Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Elusive Spark

This might come as a shocker to you. I love films, but I don't really love writing about them.

Take that not as a confession, but as an elaboration. It gets tiring sometimes, writing about films, reviewing them, and trying to figure out the right words to describe things. Watching films and thinking about them, during and later, is where the real excitement lies.

In that sense, I don't and can never understand how some critics and analysts and reviewers can tirelessly churn out review after review, piece after piece. Once in a while, you do get a film that gets you so excited, you just have to write about it. And that can be the most exhilarating thing.

Lucas McNelly at 100 Films recently asked the question "How do you blog?" Or more accurately, "How do you review or write about a film?"

I've known and even sat next to some reviewers who come prepared with a notebook and pen (one of those thingies with a dim lightbulb at the tip), scribbling down thoughts and impressions. Forgive me for being blunt, but I find that a little bit silly. Maybe it's a personal thing, but I believe films being 24 frames per second are like the landscape you see rushing by when you're on a train. But the advent of video and DVD has pretty much changed the way we view films. There's an article somewhere online about this, by David Bordwell or somebody else. I don't remember.

Still, despite that, I still believe that the first impression is everything for a reviewer or critic. Films are, after all, built that way, for a single-pass experience. More so for the reviewer at press previews, which are usually held days before a film is released. And in between the preview and the general release is usually the deadline for the review to be published. No second chances.

What I do is just sit and watch the film. Let it run by, see it for what it is, then take note of how it makes you feel. It's after the movie is over that I start the thinking process. This may take from just a few hours up to a few days. From the first impression, other thoughts will grow and develop about the film. If you liked it, why, and what made you feel so. If not, same thing.

There were two instances when I had to view a film twice, but there was good reason both times.

The first was for U-Wei Hajisaari's Kaki Bakar (The Arsonist). The film was shot on Beta (if I'm not mistaken) and the transfer to 35mm was far from satisfactory. Some scenes were simply devoid of visual details because of that. My initial review was not as very positive one. But later, U-Wei himself convinced me to give the film a second try. The second time indeed yielded more positive things from it, because by then I had kind of got used to the blurry images, which were what got in the way the first time. Of course, I got quite a shelling from some people on a forum for changing my opinion in just a week.

The second was for Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor. I had a hard time sitting through it the first time, and I left after the big attack. Then my conscience got better of me, and I felt to be fair, I had to finish the movie. The second time around, I hung around until I knew the attack sequences were over, then I headed into the cinema. Guess what, I lasted for about 30 minutes before I had to walk out again. I did write a review, but that was the first and last time I ever wrote a review without finishing a movie. I vowed never to do that ever again. It's just not right.

(I actually did it again for In The Name Of The King, but it was a short impression, not really a review, for this blog.)

There are some who regard reviewing as something you do as if you're taking apart a piece of machinery, or like a careful scientific study that takes concentrated observation. But hey, reviewers and critics want to enjoy films too. That's why we do what we do anyway. Someone once told me how relieved she was to not have to review a movie again and that she could finally sit and watch a movie without having to think so much.

This is what I don't get. Movies are not made for people to sit and think hard about them while they play. The thinking should come naturally and as a second-nature response. It's like this morning when someone told me she only watches movies for entertainment, and not to think.

My reply was, everyone watches movies for entertainment. No one wants to have a hard time at the movies.

My parting shot: It's only a movie, not a university lecture, for God's sake!

Addendum: More interestingly, Abe Casio, a renowned Japanese critic and author of books on Kitano Takeshi, said that when he watches a film, even on VCR, he never stops the tape. He has a rather special way of analysing films. He draws a difference between "creatively incorrect memories" and careless ones. Meaning, he watches a film once, then writes about what he has just seen, even though some of his descriptions or details may not be accurate. The reason is that Abe believes film is "living and moving" and "vanishing every moment," and that "memory alone enables us to re-experience it." He writes about film as how the audience experience it.

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