notes are more opinionated: “half-committed to framing its protagonist, when actually it would be better to sympathise w/ him completely?”; “SKYPE – predictable, but tension rests on familiarity”. These are the starting points of a deeper discussion, and it’s my duty as a writer to interweave such ‘critical’ elements with the more ‘descriptive’ elements such as synopsis and credits. Half of a review is what is not written: how do you re-narrativise a filmic plot into prose? Sometimes, the tone of one’s synopsis can reveal a critique in itself: rhetoric acts to expose how fucking stupid a film’s storyline is (read how Nick James synopsised Biutiful here).

Another reason that later notes during a festival screening tend to be more long-winded is that, during the film’s latter stages (and even if we don’t look at our watch in the cinema, we watch enough films to know when a film’s wrapping up), I’m beginning to think in sentences, draw up conclusions, and mentally draft my review. This is the point at which the review begins to take shape, in prose-form, as sound-thoughts in my mind. Semi-consciously, I’m looking at this point, if I wasn’t already, for ‘an angle’—a starting point, a sentence to hook both ‘the reader’ (often myself) as well as my own curiosity (I am always the first reader of my texts, and writing as a form of expression requires an almost constant reformulation of thoughts, words, meanings; self-editing, in short). I am also looking for a broader endpoint with which to finish my review, and then, at the same time, how to get from my starting point to my conclusion. What do I need to focus on in order to make the review flow, on a line-to-line level, from one point to the next?

All of these questions are asked alongside my note-taking, which continues for as long as the film lasts. This is a complex, autonomous process. Other questions that help me, as a guiding principle, to concretise my subjective experience into a meaningful expression that can be read by others, include: For whom does the protagonist work, and what are the motives and functions of their employer? Does the protagonist challenge these motives, and how? How does the film represent the police, the government, the state? Does it depict a working class experience, and how? Are there other factors that relate to class depictions, such as gender or race, and what is their relation? How does the film relate to other films in its genre? Are their explicit reference points? Does it quote the director’s other work? Does it have a happy ending, or a resigned ending? What is the tone of the film, and does this contradict or enhance the characters’ subjectivity?

Not all of these questions have easy answers, of course, and they frequently aren’t applicable. I never write them into my notebook, and I have never set out to systematise a list of them to take into every film. But these are the smaller components by which I sustain my personal interest in criticism—which, to my mind, has the responsibility of analysing the ways in which films may challenge or reinforce the systemic pressures that marginalise people due to their class, gender, race, sexuality and so on. All of these things are deeply social questions, and as a deeply social art, films are also therefore deeply political, always. It’s why I watch them, why they remain so fascinating to me, so complicated, and why the high burst of adrenaline I feel during a film I know I have to review immediately is so exciting: you’re getting to grips with the ways in which a film functions, in line with its makers’ intentions or otherwise, to express the contradictions of its time.

Reviews can only ever give an impression of things. It’s true of criticism in general: as writing, and as post-hoc rationalisation, it’s at a remove from the film. There are innumerable ways in which one’s experience of a single scene in a film can be expressed, interpreted, formulated. Given the particular limitations of reviewing, then (length, scope, thinking time), I think it’s reasonable to concentrate and expand upon three aspects of a film. Whether that takes the form of three paragraphs, I don’t know, but as I’m typing my review, being led sometimes by instinct to hammer it into shape, what I’m currently committing to screen prompts what I’m going to segue into. Describing one performance, I might think of the next sentence: “But the film’s real star is…” And it needn’t be an actor, it might be the music, because it’s fine to single out a great score from a bad film—and vice versa.

As a very crude template, I require a specific introduction, a broader end, and three things to connect them. Even as I write this I’m not sure that that is strictly true, because I’m not always consciously looking for three things to write about. These things happen involuntarily. When he was editing the annual Halliwell’s Film, DVD & Video Guide, Alexander Walker noted in his introductions that readers can interpret a three-star film as a film with three great things to be said about it. I thought that was a good way of putting it, but we can expand that into the notion that every film period has at least three things to note about it. Where it gets exciting is when those three things might contradict each other, and before you know it you’re writing an ambivalent review that tries to incorporate a great deal of reservation in something as simple and apparently neutral as a description of, say, the cinematography. A lot of criticism is inference; good prose, like a good film, will be participatory.

I leave some time to read through what I’ve written. In Berlin, this was happening all very fast, but as I’ve said, such momentum is self-expanding. Your senses get carried along by it, you become attuned to spotting errors, knowing what goes where, how to very quickly search for an actor’s name to check the spelling, and so on. You don’t look down at the keyboard for a second, because the moment you do is the moment that fragile shell of confidence you’ve managed to erect around yourself—confidence in getting the job done without a minute’s thought of self-doubt—collapses. You have no time to speak to others. And, in Berlin, I never opened a blank Word file, but a pre-saved document with the film’s principal credits already waiting for me on-screen. As Don Logan says: ‘preparation, preparation, preparation.’ But that’s another matter.