Reaction vs Reflection: On the Immediacy of Festival Reviews

September 8, 2010

Danny Boyle & James Franco in Telluride

My travel partner and friend Peter Sciretta and I have been involved in a very interesting discussion over this weekend about a side of the business that we don't often talk about. At an event at the Telluride Film Festival, filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, who brought his film Black Swan straight from Venice, told us not to review it immediately after seeing it, to let it soak in and give it some time before we rush to our laptops to preach the good word. But of course we couldn't wait, not only because it was an incredible film and we wanted to tell the world how great it is, but there's an inherent need to get the word out as soon as possible.

Peter wrote an article called The Problem With Reviewing Films at a Film Festival today addressing this interesting issue (which may seem trivial, but is actually important) and he quotes me and specifically references our discussion on Danny Boyle's 127 Hours from Telluride. He actually accurately describes my shift in opinion about the movie and he's dead on with the problem of how it's nearly impossible to balance the desire to wait and let it soak in versus posting it to get it out there first. And it's not just about being first all the time, because nearly all of the major critics from all outlets run their reviews as soon as possible, too.

Here's an excerpt from his post introducing the issue and talking about my evolving opinion on 127 Hours:

"The age of blogging and the internet has brought a bigger emphasis on being first. You may disagree that this is important, but being one of the first reviews out of the gate can mean the difference in hundreds of thousands of readers. The result has critics and bloggers cranking out their reviews in record time following each film festival screening…"

"Alex also had some strong opinions about the humor used in some sequences of [Danny Boyle's127 Hours], which he just didn't believe belonged in the story. That was until he met and talked with Aron Ralston, the man the movie was based on. At a party, Ralston assured Alex that the humorous moments actually occurred while he was stuck under a boulder for days in the canyon…"

"Within ten hours of filing a review and video blog, Billington's opinion has evolved and might no longer fully reflect what is on the front page of his website."

This is the same issue we have at every film festival we attend - Sundance, Cannes, Toronto - they're all the same. It's the want and need to get a review out there right away, especially if it's really good, but I wish we had the capacity to take some extra time to reflect (and it's not as easy as saying "but you do!" because it's a lot different being in my position). And actually, we do get some time to reflect, which is why I'm thinking about 127 Hours more every day and will be writing more about it once I get the chance to see it again. I'm already predicting I'm going to have a different reaction the second time around. In fact, with most movies, I always want to watch them twice to fully understand my feelings before I write a review or even an editorial.

I titled this response "Reaction vs Reflection" because this issue is really about the difference between writing what is more appropriately a reaction versus a review based upon reflection (I wish I could do both, but I'm already overworked as is). And I use the term "review" often during festivals simply out of formality and because it's something that captures the attention of readers, when truthfully those write-ups are more my reaction. Everything I ever write is always my completely honest and genuine opinion, so that's not any issue. And all of the reviews I've written from Telluride still stand, especially because they're based on my very raw, instant reaction the moment we walked out, and I think that is just as valid of an opinion anyway.

This is a very tough topic to discuss, mostly because I'm still sitting in the middle of the evolving discussion as is, since Peter and I just arrived in Toronto and we're about to kick off yet another film festival. What he brings up so eloquently is just the problem, and there's no real solution (yet), because we have to do our job and I have to get my reaction out to you guys. And there's no benefit in waiting days or weeks to see it again and reflect, because I want to be able to tell everyone immediately if a film is great. But as he says, even if my feelings evolve, "my review is already filed and on the site, forever to be found with a Google search."

Find more posts: Discuss, Editorial, Opinions



I completely understand what you and Peter are saying and it's sad that this "first!"-thing has become a necessity since it demands a sort of fast-food reception a film does not deserve. You're doing your best and actually I was surprised by both your reviews for Black Swan after having seen it only once. But nonetheless it's a shame you have to work this way because myself as well as many other readers would certainly prefer more well-thought-out reviews than the ones one can write so shortly after one's first viewing of a film. But then again I already am a loyal reader of this and Peter's blog, so I guess when it comes to gaining new readers, the "first!"-thing is probably relevant.

c-r-u-x on Sep 8, 2010


I have to disagree with Alex on this one. I believe you should go with your gut feeling! This is ridiculous to see a movie two or three times or have to be coached to like a movie the 2nd time around. Alex go with your gut instinct , so what if 127 hours is not what you think it was going to be. A 2nd and third viewing is still the same movie and no re-edits. Alex continue to post your thoughts and don't have others coach you up! dee

dee on Sep 8, 2010


Sorry for multiple postings but I was able to see the Wrestler last year with a q and a session with Darren and I went on to see it three times as well. Still thought it was a great movie and didn't waiver from my first review.

dee on Sep 8, 2010


Definitely go with your gut feeling especially when reviewing a film, it's the most honest way to review the movie. "Upon Second Viewing" reviews aren't unheard of though, Roger Ebert has even been known to do them, and change his opinion. That being said, sometimes I feel like that the meaning of cinema gets a bit lost in the hype and pressure of a film festival when the critic himself is maybe not so secure in his understanding of film, which Alex seems sometimes to still be somewhat like a child gazing at the wonder of the whole machine, marketing bits, BS and all, which is good and bad and leads to bizarre and somewhat unnecessary expectations for what a film should be, a singular experience(unfortunately, it isn't). But maybe it's much more simple than that, maybe it's really the pressure of being the first website to post a review removes the catharsis that viewing and reflecting provides. It's pure business reasoning, to be sure. You'll just get more hits when you post first, but in exchange you lose the ability to properly communicate your thoughts.

LINKFX on Sep 8, 2010


There's another even bigger problem. Film festival reviews are usually the worst way to review a film. It's like deciding if a restaurant is good when you're on vacation. Everything is great on vacation. Usually film festival reviews are of a "herd mentality" variety. I never believe them and consider them a waste of time.

Bill on Sep 8, 2010


Reviews first to come out don't mean they're well-written,I'd pay more attention to anything Dustin Rowles writes irregardless of when its published.Alex and his cookie-cutter reviews are OK,but I doubt anyone gives two cents.

twispious on Sep 8, 2010


I think my "first" comment that you deleted was quite apropos in this situation. The perfect proof of Peter Sciretta's statement: "The age of blogging and the internet has brought a bigger emphasis on being first." I should have known that it would go over your head. (Oh wait, I did. That's why I had also mentioned something about irony).

DPing on Sep 9, 2010


As an amateur filmmaker, and one whose had his films show and occasionally win at festivals, I have to side with the "reflection" side of things. Of course, a filmmaker wants his work to be beloved of everyone who sees it, but we know that's not going to happen. But two things are difficult to handle. First, the "it's not what I expected" reaction. Now, it's one thing if the film itself creates expectations and then breaks them in a bad way. That's definitely the filmmaker's fault, and he or she deserves whatever responses may come. But when, as someone's already mentioned, people respond badly because of something completely out of your control ("I just wasn't in the mood for a drama", etc.) and gives you a bad review, it's hard not to be frustrated. Second, as Aronofsky hints at, it's the idea that the feelings you experience instantly after a movie are the ultimate measure of the quality of that movie. I've had so many people say to me (about my films and other films) that the more they thought about it, the more they let it congeal in their minds, the more they liked it. I never assume that I can comprehend in two hours what a filmmaker has spent months or even years working on. Granted, some films are meant for instant gratification, and I love those movies when they work. I want to laugh during the Will Farrell comedy, not five days later; and I definitely don't want to have to mull over a Jason Bourne chase scene to feel the thrill. But, just like a great painting can't be appreciated in a glance, so should movies should be allowed some space to be fully comprehended before they are judged.

Concourse D on Sep 9, 2010

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