Saturday, April 12, 2014

Why Do You Make Movies? (or Film Criticism 101 For Film-makers)

I don't know how it's like everywhere else because I can only speak from experience, but over here, a film fan apparently deserves to be slammed by film-makers for not liking a movie. Of course, this doesn't extend to every Malaysian film-maker out there, but there are quite a few who seem to think that way, and they can be pretty vocal about it too.

But I'm not here to point fingers. I'm just speaking generally. And also, I'd like to ask, "Why do you make movies?"


#1 For money?

If you do, no one can (or should) fault you for this. But if you do it for money and money alone, I gotta say there are easier (and less risky) ways to get rich. Showbiz is tough, often times due to bullshit reasons that I might have talked about a couple of times in the past, and I'm not a huge fan of repeating myself.

#2 For awards?

Before I go on, let's pretend for a minute that the local awards scene doesn't have some bullshit problems of its own, not to mention they're suffering from an issue similar to one boxing is having (i.e. there's too damn much of 'em).

Barring all reasons mentioned above, there is a need for awards, and the hunger for them doesn't make one any less of a film-maker. They can give film-makers a sense of goal and some kind of a mileage for their works, so why not? Just make sure that you don't win one via underhanded means.

#3 For praises?

All right now, film-makers, listen carefully because this is the main reason why I wrote this entry. If you make movies because you're so starved for approval or praises, limit your audience to just your family and friends; because when you make a movie for the mass audience and expect them to pay per viewing, you have to get accustomed to the fact that not everybody will like it. Some might even react harshly towards it.


Of course, they might say that they are very well aware of this. Their problem, it seems, lies with those who take the time to write at length why a movie leaves a bad taste in their mouth. For some reason, there are film-makers who react in such a way, it's as if a critic has taken a dump in their living room and proceed to smear it all over their family photos.

Eight things they often say in response to a bad review, I notice. Now, when I say "reviews", I mean actual reviews with valid and well thought-out comments. I ignore all "reviews" with only a "best/tak best ar citer ni!" followed by an X number of star/score, and so should you.

a. "You've never made a film, what do you know?"

Classic response. If attitude goes through evolution, I say this one might stem from that whole "senior" mentality; where only their peers (and those they deem "worthy") have the right to give them their two cents.

Why it makes no sense: Because what are you saying? That we don't know whether or not we are entertained? Of course we'd know, we're the audience. You can't tell us that we don't know just because we've never made our own feature film.

Get it into your heads that when we criticise a film, we're not telling you that you're bad at your job; we're giving reasons why it didn't work for us, why we're not entertained. It's not always your fault, and (credible) movie reviews are never personal attacks, anyway; so get off your high horse, or at least tell it not to smoke too much weed.

Also, please know that you have the freedom to either agree or disagree with a review, and it's best that you pretend you've never read them. If you're gonna talk like you got class, you might as well act like it.

b. "Have you made a film? A short one, at least?"

Also known as, "You do it, then. If you're so clever," or "If you don't like it, you can go make your own film!"

Why it makes no sense: Again, not telling you that you suck at your job. Sure, often you'd see reviews saying that "the director has no idea what he's doing," or "camerawork is clunky," or "sound design is terrible," etc; but remember we do it as an audience member, not a film-maker.

For instance, if we say that the cinematography is horrible, we're not saying that we (or our nenek) could have done a better job (unless explicitly stated otherwise). We're saying that we, as the audience, feel that something's amiss with what we're watching. Perhaps we feel like we're not watching a movie, for example, 'cause it looks like a cheap TV movie. If you agree, do something about it for your future works. If you don't, again, you're free to ignore it.

Just one last note. When you're a film-maker, of course we expect you to be good at film-making. But if you make mistakes that even us non-film-makers know you shouldn't make, shouldn't that call for some self-reassessment? Challenging the audience to make a film of their own just reeks of insecurity, not to mention that you run the risk of actually challenging a potentially better film-maker.

c. "We worked hard on this movie. What gives you the right to slam it?"

Because everybody knows it's okay to fail at something, as long as you worked hard at it.

Why it makes no sense: It's not our fault you worked hard at it, and you had to brave the sun and the rain. We appreciate it, of course, but you must also appreciate that it comes with the job. It's ridiculous for you to expect people to love your movie solely because you worked hard at it. Imagine having that kind of mentality outside of film-making:

- You dine at a restaurant. The dish you order has too little rice, too much salt and too many cockroach legs. You complain to the chef and he says, "You shouldn't complain, I worked hard at this dish!" Is this acceptable?

- You're in a building when all of a sudden, it collapses and you barely make it out alive. You find out later that it's because somebody had cut corners when it was made. Rightfully so you'd do a little more than complain, only to have them say, "But we worked hard under hellish conditions. Where were you when the building was made?" Is this acceptable?

- You're in a hospital to have a kidney removed. After the surgery, you find out that there have been a mistake and they had taken out the wrong one. You yell at them, but then the surgeon say, "But I spent five hours carefully making sure that you don't bleed to death. It's hard work!" Is this acceptable?

Okay, now you might concede that film-making is not like being a restaurateur, an architect, or a doctor; to which I'd say, "Exactly." What makes you so high and mighty and above reproach?

What you must remember is that nobody's undermining your hard work. It's the end product that we criticise. I hate to break this to you, but that's all people outside the industry cares about because at the end of the day, a movie is a product; and whatever happens in the process of making it - this time unlike the food industry - nobody really cares as long as what they're spending time and money on is entertaining.

People don't care how gruelling is the process. Otherwise even a gaffer can be as famous as a director. Can you name a famous gaffer? I couldn't. You might not even know what a gaffer does. I don't. You know what, forget the gaffer, I can't even name a famous art director; and you bet your ass that's an important job.

d. "Don't you have anything better to do?"

Urm, I guess not. If we have anything better to do, we wouldn't be watching your movie. If only we had known.

What it makes no sense: Jokes aside, watching movies is not simply a way to pass the time for the lot of us. In fact, we love movies so much, we don't simply forget about it after we've seen it. You may not like it, but it's the way things work: some people are just more passionate than others.

Think about it. You feel stung when the seats are empty or when people turn to pirated DVDs. But you're also stung when paying customers are frank about how they feel. So really think about what you're asking here: you want us to make time and spend money on your movie. If we like it, we should spread the word, which isn't a problem. Heck, we're always happy to talk about an entertaining film. But if we don't like it, we should "know our place as non-film-makers" and just shut up?

Sorry, that's never gonna happen because it is too much to ask.

e. "You must have failed at everything else in your life."

Yeap, we failed at using good judgement too, because we went to see your movie.

Why it makes no sense: Has there ever been a more childish response to valid criticism?

f. "Traitor!"

Why it makes no sense: Because not liking a movie is an act of treason? Or perhaps you're saying that making it known we don't like it is an act of treason? Gosh, really? Should I even...?

g. "How do you expect our industry to grow when you keep criticising our films?"

Why it makes no sense: How do you expect it to grow if we don't? Or rather, how do you expect it to grow when you refuse to hear from the very people who watch movies? When it comes to things like this, it's talking about it that will contribute to its growth. Silence (and brownnosing) will only make it stagnant. The sooner you realise that, the better.

Contrary to what you seem to believe, film criticism is not what's killing the film industry. It's half-assed film-making, pervasive censorship, money laundering, surplus of supply, and many others than I care to mention right now.

h. "You're hurting the sales of our movie!"

Why it makes no sense: I'm flattered that you think movie critics have any control over the masses. Their opinion can be influenced by our reviews, sure, but if we can actually manipulate them at will, then every local movie out there should be a box-office hit because the mass media are often either a forgiving lot, or reluctant to give fair and honest reviews, or prone to overpraise so they can remain in the good graces of celebrities.

As for non-mainstream critics like me, we don't have any real power either. Otherwise movies like Kami Histeria [2014], KIL [2013] and Bunohan [2012] would have all been on this list. Furthermore, had I written a review on The Journey prior to its release, you wouldn't think that it'd go on to make RM 17 million.

i. "You can't judge it based on one viewing alone."

Why it makes no sense: Okay, now what are you saying? That a movie deserves no less than two viewings before we can call it? Again, bearing in mind that we are only talking about reviews with valid criticisms; not the kind from those who refuse to meet a movie halfway and then declare, "Eee tak paham la citer ni. Bodohnya. Satu bintang pun aku tak nak bagi."

For movies like Bunohan, I understand why you may want to see it a couple of times because it is so rich with imagery. But seeing a movie more than once should really be up to the audience and not, say, a necessity. Why? Because film critics like me have no pretensions of being an academician of some sort. If you require twice the amount of time and money to say the same thing twice, then what you should re-examine is not necessarily the audience, but perhaps the product.

William Shakespeare once wrote, "Brevity is the soul of wit." It's a really good tip. You have ninety minutes to say what you want to say, to show what you want to show. Make it count.

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So now I ask again, why do you make movies?

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