MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

No Regrets: Why Even “Amateur” Films Deserve Honest Reviews

Should film critics differentiate or consider whether a given film is “professional” or “amateur” either in reviewing a film, or in deciding whether a film should even be reviewed at all?

There’s been an interesting discussion about reviewing “amateur” versus “professional theater” on The Stranger‘s SLOG between critic Paul Constant and his editor, Brendan Kiley, that seems apropos for a broader discussion as we head off to the Sundance Film Festival this week. The background: Constant wrote in a recent SLOG post titled “Regrets Regrets” that the only play he regretted having to review all year was an amateur production of the play Bullshot Crummond.

Constant notes in his post:

Bullshot Crummond was performed at the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center… The play was performed, basically, in a gymnasium and the crowd sat on bleacher seats… It was amateurish. But the thing is, it was amateur theater… As soon as I walked into the theater, I realized what had happened: I was a critic who was about to review a play that probably shouldn’t be reviewed.

It’s all very familial, and it’s also very amateurish. It is, quite simply, not a professional production and it should have been left for more informal reviews like word of mouth.

What made this all particularly interesting to me is that Constant, The Stranger‘s Books Editor, also reviews films. And as we head into the Sundance Film Festival this week, I read his take on amateur versus professional theater and thought … okay, but what if you applied that logic to films? The whole issue of what’s amateur versus what’s professional, and whether such things should be even be considered at all in reviewing them crops up all the time, especially for those of us who spend a lot of our time on the fest circuit or have a stack of indie screeners sitting on our entertainment centers.

Do you review independent films and studio films by different standards?

Should critics take into account that one film was made on a $50K budget financed on credit cards and loans from family and friends, whereas another had the benefit of $50 million in studio dollars?

If you write a negative review of an indie film made by a director who worked really hard for years to get her film made, and who’s also a really nice person who loves small animals and children and volunteers in third world countries in her spare time, does that make you a mean person?

If you’re a filmmaker, and you’re submitting your films to festivals, sending screeners to journalists, trying to get people to see your film, you obviously want it to be seen in a public forum. And if you’re showing your film, your baby, in a public forum to audiences and critics, you’ve got to expect that not everyone is going to love your baby as much as you do. As critics, we can’t take into account who else is in the audience with us or how “faithful” they are to the filmmakers, or how much they liked it. Hell, I’ve sat through some preview screenings packed with audiences who’ve laughed and applauded for films that are absolute crap. It’s not our job to judge how discerning the audience is, it’s our job to discern whether a film is good or bad.

As a critic, you go to a major fest like Sundance (and let’s be honest, fests — even prestigious fests — have slates packed with films you could call “amateur”) and you know there’s going to be a mix of quality. Sundance, for instance, has films that already have distribution deals that are premiering at the fest, along with competition films in the doc and dramatic categories– and then there are the categories like Spectrum, which showcases often quality films that are not world premieres, and New Frontier and Park City at Midnight, whose slates tend to be more eclectic and dicey. You can’t pre-judge how good a given film will be by which category it’s slotted in, either; I’ve seen Premiere films that made me go “Huh?” and ponder what better film got left out of the fest to make room for this one, and I’ve seen New Frontier films that were better than I expected them to be.

How would we differentiate an “amateur” from a “professional” film anyhow? Certainly, there are professional independent directors (Mike LeighKen LoachTom Tykwer and Arnaud Desplechin, just to name a few) who are skilled and practiced at what they do, but there are also first-time directors who make solid first films. Good indie directors play to their strengths. They rely on story, on script, on good actors. And year after year smaller films by newer, “amateur” directors end up on Top Ten lists and contend for major awards; just this year alone, my own Top Ten list is topped by Frozen River, a feature debut by an indie director.Tom McCarthy, whose first film was the excellent The Station Agent, brought us The Visitor this year (#7 on my year-end list).

Ramin Bahrani, whose film Chop Shop made my #9 (although I actually saw it in 2007) has been building a well-deserved reputation since his feature debut, Man Push Cart, and this year he had Goodbye Solo on the fest circuit, my favorite of his films to date. He keeps growing and pushing himself, and his films are gorgeous to look at. Playwright Martin McDonagh made a great feature directorial debut with In Bruges (my #8 pick), for whichColin Farrell just won a well-deserved Golden Globe. That’s forty percent of the films on just one top ten list (and if you scour the 200+ top ten lists we’ve compiled here, you’ll probably find that a fairly consistent number). And that’s not even counting a lot of films that nearly ended up on my own top ten and made other critics’ lists — films like Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt has packed a solid one-two punch with this one and her earlier feature, Old Joy) and Reprise.

So the question is, if all those “amateurs” could make so many great films, why are there so many crappy films made with “but it’s my first feature” or “but we didn’t have a lot of money” as the excuse? And why should a critic give more of a break to a film just because it’s an “amateur” effort, when it’s certainly possible for a first-time filmmaker with a low budget to make a really good film? It doesn’t help a mediocre filmmaker grow into a better one to pat his head encouragingly and pepper a review with platitudes just because he’s a first time or low-budget indie director — if anything it ghettoizes indie film generally and denigrates those indie directors who do manage to make really great films to sing the praises of films that don’t deserve it.

I like filmmakers, I have many friends who are filmmakers, but when I’m writing a review, I’m not reviewing the filmmaker as a person, I’m reviewing how the artistry (or not) of their film affects me, the emotions it evokes, the way the shots are framed and lit, the strength of the performances, and countless other subjective things that affect whether a given film resonates for me or doesn’t. That’s not to say I’m sitting there with a punchlist in the dark, ticking off things as I watch the film, but they’re certainly elements that are very likely to impact whether I like a film or don’t, and the way in which they all come together to create the overall impact of how a film either resonates, or doesn’t.

At the end of the day, our job is to judge based on what we think is good or bad, what works and what doesn’t, not how much we like this director as a person, or how much we like and respect the publicist, or how deeply filmmakers went into debt to make their film. The job of a critic is to tell people what they think about the films they see, and why they liked it didn’t like it. Period.

I’ll be sitting through a lot of films during the 10 days of Sundance. Some will be “amateur” productions, some will impress me as solid, if not spectacular. Hopefully a few will knock my socks off. It’s pretty much a given that every film I see and review at Sundance will not get a positive review, but the filmmakers whose work gets negative reviews will, at least, get an honest assessment of what about their film didn’t work for me and why.

It’s also a safe bet that for any given film I don’t like, other critics will disagree and raise points from their own perspectives — and therein lies the value of critiquing films within the environment of a film festival. The journalists there will all discuss the films we see — good, bad and indifferent — passionately and often, and then we’ll write about them and disagree and argue some more, and there’s value in that, ultimately. We’ve been arguing about Che since Cannes, and all those debates stirred public interest in the film and, arguably, contributed to the success of the film’s roadshow rollout.

Film critics and the outlets for which we write have a primary obligation to our readers to give honest reviews of films that are put out there to be watched and judged. If that context is a festival, we can certainly keep that context in mind, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t write a negative review of a fest film just because it’s a fest film — or that we shouldn’t review a badly made film at all just because it’s an obviously “amateur” production.

Here’s hoping there will be more “professional” than “amateur” entries on the Sundance slate, and that I, along with the rest of the critics who will be watching and reviewing three to five films a day during the fest, will unearth more diamonds in Park City than lumps of coal.

– by Kim Voynar

(Note: Old Joy, of course, was not Kelly Reichardt’s first feature film, and the error in which I previously incorrectly identified it as such has been corrected. Thanks to the alert reader who pointed out the error, and mea maxima culpa.)

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon