Leave it to the Russians to be so bleak.
“Their smiles are lifeless, even though their movements are full of living energy and are so swift as to be almost imperceptible. Their laughter is soundless although you see the muscles contracting in their grey faces. Before you a life is surging, a life deprived of words and shorn of the living spectrum of colours - the grey, the soundless, the bleak and dismal life.”
That was a quote from one of the earliest film reviews in the history of cinema, by Maxim Gorky, a Russian. Now, it may be true that unbearable climate and a long history of cruel communism can give one a less-than-optimistic viewpoint on art, but Max, as I like to call him, had a valid reason for giving the film in question such an ominous review. The review was for a collection of silent films by the Lumiere brothers, a couple of French cats who were early pioneers in not only the artistic birth of film as a viable medium but also in terms of technological advancements. They were basically the Wachowski brothers of the 1800s.
What’s important about Max's film review is that not only was it ahead of it's time, but its also an excellent example of how useless a film review can be. Let me explain.
Published in 1896, it would be years before the cinema would be taken seriously as an art form worthy of critical merit; in this regard Max was ahead of his time. But when it's read today, the review itself , although seeming like a "downer", is historically important, not to mention revolutionary, because at the time it was written, film was a new art form and it's full potential had not even begun to be realized. In its day, this critique accomplished what many film reviews have accomplished since ... the delivery of one person's opinion. An opinion that may have been too limited to go beyond the scope of Max's possibly vodka-influenced mind.
See, when I read this review, I not only respect it for what it is, but I'm also reminded of how much I value movie reviews ... and it's not very much. Reviewing film can be as useful as asking someone what their favorite type of weather is; you're going to run the gamut of answers. On average, I'm willing to wager that most people will claim to enjoy bright, sunny days, and detest, grey, rainy days. Those people are entitled to that opinion; I on the other hand really, really enjoy the grey, rainy days just as much as the bright sunny ones. It really is up to the person how the world around them is perceived.
So with this is mind, think about film and movie reviews. How much weight can you put on the value of one person's opinion about something as objective as film, or any other art form for that matter. I do believe that films can be broken down and it's various components dissected(cinematography, editing, writing, directing, etc.), but to give a film as a whole a thumbs up or a thumbs down seems like calling a baby cute versus ugly; it's all in the beholder. There are plenty of films that I cherish, even despite their poor critiques from critics. And on the flip side, I've loathed plenty of films that are beloved by many. Crash, Gladiator and Ironman come to mind. But again, its all in the beholder.
Now I won't mislead you; I read film reviews on a regular basis, however I read them like I would hope most people would...with a grain of salt. Just because I read a negative review, it doesn't mean I won't enjoy the film. And to me, that’s the beauty of the cinema; what one man loves another can hate, but both men can fully appreciate the experience of watching a film. This experience is exactly what ol' Max tapped into all those years ago in Russia (was it even called Russia back then? I don't know, I studied film in college, for God's sake); the experience of watching a film and recognizing it's ability to touch the human soul. In this way, I think a new "type" of film review can be born, a review not merely about a film's worth but rather an examination on it's impact on the person, on society and the world in general, whether that impact be good or bad.
During the course of this blog, I will be writing various types of film reviews in an attempt to create this next evolutionary step in the subtle art of critiquing film. Now whether or not I succeed in this, will be up for debate. And I know what your thinking, "He just said, how much worth is there in film reviews" and I still stand behind that posed question, but keep in mind, if Max can be a revolutionary ... maybe we can too. Take that, red communism!
Be on the look out for my first film review. It's coming soon. In the meantime, here is a miniature film review from my good friend Robert Leal on the 2009 Best Picture "The Hurt Locker."
"Don't See it!" - Robert Leal, modern day Max Gorky