Earlier this week, I received a lengthy question from a reader for the mailbag, which, in essence, boiled down to "How do I write a movie review that goes beyond: I liked this part, and I didn't like that part?"
At first, I figured I would put answering the question off for a week or two (or more, since I'm going on vacation soon and the newsletter will go on hiatus as well). It's a big question, with a lot of parts to the answer, and I wanted to tackle it with everything it required. (Okay, I also like putting off big projects -- ask me about the article I have due Friday!)
But then, tonight, watching The Lost City of Z (good movie!), it suddenly hit me all at once. Writing about movies and TV isn't a long series of parts, an answer in many sections. It's just two questions you have to ask yourself:
1.) What am I looking at?
2.) How does it make me feel?
That's it. That's all of film and TV criticism in a nutshell.
Sure, you should probably pay attention to written storytelling, too -- the actual structure of the story and the dialogue, which stems from the writer -- but that's not as difficult for most of us to parse, because we've all been through high school English and know how to write about basic storytelling tropes and the like. (And, honestly, some films and TV shows are better served by slightly heightened lit crit anyway.)
But most of the time, you're learning how to read pictures, so you can build a larger thesis for why you felt the way you did about something. It's important to remember there are no right or wrong answers. Yeah, there are certain techniques directors use to make you feel a certain way, and it's worth boning up a little on film theory to figure out why, say, the camera looks up at characters who have lots of power. But for the most part, all of this is stuff you intuitively know, because you've been watching movies and TV shows your whole life.
It seems to continually astound people when I tell them I have no formal critical training. Sure, I took a couple of film courses in college, but I was mostly just somebody who loved TV shows and movies and started writing about them and taught myself how to read them on a visual level. (Trust me: Go back and read my earliest stuff, and it's astonishingly bad.) But I read a lot of other criticism, and I started figuring out the very basics of critical theory, and I went from there.
So here's my assignment for you, young wannabe critic: Pick out a movie or TV episode you love. Find a shot you love in it. Hit pause on your DVD or your Netflix or whatever. Maybe take a screenshot. Then look at the shot and try to figure out why you love it so much. Break it down into pieces. What's the camera angle? How is the director moving the camera? How is she using color? How are the actors placed in the frame? How are the sets and costumes contributing to the image? And so on and so on.
Then think about how this fits into the story overall. Is this contributing to why you love the film? Working against it? Working against it in an interesting way?
A movie or a TV show is a story told in shots, not in sentences. The place you start with most literary criticism is in trying to understand something on a sentence by sentence level (think about how frequently English teachers break down poetry line by line by line). And then you graduate to paragraphs and chapters and whole works.
Don't be afraid to write stuff that doesn't immediately make sense. Don't be afraid to sound dumb. If you want to write, "The color red makes me feel angry in this shot," do just that. None of this has to see the light of day, right?
The important thing is the doing.
(Okay, and all of the other advice that I usually give writers: read a lot. Write a lot. Immerse yourself in things other than your passion -- history, philosophy, religion, psychology, political science, etc., etc., etc. Read at least one thing you disagree with -- but can't quite shake -- per week. Etc.)
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Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.