Ben’s Blog: Writing About Writing About Film.

Posted December 6th, 2016 by Ben

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…

Moderately Confused

  1. Jason Wilcox

    Yes, I agree with you that most film reviews don’t go beyond paraphrasing the plotline and then recommending/not recommending you watch the film. I think that’s been the case for some years and is mainly because of the way writing has been compartmentalised in recent years, with journalism tending ever more towards the superficial (journalists being “reviewers”, not critics), in contrast to academic writing which is of ever more specialised interest and hardly comprehensible to the general public (academics tend to be “theorists”). The space for “serious criticism” is very small (I once aspired to be a critic and write on films which interested me, but, not being a journalist or an academic, I could not find any outlet at all in the UK so had work published in the Canadian journal, “CIneaction”, until they changed their policy about non-Canadian contributors, and this year I find they have lost their funding altogether so are closing down).
    I saw “Nina Forever” on DVD several weeks ago and have to say
    i) I was disappointed because I was expecting a horror film (it did not really scare me at all) – but found it to be really more of a comedy/drama. Maybe I was misled by the marketing?
    ii) I thought the role of Nina was underwritten – after all, she is the title character (she could have been a bit like Elvira, the “Blithe Spirit” in Noel Coward’s play); whereas I found Holly to be the best written (and best acted) role.
    NB I have made several films on similar themes (though not played for laughs), one of which, “Dead Perfect”, will be screening at the Horror-on-Sea Festival in January ( – trailer here:
    +Several of my previous films (which I would also categorise as horror) touch upon similar themes – trailer links here:

  2. Ben

    Congratulations on the film Jason, Horror On Sea is a great little festival, do go you’ll have a blast.

    Your comment opens up another side of the discussion about why actual criticism is so essential. I’m going to blow all my credentials as a cineaste now but I have to admit when I finally got round to watching Haneke’s “Caché” I was fairly non-plussed, which is to say I hated it. It took a superb piece of writing (by an author whose name I’ve rudely forgotten) to break it apart. Her writing didn’t change my opinion of the film, as an experience it left me feeling hectored. However it did utterly change my understanding of the film as a piece of work. Thanks to that critic I feel like I have an handle on what Haneke was doing, why the film was made in the way it was, how testing the audience’s endurance is part of his narrative plan for the work.

    It’s often all too easy to get drawn into the film you think you’re going to see rather than being able to engage with the one that has been made. This is especially the case if you make films yourself, it’s rare to watch something and not be thinking “how would I have done this…” to get lost in the film in your head rather than the one on the screen. That’s one of the reasons why a true critic is so valuable, as the best really do have the ability to engage rather than attempt to collaborate. It’s a skill I envy.

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