In the past ten years there has been quite a bit of discussion regarding the place and purpose of film criticism, especially popular film criticism, in the modern movie marketplace. With the popularity of behind-the-scenes commentary from filmmakers available on most home video platforms, the amount of purposefully “leaked” information regarding a film’s production from beginning to end, the proliferation and popularity of screenplays being available to the public before cameras start rolling, and how social media, in general, has brought a film’s audience virtually to its set, some question what type of knowledge a film critic could possibly offer when its audience has been kept up-to-date with its progress from pre-production to post-production.
Also, the debate rages on whether a critic should evaluate a film, or just give some sort of recommendation. Many critics would rather use their experience and learning regarding the art of film to educate the public and illuminate the achievements, and failures, of a particular movie and provide context for their criticism. However, the reality is that editors understand their readers look to reviews for guidance as to how they should spend their money that weekend and because of that, the popular star system of rating films has flourished in recent years.
As the executive director of a film organization, and the operator of an art house movie theater, I know first-hand that film criticism matters, and many of the patrons I talk to go to critics to gain a deeper understanding of the films they see at my theater. There is also a portion of the audience who wants to see a film because of its lead actor, because they heard it is funny, or because the director was charming on NPR’s Fresh Air, and there is nothing wrong with that. Movies can just offer entertainment and spectacle, and some of my personal favorites are just that, but movies can be so much more when you dive deeper and learn what exactly is being said about the larger world through the art of film, and true criticism helps the public to achieve that.
Below is a list I have compiled of film critics, in their own words, stating why film criticism matters:
Film Criticism Matters Because the Movies Matter - Roger Ebert.
There has never been an art form that has reached as many people, all over the world, as quickly as film has. Even though there are detractors who argue that film is in a decline, I would argue that it is simply evolving. Serious television dramas now incorporate film elements and styles that were not present in television fifty, forty, or even twenty years ago. Broadway productions, once a great source of material to be adapted by the movies, now dives into the history of film to derive inspiration.
There is no escape from cinema, and that is a good thing, because it provides a narrative structure that brings cultures, populations, and communities together. Through the movies we see how life is for those who are different from us, and we learn from it. It provides a construct that can effectively deliver empathy directly to an audience.
However, if you take critics out of the equation, there is no reason for filmmakers to push the boundaries of what they have already accomplished, or for corporate entities not to take an even bigger piece of the cinema pie and push more easy-to-digest films that are not thought-provoking in the slightest. Real, serious film criticism begs the industry to do better and should have no fear of letting it know when it does not live up to those expectations, as well helps to continually inform its audience.
Criticism is All That Stands Between the Public and Advertising - Pauline Kael
For several years, critics who worked in traditional print media have started to be edged out by the rise of the movie-related blogs. The ad-based revenue is dependent on the writers creating traffic and content for a readership that will return regularly. Because of the nature of how these websites make money, they are often forced into a place where common journalistic standards becomes fuzzy, as they will take money from the studios that are releasing the same films that have been reviewed on the site.
Because the nature of this relationship that is very advantageous for the studio, critics have become a marketing tool for the film industry. If a writer is paid to review a film with the same money that is used to advertise the film, the writer is not creating a piece of criticism, the writer is creating a piece of publicity.
Now there are some very good web-based critics, such as Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun and Dana Stevens at Slate, and traditional critics have fallen victim to this arrangement with the studios, just look at any collection of movie posters up at any given time in a theater’s lobby and you will start to see several of the same names appear over and over again. For the critic, this arrangement creates exposure and name recognition, a chance to appear on television during awards season and be part of the very small group of critics who are also celebrities, but it does nothing to help create an informed film-going audience. If anything, the public becomes complacent, and will only read from critics who will review films that satisfy the pre-release hype the studio generates.
Just look at Rotten Tomatoes, the website that aggregates the reviews from a large cross section of critics and gives the film one score, on any given Friday. Angry, and often bullying, comments pile up against any film critic who did not give a favorable enough review based on a marketing campaign that piqued those particular viewers’ interests.
True film criticism is not about one score, earning advertising revenue, or even making readers happy. It is looking at a film on its own and explaining what one informed movie critic got out of it. In order for this to happen, the piece of criticism must be separate from both the public and the studio. Otherwise the public will not know when to insist on better films when the only films in the theater are bad, or to beg for something different and exciting when all the films being offered are the same.
All Opinions are not Created Equal; the Opinion Worth Disseminating is the Informed Opinion, Based on Experience and Learning. - Armond White
Yes, I just quoted Armond White, known to many as the film critic who quite frequently disagrees with the popular consensus of films. He makes a good point that seems like common sense, being informed should always trump being uninformed, however, sometimes it is easier to just go with the opinion that sounds the best. I am pretty sure Armond White does give certain films negative reviews just to stir the pot. However, he also defends his writing admirably and even though it seems at times he is the only person in the world who had negative feelings about a popular film, you would be hard-pressed to find any evidence in his writing that he is doing so just to be a troll.
Because Armond White writes his criticism with an impressive knowledge of film history, a strong grasp on the filmmaking process, and a great love of the movies, even when I disagree with him, which is very, very often, I always step away from the review with a bigger picture of the world of cinema. It is okay if there is no point to a piece of criticism other than to get an audience to start asking questions.
Why do I flock to every superhero movie even though there are very few differences between any of them? Why do I give up my hard-earned money to watch the films of certain directors even though it is evident they are way past their prime? Why is it that I nonchalantly disregarded examples of sexism, racism, or homophobia in this film, but was disgusted by it in another?
Sure, it becomes uncomfortable when we are confronted with those questions when reading a piece of criticism, and many popular critics do not believe it is part of their job description to ask them. But, so much is lost when an audience does not step back and ask hard questions about the kinds of film they watch. Film criticism helps to frame these questions and the really good critics can even write about how the films they are reviewing started their own internal dialogue.
For better or worse, movies are a big part of what shapes us in the modern world, and since they are so important, shouldn’t we read criticism that discusses how cinema forms us, from people who know what they are taking about?
Begging for Better by Jonah Crismore is part of (260) Issue Two: The Critic. Print Copies of The Critic are now on sale.