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(Response Paper) Besides Perfection: The Nooks and Cranny of Film Reviewing with Anthony Lane

In response to: The introduction of the book “Nobody’s Perfect: Writings from the New Yorker” by Anthony Lane

A response paper for my Advanced Film Theory and Criticism class

The introduction part of Anthony Lane’s book “Nobody’s Perfect: Writings from the New Yorker” was a nurturing read, while reminding me of how movies for spectacle’s sake work like junk food – indulging instead of nourishing. At the same time, in the ages of video games and social media, movies work like many illegal drugs that offer instant gratification, alongside some negative side effects. But the most enlightening part of reading this book was when Lane said that “movies deserve journalism” and “cinema is both news and history.”

Running through the first page readily gave me the impression of an entertaining read, which proved to be the case after finishing the entire 12 pages. Lane’s energetic, relatable writing used a good number of characters and situations sourced from relevant films, including those he reviewed. From the way he structured his writing to his choice of words, this part of the book worked like an intimate conversation with a new acquaintance who made much sense that it piqued my interest. As the chitchat moved along, the vibe turned into getting invited to that stranger’s home, welcoming me and making me comfortable after a quick introduction, then touring me around, giving me foresight of what’s to come. He shared some initial thoughts about reviewing films, then he moved on to tips for budding movie critics. After which, he shared his reviews from The New Yorker, continued with features satisfying his yearning for old, ancestral voices, and ended with diverse profiles of personalities with great impact on his life and sensibilities.

On a Nostalgic Note

Reading the first few pages of this book brought me nostalgia as a young cinephile and film graduate who suddenly found myself interviewed for a film reviewing job for the now defunct Yehey!, which was then pegged as the Philippines’ local version of Yahoo! Back then, I was a fresh graduate with minimal work experiences outside film and TV production. After receiving the interview notice from the job-hunting site that linked me to Yehey!, I was a wide-eyed film lover entering that posh Discovery Suites office in Ortigas and meeting the CEO Kevin Khoe. From that job interview, the rest was history. I spent my next half-decade writing about films, primarily as Yehey!’s resident film reviewer, alongside occasional arts and culture writing assignments. For my entire stay at Yehey! until they closed shop, I wrote at least one film review a week with some occasions writing a couple of articles for film festivals and other related film, arts, and/or culture events.

It seemed like the universe was asking me to continue writing when Yehey! was just about to close down and I was preparing myself to end my prolific film reviewing years. I bumped into BusinessWorld’s online portal for women after working on a press release for the upcoming premiere of my two short films at Gateway Cineplex. That correspondence with the online platform unexpectedly led to an email from Herword’s Melody Bonus – an invitation to write film reviews for the site. It didn’t take long when she also referred me to their main publication’s business newspaper BusinessWorld to also review films, this time for print media. After an interview with editor Alicia Herrera, there I was, writing film reviews for BusinessWorld’s Weekender. It was an interesting conversation and I found it awe-inspiring to realize that the last resident film reviewer they had was no less than the renowned film critic Noel Vera. It was so much pressure for me as well, as I know how much of a novice I was. Indeed, that point in my life served as my most prolific writing days to date, as I wrote for Herword, BusinessWorld, and eventually Yahoo! and other U.S.-based sites. I was very grateful for having diverse avenues for my writings. In no time, my reach extended beyond film and art as I also wrote lifestyle, travel, and technology features for different American online platforms including Yahoo! sites, The Los Angeles Times, and eBay.

It was a few good years until my life as a filmmaker who also worked as a film writer and educator on the side would require crucial priority choices. As I stepped forward into full adulthood where I had to pay for everything to sustain an independent life and choosing to prioritize my family life as top of the list, then my being a film educator second and my being a filmmaker/production artist third, this means having less time to attend press screenings and write film reviews as professional commitments. Soon, I saw it as a sign to lay low in my film reviewing stint when BusinessWorld’s printing press schedule changed, requiring me to review my film for the week first thing every Wednesday (opening day of movies), which became impossible in my line of work. It was quite sad that I was unable to commit. But since then, I have been hoping that the tight printing press schedule would eventually loosen up. I received kind words of still being welcome to write for the publication (and I hope that is still the case now and in the future).

I still continued reviewing at my own pace and time through my film blog. However, I found myself wanting a hiatus in doing film reviews when I received the great news of expecting a bundle of joy in the next seven months. Flash forward more than three years after that wonderful news, I now seem to be getting geared up to go back, whether to write for print or web, whether for a media company or my own blog, or both. Since being a working mother with a toddler made me realize I wanted production work to be my least priority while my child is still in her formative years, I was able to impose a generally pre-determined schedule for myself, having more control of my time compared to when shooting corporate projects for different clients. I would still accept a few projects here and there, but I made sure they would be far in between. Another good thing about all these life happenings and life choices was the fact that I was slowly but surely going back to my first love, independent filmmaking, which I was in a hiatus on for exactly a decade already. My path was led to the respectable Ricky Lee scriptwriting workshop, igniting my concepts and storylines and slowly but surely developing them for future projects. I also found time to prioritize my long-planned (actually, long overdue) taking of my master’s degree, which was impossible during the time when my top priority was doing production work. Graduate studies started rekindling those brain wirings, stimulating new brain cells meant for writing about films, while I carry the maturity and crucial life experiences that made me who I am now. While at this point, I haven’t gone back to writing film reviews yet, I now realize how enjoyable scholarly reading and writing are as a graduate student majoring in film. Who knows what would come next…

Worthwhile Notes from Lane

I found Lane’s writing style quite engaging. He played around sensible narratives using a fine combination of conversational and sophisticated words juxtaposed with some good humor and imagination. He said, “Movies deserve journalism” because both movies and journalism “involve a quick turnover, an addiction to the sensational, and a potent, if easily exhausted, form of communal intensity.” He also expressed how film reviews differ from books about film as the latter is often devout and scholarly yet bearing no stamp of the very experience of going to the movies. For him, a review should “give off the authentic reek of the concession stand.” He continued saying, “the primary task of the critic, (and nobody has surpassed the late Ms. {Pauline} Kael in this regard), is the recreation of texture — not telling moviegoers what they should see, which is entirely their prerogative, but filing a sensory report on the kind of experience into which they will be wading, or plunging, should they decide to risk a ticket.”

Lane advised those writing film reviews to either publish the review the day after the movie comes out or wait fifty years. I get his point, although in many cases, the film reviewer may not be able to practically release the review on the first day of showing. He explained, “Whenever possible, pass sentence on a movie the day after it comes out. Otherwise, wait fifty years. Films are most plausibly assessed either in the heat of the moment or with the icy advantage of the long gaze; anything in between is hedging one’s bets. Cinema is both news and history, but it takes a long while for one to ripen into the other.”

Given how pop culture works in the society, the consumption of so-called junk movies may possibly be alright every once in a while for entertainment’s sake, or if more frequently, one can try to counter the junk by washing those movies out of the hair through watching some thinking person’s films or even a mainstream offering that makes more sense than the mere brainless flick. Otherwise, too much junk without nourishing dishes and counter medication would eventually lead to seriously compromised health. Part of film literacy is for the film audience to not just look for mindless entertainment in fast chases, fantastic fight scenes, and big, noisy explosions. People should also find moments of reverence with the downtime, quiet moments where characters and story arcs slowly but surely develop. The mind needs some time to recover between the body sensations from fast edits and epic shots. It also needs some time to dig deeper and digest relevant scenes the way life has ups and downs, the way elements in nature like waves of light and sound follow some patterns, shapes, and systems. In so doing, people get more aptly nourished in art and culture. They become more well-rounded members of the society.

Another significant insight I got from this reading is how there is cultural duty in film criticism. Lane had a similar take as Kael on writing about relevant films that are outside the mainstream fare because no one else would properly inform the public about these small gems of cinema. “This is grim work, but somebody has to do it,” he said. He also emphasized the value of classics in grounding people to become more culturally adept and ready to face the complexities of the world; how going back to one’s roots leads to stronger sensibilities and greater maturity. He made a good point about the cultural effects of video games, and now Google and social media, on how mindless flicks provide instant gratification without any lasting impression or relevant personal or social impact. He explained how culture in the more developed society leads films to go a downward spiral, where senses and sensibilities demand for that instant “sugar rush” and nothing else. He compared Ridley Scott’s critically acclaimed classic “Alien” with his plot-driven commercial success “Black Hawk Down,” which was produced more than a decade after the prior. He described the finest moments in “Alien” being its slow-burning intensity as the characters slowly developed and the audience felt the humanity happening within the scenes. Meanwhile, “Black Hawk Down” relied on creating instant soldier sketches leaving no space for cultivation of characters, nor even rightfully developed interactions. Instead, it simply banked on stereotypes and insensitive profiling of certain characters for mere escapism’s sake. In this examination of two of Scott’s prominent motion-picture works, Lane expressed how he was “actually growing less mature — or, sadder still, being given less leeway to presume on the maturity of his audience.”

He also raised the prevailing issue of film production people, even film viewers, getting personally offended or even scandalized whenever a review diverged from their preferences and insights. He said that people’s “freedom to disagree is part of the fun.” But more importantly, film criticism is actually an avenue for starting an argument, the way people typically have one over dinner, in a crowded bar, or after stepping out of the movie house, as how Lane put it. Perhaps, everyone should acknowledge how both art and criticism try to seek for perfection amidst the fact that they will never be perfect in this imperfectly beautiful world.

Notable Realization

Lane expressed his outgrowing the status of being a stumbling novice after reviewing films for The New Yorker for 10 years. On a personal note, this allowed me to relate to him more, having spent about the same time in professionally reviewing films. Reading his book made me examine my own experiences as a writer and how my writings have evolved through the years. Pertaining to his past movie reviews, he said that there is a “surprising nourishment to be had in revisiting older judgments.” I completely agree, as reading my own reviews as far back as 10 years ago suddenly made me “know myself better.”

Work Cited:

Lane, Anthony. “What is Criticism? (A Preliminary Dialogue)” and “The Critic as Artist and Vice Versa,”Nobody’s Perfect: Writings from the New Yorker, Vintage Books, 2002, pp. 7–30.

Related Readings (Film Criticism):
Rianne Hill I. Soriano
Rianne Hill Soriano is a freelance production artist working as a director, writer, educator, and consultant in film and commercial productions.

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