I am not your well-known film critic. I’m not even your amateur film buff who has an opinion on oh, perhaps a million movies. I’m simply someone who has some idea about (and a bit of practice of) the cinematic medium and related crafts—story-telling, screenwriting, editing, etc.—that underlie it.
In that regard, it’s the basic output—the story told in cinematic form—and ordinary folk’s reactions that interest me. So what I really want to do is to offer a simple template that ordinary people can easily understand without mentioning Truffaut or Kurosawa or Cameron for that matter.
So here goes, my initial “Fresh Tomatoes” kind of boilerplate outline:
1. I want to get the basic story, and be able to describe it in three paragraphs (maybe reflecting its three-act structure) or less. Let me give you an example of the level of detail I’d like included at this point:
The movie “Titanic”: Luxurious cruise ship is launched, and owners want to claim speed record on maiden trip. Well-to-do girl wants to escape from straitjacketed life with aristocratic fiancé and other ruling-class passengers. She falls in love with poor struggling artist travelling on steerage. Girl and boy realize that their worlds are too far apart, but pursue secret affair anyway. They decide to remain together once they reach port. Fiancé discovers affair, orders boy locked up. Ship sideswipes iceberg, starts to sink. Women and children of rich families are given priority in lifeboats. Girl, risking her life, gets off lifeboat, finds handcuffed boy in lower cabin and frees him as seawater starts flooding in. Just as ship finally goes under water, the two jump into freezing-cold sea and hold on to flotsam. Boy dies of hypothermia, girl survives and goes on to become a successful career woman. Decades later, she joins ship salvage expedition, and tells her story to awestruck crew.
Obviously I left out many important and memorable details, because they are not absolutely essential to the main plot. Two longish paragraphs. Can you get even briefer than that? Of course you can, if you want. Here:
Cruise ship is launched and pushed to achieve record speed. Well-to-do but neglected girl on board meets struggling artist. Girl and boy fall in love. Girl’s fiance discovers secret affair, orders boy locked up. Ship sideswipes iceberg, starts to sink. Girl frees boy. All lifeboats taken. The two jump into sea as ship goes under. Boy freezes and dies, girl survives and goes on to succeed in later life. Much later, she revisits site, tells amazing story to salvage crew.
Now here’s the challenge: a summary that’s even more terse—and somewhat boring, truth to tell, for those who already know the story:
On board luxury ship, rich girl falls in love with poor artist. Girl’s fiance discovers affair, locks up boy. Ship sideswipes iceberg. Girl frees boy as ship goes under. Boy dies, girl survives, succeeds in later life, and tells story to salvage crew.
2. Was the story well-told? What are the inherent aspects of the story that strengthen or weaken the narrative? Consider here the structure or flow of the story, the characters and how they fit or not fit into that structure, and the externals (e.g. powers of nature, social forces) that impinge or influence that flow. Any inconsistencies and loose ends about the story that bother you?
3. What aspects of the film-making craft greatly helped or hindered the story-telling? Consider here only the most important for you, say, in the choice of cast; the acting, dialogue and action; camera work and film editing; sound and music; costume and set; and so on. Don’t impress us with what you know. We are street children. Explain to us in imagery, in words we understand.
And don’t nitpick the film’s innards. Don’t sweat the small stuff unless it affects the whole story. Ten years from now, if the movie is great, the small quirks will be forgotten or even give the film its peculiar charm. Did Han Solo’s boast of 12 parsecs for the Kessel Run ruin the Star Wars? I didn’t think so either.
4. What do you think is the basic message (or mood, if you’re not into messages) behind the story? How does the message or mood help you—and the typical audience, by extension—understand and cope with similar real-life situations? Otherwise, is the message any good at all? Or maybe there’s no message, just entertainment porn…?
5. Minor or technical things (not discussed elsewhere) you absolutely liked about the film, and would like other films to emulate. Feel free to say here what you really think about the movie, about the story and how it’s told, what strikes you as its best points. Come now, no movie is sooo bad you can’t say one bit of good about it.
6. Minor or technical things (not discussed elsewhere) you absolutely hated about the film, and would like other films not to emulate. Oh I’m sure you’d love to dwell on them.
That’s it. All the rest you might want to add are all up to you. Nevertheless, avoid film industry jargon or obscure references that only the cineaste elite will understand. No incomprehensible mumbo-jumbo to the moviegoing hoi polloi like me, please.
Movie critics, like film makers, must know how to tell a gripping tale instead of a boring classroom lecture. #