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That’s Just, Like, Your Opinion, Man: Movie Criticism and Subjectivity…

What do you use movie critics for? What’s their function or role? Is there a distinction between a film reviewer and a film critic? What do their opinions or verdicts mean? It’s getting to the point where the last thing the internet needs is another pretentious self-indulgent meditation on the nature of writing about film, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot of late. The blockbuster season seems to bring with it the classic “audience against critic” debate, not that it’s ever truly gone. Even at the heights of Oscar season, the argument is bristling away in the background, as people lament the relatively low box office if critic-pleasing films like The Artist.

"Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man..."

There is something just a little bit arrogant in this, I concede. I do, after all, run a tiny film blog on the internet that the odd person may pass through while accidentally searching for a much bigger or more important site. I’ve had a lot of good fortune of late, with wonderful feedback and participation from readers, nice links from sites I respect and even the odd invitation to a press a screening or preview. I write this little blog as a hobby, and I’m still awe-struck at the relatively minor success it has enjoyed.

Still, I feel a little bit of an outsider when it comes to film criticism. I’m hesitant to describe myself as a “critic” or anything like that, simply because I think I still have a huge amount to learn. I mostly just use the site to put out the occasionally rambling, off-topic, tangentially-related meditation on the film of the moment – and I’m delighted that anybody reads any of it. Hell, I’m delighted that you’re reading this right now. I mostly get clever, focused, well-thought-out comments from readers who probably know far more about a given film than I do, but I occasionally also get that sort of scathing attack on my opinion of a given film.

Can't take a Joke...

Those who frequent the more popular blogs will know the type of thing I’m talking about, where a recognised critic dares to deviate from the critical consensus and offer a minority opinion. Think of the backlash Armond White earned for panning Toy Story 3, or the lambasting that David Denby’s attracted for disliking The Dark Knight. I won’t pretend I’ve ever received any feedback as harsh as either of those two far anything I’ve written (yay! obscurity!), but I’m still amazed at how the internet mindset works.

While some might have eventually come around to dissecting Armond White’s scatterbrained logic and factual inaccuracies, all of the focus seemed to be on the basis that White had got it wrong. Don’t get me wrong, I have serious issues with how Armond White writes his reviews, with his logical failures, ad hominem attacks and reliance on convenient stereotypes, but his review of Toy Story 3 wouldn’t have garnered anything near as much attention as if he had made the same mistakes within a positive review. The internet simply would have shrugged its shoulders and let it be.

Just toyin' with us at this point...

This results-based approach to film reviews and critics has a certain amount of merit, to be fair. However, this seems almost the direct opposite of how I personally approach the film articles and reviews that I read. If you want a binary indication of “good” or “bad”, it seems the safest option is to use an aggregator system like Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic or IMDb. They’ll give you a general majority view of where people felt that a movie fell on the quality spectrum.

Of course, odds are that you won’t agree with all of them, but it seems like this aggregation has more chance of hinting at an overall quality of a film than one particular critic, especially one that very few of these upset internet journalists seem to hold in high esteem. Why does David Denby’s opinion matter if you’ve never read him before, or Armond White’s if you know he has a history of being illogical and inconsistent?

It's not a black-and-white issue...

Even if you can find one critic with whom you agree the vast majority of the time, it seems highly unlikely that you’ll correspond with them perfectly. Even if you do, it seems unlikely that everybody (or even the majority) of the people visiting that website will agree perfectly with very verdict on overall quality offered by that critic.

It seems a bit pointless to attack a critic for reaching a different conclusion on a film’s quality than you did, if only because it’s impossible for everybody to agree on everything. If you want most people agreeing on most things, use an aggregator, but I’ve always found using a single critic as a “good”/“bad” indicator – and attacking them for getting it “wrong”- a rather silly idea.

Shield yourself from the raging fans!

For example, I like Roger Ebert. I think he is the patron saint of film reviewing, but not because his opinions match up with mine. I don’t necessarily agree that he’s gotten too soft with age, just that his taste doesn’t perfectly reflect my taste. However, I read Ebert because he generally raises some clever points, ones that appeal to me as a reader. I might enjoy a film more than he did, or less than he did, but he’ll generally give me a bit of food for thought on it.

Even when I disagree with him, I still find Ebert tends to construct a solid case in his defense. After all, I think that most of us respond to film on a primarily subjective level. I consider the third act of The Avengers to be wonderfully energetic kinetic action, while my better half would argue that it’s just incoherent nonsense. My position is not anymore inherently correct than hers is, and there’s no way I can prove that it’s “awesome” and she can prove that it’s “hallow.”The best we can do is actually talk about it, and to argue our positions, state our cases.

This idea seems alien to a lot of movie fans...

There are obviously those who will disagree, and who will argue that film is a technical medium that can be measured in mostly objective terms. That various writers, directors and artist have quantifiably measured skills in particular techniques, which might be stacked up against each other to provide definitive and incontrovertible proof of a movie’s worth. While I can respect that to an extent, I think that rigidly adhering to that idea takes the fun out of what is a popular pastime. There are, undoubtedly, a sea of “important” and “iconic” films out there, but the law of averages states that we’ll generally be reviewing or discussing films well outside that particular classification.

I think the best thing a review can do is to give you an impression of what the reviewer saw in a film, rather than the grade they gave it. If you’re using a review to decide which major release to spend your hard-earned money on, you’re more likely to be able to deduce whether you like it by reading the opinion of a writer you respect and understand. Even if they didn’t like it, they should be able to outline their reasons and positions, and you’ll be better able to determine what that means to you.

It's a shame we can't agree on everything...

I’m talking about things like a particular writer’s reactions to sexual politics in a work, inherent morality, or even violence. Hell, it could be as basic as my higher threshold than most for camp or as mundane as my remarkable tolerance for cheese. Critics I read, including a wealth of well-informed and considered bloggers, might hold different positions on these points than I do, but that doesn’t make either of our positions incorrect. I know that it doesn’t make any of their writing less astute, and I hope it doesn’t dilute mine too heavily. Even if I disagree with a writer, I’ll often find myself conceding, “good point!”

I’ve always found it interesting that people who are going to see a film anyway react so strongly to negative reviews. Why does it affect their opinion of the film in question? (Especially since, in most cases, they have not seen it yet.) Whether or not they like a work shouldn’t affect your enjoyment of it. Sure, some film writers (such as Armond White or Rex Reed) might make ad hominem attacks on fans, accusing particular movies of being for brain-dead morons or such, but people tend to get more worked up by the idea that “they didn’t like what I liked!”

Talk about seeing eye-to-eye...

I have my share of movies I love that a lot of other people hate. To use an extreme example, I think Demolition Man deserves to be a cult classic, for example. A lot of people would disagree with that, and they’d make good arguments. It doesn’t mean my opinion is wrong, nor does it mean their opinion is wrong. People like what they like. All that matters is whether people can support their position.

It’s grand to say “I like it because I like it” or “I like it because it was awesome”, but such a position isn’t going to foster debate. I have no problem with people who don’t feel the need to justify their opinions, more power to them. However, you need more than that if you want to talk about film – you owe film discussion more than idle and stubborn posturing. All you end up with is somebody replying “I hate it because I hate it” and “I hate it because it’s crap”, and that’s not a discussion, that’s a shouting match.

Some films will just end up underground classics...

That sort of discussion turns the internet into a very angry and very bitter place. And, to be entirely honest, that’s not what I think that anybody writing about film should aspire to do – or anybody caring about film. Comments and forums are sometimes very dark and depressing places, precisely because people treat that sort of quality as a 100% objective factor, inherent of itself. I think if anybody who gets worked up about that one negative review of a film they like could remember that, the world would be a much happier place.

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18 Responses

  1. A pet hate of mine is a reviewer that is simply not the right reviewer for a specific genre. And when you read the latest review for a Stallone action fest, you just know that Mr Highbrow is going to slate the movie.

    And the WORST thing is these reviews ends up as the barometer people use to gauge a movie. “Not gonna see this one. I saw it got like 1 out of 10…”

    • I don’t know. I think Rotten Tomatoes has by-and-larged replaced that. But there is a definite bias against niche genres like sci-fi, fantasy or horror in the critical establishment. Then again, some might argue that prejudice reflects the general sentiment towards these subgenres.

  2. This interesting and thought-provoking article made me think about why I read reviews, and which reviews I choose. I think there are two main reasons. One, practical, is to find out whether a movie is suitable for me and/or my kids (12A can mean a lot of different things over here, not all of them right for a sensitive kid). I thank some good reviews for warning me not to take my 10 year-old to see ‘War of the Worlds’. I need less help when it comes to deciding whether I should see a film but I might not have subjected myself to the depressing experience of watching ‘In the Bedroom’ if I had read the reviews. It’s not a question of quality control (I thought it was reasonably well-crafted movie) but of finding out a bit more about the film to make a more informed choice. The other, and primary reason, why I read reviews is for the reviews themselves. I love a well-written review. Witty, clever, broad-minded, thought-provoking and informed. Reviews with those qualities will always please me. Whether the reviewer actually liked the film is pretty unimportant. I often find negative reviews to be the most entertaining. And that is even if they lambast one of my favourites. I can’t be bothered with reviewers who watch films with preconceptions, such as ‘all blockbusters are bad’. Yawn. But I can accept a well-written review that lambasts ‘Avatar’, even though I won’t be able to agree with it. As for comments like the one that I suspect prompted this interesting and well-written post, best to ignore them. Or use them as a prompt for an interesting and thought-provoking post! Way to come back!

    • That’s a good point – actually. I have to say, I have a great deal of respect of reviews that do that for parents. I do lean towards putting responsibility on parents for what their kids watch, but it’s impractical to expect them to police everything and I think sites like that do a tremendous job helping out. (And they’re more handy and detailed than an age cert that is okay with brutal violence as long as there’s no bloodshed, or one that enforces different standards on non-hetro-normative relationships, or an arbitrary numbe of swears, for example.)

  3. I agree with so much of what you say. I have had a little success blogging about movies – not on your scale – and the one thing that upsets me most is dishonesty, from other critics and reviewers. I have been in screening rooms where people who are well-paid to review have not been paying attention or have left the room to take phone calls. Then, they write really bad reviews that get basic facts wrong, including missing out completely on plot lines and/or getting the names of characters or actors wrong. I think that even a cheesy movie deserves your full attention, as you are watching it. And IMDB and so many other resources exist, so it’s not hard to get facts right. I don’t like personal rants, but I accept they usually come from people who care about movies. But I wish people wouldn’t swear or use bad language in rviews. That always makes me wince as it looks like lazy writing. I have quite an academic background, but am an unabashed populist and I just adore movies. Thank you for another thought-provoking piece!

    • Thanks Greer. And trust me, I’ve had no measure of success. Just glad that a handful of people read and a handful of people enjoy enough to share or make comments.

      I’ve had the same experiences as you at screenings. In some cases, I’ve even seen fairly prominent critics walk out of a movie before it ended. I don’t know if they reviewed it or not (I’d hope not), but that dented my faith a little. But I find most to be sincere and hardworking individuals.

  4. I only read reviews after I’ve seen a film, as I don’t want the reviewers opinions to colour my own while watching it. So I really don’t mind if someone disagrees, once it has well argued points. Usually a good review will make me see more than I picked up on at first, and might add some extra info about the writer/director that i didn’t previously know-like watching the dvds extras.

    I go for certain reviewers because I like their writing style, and they have a good ability to reason, not because their opinions line up with my own perfectly. That would be like having a friend that you agreed with all the time, meaning you would never have any heated discussions; how boring and grey??

    I must say I’m a fan of Mark Kermode, and really like watching the radio reviews that he posts on youtube. To hear him review really trashy films, some of which he likes, is hilarious. I love that he is a fan of Twilight, it seems so wrong!

    • I love Kermode, if only because the man has a rare passion. He could talk about the phone book, and you’d suspect that it was coming from some deepseated and well-considered place. I don’t hate Twilight as much as most, although I freely concede that it has some severe gender problems. It’s like Wuthering Heights – it seems like the exact opposite of what people seem to think it is, only Meyer isn’t in on the joke like Bronte was.

  5. Another great piece. I love opinions because they are impossible to falsify. An opinion is an opinion and not a fact. If people want to slate films and call people names if they choose to like certain films then so be it. I can’t really understand how anyone who has never made a film can slate a film anyway. The best you can say is ‘it’s not for me’. You get some real movie snobs out there and you also get some reviewers that love everything. I don’t have any favourite reviewers but I do read tons of reviews. It’s interesting to hear people state their cases, no matter what their cases may be. Long live freedom of expression and subjectivity!

  6. Interesting article! I never read reviews when I’m trying to choose which film to watch, but I do love to read them (Ebert especially). I’m just interested in seeing what other people think — what they picked up on that I didn’t, or how our opinions of a film may differ.

    I’m always baffled by some of the comments that people leave. I’ve never really understood the purpose in or motivation behind putting so much effort into attacking a reviewer or critic, just because their opinion differs from your own. The same goes with the idiotic “fan wars” that pop up all over the internet. Everyone has different taste in films, and that’s the whole beauty of film blogs/critics/reviews! What fun would it be if every single review you read just told you what you wanted to hear? If that were the case, I’d never read a single one.

    • That’s it – why is a different opinion so threatening to people? And why would you attack the person rather than the argument? That always gets me – you don’t convince me you’re right be telling me I’m wrong. There’s still some constructive discussion needed, I think. Don’t just tell me I’m wrong, prove why you’re right.

  7. I have to agree with many of the comments already here that it’s best to read reviews after you’ve seen the movie…because what I love about them is the points they bring up that perhaps I didn’t think of…thereby adding dimension to your own thoughts on the movie. The best reviews are ones that are different from my own viewpoints as they make me ponder at a deeper level. Anyway a thought provoking argument. Cheers.

    • Thanks. I feel the same way. If you can get me to consider something I completely missed, it’s all worth while.

  8. Movie reviews serve a few different purposes. For the distributors, it’s a way to make more money. If the consensus of critics are favorable, then the reviews can be used for marketing to sell more tickets. It’s purely economic. For the audience, it’s largely economic as well. They can use reviews to make an informed decision as to what to spend their hard-earned cash and precious time on and what would be wasteful. However, film criticism serves another purpose, and that is as social and cultural commentary. Film IS an artistic expression, and for us to think critically and rationally as to the artistic (as well as commercial) merits is good for everyone. Opinons may vary, but the discussion generated by reviews is a good thing, especially if participants in the discussion can articulate their feelings and support their opinions with facts. A critic can say a movie is “good” because of competent filmmaking skills and all the right elements came together perfectly or because despite poor execution, it somehow worked on an emotional level. Tim Burton movies, for instance, often have stories that don’t hold together well, but the characters and production design affects the audience so well that story flaws are overlooked. Does the movie work? Why? That’s the critic’s job to explore why films succeeded or failed.

    • Fair points, Jamie. And you’re right, it’s all depending what angle you look at from. I freely admit that I am generally wary of anybody following my advice on whether to see a film, or hwo to spend their money, feeling mroe comfortable talking about what I made of it, and hoping that people can get a fair impression of the film from that.

      And that’s actually a perfect synopsis of Burton. I think one of the best summaries of his work was “strong on theme and atmosphere, weak on plot and character.” (Although a good cast helps with the latter.)

      • I think your reviews fall into the latter category of social and cultural commentary by examining the films in order to create discussion of the art form, though it’s good to know what “regular” people think of new releases in well-articulated articles.

  9. This was a great article. Good points, very well made. And it’s just wonderful to come across a site with intelligent debate happening. People making points, some arguing against them but always respectfully and without crass insults thrown at each other…

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