How to watch movies like a world-class critic

The Washington Post chief film critic Ann Hornaday's new book "Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies" is out now. (Courtesy Ann Hornaday)
WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Ann Hornaday's 'Talking Pictures'

Jason Fraley

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WASHINGTON — Have you ever gone to a movie, decided you loved or hated it, then read a review arguing the exact opposite? What are film critics looking for? What’s the secret?

The answer lies in the new hardback “Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies” by Washington Post chief film critic Ann Hornaday, who bases the guidebook on interviews and experiences compiled over the course of an illustrious career that made her a 2008 Pulitzer Prize finalist.

“We live in an age of ubiquitous criticism,” Hornaday told WTOP. “Everyone really is a critic now. If they’re not commenting on a blog, [they’re] going onto IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes to leave their own user reviews. … I feel like I can relate: I didn’t come at this as a movie geek. I didn’t go to film school; I learned on the job. So I feel like maybe what I’ve learned along the way could be useful for people who just want to think about films a little more critically.”

Raised in Des Moines, Iowa, Hornaday majored in government at Massachusetts’ Smith College before moving to New York to freelance for Premiere, Us and Ms. magazines. Soon, she began contributing to the “Arts & Leisure” section of The New York Times, which landed her the movie critic job at the Austin American-Statesman. She joined The Baltimore Sun in 1997, followed by The Washington Post in 2002, replacing retiring film critic Rita Kempley.

“I remember [my first review] like it was yesterday,” Hornaday said. “It was ‘To Die For,’ Gus Van Sant directing Nicole Kidman. … I’ll never forget going into the newsroom; I was so excited to tell people about this movie and I was so happy it was my first review. Then I sit down and it’s that clichéd scene — I look at the screen and the words won’t come. How do I begin?”

If you’ve ever asked that same question, “How to Watch Movies” offers the perfect guide. It’s broken down into separate chapters for each discipline: screenplay, acting, production design, cinematography, editing, sound and music, and directing. Here’s a sampling of each below:


Screenplay

We all know that a great film starts with a great script. So what makes an effective screenplay? Hornaday writes that it should “keep the story moving at an engaging, even suspenseful clip, providing just enough information to keep the audience curious but not hopelessly confused.”

“One of the hallmarks of a well-written movie is the first 10-15 minutes,” Hornaday said. “The example I use in the book is ‘The Godfather.’ You’re meeting all those people in a heightened atmosphere of the wedding outside and the office inside. It teaches you how to watch it: [‘That’s my family. It’s not me.’] What will that portend? Will he live that out? Or rue the day?”

As complications arise, many writers suffer the dreaded “Act Two slump” in the second half, unlike Robert Towne’s “Chinatown” (1974), which “judiciously doles out information, keeping viewers engrossed and surprised until its shocking conclusion.” Likewise, “Groundhog Day” (1993) brilliantly marries structure with theme, as Bill Murray’s “selfishness keeps him in the time loop, which will only stop once he has grown up and become a decent human being.”

Of course, the juiciest element of screenwriting is the dialogue, which expert screenwriters hone over multiple drafts to avoid on-the-nose phrases (characters saying exactly what they mean) and exposition (explaining things for audience benefit). Hornaday says this pitfall was brilliantly spoofed by the expository character Basil Exposition in “Austin Powers” (1997).

“It’s when a character helpfully provides either a back story or information the audience needs to know to proceed,” Hornaday said. “It stops the flow. It feels false: ‘Don’t you remember in 1945, we were both dating the same girl and she left you for me?’ It’s a dead giveaway. Even little things bug me: ‘I made French toast; it’s your favorite.’ Nobody says that; it’s implied! If they really know each other that well, they don’t need to say it’s your favorite.”

On rare occasion, certain lines become quotable, including one of her favorites from Tony Curtis in “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957): “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.”

“I did a phone interview with him and while we were talking, his other phone rang,” Hornaday said. “He said, ‘Just a minute darling.’ I could hear what he was saying, arranging dinner with a friend: ‘Alright, darling, I’ll see ya later. The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.’ I said, ‘Was that for my benefit?’ He said, ‘I end every conversation that way. It’s my favorite line!'”


Acting

Still, even the best script in the world won’t matter if you don’t cast it with the right actors.

“If I heard it once, I heard it a million times, a director saying that casting is 90 percent of the job,” Hornaday said. “Quantifying a performance is one of the hardest things we do. It’s so subjective whether you believe somebody in a role. … Director Rick Linklater told me, ‘When I see a bad performance, I don’t think it’s a bad performance, I think somebody cast the wrong actor.’ He never blames the actor [because] these people make themselves so vulnerable.”

A great primer in contrasting acting styles is Elia Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951), from the traditional approach of Vivien Leigh to the Method approach of Marlon Brando.

“She was trained at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and married to Laurence Olivier, [while] we credit Brando for ushering in the Method and this new age of naturalism and unstudied spontaneity,” Hornaday said. “People like Spencer Tracy and Henry Fonda were doing it even before. There was this classical era of the ’30s, but in the ’40s, we saw it breaking down and that proscenium-arch performance becoming much more natural and intimate.”

That new style includes physical transformations, such as Robert DeNiro in “Raging Bull” (1980), becoming a chiseled boxer before putting on 60 pounds to play an older, overweight version of Jake LaMotta. His tragic fall into gluttony and paranoid rage might just be the best performance on screen, but its aftermath sparked plenty of gimmicky Oscar-bait pretenders.

“The physical transformation meme,” Hornaday joked. “It’s a marketing hook, so it’s an awards bait thing, but it also gives journalists … something to talk about. What did you eat? How much weight did you gain? It’s a hook that gives people something to hang on. But I do think that it’s become way overused and has become way over-rewarded around awards time.”

Sometimes, popularity works against an actor, as a celebrity’s star power clouds true talent.

“When your persona is big, like Angelina Jolie or Leonardo DiCaprio, the job is to find the right roles to fuse with that persona,” she said. “You could make that case for Nicole Kidman. I totally think she’s underrated. … She deserves mention with Meryl Streep and Viola Davis. … You know who else is underrated? Tom Cruise. He had a breakout performance in ‘Magnolia.’ Scary dark. Suddenly the boy next door has layers! … I want Johnny Depp to prove it again.”

Whether it’s Daniel Day-Lewis or Dustin Hoffman, there truly is no “one size fits all” approach.

“There’s all sorts of different techniques and tools for actors to ‘go there,'” Hornaday said. “Daniel Day-Lewis is famous for staying in character on and off [set]. ‘Please, call me Mr. Lincoln.’ I just say, ‘Whatever it takes, man.’ … Dustin Hoffman told me that you’re not ever playing a character; you have to play what’s inside yourself. … I really do think it’s very brave.”


Production Design

While the actors are busy bringing the characters to life, the production designer builds a physical world for them to inhabit. This mostly includes set design, from Stanley Kubrick’s labyrinthine Overlook Hotel in “The Shining” (1980) to Wes Anderson’s tweedy dollhouse interiors in “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2011) and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014).

“It’s literally building a world on screen that you’re going to be living in for the next couple of hours,” Hornaday said. “They can be approaching it from a very stylized approach like Anderson and Kubrick, or they might want to make it less theatrical and more naturalistic. Both are good. I love them all, as long as they’re consistent with the story they’re telling.”

Helping to populate the physical space are prop, wardrobe, hair and makeup choices.

“One of my favorite interviews for the book was Jeannine Oppewall, who’s known for her period work in ‘L.A. Confidential’ and ‘Catch Me If You Can,’ really retro in the best sense, but not kitschy,” Hornaday said. “We were talking about the level of background detail you want in the background. The way she explained it: Often times, the production design is telling part of the story, providing exposition or relaying information we don’t want to hear in a speech.”

One of the finest examples of production design comes in Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate” (1967), as the first 15 minutes alone provide jail-bar wallpaper, frowning clown portraits and a symbolic fish tank in Benjamin’s bedroom, trapping him inside his anxious quarter-life crisis.

“Just the difference between his parents’ house and Mrs. Robinson’s house, which is filled with jungle motifs [i.e. cougar],” Hornaday said. “It’s wonderful. It’s a feast! It’s a real tutorial.”

Hornaday also has a soft spot for the set design of Alan J. Pakula’s “All the President’s Men” (1976), which faithfully recreated The Washington Post newsroom down to the tiniest detail.

“The reason that’s such an interesting example is because that is a case where, other than the exteriors, they filmed that on a lot in L.A.,” Hornaday said. “They came to D.C., looked at The Post newsroom, took all the measurements, took all the photographs and literally recreated it. … The legend is that they mailed the actual reporter’s trash from their trash cans to L.A.”

Sometimes, the best production design is so realistic that you don’t even notice all the details.

“Often, it fades into the background,” Hornaday said. “You’re not noticing, because you’re not meant to notice, but somebody’s gone to a lot of trouble to make sure you don’t notice.”


Cinematography

Once the production design is set, the cinematographer works with the director to design how best to film the space, including lighting, framing, angles, focus and camera movement.

In the case of “All the President’s Men,” the overhead florescent lights of the newsroom symbolize journalism as a place of enlightenment compared to the foreboding government buildings and shadowy parking garages of Deep Throat. Cinematographer Gordon Willis (aka “The Prince of Darkness”) used a bifocal-style lens device called a “split diopter” (also a favorite of Brian DePalma) to keep the foreground and background in focus simultaneously.

“What’s more boring than a guy on the phone?” Hornaday said. “Willis’ choice [was] to focus it all in deep focus, so you’re watching Redford, but you’re also watching the people in the background; they’re in equal focus to him. Then, incrementally, he pulls into a close-up, so even though you’re not aware of the camera moving, it is moving and it’s creating tension.”

The most famous example of such “deep focus” photography is Orson Welles’ collaboration with cinematographer Gregg Toland in “Citizen Kane” (1941). Not only did this depth-of-field create gorgeously aesthetic compositions, it also allowed Welles to symbolically block (i.e. choreograph) the actors to physically grow smaller or larger based on their emotional state.

“It’s the grand example and it’s still worth watching to this day,” Hornaday said. “It wasn’t just deep focus in that, it’s angles and [diagonal] dutch angles [with Toland inside a hole dug out beneath the floor]. Just using that incredibly stylized photography to evoke Kane’s evolution, descending into whatever he descended into. It’s not just for show — it’s all motivated.”

Camera movements should be equally motivated, whether it’s a pan (pivoting horizontally on a fixed tripod), a tilt (tilting vertically on a fixed tripod) or a tracking shot achieved either by a dolly on a set of dolly tracks or a fancy Steadicam strapped to a smooth camera operator.

“One of my favorite camera moves of all time is that famous tracking shot in ‘Goodfellas’ of Henry taking Karen to the Copacabana,” Hornaday said. “It’s showy, but it also works for that psychological moment; it’s irresistible to be squired around by this guy. What’s so funny about that shot is it wasn’t supposed to be. They were just going to walk into the Copa, but at the last minute the Copa said, ‘You can’t use our front door.’ So he had to think on his feet.”

These long takes have created classic shots, from Orson Welles’ opening in “Touch of Evil” (1958) to Martin Scorsese following DeNiro out to the ring in “Raging Bull” (1980). On rare occasion, ambitious filmmakers will attempt to keep the single-take going for the entire movie, from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” (1948) to Alejandro G. Inarritu’s “Birdman” (2014).

“There’s a wonderful movie, ‘Russian Ark,’ that takes you through the Hermitage Museum [in one shot],” Hornaday said. “Another of my favorite uses is ‘Children of Men.’ Alfonso Cuarón was very adamant that he wanted those shots to be unbroken so you could take in that environment and learn about what was going on that way, rather than through dialogue.”


Editing

Once the images are captured and the footage is in the can, it’s up to the editor to conduct “the final rewrite.” It’s this very concept of editing that gives cinema its unique property as a medium, best articulated by Soviet montage master Sergei Eisenstein, juxtaposing two images to subconsciously create a third unrelated idea (Image A + Image B = Emotion C).

Often, the best edits are so seamless that we don’t even notice them, moving viewers through the story with such subtle precision and expert pacing that we get drawn into the experience.

“I’ve interviewed editors over the years [and] often what they tell me is we’re editing to disappear, we’re editing so you don’t see our fingerprints and we’re editing for emotion,” Hornaday said. “They want to keep the audience engaged, swept up and emotionally involved because, often, a jagged, jarring, in-your-face ‘smash cut’ will take you right out of a movie.”

Still, there are times that stylized edits can work wonders, from the acid triple intercuts of “Easy Rider” (1969) and “The Wild Bunch” (1969) to the bloody ballets of “Psycho” (1960) and “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967). These postmodern techniques flourished during the Hollywood Renaissance of the late 1960s and 1970s, as American filmmakers were influenced by such French New Wave rule-breakers as Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and Francois Truffaut.

Hornaday hails a most dynamic example from David Lean’s epic “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), cutting from Peter O. Toole blowing out a lighted match to a huge sunrise over the desert.

“That edit is one of the most famous and most worshipped in movie history because it’s such a great, evocative cut, so dramatic, emotional and beautiful,” Hornaday said. “Lean was really obsessed with transitions [and] often he’d have those transitions written in. … In the script, it was a dissolve, but it was editor Anne Coates who made it a straight cut. It just gives it such a jolt and just gives it so much more power. … So she actually gets the credit for that edit!”

An equally famous cut appears in the “Dawn of Man” scene of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), cutting from an ape tossing a bone into the air to a floating space ship.

“That’s what they call an associative cut,” Hornaday explained. “It’s symbolic. Kubrick was a master of stuff like that. [Such edits] are obvious in the best sense of the word.”

While these dynamic examples are exciting, legendary editor Walter Murch insists the best-edited movie of the year is often by an unsung savior who is never even nominated.

“Murch was the man who wrestled that insane amount of footage from ‘Apocalypse Now’ and created a movie from it; it’s a minor miracle that the movie even exists because it was such a troubled production and they shot so much film,” Hornaday said. “Murch said, ‘The movie that should win the Oscar for Best Editing is the one that was saved, that went from unreleaseable to releaseable thanks to an editor — and we’ll never know what that one is.”


Sound & Music

Once the editor achieves picture lock, the sound designer crafts the aural experience.

To understand sound, you must first know the difference between diegetic sound (emanating from an on-screen source that the characters themselves are hearing) and non-diegetic sound (emanating from off screen that we the audience hear but not the characters).

Hornaday writes that “No Country for Old Men” (2007) is a crowning achievement in sound design, citing the suspenseful sequence where Javier Bardem stalks Josh Brolin at a motel.

“That is a great textbook case of sound design: just the wind blowing, the footsteps down the hallway and the light bulb unscrewing — it just sets up this incredible tension,” Hornaday said. “The whole movie is that way … Sometime if you’re at home — I did this once with ‘There Will Be Blood,’ I turned the sound down and just watched it — the same is true [for sound] where it might be interesting sometime just to listen to the film, especially with ‘No Country.'”

As for non-diegetic sound, it often comes by way of a musical score penned by a composer.

“It gets into issues of should you notice or should you not notice the music,” Hornaday said. “I’m a music fan … so I do tend to notice the music anyway. … Generally, you probably shouldn’t notice it, but I think it’s always nice when it can exist on its own as a beautiful piece of music. Even something like the ‘American Beauty’ theme, that turned out to be iconic.”

Indeed, it’s impossible to think of movies without the iconic scores of Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Bernard Herrmann, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Dimitri Tiomkin and Maurice Jarre. Truly, it wouldn’t be the same without Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Miklos Rozsa, Nino Rota, Elmer Bernstein, Ennio Morricone, Henry Manicini, Alfred Newman, James Horner or Howard Shore. What are some of Hornaday’s favorite musical scores in recent years?

“Michael Giacchino, my god, the music he is doing for Pixar is absolutely spectacular,” Hornaday said. “Another one that always makes me cry is Carter Burwell; he does all of the Coen brothers, and also the score for ‘Carol.’ … Oh yeah, [‘Cinema Paradiso’] makes me cry.”

Other filmmakers opt for soundtracks of pre-existing music. Hornaday calls Scorsese the master of this approach, from “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in “Mean Streets” (1973) to “Layla” in “Goodfellas” (1990). Still, she worries that many contemporary filmmakers use soundtracks as lazy crutches, namely “Guardians of the Galaxy” with its Awesome Mixtapes of obvious tunes.

“There are two songs I want to permanently retire,” Hornaday said. “We can’t hear ever again the original or any cover version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah.’ It’s done. Beautiful song. Retire it. The other one is ‘Fortunate Son’ by John Fogerty. [Allow me to add Norman Greenbaum’s ‘Spirit in the Sky’]. … You’d think they’d have fun finding cool, obscure things.”

Thus, the cardinal sin is “Mickey Mousing,” when the music matches the action too closely.

“That’s my favorite term of art in all of movie lingo,” Hornaday said. “It’s when the music follows the action on screen. It comes from the cartoon world where it’s like ‘deet deet deet deet’ when someone’s walking. It’s a no-no. It’s considered tacky, cheap and cheesy.”

Far better is a more creative use of sound, such as “Apocalypse Now” (1979), which not only weaves in soundtrack tunes like The Doors’ “The End,” but also weaves in symbolic sound design, matching a shot of a spinning ceiling fan with the whirling sound of a helicopter.

“That was all Murch,” Hornaday said. “I think he is a bonafide genius: as a sound designer, as an editor and as a thinker. He’s just a great theorist. … He was the one who figured all that out and bent the sound. He psychedelicized it and made it very hallucinatory and weird to get us into that weird, hallucinatory world. We know from the get that we’re in a completely bizarre, distorted state of mind. We’re in that boat and it’s not going to be anywhere near normal.”

Through it all, it’s important not to drown out the dialogue, which is often the knock on Christopher Nolan, who refuses to rerecord with ADR (Additional Dialogue Recording).

“Nolan is a purist,” Hornaday said. “He uses production sound [from set]. … I noticed it most in ‘Inception’ but didn’t mind it because I felt I got it. … I did miss it in ‘Interstellar’ with huge chunks of explanatory stuff that I missed. … It’s also a function of Hans Zimmer, who’s a great composer but he makes these bass-heavy, booming scores that have a drowning-out effect.”


Directing

Last but not least is the all-encompassing “directing” chapter, which Hornaday saves for the end because it encapsulates every single discipline we’ve mentioned thus far.

“Jason Reitman said I make 1,000 binary decisions a day,” Hornaday said. “Maybe I make one wrong one, that’s OK, it’ll slide. Maybe I make two, then maybe I make more than that, and suddenly, the movie’s not working. … Linklater and Alexander Payne said the same thing: It’s all about tone. If you think about the movies we love the most, they’re tonal masterpieces.”

While Hornaday appreciates the “organizer-in-chief” role in this collaborative process, the romantic in her would still like to believe in the “auteur theory,” where each filmmaker leaves stamps of distinct authorship and consistent iconography on every film in his/her canon.

For Hitchcock, it’s the “Vertigo” zolly shot (zoom + dolly), dollying the camera forward while simultaneously zooming out, creating the illusion that the image is detaching from itself. For Kathryn Bigelow, it’s a gritty, cinema-verite style that evokes the best of Italian Neorealism. And for Spike Lee, it’s the unique “double dolly” shot, creating the illusion of a character floating.

“That’s one of his signatures, where a character will appear to be floating toward the camera and the camera’s kind of moving along in front of them,” Hornaday said. “I always think of Denzel Washington as Malcolm X when he’s heading toward that Audubon Ballroom. Spike has a lot of those signatures. He’s very aware of the camera. … You’ll see a lot of quick edits where he’ll often do a repeat; if people come together hugging or kissing, he’ll do it twice.”

While Hitchcock and Lee are stylish auteurs who remain accessible to mainstream audiences, other artistic filmmakers intentionally alienate their audiences with opaque, ambiguous approaches. Thus, Hornaday has coined the phrase “inside vs. outside” directors.

“I love both, but an ‘inside’ director would be someone like Terrence Malick, who is so idiosyncratic and personal almost to a fault,” she said. “When we think of auteurs, we usually think of somebody who has written and directed like a Kenneth Lonergan or a P.T. Anderson. … They’re coming from such a strong, eccentric sensibility that they almost make you come to them. I love that; I think it’s audacious like, ‘No, you come to me. I’m not giving you an inch.'”

The opposite style, the “outside’ director, is the consummate professional or transparent journeyman who nonetheless makes great films due to a deft, subtle hand. Such filmmakers include William Wyler, George Cukor, Michael Curtiz, Robert Wise and Billy Wilder.

“It’s the attitude toward the audience,” Hornaday said. “They’re very happy to meet you halfway. … Tom McCarthy, he’s gonna meet you halfway. He’s not getting fancy, but he’s very thoughtful. … Over the years, as I’ve been doing this more, I’ve become much more of an advocate for the audience like, ‘Come on, man! Don’t make it hard! Don’t alienate us.'”

That evolution has included a warming to Steven Spielberg’s sentimentality, which has served him well on countless occasions from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) to “E.T.” (1982), “Schindler’s List” (1993) to “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), but occasionally goes too far, such as the tacked-on Ford’s Theatre finale at the end of an otherwise masterful “Lincoln” (2012).

“He’s Mr. Audience,” Hornaday said. “But that’s him! That’s his instinct, how he works, who he is as an artist. You can love it or hate it, but you can’t accuse him of being cynical. I used to be really snippy because I thought he was too sentimental, but now [I’ve changed]. Part of that is I had a chance to talk to him. He is so much fun to interview! It’s like a film school … Over the years, I’ve really come to appreciate his gift and think he is a filmmaker of undeniable gifts.”


Was it Worth Doing?

Just as Hornaday asks at the end of the book: Was this Q&A worth doing? In the end, the goal here is not merely a Cliff-Notes version of Hornaday’s hardback, but rather a clarion call to pick up a copy of an endlessly useful work from one of the top minds in all of film criticism.

Like the best of movies, “Talking Pictures” is a book that can be read again and again. Unlike the legendary New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, who never watched a film more than once, Hornaday insists that the best movies further reveal layers of subtext on repeat viewings.

“When people ask what are your favorite movies, generally it’s those movies that come on when I’m channel surfing and I’ll watch [repeatedly],” she said. “That’s your ‘All the President’s Men,’ ‘Goodfellas,’ ‘You Can Count on Me’ [and] ‘The Best Years of Our Lives.’ It needs to be mentioned more because it’s a perfect movie, so ahead of its time, tough but sentimental in the best sense. Oh my god, the wedding scene, it just gets me every time! It’s a perfect movie.”

Perhaps her next project will be an entire book on “Best Years.” Or, maybe she’ll finish the book she started years ago on “Sweet Smell of Success.” Until then, you can read her regularly in The Washington Post, listen to her live Friday afternoons on WTOP and download her podcast “At the Movies with Arch & Ann,” co-hosted by Arch Campbell and Marc Sterne.

“We have a ball,” she said. “We chop it up. We talk about movies, pop culture, what’s been in the news that week. I basically sit and listen to Arch, because he’s the font of all wisdom in this town, as we both know. I defer to him in all things, but we really have a good time.”

Through the podcast, you realize she’s more than just a film encyclopedia or wordsmith dictionary, but an increasingly humble critic with a generosity of spirit. Inquisitive minds continue to evolve, whether it’s warming to pop favorites like Spielberg, reassessing art gems like Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man” or offering to reconsider the Coens’ “The Big Lebowski.”

“I’m gonna keep trying,” Hornaday said with a smile.

Listen to the full conversation with The Washington Post chief film critic Ann Hornaday below:


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