October 6, 2012

Something that's been bugging me for a while

As much as I hate to break up my "Hallowe'en Countdown", I just thought I'd share a couple of grammatical problems which have arisen since I began doing my reviews as a blog back in June 2006.

When I still had a "real" website but was using MySpace to blog on, I wrote small capsule reviews in the "literary present" tense, and didn't really think about it too much. Many websites and academics will tell you that all movie reviews should be written in the present tense. That way of doing things has even become a universally accepted convention.

As I've been blogging, however, I've found myself increasingly writing more in the past tense than the present. This is mainly due to writing about older films which I've already watched rather than them being something current.

I'm not sure when my style changed, and now it's become a difficult habit to break. Looking back on my earlier reviews which were written far too quickly, contained many punctuation errors, and were, quite frankly, embarrassing anyway, I don't see any way back to how I did things before. I'm not sure that I'd even want to go there.

When I read other people's "reviews" which are written in the present tense, they don't come across as correct. I'll just explain what I mean with a snippet of one of Roger Ebert's recent reviews:

In 1984, Tim Burton launched his career with a live-action short named "Frankenweenie," and now he returns to that material for the new "Frankenweenie," a stop-motion, black-and-white animated comedy inspired by "The Bride of Frankenstein" and countless other classic horror films in which science runs amok.

Do you see anything wrong with this other than it was written by Roger Ebert and nobody cares about what he has to say anyway? I do. To me, it reads as if Tim Burton is returning right now (at the present time) to create "Frankenweenie" when, in reality, he has already made this film. It's completed and ready to watch so he's not returning to anything. He already returned to his older material, remade it, and now he's sitting back waiting for the money to come rolling in from his fans. He's not still returning to it. Therein lies the danger of always tring to use the present tense for a movie review.

Given how he began, wouldn't Ebert's sentence have read better the following way?

In 1984, Tim Burton launched his career with a live-action short named "Frankenweenie," and he returned to that material for the new "Frankenweenie," a stop-motion, black-and-white animated comedy inspired by "The Bride of Frankenstein" and countless other classic horror films in which science ran amok.

Some people have argued that writing reviews in the present tense is closer to how conversations are in real life, but I don't see it. People don't use the present tense when they've just seen a movie, do they? Here's an example of a typical conversation that I'm likely to have:

"So what did you do last night?"
"I watched a horror movie."
"Was it any good?"
"Not really. A load of people who I've never heard of were in it and none of them could act. It was crap."

See what I mean? It's all past tense. If you turn it into the present tense, it makes the person sound like a moron and you need to add a contraction to the final part:

"Is it any good?"
"Not really, A load of people who I don't know are in it and none of them can act. It's crap."

In my opinion (and logically), any discussion about something which you've seen should be in the form of a report and be written in the past tense. Some say that is just for writing about history, but if you've watched a movie and it's over then surely it is history. It's part of your history. That specific act and your reactions during it are never going to happen again.

Although you can rewatch a movie at any time, does that really bring it back into the present tense? The very medium which you are observing is also just a recording of something which has already happened. Confusing, isn't it?

Another problem which I've found with present tense movie reviews is that many people fall into the trap of retelling the story in their own words. That isn't a review, it's a synopsis. A synopsis should be written in the present tense because it's paraphrasing something which continues to exist, but a synopsis is not a review.

A movie review is supposed to be all about emotional reactions, technical deconstruction, and such like. Simply retelling the story in the present tense with occasional asides works occasionally too, but it's messier that way.

The other danger is coming across like a Bulgarian used car salesman if you choose to overwrite praise-laden movie reviews in the present tense. Everything sounds sycophantic and affected plus it makes the reader wonder if the subject matter is about a newly released movie or an upcoming release even if the title clearly states that the movie was made, for example, in 1941.

Even as someone who got the highest grades possible at University, I can't remember being formally taught anything about tenses other than in Latin classes. I still don't actually know which is the best method. My own writing sucks because I don't invest enough time manipulating the words into the best possible order, and I rarely have the patience to go back and correct my mistakes. I only write blogs (like a diary) not books which will last forever or anything important. If I use one tense over the other, it's merely the result of trying to keep things consistent rather than any other reason. It's not as if I'm earning millions of dollars from my ramblings.

It's all food for thought though. Maybe you have an opinion about this? If you do, please leave a comment below.

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