FOAMing at the Mouth: What Makes a Review?
Posted by martinteller on April 10, 2012
As I laboriously copy over all the old reviews over from my previous website, I cringe at how barren most of them are. Never mind that some of them include pretty dumb remarks, what’s most striking is their brevity. I’m not the type of person to ramble on and on about a movie, but I do make some effort nowadays to make them a little meatier. 2-4 paragraphs is the length I’m now comfortable with. Most of these old ones are barely 2-4 sentences… and some add up to fewer than 30 words.
In thinking about what goes or can go into a review, I’ve come up with a way of breaking it down into four categories of content. And to use a snazzy acronym: FOAM
Fact – What do I know?
My old reviews don’t have much in the way of facts. Plot summaries, cast biographies, running times, production trivia, historical background. My feeling was always, “If they can look it up on IMDb or Wikipedia, why do they need me to tell them?” I still hold on to that feeling a bit, but now I’m more likely to include some data in there. It might be something that provides an illuminating bit of context, or just some interesting trivia. And if it’s a movie that isn’t well-known, it’s nice for the reader to have a basic idea of what the movie’s about without having to click on the IMDb link.
However, I hope I never turn into the guy whose review is 90% facts. I don’t like a review that spends four paragraphs to describe the plot of the film. If that’s your style, well then I guess that works for you. I find it to be unnecessary padding.
Opinion – What do I feel?
This is what makes up the vast majority of my old reviews, and is still very prominent in the new ones. Opinions are easy to write. What do I like, what do I dislike. That’s not very interesting stuff. Everyone likes different things, why should you care what I like or dislike? It’s better if you can elaborate on it, and that’s something I’ve been working on. If I can tell you why I feel the way I do, or be specific about what I like/dislike, that gives the reader something to work with. You can either make a better decision about whether you want to watch the film, or if you’ve already seen it, you can engage me in the comments (Hey guys, did you know you can leave comments? Anyone? Anyone?).
The important thing is elaboration. Sometimes I fall into traps like “dull” or “funny” or “interesting” without expanding on what makes those adjectives appropriate. I’m working on it. Sometimes you don’t have time to write much, or you don’t feel like it, so you spill out some opinions and hope they speak for themselves.
Analysis – What do I think?
I envy those who can do a really in-depth analysis, I truly do. I respect those who can really pick apart a film and find things I never considered, tie it into ideas that aren’t readily apparent, understand symbols and metaphors. I know there’s something inherently narcissistic and arrogant about writing a blog, but the truth is I don’t consider myself a very smart fellow. Once in a while I can look at a film and have some kind of insightful observation, but it’s rare. At best, my readings are very surface. And the funny thing is, I love movies that have obscure, difficult to read meanings. Maybe because then I feel no obligation to expound upon them. I can just say “There are so many layers of meaning!” and leave it at that. Bad! Bad lazy reviewer, bad!
But maybe the problem is more one of articulation. I have a sense of what these films mean to me, but have trouble putting it into words. Or I fear being called out on a particularly inept reading. But my confidence as a reviewer (and more importantly, a consumer of film) is slowly growing. I need to work on getting my thoughts straightened out and into coherent sentences, and that probably means spending more time writing my reviews. To be honest, I’m not sure I’m up to the task, and I’m not entirely sure it’s a thing I want to spend a whole lot of effort on. Analysis can be interesting, but it can also be very dry and come off as pompous. Food for thought, anyway.
Meta – What do I be?
This category is for those parts of a review that comment on the reviewer him/herself. How many times have I seen the movie before? What were my preconceptions going into it? What mood was I in? Where and how did I watch it? What did I eat for breakfast? These personal touches can add a lot to a review, even when they say little about the film itself.
When I think of meta-heavy reviews, I think of Jessica over at The Velvet Café. Jessica has earned a devoted following by adding so much of herself to her reviews. In reading her work, we get to know her as much (or even more) than we get to know the movies she writes about. And in understanding the reviewer, we better understand the movie through the reviewer’s eyes. We may not agree, but we get insight nonetheless. I enjoy putting these tidbits about myself into my writing, although often I succumb to feelings of “No one cares about you, stupid, just write about the film.”
So what about you? What do you enjoy reading in a review? Maybe all you want is an opinion and a score, or maybe you’re a “Just the facts, ma’am” reader, or maybe you like a little bit of everything. In a veritable ocean of movie review blogs, there are all kinds of writers and all kinds of readers… just as there are all kinds of films and all kinds of opinions about each one.