Friday, August 20, 2010

A Step Forward in What Direction?

With the continuing advancement of technology those purists keep whining that human beings are getting lazier and lazier. Wall-E may have been a cute and magic cartoon but you could see the parallels on display there. Similarly, whether that assertion is correct or not, it seems that people who read film criticism are getting lazier too. I'll admit it, I'm one of them. Right now I'm reading a 700 page volume entitled American Film Criticism. It's a collection of the very best people who ever wrote about film putting their very best writing forward from the dawn of cinema right up to today. And so far, I've been reading every word of it. I've been reading every word of it for, oh I don't know, six months and I'm around Page 400. It's tough. See, I'm now a part of a generation (although maybe once removed) in which film criticism is reduced to soundbites. I've indulged. Back in the day you picked up a newspaper because it had your favourite critic and you read everything they had to say because they wrote well and were generally more interesting than the movies they wrote about. Now personality is, (somewhat/mostly?) gone. Instead of reading full pieces by one or two favourite critics we read little snippets on Rotten Tomatoes or MetaCritic of every critic just to get a flavour. It has it's benefits. It is certainly nice to get a wide array of opinions instead of been burdened to just a select few, and it is possible to read the entire review from RT if you come across something you like. It also helps those whose only goal in reading film criticism is to know if people generally like it or not in order to decide if it's worth seeing. Now criticism has gotten even simpler: Why read through all the snippets when RT will summarize them all in a couple sentences for you? Although I am fully aware that they have provided 'Consensus" for some time, I've just recently been paying attention to it. Now I can log on to the main page, see the percentage rating beside the list of new releases on the left, roll my mouse over top of the name and read quickly what the overall jest of the reviews are about. All without leaving that one page. Of course I could go on about how, as a writer, my favourite thing about reviews is not knowing what people think about the movies as much as reading great writing. But that's not the point and indeed it was a long build-up to get to my otherwise nothing point, which is that today I came across a perplexing Consensus on RT. It was for the new Jason Fiedberg/Aaron Seltzer (man it hurts to say) film Vampires Suck. I haven't seen it, but considering that I've sworn to never pay another cent to watch anything those two morons ever put their name on, my hopes aren't high. Right now it's sitting at a 6% rating with 1 person out of 30 actually finding something to like. But now look at the Consensus: "Witlessly broad and utterly devoid of laughs, Vampires Suck represents a slight step forward for the Friedberg-Seltzer team." What's going on here? If it's witlessly broad and devoid of laughs, what is it stepping forward from, killing Jews? Is it really saying, holy crap I can't believe one person actually liked this, that's the best yet or is it saying that this one feels less like getting murdered than just getting raped? Whatever it is it doesn't make sense. Can't we just call a dog a dog? I know a couple million people have read The Secret and want to look at the glass as being half full but really, a glass doesn't even factor into the equation when it comes to these filmmakers. I have no real point here other than to scratch my head and maybe laugh at myself for even being bothered to care. But maybe there is something here. Armond White just told Slash Film that he thought Roger Ebert more or less ruined film criticism and, although I haven't listened to his reasoning, I assume it's because Ebert opened up criticism to a more mainstream audience. It made, so to speak, film geekery cool and stripped criticism of it's intelligence. I don't agree with that logic as Ebert seemed to have shown film lovers that they could take criticism away from the intellectuals and give back to the moviegoers who could just as easily wage their own Siskel and Ebert style debates at home. If that is true (and again, I don't think it is in the sense that it ruined film criticism) than what do we make of the whole of criticism being reduced to one sentence bites of information, especially when they seem widely implausible (based on this example of course, I can't qualify that statement with any other proof). Is this helpful? Is this criticism? Is that, ultimately, what we want? Discuss.


  1. Isn't film criticism's sole purpose to warn or encourage people to see or not see a movie? Sure, if a person really wants to know, they'll read the full review, but sometimes, you just want to get a bit of an idea, then figure it out for yourself. I don't know. Maybe.

  2. Very cool post.

    My reviews are somewhere in between an endorsement of the film and something to chew on for the people who have already seen it. The former is easier to write, but the latter is always a more interesting read.

    I admit, I often scan Rotten Tomatoes blurbs to get a feel for whether or not I should catch a flick.

  3. The evolution of film criticism has always interested me, especially as a wannabe critic. I've recently bought the book 'The Complete History of American Film Criticism' to educate myself a bit more and just realised how few British critics are respected for their opinions. I think it's such a shame that audiences are starting to respect their opinions less and less

  4. Simon- I disagree. I think a good critic's last concern is whether or not they are influencing whether someone sees a movie or skips it. Of course you can only use what a movie gives you to work with and so sometimes that's all you can do but really, critcism is about sharing ideas and feelings and expereinces.

    Hal- I look at RT after I've seen the movie just to see what the general concensous is. There are some critics these days that just don't need to be read in full unfortunately. I understand the idea of trying to strike a balance but that's the nice thing about not working for a newspaper: we can write whatever we feel like.

    Geek- Ya, only two British critics come to mind: Robin Wood, who is quite dead and David Thompson who is sometimes considered to be an American critic and who I don't like. That looks like an interesting book that I may have to pick up, but if you want an exhaustive look into American film criticism the book I refer to is called American Movie critics and it covers just about everyone.

  5. Mike, I think you're taking a bit too idealistic of a viewpoint of film criticism. I think Simon's essentially right, but the definition of criticism HAS changed somewhat in recent years with the growth of the film blogosphere. Now that plenty of people who are not paid for it are calling themselves critics -- not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you -- the definition of criticism has changed a bit. It's reached a state where people don't have an editor -- or are their own editors, which is not the same thing -- so they can decide exactly what they want their content to include. However, if we are looking at criticism in its purest form, it's a profession in which people are paid to tell people whether to see a movie or not. Only the highest end critics for highfalutin publications like The New York got to really add essay-style observations about the experience of seeing the movie, and connect that experience to the experience of seeing other movies. (I'm sure a lot of the critics in that book you're reading also fit into that category, but we're still talking about a fairly small percentage of really lucky critics within the history of the profession.) I for one am glad that this is now possible on the film blogosphere, but I'm not sure it's accurate to say that that's how it's always been, or that's what it is in its purest form.

    I can't believe that this is the fifth comment (so far, there may be others awaiting moderation), and I'm the first person to agree wholeheartedly with Mike on the core vapidity and utter waste-of-space-ness of Seltzer and Friedberg.

  6. Vance - maybe I am speaking in ideals but I don't think I am. Maybe some qualifying would help: reviewers tell people what to see or not and genuienly put forth boring pieces that are usually barely worth skimming. Critics on the other hand convery their experience of the movie. I think the best do both. Guys like Roger Ebert, who doesn't so much tell you you should go see a movie or not as tell you why he it didn't work for him. Big difference. One is boring, the other is engaging and interesting especially if the writer has an interesting personality. You could name many people like this, great critics who write reviews: Michael Philips, A.O. Scott, Armond White (for better or worse), David Edlestein, Richard Corliss, and the list goes on. These are all people who prove what Renoir was talking about when he said the songwriter is usually greater than the song.

  7. I certainly see your point. However, I also think it's difficult to ask all critics to play a role in their own criticism. One does this at his or her peril -- you run the risk of seeming narcissistic. (That's what blogs are for, ha ha.) Seriously, though, I think there is a certain honor in reviewing a film in a way that divorces your own ego and perspective from the process, at least to some degree. I realize what I am saying is next to impossible, but every critic does need to recognize that his or her own experience can be unusually detrimental or unusually helpful to a particular film.

    It's really just splitting hairs, because whether you are saying "This is what I think" or not, we all know that's what you think. The critic's job is inherently egotistical to some degree, because it's implied that this person has been entrusted to accurately distill the essence of a movie, and that his/her perspective is going to have more validity than a person who knows nothing about film. Given this preexisting egoism, I think it's my own responsibility to remove "me" from the review as much as possible -- to give people as journalistic and as disinterested an analysis as I can. If that makes my writing boring, it's a price I pay for being as egalitarian as I can be.

    Although I do enjoy reading Ebert, I sometimes feel like there's too much of "him" in his reviews. I can't remember which film it was, but there was some recent film he reacted to quite strongly because it dealt in some way with the experience of a cancer sufferer. Because he felt like his own experience with cancer was vastly different from this, he reacted with extreme vitriol and negativity to the film. I think his review would have had more credibility if he had been able to take a step backward from his own experience. And I say this as a person who would list Ebert first among critics who have inspired me to become a critic myself.

    We can probably agree that there are some critics -- Ebert among them -- who can get away with this, because they have become so well-known that their readers truly demand a window into their personality with each review they read. But I think we would also agree that if a wet-behind-the-ears critic, who was just writing his first reviews, played a character in each one, it might seem a little off-putting. Like, "Who are YOU to think we care so much about you as a person? You've first got to prove that we can care about you as a critic." I still cherish such modesty even after having written over 1,000 reviews in almost 15 years at various different outlets. I think I owe it to my readers to talk about the film, rather than myself.

    Sorry to keep going on, but I keep thinking of things to say. It really comes down to whether you are going to use the word "I" in your reviews. I was taught never to do this, and I hold to that belief -- the word "I" calls too much attention to the idea that this is an individual perspective, and not an anonymous critic who is speaking on behalf of the publication he or she is writing for. I guess it comes down to whether it's the critic or the publication that is most important, and I guess I'm old school -- I feel like I'm representing my employers, and that makes it all the more important for me to be sure I've gotten it right.

    Always love discussing criticism, thanks for the opportunity ...

  8. Very interesting post Mike - I do think that the role of the critic is (unfortunately) changing but I don't like it!

    I agree, too many writers focus on their readership than themselves - it's an easy pitfall I guess but a little single-mindedness generally creates something far more original and inciteful than catering for the masses.

    I still have that Cinemania PC-Rom CD and love reading Ebert's and snippets of Kael's reviews. Perhaps Vancetastic has a point in that there have only been a few geniunely great and original ones.

    I'd love to hear a Frenchman's take on film critique and see if the home of cinema have any similar issues.

  9. Vance- please excuse my dely in responding. I agree with your first point to the extent that a person should take themselves out as much as possible if what they are resorting to is nothing more than geekery which serves no purpose to anyone but geeks who just want to out-geek each other anyway. However, criticism I think should still bear the personality of the person writing it be that through writing style or the way they express themselves. Me, I like to try to convey sometime complex ideas in as conversational a way as possible so that it can appeal to a wide range of people while still maintaining my authority on the subject.

    Your Ebert comment is strange to me but brings up an issue that I've juggled with myself. Strange because, to seperate oneself with living with and surviving cancer is probably easier said than done. Maybe not the best example but I note your point. The issue though is that, when I watch Requiem for a Dream I think it's horrifying, ugly, dirty, etc, but what does someone who has actually been a junky thing? Is it a fair representation? To me, someone who has never shot anything into their arms, it is, but then who am I to say? How can I feel comfortable giving my opinion on a film as one of authority if I am not willing to admit this to myself, but now we're onto a different topic.

    The point, I think, or at least that I was trying to make, is that it's not as simple as whether or not you choose to write I. It's a matter of understanding yourself, knowing why you reacted in a certain way to something and conveying that to someone else through the power of argument. To me criticism is a sharing of ideas, which, most of the time, are just as, if not more important than the movie itself. The movie is just a starting point for that exploration. Sure, the generic side is that we attach an arbitrarty value to each movie, who cares what Vancetastic of Mike Lippert thought this movie should be rated? The question is: why did he feel so?

  10. Burning- Do you really need to ask what the French would think? Don't they hate everything that isn't French by nature? I kid. I think there are more good critics, writing reviews for the write reasons despite begin confined to under 1000 words, than we give credit for. I think the problem with the internet and the rise in popularity of tabloid shows is that there is too much fanboyism and too much reliance on celebrity that a lot of people forget the movie all together.

  11. Sorry, I didn't make it clear - I meant I wonder if the role of the French critic has dwindled in quite the same way, especially as they held this position in even higher esteem than the US or UK.

  12. Ah, my mistake. I wouldn't really know the state of criticism in the rest of the world but I will tell you this: the majority of rench distribution companies still focus on art film so I would imagine the French are still more cultured and well versed in both film and criticism than we are.