Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Critiquing the Critic

     In 1984, Peter Travers started writing film reviews for People Magazine. He moved to Rolling Stone in ‘88 and continues writing film reviews for them today. Through this critique, I will explore Travers’ perspective, style, method, and technique. I would describe Travers’ style of writing in the same way he describes Batman Forever; “It’s a thrill-packed joy ride that knocks itself out to please – so much so that it often threatens to collapse from plot overload.”
     Travers writes feature film reviews ranging from 500 to 1000+ words. His reviews are sometimes short and direct like his 1987 Spaceballs review, while others such as The Dark Knight are intensely descriptive and full of critical analysis. He chooses to review a variety of genres including comedy, horror, drama, action, sci-fi, and thriller.
     Travers leads his reviews with a very short paragraph, normally 3-4 sentences tops. The lead usually opens with a short, catchy line, which is either a fact or a snappy judgment about the film. Examples of this are “Mel Brooks is a gutbuster.” (Spaceballs) and “Sometimes a shamelessly stoopid, proudly profane R-rated comedy is all you want out of life.” (Role Models) It’s structured simplistically to grab the audience’s attention, get to the point of the article, and encourage the reader to continue reading. His methods effectively entertain and amuse the reader.
     The basic information of the film is hidden throughout the review in summary content and other judgments he makes about the movie.  In Travers’ earlier reviews like Thelma & Louise, he focuses on plot summary and talks about the actors in the order they appear in the narrative. But lately, he’s been leaving summary at the theaters and only telling the basic set-up like in his Eastern Promises and Apocalypto review. In the ’80s, he focused on plot summary and it could usually be found in the second, third, and fourth paragraph of his review.  Now, he gives the reader a short set-up in the second paragraph, and goes on to discuss the actors, director, writers (and if deserved) the cinematographer.
     Travers’ simple style makes his work easy to follow and fun to read. He chooses to heavily describe actor’s performances and only focuses lightly on cinematic elements, which expands his audience rather than closing it down to technical terms that only professionals would comprehend. His specific descriptions of characters and selected quotations help the reader re-experience the films.  He isn’t likely to incorporate quotes into every review, but when he does he pulls only the best lines from the film’s most memorable moments. 
In his 2008 review of The Dark Knight, Travers quotes the Joker just as he’s holding a razor blade to a victim’s face telling the man how his father carved his smile permanently into his face. Travers quotes the Joker at this plot changing moment saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stranger.” This significant quote not only reveals character, but also comes from an extremely memorable scene that highlights the theme of the human condition. The relative ratio of factual information to critical commentary and interpretation was 50/50 earlier in his career. But now that he has gained much experience and seniority at Rolling Stone, his reviews are dominated with critical judgments and pleasurable commentary at 75/25, which is much better than his earlier safe reviews.
      The scope of Travers reviews deal mostly with the actors and genre. But sometimes he centers his review on the most popular person involved in the film. Sometimes the focus of his review is the director such as Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. All of his judgments about Apocalypto revolve around Mel Gibson and his style of filmmaking. The same is seen in his Freddy Got Fingered review where he concentrates on the wacky Tom Green who stars in the film.
    Travers’ knowledge of film seems to extend as far as that he has seen many pictures, but not necessarily taken any critical analysis film classes. He does however, appear very knowledgeable about actors, directors, and their past performances. He doesn’t speak of any one person or genre without including a comparison or their most recent appearance. He includes these references in very interesting ways.  In his review of Batman Forever, when he’s referencing Jim Carrey’s past performances compared to The Riddler, the character he plays in this film, Travers sites, “Hammered for the crudities of “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and “Dumb and Dumber,” Carrey continues to play by his own rules.” He sneaks in references to past performances with similar critiques of the actor’s role.  
   I have yet to read a review where Travers presents himself by using “I.” He does, however, speak directly to the audience in numerous occasions saying how you should feel or what you should do. “Don’t ask whether or not you should take The Day After Tomorrow seriously. Don’t take it at all,” Travers declares in his 2004 review of The Day After Tomorrow.
     Travers expresses his attitude of films through his short and to the point phrases that precede many of his in-depth character and plot analysis paragraphs. These simple judgments prepare the reader for the complex sentences that follow and allow for easier interpretation.  All of his reviews include vigorous comparisons to similar genres and artists. His writing flows smoothly with transitions leading into each and every paragraph. If he knows he wants to talk about a specific character in the next paragraph he includes them in a scene or quote in the end of the previous paragraph. His transitions stream by seemingly unnoticed and holds the piece together like invisible glue. His recent reviews are always focused and sustain a single line of interpretation that is reiterated at the end. Travers’ writing style is very basic, but nonetheless informative, persuasive and of course entertaining.