by Ken B.
There are a couple of rite-of-passage blog posts that seemingly anybody who wants to write about movies will inevitably find themselves writing…
- A piece drilling home the sheer incompetency and chaotic mess the MPAA’s ratings board operates under (which I may write someday).
- A piece wondering how far film criticism as a whole has fallen in recent years (that’s happening right now).
There’s a series of common pejoratives rising in a lot of circles, usually sourced from people who are fans of critically panned films – “Critics are out of touch!” “Critics are just failed filmmakers!” “Critics don’t know how to have fun!” “Critics are talentless hacks!” “Critics hacked into my iTunes and downloaded U2’s new album!”
OK, maybe not that last one.
But it’s no surprise to hear everyone, from posters on message boards to the talent involved with a film itself, rag endlessly on movie critics as the sole root of all film-related ills. And the members of this group aren’t perfect either – I’ll be the first one to speak up about that. Each bit of criticism leveled at critics starts with a grain of truth, no matter how small or misrepresented. For the first link, I’m sure that a general tiredness related to YA adaptations did subconsciously seep into reviews of movies like The Giver. And I’m sure that the many stories coming out of the production of The Lone Ranger did accidentally slip into the reviews of more susceptible writers.
(And I liked that movie, for what it’s worth).
But the fact of the matter is that critics and film criticism as a whole still have their place and indeed quite important and relevant in today’s film industry. Even in an era where studios pull tweets as quotes for their advertising. Even in an era where reviews like this can’t stop box office returns like this.
First off, let’s look at a couple of the main gripes leveled at reviewers.
“Critics are out of touch!”
You may think this is true, especially after clicking on the links above related to Transformers: Age of Extinction. But the Transformers series are, by and large, an exception to the rule. A very, very expensive exception, but one nonetheless.
Look at the raw data. 9 out of the 10 top grossing films from 2013 are at 60% or above on Rotten Tomatoes:
- Frozen (89% – Fresh)
- Iron Man 3 (78% – Fresh)
- Despicable Me 2 (74% – Fresh)
- The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (74% – Fresh)
- The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (89% – Fresh)
- Fast & Furious 6 (68% – Fresh)
- Monsters University (78% – Fresh)
- Gravity (97% – Fresh)
- Man of Steel (56% – Rotten)
- Thor: The Dark World (65% – Fresh)
The nine-out-of-ten statistic also stands for the top films of 2012. A good critic keeps tabs on all of the upcoming releases, and is human, getting as excited about the next big blockbuster as the average moviegoer. This claim that critics somehow hold an aversion to popular movies, like we’re all some sort of movie-based hipster, standing around in skinny jeans, sipping coffee, wearing plaid shirts and sunglasses while spouting sarcastic remarks about anything successful, is entirely spurious (although a bit of a change to your fashion style might be fun to try).
“Critics are failed filmmakers!”
There’s another popular saying that claims that movie critics (or critics of any form) are just sad, failed artists, the rejects of whatever art they are now critiquing. This is also nonsense. An unsuccessful artist would not turn around and devote a large chunk of their time (anywhere from a hobby practiced in spare time (guess who) to a full-fledged day job) to talking and/or writing about the subject that they supposedly display limited competence in. I feel like I can say with some degree of confidence all critics that write with regularity have a genuine appreciation for whatever subject they focus on. There’s nothing more satisfying than celebrating an artist whose work has truly impressed and made you stop and think “Wow! How did they do that?”.
Now, we can move on to the real subject here. We’ve firmly established that the lion’s share of film reviewers are just regular people who love the subject they write about. But does it mean anything? Does it matter?
At first glance, it looks like film criticism is in dire straits. After all, anyone with an Internet connection can start up a site in seconds. Both Siskel and Ebert, the cornerstones of modern movie reviewing, are dead and gone, and it doesn’t seem there’s been a figurehead to replace either of them. It seems like film criticism is breaking into disheveled factions, mainly based around one of two extremes: The junket folks who live to be the dishonest subjects of blurbs on posters and TV ads and the ultra-strict snobs who worry that Joe Swanberg is getting, like, way too mainstream (at least I think they worry about that kind of stuff), with everyone set to occupy vast middle valley, where one must perfunctorily make a home.
But upon further inspection, maybe this is a good thing. With the outer limits of criticism defined, it’s a lot easier for new writers to find their place – whether they want to be closer to entertainment reporters or film historians (as long as they don’t pretend to be each other).
Reviews in general still carry some weight, and that’s widely known by the general public. According to Alexa Web Rankings, at the time of this writing, Rotten Tomatoes, arguably the center hub of basic pop film criticism, has over one million Twitter followers, and is among the top one thousand most visited websites on the Internet (in the US, it hovers near the top 250). While their influence may not be as great for the height of the summer season, I do genuinely believe that early positive press from influential sources can be extremely important in bringing smaller independent or foreign films to a better status in the public mindset. (In previous decades, not even “small”, really – according to Wikipedia, when Terry Gilliam’s Brazil won the Los Angeles Film Critics Society’s top prize in 1986, it gave Universal Pictures the encouragement to release a cut of the film approved by Gilliam to a large audience.)
And many people still love the greats – remember the huge, worldwide outpouring of reaction when Roger Ebert, who is arguably as famous as a film critic will ever get, died in April of 2013? Many public figures, from Robert Redford to Steven Spielberg to Oprah Winfrey positively remembered and reflected upon his writings, cinematic or otherwise. Even Barack Obama released a brief statement. But, nobody cares about critics, right?
All in all, possibly the most convincing statement that shows people still care about film critics and criticism is just how much some people hate the entire idea. When you have dislike after dislike on a YouTube review professing an unpopular opinion on a film, and vitriolic comments spilling in minute after minute, this shows, in some twisted way, that the opinions of a lot of journalists or presenters are still relevant, and worthy of the trolls of the world to unleash their grammar and spelling error-laced poison pens.
Like all groups of people, film criticism will be crippled by the bad apples of the group, the ones who seem to speak only from a contrarian view, the ones who insult the talent onscreen, or the ones that seemingly only care about screaming their personal beliefs and biases at you instead of reviewing. But if we promote the great writers, the positive and wonderful things rave reviews can do, and show enthusiasm about discussing and preserving film from today and yesterday, we can ensure that film criticism is not seen as a group made up of either elitist snobs or basement dwelling losers.
So, in closing, I will ask you to do something I never like to ask to do. Share this post. There are buttons below. Or if you stumble across another defense of film criticism you feel better argued than this one, share that too. This is about showing that we’re not trolling or wasting time. We want to look at movies and see how they apply to the real world, and how they can be anything from two hours of pure fun to an editorial by a gifted artist looking to further social change, as effective as a passionate speech. This is why film criticism is in no way worthless. This is why it matters.