By Trai Cartwright
Part 5 of a 6-part monthly series
For the past few years, I decided I wanted to get better at reviewing the medium I watched. It’s a weird goal, but one I realized was essential because every writer gives this edict to would-be writers: read.
I read, you read, we all read. So what?
What those great writers mean is that, read closely. Read smartly. Read with writer’s eyes or we’ll miss one of the best educations out there. Reading with better eyes helps us steal the secrets of a fine piece of storytelling for ourselves.
Here’s how I learned to be a deeper thinker about the stories I watch and read.
1. Reading The Critics
When I was 20, I had a job that involved quite a bit of downtime, and there was a copy of Roger Ebert’s A-Z collection of movie reviews. I read all 2,000 onionskin pages of it (there was a lot of downtime). This immersion into cinema studies taught me more about how to understand movies than film school or all my years in Hollywood ever did. Roger Ebert was a genius, a passionate lover of film, and a beautiful writer.
The best critics verbalize exactly what you were feeling or thinking, but with pithier, more organized language. They deal in abstracts but can cut right to the heart of things—namely, theme things. They tell you what the film’s trying to do, if it did it, and what it all means in the end.
The only downside is, well, sometimes by relying on their hallowed opinions, we look at the film through their eyes and forget to look with our own.
2. The Academic Approach
This is new to me, as I had to learn it to teach Film Studies at a university, but it’s proven invaluable.
The Academy tends to not want to indulge of the banality of the combative, hyperbolic language of mainstream thumbs-up, thumbs-down reviews, so it sticks to “filters” through which a piece of media can be deconstructed. Those filters include Aesthetics, Economics, Technology, and Social History. I include Talent.
These filters can empower our writing because it reminds us that we do not write in a vacuum; there is a whole world with a long comet’s tail of tradition and trends that will influence the reach of our work.
However, the Academic approach makes engaging in media a bloodless event, as it can turn your favorite book or film from a vital living conversation and into an artifact for study.
3. Breaking Down The Craft
The driest, most bloodless approach of all, but so important. My film students are delving into the language of cinematography, weighing the lasting contributions the original Russian editors and the American ones, slowly mastering the art of deconstructing structure. “Why was it good?” I ask them, and the response tends to be something like, “The story hits all its beats, it had classic Eisensteinian montages, and the Dutch angles really informed the mise en scene.”
Yes, those are all reasons why the movie was great. But was it a satisfying answer? Did it address that elusive thing, the soul, the passion, the je ne sais quoi that transforms a film from well-made to a miracle.
Take, for example, the film Gravity.
Audiences can’t seem to separate the thrill ride from the technology extravaganza. Was it great because of the never-before-seen-tech, which was crucial to tell this story, or was it great because Sandy convinced us we were stuck out there with her, rapidly ratcheting through our limited options, knowing that if we didn’t figure it out (or get spectacularly lucky), there was no dues ex machina coming to our rescue. Was the magic in just knowing that, out in this dire void so convincingly wrought, we were hopeless and helpless, without scientific knowledge or even jimmy-rigged pop culture education that would let us reason our own way out of this, thus we had no choice but to let go and give in to the movie?
Dunno. Sometimes these questions have no answer, but pondering them is part of being a writer. Being aware of what’s beyond our ability to deconstruct reminds us of the potential all storytelling has to connect with our soul.
Understanding the craft and technique that went into the making of work is vital—these were choices the writer made, and understanding those choices is the key to being able to make those kinds of choices for yourself.
Like many of you, I’m making my New Year’s Resolution to look with better eyes. And steal every trick I can find.
Trai Cartwright, MFA, is a 20-year entertainment industry veteran and creative writing specialist. While in Los Angeles, she was a development executive for HBO, Paramount Pictures, and 20th Century Fox. A new Denver arrival, Trai currently teaches creative writing, film studies and screenwriting for Colorado universities, MFA residencies, writers groups, conferences, and one-on-one as an editor for fiction and screenplays. Learn more about Trai and her work at her website.