Monday, November 10, 2008

Reflections on Blogging and Some Lists of Favorites

I have been writing my blog The Movie Projector for four months now, and I think it is time to pause and reflect on the experience. When I first decided to attempt a movie blog, I was inspired by two other blogs. One was San Francisco Chronicle movie critic Mick LaSalle's blog Maximum Strength Mick. This was the first blog I started reading regularly and the first I started leaving comments on. Normally content merely to read a blog without leaving comments, I noticed that some of his topics elicited reactions from me that I found it hard to keep to myself. I also noticed that some of my reactions were fairly lengthy. Some of the topics I've written about and some of the ideas I've had about them were initially evoked, sometimes indirectly, by topics introduced by Mr. LaSalle.

One of Mick LaSalle's blogs directed me to another blogsite, Riku Writes, this one written by a non-professional film lover like myself, Richard Hourula of Berkeley, California. I liked what I read there and thought that if this movie enthusiast can do it, why don't I give it a try? I used Mr. Hourula's site to get to and learn how to set up my own site. I couldn't believe how easy the folks at Google have made it to do this. My first post was published in July 2008 and was an expanded and rewritten version of a very long comment I had left on Maximum Strength Mick.

At first I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to do on my own site, so I let it evolve essentially on its own. I did know that I wanted to stick to writing about movies and clearly related topics. I also wanted to aim for a style somewhere between formal and informal, so one of the first decisions I made was to publish only once a week to give me time to polish and edit to my satisfaction. (The former English instructor in me demands that I do this.) I also wasn't sure exactly what kinds of movies I would write about, so I stuck with what I am most familiar with and the blog has turned out to be largely about classic movies. Many of the topics have come about directly or indirectly from movies I recently watched on the Turner Classic Movies channel and to a lesser extent on the Independent Film Channel.

I don't tend to do a lot of research on the topics I write about. I do use the Internet Movie Database for details, and I wouldn't be able to write in such factual detail without that resource. I also use Wikipedia for biographical information. I use these two sources largely from laziness, because they are so easy to access while I'm writing. I also occasionally use a few reference books that I already own.

I sometimes write from my memories of seeing a movie, and we all know how fallible memory can be. So I now often refer to the TCM website, which contains incredibly detailed synopses, to confirm my recollections about the movies I write about. The first thing I learned about writing a blog was to be very, very careful about checking my facts. The second blog I ever wrote was about the screwball comedy genre, and I was overjoyed when IMDb printed a link to it in its daily "Hit List." But the very first comment I received pointed out a factual error I had made about the plot of It Happened One Night. Now, in truth, I had not seen the movie for a number of years and had to acknowledge that I had misremembered this detail and then correct it in the post.

Other comments I've received made me realize that some readers apparently cannot grasp the concept of a difference of opinion and that any non-professional opinions about movies are by their nature subjective. Richard Hourula wrote a post titled "I Have a Different Opinion, So You're Wrong" that summed it up nicely, although some of the people who have left comments on my blog might have added "and Therefore You're an Idiot." These experiences caused me to add a section in the sidebar asking those leaving comments to do so in a respectful way.

Still other comments I have received make me question whether the person who wrote them actually understood what I was getting at. (As a former teacher of English, I am conditioned to write to a thesis.) Blogs that contain lists at the end seem to elicit responses, but to judge by some of the suggestions about who or what I should or should not have included, I honestly wonder if the writer skipped the beginning of the blog and went directly to the list(s) at the end.

Fortunately, this type of comment seems to be the exception, and I have also received many very nice comments. Some of these were complimentary or agreed with me, which I found quite gratifying. But I also appreciated the comments that added to what I had written about or that disagreed with me civilly. The difference is all in the tone. People so opinionated that they tolerate no disagreement and in fact always take a difference of opinion as a personal insult have always irritated me, whether the genesis of this attitude is egomania or insecurity. I do appreciate polite comments that raise justified questions about what I have written. When I wrote a blog about great character actors and actresses, for example, some of the comments made me realize that my definition of character actor as applied to contemporary performers should have been clarified. A couple of comments even pointed this out directly and did so graciously.

Probably the biggest dilemma I have faced is how much plot synopsis to include in a post. I have read some blogsites where the posts consist largely of lengthy synopses, and I certainly don't want to do this. Mick LaSalle is a master of writing about character and situation without dwelling at length on plot details. But then he is a critic at a daily newspaper and reviews new movies that most people have not seen yet. And he is also one hell of a writer. My goal is to interpret movies, so I feel that I have to relate the point I'm trying to make to what happens in the movie, and this is an incredibly difficult thing to do without having the description of the narrative dominate. I feel compelled to support my interpretive points with specifics from the movie, and this necessarily involves describing to some extent what happens in the movie. The trick is not to describe more than is absolutely required This is damnably hard to do and something I am still struggling to refine.

The other issue I have to deal with is spoilers. I know how readers who have not yet seen the movies I write about feel about spoilers. I want people to want to see these movies, but an essay is different from a review and my natural inclination to adhere to the essay format means that I must at times reveal plot details that I would rather not. Even though I don't want to spoil the movie viewing experience for anyone, I still feel I need to cite pertinent details that support my ideas. I do, however, try to keep this to a minimum, and I have while editing removed or disguised certain things that I thought might discourage readers who haven't already seen the movies I write about from seeking them out.

Sometimes the things I reveal don't make a great deal of difference: Is there any doubt that a screwball comedy from the 1930's will end happily or that the falsely accused person in a Hitchcock movie will ultimately be vindicated? I have come to use as my criterion the ending of Citizen Kane. I remember what a frisson that final revelation gave me the first time I saw it. (It still does, even though I know in advance what is going to happen.) Even though there are probably few serious movie lovers who haven't yet seen this film, there might be a few somewhere, and there is no way I'm going to devalue for them the experience of seeing that last scene for the first time.

I have recently made a few minor changes to my blog. Some comments I received suggested that the commenter hadn't read my previous posts on the same subject, so I started leaving references to them in the text. I recently noticed while reading an interesting new classic movie blogsite called Hollywood Dreamland (which I've added to my list of links in the sidebar) how the author uses labels to draw the reader's attention to other posts on the same subject, and I have now added labels to some of my posts. I also noticed how Richard Hourula has taken advantage of a new feature that lets readers subscribe to his blog, and I too have added this to my sidebar. I've also added a section to the sidebar in which I list the movies I've recently watched and give them a personal rating based on the 4-star system. For some time I had been trying to figure out how I could incorporate a list of my favorite movies that readers could access from the homepage. Both of these sites showed me how to do this by including them in my complete profile.

This has turned out to be a most challenging task. Some time ago I started a list of the best movies I have ever seen. But narrowing this list down to a manageable number and emphasizing not just quality but an enjoyable viewing experience—in other words, turning it truly into a list of my favorite movies—was not an easy thing to do. In just a short time the list has gone through several incarnations. At this point it stands at 50 American, 10 British, and 20 foreign-language movies and is still being tweaked.

The hardest thing to do was to limit the number of movies in a single genre—for example, my favorite musicals, screwball comedies, and films noirs—or movies by a favorite director, and still the list clearly reflects my genre and director preferences. You won't find many Westerns, combat films, science fiction movies, action-adventures, or even "message" films on it, and I've tried to limit myself to no more than two or three films by the same director. One thing that compiling this list of favorite movies showed me was what they tend to have in common, that is, the qualities I most value in a movie: compelling characters, charismatic performers, emotionally involving situations, and vividly pictorial direction.

I'm going to conclude by throwing into this miscellany three lists. One is of my favorite movies by my favorite director of all time, Alfred Hitchcock. In recent posts I named my favorite performances by my #2 favorite actor, James Stewart and my #1 favorite actress, Bette Davis. This time I'm going to list my favorite performances by my #1 favorite actor and my #2 favorite actress. Remember, readers, this is just one person's opinion.

My 10 favorite movies directed by Alfred Hitchcock:

1. North by Northwest (1959)
2. Vertigo (1958)
3. Rear Window (1954)
4. Strangers on a Train (1951)
5. Psycho (1960)
6. Notorious (1946)

7. Foreign Correspondent (1940)
8. Rebecca (1940)

9. The Lady Vanishes (1938)
10. The 39 Steps (1935)

My 10 favorite performances by Cary Grant:
  1. North by Northwest (1959)
  2. Bringing Up Baby (1938)
  3. The Awful Truth (1937)
  4. His Girl Friday (1940)
  5. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1947)
  6. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
  7. To Catch a Thief (1954)
  8. Charade (1963)
  9. Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
  10. The Bishop's Wife (1948)
My 10 favorite performances by Katharine Hepburn:
  1. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
  2. Long Day's Journey into Night (1962)
  3. Bringing Up Baby (1938)
  4. Summertime (1955)
  5. Woman of the Year (1942)
  6. Adam's Rib (1949)
  7. Alice Adams (1935)
  8. The African Queen (1951)
  9. The Lion in Winter (1968)
  10. Stage Door (1937)


pacwarbuff said...

I share your dilemma regarding the blog's tenor in that I will often veer from fluff to analysis. It was your excellent post on 'The Awful Truth' and its scholarly tenor that inspired me into putting more thought and effort into what I was doing. I still get a thrill each and every time I add a new post to my own blog and then the "pressure" mounts to come up with something that hopefully, someone will read. I will continue to read your blog with interest.

And thanks for the kind words!

R. D. Finch said...

pac, thanks for your comment. I sometimes wonder if anybody is reading this but me! I found a copy of "On Cukor" on for $1.50 ("like new") and it's in the mail. Enjoyed your post on "Holiday." The #10 spot on my Hepburn list was a toss-up between it and "Stage Door," but I went with the latter because the character had more varied moods than in "Holiday" and showed off more of Hepburn's range. (Also I'd seen it more recently, so it was fresher in my mind.)