Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: “Critics are as Critics do”

By  · Published on May 3rd, 2011

I am going to attempt something that many have tried and failed to communicate to people for the purpose of arriving at a reasonable understanding for years. It’s mainly been attempted by persons defending their own personal profession and therefore really only speaks to those who have already been listening all along. In that sense this will be no different. However, I haven’t quite yet seen (though, I haven’t quite yet looked either) an explanation from the one side being attacked that says, in more words, “this is really who we are.”

Why? For the same reason we get dismissive of the lump assumption that all are one. This may not be what is always done in every case, but I don’t really think I’m going to over-generalize anything I will soon say. I will admittedly assume, though, that generally speaking I think this analysis of one side brought upon because of a somewhat popular perception from the other side typically holds true.

These are those perceptions:

Critics don’t like what the general public likes

Critics are irrelevant

Critics are self-absorbed

Critics are biased

Critics. Hate. Movies….and life…because they’re bitter they’re not talented enough to make movies themselves so their only pleasure is to tear down the works of those who successfully accomplished what they never could.

Or, something like that.

Fractionally, this debate is somewhat topical considering the release and relative box-office failure of a particularly polarizing independent film released in the past couple of weeks; polarizing between the film’s production team and fans on one side and the critics who disliked it occupying the other. That film won’t be named, despite no real strong attempt at subtlety on my part to be particularly vague.

The film, though, is not a specific target and immaterial. It’s only the latest example in a long line of historically resentful passion towards people who get paid (or don’t) to speak their thoughts about someone else’s work, which turned out to be collectively extremely negative in that film’s case; which, in turn, led to scapegoat blame for the picture’s less than desired box-office returns and backlash from fans who considered the critical response to be that of individuals who adamantly disagreed with the film’s politics, ideology, and the source to the point that they could either not view the film objectively, or even if they could that the film simply was not made for them.

The points that I’m going to make pertaining to the statements I made above regarding what the perception of many towards critics is are, of course, in defense of critics and the profession of criticism (of any kind) as I feel it is absolutely a necessity of pretty much any industry. Educated opinions are valuable, and whether you dislike critics or not it would be difficult to convince me that a human being could go through life and never desire the opinion of others about anything they find themselves potentially interested in investing in; and time itself is an investment when it is not limitless or in abundance.

Although, before I begin, I will concede that every single one of those perceptions is not entirely false. That is, aside from hating life. That was an exaggeration of the idea that critics write in jealousy towards films they don’t care for. At least I hope it is.

Let’s begin.

Critics Don’t Like What the General Public Likes

There is certainly a lot of fodder that gives an impression of irrefutable truth to the above claim. Adam Sandler pictures alone seem to support it. In fact, he’s a prime example for the second problem with critics as well as he’s an interesting case of success despite a lack of critical support for all of his box-office blockbusters and failure despite attaining critical support for all of his box-office bombs – which, as it relates to this section, does sort of prove that if critics like a film the general public probably won’t like it and vice versa.

I don’t think anyone really believes this is absolute truth. Of course, there are exceptions, like Sandler who achieve success despite a majority of negative criticisms and even fail (so to speak), or don’t perform as well at the box-office when his film actually has a positive majority from the critical community. However, to really believe that critics and the public largely disagree would be to assume that people consciously flock to films critics hate and flee from films critics adore. People don’t do that unless they’ve found a particular critic who really is their alternate evil self who does the exact opposite of everything they do. I wish I could find that critic.

The truth is, critics see everything. They have to; that’s their job. The general public doesn’t have to; that isn’t their job. They can see whatever interests them. What interests them may not be a film that critics liked, however they also don’t have to give their opinion on the film after they’ve watched it to be made available to everyone with internet access. Therefore, we’ll never know if the millions of people who contributed to the film’s box-office take actually liked the movie, we just know they paid for it. However, we do get an idea of how many critics actually saw the film and liked it, because most who saw it had to, or wanted to review it.

So, the miswording up above really is that, just miswording. Critics *may* not like what the general public likes, but all we can discern is that critics did not deter any significant number of people from seeing a film they said they disliked, nor possibly convinced any significant number of people into seeing a movie they said they did like.

Leading to the next statement:

Critics are Irrelevant

I guess I just proved that. It appears that nobody needs critics, because no considerable amount of people seem to be steered one way or the other by any collective or individual opinion from any particular critic.

This of course, is not completely false; yet, of course, is also not entirely true. In some cases, critical opinion can play a major role in whether or not a film even gets the opportunity to be shown in a theater. But, that’s not exactly what we’re talking about. The consensus is, movies can succeed monetarily despite bad reviews, and fail monetarily despite good ones. There’s no argument with that.

However, to label a profession as a whole as irrelevant based on that would mean that the purpose and focus of a critic would be to make a film that they liked make more money and make a film they did not like lose money as best as they could.

I will probably use this again later, but something that should be stated and differentiated between is one’s desire and one’s intent. Any professional film critic, and by professional I mean acting with professionalism and not necessarily receiving a paycheck to do what they do, differentiates the two. The intent of any review is simply to form an eloquent and entertaining opinion based on an interpretation of their reaction. The desired outcome of one reading it is most certainly that their opinion matters and you will choose to see a film they say the liked based on the reasons they give (they don’t want you to sit through a horror film they love if you hate horror films), or that you will choose the film they liked versus the film they did not if you have to choose between the two and can only see one.

That being said, the overarching desire is that you simply do what you’ve already done – which is to read the review and not just the rating. Somehow it gets lost that critics are actually writers; writers with opinions, but writers nonetheless. The writing is what gives the reviewer pleasure and so they hope that’s what you offer your time to. Not to mention, for your own benefit, you should understand the context for why they rated the film how they did.

After all, what good to you is a positive rating of a seafood restaurant if the reviewer of the establishment historically hates seafood and gave it a positive review simply because all the food tasted like chicken?

Critics are Self-Absorbed

All that talk about “I, I, I, they…all they want is…all they desire is” yadda, yadda, yadda. Why is everything always about them? The narcissists!!

A similar complaint is that critics always write as if they are speaking down to their reader. They know all, everything they say is fact, if the film is bad because they think so the film is bad because they think so.

This is true. Critics do this. All of the time.

Though, what is also true is If a film is bad because they think it’s bad, it’s because a film is bad because they think it’s bad.

Critics are self-absorbed. They write as if they are speaking down, stating opinion as fact, because many times critics are writing to themselves. It sounds circular, but it makes some sense. Most often, at least in my case, writing a review is similar to writing a journal entry. I’m speaking to myself, analyzing my reactions, my thoughts, my emotions, etc.

Why me and not talking to you? Well, because *you* are many and I can’t conceivably speak the same way to all of you. I can only speak to myself in a way that satisfies internal discussion and deliberation within myself.

Interesting enough, you know who else does this? Filmmakers.

That is not to say that critics, nor filmmakers, are not conscious of a listening audience. On the contrary, to be successful at either you have to acknowledge the people listening. However, in order for the end product to be a reflection of the creator, the creator has to first consider what the creator would enjoy as a member of the audience.

Critics are Biased

If the nature of the beast is to be, to some degree, self-absorbed then how can bias towards or against a particular element of a given film not affect a reviewer’s ability to remain objective about the material?

There are actually a few layers to this predicament. In some cases, there’s bias against a picture because it contains themes contradictory to one’s own ideals, and therefore how can the film get a fair shake? The opposite is also true, though it’s fair shake not to the detriment of the film’s reception on the reviewer so much as the opinion of the reviewer on the suspecting reader. Do they like it because they agree with the movie’s message, or like it because they actually thought it was a good movie? If they didn’t agree with the message would they still like the movie?

There are tons of other examples where one’s own preconceptions, expectations, philosophies, and experience and knowledge of the subject matter affect their ability to remain objective towards a film.

It would be nice, and really easy, to say that critics are professional and therefore are capable of removing all negative vibes felt prior to a film they expect to dislike, or positive vibes from a film they expect and hope to fall in love with. Contrary to popular belief, critics are human, and cannot completely do this.

That being said, why would you want them to?

Those sections of the human psyche help form who we are. Who we are watches movies as who we are, not as void of what we are. Past experiences, lost loves felt, tragedies witnessed, ideologies formed, philosophies reached…all of those things will play a role in our reaction to almost everything and if a piece of art captures some piece of that and touches upon something personal, it’s powerful – and I want to know that the reviewer felt that.

But, it is the job of the reviewer to communicate to me that they felt that and, hopefully, why they felt it. Context is key, forever and always. This is where being aware of one’s audience is significant to ensuring that you’re not just talking in non-specifics to oneself.

This is also where the familiarity with a reviewer as a personality is invaluable, and why I think it is actually much more important for me to read one review of a veteran reviewer versus hearing the opinions of thousands of strangers. A familiar critical voice, regardless if it’s from someone I most often disagree or agree, offers me historical comparison between my tastes and the reviewer’s. When it comes to deciding on what film I may want to go watch a known voice of dissent and a consistent voice of agreement are equally my best friends.

Critics. Hate. Movies.

I’ll avoid sarcasm for this final segment and simply just point out that I understand the meaning. No, critics don’t hate ALL movies, but they do seem to perpetually dislike the films enjoyed by the people who seem to say this while liking only the films that play in small theatrical runs that few people get to see.

All of the feelings of resentment seem to boil together and erupt to form this stew. Critics must just hate the movies. Of course, we don’t hate movies. We love movies. In fact, we love movies ten times more than you do. We love them so much that we will voluntarily sit through movies we expect to dislike, week in and week out. Why? I know you’re probably saying “It’s because you get paid!!” which is true, when we’re forced to watch something. However, even in those instances, we will sit through them and we will endure, because we love movies. We love movies so much that we hope against hope that our educated (not intellectual) guess that we will not enjoy ourselves is wrong. We want to have a good time. Why would we not want to?

However, it’s precisely because of that week in and week out, consistent exposure and itching desire to see every movie we possibly can that leads to the perceived break between critics and the general public. Critics have seen a lot and the more you see, unfortunately, the more difficult it becomes to leave an impression upon no matter how much one loves the art form being represented.

The more you see the more knowledge you gain. Not just about the art form, but of yourself. As you get older the more you experience and the difference a film can be at any given stage of your life. Things you once found funny are no longer anything to laugh at, things you once found arousing no longer tingle, and things you once thought summed up what makes you what you are and how you think only marked what you once were and how you thought.

Things change and people change to the point that the same movie can sometimes never be the same movie twice. Words can impact you differently, actions can mean more, and jokes can be understood. The passion to explore out further, as well as revisit familiar encounters is what makes film critics avid film lovers and defenders. We just don’t love everything that is what we love, just as not everyone who loves food loves every food, and music all music, etc.

The only difference between our love for our loves and the public’s for theirs is that we love to write about what we love.

If any member of the general public would love to share their thoughts about a film and why they feel that way about it then I wish they would. I could always use a familiar voice.

Get more Culture with more Culture Warrior

Related Topics: ,