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How I Write a Film Critique (a discussion)

Discussion in 'Film' started by Jayson, Jun 1, 2019.

  1. Jayson

    Jayson Resident Lucasian

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    After reading an article that I had written on The Last Jedi, @Angelman recently asked me for some incites on writing film critiques.

    Now, I'm not a professional, and I don't claim to be the next great film critique, so this thread isn't created out of some hubris nature.
    Instead, it was just that the profile post communication method has a very limited amount of character count that can make it a challenge to carry on any lengthy conversation in any articulate manner.

    So...this thread is born.

    Since it's being made more public and visible, I'll just put it out there that anyone is invited to jump in if you feel compelled.

    BACKGROUND
    So when Angelman asked me for some incites, I suggested that probably the best way to go about this was for him to pick a film that he knows well and enjoys, then I would write a critique, and then he could ask follow up questions using the article as a reference point for examples.

    Angelman gave me a tall order. He chose the film, Alien (1979).
    That's no easy task since this is a film that has been abundantly analyzed and written about for decades, let alone the film itself is no simple task to discuss itself.

    Which leads me to the introduction.

    INTRODUCTION
    See? Look at that? Just like I said. Spot on Tabitha; well done. (fans of "Round Planet" joke)

    So, I've explained at least one thing so far to Angelman and so I'll put it here as well.

    THE FIRST THING ABOUT HOW I WRITE CRITIQUES IS THIS...
    I usually look up other critiques to see what other folks felt like talking about. Then I consider what I want to focus on, and I try to look at it from a different way than others before (without getting silly).

    Usually, the way that I go about things is to look for the thing everyone's overlooking and focus on that. It's more interesting because it makes the critique offer something new to think about, and it puts me as an antagonist to other reviews and critiques - which bakes in a bit of tension because now you, as the reader, are inherently arguing with me in your mind as I work on convincing you of something.

    That's why I tend to write best about films that have some kind of troubled reception. With films like Alien, it's a bit harder because it's an overwhelmingly appreciated film, so how do you go about finding the thing that no one has really talked about, and how do you take up an antagonistic position that says the film should be appreciated?

    This somewhat wraps into the second thing about how I write critiques.

    THE SECOND THING ABOUT HOW I WRITE CRITIQUES...
    Again, simply spot on! You're working yourself up to an Emmy for sure Tabby. Unlike someone else who was grossly overlooked for the incredible genius in narrating the life-cycle of a teddy bear caught in a laundromat, but...no matter, it's for the art that we slave unsung through our toils. Chin up and all that. *clears throat*

    One of my core philosophies is that a critique is not a criticism.
    The two are different things. A criticism is a form of review which outlines what was done poorly in some fashion. It inherently looks at the art with a critical eye that is interested in outlining things that were less than they could have been.
    This is a very useful form of review. It's a form of review that helps us grow in our understanding of an art and craft, especially if the criticism is coming from someone who is our colleague and is about our own art.

    However, it also has a down side. Taken to an extreme, in solitude, or out of an educational context, this form of review can just tear down art infinitely.
    It doesn't inherently offer the hope of giving the reader anything new to appreciate the art with.


    Conversely, a critique is what I hold to be a review which endeavors to be a positive review, regardless of the author's subjective enjoyment level of the film.
    The point of a critique is to show the art in a different way than someone has viewed it before so that when the reader is done reading the review, they can watch the film and potentially see the film in a new way; effectively giving a new rewatch value to the film.


    I write critiques. Not criticisms. I'm not interested in summarizing a film so that someone can decide if they want to watch it, nor am I systematically picking it apart for critical analysis of its faults and strengths.

    I write very specifically to deliver a thought-provoking and positive experience to the reader and hopefully manage to increase their experience of the film upon rewatching it with the new ideas in mind.
    Even if they disagree with what I write, hopefully they do so by watching the film, thinking of the ideas they read, and arrive at the disagreement because they now saw the film from that angle and found a reason to disagree.

    In other words; I consider writing reviews to be a means of film appreciation and extending the life of a film being experienced as new.


    So those are the two things that I do first of all.
    And with that, I'll open the floor (and Angelman will likely toss in some questions).

    The reference point, as mentioned, is Alien.
    The article that I wrote for it by Angelman's request is at the following link.
    The Disturbing Minimalism of Alien

    Cheers,
    Jayson
     
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  2. Angelman

    Angelman Servant to the Whills & Slave to the Muses
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    Great thread, @Jayson :D


    I haven’t read your Alien article yet, but I really loved your deconstruction of the structure of TLJ :) (https://sites.google.com/site/thoughtsonfilmwithjayson/home/articles/the-symmetry-of-the-last-jedi)

    Your demonstration of how the writing references and mirrors the other films blew my mind! But I have a question there: Is your structural analysis there an artificial construct, or are the writers actually thinking about these things when they write? (‘cause I sure haven’t been in my writing up until now). I mean, did JJ/Kasdan & Rian go: “All right; JJ & K will tackle Episodes 3 & 4, while Rian handles the balancing of motifs from 1, 2, 5, & 6.” Is this a type of conversation that script writers have, or are your analysis more reflecting a subconscious/instinctual level of their writing?


    (Did that even make sense? My brain is foggy today… Rocked too hard last night, I guess ;) ).
     
    #2 Angelman, Jun 1, 2019
    Last edited: Jun 1, 2019
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  3. Jayson

    Jayson Resident Lucasian

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    Yeah, it made sense.

    So, there's a lot of debate over the specific design of Star Wars.
    My personal opinion is that it is well planned, but that plan is more like how Jazz is played, or how a jam session works.
    When people play Jazz music or a jam session, someone kicks off a tempo and a riff that tells you what the scale and key of the song is, but no one has any defined music to work from in front of them. Yet, everyone ends up putting together a coherent piece of music anyway, and each musician takes a turn at giving their interpretation of the song when they solo and they do that by referencing stuff that was played before by the other musicians and bouncing off of that; answering back on it.

    This is how Star Wars structure is put together in my view; even when Lucas was directly at the helm.
    If you read that book The Secret History of Star Wars, you can see this evident. Lucas repeatedly had ideas, even during the OT, and designs, but wouldn't be afraid to toggle into an alternative at nearly the last minute. At one point, Lucas had a two page outline numbering 1 through 12. Now, there was no other information on that paper, but the point is that he was constantly thinking about a very long series. His mood about whether that would happen, and his disposition on doing it, constantly shifted, along with what exactly that next bit of Star Wars could be. However, he seems to have always been thinking about it.
    Like a composer constantly shuffling notes around on a page of a piece that emotionally drains them to work on, but is so dear to them that they can't help but to tinker with it even if they want to walk away - it's incompleteness haunts them eventually.

    Now, the OT is written in a chiastic structure such that ROTJ mirrors ANH and the second half of ESB is quite literally the first half of ESB in reverse order.
    The OT was very much a mix of planned and jazz riffed design. Lucas seemed to have a want to write in a way such that the story reflected itself (i.e. chiastic structure) in a fashion similar to ancient epics (something he most likely picked up on from his time with Joseph Campbell), but things were constantly changing with what could be done in the films, so he seems to have written from a perspective of knowing that he wanted a concept of something and looked for an opertunity to fit that in down the road; exactly what that was going to be was lesser known most likely.

    With the PT, however, he seems to have just laid it all out ahead of time full well, and carried that into production very explicitly and made it a focal point of putting the films together, as not only is he found on camera in the extras talking about it, it's readily evident in the films just how tightly packed in everything is in responding to the other films.

    With the ST, it's a bit different. This is where I think we're in the land of Jazz a bit.
    I believe it is true that "there is no predefined plan", and I also think there is a general sense of how Star Wars is written by looking at what came before, and by looking over all of the material that Lucas supplied.
    Firstly, Lawrence Kasdan specifically being involved means that there's a connection to the style baked into 7 with the style of the OT.
    Kasdan knows Star Wars better than anyone, only second to Lucas himself, and I would argue in some aspects actually better than Lucas, considering it is Kasdan who gave us the bulk of Yoda's material in ESB and ROTJ.

    So if Kasdan was helping Abrams, and he was, in 7, then 7 definitely is going to have a chiastic narrative structure in it. Now, this is all rather new to Abrams, and Abrams isn't a really good writer. He's more like Spielberg and Lucas - a guy who can write and does, but he's best as the ideas man who relies on writers to put it down to paper in a better way, and then he modifies what they write to suit the needs of the film as he goes.
    So 7 has a chiastic callback form, but it's not as interwoven as 8 is with it.
    This is why you get the "It's just a copy of A New Hope" complaints. Just like people once called ROTJ a copy of A New Hope before.
    However, what a lot of folks miss when this complaint is raised about 7 is that it's also a "copy" of ROTS.

    For quick example, this is why Kylo and Rey square off on frozen ground (instead of lava) and are separated by a giant chasm and we see a lot of mirroring between the two fights in several ways, but the mirroring happens in a sort of reversal.
    In fact, luckily it looks like someone made a video of this so I don't have to type so much to explain things.


    That brings us to 8. Well, Johnson is one hell of a writer. Folks might not like where he goes in a story, but he is actually a writer; unlike Abrams.
    He's also one hell of a researcher and someone with a very analytical mind, so he really went for it with the chiastic pattern.
    Again, no one is likely telling him that he has to do things in a certain way, but if you're handed a film series that has a chiastic narrative structure baked into its bones and marrow, you never get to write anything in a chiastic form, and you are a writer, why wouldn't you use that form?

    Aside from that, Star Wars has always been operatic and riffs on its own themes - even if you don't buy the chiastic narrative whole cloth (and you're missing out on a lot of cool stuff if you don't, imo), so I don't see a way that the main saga could be written that doesn't answer and reuse previous moments and themes.
    It's baked right into the OT - you immediately recall previous film moments when something happens in a later film.
    Even in ANH it's baked right into it there in a looser form, but very poetically done. You lose your family and mentor while feeling to have no purpose, and by the end having gained friends and won over the heart of a new mentor and friend (Solo) who was choosing to leave you, but didn't (instead of choosing to be with you and taken like Ben) while feeling to have a purpose.

    So even there it was all the way back at the begging, so I don't think there's a way to escape it when working on the operatic saga.

    As to how far back and in what level of detail does the ST go and have.
    Well, two things: firstly, we know that Lucas and Arndt had a form of the story that included a hermit and ornery Luke who refuses to train a young girl or woman to become a Jedi and eventually does, and that Luke had cut himself off from the Force for some reason and had tucked away on an island with a secret and old connection to the Jedi history.

    Well...we see that in 8. Granted, everything else is different, but that concept came through.

    In the sequel Luke would be a sixty-year-old Jedi knight. Han Solo and Leia would be together, although Lucas says, "They might be married, or not. We have never actually discussed marriage in this galaxy. I don't even know if it exists yet. Who knows what relationship they will have? I mean, they're together, let's put it that way. ... If the first trilogy is social and political and talks about how society evolves - Star Wars (referring to the OT) is more about personal growth and self-realisation, and the third deal with moral and philosophical problems. In Star Wars (OT), there is a very clear line drawn between good and evil. Eventually you have to face the fact that good and evil aren't that clear-cut and the real issue is trying to understand the difference. The sequel is about Jedi knighthood, justice, confrontation, and passing on what you have learned."
    - Dennis Worrell, Icons: Intimate Portraits, 1983, p. 186​

    Well... um. That's a pretty good summary of the ST so far, and definitely of TLJ.
    I mean, TLJ really hammers that conversation about knighthood, justice, confrontation, passing on what you have learned, and a lack of a clear-cut line between good and evil.

    So, this was a bit long, but the answer for me is yes and no.
    No, it's not planned in the same way that Lucas planned the prequels. It's not all splayed out and written down in high level detail.
    Yes, however, because they are indeed sticking to the narrative tradition of Star Wars and looking at old material and notes for inspiration and then interpreting those notes and ideas into their own form.

    I hope that somehow answers the question?

    Cheers,
    Jayson
     
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  4. Angelman

    Angelman Servant to the Whills & Slave to the Muses
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    Great discussion, as always, @Jayson :D

    To use your own words, "the answer for me is yes and no". :p

    I get what your saying and everything, but what my question was really about is whether this kind of balancing & reusing motifs are explicit parts of the writing here, or whether these things "just happen" because it is Star Wars and SW veteran Kasdan wrote VII & master screenwriter Johnson wrote VIII? (I.e. are you just inventing a tool for the sake of your analysis, or did the writers discuss which motifs they would juggle).

    Do these great writers actually chose a dozen (or two-three dozen) past motifs to structure their story around, OR does these things just happen instinctively/accidentally because the writers are so well versed in SW?

    What, I guess, I'm really asking is... can I learn to write like this just by observing & juggling motifs? Is this a conscious part of screenwriting writing? :)
     
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  5. Jayson

    Jayson Resident Lucasian

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    Yes, they are definitely doing it on purpose.
    It's so specifically mirroring that if it weren't, it would be the wildest accident in literary history.

    As to whether you can learn to write in a chiastic form...absolutely! Anyone can.
    Lots of old epics are written this way, and a good bit of biblical texts are as well.
    Illiad, Odyssey, Beowolf, some parts of Herodotus' Histories, the Genesis flood story, the Book of Daniel (which is an advanced double chiasmus), and the Book of Matthew.

    And yes, it was a very big part of narrative art back when writing literature was a special event.
    It was very consciously done.
    Sometimes it would be a single line, other times a section (e.g. if an oracle gave a prophecy, the prophecy might be a chiasm, but not the rest) , and others the whole story.
    Often there was a mix of levels, so you might have a whole story which is one, then a subsection or subsections which are also a chiasm, and then you might see single phrases being so as well (e.g. As the day comes from the night, the night comes from the day).

    It's basically a way of writing where you nest things.
    ABC CBA
    or
    AABBCC
    or
    AACBB

    You can also go multidimensional with the idea.
    Code:
      C
     A B
    A   B
    This is the same as AACBB but viewed from the side so you can see relations and the peak style which makes C important.

    And it can go on much deeper.
    Matthew has a 7 section chiasm.
    ABCDCBA

    And each of these itself is written in the same fashion.

    Writing this way just means you need to think about the arrangement more than just what's needed for a 3 act play; intro to normality and doubt of self, normality destroyed and everything in the dumps, defeat of trouble and rise of acceptance of self.

    You then have to wrap up that same story into a type of conceptual poetry where the intro to normality and doubt of self is found answered in some inverted way by the defeat of trouble and rise of acceptance of self.

    What makes Star Wars interesting is that it's turned into a snowball effect which I think might be the biggest chiastic narrative in literary history. If you packed all films together, it would be a book over one thousand pages long with 9 chapters written in a way that you can't even outline with just ABCD...etc...
    You have to use complex images like this...
    star wars chiastic map.PNG.png

    Which...if you tried to annotate would be something like:
    A-B-C c-ba IX ab-c C-B-A

    But I think the map is easier.

    Cheers,
    Jayson
     
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  6. Angelman

    Angelman Servant to the Whills & Slave to the Muses
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    I feel like I need to read some books and take some courses, 'cause I write... instinctively, I guess, but I really need to get some serious craft into my toolbox.

    What about "explorer" writers, like GRRM? He writes with very little structure & plot in mind... Would he to write motifs and beats in this way? (As you can imagine, I hardly understand the concept, yet...).

    Thanks for all your insights, @Jayson :D
     
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  7. Jayson

    Jayson Resident Lucasian

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    Well.
    I think this is why drafts are good.
    In a first draft, right, you can explore.
    In a second draft, refine the three act form.
    In a third draft, you can then look at making patterns in the story.
    In the fourth draft, button up the changes made to make patterns so they are a tighter fit with three act structure.

    etc...

    I'm not a literary writer, though.
    I'm horrible at dialogue. Absolutely horrible.
    If Lucas' dialogue is wooden, mine is petrified.

    I'm just analytical and know how to write expositionary text, and have studied a bunch of stuff that relates to textual anthropology, biblical exegesis, the art of film, and screen writing, so I see things and can write about it well enough.

    Also...chiastic narrative form isn't going to make something great. Star Wars has had a hell of a time sticking to it because it starts to box you in, and people can feel like it's getting repetitive.

    If you want to take a swing at it, though...perhaps start with poems. Poems do it quite a bit.
    Write a short poem that is chiastic.
    Write a second that is as well, but also then make it mirror the first one.

    Cheers,
    Jayson
     
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