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Film Reviewing and Film Criticism

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, for some key film criticism and theory books as selected by a group of panelists for the British film journal Sight and Sound.

They’re not the same thing. Film reviews are served up by daily critics, who no matter how knowledgeable they are, are writing for a day-by-day audience, who want a plot outline, a brief overview, and then some opinion on the film at hand, advising readers whether to see the film or not.

Film criticism and theory, in contrast, “unpacks” a film to see what makes it tick, and uses various theoretical approaches, such as feminist film theory, or auteurism, or structural film theory, or numerous other approaches — far too many to list here — to take the film apart in detail, and see how it works.

Film reviews are mainly an opinion pieces, but film criticism proceeds from a large base of historical, critical and theoretical information, and offers a detailed understanding of the director’s history, past projects, the history and practice of the genre in question (if it’s a genre film), of others working in the field, possible precedents for the film, shot structure, editing, choreography, lighting, acting styles, camera movement, framing, deep focus, costumes, and whatever else might apply; it deconstructs the film in detail.

So there’s a world of difference here, and it seems to me that sometimes people get the distinction blurred; anyone can have an opinion, and give you a thumbnail review of a film, or a book, or anything else; but it’s just their point of view.

In order to really understand a work of art (or even a commercial film, or perhaps I should say, especially a commercial film – they really need careful discussion), you need to really examine it, in an absolutely detailed fashion, and have the background in history, theory and criticism to really understand what’s going on. That’s the beginning of film criticism, and the beginning of a real understanding of the film (digital or otherwise) medium.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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