Talking the walk (on film)…
The Spectrum Perspective Manifesto
“The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds…” Marcel Proust, À la Recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time); La Prisonnière (The Prisoner), Chapter 2, 1913–1927.
Our eyes are an invaluable asset to our being. The widow to our souls. Seeing is believing. It seems that sight has always held a special place in shaping our sense of reality. One of the reasons cinema has survived at all is because using sight and sound, we can be so casually pulled into another reality as an escape from our own — we’re yearning to look through eyes other than our own. Funnily enough, film reviews by the standards of critics today don’t allow us to follow the critic into that reality with them — they stand with both feet firmly entrenched in their article, fully-focused on imposing expectations and rating their satisfaction with the product. Film is more than pleasing or displeasing aesthetics, or at least it should be. In the well know quote from Marcel Proust’s La Prisonnière, he means to say that in order to uncover the most meaningful and virtuous perspective of life, the individual must put aside their own perspective and instead commit themselves to the wider picture — life offers something more to those who understand the nature of perspective and those whom try to broaden the way they watch film. Today, sharing ideas in reviews is almost dead. Movie databases cultivate a world of brief, surface reviews that are built around a star-rating. Print media about film seems to be doing the same thing, gossip and film hype overcrowding the pages. Ideas aren’t shared on the large scale. Film reviewers once gave us dynamic interpretations of cinema. In At the Movies, Gene Siskel and Robert Ebert were so focused on unpacking and discussing each other’s approach to any given film, that a star-rating at the end of their reviews would be a pointless exercise — you can tell by the end of their reviews if you’ll want to give the film a try or steer clear of it. This style is common right across the recent past of film reviewing; Pauline Kael is another critic I’ve read with a real interest in her process of investigating perspectives. So what’s so bad about a star-rating? We are now almost fully focused on our perception of quality — the satisfaction of our taste (or collective tastes) represented by a specific number of gold stars (or what have you). Based on this model, it is surely possible that soon, we won’t even need to care about why films are being made, where they came from and what they say about us — messages like that often get in the way of a film’s status and focus on target audiences. Realising this is how the consumer can take back the power that the marketplace owes them. It applies to any other marketplace as much as it applies to cinema; writers and directors, local and foreign, established and independent, are making films that don’t fit within the conventional landscape and they’re subjected to both the critics’ and the masses’ scrutiny. If we are going to review films online, why wouldn’t we commit to understanding the experience of the film, pulling it apart to see why it works instead of getting lost in the economy of preference? If you feel that cinema is a collection of unique, complicated, reflectional and self-actulising experiences, don’t just make another evaluation that uses your taste as the defining criteria. A reviewer should be the creator of a field guide for new audiences, providing the contextual platform for interpreting our time’s boldest, strangest and most creative artists. With the internet now firmly enveloping our social activity, a reviewer can invite their peers to post their own thoughts and interpretations together, and actually have `that conversation’ that we’re all being told is going to change the world through online democracies. A reviewer, not a critic, is the prophet of this notion of conceptually driven discussion and stylistic intrigue. They want us to know more, to challenge our understanding and ask us all to help figure out the fullest possible collection of meanings the journey of cinema holds. This is the purpose of a New Age Film Reviewer; to give us their eyes to watch cinema through.
The inevitable streamlining of modern film reviews has dealt a significant blow to the interpretive side of film reviewing. The star rating is the proud emblem of a hard-and-fast approach to film reviewing. This numerical evaluation is a statement that such a complex, interpretative experience can be reduced to a small number of digits and will some how capture anything relevant to the audience’s understanding of the artform. Granted, the film experts that surround me in Australia demonstrate a real conscious for understanding cinema in terms of its grander aesthetics and the concepts at work. David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz, who unfortunately retired from their place in the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s At the Movies at the end of last year, gave their audiences a dynamic environment of consideration for each and every film they reviewed. Their goal was to settle on a fair evaluation of each film that they had seen, which inevitably led to each of them passionately defending their interpretation of the film’s experience. Carrying the torch after them, (arguably) Australia’s next most renowned film aficionado, Marc Fennell (aka That Movie Guy) personalises his reviews for a young, intellectual audience with his off-the-wall humour bleeding into each of his reviews. While both these styles unpacked each film to their conceptual limit, their approaches are let down by the need to cut the fat and settle on a star rating at the end of each film. In doing this, they undermine the interpretation with the evaluation.
Film experiences, given the nature of individual interpretations of art, are not quantitative experiences. Within the marketplace of film watching, film selection processes — the critic’s stars on the movie’s poster — want to make our selection of titles quantifiable within easy to understand dimensions. Ergo, the star-rating is as much a reflection of corporate expectations and desired turnover than any real indicator of quality the consumer searches for. The evaluation which we are handed by a critic, encompassing their opinionated reflection of an overall delivery, attempting to present a balanced evaluation of all the qualities we care about within a film. It’s conclusion is framed around either scrutiny or praise — not the overall concept of a film or the aesthetics at work designed with a specific audience in mind.
Reviews must not only change in how they are structured, but they should start to consider the conversations they’re starting. Within Australia, Hollywood still dominates social discussion — plainly thanks to their integration and saturation of this country’s main market. As we plough through Imdb and other online sources of film information (and the films themselves), a New Age Reviewer should not be content with waiting to be spoon fed by Hollywood’s global distribution network. They should crave foreign, alternative and independent productions that they believe are worthy of interest. They do this because they realize that once we find the right context (or a collection of contexts) for other viewers to understand these genres through, these genres may actually encompass a larger part of our cultural and artistic identities than the single, monopolizing monarch of the Hollywood empire.
So, what does a New Age Reviewer do? It is important not to forget the process and contribution critics have made for our approach to film to flourish thus far. The clear perspectives they search for in their critiques, through interrogating production, concept and consumer based aspects, are themselves the principal conclusions a reviewer should be seeking out. All the key contributors responsible for a film’s direction, delivery and execution sway the current of the film’s interpretation. The reviewer channels their thoughts of the film’s writers, directors, producers and other powerful contributors for the collective basis of the film’s conceptual context. With the food on the table, it’s time to eat — feminism, psycho-analysis, racial divides and so many other perimeters of society then characterise the review’s angle of the plot and feel of the film. This complex sample of a film’s living, breathing ideology shouldn’t scare prospective commentators — it should stir their need for evidence — make us look at what is really there — and justify whatever creative choices we see on screen.
With material that is now spread across a wide, immeasurable palate of ideas, interpretation can rule over criticism. With the internet as a living, evolving platform of ideas, the opportunities to build on and add-to these understandings is a clear virtue that must be taken advantage of.
Films are experiences — walks sitting-down, dreams with narratives and ideas with a voice. Comprehending such works within the context of perfection is Tam-amount to rating food or vacations — it comes down to taste, which we all have and can decide ourselves without having it spoon fed to us. With star-rated quality no longer a craved commodity of cinema, the reviewer is free to attack a wide range of criteria through an equally wide method of reviewing standards. Red Letter Media has already capitalised on this methodology in their retrospective, social discussion show Best of the Worst. Granted, there is a clear process of evaluation at work — each of the reviewers have found a medium which makes the films they review most accessible to the wider audience — paying them out with friends over a few beers seems to be an ideal method of consumption for these films. Star-ratings are pointless within this context, but consumers know what they are in for at the end of each of the quirky, often exploitative films they review.
So, a reviewer’s search for context defines them as a key contributor to film theory today — this insight, this way of watching a film, is something that develops audience tastes, rather than prunes them back. Not only what a film is, but how to consume it defines the work of the New Age Reviewer. The last objective of a New Age Reviewer is to do precisely what critics have resisted so strongly — opening up the floor for everyone else. Within a global online readership, it is possible that New Age Reviewers can contextualise film experiences beyond the capability of a single person, compiling our experiences of a film online and developing a cosmology of interpretable meanings. Unchained from any single interpretation, the community now has literally millions of eyes to share, each one contributing to an understanding of what a film means — both what a director intended for a film and what those symbols represent within the viewing audiences across cultures, lifestyles, ages and genders.
Whatever direction and perspective the New Age Film Reviewer takes up in their work and whomever their audience is, their consideration for the direction of cinema’s development and its reflection within society is something cinematic discussion always needs in order to maintain its evolution within a culture. If you’re considering writing about cinema or a film you’ve seen, broaden the discussion with more than your opinion. Immerse us in your thoughts like the film immersed you. Shape our understanding around the scope of the film-makers expectations. And most importantly, leave your expectations of cinematic perfection with the critics (their job is to critique in the first place). If you believe every film is an experience yearning for the right eyes to watch it through and know what those eyes are, you are a New Age Reviewer. Show me your eyes.
Originally published at thespectrumperspective.tumblr.com.