Monday, August 1, 2011

Expecting Good Criticism

The expectation argument is the worst form of criticism out there. I take that back. As someone who has written extensively on the nature of criticism as a practice and an art form unto itself within this space I can more accurately say, it's not even criticism at all. It's just plain lazy as well. It's a cheap and quick excuse to not give a film the time and energy to understand what it did and how you interacted with it, and it's also a form of passing the buck because, of course, if so many other people wouldn't have liked it so much you could have liked it more.

Arguing expectations is like drawing lines in the sand and seeing how the tide comes in. If you draw the line close to the water you don't expect much of the tide and if your line gets washed away your expectations have been exceeded. You can do the same in reverse. The point is is that criticism is not drawing lines in the sand. It's about relating to the water and understanding it's movement and drawing a line based on your feelings and findings in which the water can meet, and balance has been achieved.

Because, to get to the point of all that, criticism is about you in relation to the movie. Expectations are about you in relation to what you've heard. If a movie is better than you expected that doesn't make it a good movie and to expect a movie to be better than what you felt it was does not make it bad. To do this is to judge, as Roger Ebert always argued against, the movie you wanted to see and not the one that has been put in front of you.

Of course justifiable expectations will always exist. When I watch a new Ingmar Bergman movie that I haven't seen I expect it to be great as Bergman has a track record for making great movies. But if one happens to not meet those expectations this does not mean the film is to be thrown away, considered lesser Bergman, mean it deserves a bad review or any such variable. What it means is that I have some thinking to do. If I watched the Seventh Seal and didn't agree with the critical majority that it's one of the best films ever made the problem is with me not the film and it's up to me to reflect back and understand why this film has been deemed to be such, and in most cases, with both personal and analytical reflection, the truth will reveal itself eventually.

This happened this summer with two films. Cars 2, which was better than the original, was spoken down to because people expect more from Pixar while Transformers 3 was, for some, given a free pass because they weren't expecting it to be better than the awful second film.

Of course, expectations will never be able to be totally managed. Films accumulate history and reputations almost instantly, that will grow and change over time. Lesser critics maybe don't trust their literary voice enough to to say the same thing as everyone else but in a compelling and personal way and the truth of great cinema almost never reveals itself immediately. It requires quite time to sit and reflect and to understand exactly what a movie has done and how that has effected you, because, as I've argued many times before, there is a strong difference between what you like and what is good (the best criticism existing between the two and tying them together). 

That is, after all, why we read criticism in the first place. We want to know how a movie effected it's viewer in an intelligent and/or emotional way, not how it fell in line in relation to their expectations. I expect more from critics.


  1. Another fine piece criticizing the critics.

    In addition to your take, I also expect the critic to have some understanding of what it is he has watched. So many of the negative reviews I've seen of films like "Balls of Fury," "Nacho Libre" and, to throw in a brand-new example, "Cowboys & Aliens" were from writers who didn't have enough background in the "lesser" genres those films draw upon to even attempt to write critiques of them.

    The problem remains that too many "critics" are actually reviewers. I have always freely admitted that I am way too lazy to be a movie critic... more people should be more honest with themselves and their audience.

  2. Ideally we judge movies based on what they're comprised of, but criticizing based on expectations is understandable-- such as in the Bergman example, or, speaking in contemporary contexts, Cars 2. We come to expect quality from sources with sterling reputations. When those expectations aren't met, I agree that the film shouldn't simply be cast aside, but it should be critiqued based on its own merits.