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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
Filed under: Movies Tagged: | armond white, art, Critic, dark knight, David Denby, film, film criticism, Hubs, Internet Movie Database, Movie, Movies, reviews, roger ebert, rotten tomatoes, Theory and Criticism, toy story 3