2016 Film Essays

Why Criticism: Writing About What You Don’t Know

Most critics are faced with covering a wide range of films representing an insurmountable mountain of experiences and subjects, which invariably leads to feelings of insufficiency. The fear of admitting you might not know the whole story leads many to jump to Wikipedia to play catch-up, and whenever a particular dense film emerges, the prevalence of this trend becomes painfully apparent as it seems every other critic has insight into the 8th century Tang dynasty. The insincerity of this approach, coupled with the fact that this kind of Googled knowledge can be quite obvious to most readers, should be reason enough to question its practice.

No amount of googling will help you parse the nuances of language and dialects. We take for granted how much of a character can be translated through their dialect, as many of us are less discerning to regional differences in languages we do not speak. Specific cultural allusions can also easily fade into the background if you don’t know what you’re looking for, as translations rarely include cliff notes to understand the significance of a particular statement or allusion. The limits of subtitles also means that films of which employ complex auditory structures built around words will suffer. On top of that, many of us are not always equipped to interpret whether or not subtitles for a particular film are good or not. Hell, most critics have little understanding how subtitles are written or commissioned in the first place.

Clearly, no amount of research can help provide a substantial basis for you to evaluate every film equally. Cinema has the power to bring us on a journey through time and space, but it can also be terribly humbling in its ability to make us feel eclipsed by the overwhelming presence of the entirety of human knowledge and experience. Subjectivity, which some still see a scourge ruining film criticism, has no better case in its favor than the obvious limits of the human mind. Our failures to be computers, capable of interpreting everything as intended, should not be treated as a necessarily bad thing.

Being a good critic involves a hungry curiosity that drives you to be better for yourself and for the reader. But, it also requires a certain humility that you will never know everything and not every work of art will be made within the confines of your experience. For a critic, admitting you might be wrong or do not understand something can be overwhelming, but it can be an important step in becoming a better writer. The challenges of working around your own biases, blind spots and inexperience can be illuminating and force you to be better.

Writers should be voracious readers and, in the case of film critics, you should try to watch many films as well. It should go without saying that if you’re not naturally curious or don’t possess a certain amount of empathy, writing about films may not be for you. But, we need to make it clearer that admitting you don’t understand or know something should be a part of that experience. 

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.