Not so long ago I made the outrageous suggestion that it’s impossible to spoil a film by revealing the plot. Considering how giving away the twist of a movie based on a best selling book can provoke a twitter storm of death threats, it should be more remarkable that most reviews rarely stretch far beyond a regurgitation of the narrative. Plot-reviewing makes sense for the purpose where it originated, the short first-look review that used to live on the first page I’d turn to in any newspaper. But these are less reviews than a buyer’s guide. In much the same way that I don’t need Which Magazine to interrogate the full socio-political implications of my new toaster, a film review of this kind has a specific function and does it well. Beyond that initial purchasing choice though it has little value, yet it’s surprisingly rare for anyone to stray beyond this template when discussing cinema.
I’m not just talking about those privileged enough to get paid to write about film. As this blog proves, the internet allows literally anyone with too much time on their hands to unpack their brains. More people than you can comfortably imagine are, right now, busily cataloguing their thoughts on every film they’ve ever seen. You mightn’t know this, you mightn’t want to know this, but I’ve made a film and I’m endlessly curious as to how it landed for everyone whose seen it. My curiosity has led me to some amazingly insightful writing and of course some so incoherent it reads like an attempt to transcribe white noise. The truly astonishing thing though is the number of people who seem to have made it their task, their duty even, to write up the plots of films and give them a star rating. Just that and nothing more.
I don’t mean to sound churlish, genuinely, thank you for the 4 star review on letterboxd, but my film has been generally available for 9 months now. The number of people who care what you think about it is tiny (it’s just you and me) – the number of people who need you to write out the plot and say “better than I expected” is less than zero. It’s your blog and only you and I are going to read it, let rip.
But plot-reviewing has seeped through the internet like a zombie plague. It has become what write when we write about films. It has become what we think when we think about films. With this formula as the accepted way of expressing a response, audiences lack a useful way of communicating with artists. A lack of real reviews, of critical thought, of engaged, challenging, provocative writing does as much harm as spoiler culture because once again this reduces a film to nothing more than a series of events. A real review breaks the story open and helps you see it with fresh eyes.
For a case in point go read Michael Wood whose columns in the London Review of Books are a thing of beauty. I also urge you hunt out Justine Smith, Anton Bitel, and Kim Newman and Jenny Nulf all of whom have made me rewatch films I thought I knew. All help me understand what better filmmakers are doing when I don’t get it, an insight you’ll never find in a star rating…