Getting the Job Done
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.)

mp writing

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.


Previous-Page-Icon    09   Next-Page-Icon