Rarely do I hear filmmakers talking positively about film critics, and yet, if we’re serious about improving our craft, critics can be our best advisors. We should be studying what the critics have to say not just about our movies, but other movies as well. It’s not enough to hear what our friends and family have to say or to know that our cast and crew love the movie; we need objective opinions. Critics provide that point of view. They know what works and what doesn’t. Many, like Tyler Smith, have a background in film production and that knowledge is incorporated in their reviews. Here’s Tyler’s advice to filmmakers.
What is your film background?
I’ve always loved film, and in my teenage years decided that I definitely wanted to do something in the industry. I attended Columbia College Chicago and got my Bachelor’s Degree in Film/Video. I moved out to Los Angeles to pursue screenwriting. I interned at a number of smaller production companies and worked at a post production house. I also did some script consultation work for a couple of producers. Last year, I decided to go back to school to get my Master’s Degree. I’m currently enrolled in the UCLA Cinema and Media Studies program, and will be graduating next year.
What led you to becoming a film critic?
When I first arrived in Los Angeles, I started a podcast called Battleship Pretension with my friend David. A couple years later, I started a second show that I hosted by myself called More Than One Lesson. Both of these were just meant to be fun, but I soon found them more rewarding than any of the stuff I was doing in the industry. So, in 2008, I decided to move away from film production and commit full time to film criticism. Since then, a lot of doors have opened up for me, and I’ve been having a great time being on panels, giving talks, writing reviews, and getting to know my listeners.
Tell us about your two movie podcasts.
As I mentioned, the first one is called Battleship Pretension. We started that in March 2007. We never intended it to be a straight-up movie review show. Instead, we would devote each episode to a specific film-related topic and then talk about that, often at great length. The idea was that we were trying to replicate the types of conversations that movie fans have when they get together, so we don’t shy away from politics, religion, and our personal lives. The format has probably limited us a bit as far as getting a big audience, but it has also allowed us to have conversations that have been very illuminating, and I think both my co-host and I (and hopefully our listeners) are more insightful movie fans as a result.
My other podcast, More Than One Lesson, was started in 2009. I was always open about my faith on my other show, but I decided to devote an entire podcast to it. On the show, we talk about a recent film from both an artistic and Christian perspective. The idea was to try to make Christians more comfortable in approaching movies that they might not otherwise see in spiritual terms. That has started to happen as I’ve gotten more involved in the Christian film industry. The relationships that have come out of this podcast have been extremely rewarding.
Why a book? What was your goal with WORTH WATCHING?
It came about because of the International Christian Film Festival in Orlando. For the last few years, I’ve had a vendor table there, where I talked about More Than One Lesson, and sold a few DVDs and books. There were several times in which somebody would pick up a book and ask if I had written it, to which I’d have to say I didn’t. So I thought that it wouldn’t hurt to publish a book of my own, especially once I started giving lectures at the Festival.
This last year, I gave a talk about the importance of critical thought – and actual film criticism – in the emerging Christian film industry. So I figured that, if anybody in the audience was genuinely interested in criticism, I should have something at my table that could point them in that direction. I self-published a book of reviews and essays, as a sort of entry point into reading film criticism.
How did you select which films to feature?
I’ve reviewed a lot of movies over the last few years, both positively and negatively. But I decided to mostly stick with positive reviews in my book. Since it was meant as an introduction to film criticism, I thought it would be good to fight against the stereotype of film critics, which says that we’re only ever negative. There are a handful of bad reviews in there, but the vast majority of them are good. Then I decided to incorporate a lot of reviews of films that most moviegoers have seen, so my “Blockbuster” chapter is probably the longest one in the book. I didn’t want just a bunch of reviews of lesser known movies. Again, if this was going to be an entry point into criticism, I thought it would be best to use the well-known movies to get the reader comfortable with film criticism, so that they might become interested in the more obscure films discussed in the book.
What can modern filmmakers learn from studying the old timers like Alfred Hitchcock, Jimmy Stewart, and Harold Lloyd?
With Hitchcock, I think the big thing that audiences and filmmakers can learn is the importance of craft when approaching a film. If you look at Hitchcock’s movies, you’ll see a collection of very deliberate choices; in the camera placement, the editing, the framing, the music choice, and everything else. Hitchcock was not a haphazard filmmaker. He always knew exactly why he was doing something, and the effect it would have on the audience. I think a lot of directors, and a lot of viewers, look at a film as a couple of good sequences with a lot of filler in between. But Hitchcock, and several of those classical directors, understood the importance of every scene – and, indeed, every shot – in a movie.
As for Stewart and Lloyd, I’d say that both understood the importance of audience relatability. If an audience can empathize with a character, you can get away with almost anything. The death-defying comedy of Harold Lloyd probably would have been effective regardless of who the character on-screen was. But, with his likable “Harold” persona, the audience had a character that they felt they could relate to, as opposed to Chaplin’s Little Tramp or Keaton’s Stone Face. And because they could already relate to Harold, they felt all the more invested in the crazy things that happened to him.
Jimmy Stewart was seen as an all-American young man, whose work with Frank Capra allowed audiences to see themselves on-screen. Bogart, Cagney, Grant, and the other big actors of the day had a definitive stylized quality to their acting, but Stewart (and I’d also say Spencer Tracy and Henry Fonda) just seemed like a down-to-earth guy that you feel like could live down the street. This made his involvement in Hitchcock’s films all the more inspired, as our identification with Stewart allowed Hitchcock to hold up a very disturbing mirror to the audience in a way that he couldn’t with Cary Grant or Sean Connery.
What do you see as the greatest weakness in contemporary faith-based films?
Dishonesty. These films are so preoccupied with “selling” Christianity that I think they’re not actually honest with the audience about what a faith-based life looks like. Most of the time, in these films, the primary thrust of the story has to do with somebody finally embracing faith. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that means that the person’s conversion acts as the climax of the film, which strongly implies a “happily ever after” ending. But, of course, those of us that have been Christian for some time know that there is no guarantee that our lives will be “happy”. We might still struggle financially, we still argue with our spouses, we might still experience loss; being a Christian doesn’t immunize a person from the more heartbreaking elements of life. It might better enable us to deal with those, but most of these films are content to simply suggest that, if one becomes a Christian, there will never be any loss or heartbreak or doubt or any of the other things that every Christian has, at some point, had to deal with. If the films were willing to be honest with themselves and their audience, I think we would see a much more grounded depiction of faith, that is messy and at times discouraging. This isn’t to suggest that these films should have a downbeat ending; only that, by bringing in some of the darker elements of life, the upbeat ending can feel much more earned.
How do you respond when filmmakers complain that reviewers hate anything faith-based?
That complaint would carry more water with me if I felt that these filmmakers were making the best films they’re able to, but I don’t. I don’t believe their character arcs, the dialogue is clunky and obvious, and there’s seldom any real visual style. If I were to see a Christian film that showed the type of deliberate stylistic choices that I mentioned with Hitchcock, or the commitment to believable, relatable human characters – as I talked about with Stewart and Lloyd – and the reviews were still terrible, I’d probably be a bit more inclined to believe that reviewers are inherently biased against anything faith-related. But until then I mostly approach that complaint as a copout. After all, why would anybody strive to be better in the eyes of critics if they believe that the critics will be against them no matter what? It lets filmmakers off the hook, which can allow them to make sub-par movies, and that’s not good for anyone.
What would make you sit up and take notice in a low budget indie movie?
The more memorable indie films usually have solid scripts and great acting, but don’t really have much else going on visually. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but film is a visual medium, so for a director to neglect that element of filmmaking is unfortunate, because cinematography and editing can be valuable storytelling tools, even in a straightforward character study. But there are some indie movies that manage to be the whole package, like Moonlight, which had some of the most beautiful cinematography I’ve seen in a long time. And, rather than distract from the character beats, the camera choices enhanced them. And that film was made on a relatively tiny budget!
Any other words of wisdom?
If you’re a filmmaker or just a film lover, the best education you can get is to just watch as many great movies as you can. In doing so, you’ll start to gravitate towards specific directors or genres that resonate with you, and your specific taste in film will start to emerge. Then you’ll start to notice patterns in filmmaking and you’ll begin to understand how certain directorial choices can impact audiences in a certain way. In other words, the real artistry of film will reveal itself.
Of course, as Christians, we do have our own personal convictions to think about. Does violence bother you? Profanity? Nudity? It’s important to know your own level of comfort, so that you don’t accidentally lead yourself down a bad path. However, it can also be vital to occasionally step outside your comfort zone – armed with discernment and wisdom – so that you aren’t only ever approaching art completely on your own terms. We need to be challenged and sometimes even confronted with the things that bother us. To do so can help us grow as movie fans and, occasionally, even as Christians.