Some Thoughts on Film Criticism

Talking back and forth with commenters around the web and in discussion with my friends over the past three or four years, I’ve been fascinated by all the different methods of film “criticism” that can go on – meaning everything from shrugging your shoulders at a movie and saying, “meh,” to deconstructing its plot in a two-hour discussion afterward. As a a critic, I believe there is something to be said for looking deeper into the movies we watch, beyond mere entertainment, and actually appreciating craftsmanship, and I try to express these thoughts in word when I write a review. I resent it when critics are all branded as one body whose only job is to be movie killjoys and pick apart movies that are “just meant to be fun” or enjoy “snooty, uppity, artistic movies.” There is a place for every single kind of movie, from escapist kid-friendly “Spy Kids,” to long, lovelorn epics like “Atonement.”

Since the advent of Rotten Tomatoes and Meta Critic, film critics have been divided into camps – those who liked a movie and those who didn’t like a movie. This trend can easily be seen on the first six negative reviews to appear on “Star Trek’s” tomato-meter: more than 100 comments within the first 24 hours of the negative review coming up, most of them bashing the reviewer for being a douche who obviously didn’t have the smarts to appreciate Star Trek’s awesomeness. In some cases, this is true – there do exist critics out there who post a negative review solely for the page views and comments it will get their blog, but what this illustrates is that now critics are this one big mass body, whereas you used to just read one critic – that of your local newspaper. It’s changed film criticism to either a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” kinda thing – and that’s what we need to clear up first. Film criticism is writing your thoughts down, trying to capture your experience of watching the movie in order to help other people judge whether or not they should spend their hard-earned money on it. If I give, say, Star Trek, four stars, and someone looks at my archive of reviews and sees I also gave four stars to The Godfather, the black-and-white way today’s internet audience views movies will falsely assuem I’m placing them on the same level. They will need to read the reviews themselves. Would you honestly think that any given movie can be broken down easily into one of eight categories? (the four star system) Of course not.

So now that we’ve gotten that pesky annoyance out of the way and seen that individual critics need to be looked at and read, what we have is that the good film critic does his best to honestly communicate his experience watching the movie. However, there is a big difference between what a film critic writes and what the average blogger might just pen down late one night or chat with his friend the next day. Okay, now I’m going to sound incredibly presumptuous here, but I think it needs to be addressed. These two different approaches to reviewing a movie can be called either film reviewing or film criticism. Since in real life these two are used interchangeably, the distinction will only exist for this discussion.

The film reviewer does not care and probably doesn’t have much knowledge of the dozens techniques used in filmmaking. To him, it’s merely an experience to be savored and enjoyed and compulsively liked or disliked. According to him, if he didn’t enjoy a movie, it’s not because it was a bad movie, it’s because he didn’t enjoy it. The reviewer may have some basic knowledge of the craftsmanship, as they have often seen a lot of movies (e.g. lighting, acting, close-ups, special effects), but they will fail in the specifics (e.g. if they said they thought the special effects were really good and you ask them to give you exact specifics on where and how they were and they can’t go farther than one or two steps down the discussion, finally ending with, “Hey, it’s just a movie!”). Now, let’s look at the review this person writes, or tells his friend. He will only be able to tell his friend what he liked about the movie, nothing about the movie itself.
The film critic usually has a decent background knowledge of of the filmmaking techniques (I myself know far less than I would like to), and, before writing the review, will do research online for it. (Example: looking up on Wikipedia that The Last House on the Left was a remake.) This shows the critic cares what came before and knows some of his audience would too, so maybe he watches the originals to have a better reference point. Then, during the movie, the critic is looking at everything he can – the camera choices, the lighting, the filter, the acting, the way the foreground plays with the background, all these things, because all these things were thought of, one way or another, when filming, The critic understands that the film did not just plop out into the world like some baby from beyond. Hundreds, thousands of man hours were devoted to making the film you see before you, and all the techniques that the critic studied and knows are employed as well. So when the reviewer says, “That’s just how it is,” the critic scratches his head and says, “Hm, but why didn’t the director move the camera over here and focus with a little bit softer light so that the camera didn’t show in the car window?”
Another common area where critics encounter resistance is in the arena of kids and action movies. Let’s start with kids’ movies – things like Daddy Day Care, Beverly Hills Chihuahua, Space Chimps, Space Buddies, etc. Movies like these are critic-proof; it doesn’t matter if they’re terribly reviewed, families will take their kids out to see them, because hey, they’re just kids movies, and that’s precisely what everyone tells the critic – “Hey, who cares if the chihuahua thing was a gimmick? My kid laughed his ass off!” The critic, meanwhile, is thinking of all the great kids movies that have come out – Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Cars, The Iron Giant, Ice Age, Kung fu Panda, Bolt, and so on…Many of these have stood the test of time and are still in vhs collections all over the world as a little five-year old watches Cinderella for the first time, entranced by its timeless tale. Toy Story was a groundbreaking achievement in animation that featured stunningly real-life characters and a clever, witty story simple enough for kids and with enough in-jokes to please adults. I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time seeing Beverly Hills Chihuaha being pulled out of its blu-ray case twenty or even ten years from now. Or Daddy Day Care. Or Space Chimps. The point being that kids movies do not have to be stupid – time and again they’ve proven to be a bountiful well that only a few souls have tapped successfully (and Disney and Pixar most notably). So why do parents keep accepting less? Simple – because Hollywood knows they’ll pay for it; they know they’ll say, “It’s just a kid’s movie.” Another fallacy in this way of thinking can be exposed when we start trusting out two-year old’s opinion on matters outside the movie; just because a two-year old can listen to “I like to move it move it” for hours on end doesn’t make it the greatest song ever. To the kid it may be, but probably only till the end of the day.
And now onto action movies. I myself, absolutely love action. I love it so much that if a movie has enough good action, I’m liable to overlook some bad character development and maybe even a plothole or two. Call me an action junkie. But the thing is, I like good action, and I’m insulted when I criticize an action movie and the typical response is, “It’s just an action movie, it’s just fun.” Once again, just like with the kids’ movies example, I could cite a bunch of classic action movies that have featured spectacular action and stood the test of time. But you get the point. Why settle for less when, clearly, much better has been done? Many movies these days use the excuse of being an action movie to also be dumb and stupid – just like kids’ movies, because they know the moviegoing public will, a lot of the time, soak it up because, hey, it’s just a dumb action movie. Which, finally, brings me to my next point. A couple of weeks ago, I was reminded of the main thing that annoys me when talking to people about how bad movies are. I work at a movie theater, and I sold a ticket to a couple of women who were going to see Wolverine. They asked me what I thought, and I warned them that it was pretty bad. They kind of cringed, and then one of them said, “Oh, it’s okay, we’re not looking for an Oscar-winner anyway, we just want to have fun.”
This is insulting for two reasons. One, because it assumes that every time a critic goes out to a movie he’s hoping to see the next “Citizen Kane” or “There Will Be Blood.” Do people who say this honestly think that we sit at home nights wringing our hands over the lack of Oscar-contenders in May’s crop of movies? Do they think that the main reason I was disappointed in Wolverine was because it wasn’t an Oscar-contender? (Side note: it wasn’t – it was terrible movie across the board.) The second reason it’s insulting is because it assumes that fun movies can’t also be Oscar contenders. It assumes that the filmmaking techniques for making a great X-Men flick aren’t just as present in “No Country for Old Men.” When Stephen Spielberg made “E.T.” a classic, do you think he somehow made himself completely forget all that filmmaking when he made “Munich?” True, the two are some distance apart time-wise, but the point is that Spielberg very likely used some of the knowledge he learned on the set of “E.T.” on some of the scenes in “Munich.” “Feature-length filmmaking” is an art with specific techniques and specific rules, and you can follow those rules whether you’re directing the latest slasher or the upcoming romantic comedy starring Adam Sandler. All this to say that a movie not being an Oscar-winner is no excuse for its poor quality. “Men in Black was a great sci-fi action comedy, but it was not an Oscar-winner. There are very good reasons “The Adventures of Pluto Nash” is neither. And in the end, the simple fact for a critic is that a good movie is a good movie. Good filmmaking is good filmmaking. We don’t hold up every Oscar winner we’ve ever seen in front of the Transformers sequel. How idiotic would that be? We hold up what other times have considered culturally entertaining, we hold up the Transformers history, we hold it up against the first movie, we hold it up against special effects standards that have been set since then. When we say a movie is good, we’re not automatically saying it’s Oscar Best Picture material. I thought Star Trek was an awesome movie, but I’m not going to say it should be nominated for Best Picture. The Oscars are barely culturally relevant anymore anyways, and the awards are more-often-than-not based on favoritism and outdated ideals of what makes a good movie. (If you ask the Academy, NOT sci-fi would sound resoundingly back at you.)
Another branding critics get is that we’re close-minded. How haughty of us to presume that Bedtime Stories is pure churned-out by-the-numbers studio crap? Shame on us that we didn’t “get” Fincher’s misguided attempt to cram Brad Pitt into Forrest Gump’s shoes. And yet, let’s look deeper into the idea of this close-mindedness. The reviewer believes that all is good under the sun; it’s just a matter of your perspective. “Herbie Fully Loaded” wasn’t from the automated Disney Crap-O-Matic, but just a kids movie that you as an adult can’t enjoy. Let’s look at where this line of thought takes us. In Group A, a discussion begins about the merits of “Alien” as a movie. Three people hated it, two people liked it. After a five-or-so minute discussion Person 1, who hated it, says, “You know, we just didn’t like it. We just have different opinions, that’s all there is to it.” When Person 2, who liked it, tries to defend himself and say that he actually thinks it is a great movie, Person 1 says, “See, you’re being close-minded. We just have different opinions.” The discussion ends there, with clearly Person 1 being victorious at having ended any suppression of opinions, God forbid. Right?? Right??? Well, aside from the obvious hypocrisy of condemning close-mindedness while disallowing any discussion on the matter, let’s look at what happens in Group B, same group, only this time, the discussion goes back and forth as everyone discusses the techinques used in filmmaking, the acting, all the dozens of different aspects of the movie, so that by the end, one person who hated it likes it, and one person who like it hates it, and one person can’t decide anymore. At this point, how much more rich was the discussion of the people who didn’t just shut down each other because they had a different opinion? How much more did they actually think about their experience, rather than just passively digesting it? True, no agreement was made, but the journey of the enriching discussion has them now better equipped to understand other movies they see, as other movies use the same techinques in different ways. Or, they could see it again and discover bits and pieces they’d never seen before, which brings me to my next point.
I am an advocate for seeing most movies at least twice. To the reviewer, seeing things twice, even three times, is a chore – to him you can’t watch a movie repeatedly without getting bored or without its losing its charm, unless it’s that rare flick that truly resonates with you. But to the critic, who studies and understands all these different aspects of filmmaking, seeing a movie a second, even a third tiem, reveals its charms further and further. The reviewer presumes that they caught all they needed to see on the first viewing, a presumption which deprives them of movies that could very well have been hiding untold treasures easily missed by the casual eye just strolling through the first time. Many movies that I count as my favorites were not my favorite at all the first time. A prime example – Burn After Reading, which I would have given a 5 or 6 out of 10 the first time I saw it. But upon reflection and watching numerous clips from it over the course of several months, and seeing it a couple more times, I was struck by how well put together it was, and how clever it was being while seeming to be about nothing. Had I gone the reviewer’s route and simply cast off my disliking it as a natural part of who I was, I would have missed out. Who’s being close-minded now? Does this mean you have to watch “Max Payne” one more time to be sure it was bad? No, because some films have more flaws than others, and it’s with the ones on which you’re unsure, on the fence, that you should give a second chance to. Plus, what’s cool about film criticism is, is the really good ones hold up under repeat viewings because there’s always something to admire about them, whereas the bad weed themselves out soon enough. Contrary to popular opinion, watching something several times does not just heighten its flaws.

That’s about it for now; I was going to type up a list of what I try to do in every review I write; guidelines I try to follow, but this note expanded into a much longer version of what I was planning, so I will save that until the next time.

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