Talking About Writing

A few months ago I was honoured to have received an invitation from Alex Kosoris of the Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop (NOWW) to participate on a panel discussing the writing of reviews at one of their workshops. The workshop, entitled “Critical Conversations”, happened on Friday, April 21st and was moderated by Kosoris, and featured Melissa Gaudette, Michael Sobota and myself.

Let me tell you that the experience was a ton of fun, but more importantly it was equal parts humbling and enlightening.

Melissa writes about and reviews music for The Walleye, as well as The Tribune 242 out of Nassau, Bahamas. Michael writes about books, the symphony and film for the Chronicle Journal and The Walleye. As some of you may already know, I write about movies for the Chronicle Journal.

It was amazing how similarly the three of us approach our review writing, yet it was equally surprising how each of us brought a unique voice and approach to art of writing reviews. The two hour block of time we were allotted at CommuniTea and Coffee was nowhere near enough time to have the discussion that I know the three of us were on our way to having.

Along with Alex’s questions, there were a few great questions from the audience as well. It is very clear to me that there is a real appetite for arts and culture in this city, and to paraphrase Michael, it is our duty as reviewers to help identify creative gems and lead the discussion about art and culture.

I was floored when Michael spoke some very nice things about me and my work as a writer, and I am extremely grateful for those words of support. Michael is a good man and an incredible talent and receiving any sort of praise or recognition from him was humbling and an honour. Thank you Michael.

Melissa was super cool. During the short break, we talked music, specifically metal, and I feel as though that discussion could have lasted a few hours on its own!

There are a few things that I will take away from this workshop that will help me further refine my writing. Melissa really opened my eyes to having a defined structure and process with which to follow when approaching the writing of a review. She also stressed the importance of proper spelling and grammar, as well as the expansion of one’s vocabulary. This is something I strive for and will continue to try and accomplish in all of my work.

Michael spoke about writing reviews as a primarily subjective exercise; I have always struggled with trying to balance objectivity and subjectivity in my writing. After hearing Michael speak, however, I have realized that I should “trust my gut” a bit more and own my personal subjective opinion a bit more in my writing.

What I tried to leave with the workshop participants boils down to essentially these points:

  • Know you’re audience. Know who you are writing for and why you are writing for them.
  • Know your subject. Try to understand the cultural importance or purpose for existence of a work before writing about it.
  • Balance subjectivity with objectivity. Not to contradict my prior comment about what Michael was saying, but what I mean here is that you must ALWAYS have an INFORMED opinion.
  • Know the difference between “Best” and “Favourite”. These are two very different things, and semantics matter when discussion a FAVOURITE film, for example, versus what one may consider the BEST film.

I would like to once again thank my fellow panelists for enlightening me and entertaining this fantastic discussion. I would also like to thank Alex and NOWW for hosting the event and for including me.

If you are interested in learning more about NOWW or becoming a member, visit their website.

Find Michael’s  and Mellisa’s work in The Walleye.

The Balance of the Force

Today, Disney and Lucasfilm released the first trailer for Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (along with this wicked poster). We finally got to hear the first words spoken by Luke Skywalker since 1983’s Return of the Jedi: “Breathe. Just breathe. Now, reach out. What do you see?”

Rey replies: “Light. Darkness. The Balance.”  
The Balance. Hmmmm….. 
We then hear Luke say: “It’s so much bigger.”

After a montage of amazing footage, we are then treated to one last line of dialogue from Luke: “I only know one truth: it’s time for the Jedi…to end.” 

This line adds some more intrigue to the already ominous title of the film, but does nothing to help clear up who the Last Jedi are. But it might shed some light onto Luke’s journey as a character. 

Let’s go back to The Phantom Menace. Yes, yes I know, but try to stop shitting all over for the Prequels long enough to hear me out (after all, whether we like it or not, they ARE canon). In Episode I, it is explained that there is a Jedi prophecy of one who will bring Balance to the Force. One who was born of the Force. (At one point, the rumoured title of Episode I was even The Balance of the Force.) We are introduced to a young Anakin Skywalker, who had no father, who’s mother claimed was conceived by the Force. He was trained as a Jedi at the insistence of Qui-Gon Jinn, much to the disapproval of the majority of the Jedi Council. 

When Anakin turned to the Dark Side, it was thought that all hope was lost. By becoming Darth Vader, Anakin actually swung the majority of the power of the Force to the Dark Side. 

Ultimately, Anakin did redeem himself. He did this in three ways: 

  • By refusing to turn his son to the Dark Side;
  • By destroying the Emperor; and
  • By turning back to the Light side, renouncing Darth Vader and becoming Anakin Skywalker once again. 

But did he actually fulfill the Prophecy? Did Anakin bring Balance to the Fore? 

I always thought so. Luke may have been the hero of the Original Trilogy, but the saga has always been about the rise, fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker. Luke was the catalyst that ultimately allowed Anakin to redeem himself. 

But maybe Anakin brought Balance to the Force not by destroying the Emperor; maybe he brought Balance to the Force by fathering Luke and Leia? 

Maybe Luke (and Leia, we know very little about Leia’s Force abilities) is/are the key to bringing Balance to the Force. Maybe the Jedi must end because the unending cycle of shifting power between the Jedi and the Sith is in actuality what’s throwing the Force off-Balance. Maybe after all those years in exile on that island, Luke has transcended both the Light and the Dark and has truly found Balance. A Balance that is “so much bigger” than the trivialities of the Light versus the Dark. Maybe he even had help from his father, much like how he had help from Obi-Wan.

The poster shows the Skywalker lightsaber, wielded by Rey, turning from blue to red (mirroring the constant struggle between the Light Side and Dark Side that has plagued the Skywalkers). Does this mean Rey will be plagued by a similar struggle? We know Ben Solo (Kylo Ren) has Skywalker blood in him (his mother is Leia) and literally expresses his concern about feeling “the call to the light”. We don’t know who Rey is but the Skywalker lightsaber “calls to her” as Maz explained in The Force Awakens. This struggle between Light and Dark may be why Luke feels the Jedi need to end. Maybe he is trying to spare his daughter from the struggle that consumed his father and nephew and almost consumed him? 

I think maybe Luke has (or is going to) continue his father’s quest to TRULY bring Balance to the Force, and where he failed with Ben, he will try and ensure he doesn’t with Rey. I highly doubt Luke has turned to the Dark Side. 

All of this being said, maybe I’m looking into this way too much, and the filmmakers simply edited together a great trailer to pique our interest. Well, consider my interest piqued. December can’t come soon enough…. 

Movie Reviewer Confidential: Director’s Cut

I was invited by the Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop (NOWW) to participate as a panelist at their “Critical Conversations” event on April 21st. They asked me to contribute something for their blog. I did, but it was too long. The following is the unedited “Director’s Cut” version of my contribution:

I have been asked on numerous occasions “what makes you so special that you get to write about movies in the newspaper?” It’s a fair question, to be honest. The truthful answer is that I was perseverant in convincing the editors at the Chronicle Journal that they needed a local perspective on new release movies, as opposed to (or at least in addition to) the professional (yet often pretentious and patronizing) reviews they publish.

I would regularly post long, rambling rants about movies on Facebook, and a few people commented that they enjoyed reading my take on film, and have I considered writing professionally about movies, etc. My cousin Mark was the one that reached out to me and told me that I should pursue it. And, taking his advice, I made it happen. Thanks Mark!
I sent a few emails back and forth with the CJ for a while. It eventually led to them asking me for a sample of my writing, then a sample of something about a current film, then a sample of something that was only 400 words in length. After hearing nothing for a while, I randomly got an email from the CJ in October of 2010 asking for a review of a recent film, and they needed it ASAP! 

Elated, I giddily checked the new releases and saw that the first film I would get to write about was Saw VII. That was a fun review to write. The CJ was impressed enough with my writing abilities that they offered me the opportunity to contribute a weekly movie review, which I am eternally grateful for, and have been providing to the CJ ever since. 

I understand, however, that what people mean when they ask me why I get to write about movies for the local newspaper, they aren’t asking me how I got the gig, they are really asking me why I get to. I was told by someone “so you like movies, big deal! Hey, I like food, maybe I should write for the paper about food! What makes you so special that you get to write about movies?” 

OK, fair enough. First of all, I present a disclaimer: I do not consider myself a “Film Critic”. That is a title reserved for the likes of Richard Crouse, Leonard Maltin and the late Roger Ebert. I consider myself a “movie reviewer”. Whats the difference, you ask? A critic, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary is “a person who judges the merits of literary or artistic works, especially one who does so professionally.” Sure, I suppose by definition I judge the merits of artistic works professionally, but I consider myself a film enthusiast, and not a film historian. I am not approaching my reviews with the intent of academic criticism. I am not a film scholar, and while I may touch on various aspects of film theory or the technical aspects of filmmaking in some of my reviews, I am primarily informed through my enthusiasm for and self-taught knowledge of film. My reasoning for judging the merits of film is not to have my little articles join the annals of film criticism history. Instead, I am reviewing films to try and inform the average movie-goer about what’s new, what they might like, and what they may want to stay away from, from the perspective of an average filmgoer. 

But I do bring something to the table beyond what the average movie-goer does, and that is my ability to write about art, and my ability to separate subjectivity and objectivity. These two skills come from four years of studying art, art theory and art criticism, and writing about art. I admit that a 400 word limit is not nearly enough to truly present a formal critical analysis of a film in a manner anywhere near similar to how I would have written about art during my studies, but the basics are still there. 

I try to present my views on a particular film in a way that is understandable by my readers and relates to their perspective. I recognize that a fair portion of the movie-going public primarily cares about who’s in the movie, what’s the story, does it have a connection to a pre-existing franchise that they enjoy, and maybe who directed it. I also recognize that the general movie-going public will also appreciate awesome special effects and beautiful cinematography in addition to a good story and great acting, but might not realize that they may also be interested in knowing who shot the film or how the special effects were created, etc. I see it as my job to present interesting information about a film and how it was made, in addition to my own informed opinion, all while juggling the 400 word limit that I often exceed. 

Opinion is the most subjective part of a review, of course. My taste in film may differ greatly from yours, but I always try and base my opinion from an informed place. One of my greatest pet peeves is when someone proclaims that something “sucks” or is “the best ever”. You may prefer one thing more than something else; that is an opinion. It get’s tricky when subjectivity and objectivity begin to dance together. For example, a guilty pleasure of mine is the Transformers franchise. I could technically proclaim that Transformers: Age of Extinction sucks, and then back that up as a statement of fact by pointing out the shoddy directing, poor dialogue, lazy script, bloated plot and many more cringe-worthy aspects of the film. However, I enjoyed it. It was fun to watch. It had cool effects, it was action-packed and featured childhood characters that brought me a sense of nostalgia that made me happy. In spite of the fact that I enjoyed the film, I would never proclaim it as the best movie ever the way my 9-year-old self might have. 

Alternatively, if I were to proclaim that The Godfather sucks simply because it was long, didn’t hold my attention and wasn’t something that I particularly enjoyed watching, I would look like a fool. Objectively, The Godfather is one of (if not the) greatest films of all-time. (Oh and for the record, I LOVE The Godfather). 

One of the things I also try to do when presenting a review of a film to my readers is to know what type of movie I am reviewing. In my opinion, there is no way that there can be a single linear list of movies ranging from best to worst. I personally have two lists: a list of my FAVOURITE movies of all time, and a list of what I think are the BEST movies of all time. Some titles may appear on both lists, but for the most part each list is comprised of different titles. The trick, from a reviewer’s perspective, is to write a review that discusses the film from the context in which it was created and exists. I would never approach a review of The Godfather, Black Swan, The King’s Speech or Moonlight the same way that I would approach a review of The Avengers, Transformers or Smurfs 2. 

While I consider film to be an art form, films are created for many different reasons, the same way other art forms are utilized to create art for different reasons. Sometimes a film is a movie, a big-budget product meant to appeal to the masses in an effort to make the most money; other times, a film is a work of art, difficult to watch and not as easily accessible by people who aren’t interested in those types of movies. I respect both types of film, which I think is important. It’s so easy to dismiss movies that are created as entertainments simply because they lack the artistic merits or integrity of a movie that is being created to function solely as art. I get very excited when those rare films come along that are comprised of both worlds. Movies that have mass appeal but also exude artistry and challenge viewers, all while receiving both critical and box office success. 

There are so many more things I can ramble on about, but I will end here. What I want to leave you with is a piece of advice. Go into the theatres with an open mind. Open yourself up to new film-going experiences. If you are someone that scoffs at the idea of watching a lowly, lowly comic book movie, give one a try! If you only ever watch the bubblegum popcorn flicks, try watching a film that you’ve never heard of! You will be surprised to discover that there are many gateways and connections between the various genres. Yes there is a lot of crap out there, but it’s so exciting to find the really great films hidden amongst the dungheaps.