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Who Critiques the Critics?

The ability of Transformers 2 to succeed so massively even with the godawful reviews that it is receiving has prompted yet another introspective look at the role that critics do, should and must play in the movie business. It’s a bout the right time of year – last year David Edelstein’s bitchy tirade against a certain blockbuster received such a vigorous lambasting that the author himself had to post an article in defense of his review, prompting other commentators to ask if the critics are out of touch with the public. I didn’t do film studies or go to journalism school. I didn’t do a term-long module on the role of the critic in the arts. Sure, it might sound like a simple enough role – you critique, it’s all there in the verb – but should you try to tell people if they’ll like the movie, or simply whether you did? If you know you hold a minority opinion, should you make some sort of concession to that? I don’t know, but the question interests me greatly.

The film critic in his default position...

The film critic in its default position...

First, we should observe that Transformers 2 was going to succeed no matter what. If it was simply a sunset screensaver, it still would have been a bloody powerhouse. I think its slight arrogant of film critics to think that they could have single-handedly slain the beast. No, I’m not happy that this movie is up there with The Dark Knight, but we can’t really do anything about. The quality of the film has little to do with its first weekend at the box office, but may play a part in the length of a blockbuster’s reign. Through either reviews or word of mouth (which must be pretty close to the same thing), long term winners like The Dark Knight or Star Trek or The Hangover emerge. Sure, they don’t necessarily have to blitz on to the screen, but if you praise it, they will come. The first weekend is based off the perception of the series (and Transformers is ‘big dumb fun’ embodied) and the hype machine. It’s after that the film has to stand on its own two legs.

So, having looked at the Transformers thing and why critics don’t matter for the first weekend, why do they matter at all? Well, why do you read reviews? That wasn’t a rhetorical question – I don’t know why you read reviews – and I imagine the answer might go someway towards explaining what it is that film critics do and probably should do. When it comes to films I’m hyped about, I want to see what others have to say on it. And I’ll concede that it might not stop me going. Even if the conspiracy nuts were right and Public Enemies was deemed the worst film ever made, I’m still in line this Friday. When it comes to movies I’m less sure about – The Box is a prime example this year – reviews may sway me to catch it in the cinema or wait for home media. Still, primarily, I like to read other people’s opinions of these films. That’s why I love Roger Ebert, even if he doesn’t offer a blow-by-blow account of the acting, directing, cinematography, etc.

For those who dare speak up against Transformers 2, Optimus Prime would like to introduce you to his two friends: reason and persuasion...

For those who dare speak up against Transformers 2, Optimus Prime would like to introduce you to his two friends: reason and persuasion...

There’s a suggestion that – in the age of faster and faster communication and an era where print media is becoming increasingly obsolete – that reviewers serve this function, as conversation starters on the topic of film. Reading what Ebert writes makes me think about what I saw in the film. Edelstein’s article above certainly provides a rare pure example of this concept – he saw one thing, the movie-goers saw another and I do think he could have managed the dialogue better than engaging in a series of petty dismissals. By this logic film critics are that kid in class you sticks their hands up first and says something that the rest of the class react to. Slowly and surely all the viewpoints on the topic are naturally teased out. It might be romantic, but I like this notion, purely as a person who enjoys good cinema (and, yes, I do enjoy the bad as well) and can’t wait to find out what others saw in the picture that I missed thematically and technically and otherwise.

But what of the function of critics as heralds? As I said above, I will occasionally base what I see and when I see it on criticism. There was an article I read last year which suggested it’s possible to do both. I don’t have the link I’m afraid, but feel free to let me know if you catch it. Basically, there would be a small 100 to 200 word review run in the paper that would advise the reader if it’s worth their time or that if they liked ‘x’ they’d best go see it, but there would also be a reference to the website – where the reviewer could go into as much detail as they want and assume that the reader had already checked out (or was never going to check out) the film, so they could have a full and frank discussion. Doing this would allow – through the medium of the internet – a sort of discourse to emerge between audience and film critic over the film, for anyone wanting to discuss the notion and anyone wanting to hear what various film critics thought of it.

So, I don’t know. I like that last idea, but it would take some guts to work right. I don’t think that critics are invalid today, just as I don’t think that they ever were. People will always want to hear the opinions of others on topics of interest to them.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to read up on Public Enemies.

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8 Responses

  1. I found your post very interesting. I don’t follow movies very much, but there has been a lot of discussion lately on the subject of video game reviews and what role the reviewer should play and I believe I saw a lot of parallels in your post.

    • Thanks, yeah, I think it could be relevant to just about anything. I’ll probably buy any game with a Red Alert tag on it, and I’ll buy any of the big “event” GTA games (GTA III, Vice City, San Andreas, GTA IV) without thinking twice. Same with the Smash Brotehrs series. In most cases, I’ll read up on the behind the scenes stuff and the features and gameplay of it and decide if I want it, but it’s rare I’ll base my decision on the reviews, unless I’m really on the fence.

  2. Great topic. I certainly don’t read reviews to determine whether I’ll see something or not. They do factor in, but only if I’m 50/50 about the movie. I love the critic photo for this article. Great show.

  3. [...] of that fact, forcing us to lament those mindless heartless box office blockbusters and also wonder what the modern critic is to do. Do they even have a [...]

  4. [...] definitions of film criticism – a school that constantly finds itself under attack and in some form of identity crisis. Their job is to comment and – occasionally and increasingly rarely – to recommend, not [...]

  5. [...] I find it hard to believe that tastes are that different between the two coasts. This strikes me as the old ‘critics are elitist snobs’ argument rearing its ugly head [...]

  6. [...] I don’t subscribe to the view that it’s necessary for a critic to reflect the popular vi… – to tell people what they’ll like or won’t like – because it’s impossible. Even if it were possible to determine a main popular taste, why should we force homogeny upon film critics? Surely people are allowed their own opinion. The litmus test needs to be applied on the demand side, rather than the supply side. Rather than than narrowing the number of critics, people should (and do) select a few critics that they listen to and whose opinion they respect. If statistics matter that much to you, open your own review aggregation website and only calculate reviews from what you deem to be good critics. That would be as subjective as critics listing what they think are good movies. [...]

  7. [...] of Transformers 2 as well and was disappointed no one heeded you, but I didn’t begin to doubt my very profession. Similarly I was upset that G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra was marketed around film critics, but I [...]

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