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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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12:43PM on 05/24/2017
Meh. The only critic that matters to me is myself. That doesn't mean I find critics useless, just useless in my instance. I'm also tired of people complaining that the only good movies have to have substance. Sometimes just enjoying a movie is all I want, other times a movie with substance is all I want. The idea that only one is worth anything is asinine.
At the end of the day, I get to choose what I like so...Meh. Critics don't sway me, so hence, in my case, they are useless.
Meh. The only critic that matters to me is myself. That doesn't mean I find critics useless, just useless in my instance. I'm also tired of people complaining that the only good movies have to have substance. Sometimes just enjoying a movie is all I want, other times a movie with substance is all I want. The idea that only one is worth anything is asinine.
At the end of the day, I get to choose what I like so...Meh. Critics don't sway me, so hence, in my case, they are useless.
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10:21AM on 05/24/2017
Good article. I love reading criticism. I think having a go-to critic can be enlightening, because you learn about what that critic likes. If Roger Ebert had lived to see Logan, I believe his review would be more critical than most, because he hated to see children turned into killers for the sake of entertainment. Bumbray is a massive James Bond fan, so whenever a Bond movie (or Kingsman, or The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) comes out, he's got a lot more thoughts about it than most. I've recently
Good article. I love reading criticism. I think having a go-to critic can be enlightening, because you learn about what that critic likes. If Roger Ebert had lived to see Logan, I believe his review would be more critical than most, because he hated to see children turned into killers for the sake of entertainment. Bumbray is a massive James Bond fan, so whenever a Bond movie (or Kingsman, or The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) comes out, he's got a lot more thoughts about it than most. I've recently become a fan of Patrick (H) Willems and Rossatron on YouTube, but the closest thing I've found to a critic with a viewpoint as strong as Ebert's is Emily Nussbaum's TV criticism in The New Yorker. Like Ebert, I don't always agree with her, but every once in a while she'll champion a TV show that most people have written off, or reference growing up watching Norman Lear. Some critics have a high and mighty writing style that doesn't tell me much about who they are. The best critics let you look behind the curtain, to understand why they feel that way.
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11:00PM on 05/23/2017
Excellent article, but at the end of the day, a critic is just someone being paid for their opinion. Roger Ebert is one of the most famous critics of all time; but he also wrote one of the worst movies of all time (Google it, dummies). So does he really know what makes a great movie (it could be argued because of what he unleashed on the world, he knows what makes a bad movie). Most of us in the 80's tuned into "At The Movies" to see reviews of movies we already saw (it came on Sunday nights, 2
Excellent article, but at the end of the day, a critic is just someone being paid for their opinion. Roger Ebert is one of the most famous critics of all time; but he also wrote one of the worst movies of all time (Google it, dummies). So does he really know what makes a great movie (it could be argued because of what he unleashed on the world, he knows what makes a bad movie). Most of us in the 80's tuned into "At The Movies" to see reviews of movies we already saw (it came on Sunday nights, 2 days after the films hit), and to just watch him and Gene bicker. We just went and saw movies regardless of what the papers or Gene Shalit thought.
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6:25AM on 05/24/2017
I think you're again mistaking criticism as *solely* about reviewing movies. I mean, I mentioned the great retrospective piece Plinkett did for The Phantom Menace in a comment below, and that was made almost ten years after the film had come out. Didn't make it less of an insightful critical analysis.

And, sure, criticism are still opinions at the end of the day. But they're INFORMED opinions that can, again, be debated in an analytical way (if someone says "that movie sucked because
I think you're again mistaking criticism as *solely* about reviewing movies. I mean, I mentioned the great retrospective piece Plinkett did for The Phantom Menace in a comment below, and that was made almost ten years after the film had come out. Didn't make it less of an insightful critical analysis.

And, sure, criticism are still opinions at the end of the day. But they're INFORMED opinions that can, again, be debated in an analytical way (if someone says "that movie sucked because superheroes don't exist in real life!" I mean, sure, that's an opinion, but can there be a real conversation about that, beyond "you're missing the point?" And, furthermore, even if you did, what would be gained?).

I also never said critics were always going to make GOOD criticisms (like the aforementioned Armond White counts as a critic, because no matter how wrongheaded most - if not all - his criticisms are, you can still take his words and find an argument that you can debate and challenge.)
-1
4:06PM on 05/23/2017
In this day and age, it's just an echo-chamber of unvetted noise. There is no outlier anymore. Everyone reviewing film lives in a sealed bubble where they follow other critics on twitter, care more about how witty they seem to their peers, look over their shoulder to see what everyone else says and thinks, attend the same promotional events and watch what they say tp be allowed to play in the same play pen.
So it's a mess.
To me, the aggregate RT score, taken into account the audience score,
In this day and age, it's just an echo-chamber of unvetted noise. There is no outlier anymore. Everyone reviewing film lives in a sealed bubble where they follow other critics on twitter, care more about how witty they seem to their peers, look over their shoulder to see what everyone else says and thinks, attend the same promotional events and watch what they say tp be allowed to play in the same play pen.
So it's a mess.
To me, the aggregate RT score, taken into account the audience score, is the only thing that matters. Individual reviewers and personalities are more than worthless.
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10:51PM on 05/23/2017
I disagree. While a lot of them are on YouTube, you have great film critics like Every Frame a Painting, Folding Ideas, Patrick (H) Willems, and of course the famous Red Letter Media (who got famous for a detailed criticism of The Phantom Menace). Also, if we're talking about solely text, I personally like Film Critic Hulk's pieces (even if I don't always agree with him), or things like Nathan Rabin's treatises on various flops. So there are voices and people there if you're willing to look,
I disagree. While a lot of them are on YouTube, you have great film critics like Every Frame a Painting, Folding Ideas, Patrick (H) Willems, and of course the famous Red Letter Media (who got famous for a detailed criticism of The Phantom Menace). Also, if we're talking about solely text, I personally like Film Critic Hulk's pieces (even if I don't always agree with him), or things like Nathan Rabin's treatises on various flops. So there are voices and people there if you're willing to look, and also think of criticism as "analysis with a point" and not "product review" that something like RT or MetaCritic distills it as.
+1
3:25PM on 05/23/2017

Thank you! I'm sick of people treating critics like pariahs!

By the way, half of the F&F movies and all MCU movies have received good or at least decent reviews. They can't be compared to the TRANSFORMERS movies. If one reads enough reviews of the same movie, one will realize that critics always judge them based on what they are. If a blockbuster gets negative reviews, it's because it's not fun.
By the way, half of the F&F movies and all MCU movies have received good or at least decent reviews. They can't be compared to the TRANSFORMERS movies. If one reads enough reviews of the same movie, one will realize that critics always judge them based on what they are. If a blockbuster gets negative reviews, it's because it's not fun.
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3:33PM on 05/23/2017
That sentence was more about treating films as "products" (a criticism levied at all of them - but especially the MCU). It wasn't necessarily a value judgement (and I personally don't agree with it), but it was something that needed to be addressed.
That sentence was more about treating films as "products" (a criticism levied at all of them - but especially the MCU). It wasn't necessarily a value judgement (and I personally don't agree with it), but it was something that needed to be addressed.
3:06PM on 05/23/2017

Interesting article

"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?" This all depends on what you define "time and study" as. I'd argue someone can be a film critic and never have gone to film school or even majored in journalism in college. If you have a vast knowledge of film, understand subtext and context, history, socioeconomic dynamics, etc as you say then you're more likely to
"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?" This all depends on what you define "time and study" as. I'd argue someone can be a film critic and never have gone to film school or even majored in journalism in college. If you have a vast knowledge of film, understand subtext and context, history, socioeconomic dynamics, etc as you say then you're more likely to be a film critic. The problem I have with critics sometimes (and I myself am one) is that too many don't understand that movies like all art are completely subjective. Take BvS. You can't objective say the color palette was bad because it made everything look took too dark. Some people liked the color palette because it added to the grimmer tone of the movie others didn't like the color palette because of the same reason. Completely subjective. That's why I'm liking scores less and less. People just look at the score. Or they just look at RT.
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3:28PM on 05/23/2017
That's not it. SUICIDE SQUAD had the same color palette and people didn't complain about it. The issue is SUPERMAN. Critics (and fans) think he should be colorful.
That's not it. SUICIDE SQUAD had the same color palette and people didn't complain about it. The issue is SUPERMAN. Critics (and fans) think he should be colorful.
3:31PM on 05/23/2017
Completely agree. Point of entry can most certainly just be someone who simply loves and watches lots of films. The caveat, though, is again they have to be able to do more than just spout out things they like/didn't like or thought was good/bad. It's got to have more meat on the bones. And I'd argue "time and study" can mean just watching lots of different types of films (or even just different types of films in a specific genre, like that guy who wrote treatise on the Steven Seagal films).
Completely agree. Point of entry can most certainly just be someone who simply loves and watches lots of films. The caveat, though, is again they have to be able to do more than just spout out things they like/didn't like or thought was good/bad. It's got to have more meat on the bones. And I'd argue "time and study" can mean just watching lots of different types of films (or even just different types of films in a specific genre, like that guy who wrote treatise on the Steven Seagal films). School has nothing to do with it, for sure.
3:41PM on 05/23/2017
As to objectivity (i.e. criticisms of DCEU films/use of cinematography), that's a good point as well. Art is not a science. That's why making arguments and points that can be DEBATED and REBUKED (or conversely SUBSTANTIATED) is the most important thing.

For instance, why does Superman have to be colorful? (I agree his movies shouldn't look like David Fincher films; however, I appreciated the attempt in MAN OF STEEL to create a more grey, naturalistic and "realistic" world, so that the image
As to objectivity (i.e. criticisms of DCEU films/use of cinematography), that's a good point as well. Art is not a science. That's why making arguments and points that can be DEBATED and REBUKED (or conversely SUBSTANTIATED) is the most important thing.

For instance, why does Superman have to be colorful? (I agree his movies shouldn't look like David Fincher films; however, I appreciated the attempt in MAN OF STEEL to create a more grey, naturalistic and "realistic" world, so that the image of Superman stands out more than if he was in a more heightened or romanticized movie universe).
2:01PM on 05/23/2017

Thumbs up.

I enjoy reading your work Damion. That's was a well thought out article.
I enjoy reading your work Damion. That's was a well thought out article.
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2:02PM on 05/23/2017
*That
*That
4:07PM on 05/23/2017
Thanks!
Thanks!
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