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C'mon Hollywood: Why critics are important

05.23.2017

While it’s lessened quite a bit over the years, there’s still this cultural image of a film critic as a bespectacled balding guy in a professor’s tweed jacket (the one’s with the darker colored fabric on the elbows for some reason), smoking a pipe, and talking about how shitty the latest TRANSFORMERS or MARVEL movies were. Just with more highfalutin language and less cursing. Even in the age of bloggers and fan-sites, there’s still a common refrain – possibly even exacerbated by the saturation of voices now available – that posits: what’s the point of a critic?

That simple question is actually a pretty valid one. For one thing, there’s that old adage “everyone’s a critic”, which while originally meant to be said sarcastically, now has an unintended extra meaning in the aforementioned age of blogs, vlogs, and fan-sites (like this one). At this point the whole world can hear everyone and their grandma’s dog’s opinions on every upcoming film. And let me tell you, my grandma’s dog has some choice words about the DCEU…

Anyway, if that’s the case, is there even room for critics anymore? At one point, critics held sway due to a lack of distribution for one’s opinion. For instance, before the internet existed, your grandma’s dog couldn’t give its treatise on the upcoming JUSTICE LEAGUE film beyond family and friends or people on the street it could physically bark at. However, people like Rex Reed, Pauline Kael, and of course Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel had the ability to spread their opinions through widely-read newspapers (the internet of a bygone era), or – in the case of Siskel and Ebert –their own television program. But, again, at this point, that barrier has been breached, and everyone is connected and heard. So the question now has become, what does that means for the art of film criticism?

Because, yes, criticism is indeed an art. Furthermore, I also believe critics are still a vital part of discourse in the film industry and art in general. Because I don’t believe “everyone’s a critic”. In fact, I’d argue if we’re going to rehash old idioms, I think a more accurate one is “opinions are like assholes…everyone’s got one.

The thing is, everybody is entitled to their OPINION, sure. If you don't like something, you don't like something. But your CRITICISM may be wrong. In that case, it just means you can't articulate why you didn't enjoy something, so you go to easy answers like "it's boring", "it was too long", "I hated the characters", etc. While those are valid OPINIONS, they're not necessarily good CRITICISM (why was it boring? Was it because it had a meandering plot that went on tangents and diverted from the main through line too often? Or was it because the story had no forward progression, and thus characters remained stagnant with no arc to speak of? Would you have considered it too long if you enjoyed the material more? And did the characters suck because they were inconsistent, or was it because they had no defining traits besides their appearance and/or occupation?, etc.)

Contrary to opinions (which can be anything from "I think the Earth is flat" to "celery is a good soda flavor"), criticism is a SKILL that must be LEARNED, PRACTICED, and REFINED.  You study many different types of films (or whatever medium you're studying), and look into the historical context of when they were created (like the socio-econonic climate of its era), alongside things like intertexuality with other mediums, and political allegory, to get at its subtext and meaning. For instance, is a movie utilizing certain tropes and clichés to make a point - such as MULHOLLAND DRIVE - which purposefully utilized melodramatic acting and homages to old-school Hollywood aesthetics to disarm the audience before the scathing indictment of said fantasies crept in? Or is it something subtextual, such as how INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS was more about McCarthy-ism and the conformity of the ‘50s than it was space aliens? Or is it a comment on the genre itself, such as DETENTION, which was a weird movie about how the ironic detachment of the 90s (personified by detached characters) killed off 80s horror (such as slashers, Cronenberg Body Horror, etc.)? By understanding context and subtext, it helps us understand a film's intent, as well as its place in utilizing or dismissing current trends. Sort of how understanding the origin of soul and blues can help you appreciate rock music more.

I mean, if you wanted to know how your car or computer works, would you trust somebody who's put the time and study in those subjects, or would you trust them with somebody who just happens to be an enthusiastic fan of cars and computers? Because people can call themselves a "critic" and still not be one. 

Beyond that, real critics use their knowledge to patronize and champion lesser-known works, such as lost silent films, cult movies, or thoughtful arthouse films – whether that’s through film restoration and preservation, or through a rediscovery of a hidden gem (that may have failed for a variety of reasons beyond being “bad”), or that were just simply ahead of their time. Furthermore, they can even give a deeper meaning to bigger, more mainstream films (such as the 9/11 allusions in THE DARK KNIGHT or the role of diversity in the success of the THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS franchise). Being a critic doesn't mean you start hating fun.

Unfortunately, criticism has been recently relegated to meaning only movie reviews – which indeed is a form of analysis – but far from the only form of analysis. That's why you'll hear studio execs or directors or actors of failing franchises spout out shit like, "it's not for critics, it's for the fans" or some other such nonsense. As if being a critic all of a sudden makes you hate Batman. In fact, a lot of times people treat criticism like consumers treat product reviews, with the most important thing being: is this product (in this case a movie ticket) worth buying? And the thing is, films aren’t simply products.  I mean, you can make cracks about how corporately-mandated the MCU or FAST AND FURIOUS or TRANSFORMERS sequels are, though a film works on a different level than something like a toaster, vacuum cleaner, or a Fleshlight does. In those latter cases the question is, “does it work like it’s supposed to or not”, while a movie is much more highly subjective. I mean, I’d argue a TRANSFORMERS movie does what it promises – whether that’s a good or bad thing isn’t an easy yes or no answer. Because complaining that a TRANSFORMERS movie is a loud, bombastic action movie with an outrageous plot is like complaining a Fleshlight looks like a vagina.

And, look, you don't have to agree with the critics (hell, they don't even really agree amongst themselves most of the time). In fact rebelling from a critic's point of view is precisely the point. In that case, you are ENGAGING with the art-form, and you begin to dissect and analyze meaning, and what does and doesn't work for you. Furthermore, if you feel the critic is too didactic, or enjoys nostalgia over the possibilities of modern storytelling, you can seek out other voices – or better yet, write your own critiques. Because a critic's opinion is not inherently better than a random Schmoes (just ask Armond White), the point is critics make points that can be debated and challenged. So the moment you’re thinking beyond simple “is it good”/“is it bad” or “I liked it”/”I didn’t like it” and thinking deeper, is the moment you’re dealing in real criticism and not just opinions.

Finally, there’s nothing wrong with audiences not looking deeper into a film beyond “that was funny”, “that made me cry”, “it had explosions, I’m good”. That’s perfectly fine, especially if they're using films as a means of escape. Honestly, maybe they're a busy neuroscientist, or an over-stressed working mother, or an inexplicably talking dog, and they don’t have time to pour through obscure films, read essays and analysis, or watch countless interviews. Because sometimes people just love a movie because the explosions were frequent and awesome. And that’s okay. 

They just shouldn't call themselves critics.

Extra Tidbit: If you haven't checked out Roger Ebert's I HATE, HATE, HATE, HATE THAT MOVIE! you should, it's pretty great and insightful.

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