Critical Thinking

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Actress and well known horror star, Caroline Williams tweeted an article this morning that dovetailed with several previous Cynema posts. Director Brett Ratner called out the dangers of aggregate film score sites like Rotten Tomatoes or the similar Metacritic in an article that devolves into a promo for his upcoming films. You can read it here: http://ew.com/movies/2017/03/23/ratner-tomatoes-scores/

Many lament the recent “state of movies.” They’re bad. Remakes suck. Reboots are horrible. George Lucas and Zack Snyder are savaged by once loyal fans. Others pick apart smaller films and hold them to the same standards as a film made for 10-20 times their budgets. A bad aggregate score can damage a film, diminishing its standing to mere fast food product.

Have people become so fucking dumb, that they don’t know how to enjoy films any longer and only need to rate them?

The one thing I have learned since doing professional filmmaking full time, is that everyone has an opinion and many like to tear shit apart. Even if it’s good, many just have to hate it. I do not dismiss those with genuine criticism as “haters.” Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy summed that term up quite well:

CHRIS: What’s a ‘hater?’

STEWIE: “Oh, it’s just something people say instead of changing their own flaws.”

Criticism should be constructive. It’s not just the “what” of a film but also the “how and why.”  “Fake News” is not about media outlets creating and dispensing false information. It’s about a public that has failed to understand what “news” should be and how it is dispensed.

So what does this have to do with film? If you’re a filmmaker, it means people attack your work. If you’re a film goer, it means the Internet allows a voice on what you’ve seen and  ownership over the experience and have the right to let that inner voice public. “Fans” are a different breed. Many believe that conventions and the Internet not only afford access to their celebrities, but their criticism is also welcome.

Article2John Squires writes for Bloody Disgusting. We are Twitter friends. Squires doesn’t just write for a horror trade, he writes film. He loves film. He appreciates a film that may have fallen short of its mark.  His writing points out strengths and weaknesses and he understands the medium as an art form. It’s more than “knowing your horror.” Film “criticism” is about conveying to a reader WHY something worked or did not. It’s not about liking or disliking it or affixing some kind of score or rating.

ArticleScott Weinberg visited the set of Death House for one day. I got to shake his hand and thank him for the gift of a large box of hot Philly pretzels for cast and crew. The Nerdist’s work is the closest thing we have to Roger Ebert. His writing is direct, his knowledge solid but it’s his passion and love for film that’s the glue that holds his views together. Like Squires, Weinberg guides his reader and explains why he sees it as a success or why it doesn’t work.

Weinberg is also a screenwriter. He understands the process and knows what makes it to the screen is a multi-person effort. While it may start on a page, that script passes into many hands on its way to the screen. If some of the performances or effects are underwhelming, he allots for that. He is clear to identify the parts of the film that did work.

That’s because he loves movies. He enjoys them. Both men see the magic in the medium and didn’t let the cynic poison their hearts. Snark, complaining or trashing are not the goals of Weinberg or Squires. They have something to say and as readers and filmmakers,  we should listen.

Film is the closest thing, above modern medicine and technology, to magic. Film is immortality in this world.

Why is there so much piss and vinegar? Many lament, “films suck these days” but what is their point of reference? Do those who decry the state of the industry have a true point of reference? Most all do they watch enough movies to qualify their complaints?

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Social media has this convention tour “gold standard” for a handful of horror films. Consequently, these “litmus test” films are seen as untouchable by fans who fall in the middle of the horror bell curve. These are the convention goers–who follow horror cons like Grateful Dead fans. I am not disparaging these folks. I targeted these fans for my upcoming feature, Death House.

These folks know the films’ stars. They have fed on decades of Fangoria and Starlog articles with intravenous DVD extras, YouTube interviews and every piece of minutia that has allowed Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers and Freddy Kreuger to remain icons forty years later. They take articles on these characters personally.

There’s more out there, folks.

These noteworthy films are: Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Hellraiser.  At first glance it seems there are no other horror movies except this small group. They hold this exalted position among horror fans. I put films like Jaws, Alien and The Exorcist in a different category. The six previous films are the most common and fall in the target area of the common fan. These films have identifiable, iconic killers and as a result make them easy to relate to.

I admit, these are great films.  I have worked with several of the men who portrayed these characters. However, there is more out there, folks. When one does not expand their palette, taste becomes bitter. As a result, I think this might be part of the reason for such online resentment.

Remakes and reboots aside, if someone only knows this narrow slice of the genre, of course newer films are going to seem unworthy.

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I loved the 80s. I lived a life worthy of a John Hughes movie. However, I don’t judge all comedies today by the Holy Trinity of The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and Weird Science. As with horror, these films were defined by their era. My previous article on Friday the 13th explains why the original film and its 80s sequels flourished in Reagan’s time but the franchise has stumbled recently. http://horrorfuel.com/horror/reviews/friday-the-13th-gets-lucky/

I love seeing new stuff . There is appreciation for the work that goes into it and I didn’t expect The Babadook to be like A Nightmare on Elm Street.  I enjoyed The Babadook. I assessed the film on its own merit. The hype around the film tainted the enjoyment. The high “Tomato Score” diminished the film’s impact, because it supported a film that would be terrifying. It isn’t. The film IS, however, imaginative and beautifully made. I would say it’s more of a psychological thriller than it is a horror film.  It was not the most terrifying movie of the year and I doubt its filmmakers set out to make that.

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Notice that I didn’t summarily dismiss the film and didn’t use words as “sucked, fail, blows” to describe it. There was no ridiculous comparison to films that just don’t compare. I know my horror but I took a horror film class in college, even though I thought I knew everything there was to know.  I learned a lot. The goal is to learn more and I do when I read others’ work. Open your mind and when that happens, you will expect more as a result.

The real education comes from reading reviews of your own work. Consequently, I wrote about this from a filmmaker’s point of view here: http://horrorfuel.com/horror/movies/zombie-movies/when-filmmakers-strike-back/

There have been fantastic “reviews” of my work which said nothing. I’ve had my films trashed from some well-written negative reviews. When someone praises or criticizes your film, it should come from critical thinking and a solid understanding of the material.

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So lets use a genuine review as an example.  The Fields, was my first film. It is a psychological thriller starring Cloris Leachman and Tara Reid. I did not direct but I wrote the script and produced. It is a true story based on a disturbing event on my grandparents’ farm in the late summer of 1973.

Here is the actual Bloody Disgusting review. I pasted the review below because I want to address some things. Follow me as I explain why “criticism” needs to come from understanding your subject. There are positive and negative aspects to this review. Allow me to review the reviewer:

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I find The Fields to be a flawed film. Let’s get that out up front. This is not being thin-skinned. The directors took a different approach to the script which resulted in something very different than what I wrote. I feel there are scenes that go nowhere and give little to no pay off. To its credit, the film garnered a number of awards and accolades. The shoot was unpleasant for a variety of reasons.  This experience almost ended my filmmaking career before it started.

My “review” is that while The Fields is a good film, it’s not the film I would have made.

The reviewer starts off with a fair assessment.

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The following sentence takes that fair assessment and dismisses it:  “…it’s just not much good.” Sentence structure aside, why the condescending dismissal of the film? Before it sounds like I AM thin-skinned, look at the rest. The next paragraph is a fair and measured assessment:

UntitledI would agree. The vagueness is too nebulous. As said, there are several scenes with no pay off or clear definition. As much as I wanted BD to like this film, I understood what the reviewer was saying at the start of the critique. Then things start to take a turn:

UntitledFirst of all, Cloris’ performance was not for laughs. While some of the things she did and said were funny, at the heart was a solemn performance that tackled a number of things on many levels. She does not encourage her grandson to say “colored.” This is important. The directors talked of dropping this particular scene in fear they would offend viewers. I took a stand and said if they did, I would petition to remove my name from the script. The scene was not written to offend. Cloris felt the same.

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Cloris Leachman sits with her grandson played by Joshua Ormond in “The Fields”

Leachman’s “Gladys” is confronted with her own casual acceptance of racism. Gladys would be shocked if she were called a racist. That doesn’t make her use of the word “nigger” acceptable, but the scene clearly shows she was a product of her time. It does not excuse the use of the word. When her grandson uses the word, she stops him and tells him to use “coloreds” instead, thinking that this is less offensive. She is admitting that “nigger” is not a proper word for the boy to be using.  Its use was never written for laughs and it was directed with that respect.

Tara Reid never uses the word once in the film.

The reviewer types “The N-Word” in his review. You write for a major horror publication that regularly displays graphic and horrendous images that likely offend on a daily basis. Yet, the word “nigger” might upset your readers? Have we all become five years old? Tara Reid never uses the word once in the film. The word is repugnant, and its use was singularly used for its impact in the scene between two generations.

The film had numerous and large public screenings. Not once did anyone of African-American background vocalize offense, and I brought the scene up directly in many Q&A sessions. Once again this underscores my opinion that most of the people offended by the word are uptight, middle-class white folks with a cause.

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This does not constitute film assessment. This was the reviewer jumping on the then-popular “Bash Tara Reid” bandwagon. It’s a personal and unwarranted swipe at the actress. Has the reviewer seen any of her other films? Someone thought she could act, as she starred in some of the biggest films of the late 90s and early 2000s. This piece is also snarky and condescending. Nice to see her seemingly pull it all together? Who are you, her father? How together is your own life and that’s all you have to say about her professional appearance in the film. As someone who made the film, and worked with Ms. Reid on a daily basis for almost a week, I can say she was professional, kind, knew her lines and showed up on time and never complained.

The Internet allows people to think they have an intimacy with celebrities and the film industry. It allows them to be judgmental with prejudice. I am willing to bet that at the time of this review, this guy never once met or had spoken with Tara Reid. Yet, he’s glad to see her “seemingly” pull her life together. Less smug and snark and more critical thinking, please.

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Cloris Leachman and Tara Reid in a scene from “The Fields”

Ms. Reid helped me rescue an abused and neglected dog. She displayed a remarkable knowledge of film and its history. Ms. Reid ate with the cast and crew and happily signed autographs and posed for endless pictures. Tara Reid was also very aware of her current situation in the media. She also knew everyone onset was just as aware. What does this have to do with a review of The Fields? About as much as the reviewer’s words about her.

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When someone starts their sentence with “no offense,” get ready to be offended. “Not to be rude” should be followed by “but I will…”

This is how a professional review ends? “Not to be rude?” So let me now respond to this by saying “Not to be rude, but what about the beautiful and acclaimed cinematography? What about the excellent sound design and musical score? The production design was solid for a film of this budget? What about the use of an entire abandoned amusement park? Nothing to say how production values transcended expectations for a film of this budget range? This was a period piece, no words about the challenges that face a small-small priced production? Nothing about the stellar performance of Bev Appleton, Cloris’ husband in the film? Any actual words on the screenplay?

I feel my review of his review is a bit more fair than his assessment of The Fields.

Let’s just say the reviewer doesn’t agree with the descriptors I typed above, how about some comments on why he disagreed?

I didn’t read anything about the wardrobe design which was spot on for a 70s era film. However, we do get a personal disdain for Tara Reid and the word “nigger.”

Why such contempt? Maybe the reviewer should brush up on context in screenwriting. Should I assume that this writer is some frustrated filmmaking student getting paid a hundred bucks for each piece he submits? Maybe I should say, “Good for him. Glad to see he’s doing some honest work.”

As a result, I feel my review of his review is a bit fairer than his assessment of The Fields.

While I feel I not only know my horror, I also know film and its history. That doesn’t mean I know everything. My Cynema series is not about trashing films. It’s calling out the cynicism that poisons the art form. Cynicism breeds contempt because it comes from contempt. For many, film has become the enemy, and it is unwarranted.

Expect more from your entertainment. Push your boundaries.

Watch more and consequently, you will learn more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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