In his later years my friend and teacher Lawrence Fox often reiterated the following guidelines for writing about movies. The seven headings are fairly close to his wording, and I can only hope I’ve done well in elaborating them. In any case I don’t want these rules to sound like commandments. They’re tools to help you reach insights. The test of these rules is in their results, and you can look at some of the movie reviews on this site to get an idea of how I envision useful film criticism. With best wishes for your own writing and understanding – DRK

1. Memorize

A sustained act of concentrated attention is the best way to get everything out of a movie. It may not be possible to memorize each overlapping detail, but if the director is good then the relevant details should present themselves to an attentive viewer.

An analogy from music may show the way. At a symphony most people will listen for the melody, passively hoping to find pleasure in it. A more astute listener will listen note by note, refusing to anticipate each following note, trusting that the melody will bring the same pleasure in the end. If we watch a movie the same way, detail by detail, with no wish to anticipate the plot, then a good film will still deliver its pleasures, and we’ll remember it better.

Movies speak to us directly only if we put ourselves aside. One of the most damaging habits is to identify with a character… it’s an act of premature judgment, it’s too passive, and it can cloud our vision. Watching a movie is an exercise in empathy; we’re watching other people, and we’ll benefit if we take an interest in their otherness.

2. Don’t succumb to critical anxiety

This is for film critics and amateur reviewers who may find themselves wondering, in the midst of a movie, what they’ll be able to say about it. That kind of anxiety distorts viewing and leads to errors in judgment. Many films do not reveal their motives until the end. Again, it’s important to trust the filmmaker. A good director will get the important ideas across, and if the viewer doesn’t pick them up for whatever reason, the time for reflection is after the film is over. If you’ve memorized the film reasonably well, try taking a long walk afterward and putting the pieces together. Probe the movie with questions, watch it again and again if you can, and don’t be afraid to discuss it with others. Often it’s the wrong things people say about a movie that will inspire you.

3. A film must stand on its own

If a movie is any good, most of the material needed to understand it should be contained within the film itself. You shouldn’t have to read the source novel or hear what the director said. On the other hand, it helps to understand a film’s historical and cultural context.

Literary sources like novels or plays should only supplement what you’ve already observed within a film. Movies do not owe loyalty to their source material, and they would be dull exercises in reproduction if they did. A good movie may betray its source, so it’s a mistake to expect clarification from the original text.

Likewise, any statement or hint from the director or screenwriter should be supplementary at best. It’s a bad practice to treat artists as the ultimate authorities on their work, because if they had that authority then the works would be above criticism. Any created work may have its own logic, which may be more or less than what anyone intended.

4. Look at what you’re getting before you look at what you’re missing

Many errors in criticism happen because the reviewer puts narrow demands on a film before watching it. This probably happens to most of us from time to time… we want films to please us in specific ways, or we prefer particular types of film or particular subjects. Likewise, most of us have mental checklists of faults we won’t tolerate. We’ll have to weigh those faults in the end, but a good viewer seeks to learn whatever a movie might impart. This doesn’t mean we should watch movies indiscriminately – only a fraction of them are worth the time. Rather we should put a movie’s logic ahead of our tastes, desires, and expectations.

5. Avoid themes, genres, and art

The other six rules have an element of common sense, but this one is downright counterintuitive. These three words (theme, genre, & art) are staples of film criticism, but let’s consider the assumptions that lie behind them.

The problem with the word “theme” is that there’s no reason to use it if you plan to go further than mentioning it. It signals a dead end. It means you’re only interested in identifying the vague purpose of a movie. It’s become so tiresome, for example, to read that Hitchcock “explores the theme of voyeurism” or that Antonioni “deals with themes of alienation and ennui”. It’s not that these statements are wrong, it’s that they inevitably fail to grasp what’s actually happening. In Rear WindowVertigo, and Psycho characters peek into others’ private lives, but Hitchcock’s point is to trace real social problems to the juvenile sexuality that persists in so many adults. Antonioni’s characters exhibit various shades of “alienation” from modern life, but the point of his movies is to train our senses to rediscover a sense of wonder that allows us to escape this alienation.

The problem with genres is not that they’re false or useless, but that they reduce film to an emotional trigger. Each of the most basic genre categories targets a single emotion: comedy is supposed to be funny, action is exciting, horror is scary, science fiction evokes awe, and drama (insofar as it’s not a catch-all genre) is supposed to be moving. Of course movies must speak to our emotions, but life usually mixes emotions together, and the best movies tend to mix elements of different genres. For that matter, some of the best directors (especially Antonioni) deliberately dampen the emotional effects of their stories so that audiences can see the characters’ emotions more clearly.

There’s a place for the word “art”, but critics should avoid using it as an altar for worshipping movies. If a movie has value, that should be enough. There’s no need to glamorize it with mystical or meaningless labels. People who talk in glowing terms about art almost invariably deprecate the qualities that add real value to the work. If the creative work is placed higher than what it’s trying to express, that’s a kind of idolatry. The movies Vivre sa vie, Pierrot le fou, and Conflagration all make this point in complementary ways.

6. A tax on adjectives

Adjectives can be useful if you want to distinguish a pink hat from a red hat, and in small doses they can give flavor to critical prose. Too many movie critics however write as if adjectives give substance to their writing or say something decisive about a film. Most adjectives and adverbs are unfalsifiable and unverifiable. Criticism won’t get far unless it can find the right nouns and verbs to tell readers what a movie is made of, what it’s doing, and why it’s doing that.

7. The law of least interpretation

Interpretation is a natural activity. We engage in it whenever we make sense of the world, and movies practically cry out to be interpreted. We cannot and should not try to avoid it. Film criticism however should take its cues from the movies it examines, resisting fanciful interpretations that stray from the presented material. Also, the point of interpretation is not to abolish all ambiguity from a movie, but rather to define the movie’s logic and purpose. An elegant interpretation gives the reader just enough to do that and no more.