Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Appendix to Episode #104

Since this week's Ebert presents At the Movies is devoted to the films that had the biggest impact on shaping our work as critics (mine, in order of appearance: True Heart Susie, Foolish Wives, Play Time, Shoah, Histoire(s) du Cinema), I thought I'd put together a little appendix about how I work as a critic.


  1. I work in admittedly weird ways. The best way I have to describe my methods -- the one I always end up falling back on -- is to say that, over the years, they've turned into an imitation of film production. "On location" (I rarely write at home) I produce material (writings that range from phrases to sentences to whole paragraphs), sometimes doing "re-takes" (re-formulating the same set of ideas in different ways), which I then edit together into texts.
  2. I end up writing quite a bit of new material while putting something together, but the bulk of my reviews, essays, etc. originate from handwritten drafts. Sometimes I scour my notebooks for ideas, inserting sentences or phrases into new contexts.
  3. I've used the same brand of notebook for several years -- a pastel-colored model apparently intended for teenage girls -- because of the durability of the covers and the quality of the paper.
  4. I'd say that, altogether, I've only used about 10% of what I've hand-written in finished texts.
  5. I've never been very good at taking notes during movies, and rarely do. However, I will sometimes take notes if I'm seeing a film for the second time, and I also write observations down directly after screenings.
  6. If I'm having trouble, I'll try some other route. Talking into a digital voice recorder has never really worked, because my style isn't very "conversational," though certain aspects of it do originate in the way I talk.
  7. Sometimes I'll use my typewriter. What I like about typewriting is that you can feel yourself putting words and sentences together. It's much a less fluid process than hand-writing or typing on a computer. The typewriter I use has an AZERTY layout; because you have to shift to place a period, it means that you can never end a sentence casually.
  8. In the past, I've used large cork tackboards, on which I would attach notes or lists of observations and use them in putting together the basic structure of a text. I still have two hanging above my desk, though I've used them less and less in the last few months; currently, they mostly hold receipts and reminders.
  9. Even if I start far in advance, it sometimes takes me a while to get a piece of writing into a "finished" state -- and even then, I may make drastic changes at the last minute. Some essays begin as reviews; others begin as two different pieces that end up getting joined together at the last minute. Sometimes, it's both: "Morel vs. Besson" began as two different film reviews which were combined at the last minute into a single piece.
  10. Interviews: I use a digital voice recorder to record interviews. On more than one occasion, I've used a video camera, because the sound quality is higher. This seems obvious and is standard practice for film critics, but, having spent the last month or so getting interviewed frequently, I've learned that it isn't standard practice, for, say, a lot of journalists, many of whom simply take notes or (if it's a phone interview) type directly into their computer. I'll admit that, for me, this other method is unfathomable: there are many comments that I don't completely pick up on until I listen to the interview later and often the most telling statements aren't straight responses, but things said between questions. Also -- with the exception of the Eugene Green "questionnaire" I did via e-mail -- I never write questions ahead of time or work from a list of notes.


Anonymous said...

Very cool to give us such an honest and detailed account of your process. Also must say that tonight's show was my favorite so far. I hope it's not a one-off and that great old(er) films get more time. The way audiences encounter movies nowadays is completely different from when Roger started the first incarnation of the show--we're all timeshifting and so every good film is still relevant. If there aren't any current releases worth talking about, why talk about them? Just give us the thumbs up or down and move on to something more interesting.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...


We'll be doing several "specials" along these lines, which will hopefully also involve our guest contributors. Right now we're putting together one that will hopefully be done soon, and which covers a contentious film-related topic that Christy, Roger and I all have very different opinions on.

However, I'll disagree with you on not talking about films we don't like. Though I certainly prefer writing / talking about what I love, explaining why something isn't any good can be very helpful in directing people elsewhere. If someone knows the new heavily-advertised movie isn't any good, maybe they'll check out a better one that's playing at the same theater on a Saturday evening.

Keith Uhlich said...

This reminds me of how Bill Watterson wrote about composing Calvin and Hobbes in one of his collections. It's a nice mix of the technical and the philosophical.

I most identify with the inability to take notes, something I trace back to high school, where my social studies teacher required us to do it. I rebelled, and it was one of the reasons I chose to leave the class, an AP level. Watching a movie is sacred to me: if I'm writing notes, I'm not giving the work my full attention. Some notable times I've broken with this are the Mikio Naruse retrospective (where I wanted to write down a lot of character names and actors that I knew weren't listed) and Certified Copy, after I had seen it initially, because I wanted to see what the film was stirring in me. I got three separate sets of notes over three different viewings in three different venues. I still haven't used them to compose anything, but it was an interesting experiment.

Writing thoughts down immediately after a screening is something I like doing. That's a reason I started my personal blog, Immediate Impressions, though I save it for films that I know I won't be reviewing for Time Out, so it's an update-as-I-can kind of site. Process there is to write a reaction immediately after I finish a given work, try to limit composition time to half-an-hour/hour. "Thoughts in embryo," I call them. Our relation to works of art is always mutating.

I remember using a typewriter for a while. My family gifted me a Royal that now no longer works. It was a good way to go about the process, as was/is hand-writing (I feel like I'm connecting to ways of doing things that, on a macro level, are passing out of fashion). For some reason, though, I find myself struggling a lot more in these modes than on a computer. And interviews: yes, I absolutely cannot fathom how one can type during a chat. As with taking notes during a movie, it feels like a distraction to the real meat of the moment, which is conversing with your subject. As you say, it's afterwards that you gain perspective and insight into what's transpired. Trust in the unknown…

Randmc_ said...

Loved the episode, I thought it was nice to show older movies in the list, to show that people now are in a Netflix type world where any older movie is available on DVD Rental, Loved your long post about how you work very interesting that you use Film production to show similarities with that and how you work. BTW does Christie Lemeire Have a blog? I'd love to comment to her on her's if she has one.

Maya said...

Ignatiy, it's been a welcome pleasure to familiarize myself with your work through the justly-lauded TV series and your MUBI essays. I'm impressed with your ability to compress the complex ideas of your think pieces into the attractive and charming sound bytes of your TV reviews. Congratulations on being able to shift between registers so seamlessly.

Being provided a glimpse into your working process is likewise insightful. It's good to know I'm not the only one who likes to be "kidnapped" by the movie rather than interrupting the experience to take notes. I jot them down afterwards as well. I reserve my discontinuous viewing and critical interruptions for DVD screenings on my computer or TV.

As for interviews, I too savor the revelations that arise during transcription. As I've grown accustomed to my digital recorder, I can't imagine writing notes now, though I have in the past. Those interviews tend to shape up into essay form rather than dialogue.

Once again, and to join the chorus, congratulations on your many recent successes. It's heartening to know that your sharp critical practice will achieve the audience it deserves.

Sarah Mostafa Dorra said...
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