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The Torch: The art of reviewing

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Everybody’ s making movies nowadays; it’s become so easy of late to put together something with friends, or even on your own entirely, it’s likely that before long there will be more people making films than there are folks to watch them.

The TorchCertainly the scenario is just as frightening as it is far from the truth yet it cannot be denied that the digital transformation is beginning to take its toll on the viewers’ staying power and consequently renders the need for an ability to make an informed choice ever more urgent. In the case of Singapore’s lively scene of up-and-coming independents, the issue seems particularly pressing: how to divide a cake up into ever more slices, a cake that is more like a cookie to begin with?

In other words, competition for the (local) audience is fierce and getting more so by the day, with every new indie project vying for a screen. If there was no other reason for it, this situation alone would surely guarantee media content from Singapore seeking outlets in international markets – which is no bad thing, certainly. But unfortunately it doesn’t stop there, competition that is. In fact, the very way of selecting which idea receives government funding in Singapore, according to some, is nothing but an anticipation of assumed outside reaction, the benchmark of global compatibility you might call it. In short: talking movies is an important factor, which at times, and depending on who is saying exactly what (and to whom), may even become outright decisive. Every reason then, to have a closer look at the dynamics and the intricacies of that crucial business of entering a film by the word.

There exist clear quality standards in the craft of reviewing, regardless of the subject of assessment, that are too often neglected but valid all the same. Your responsibility as a critic is threefold: First off, it is in answering to the art of film itself. The critic must know what they understand, what they want film to be. They must, if only to themselves, stipulate their standards, criteria of quality in certain regards, and give definitions, because as an institutional player they are entitled to set and offer their own agenda – public debate will ultimately decide on its feasibility and value. Only, the rules of the game must be clear from the outset. When you are going to do battle (see for yourselves whether this likening fits) both sides alike, everybody involved, need to know the terrain. Given the interconnected state of the media, where all input is at the same time (but at some other end) output as well, responsibility becomes mutual. The skilled reviewer is an arbiter in their own wisdom – and limited by it. Being conscious of this first condition they will never be, cannot be, a censor but an adviser, guiding with insight.

Secondly, you should definitely bear in mind that you are providing a public service, you write for your readers’ benefit. At this point it is all about mastering one basic skill: clearly any reviewer has to have their language at the ready, mustn’t be lost for words, not even the harsher tones if need be, and are afforded to be sensible in their outspokenness. Accordingly a minimal grasp on structured thinking is indispensable, a genuine sense for proportionality is a handy tool; and with that I don’t mean adequacy which is just one step away from every form of political correctness. No, a critique by nature is a text of the secondary category and therefore is to be measured by the extent of its usefulness. One that doesn’t put forward a distinctly defined point of view and fails to get across a straightforward message in terms of which film to watch and which one best to avoid, is principally a lost cause; and a waste of time for the reader.

We know our rhetorics, have an arsenal of argumentative strategies at our disposal, and yet shall not be carried away by our medium’s own, inherent force. The linguistic gunnery can backfire, and badly. As far as meaningful criticism is concerned, I strongly demand we get no elitist student talk, please, which veils itself in misty elaborations. So here is my urgent call going out to whom it may concern: Show a passion, don’t perform a stunt! This is, because self-referentiality is interesting in a film – but less so in a review. It takes considerably more to develop a standpoint of your own from which to judge somebody else’s hard work. It’s not just about writing up to some academic yardstick of a certain field jargon deemed appropriate. Instead it takes character, a matured personality and a genuinely grounded commitment to the profession. After all, you want to be understood, do you not? So as an act of honest communication, like any good reviewing is, it has to be at least respectful of the one addressed, if not heedful of their just demands, in order not to make your reasoning a one-way road.

Lastly, fairness to me is an essential quality in any piece of critical writing; it is the hallmark of your integrity as a reviewer. Don’t tinker with hermeneutics’ sensible rules: get into the creator’s mind situation, the given conditions of a precise place and time, enter the specific spirit and facts of life as well as an artist’s ambition, the pursued objective. Thus you will come to be fully informed and able to make a qualified judgment on equal grounds with the conception that was (the one moment). From there, and only from there, you may then determine whether the goal has been met on its own, private terms. Again, respect is key and it will express itself in the scrupulousness of your effort to do justice as a reflexion of your ability to enter a deep reading mode when assessing a film. True professionalism is not about strictures, but an adaptability which is self-assured enough to positively alienate itself with the foreign experience and hence gain new and exciting understanding of the (conventionally) known world.

But there is more to it, actually. In the realm of film, every generation produces its own defining works, which it is the first and foremost task of any reviewer to identify and point out to the wider public as such. Speaking of a generation in this particular medium, and given its many rapid changes, I would put the mark at approximately a dozen years for one such cohort to form and fully live its predestined span. If within this time frame, for example the most recent one from the mid-90s to today, I fail to grasp the impact of “Pulp Fiction” on contemporary cinema standards, if I cannot see the point “American Psycho” makes (I say “the point”, don’t ask for sense!), or were unable to tell the difference between a Wong Kar-Wai film and one by Ang Lee, then I’d probably better not consider myself a talented critic – not even a professional one if it comes to that. No, those are the challenges posed to the film critic, the occasions they must rise to if something more than just mere opining and the recounting of their own preferences was their aim and guiding motive.

Therefore, when sitting down for it, I urge everyone, do take your time and have all your best senses operating at top notch because that’s what is afforded of you as a reviewer; that is what any film has a right to expect of you. It’s the same as with reading: ask anyone and they will readily claim mastery of the skill in question. But when it comes to doing it on professional terms, well, simply to identify the words on a page won’t do the job. So take your time and concentrate – for it is a thin line indeed that separates the thing under observation from the one observing, and a good and challenging movie might easily reverse the relation and put you to the test. There is in all such evaluation one overriding question, the ever so childishly legitimate and never fully adult question, which asks: why is that? A versatile review will try to answer with regard to that first impression you have with a film, the foregone conclusion of whether it is a good one or not. The observation and close scrutiny, which has to follow from your trained and experienced intuition, then turns a feeling into a sound report with reason, no guessing.

My concern in this is not with the academic world however; their revisiting habits is surely enough to take care of itself. It is with the happily average movie-goer, my fellow consumer whom I want to be duly honoured and well served. If a review is meant to inform whoever wishes to make a deliberate choice, it must deliver and do precisely that. Notwithstanding the laudable, rare exception, I therefore ask: When will we get a reviewing landscape with the professionalism and passion to match our newfound Singapore filmmaking prowess? It’s about time, I should think.

To end this with an edge, here’s another bit of practical wisdom if you don’t mind: Never review the work of a friend – that is, if you care about keeping them!

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