There are lots of reasons to admire film critics. First, it can be a thankless job. You have to sit through unfathomable amounts of crappy movies, and the price for getting to see them in advance and for free, is that you can’t leave them unfinished or simply dispose of them once they’ve flickered before your eyes. Or at least not if you aspire to be a good critic. Instead, you have to do a writeup as if the movie hasn’t already left your mind, perhaps even give it more attention than you think it deserves. And then there is the problem of crossing expectations. You can never be quite sure what readers, listeners or viewers want from your review. Sure, there are some obvious signals. A critic writing for a magazine may have more time, more space and fewer movies to review than one who covers the weekly reviwers beat at a newspaper, but even the shortest flash-of-the-moment review ideally is supposed to offer something a little more lasting than a simple answer to the question of whether a particular movie is good or not.
So yeah, I have great respect for how film critics have to struggle with this balancing act every day. But there is one, particularly boring and thankless thing I really don’t envy professional film critics, and especially not those writing for a general newspaper audience; the need to write a plot summary. In the end, I guess it’s something of a philosophical question: What’s the point in writing film reviews? With regard to what makes a good literary critic, I read someone who said that the role of the critic first and foremost should be to render a verdict of whether the book is good or not, and, in extension, whether the reader should take the time to read it or not. But then came the criticism of that position; a qualitative verdict is all well and good, but it’s not enough. A real critic should be able to present a reading that enhances our understanding of it as a work of art, pratically regardless of whether it’s good or not. As I hope my reviews reflect (at least some of the time), I’m inclined to combine the two, but that doesn’t get me off the hook with the plot summary. In order for her to understand my verdict I have to give the reader a sense of the plot, and even if my aim is mostly to interpret and analyze the movie, it’s necessary to have some kind of setup. But that doesn’t make it any less boring.
It’s not that there isn’t a possible upside to outlining the plot in a review. It can keep the reviewer mindful that he is indeed writing for an audience, one who deserves a chance to assess the review even though they haven’t seen the movie yet. Heck, as someone who has a fairly short cinematic memory, I may even benefit personally from writing plot summaries, as they help me remember key plot points. And, perhaps more important, writing a plot summary has the potential to reveal something that we tend we to take for granted, but that doesn’t have to be the case: Not only how, but whether the critic understood the movie. I have read reviews, and probably even written some myself, in which the outlining of the plot was so sparse and/or sloppily written that I was left unsure whether the critic had actually understood what the movie was about.
What I dislike most about it, however, has to do with the potential imbalance in the relationship between the critic and her readers, particularly in cases where the readers haven’t seen the movie in question. No matter how crucial some plot twists could be to your analysis of a movie and its quality, the risk of spoiling the experience for the reader is always a tough balancing act. Let’s use a movie like Joe Wright’s Atonement as an example. I really, really disliked it (although almost everyone else I’ve read or talked to seemed to love it), but when I wrote my review I couldn’t argue why I hated it without basically spoiling everything about it. There is a twist in the final quarter of the movie that is supposed to make us reassess everything that has happened to that point, but I didn’t think it worked. It was frustrating not to be able to make that argument in any detail. Or take the final third of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. For me, the infamous final scene sheds new light on the entire movie, but I felt like I couldn’t discuss it in a review, out of respect for the reader’s chance to experience one of the most memorable moments in recent cinema through her own lens.
But apart from what is too much, there is another question: How little is too little? The sum of my fear of excessive spoilage and a general disinterest in writing plot summaries, may in some instances mean that what finally ends up in the review is so boiled down that it gives an insufficient impression of the complexities of the plot. To take a recent example from this blog, consider my post on Lukas Moodysson’s Show Me Love. While I’m pretty sure it was insufficient of me to say that it was a movie about “the lesbian high schooler Agnes love for Elin, and their attempts to be friends and accept themselves”, I’m even less comfortable with having given away the fact that Elin is gay too (“The first time I saw it (…) I don’t think I was really convinced that Elin (…) really could be a lesbian.”) Sure, this was one of my main points about how my perception of the movie had changed over the years, but it did take the central tension of the script (“Will they end up together?”) out of the equation. That said, I hate to be overly cautious as well, and a constant stream of “possible spoiler alert” warnings would only work to disrupt the flow of the piece. There simply isn’t any easy way around this dilemma.
Once we’ve acknowledged that this dilemma is pretty much unsolvable however, a fourt criterion for a good review could emerge, to at least make the dreariness of the plot setup manageable: Writing for the purpose of entertainment. This sounds like putting the reader above the writer, and commerce above art, but it’s not meant that way. If you succeed in being critical in an entertaining way, the critic could take as much pleasure in it as the reader, and there is no contradiction between writing to entertain and fulfilling the other obligations of a critic. But the point is that you have to write in a way that makes your argument accessible and understandable to your audience, and to be able to follow your argument, they have to know what you’re talking about. This is where the plot summary comes in. Incomprehensible writing and underdeveloped argument can be frustrating, but I doubt it can be entertaining. Therefore, my memo to myself is: “Keep your plot summaries short and simple, but try to keep them entertaining. If you don’t enjoy writing them, the readers won’t enjoy reading them.”