Essays · Features and Columns · Movies

Film Criticism Matters (So Stop Being So Damn Defensive)

If film criticism is to evolve, then critics need to stop treating every frustrated filmmaker like an assault on the industry.
The Critic
By  · Published on June 21st, 2018

If film criticism is to evolve, then critics need to stop treating every frustrated filmmaker like an assault on the industry.

Before there was film criticism, there was sports. The first online community I ever felt an affinity towards was baseball’s sabermetric subculture of the late 1990s. Led by sites like FireJoeMorgan and Baseball Prospectus, writers of that era found themselves caught in a tremendous credibility gap: sportswriters who placed value on the traditional components of the game frequently undermined the contribution of this new generation of “bloggers,” while the very players canonized by sabermetrics led the charge against baseball’s nouvelle vague. As a result, sabermetrics were more than a little defensive. Sites like FireJoeMorgan, which was co-founded by The Good Place showrunner Michael Schur, existed as a way for writers to blow off steam against the inflexible institutions. In short, the fight for legitimacy turned some writers ugly.

And then sabermetrics won. Front offices around the game began hiring former writers as analysts and made moves that ran counter to traditional thinking. Major institutions like Fox Sports and ESPN incorporated advanced metrics in their broadcasts, and baseball’s talking heads — the people who used to sneer about computers and basements — eventually began to discuss launch angles and exit velocities as part of baseball’s new era of quantification. The success of sabermetrics calmed an entire generation of sportswriters, and the angry, self-righteous voices of the industry eventually gave way to a more relaxed and (slightly) more diverse group of writers across the internet. In the span of 20-plus years, a new form of writing went from the fringe to the mainstream and matured greatly in the process. Now baseball writing is healthier and more insightful than it’s ever been.

Cue segue to film criticism. On Wednesday of last week, Brie Larson delivered her oft-quoted speech at the Women in Film Awards, arguing that film criticism could stand to be a whole lot less white and male than it currently is. “It really sucks that reviews matter, but reviews matter,” the actress told her audience. “We are expanding to make films that reflect the people who buy movie tickets… I do not need a 40-year-old white dude to tell me what didn’t work for him about A Wrinkle in Time.”

Shortly thereafter, in a fit of marketing genius (or madness), the company behind Gotti released a trailer that cribbed mainstream Republican conspiracy theories and suggested that critics were hoping Gotti would fail. “Who would you trust more?” the teaser asked. “Yourself or a troll behind a keyboard?” These two soundbites, taken in tandem, inspired an online handwringing about the nature of film criticism itself and led to several pieces (including this strong one by The Guardian’s Caspar Salmon) defending the industry against its naysayers.

Now, these two things are certainly not created equal. Larson’s comments were well-received by countless people in the film industry and, for the most part, understood to be less a condemnation of 40-year-old film critics and more a condemnation of our industry’s lack of inclusion. Still, there were more than a few reactions in my timeline that suggested that Larson had gone a step too far in decrying what she saw as the stereotypical film critic. And Larson is hardly the first. For years, filmmakers and actors whose films received negative reviews have voiced their frustration with film criticism as an industry. And for years, critics have reacted by drawing a line in the sand and declaring said director an enemy of the state. Any whiff of negativity towards film criticism as an industry has caused many to circle the wagons, often resulting in a petulant mockery eerily reminiscent of my baseball sabermetrics days.

That’s a problem for many reasons. For starters, it’s just not a great look for the industry. Film criticism has a reputation for valuing a pithy tweet over thoughtful analysis, a reputation that is often advanced by critics who have built their online reputation on snark. This may very well be me holding onto my final shred of optimism in this stupid fucking world, but I’ve always felt that education was one of the most important elements of film criticism, especially when lightweight commentary like Cinema Sins has been given equal weight in the audiences’ minds. Watching critics punch back at creators — creators who have every reason to be upset that folks are tearing apart the fruit of their labor — feels like it lowers the entire level of the discourse. In more simple terms, I’m hard-pressed to think of another industry where it’s as commonplace to put your vendors on blast.

There’s another element to this, though, one a little more nuanced. For film criticism to evolve the way that it needs to, there needs to be partnership and collaboration between both the film industry and the critical industry. Many critics, for instance, have pointed out the key role that Larson and others have played in ensuring that a more diverse critical body will gain access to their projects. Nobody in their right mind would argue that film criticism is an industry flush with money and power; for change to occur, it will require the attention of people within the industry, and that means forming a partnership where both parties benefit. That flies somewhat in the face of the idea that film critics exist on a different level than the writers, actors, and directors whose work they judge. Nobody knows better than us that criticism presents its subject with an opportunity to improve; when filmmakers have something negative to say, we should seek out the truths buried amidst the frustration and find ways to better ply our trade.

Sure, the parallel to sports journalism above isn’t a perfect one. Sabermetrics has had a quantifying positive impact on the financial side of baseball; better analysis means better players, better records, and better attendance. Film criticism, on the other hands, works best as a qualitative analysis of individual works of art, and often is at its best when telling audiences what they already know (i.e. that a particular movie is especially good or bad). Unlike baseball, any attempts at quantifying film criticism have also done more harm than good. While most professional critics agree that the industry needs to embrace more diverse voices, many were quick to point out the danger in treating an arbitrary gatekeeper like Rotten Tomatoes as the be-all, end-all of the industry.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t common ground. Sportswriting and film criticism have both evolved alongside, not despite, the institutions they cover, and both industries continue to gradually evolve beyond male-dominated professions. For film criticism to continue its place as an essential part of the filmgoing experience, it is going to need to survive more attacks, not fewer. So the next time a filmmaker betrays their frustration by putting the industry on blast, take a beat to think about the opportunity he or she has presented, not the threat you’ve perceived. After all, if we can’t take a little criticism along the way, then what the hell are we even doing here, to begin with?

Related Topics:

Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)