Saturday, February 28, 2009

Pick the Critics of Tomorrow

As some of you know, I am teaching a course this term about the history and practice of American film reviews, in which my students have studied the criteria and vocabulary for film analysis and have scrutinized the evolving styles and bases of argument in reviews since the days of Vachel Lindsay and Carl Sandburg. After reading these reviews and watching a slew of the relevant movies, they have responded occasionally with essays about the reviews but also, more often, with their own reviews—imitating the styles or criteria of their predecessors while also hoping to cultivate something of their own voice.

Most recently, we have been reading several writers from the 1970s through the 1990s who place heavy emphasis on the politics of identity and representation on screen. For reasons best known to the students, and to James Baldwin, Molly Haskell, bell hooks, and Paul Rudnick, aka Libby Gelman-Waxner (whose styles they were invited to study and to mimic), the films eligible for response in their most recent assignments were Lady Sings the Blues, Dances with Wolves, Edward Scissorhands, and Pulp Fiction. As an additional wrinkle of this assignment, I asked the students to isolate a single sentence from their reviews that they would choose to represent or advertise the rest of the piece, as happens institutionally on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic and in the pages of most urban newspapers as the films reach the end of their release cycles and the reviews shrink from essays to capsules to bite-sized M&Ms.

Here's where you come in! I'd like my students to have more responses than just my own, especially since they're working in a form that aspires to a large and diverse audience, so I solicit your feedback: Which two or three of the following sentences most tempts you to want to read the rest of the review? You can express your preference because the sentence is witty, thought-provoking, sophisticated... for any reason at all, really. If you'd like to clarify why you selected the sentences you did, please do so. I have grouped their sentences by film, but you don't have to do this in your responses: if your three favorite taglines are all from Edward Scissorhands reviews, for example, then vote that way. The reviews with the most votes will get an extra bump upward when I grade them.

You do not need to be a registered user of Blogger in order to vote; simply choose the Anonymous option from the Comments page, below the text window, and register your opinions that way.

Please limit your comments to expressions of enthusiasm. The point is to encourage good writing and reward interesting effort. If you absolutely feel the need to fire off a sling or an arrow, by all means, direct it toward any of my other reviews or posts on this blog or this site. I'm already mother-hennish about these students, but don't make me get full-on Lioness on their behalf. I know it's the Web, but act right, people!

So, without further ado: the contenders. Vote your hearts out, and encourage your friends to do the same! Any and all expressions of readerly enthusiasm will be warmly welcomed by me, and even more by the writers themselves.

Lady Sings the Blues

A Fan Favorite!
#1 "Yet the scenarios the filmmakers concoct in order to evoke audience pity make Billie into some kind of black 1930s version of Lindsay Lohan: a beautiful, talented girl whose ingratitude and irrationality make us view her less as a victim of society and more as a victim of stupidity."

#2 "[Billie] also goes through a duckling-to-swan transformation, only while mine included extensive dental work and an individualized diet/workout regime to plump up my curves, Billie's involves moving into the city and working as a prostitute."

Dances with Wolves

The Runaway Winner!
#3 "Dances with Wolves represents the Native American experience about as well as Julia Stiles captures the essence of urban blacks in Save the Last Dance; a scripted fantasy, made more for entertainment than truth."

Edward Scissorhands

#4 "Ironically, for a director who professes an affinity for freaks and geeks, Burton has no handle on how to create individualized subjective perspectives."

A Fan Favorite!
#5 "John Waters mastered the trash aesthetic; Tim Burton just trashed it."

#6 "Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton's 1990 holiday fairy tale about an android getting a taste of suburban life, is a story about difference. But it's also a story about being into kinky boots, dog collars, and black leather."

#7 "Poor, sweet Edward Scissorhands ... considering your deafening silence and seeming incapability of uttering more than one word at a time, one would think your scissors weren't the real 'handicap'—rather, your tongue seems to be what is truly binding you to helplessness."

#8 "The movie attempts to critique society, but what is this society? Just imagine instead if we had Asians and blacks and Hispanics [on screen]; rich CEOs and poor families on social security; a mother with an autistic child; [one woman] abused and abandoned by her husband... poor Edward would hardly raise an eyebrow."

#9 "It's amusing that a complete freak can move from the outside to the inside, but that's the power of being new."

#10 "As Edward is rescued from his secluded castle and integrated into a non-specific but probably Californian suburban community, Burton uses him as the ultimate tabula rasa to test the values of the idyllic yet creepy white ideal."

#11 "The theme of acceptance is so well-trod that Burton has to give his protagonist scissorhands to bring anything new to the story."

#12 "Brought to life by the mechanical innocence of a pallid Johnny Depp and embellished with the whimsical humor of soft parody, the film manages to intertwine lighthearted fairytale with a resounding emotional depth—quite an achievement, given its incongruous premise and sometimes scattered storytelling."

#13 "But Scissorhands does not simply tell a story of a man who does not belong; it is more about the community among and upon which he exists, and furthermore, the viewers' acceptance of this story."

#14 "In many ways, the film is like a less confrontational companion piece to The Catcher in the Rye, a story that speaks to alienation, but even after rereading the book, it's still the alienation of an upper-middle-class white boy at a time when there were many others far worse off."

#15 "This film is a modern and twisted retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fairytale that teaches us that it may not be the Beast's physical deformity that scares us; rather, it is his ability to show us the evil in ourselves that we find so frightening."

Pulp Fiction

#16 "Jimmie's played by Quentin Tarantino, the film's director, who infuses the role with so much dorkiness you would think the film has a nerd-quota, and because no other character wants to help, he has to meet it on his own."

#17 "[The film] is about the uncomfortable silences, where a glimmer of humanity shines out from behind the thickened carapaces of people metamorphosed by the brutality of the inescapable world they inhabit."

#18 "Tarantino's bottom line seems to be that dollars let white people escape from reality with nostalgia, drugs, or a permanent vacation; the desire for money, however, binds black people to a never-ending quest for glowing briefcase after glowing briefcase."

A Fan Favorite!
#19 "It's crude, it is violent, it's witty, it's charismatic, and while it doesn't speak softly, it certainly carries a big stick."



Blogger Sam Brooks said...

This is a neat little exercise! Kudos on developing this whole thingamajig. My favourites are:

3. It's a witty comment on the whole (almost) hypocrisy of Dances with Wolves then it sums up exactly what the underlying problem with the movie is.

17. I've never heard Pulp Fiction read in this manner, but it immediately grabbed me as a completely valid reading of the film. (Granted, I haven't read a great deal of reviews on Pulp Fiction.)

19. Like the above example with Dances of Wolves, it sums up the movie. I also have a soft spot for personification.

4:07 PM, February 28, 2009  
Blogger Dr. S said...

#6 was the first one that made me guffaw out loud. I would totally have gone on to read that review. I also loved #1 and #3. My fondness for those two makes me fear that I'm attached--in a way that I didn't even know I was!--to the well-turned snark of contemporary movie reviews: I'm clearly gravitating toward the things that are carefully crafted jewels of smart frustration, captured through revealing analogy.

In any case: those are my top three, but I thoroughly enjoyed them all, and I suspect that I would have enjoyed them even more had I been able to read the full reviews; the three that were my favorites got that way, in part, because they were the ones that were most fully separable from the bigger context in which they first appeared.

4:43 PM, February 28, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like #3, #5, an #12 . . . also #2. The reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you have heroin?

5:00 PM, February 28, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

#3: SO true: neither Julia Stiles nor Kevin Costner is in any position to speak for people of color.

#5: pithy and provocative.

#18: definitely wanted to read this take-no-prisoners critique of Tarantino's race politics.

6:12 PM, February 28, 2009  
Blogger tim r said...

More fun! I like #5, because it's pithy and elegant; #16, because it's catty without being too vicious; and #19, because it totally fulfils the function of conveying the review's flavour in the minimum of space.

7:13 PM, February 28, 2009  
Blogger StinkyLulu said...

#1: the incongruously anachronistic comparison proved strangely compelling

#5: the tag-line makes me ready to disagree entirely with this review, which means i must read the review in its entirety

#18: i'm fascinated

and special (dis?)honorable mention goes to:

#2: as is so often the case with reviews in this oeuvre, i find the reviewer's self-referentiality completely annoying...yet i find myself strangely intrigued...must read more...

7:15 PM, February 28, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

#7 I think it's the only interesting original thought. This critic is the kind that makes me say: "I wonder what he thought about the film?" I don't know if I would be interested in the whole review, but the one thought alone that he might have is enough me forto take at least a look.

8:04 PM, February 28, 2009  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

I like...

#1 it's funny/specific and rooted in the contemporary which makes me curious about both the young critic and the old movie (which i haven't seen!)

#10 because i'm not exactly sure what the reviewer means but I'd like to read more to find out (and hope it's elaborated upon)

#12 I TOTALLY agree.

#16 funny. And I actually think Tarantino himself would laugh

#19 I am weak for adjective strings (more than I should be) but I think the punchline is perfect.

8:09 PM, February 28, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

3, 6 and 19 were my favourites and probably the most I'd be most willing to read. It felt like the authors were writing from personal points of view rather than just looking at RT and modelling the blurb after the format most reviewers use.

8:23 PM, February 28, 2009  
Blogger Brian Darr said...

On the run, but my favorites, not because they expressed something I thought before but because i'd most like to see where these arguments are leading:

#1, #4, #15

8:59 PM, February 28, 2009  
Blogger Agustin said...

I would want to read more of 1, 3, 5 and 19
i like short and concise blurbs
they were all really good though

9:34 PM, February 28, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

#3 So true, makes me want to read more.

10:05 PM, February 28, 2009  
Blogger Daryn G said...

#7: Smart observation that is broad enough to serve as the thesis of the review. Also, I like how the writer addresses Edward S. in the 2nd person--an engaging stylistic choice.

#1: Very witty comparison, and reminds me of one of the most common flaws of the Hollywood biopic--the life is done in very broad strokes and made to conform to the generic formula, and if the subject happens to be a creative genius like Billie Holiday, there is very little exploration of that genius in the movie.

10:19 PM, February 28, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd rank my favorites in this order:

#5--This writer nailed the genre. I must read more of this review.

#18--If a little unwieldy, this was still incredibly provocative. I absolutely wanted to get to know this author's argument.

#3--I don't even know "Save the Last Dance," but I immediately knew where this author was coming from.

#10--The juxtapositions "non-specific but probably Californian" and "idyllic yet creepy white" are unexpected but crystal clear. I got a sense of the author's voice right away.

10:28 PM, February 28, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cool exercise.

My 3 picks:

#3--nice quick analogy that sums up the idea well

#5--even quicker. And it is quite a catchy line, which is kind of an important skill of film criticism.

#12--I like that it is the only one that attempt to address both the pluses and the minuses of the film. It think it is important to be able to sum that up in one line.

2:38 AM, March 01, 2009  
Blogger Paul Outlaw said...

#6 (makes me want to read the full review and see the film again -- clear and not too full of itself)

#11 (no frills)

#13 (needs sharpening, but very intriguing)

#18 (if this is going where I think it is: bring it on!)

Especially #18.

3:41 AM, March 01, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Clearly being taught by you is a very good influence, Nick. There's much to relish here, but two particularly well-crafted nuggets that registered with me were:

#3. I see a lot of people have named this already, but it made me spit my morning tea onto the keyboard. Now my F2 key is completely stuck. If it were a key I used more often, I'd hold it against your student, but as it stand ... well-played.

#4. Because it so elegantly nails my decades-long problem with Tim Burton, principally why he never makes me feel anything.

Anyway, where do I sign up for this class?

5:34 AM, March 01, 2009  
Blogger Colin Low said...

#1: Recontextualizing the movie with a modern cultural symbol -- score! -- especially with one as divisive (and worthy of emblematization of the spoilt-rich-girl archetype that the writer sums up) as Lindsay.

#15: That punchline piques my curiosity with an insight into human nature, especially since it's one that can recast some audience misgivings about the movie as their prejudices. (I'd love to see the writer's elaboration of how Edward "show[s] us the evil in ourselves that we find so frightening"!)

#16: I can't tell if this is snarky or serious. Perhaps it's both, and that's a virtue.

6:41 AM, March 01, 2009  
Blogger Katie said...

3 - feels most like a "real" reviewer's comment I might read on rotten tomatoes

19 - succinct and witty

qualities I didn't like in others:
- too much high vocabulary crammed together (a review should be insightful and thought-provoking, but not difficult for the general public to read)
- not focusing on a main aspect of the film, but instead on relatively insignificant details

7:09 AM, March 01, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

#3 - Oh, thank god!

#5 - Concise with a strong POV...exactly what I want to see in a review

7:35 AM, March 01, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I liked a lot of these too, but I got especially hooked by #4, because that writer seems to think most clearly in the terms of cinema, and #18, because s/he has pushed the tricky politics of race in PF further than other writers who made similar comments. And what can I say I was a sucker for invoking the glowing briefcase.

Can't decide for my third between #1, #15, and #19. Maybe I'll get away with tossing some points to all of them. If not, I'll go with #19.

8:36 AM, March 01, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent work, everyone! My choices:

#3 - There's a clear, insightful point of view in this blurb, which straddles the line between cinematic and social critique. (My favorite!) It's also witty, relatively timely, and exposes the soft underbelly of Hollywood filmmaking...namely, that it often creates archetypes, not truths.

#13 - Perspective is so important in critical writing. Viewing EDWARD S. as a film about the "other" is not new, and much has been said about it. But if, as this blurb suggest, the "other" is actually the community...well, that's a perspective on the material that interests and fascinates me. It avoids the trap of a myopic bias as well.

#17 - I'd definitely read a review that wants to discuss PULP FICTION'S silences and quiet moments, since the prevailing critical mood is to notice his louder touches. At its best, this approach could make me see one of my favorite films in a whole new way.

9:42 AM, March 01, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

#3 is by far my favorite. It's pithy; it connects a middlebrow "contemporary classic" and a pop teen movie in a compelling way; it points to a serious perspectival flaw in both films--why do the white people get to do all the observing and experiencing? Why is this the story of *their* encounter with the (un)friendly natives? Great work, #3!

11:30 AM, March 01, 2009  
Blogger Calum Reed said...

My favourites are...

#7: I like this best. It's direct, semi-bitchy, and makes me want to read more.

#12: Lovely, fluent, plenty to say.

#14: Interesting cultural comparison. Same goes for #1 but this seems a bit more insightful.

3:38 PM, March 01, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First, what a fantastic assignment. I loved reading all of them. And Nick, there are some incredibly funny, witty, and smart writers in your class. What a great group. I found details to like in all of them, but if forced to choose, here goes:

#3 My favorite. I would absolutely read this review. Succinct, witty, and gets right to the critique of identity politics that are at the heart of the assignment. Plus, the idea of Julia Stiles capturing "the essence of urban blacks" is just hilarious--and thus produces a wonderfully devastating critique.

#5 Pithy, funny, and it made me want to read the review. In a short space, it says a lot that's smart, insightful, and suggests a real familiarity with genre. Bravo.

And I have a two-way tie for 3rd place with two very different entries about the same film:

#19 funny, pithy, and it makes me want to read the review.

#18 I think the second half of the sentence is just brilliant. Like #3, this review seems like it would offer a devastating critique of the film's identity politics, while still being witty and entertaining. I would definitely want to read the whole review. Like Paul Outlaw says above, "if this is going where I think it's going. Bring it on!" The first half of the sentence, though, doesn't quite live up second half; there's just something a little off about the phrasing. It's so close to being genius.

4:18 PM, March 01, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

#5 is quick and to the point-- and rather high-larious, even if i don't necessarily agree. which is why this is probably my favorite in that i DONT agree but it still suggests a point of view that is engaging and knowledgeable.

6:32 PM, March 01, 2009  
Blogger Paul Outlaw said...

(Just curious: Did any of the reviews of Lady Sings the Blues get past the wrongness of the film as cinema to analyze its genius as a vehicle for Diana Ross?)

7:44 PM, March 01, 2009  
Blogger Middento said...

I have a special shout-out to #5, mainly because the reviewer is channeling Libby GW, who I love and miss terribly; no one uses a semi-colon like she does.

As for my favorites, however, I pick:

#6, mainly because the zinger at the end is both (a) true and (b) provocative in a way that makes me want to read the rest of the review.

#1, because it's a review that speaks to today and I've felt for a while now that such criticism says way more about the reviewer and his/her times than about the work itself.

#19, because it uses parallelism and because I want to see what the reviewer is going to do with that big stick.

By the way, I am so stealing this assignment for when I do this again myself, heh heh. Maybe we should do something together on modern sensibilities of criticism? Hmmm...

(Which reminds me: I'm totally jealous than Nathaniel got a copy of your syllabus and I didn't. I'm *so* not talking to you in Tokyo. The fact that I'm not going to be in Tokyo will have nothing to do with that. Harumph! *swishing hair like Shannen Doherty in the 90210 days*)

7:52 PM, March 01, 2009  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Everyone: You are all absolute dolls to leave these comments, and to be so encouraging and so thorough in many of your responses. I'm more excited all the time to share this feedback with the students. Plus, I learn a lot from seeing the diversity of responses.

@Paul: The reviews were short, and as you can see, not many of them opted for Lady Sings the Blues as their vehicle of choice. We read four or five other reviews of the film in class (Baldwin's, pre-eminently), and the bulk of those reviews were so articulate on exactly the point that you raise that I think my students elected to re-center their discussions so as not to be redundant.

@Middento: I was sure I had sent you a copy! I'll be sure to correct that soon. Apologies. And I won't be in Tokyo either, so the prospect of you avenging yourself there is even less ominous than it already was.

10:05 PM, March 01, 2009  
Blogger Ryan said...

#3) Because it’s smart, genuinely funny and truly resonates… (plus, it reads like something the student’s professor might say.)

#12) The evocative language that begins it is nicely balanced/fitted to those last few words. Plus, I totally agree.

#15) Poetic— without going overboard— and nicely structured.

12:38 AM, March 02, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

#6, and # 19, with # 11 a distant third. Short, direct statements that are still intriguing, and general enough to be about the whole film rather than some small aspect of it that may or may not interest me. One generic pet peeve about a number of other reviews: Referencing a film, actor, or literary piece outside of (and with no relation to) the film under review.

10:46 AM, March 02, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. I love a good pop culture reference, and this one gives an impression that the rest of the review will be witty but also incisive. It's also a well-written sentence, particularly the "victim of society/victim of stupidity" part.

3. Another good pop culture reference! It's a funny comparison, and it also pins down an important flaw in the film it critiques. I would want to keep on reading a review that employs this kind of intelligent humor.

10. It's a good summary sentence that hints at what the rest of the review will address, making the reader want to read on.

12:39 PM, March 02, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is good stuff.

#3 makes me want to read more of the review, but only to see if the writer has the style, smarts, and research to back up this claim. Are NA and blacks similar? Treated similarly in movies? How does the historical setting of DwW change the critical situation? Are all examples of possible questions I would want answered.

#4 is the same as 3#: makes me want to read more of the review, but only to see if the writer has the style, smarts, and research to back up this claim. For instance, why "individualized" AND "subjective" experiences? How will those two words have different meanings in the piece? Which director creates good experiences? Or how does TB fail, and how could he do better?

#10 I probably like this one the most because it rings true re: the movies modest goals (but visually sumptuous images) and the wonderful tension between "idyllic" and "creepy." I feel that too, that there is something frightfully uncanny about the ideal. But why racialize the issue? If race isn't brought up in detail later, why bring it up here?

#13 This may be my vote for second because of the phrase "the viewers' acceptance of this story." I hope the review rolls up its sleeves and delves into this problem it establishes. How do fairy tales work? I also see opportunities to critique the idea that movies "tell" (rather than "show and tell") stories, by discussing the image that the viewers see and the sounds they hear.

#16 and #19 are short, funny, and true. Every good review needs some of this, but perhaps a great review needs more than just this.

4:30 PM, March 02, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My favorites were:





A lot of the writers seemed confused about the ideas they were trying to express. And while I don't agree with all of the opinions expressed in my favorites, the writers seem to know how to make a point and make it well.

4:50 PM, March 02, 2009  
Blogger RC said...

i love the dances with wolves/julia stiles's perfect!!!

10:38 PM, March 02, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like #1 & #3 because the pop culture comparisons are effective (& I love snark!)

#5 makes me want to read more to see how the argument plays out. I also like the comparison to Catcher in the Rye in #14.

I like the imagery in #18--it leaves me wanting to read more.


9:15 PM, March 03, 2009  
Blogger Glenn Dunks said...

If I saw the following quotes on Rotten Tomatoes I would definitely click on through.

#3 - piques my interest with humour, but also a necessary joke. It's not just there for the writer to show off their humour, but to actually express an opinion.

#5 - neat encapsulation and I would be interested to hear how they continue on.

#9 - wait, are they discussing Edward for Tim Burton?

#11 - astute and dry.

6:42 AM, March 04, 2009  
Blogger qta said...

#1, #3, and #18

I love the wit/ snark of these comments, but I also love that each of them is trying to get at deeper and more complex themes that are present in each of the films. Each made me want to read more of the review.

8:55 AM, March 08, 2009  
Blogger anuma said...

Number 3

4:23 PM, March 08, 2009  
Blogger Chris Gooch said...

17. Profoundly intriguing and poetic - and not a way of reading the film I had considered before. Would definitely read on.

3. The perfect tagline for a review - encapsulated in a few pithy words. However whilst entertaining, humour does not usually bode well for deeper insights. A close 2nd. (Also I might be imagining this but I'm sure I've heard this somewhere before?)

12&15. I can't choose between the two of these for my third place as they both endorse my own reading of that film.

8:25 AM, March 09, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

#3: Very cute, very clever. But very typical of the unfortunate style I have been observing in film critiques/reviews lately.

5:47 AM, August 19, 2009  

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