Do film critics know what they’re talking about?

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Posted August 11, 2014 by in
It’s said that film criticism is alive and flourishing because of the internet.  There is truth in that.  The good news is, anyone can write about the movies.  The bad news is, anyone can write about the movies.
     There are so many reviews, so many perspectives.  Some might write as a parent, and advise as to whether or not a given film is appropriate for children.  Others might write from a Christian perspective, or from a more political standpoint, or both.
     All of that is fine.  There is no wrong approach.  But from whatever point of view one comes from, a film critic or movie reviewer must meet two requirements: be able to write, and understand movies.
     Certainly, there are blogs out there that are unreadable, and show little understanding of movies and movie genres.  I suppose there are also blogs out there that have a firm grasp of filmmaking, but lack a way with words, but I’d guess that those are more rare.
     A much more common problem are journalists who can write a complete sentence, but frankly, don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to the movies.  Case in point:  the found footage genre.
     “Found footage” is a term that’s casually thrown around by movie reviewers and movie-goers alike to describe any movie that has characters who wander around recording everything at all times with video cameras, and keep filming even when they’re in mortal danger (put down the camera and run you idiot!).  That is an essential part, but not the only part of what makes a found footage movie what it is.
     The Blair Witch Project illustrates what a found footage movie is.   In The Blair Witch Project, a group of young filmmakers venture out into the woods in search of the eponymous witch.  They all perish.  Supposedly, their footage is found, assembled together, and exhibited at theaters.  The point here is that what defines a found footage movie isn’t just that the footage is found, but implicit in the term is that the footage is lost and then found.  Found footage, then, is not just a way of shooting and editing a movie, but a way of telling a specific plot, in which certain events must happen by definition of the genre.
     To tell a slightly different story, Paranormal Activity changed The Blair Witch Project’s movie monster from a witch to a demon, and changed the setting from the woods to a suburban home.  Cloverfield was about a Godzilla-like monster ravaging New York City.  [REC] was about zombies in a quarantined apartment building (and if you haven’t seen it, you should).  Change the monster, change the setting, but the outcome will be the same.  Found footage movies are without exception about ill-fated people.  The footage must become lost for it to be found, and for that to happen, the person holding the camera must die.
     Some movies, however, borrow the aesthetic of found footage movies, but are not found footage movies as such.  Chronicle, for example, is not a found footage movie, although it has been called such erroneously by some critics.  Chronicle cannot possibly be one because 1) some of the cameras are destroyed, and there would be no way to find the footage, and 2) the footage comes from unrelated sources.  That said, there would be no way to edit the movie together as it is presented, that is, if it were a found footage movie. Finally, the story doesn’t follow the trajectory of a found footage movie.  There are two conclusions, one false, the other true, that someone can draw from this:  Chronicle is a horrible found footage movie, or it isn’t a found footage movie at all.  Trouble is, some critics come to the false conclusion.
     Movies like Chronicle have been cropping up alongside true- found footage movies.  Many mistake one for the other.  Project XDevil’s Due, the recent Earth to Echo and Into the Storm are all examples of this.  None of them are found footage movies for exactly the same reasons that Chronicle is not.
     The problem is that there isn’t a popular term for movies like these, not yet anyway, so some reviewers use the “found footage” term loosely to describe the hand-held, first person camera look.  However, such usage contradicts the meaning of the term, and gives the impression that reviewers don’t understand it and the subgenre that the term represents.
     Now, it’s fair to say that Chronicle “has a found footage look” for lack of a better term, but it’s another to actually call it a found footage film, and then further criticize the logic of the film’s editing as if it were a found footage film, something it is clearly not.  A YouTube review did this recently; I pulled my hair out by its roots, and that’s the main impetus for this writing.
     The perpetrators aren’t just casual bloggers, writing for fun.  They are critics writing for minor and major publications.  They are on Rotten Tomatoes—some top critics, even—and on Metacritic.  And they don’t know what they’re talking about.
     The cardinal virtue of a film review is honesty.  However, you can’t tell it like it is if you call it something that it’s not, and then criticize it on that basis.  There’s bad movies, and then there’s bad criticism.  If film criticism is alive and flourishing, then it’s because of the quantity of reviews, not the quality of reviews, at least where films like Chronicle are concerned.
     The solution?  First, critics must understand what found footage is, and what it is not.  The second is the creation new terminology for movies like Chronicle.  Diegetic camera movie isn’t as catchy as “found footage,” it’s wordy, but at least it’s accurate (DCM’s for short?).  Video essayist and film critic Matthew Buck called Chronicle a POV camera movie, which is also wordy, but also accurate.  Shortening the term to “POV movies” might work, as long as it’s understood that it’s from a camera’s point of view.  Does a point of view have to be from a person?  Obviously not.
     Or, critics can ignore talking about the art of filmmaking altogther—things like cinematography and editing—and focus on writing about attractive (or unattractive) actors and actresses, and further contribute to celebrity culture.  Whichever.

About the Author

Daniel Hodgson

Daniel has a degree in film from the University of Texas at Austin, and writes about himself in the third-person, because that's the fashion.

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