Approaches to Critiquing

Kshitiz Anand

I love to critique. Being in a field in which I am always surrounded by the different forms of art that have been created, there is always a scope for criticism. So photographs that I take are criticized, and so are the designs that I make and I do so the same for any movie I see. Now there is a difference between the art of critiquing and the art of reviewing. While reviews are targeted for the common, general audience who do not have a flair for work, critiques are often targeted at a very specific audience.

When we view an art / design we start with an impression of it. Over a time we start to develop an opinion about it. And these opinions over a period turn into judgments. These judgments are what we call critiques. Thus if we analyze, any judgment is therefore ultimately what is what the judge thinks about it. And these judgments are subjective. Thus criticism is a subjective act.
A critic is a judge of a piece of art, who gives his or her subjective judgments based on the opinions formulated after the impression of the artwork.

Now criticism has been prevalent in the society since a long time but it is only recently that I felt that there is a need for a sincere effort for an organization to send out an honest opinion without any bias. Often one confuses criticism with only negative feedback. The art of criticism is supposed to see the piece of art a consummation of efforts. So the good things, as well as the bad things should be highlighted in a critique. A good practice that I follow and propagate people to follow is to start by saying a positive thing about the cultural expression. This not only gets respect from the artist, but it is more likely that the negative criticism to follow later is better accepted.

I was surprised to see the reviews of some movies of late that, did pretty well at the box office, but unfortunately for me none of the reviews gave an impression of the movie they way I felt it. I personally did not like the movie, and expected the critique to reflect that. But this is perfectly understandable, as critiquing is so subjective. While I do understand that the ultimately the decision to watch a film lies within the cinegoer, that decision of late has been influenced by numerous things. It is thus very common to see people read on a bunch of websites about the movie, or wait for a week before deciding to watch the movie.

As a critic, the prime concern should be to give an honest opinion on the film on three different grounds. These are in terms of (a) its semantic value,(b) its entertainment value and (c) its emotional value (this again we are looking at commercial films and not necessarily educational values in films, where the educational value can also be sincerely looked into). From the very onset one has to understand that the critiques are for people. We as people have emotions and our lives are affected to a certain extent by the content of the movie. It affects the way we talk, the dresses we wear, the songs we hum and the places we seek to visit.

And but naturally, not all critics would focus on all of these aspects while doing the critiques. Here I present a parallel understanding of two of my favorite mediums namely photography and film and how the different ways each can be critiqued.

Any cultural expression like the film, paintings, photography, which involves the study of visual elements, can be understood at different levels. All these above said mediums involve the working of the eye and the brain in a way that is not present in other mediums like literature. From an ontological perspective, these things are the same to all unless a meaning is made individually.

The way the light enters the eye when making the impression of the artifact might be the same for most individuals, but the way it is interpreted in the brains of individuals differ. Hence the notion of the subjectivity comes in. Also, there is not only a denotative meanings (what one sees) but also connotative meanings that are associated with the cultural expression. One can analyze the photographs using the semiotics of photography, identifying the signifiers, and what it means in the different cultural contexts.

Film theory and film criticism has been doing this for years and has established itself. A key figure in that is the French semiotician, Christian Metz, who in his book “Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema” outlines the semiotics of the film language in great detail [2]. Film critic like Kickasola in his book “Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski” has tried to give close readings of the works of noted filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski [3].

When analyzing any cultural expression it is equally important to identify both the general and the particular evidences. The general allows one to get a better understanding of the artifact from a broader perspective- issues like the placement of the cultural expression within the context of the life-worlds and the horizons is looked into. Understanding the general evidences also helps in establishing the cultural context of the expression in time.

Photography and the cinema are discoveries that satisfy, once and for all and in its very essence, our obsession with realism. However, there are some differences in analyzing photographs and in the way the film critic does for a film. The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it. [1] The photographs are a representative of time and the events are not unfolding real time. The notion of the temporal framework and the sequence of events are absent.

The challenge becomes even more because more often than not, one has to understand what has happened in an event that has occurred at some time in the past. Andre Bazin in his essay titled “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” [1] talks about how with the advent of the photographic art, the artist was now in a position to create the illusion of three-dimensional space within which things appeared to exist as our eyes in reality. But since this had only solved the problem of the form and not the movement, there was stillroom for the fourth dimension to be brought it. This was fulfilled with the advent of the film, which encountered for the dimension of time. However there happened to be a discussion going around the aesthetics and the psychological. In other way, this was between true realism (which was being captured by the early photographers), the need that is to give significant expression to the world both concretely and in its essence, and the pseudorealism (which the paintings had sought out to do as well at a later stage) of a deception aimed at fooling the eye (or for that matter the mind); a pseudorealism content in other words with illusory appearances. Film allowed for this pseudorealism to play out to a large extent.

There are primarily two approaches that have become more popular when doing a critique. They are the structuralism approach that basically looks into the meaning of things in itself (its semantic value) and the phenomenological approach (Husserl (6), Heidegger (5) et al.), which looks into how the meaning is interpreted by the individual. The structuralism approach hence can be said to be a function of the signs, the signifiers and the general meaning, which is a result of a social construct. This social construct is constructed over a period of time across a wide group of people within a particular culture. The structuralism approach also calls for a high objective content and aims to find the meanings that are widely accepted by that larger group. The unit of analysis hence for this approach becomes the individual frames: its compositions, the elements and the different movements. On the other hand the phenomenological approach, which is a function of the individual and personal sense making and the individual’s experience. Phenomenology on the other hand seeks out for the more subjective understandings and the individual’s interpretations on the expression. In this approach, hence the unit of analysis becomes the individual experiences.

Having made the distinction, I must admit and mention that it is indeed very difficult to see either of these approaches existing independently. So when one starts analyzing the frames in terms of its content, one is obliged to look at the semantic value, but at the same time one is looking at the way the individual is experiencing it. It is difficult to state which comes first. Whether the experience is based on the semantic nature of the frame, or whether the semantic nature of the frame is decided based on how an individual interprets it.

In most of the movie reviews that one would read these days, the critique is mostly phenomenological. No one really goes to the extent of analyzing a film to an extent of using semantic theory to analyze films. (Unless of course you are a critic like Kickasola, who would go on to write books on just a set of movies)

Does anyone actually care to think what the audience is actually looking for? Are they just concerned with the film as a thing, or as an expression that has a certain entertainment value. Do I have an understanding of the audience that is going to read the critique and the review that one writes up? So for example, knowing that the audience that is visiting this site is conversant in the different terminologies in film theory, one can afford to use the language in such a way. But if one was looking at the critique on a portal that just has a small section devoted towards film reviews (read critiques), one cannot expect the audience to understand everything that is written.

Being a critic, for the general masses one has to use the vocabulary that a layman can understand easily, but still get an honest opinion about a movie. If you are a hardcore film critic, you may go to the extent of analyzing each and every frame, using things like the things like Christian Metz Grande Syntagmathique to analyze the list of frames, do a sequence analysis, and also the relation of the different shots and its metaphorical meaning. This should, however, be only done if you know that the audience is able to understand that language clearly.

There are other questions that one can ask. Some of them being; should the critiquing be done at the movie theater or in a confided space in my room or better still as a critique from the script? Well does it make a difference? Well of course it does! I know of many movies whose overall experience has changed if I saw it in the theaters as compared to seeing it on my laptop.

Another question that I ask myself day in and day out is, ‘Does the critique depend on the star casts and also on the reputation of the director?’ Why can’t a movie be appreciated on grounds of its film making essence and not based on whether it is of an actor or by a director. Well, unfortunately many of the movie reviews that I have seen lately are just this. They start with the actor, praise them or tease them and end with more things about the actors. The essence of filmmaking is not at all talked about. When was the last time you actually heard a so-called critic talk about the shot selection, or the shot compositions.

With more and more people relying on reviews and ratings before actually deciding to go to watch a movie, film criticism should be practiced to a larger extent. But what is important is that it is the duty of the film critic to strike a balance of putting down, in easy to understand language the different aspects of film that an audience can enjoy (emotional and entertainment value mostly). The influence of the Internet revolution has had a huge impact in the creation of the audience for such things. This is so different than a few years back. This has exposed the public to more forms of art (including foreign cinema) and as a consequence, accepting and acknowledging different forms of art. It is within a very short time that information is disseminated across boundaries today.

The advent of features like RSS feeds, the blogging micro blogging sites, has made information more readily available to the audience. The expanse of the Internet onto personal devices like the mobiles and other PDAs, have made information literally available at the fingertips in its truest sense. The success of online forums, the discussion groups has made interacting with another person not being limited to the presence in the physical sense.

It is hoped that with a sincere effort towards film criticism, that one can view the film fraternity to progress and the directors to get an understanding that there is a body out there who seeks to make a judgment on their piece of work based on the essence of medium of the film only.

Bazin A;Gray H; The Ontology of the Photographic Image, Film Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 4. (Summer, 1960), pp. 4-9.
Metz, C; Taylor M; Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema, University of Chicago Press, 1991
Kickasola J, Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski, Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., 2004
Heidegger M, A short Biography,
5. Husserl Edmund in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,


nitesh said…
Wonderful write-up kshitiz. A couple of weeks back, while I was reading the transcript of the Film Criticism in crisis discussion that had taken place at the New York Film Festival. And is a must read for all of u:-

Two quotes seriously stuck on with me that explains the state of affairs of ‘ criticism in india’ I know there is nothing called ‘ film criticism’ here… yet what the journalist or film host/ reviewers usually write.

‘KENT JONES- One could say that there’s a lot of reviewing’

Seuon Jeon Heong

'And all of this is getting worse and worse because the Internet, which is very amorphous, ethereal, and decentralized, exposing the mass audience to the opinions of regular people who are not critics or experts. So the democratic aspect of the Internet in some cases provokes a fascistic effect’

So we all know and see that, there is plenty of reviewing done everywhere in the media and it’s certainly on the rise with the growth of Bollywood. Yet, not one reviewer I think, is worthy of a mention who actually is seeing films in the right manner in print media or who is equipped about the medium.'

One the Internet the websites that are talking about Indian cinema offer more like a Wikipedia sort of information and the site that offer some good article on and off are usually from the older lot of film scholars or critic. Most bloggers are talking about things in the most amateur fashion, usually Bollywood or films they love, and love to talk about them without developing a conscious voice or planning to grown on them. On one hand these people will fight to death for the film they love because they love them, and on the second they want work harder to understand history/tradition or criticism, because it seems to be the easiest profession in the world for most people.

So they would act like a critic while reviewing yet when questioned resort to ignorance and empty rhetoric about the medium and some even go down to abusing.
Whatever be the case, I think, in the next coming year things would be interesting when we try bringing a group of likeminded cinephiles together to grow and learn about cinema and develop as critics.
sushant kaura said…
good article. Got to learn some ways of seeing how a film is seen. For me, being not from a cinema background this is what we hope in coming time from you people to help make things clearer and allow people to understand,and there are many who want to do so. But we just don't have the right people. And we do need them.
Anonymous said…
"Being a critic, for the general masses one has to use the vocabulary that a layman can understand easily, but still get an honest opinion about a movie."

So simply and perfectly put...

And one of teh most difficult things in film reviewing
Anonymous said…
Very well-written article.

Though I do not find random discussions about movies or opinion-sharing exercises, harmful in a general context, it is not to difficult to realise the demerits of the situation, because while one cannot quite fault the enthusiasm with which these discussions are rendered; they are often misplaced and do not seek a logical conclusion as such, but a state of general consensus, which again, in most cases, is reached very fast.

Another thing which I liked about the article is its mention of the approach which makes it essential for a reviewer to identify a film's approach in the context of its popular relevance, and the identification of social symbols, rather than merely identifying the film's effect at an individual level. What such an approach would result in is the establishment of a film as an object placed in a social realm, and will also shred away a few undesirable layers of subjective viewing, and again restore the film art to its original communal state.
Kshitiz Anand said…
Thanks Nitesh.
That is a good discussion there.. and does talk about a lot of things that we also need to think of.

I truly think that while the Internet may haveled to the downfall of the printing press, it has also given a rise to a huge class of skilled people who are not dependent on a publishing body t get noticed.

How we utilize this and take advantage of the situation is going to be extremely crucial if we are going to see a success in the Indian film context.

Sushant glad you liked the article..

Absolutely agree to that point Srikanth. And as people often say, simplicity often happens to be the most difficult thing to achieve.
I had another friend of mine to read this article. While he commended me on the article, he also bought about an interesting point about there being a difference between "commercial critiquing" and "artistic critiquing"

From my understanding, I think commercial critiquing is more on the lines of the general reviews and the artistic critiquing (though I don't think is the right phrase) is something that we (meaning the audience of this website) generally look out for.

Anuj, you have a very nice point there! The point on popular relevance is something that can be fleshed out more in the scenario we all are trying to understand.
HarryTuttle said…
Very interesting article, good job!

I like the subjective/objective dichotomy too.
Opinions are subjective of course, but the facts and criteria of evaluation of the elements of the film should be relatively objective, in order for two people to talk about the same thing and be able to compare their opinions. Film discourse in general should be based on objective observations and the tools of film studies help us to build a common language and a common reference of quality.

There are many approaches that can nurture the content of a film review, on top of semiotics and formalism, we can talk about pictorial symbolism and psychoanalysis, sociology and politics, feminism and gender studies, auteurism, aesthetics, history, deconstruction or philosophy... so it's a shame to restrict the mainstream film discourse to plot points and acting performance.
Kshitiz Anand said…
Thanks Harry.
Glad that you liked article.
It is necessary to understand all the different sides of the argument.
Especially in a place like India, where people do not understand the whole difference between subjectivity and objectivity it becomes imperative to make that distinction first. I hope that the article is able to reach out on that ground.

As rightly mentioned, the discussions should be definitely be objective, as that will give more common ground for the facilitation of a discussion.

It's interesting that you mention Social and Political scenario. Unfortunately, (or fortunately) there does not seem to be a direct reflection of the times that the country is in, and the one that is reflected on the silver screen.

What inspired the different documentary movements in the early parts of the Twentieth Century, in the context of European cinema, played a huge role in the way the society was directly reflected in the movies that we see.

There are a few directors and film makers currently who have tried to reflect this, in terms of understanding the class and the context, but that number is way tiny as compared to the number of movies that roll out every year.

I am hopeful that there will be more people who are able to do justice by giving a more meaningful approach to the cinema and as a result making things like Semantics and Criticism will be more systemic and accepted in the fraternity.

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