We Who Ruin Movies, by Tyler Smith

20 Nov

I was recently speaking to an old friend and he revealed his general dislike of film critics. This was, of course, quite off-putting, as he knew that this is what I consider my calling to be. I asked what it is exactly that bothers him about critics. His answer was intriguing; he talked about the recent Mira Nair film Amelia, which stars Hilary Swank as famed female pilot Amelia Earhart. As the film’s release approached, he was excited to see the film. However, upon release, the majority of film critics panned the film, stating that it tried too hard to canonize its subject, rather than treat her as if she were a real person. Knowing that Earhart is already a rather mythic figure, the opportunity to see a realistic, human portrait of the missing pilot was an exciting prospect for most critics. But it was not to be and the disappointment of the film critic community was palpable.

My friend was very frustrated by these reviews, not because he felt they were wrong, but because he assumed they were right. And, if in fact they were, he no longer desired to see the film. The negative reviews had effectively steered him away from a bad movie, and this upset him. At first it would seem like some sort of weird paradox that my friend would be angry about somebody basically saving him money, but, upon further reflection, his attitude towards critics is pretty standard.

I have been defensive of critics for years, even before I felt that I was supposed to be one. Over time, public opinion has turned against critics, despite the fact that critics are, by definition, trying to help you spend your money wisely. Their job is to endure the bad films, the bad restaurants, the bad books; all so that you don’t have to. Of course, in order to establish what is bad, a critic must first discover what is good. To do so, a critic must immerse himself in whatever he has chosen to critique. While there is a great deal of subjectivity in criticism, a critic shouldn’t limit himself to only what he has known in the past and always be working to broaden his own horizons, lest he be unable to help others broaden theirs. After all, would you listen to somebody’s opinion of a fine French restaurant if all they’d ever had was Burger King?

No critic has the last word on what is good or bad, nor should they. By all means, they should educate themselves as much as possible, but, ultimately, it will mostly come down to how the critic is personally struck by the piece. It’s just an opinion. An educated, cultivated opinion, but an opinion nonetheless. If you ever run across a critic whose view of himself seems to be more than a little narcissistic and solipsistic, be very wary; he has started to view himself as the gatekeeper of quality art, the appreciation of which is impossible without his guidance.

The problem, I think, is that too many people naturally assume that most, if not all, film critics are haughty know-it-alls, out to show just how very smart they are, ruining your good time in the process. Like the friend that implores you to quit smoking or stop drinking soda or eliminate McDonald’s from your diet, critics are the people whose opinions are never solicited but always given. You’re enjoying your life, then the critic comes along and suggests that perhaps what you’re doing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Your instinct is not to listen to them- who the hell do they think they are, anyway?- but the seeds of doubt have been planted and, before long, you can’t quite enjoy the things you used to. There’s no question that this is the critic’s fault for expecting us all to have the same standards as they do and making us feel dumb if we don’t. Where do they get off?

I am, of course, joking. If a critic has persuaded you to see or avoid a film, the choice is still ultimately yours. And, no matter what kind of philosophical gymnastics you employ, the critic is not a hypnotist; the choice was always yours.

A film critic is essentially an adviser. This advice is yours to heed or ignore and you may find that you agree or disagree. However, if a critic claims a movie to be good, and you see it on the strength of that review, your ultimate opinion of the film does not render the critic’s views as correct or incorrect. And, no, if you find that you disagree with a critic’s comments, the critic does not owe you any money.

Lately, I’ve found that audiences seem unable to take responsibility for their own choices. It’s the filmmakers’ fault for putting out such crappy movies or the critics’ fault for recommending them or Entertainment Tonight’s fault for hyping the movies so much or your friends’ fault for inviting us out to see these films. It’s everybody’s fault but our own. Granted, with the proper research, we can probably determine with a fair degree of accuracy whether or not we may like a particular movie, but that would require too much. We want to be told whether to see something or what we should think about it. And then, if what we’re told doesn’t match up with what we think, we’re able to dodge responsibility for that too and blame those that told us their views, stating that it clouded our judgment.

There are a lot of very noble professions out there. Police officer, firefighter, doctor. Film critic is probably not very high on people’s list, nor should it be, really. As so many films (and even a President) have stated, the critic’s job is a fairly passive one; a vocation located on the sidelines of art, next to the crowd while never really being a part of it. The critic is not required to put his life on the line, or even his career. At the end of the day, the only thing a critic has is his credibility.

The best way for a critic to maintain that credibility is to maintain a clear-eyed perspective on what being a critic means, both to himself and to society. It can be very humbling to realize that the majority of the populace doesn’t really respond to what you do, and those that do tend towards a negative response. Humility is required in the field of professional criticism, lest the critic consider himself somehow above that which he is critiquing or the audience to which he is speaking. Being genuinely humble will keep a critic from being joyfully snide or snobbish and will serve to keep the critic’s caustic tendencies in check. That is, if a film critic prides himself on his ability to rip a movie to shreds, he will soon begin to wish a movie to be bad. A basic sense of humility can go a long way in making sure this never happens; a good critic should long for great art, not secretly pine for bad.

It is this same humility that the audience itself should try to adopt when approaching film criticism. The general attitude towards film critics seems to be, “Being paid to watch movies. I could do that!” Certainly, anybody can be paid to watch movies, but there is a difference between a focus group and a critic. Merely saying what you think is the beginning of criticism, but it is far from the end. The critic must start with how a film made him feel, then delve deeper to determine exactly why it made him feel this way and whether or not this was the filmmaker’s intention. A strong understanding of how a film- both technically and thematically- can impact a person is a large part of what a critic can do and, it should be noted, few others are able. This knowledge and understanding is not meant to be held over the average moviegoer; rather, it is meant to help them more fully grasp the film for themselves.

A critic’s job is to equip the audience with the proper tools. Conceivably, after a certain point, an audience member may no longer need a critic, able to put together a reasonable, informed appreciation (or deconstruction) by themselves. Should this ever happen, the critic then becomes a reference, a peer with which the filmgoer can compare notes.

Nobody likes being told they’re wrong. It implies that the person telling them is somehow superior. For that matter, some people probably don’t like being told that they’re right. Either way, it puts one in a position of needing approval from somebody else.

I think that it’s this inherent dislike of being judged that causes people to approach critics with trepidation. In many ways, the film critic has a great deal in common with a Christian missionary or pastor. People are living a certain way, perfectly content with their own moral compass, when the Christian comes in and suggests that perhaps there is a better way, something that is personal without being wholly subjective; something bigger than oneself. As will often happen, the person is unreceptive to being told that they’re doing something wrong and will quickly dismiss the Christian’s message. However, much to the person’s dismay, they find that, once the suggestion of a greater moral and spiritual standard has been made, it is difficult to ignore. The only options left are to either accept or actively oppose.

Art can be totally transcendent; it can change the way we look at the world and ourselves. However, for some, art is nothing more than a way to pass the time; pure entertainment. When these two views come in contact with each other, it’s only natural that both sides will be shaken up, even to the point of hostility. But, when a suggestion is posed that there can be much more to art than what we previously thought, the idea is too intriguing to simply dismiss.

And so we find ourselves torn between what we ourselves have accepted and what others are now positing. To accept their views means to accept a form of defeat; to acknowledge that we don’t know everything and may need some assistance now and then. This initial sting of stoic pride can and will always show up whenever somebody suggests that we better ourselves.

I myself am no stranger to these feelings. I used to hate when somebody would recommend a movie to me. I somehow viewed it as a personal failure that I didn’t already know about this movie. Then, as my artistic horizons began to broaden and I started to have true confidence in my own taste, somebody came along and suggested that I wasn’t watching enough foreign films. Again, I felt the sting of judgment, even though I now know that there was none.

As time has gone on, I’ve tried to realign my thinking and welcome suggestions and corrections. I have not always succeeded at this. I still find myself getting instinctively defensive when somebody is aghast that I haven’t seen It’s a Wonderful Life or Dog Day Afternoon. I hope that I will someday find a way to get over that feeling of inferiority.

My hope is that people will someday realize that film critics are not passing judgment on them simply by suggesting that a movie or filmmaker isn’t very good, nor are they trying to push an agenda by making recommendations. The critic has only ever worked to prod people to keep their standards high, lest the makers of film begin to underestimate them. In fact, as was once pointed out to me by my Battleship Pretension co-host, between a film studio and a film critic, an audience member will often (though maybe not consciously) side with the studio. However, to do so puts money in the studio’s pocket, while a critic stands to gain very little if he has the support and agreement of an audience member.

It is with all this in mind that I encourage those of you that enjoy films of all kinds to actively seek out and find a film critic that you like. Perhaps you like their writing style or their specific approach to film; whatever the reason, it’s important that you find the right critic for you. If there is a critic who feels that all movies should be made in the style of John Cassavetes’ Faces – and there is – and you’re a big fan of Steven Spielberg, then that critic may not be for you. If, however, you come across a critic whose admiration for the work of Spielberg has led him to write several probing articles about his films, you’ve probably come across a kindred spirit and it would be wise to check in on his reviews from time to time.

In spite of how they are sometimes portrayed, film critics are not the enemy. They are not waiting poised to crap on your favorite films. They have no desire to make anybody feel stupid or uncultured. Quite the opposite, in fact, as most critics take no greater joy than when they are able to help somebody find and enjoy a great movie. They’re here to help us. The only question seems to be whether or not we are ready to be helped.

3 Responses to “We Who Ruin Movies, by Tyler Smith”

  1. Robert November 24, 2009 at 11:03 pm #

    I appreciate this manifesto, Tyler.

    But I want to make one clarification upon your statements, for my benefit, and maybe yours. It seems that your definition of "critic" and "reviewer" might be the same, when I believe it's not. It's been the one thing that throws me about MTOL. The blog page tends ALMOST exclusively toward reviews of films — saying one way or another whether the writer liked a movie and generally why. But your podcast (this one and Battleship Pretension) is very much a critical beast, meaning (by perhaps only MY definition) you tend toward placing films inside a broader context and/or a narrower perspective (in the non-pejorative sense). I don't know that I'd listen to either podcast if all I got was a review. Reviews seem kneejerk to me, but real criticism makes connections between various elements in a movie, between a movie and other movies, and between movies and the society that produced them. I think that's what you're doing, more than telling me what movie to see on a Friday night.

    It's just semantics on one level. But for me the distinction is important.

  2. Tyler Smith November 25, 2009 at 5:44 am #

    I think that you're right; there is a difference between them. However, I'm not necessarily okay with that. A good reviewer should approach the movies they review in a critical way, and the best ones usually do. Just read Roger Ebert's recent review of "The Road," in which he both reviews the movie and discusses John Hillcoat's "The Proposition" and Cormac McCarthy's previous work.

  3. Robert November 25, 2009 at 9:04 am #

    My idea of what a critic ought to be has been altered forever by Pauline Kael. She definitely provided the simple service of letting you know whether to spend money on a movie or not. But she went so much further in connecting a movie — even obviously bad or insignificant ones — to their times. Even while disagreeing with her opinion, reading her criticisms is a benefit. It's like taking a class on the 60s through the 80s. And even a writer as good as Ebert seems lazy compared to virtually everything she wrote.

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