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.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Some Excuses and Justifications

CBS Films' poker-faced rudimentary action: first Faster, an extended tribute to Walter Hill re-framed through Evangelical Protestant morality, then The Mechanic, wherein the angry bald head of Jason Statham and the guilty face of Ben Foster unleash grisly violence on a variety of people-we-know-are-bad (drug dealers, false prophets, traitors, assassins) and then each other. While the former is comparatively sleek and the latter is scuzzy, both indulge in the classic mechanics of the genre without making a big, disingenuous show of it—though, more importantly, what links the two is a certain ethical tidiness.

Dwayne Johnson hunts men in Faster for righteous revenge (whose reasons are explained in much greater detail than exactly how Johnson was able to plan this plot from prison), and in the end he offers one of his targets a chance at revelation on a beach behind a revival tent. Statham and Foster, we are told again and again, are troubled, friendless men, and it's for that reason that they've got into the assassination game; it is not, however, for that reason that they assassinate--it's because their targets are bad people, and Statham's central crisis of conscience revolves the realization that one of his targets was not as bad as he thought.

This isn't something specific to these two films; it's partly built into the genre: the plots of most American-style action movies are concerned with making excuses for the action. It's a genre obsessed with self-justification.

The Mechanic
is itself a remake of a Charles Bronson vehicle, and while the early Bronson movies flirted with moral ambiguity (usually in the most tone-deaf ways possible; see Death Wish), by the 1980s, when the genre solidified, they had become overtaken with increasingly baroque justifications. If those Bronson movies aren't art, writing them sure must've been, because a man can only avenge a murder so many times.

The later Bronsons set up Rube Goldberg chains of motivation, something which reaches its pinnacle (or is that "low point?") with Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects. J. Lee Thompson's dreamily lurid last film finds Bronson hunting for a gang because they sold the daughter of the man who groped his daughter into prostitution (all of this filtered through a very '80s brand of Nipponophobia).