The reading of film articles can be both a great pleasure and an educational experience.
With the wealth of film writing available at the touch of a key, it should be pointed out that there are a number of current trends in film article writing that are lowering the overall bar in terms of quality.
Every film writer has his or her own individual style and approach and this article is not a curmudgeonly attempt to stifle anyone’s efforts, but rather an attempt to call out some bad habits.
Here’s a look at six currently widespread counterproductive film writing trends that need to stop. The following is in no order.
1. Underdeveloped lists
This is a simple one. Whether it’s an article on best films in a particular genre or a list of casting suggestions, three or four selections is not enough. “Always leave them wanting more” is a maxim that should not be applied to film writing.
Five should be the minimum number of entries for any film article. That’s a solid number that’s easy to grasp for the reader and any less leaves the article feeling unfinished.
Attention all film writers: You’ve done the research and come up with three or four choices for your article and have written about each. Can’t come up with that 4th or 5th entry? Yes, you can.
2. Use of the phrases “…you’ve never seen” and “…you’ve never heard of” in film article titles
Regular readers of film articles in print magazines and on the Internet are nothing short of bombarded with these very popular phrases and others like them in article titles like:
“The 50 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen,” “The Greatest Horror Movies You Haven’t Seen,” “5 Hugely Influential Films You’ve Never Heard Of,” and the list goes on and on.
The less potentially alienating or insulting approach is the one that is currently more rarely used, employing phrases such as “…you need to see” or “…you must see” to get the readers excited and started off on a more positive note.
A recent article on a truly great website that specializes in international film featured a “…you’ve never…” in the title that the clearly very knowledgeable author apologized for in the comments section after some readers expressed they felt insulted by the title in light of the fact that several of the films mentioned in the article had been repeatedly referred to on that same website in the past.
Wouldn’t it have been easier to simply go with another title in the first place?
In too many cases, film writers seeking to present themselves as authorities on a given subject shoot themselves in the foot right out of the gate with presumptuous, arrogant article titles like the ones listed above.
3. Use of the phrase torture porn in horror film writing
Note. I touched on this topic in my two-part article “The 2000s: A Vital Decade in Horror Cinema” (Part One and Part Two) on this website and make some of the same points here.
A disturbingly high number of horror film writers use the phrase torture porn when discussing films like Eli Roth’s Hostel and Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs. Rue Morgue Magazine even used the phrase on the cover of their issue #87 in reference to Laugier’s film.
This still trendy phrase is one of the most misused and misguided in the horror film writing world and its ubiquitous presence in that arena would stop if the writers using the phrase were aware of the following two facts:
First, the phrase “torture porn” was first used by David Edelstein in a January 28, 2006 New York Magazine article that clearly intended to condemn the films it discussed. How horror film writers with real passion or claims of real passion for the genre continue to make the widespread, casual use of this phrase fashionable is very puzzling to say the least.
Second, there is actual torture pornography that features real, unsimulated torture and actual pornography. For highly detailed information on this unsettling field and the best condemnation you will ever read of the phrase torture porn, read the May 13, 2009 article by the late film writer/filmmaker Andy Copp in his blog EXPLOITATION NATION 2.
Bottom line: using the phrase torture porn to describe any film that’s not actual torture pornography is like calling a door a car. It’s highly inaccurate at best and thoughtless, incredibly lazy and deeply embarrassing at worst.
If a horror film writer doesn’t like a particular film, don’t readers want to read why the film doesn’t work instead of reading a grossly inaccurate label?
4. Conventional, unchallenging casting articles
Articles about casting suggestions are very popular and some are actually creative and thought-provoking. Others, alas, are not.
I recently read an article on a major film website about casting suggestions for the role of Lex Luthor in an upcoming DC Comics-based film.
The article listed five choices: Mark Strong, Jon Hamm, Bryan Cranston, Bradley Cooper, and Jude Law.
Strong is already a reported candidate and was so at the time of the article, Cranston is also a solid choice, and Law is an unexpected wild card entry many would disagree with, but adding Hamm and Cooper seems really off-base.
It’s as if the writer quickly ran out of truly interesting choices and stuck in two currently popular actors whose names get mentioned as being in the running for almost every major Hollywood male role.
Hamm and Cooper are not thought-out choices and their inclusion makes the entire article seem lazy.
A Lex Luthor casting article naming Roger Bart, Andre Braugher, Clancy Brown, Louis Ferrara, Jeff Goldblum, Garrett Hedlund, Matthew Macfadyen, Viggo Mortensen and J.K. Simmons as superb candidates, for example, would make for a much more compelling and challenging article on the subject.
5. Misuse of the phrase thriller when discussing film genres
This is a very widespread and highly problematic trend. In Charles Derry’s landmark book The Suspense Thriller: Films in the Shadow of Alfred Hitchcock, he starts off by stating that thriller is the most ill-defined term in genre cinema and he’s absolutely correct.
In his book, Derry does what no film writer before him had done and defines the genre by identifying and discussing at length the various subgenres of the suspense thriller including The Political Thriller, The Thriller of Moral Confrontation, The Innocent on the Run Thriller, The Thriller of Acquired Identity, and so on.
For a crystal-clear example of how carelessly the phrase thriller is thrown around in the world of cinema, one needs to look no further than the American Film Institute’s unfocused 2001 debacle 100 Years…100 Thrills.
What was announced as a list of the great thriller films was a disastrously confusing assembly of films from many genres that included Planet of the Apes, The Wild Bunch, Alien, The Shining, and Platoon.
The members of the American Film Institute need to read Derry’s book and learn the suspense thriller subgenres as do all film writers who employ the phrase thriller as most of them do so inaccurately.
A recent example would be a news piece on a major horror film website describing an upcoming film as an “alien invasion thriller.” Sorry, no such thing. What’s being described is a science fiction-based horror film.
That is not to say that all films exist only in one genre. For instance, films like Joe Carnahan’s The Grey and Adam Green’s Frozen are Suspense Thrillers of Place as well as Revolt of Nature horror films, and Michael Mann’s Manhunter and David Fincher’s Seven are Suspense Thrillers of Moral Confrontation as well as Psychopath horror films.
6. Assumed cinematic canon
Not everyone thinks Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Quentin Tarantino are geniuses. Primarly because they aren’t, but that’s a subject for a separate article.
The Star Wars series, the Indiana Jones films, Pulp Fiction, and a number of other commonly cited famous films may be life-altering cinematic experiences for some but a high number of film writers too often assume this is the case for everyone.
Film writing on all levels–from the casual to the academic–is a game of opinion and this entry is not intended to suggest that film writers keep their opinions to themselves or, obviously, there would be no film writing.
However, too many readers are subjected to highly uncritical adoration for certain routinely overpraised films and filmmakers.
Individual taste drives someone’s love of film and some readers might think that Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain and Saul Bass’ Phase IV–definitively adult science fiction films of the 1970s–are vastly superior to the Disney-influenced Star Wars series.
— Terek Puckett