Spectrum Check

When I was first added to the Spectrum Culture roster, it was strictly as a film writer. Certainly, I still think that’s the strongest writing I do–much as I strive to develop my word-slinging in other areas–and that’s reflected in the array of pieces that I think represent some of the best work I did for the site.

Some of the best pieces I wrote were reviews of documentaries. This is in certainly in part due to the simple fact that the best examples of the form were more available to me as a geographically remote film critic (it was fair easier to get screeners of first-rate documentaries than fiction films of roughly equivelent quality). I also found that the factual-basis (presumably, hopefully) of the films gave me another angle to work when constructing the reviews. Specifically, I could add a little outside research or even toss around my own informed opinion on the subject. For example, I was thrilled to let my view of Sam Zell, destroyer of the Chicago Tribune, add a little fire to my take on Page One: Inside the New York Times. In general, I think the review is one of my better ones because I have a passion for (and background in) the subject of the film.

I can’t necessarily claim similar authority about How to Survive a Plague, David France’s documentary about the AIDS epidemic and the ACT UP protest movement, but I was still motivated to put in a little added perspective and analysis on the excessively dismal job President Ronald Reagan did in responding to the crisis. I didn’t have a front row to history, but I had a pretty good view from the seats towards the back. The film was revelatory for me in a lot of ways, and melding my own sense of the history with that newfound information undoubtedly strengthened the review. My own political passions and perspectives are similarly all over the reviews I wrote for The Invisible War (about sexual assault in the military) and After Tiller (about the few remaining physicians who haven’t caved to bullying, indeed murderous pressure and still provide third trimester abortions, a constitutionally-protected medical procedure).

Though it happened less often than on the music side (more on that writing next week), I sometimes deliberately sought out works that I knew were going to be a particular challenge for me. My background as a viewer falls squarely within the form of conventional narrative, making experimental cinema–even that which can’t exactly be called wildly revolutionary and challenging–a bit of a stretch for me. Accordingly, I think my writing about such films often picked up some of the flavor of the subject being scrutinized, whether the poetic General Orders No. 9, the philosophically wandering Robinson in Ruins, or the starkly observational Abendland. Though they’re all interesting works, I’m not likely to revisit any of them. But I’m glad they tested me.

As for fiction films, I spend a lot of time writing about mid-range, artistically-challenged indie features. I was occasionally gifted with a true winner, and tried to make sure the quality of my review–in the writing as well as the analysis–was worthy of the material. I worked especially hard on my review of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, for example. I was also fairly proud of my piece on Bertrand Bonello’s House of Pleasures, which helps lessen the mild embarrassment of briefly having a reputation of someone who actively sought out films about French prostitution to review for the site. (I also reviewed a lousy film called Elles and tried to review Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty, which was by an Australian director, but felt very French.)

Finally, I should note that there was a household trade-off for all the time I turned over to Spectrum Culture for watching, listening, reading, writing and editing. I promised that I would actively seek out promising horror films when they were up for grabs among the reviewers. I can’t claim that those choices led to prime examples of my writing, but there were a couple occasions, for very different reasons, that I was pleased with the finished product I delivered. In some ways, my review of The Innkeepers was as much a survey as to what I loved about director Ti West’s earlier The House of the Devil, but I still think I effectively communicated why I think he’s an important filmmaker to watch. And then there’s The ABCs of Death, a film I didn’t like as a whole. Among the new movie reviews I wrote for the site, this is probably my favorite, if only because I tickled myself with the somewhat stealthy way I appropriated the film’s gimmick. And it was tough to get it written. It’s not easy to figure out how to start the third-to-last sentence in a full-length review with the letter X, I promise you that.

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