Culture Vulture

Writing reviews is a balancing act

Most films are neither great nor terrible, but the prospect of coming across a hidden gem keeps me watching

A critic tears a movie to shreds and its distributor quakes with fear.

It sounds like a fairy tale of a bygone time when a critic could wield enormous power over the fate of a film. In this age of easily accessible information, that sphere of influence has been whittled down considerably. But still, to paraphrase writer Mark Twain, reports of the critic's death have been greatly exaggerated.

At a Singapore Writers Festival panel discussion two weeks ago titled Death By Keyboard, the subject under scrutiny was the review itself. The session was moderated by the very funny Adrian Tan, novelist and film producer, and I was on the panel with Helmi Yusof from The Business Times and Genevieve Loh from Today.

Helmi critiques theatre and the visual arts and used to review movies for The Straits Times. Loh writes about films and I cover movies and music.

For the most part, the conversation swirled around the movie review.

What a review does is to introduce a film and it can serve as a useful guide for someone deciding whether to watch a movie. It gives you an idea of what the work is about and can touch on one or more aspects of the following - plot, acting, cinematography, sound and direction.

But a review is not the final word. It is not meant to dictate to the reader what to think of the film and certainly not what to think of the film in lieu of watching it. A review is an opinion and one is free to disagree with it.

Since a review is an opinion, it has to be said that all reviews are subjective. My review is my response to watching a movie and that is shaped by everything else, from other films I have seen to how I feel about particular actors, and the fact that preposterous plotholes irk me to no end. Of course, whether something is preposterous is also a matter of personal taste.

In fact, a completely objective review is pointless.

You might as well outsource a review to the robot TARS from the sci-fi drama Interstellar, having set the parameters of 100 for Truth and, say, 80 for Humour. And that one single piece would be dogma.

The diversity of views and reactions to the same film opens up room for debate and enriches the conversation we have about the work.

The different views are all easily available on the Internet through review aggregating portals such as metacritic.com. This might diminish the amount of sway any single critic might have, but at the same time, the collective power of reviews still has weight.

If, say, out of 100 reviews, 80 are telling you it is bad in 80 different ways, it might well give you pause. Call it critical mass.

The Internet is also a repository of all manner of information that you might want to know about a film before watching it. There are teaser posters, trailers, making-of clips, interviews and even gossip about the stars.

Much of this is extraneous noise and what a review can help do is cut through the hype and distractions. When every film that comes along is spectacular, mind-blowing and simply the best, you begin to doubt your understanding of those terms.

As far as possible, I try to know as little about a film as I can before watching it so that I do not have any preconceived notions. At the same time, a review should also give some context to a work, be it referring to a film-maker's body of work or other similarly themed movies.

Ideally, all films should be treated the same, but the thing is, not all films are created equal.

The bigger a film's marketing budget, the more hype it generates. And so a blockbuster is at your bus stop, in your fast-food meal and in your hair, while an indie production will not have the luxury of trumpeting its existence. In some way, having no or few preconceived notions about a film when one steps into the cinema is also about being fair to differently-sized movies.

It is also in keeping with the egalitarian nature of the film-going experience itself where it is still possible to watch vastly different offerings at a similar price, regardless of the production budget.

Falling into a category of its own is home-grown films. We want to encourage a local film industry for the simple reason that if we do not make films about ourselves, no one else will.

But that does not mean that critics should treat local films with kid gloves. A local movie will have to compete with everything else out there for an audience.

And the reviewer has a responsibility to the reader as well. Having a laxer standard for Singapore-made films and another for all others does no one any favours and only erodes the credibility of the reviewer.

In the end, writing a review is not an exact science but a balancing act.

Personally, I find that it is easiest to write reviews about films that I love and hate. When a film is great, you cannot wait to tell everyone about it and how and why it moved you. When a film is terrible, you cannot wait to tell everyone about it and why they should steer clear.

The majority of movies falls in between and it takes more work to come to grips with them.

And yes, movie reviewing is work. Some imagine that the reviewer gets to watch a film while sipping wine and reclining in a gold-class seat during work hours and think that it must be the cushiest job in the world.

I jest about the gold-class seat. But, and this is a big one, people conveniently forget about Theodore Sturgeon's observation that 90 per cent of everything is cr**. And there have been times when I feel that the sci-fi writer was being too generous with his observation.

But the prospect of beauty, of coming across a hidden gem, keeps me watching.

bchan@sph.com.sg