Are Film Reviews Useful?

I went to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2012) without having read a single review of it. Armed only with a solid endorsement from my friend Richard — a big David Fincher fan — I went to see the film the way I like best: knowing as little about it as possible.

Sure, I followed along with interest as the rumors about David Fincher taking the helm of the first of three films to be adapted from Stieg Larsson’s bestselling novels, by Colombia Pictures, until they were eventually  verified; and I read with interest an article discussing Fincher’s decision to cast Rooney Mara in the lead role; but, generally, I knew nothing specific enough about David Fincher’s version of the film to focus my viewing of it, or center it around any specific approach.

Yet, not having read any of Larsson’s novels, but having seen the Swedish counterpart to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I was happy going into the film not knowing what to expect. For one, I hate watching trailers, as I think they forge harmful (and misleading) impressions about the films they depict, and, at least for me, they seem to give away many parts of the film that, otherwise, might have had the chance of  being surprising.

Additionally, I find that knowing what others think about a film bothers me. Especially knowing what the critics think — I don’t like feeling like my mind has been made up for me, that a verdict has already been passed about a film. Not knowing how a film has been received liberates me to freely form my own initial impressions, which can then be tested, redefined, challenged, then honed by reading the opinions of others. I think it is important to reiterate that what we read, mostly, when we read film critics, are their opinions, even if their reviews are erudite, esoteric, cleverly crafted, or edited to perfection.

There’s nothing wrong with opinion, certainly, but when it’s the only tool critics use to influence or persuade an audience of the worthiness of a particular film, I think we’ve entered into unsavory territory. Indeed, any reviewer, critic, commentator, etc. cannot help inserting their opinion in what they write — I have done it here several times already — but it’s the extent to which they use their personal response to particular films, and the degree to which they use those personal responses to make generalized (and sometimes absolute) recommendations about a film’s worthiness and watchability, that the insertion of opinion becomes problematic.

Also problematic is the imprecision with which some writers use language, and film terms, seeming to favor the clever turn-of-phrase, obscure reference, or pun, to well-reasoned discussions of their own responses to the film. Maybe it’s the tone of the reviews that are off-putting  — to me, that is; maybe it’s the way the reviews are written that make me feel as if any other possible interpretation has been denied. Sometimes, I feel that writers’ attempts to be clever, hip, sophisticated, or whatever, actually come off as sexist, pedantic, pretentious, or simply self-indulgent. Not always, but enough to have me concerned.

I have mixed feelings about the role of film critics and the usefulness of their commentaries. I wonder if there should not be more emphasis on film theory and film scholarship, more attention paid to the realities and exigencies of the filmmaking process than is currently given credence. So, one of the major areas of focus I want to pursue in this blog is film criticism.

So, in addition to posts on different film-related topics, I will also start posting my thoughts about several different reviews of the same movie — The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — and use the actual words of the different critics as a way in to talking about larger issues in cinema, film appreciation, and film scholarship and criticism. So stay tuned.

Also, this blog, although a personal one, does aim to engage an audience and foster meaningful discourse on film in hope that people can learn and be inspired by that discourse. In light of this, and toward that end, I hope to hear from anyone who might read this.

Do you read film reviews? Do you find them useful? Do you prefer to read a review first, or watch the movie first? Please contribute your comments below.

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