Reading then reviewing this film-critic primer was much like watching Memento; the end was the beginning and each succeeding chapter either confirmed or denied what I thought I already knew. Confession: I began my career as a critic of performing arts, but was so enraged with a second look at Amadeus in 2002 that I “wrote it up.” Before long, the lure of the screen took up nearly 50% of my work.
Neophyte reviewers lucky enough to work through Christopher Null’s book will be far better prepared for the rigours of popular cinema than—unhampered by little knowledge of the facts—those of us who waded into the wonderful life of publicists, personalities and producers led by the motto “Shoot, ready, aim!”
Null’s love of cinema is the glue that holds the narrative and our attention as he describes the “art” of informed opinion from the vantages of history, marketplace, technique and career. Yet his basic premise, “You [Reviews] are helping the reader decide whether to invest his time and money in watching a movie” rings false to my experience and the straw poll of friends and colleagues. Of course, in live-performance criticism—particularly single or short-run productions—the writing imperative is more a discussion of the quality of the work and the audience’s reaction to it than a plot summary and checklist for buying a ticket. Very often, reviews are read after the experience, possibly inspiring a second look or a future performance.
If film critics were taken seriously by the majority of the public, how then do universally panned productions ever make a dollar? The whole notion as to the value of criticism (in any genre) continues to be a hot topic even as print space/frequency shrinks and web commentaries (including Null’s own www.filmcritic.com) are on the rise.
The book is chock-a-block full of useful tips, sample reviews and insider information. But there are also a few “Do as I say, not as I do” instructions: We’re chided to check spellings—especially the credits for foreign films but what’s missing here? “… identify changes a la the boneheaded Lost Highway ….” Writers are further instructed to “scrub” first-person POV out of the commentary to keep a discreet distance, yet twenty-three pages later Null’s own review of Mulholland Drive states “Personally, I think the story does matter.” Er, which is it?
Quibbles aside, the overall tone is lighthearted and engaging, yet underlying every page is the desire to raise the bar for those dipping their toes into the too often shallow field of film criticism. Beginners and veterans alike should all load Null’s most important directive to “tell the truth and provide an analysis that comes from your heart” into the subtext of their personal word processors. Putting that notion into reviews will go a long way to raising our own standards and giving our readers (including industry) a far more valuable reason to come back than merely the matter of ratings and box office envy. JWR