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Everyone’s a Critic

Last semester, my graduate alma mater hosted a panel discussion on arts criticism. The timing was apt, as I had just started to review films again for a new outlet. Until recently, with opportunities shrinking (for paid gigs, anyway), I had resigned myself to the reality that I may not write about film anymore. I had been seeing fewer movies, and watching those I did see as a fan, not a critic. “Critics Talk Shop: Writing Books, Music, Food, Film, and Why It Matters” served as a refresher course in the form—how and why I review.

These are important questions. With Facebook, Twitter, and, well, WordPress, anyone can write and publish their thoughts on anything—and do. Although I enjoy writing about film for its own sake, the way it engages me with the material, I have to ask myself what I’m adding to the conversation.

“There are too many critics and not enough people to read them,” said Kenneth Turan, film critic for the Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio. “Become a critic if someone wants to read what you write.”

After my last outlet folded, yet another victim of these tough economic times, I could have launched a blog and kept writing about film. But why? Who would want to read what I write? The backing of a publication, a corporation, a brand name lends credibility. So does a paycheck, however small.

But there’s more to it than that, argued Richard Schickel in an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times going on three years ago, around the time that the major papers started cutting back on book reviewing:

Criticism—and its humble cousin, reviewing—is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.

Although Schickel’s admitted elitism rubs me the wrong way—I find the proliferation of the written word online liberating rather than threatening—I ripped the page out of the paper and it’s pinned, yellowing, to the corkboard in my office, a constant reminder that I have to “bring something to the party.”

To figure out what that was, I started to take note of what other writers I read and why. I can go see a movie and decide whether I like it or not for myself. In fact, while a rave review of a film I hadn’t considered watching might talk me into seeing it, a pan rarely will talk me out of it.

What I do appreciate is learning something new. That might be background information on the making of the film, a review of the filmmaker’s oeuvre, or the historical context of the movie’s setting. It might be thematic or technical insight. Whatever it is, it broadens my view of the film and, therefore, of the world.

Ever since I made this analysis, this is how I’ve approached my own film criticism: more than giving a movie thumbs up or thumbs down, I aim to impart some knowledge or insight to the reader—or, if that’s too lofty, to myself. What that requires, though, is research.

What sets the professional critic apart, said David Ulin, book editor of the Los Angeles Times, is that he or she reads the book on which the film being reviewed is based or reads a number of works by the author whose book is being reviewed “to understand the milieu of it.”

“When immersed in consuming, you do get a sophisticated palate,” added music critic Evelyn McDonnell. “You can eat/read/listen to what the general public can’t understand. The best part of job is to champion someone and explain why he or she is important.”

Turan agrees that imparting that wisdom is “one of the real pleasures of the job. … I can send people to a film. If I like something, anybody can like it. It’s my job to make the film accessible.”

So I watch previous titles in the director’s filmography. I read the book on which the film is based. It’s a lot of work. Too much work, often, for what I’m being paid. But if I’m a professional writer, if I’m going to convey some kind of authority in the field, I have to earn it—by building on my film studies degree, by watching 250 films a year, by reading about film, and by writing about it.

That’s the other part of the equation: the writing.

“In criticism, the writing is as important,” said Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic at the LA Weekly, “taking the work in question and using that as a jumping-off point” to create your own work.

It’s easy to fall back on formula when writing a review, particularly a film review, especially when you’re on deadline, churning out two or three or four a week. There isn’t enough time to watch all the films you should or read all the books you should. But if I’m going to write something that someone wants to read, bring something to the party, contribute to the conversation, I have to at least make the effort.

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Usage: Beg the Question

You can beg for forgiveness. You can beg for mercy. You can beg for money, especially in these tough economic times. But whatever you do, don’t beg the question. And don’t use “beg the question” incorrectly in your writing, either.

Let me explain: The phrase “beg the question” refers to a logical fallacy in which a writer attempts to prove a claim by restating the claim itself, often in different language. For example, consider this hypothetical argument adapted from a practice prompt I use with my students preparing for the ACT:

Locker checks should not be allowed in high schools because authorities should not search students’ lockers.

In this (again, hypothetical) thesis, I haven’t offered a reason for my argument—what I call the “because clause”—but rather simply restated my stand, that locker checks should not be allowed. Avoid begging the question in your rhetorical writing.

Also avoid using the phrase “beg the question” incorrectly. Much too often, it is used in lieu of “raise the question”:

School administrators are determined to institute mandatory weekly locker checks, which begs raises the question, what right do they have?

Really, begging the question should be avoided at all costs, both as a rhetorical device and as a phrase in your writing, and at least one website is dedicated to ending BTQ abuse.

Resource

Hacker, Diana, The Bedford Handbook for Writers, 3rd ed. Boston: St. Martin’s Press: 1991.

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Writing Exercise: Photo Booth

In addition to my other New Year’s resolutions, I resolved to reunite with my writing group. I arrived at the first klatch of the year armed with a prompt inspired by a quote from Wings of Desire:

You get your picture taken in a photo booth, but when the image develops, the face isn’t yours.

Weirdly, in response to an entirely different prompt (“I hope you know that this will go down on your permanent record”), one of the other writers produced this exact story. Well, almost—her character was getting her picture taken at the DMV.

Still, I couldn’t very well use the prompt after hearing her story. It would have looked like I pilfered her idea, and, besides, what would she have written about next?

Anyway, I still think it’s a good story starter. Let me know what comes of it.

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Punctuation: Commas, Part XIX—Names

Often names—either of people or of things—are accompanied by suffixes or other extra information that may or may not need to be set off by commas.

It used to be that generational name suffixes like Jr. and Sr. were set off by commas. This is no longer necessary:

John Jr. is the son of John.

If commas are used, however, they should appear both before and after the suffix:

John, Jr., is the son of John.

Never use commas with generational suffixes III, IV, etc.:

If John Jr. has a son named John, he will be John III.

Likewise, commas are no longer necessary to set off elements such as Inc., Ltd., etc.:

Readers are eager to catch a glimpse of the new ereader from Apple Inc.

If commas are used, however, they should appear both before and after the element:

Readers are eager to catch a glimpse of the new ereader from Apple, Inc.

Do, however, use commas to set off a person’s title if it follows his or her name:

Mehmet Oz, MD, has segued from medicine to television.

Finally, personal names are sometimes followed by the person’s place of residence. Whether you should use commas to set off this information depends on whether it is necessary to understanding the meaning of the sentence. If it’s extra, parenthetical information, use commas; if it’s essential information, don’t:

Stephanie Herseth, of Houghton, is my home state of South Dakota’s only U.S. Congressperson.

The Herseths of South Dakota have been involved in politics since her grandfather’s generation.

Do you have a question about the comma? Let me know, and I’ll include it in a future installment of Mots Justes’ ongoing series.

The Mots Justes Series on Commas

Part I—To Serialize or Not to Serialize

Part II—Independent Thinking

Part III—Co-dependents

Part IV—Making Introductions

Part V—Interjections

Part VI—Parentheticals

Part VII—It’s All Relative

Part VIII—Adjectives

Part IX—Contrast

Part X—Adjectival Phrases and Appositives

Part XI—In Other Words

Part XII—Making the Transition

Part XIII—Confusion Busting

Part XIV—On One Condition

Part XV—Absolutely

Part XVI—As Well, Too

Part XVII—Dates

Part XVIII—Addresses

Resources

Chicago Manual of Style, The. 15th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Hacker, Diana, The Bedford Handbook for Writers, 3rd ed. Boston: St. Martin’s Press: 1991.

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Grammar: Pronouns Part XV—Relative

Relative pronouns—who, whom, whose, which, that, and what—introduce a relative (or subordinate) clause and relates it to the rest of the sentence.

Who Vs. Whom

Who is in subjective case. It can be used when the relative pronoun serves as the subject of the subordinate clause:

Led by Brett Favre, who played quarterback at rival Green Bay for fifteen years, the Minnesota Vikings are one game away from the Super Bowl.

Whom is in objective case. It can also be used in two situations: as the object of a verb or the object of a preposition:

Brad Childress, whom the team hired four years ago, has finally coached the Vikings to the NFC Championship game.

Crucial to the Vikings win yesterday was Sidney Rice, to whom Favre threw three touchdown passes.

If you’re having a hard time figuring out whether the relative pronoun is in subjective or objective case, substitute he or him, rewriting the sentence as necessary:

Led by Brett Favre, the Minnesota Vikings are one game away from the Super Bowl. He played quarterback at rival Green Bay for years.

Brad Childress has finally coached the Vikings to the NFC Championship game. The team hired him four years ago.

Crucial to the Vikings win yesterday was Sidney Rice. Favre threw three touchdown passes to him.

If you would use he in the sentence, then use who. If you would use him in the sentence, use whom. Just remember that the m’s in him and whom go together.

Whose is in the possessive case and thus shows ownership:

Adrian Peterson, whose running game is a constant threat, had a relatively quiet game.

Who Vs. Which Vs. That Vs. What

Use who, whom, and whose only when referring to a person. They can be used in first, second, or third person. (See examples above.)

Use which only when referring to an animal or thing:

The team, which got skunked in its last division championship by the New York Giants in 2001, goes into New Orleans with a definitive win against Dallas.

Use what only when referring to a nonliving thing:

The drubbing was exactly what the Vikings needed going into next week’s game against the Saints.

Both which and what can be used in the second or third person, but not in the first.

Use that to refer to a person, animal, or thing. It can be used in the first, second, or third person:

In the locker room after the game, Favre sang the “Pants on the Ground” song that was made famous on American Idol.

For the difference between that and which, see this previous post on comma use with subordinate clauses.

Compound Relative Pronouns

Compound relative pronouns are formed by adding the suffice -ever­ to who, whom, what, or which. Whoever, whomever, whatever, and whichever don’t point back to a noun or pronoun but refer generally to any or all people or things:

Whomever the Vikings face in the rest of the playoffs will be formidable opponents.

Whatever happens next weekend, the Vikings had a fun and exciting season.

Do you have a question about pronouns? Let me know, and I’ll include it in a future installment of Mots Justes’ ongoing series.

The Mots Justes Series on Pronouns

Part I—The Basics

Part II—Location, Location, Location

Part III—Number

Part IV—Person

Part V—Gender, Plus “They” as a Gender-Neutral Singular Pronoun

Part VI—On the Case

Part VII—Something Personal Between You and Me

Part VIII—Infinitives

Part IX—Indeterminate Gender

Part X—Indefinitely (We, You, and They)

Part XI—Indefinitely (It)

Part XII—Possession

Part XIII—Demonstrative

Part XIV—Interrogative

Resources

Chicago Manual of Style, The. 15th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Hacker, Diana, The Bedford Handbook for Writers, 3rd ed. Boston: St. Martin’s Press: 1991.

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Ten Words You Need to Stop Misspelling

A lot: Always leave a space [between a and lot]. Remember, there’s a lot of space in outer space. Alot is not a word. You don’t write alittle, abunch, acantaloupe, aporkchop. So don’t write alot.

For the Oatmeal‘s other nine words you need to stop misspelling, click here.

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