Essay Question: Is it possible to teach film criticism?

OFCS members answer the question:

“Is it possible to teach film criticism? If so, what’s the most important advice you would impart to students about what to expect from the work?”

Answers after the jump.

Nell Minow, Movie Mom:

It is a good thing for anyone considering film criticism to take some classes. There are skills that can be taught as in any other form of analysis and any other kind of writing, and it is a good way to stretch your skills, acquire some expertise, and get constructive feedback. It’s also a good way to network with other people who are interested in the same field. But the learning that goes into being a film critic extends beyond any classroom. It is perpetual and organic. Anyone interested in being a film critic must develop a deep appreciation and understanding of film by having a good working knowledge of all genres and all theories of film and of the art of criticism.

Marilyn Ferdinand, Ferdy on Films:

I think it is possible to teach film criticism, but as a 300-level course in a broad humanities program. A would-be film critic really needs a grounding in film history and technique, and should have a good liberal arts education to understand how film fits into the larger context of society and culture. And, of course, the critic should be skilled in writing and self-editing. As for my most important advice about criticism, I think I’d tell the students to approach all film (world, experimental, documentary, etc.) not just mainstream film, with their soul to avoid overpraising what’s big and popular and ignoring what is small and minority.

Christopher Null,

Yes it is possible. Read my book, Five Stars! How to Become a Film Critic, The World’s Greatest Job.

Amber Wilkinson, Eye for Film:

Whether you can teach good, creative writing in general is debatable, but you can certainly foster an environment where it is more likely to happen. Stephen King once said: “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.” I couldn’t agree more. I’d say the most important advice is to read as much as you can — and not only film criticism. This is not in order to be slavish to another person’s style or opinion, but to get a feel for cadence that works and approaches that you like. The reading doesn’t stop there, either. Before submitting work, it’s a great idea to read it out loud first. This may sound odd, but by voicing what is on the page, you will more readily spot spoilers, overlong sentences and ill-placed grammar. Finally, don’t forget to read your article after it has been edited. Make a note of what an editor has cut out or altered and try to consider why that has happened. If you can’t see why, and you have a good editor, they will be happy to explain it to you. It is, after all, in everyone’s interest to make your work look good. If you can see why a change has been made, make a note and resolve to avoid falling into similar traps in future.

Kevin A. Ranson,

Like any field, it’s good to have “the basics” introduced to help enable people new to the topic to better articulate an opinion. That said, it isn’t a requirement, either, to have already decided what to form a basis for a film critique upon. While I have not yet taken such a class myself, I would want (as a student) to experience a different approach than my own as to what makes a film work or fail.

Wesley Lovell, Cinema Sight:

You can “teach” the proper techniques and you can “teach” how different directors, actors, producers, etc. approached filmmaking. You can “teach” historical perspectives and other opinions and you can “teach” people how to write. But, in the end, you cannot teach the core basics of film criticism. Experience is the best educator for film criticism. You must learn how you view film, how you interpret film, how you appreciate film. But you must learn it yourself. You can adopt styles or opinions others use, but they won’t be your opinions. Other critics can teach you what they know, but ultimately your view of cinema is your view of cinema and, as a film critic, it is your responsibility to share that through your reviews. Even the biggest names in film criticism don’t agree 100% of the time. If we did, it would be a fairly boring and you’d only ever have to read one person’s thoughts to know what everyone is thinking. Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. They argued reguarly. No one of them loved film more than the other, but they all disagreed frequently on what made great films. And that’s as it should be. Film is an art form and as such, we each should view it through the prism of our own experience. You can “teach” many things, but you cannot “teach” opinion.

Rob Gonsalves, eFilmCritic:

I suppose film criticism is teachable to the extent that any form of writing is teachable; you can explain what to focus on, but if the talent isn’t there, the student will be a bad critic anyway. If the talent is there, all the student needs is some guidance.

My advice to students: first, don’t quit your day job; second, if you’re really passionate about this thing, my class is essentially useless to you and you’re taking it for the easy A, which is fine. As for what you can expect from the work? Expect exactly as much as you put into it. And try to know about something other than movies, because the more knowledge and experience you can bring to a review, the better.

Felix Vasquez, Cinema Crazed:

You can’t teach criticism, it’s just a part of our nature. We’re all critical of everything, it’s just the internet has given everyone a forum to speak their minds and call themselves critics. As for movie critics, I would advise people to go with their gut feelings on movies and just express your honesty. And also, I’d tell them NOT to be a movie critic.

Don Levit, Reel Talk:

I do not feel that one can “teach” film criticism. Like writing itself, it is something one learns by doing.

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