Contributor Post Created with Sketch. The Problems with Film Criticism

 

Hello, folks. I’m inaugurating a series on what’s wrong with movie criticism. We all the know the answer in advance: The problem is, movie criticism exists but doesn’t serve any purpose. Americans want to know whether they’ll like a movie or not but they will never trust critics on this. It’s can be solved by technology; we’d all rather have Cinemascore or even Rotten Tomatoes instead. Fair enough. Them’s the breaks…

But the other purpose of criticism is to have all our feelings expressed in a pithy or sentimental way, depending on our attitude to a movie. “There, that guy gets it, and now I can share his thoughts with other people, or quote him!” Again, fair enough, we all want clever speakers on our side.

This means that we start reading an essay in full expectation that we’ll have learned nothing by the end. This view of criticism pretends to flatter all of us: We are our own masters and need learn nothing from anyone else. After all, who is so arrogant as to think his taste or judgment is better than anyone else’s? Well, really, everyone is that arrogant. The destruction of criticism is the price to pay for the truce between people who all want to say their irreconcilable tastes are all great. Fair enough — it’s a free country. The critic is the scapegoat for all our unconfessed arrogance.

I’d defend criticism from all this, but then I’d have to recommend something and I’m not sure there is any criticism that is both worthwhile and popular. The best unpopular critic is Armond White — more on him in later posts — who’s conservative and a critic and a certain kind of conservative in his criticism. That is, he tries to conserve American and worldwide works of art. But who’s popular and can nevertheless bear the burden of defending the art in an age of free consumption? Good question. I’ll give you an answer next year.

But beyond the world of movie consumers, there are people interested in how movies work, in the technical aspects, which do allow and even require judgment, not just taste, and thus create hierarchies. I’ll give you a brief example of a guy who seems like a film-school kid. He’s more thoughtful than the average bear because he applies his education about movies as storytelling. He quotes some of the stuff he’s reading, so he at least plays with his cards on the table.

I have my own podcast (who doesn’t these days?) about movies, so I look at others to try to learn in hope of finding out who is doing the hard but absolutely necessary work of defending poetry. I ran into this guy when thinking about Christopher Nolan. I recommend the video to Dark Knight fans, as well as to everyone who wants to get a bit of a structure for movie analysis. But I also have criticism of the learned:

 First, the schematics are fairly useful to make sense of a story, but they feed the delusion that making a statement is the same as asserting a value or presenting an argument or even thinking a thought.

Look at the criminal/civilian // altruistic/selfish matrix. It’s a question, not an answer. The critic presents it as sophisticated reasoning abstracting from events, characters, and dialogue — forcing order out of chaos — but it’s the most simple-minded moralism.

This is not to despise moralism — the one significant statement the man makes is that stories are intensely moralistic — but he has no idea what he’s dealing with because he neither can ask questions about his categories nor can he allow the story to do it for him. He’s never learning from Nolan, always only from the book he’s read. But Nolan is smarter than the book’s author and he’s the authority on his own movies, which he authored, as our critic himself insists.

Next, the schematics are only useful for stuff you love, because there you’re looking for reasons to praise. This critic sounds smart about Batman Begins but mindless about Batman v. Superman.

It’s not that he has good arguments; he makes a fool of himself: He starts by defining an act in a non-conventional way, to praise the movie he loves, but then damns a movie he despises because its acts are not conventionally structured.

If he had any capacity for introspection, he’d realize he uses his theories to suit his taste, not to understand the intentions of movie-makers. Ultimately, this is my criticism of criticism: If the critic is no more self-aware than any fanboy, what’s the point?

Finally, the schematics are about doing a job. They can flatter college kids who want to control their thoughts, but they’re only practical if you’re writing movies. Not good ones, just good enough to do the job.

Of course, they cannot guarantee you’ll get the job. This guy can heap scorn on Zack Snyder — but Snyder gets the jobs, not the critics, and that’s never going to change.

The price paid in order to be clever about schematics is not worth it — it’s preferable to understand what poetry and myth are than to seem clever by dismissing them. The pro’s attitude is always going to be cynical: whatever pays, whatever gets the audience to like you. But that’s worth nothing if want stuff that lasts. After all, we don’t read Homer because he’s relevant to our cynicism or our undisclosed ambitions…

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There are 18 comments.

  1. Gary McVey Contributor

    Everyone’s a critic, so why listen to critics? For some of the same reasons that, although every home has a kitchen, people still like to go to restaurants; talent and experience count. If the chef can’t cook better than you can, find a different restaurant. That’s an important part of the critic’s job, introducing you to something new and valuable. Acting as Consumer Reports is why the public reads it.

    But for some reason, there are people who strenuously object to any critic with the nerve, the gall, the temerity, the effrontery to say anything else to that subset of the public that is really interested. Even on Ricochet, there are writers who think the critic’s job is to say whether or not to spend the money on a ticket, period. Telling them, “Then just read the first two paragraphs and let the rest of us read the rest” isn’t good enough. No, the very idea that anybody would take something seriously if they don’t is some implied insult.

    Like sports, politics, cars, guns, you name it, really interested people and really knowledgeable ones (not always the same thing, of course) will want to go much deeper into it.

    • #1
    • December 19, 2017, at 10:11 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  2. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    That’s all true! Of course, no critic, however great, could compete with a good cooking show, but still, there’s room for criticism & a purpose.

    & in the internet era, good movie critics should dare to say to people: Suffer little children unto us! Critics can at least try to show the young how they might get more & demand more out of the movies! All of us who think writing & directing in Hollywood are dropping the ball could see our way to uniting on this matter…

    • #2
    • December 19, 2017, at 10:19 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  3. Aaron Miller Member

    Well said… until the blockquote, then I have no idea what is being discussed. A schematic? Does that refer to an interpretive theory?

    Theories and -isms are fine for periodicals devoted to philosophy, political policy, and such. They have no purchase in popular media. Most are as fruitless as modern literary theories in culture-hating universities, and for the same reasons.

    As you say, wit is valuable. The problem there is that most critical wit is combined with disgusting cynicism which poisons the reader’s soul rather than inspires. From such filth arises the corrupt pleasure of schadenfreude.

    There are markets for various audiences, from the technically curious to movie viewers seeking meaning to those simply seeking idle entertainment.

    The last probably comprise the largest market. What they most need and rarely get is context. For example, most reviews of the latest Star Wars film could be replaced with a simple list of which prior Star Wars films those critics did and did not enjoy. If a reader knows his own tastes, he can compare and predict his own response with better accuracy than having drudged through many pages of nitpicking and sweeping characterizations. Heck, just tell me if you liked The Force Awakens and I could make a fair bet how your response to The Last Jedi compares to mine.

    A reader’s familiarity with a reviewer’s preferences is the most useful context. But if that reviewer dares, rather than invites, film makers to entertain him, then familiarity comes with too high a cost.

    • #3
    • December 19, 2017, at 10:53 AM PST
    • 1 like
  4. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    Schematics–structures that explain stories. The relationship between characters or what have you-

    • #4
    • December 19, 2017, at 11:02 AM PST
    • 1 like
  5. SkipSul Moderator

    The problems with film criticism are the same as faced by literary critics: who is the audience for your criticism? That makes all the difference in how the criticism is received, or whether it is received at all. A major source of confusion is in trying to distinguish a review from a critique.

    A review should be written for the person who has not yet seen the film, to inform the reader whether, from the (hopefully) known tastes of the reviewer, whether the film is worth seeing, or what to expect from it. Most general readership wants reviews, and it is no help to them if they stumble across a critique that is advertised as a review. Often the blame for this rests less with the author than with the editor or publisher, but some blame lies with the author if his own work is itself a muddle, or written in such an arcane fashion (replete with obscurity or academic terms) that the reader enters into reading without any clear statement from the author of what to expect. This is one of my complaints with Armond White – to one not initially familiar with him, and not knowing that his works are generally critiques, not reviews, his prose can be impenetrable until you attain familiarity with his cadence and voice. His works would be easier to enter if he himself opened them with greater clarity of purpose.

    The critical articles on films, on the other hand, often only make sense if you have already seen the film first, and given that few us have the time or inclination to see everything that’s out, that already puts them out of reach of the regular reader. Clarity of writing is, again, vital for critics if they wish for any respect from common readers. If I plan to see a film, then I will often avoid reading these critiques until afterwards – better to form my own impressions, and then I can communicate on something of the same level as the critic.

    To borrow from Gary on firearms:

    A review of a firearm should focus primarily on its function and handling, ease of use, price, comfort, etc. A critique of a firearm, though, has room to discuss the underlying design and form of that firearm, its strengths, weaknesses, design history, company ethic, and so forth.

    Or if we consider restaurants:

    A review should inform you of whether you’ll be served promptly, whether the atmosphere is comfortable, the attentiveness of the staff, the quality of the food, and the overall value. A critique of the joint, though, can go into where the food is lacking, or where the chef showed imagination, or where he clearly overstepped. After all, are you going out to just enjoy a nice meal, or for the experience and art?

    Know your audience, and know what it is you hope to achieve in your writing.

    • #5
    • December 19, 2017, at 11:40 AM PST
    • 8 likes
  6. Judge Mental Member

    RE: the video.

    I see Batman Begins as a 5 cornered story, because Bruce is always and first in conflict with himself. I’m not going to try to flesh that out, but I’m pretty sure I’m right. So, go ahead and tell me why I’m wrong.

    • #6
    • December 19, 2017, at 12:26 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  7. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    Judge Mental (View Comment):
    RE: the video.

    I see Batman Begins as a 5 cornered story, because Bruce is always and first in conflict with himself. I’m not going to try to flesh that out, but I’m pretty sure I’m right. So, go ahead and tell me why I’m wrong.

    I think you’re more right than that guy. Scarecrow doesn’t matter. He’s an amateur. The struggle internal to Bruce/Batman that only resolves at the end of the trilogy is, however, essential.

    • #7
    • December 19, 2017, at 12:31 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  8. Old Bathos Member

    I think it would be hard to be a movie critic.

    If one were to write solely from the perspective of what an average audience would enjoy that could be useful information but not insightful enough to warrant the mantle of expertise or possession of a patina of high brow literary insight that the publication might expect.

    On the other hand, too much inside baseball about whether themes, structure, symbolism “worked” is a matter of indifference to most movie-goers and always likely to engender an adverse response from some portion of those who regard themselves as film aficionados and amateur critics.

    It would be hard to always be able to generate a clever turn of phrase, a brilliant comparison to some unrelated yet familiar film, some deeply useful background info about the making of the film or a riotously funny take on a bad film. Marc Steyn is a uniquely gifted critic, for example, who would be hard to emulate.

    (Vic Mattus’ parody impersonation of Gene Shallit reviewing current movies in the SubStandard podcast is comedy gold, by the way.)

    • #8
    • December 19, 2017, at 12:36 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  9. Judge Mental Member

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    It would be hard to always be able to generate a clever turn of phrase, a brilliant comparison to some unrelated yet familiar film, some deeply useful background info about the making of the film or a riotously funny take on a bad film. Marc Steyn is a uniquely gifted critic, for example, who would be hard to emulate.

    This goes to my major complaint about Armond White. When he makes a comparison to another film to provide insight, it’s usually some obscure film, frequently foreign, that only a few thousand people in the entire country saw. It’s not insightful, it’s masturbatory.

    • #9
    • December 19, 2017, at 12:42 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  10. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    I think it would be hard to be a movie critic.

    If one were to write solely from the perspective of what an average audience would enjoy that could be useful information but not insightful enough to warrant the mantle of expertise or possession of a patina of high brow literary insight that the publication might expect.

    Exactly. This is why you end up with corporate marketing, branding, & loyalty building on the one hand; & Cinemascore & the like, on the other. Between them, both producers & consumers have wiped out what thought might contribute.

    On the other hand, too much inside baseball about whether themes, structure, symbolism “worked” is a matter of indifference to most movie-goers and always likely to engender an adverse response from some portion of those who regard themselves as film aficionados and amateur critics.

    I agree here, too. I think it’s stupid to try to talk about the sorts of things that critics might think about–I think it’s done because that’s the only unimpeachable expertise. It’s very defensive.

    The point of early reviews, beyond the first two paras–the weather report…–is to reflect on society. The themes & symbols are not interesting in themselves; it’s what they say about the people, the times, &c. This is, unfortunately, harder to do than technical expertise or long-term experience, & far more dubious & disputable than doing the weather report… But it’s the essential part, for a free people.

    (Notice that sophisticated things are not like this–the audience of criticism for opera or concerts or any high brow stuff demands & expects to be treated to the kind of expertise that implies inequality…)

    It would be hard to always be able to generate a clever turn of phrase, a brilliant comparison to some unrelated yet familiar film, some deeply useful background info about the making of the film or a riotously funny take on a bad film. Marc Steyn is a uniquely gifted critic, for example, who would be hard to emulate.

    Yeah. I prefer Kyle Smith, maybe the best guy for panning things in a pithy way, but this seems to be the mode for popular reviewers.

    (Vic Mattus’ parody impersonation of Gene Shallit reviewing current movies in the SubStandard podcast is comedy gold, by the way.)

    Yes–he is himself quite something!

    • #10
    • December 19, 2017, at 1:37 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  11. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    It would be hard to always be able to generate a clever turn of phrase, a brilliant comparison to some unrelated yet familiar film, some deeply useful background info about the making of the film or a riotously funny take on a bad film. Marc Steyn is a uniquely gifted critic, for example, who would be hard to emulate.

    This goes to my major complaint about Armond White. When he makes a comparison to another film to provide insight, it’s usually some obscure film, frequently foreign, that only a few thousand people in the entire country saw. It’s not insightful, it’s masturbatory.

    Yes. I think it’s utterly necessary to have criticism for people who know their way around movies–but it can never be the rule, always the exception…

    • #11
    • December 19, 2017, at 1:40 PM PST
    • 1 like
  12. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    SkipSul (View Comment):Know your audience, and know what it is you hope to achieve in your writing.

    Skip, I agree. Early reviews & movie criticism are almost entirely different things. American editors are big on the one, almost uninterested in the other. That’s their opinion of their audiences, by the way.

    I think that requires a double shift in reviewing that’s just for what America is like nowadays.

    1. Reviewers need to attract the attention of the audience to things likely to be missed or underrated or noticed & dismissed out of convenience. Lots of people in the audience sell themselves short. I’m not thinking about spoiling surprises or revealing the plot any more than, let’s say, the trailer does. Just preparing the audience for what they’re going to see. What you get out of a movie depends to a very large extent on what you’re paying attention to &, in each particular case, to how the moviemaker approaches his audience. The job of the critic in that sense is to help them meet.
    2. But the truth is that the people who read reviews do not necessarily go see the movie; of course, the vast majorities of the movie audiences don’t bother with reviews–that’s also true. Lots of people want to follow in the cultural conversation or keep an eye on it without bothering to go to the theater. Reviews should give a sense of what the movie is & why it matters, therefore. (This ties up with the importance of an archive. The stuff we write is going to be online, possibly forever. Making sure that if someone likes my writing they can go read other stuff, about movies they love maybe, to get a second opinion, is useful. It’s wrongheaded to not think about the long-term & the big picture. That’s how we’ve got to this sorry situation…
    • #12
    • December 19, 2017, at 1:47 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  13. SkipSul Moderator

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    The stuff we write is going to be online, possibly forever. Making sure that if someone likes my writing they can go read other stuff, about movies they love maybe, to get a second opinion, is useful. It’s wrongheaded to not think about the long-term & the big picture. That’s how we’ve got to this sorry situation…

    Well, partly how we got to this point.

    A major problem with film criticism is also, like literary criticism, that it is too often stuck in trying to force itself through this or that political, or cultural, or theoretical lens. Maybe it’s postmodern deconstructionism, maybe it’s intersectional feminism (I threw up a little just typing that), maybe it’s Marxian dialecticalism. Too often a movie or book critique will attempt to ruin the subject for its readers by dogmatically hewing to the author’s biases and training without ever even considering its subject on its own merits, or ever discussing how it works as a story with something to say.

    As a case in point I remember when At the Movies, with Siskel and Ebert was reviewing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. They hated it, and their review made no attempt to mask their sheer contempt for it. Was it a great film? Well, no, not if you were expecting an art film or a work of high culture. But the movie was not trying to be that. It was campy adventure, made solely for fun. It was also mildly parodical of Sean Connery’s time as James Bond. But these two guys refused to consider the movie in those terms, instead intricately deconstructing it into unrecognizable atoms. Their review had as much relevance as Michelin Guide attempting to rate a truckstop diner or a McDonalds. It would be like trying to pick apart Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea as some deep but flawed metaphor for modern man’s struggle with suburbanite passivity – entirely missing the point while attempting to score point with other critics.

    • #13
    • December 19, 2017, at 2:31 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  14. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    It would be like trying to pick apart Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea as some deep but flawed metaphor for modern man’s struggle with suburbanite passivity – entirely missing the point while attempting to score point with other critics.

    You mean it wasn’t?

    Golly, and all this time I supposed it had to be a deep but flawed metaphor for something, else why inflict it on an innocent readership?

    • #14
    • December 19, 2017, at 2:46 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  15. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    SkipSul (View Comment):A major problem with film criticism is also, like literary criticism, that it is too often stuck in trying to force itself through this or that political, or cultural, or theoretical lens. Maybe it’s postmodern deconstructionism, maybe it’s intersectional feminism (I threw up a little just typing that), maybe it’s Marxian dialecticalism. Too often a movie or book critique will attempt to ruin the subject for its readers by dogmatically hewing to the author’s biases and training without ever even considering its subject on its own merits, or ever discussing how it works as a story with something to say.

    Yeah, that’s just people chasing after progress, desperate that they’ll be forgotten. I don’t blame people much for this. The authority of critics as well as poets has been wiped out & people do not much give a good goddamn…

    As a case in point I remember when At the Movies, with Siskel and Ebert was reviewing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. They hated it, and their review made no attempt to mask their sheer contempt for it. Was it a great film? Well, no, not if you were expecting an art film or a work of high culture. But the movie was not trying to be that. It was campy adventure, made solely for fun. It was also mildly parodical of Sean Connery’s time as James Bond. But these two guys refused to consider the movie in those terms, instead intricately deconstructing it into unrecognizable atoms.

    I think you’re partly wrong about The Last Crusade–well, not wrong exactly. I think you’d agree with me. The characterization is done fairly well & the action does a good job not just of entertaining, but showcasing moral choices & their consequences.

    I agree, it’s not intended as art, but I think we also agree it’s a work of art. After all, not every painting is Rafael’s Deposition

    I think Ebert is one of the plagues. I’m not very fond of Siskel, either.

    • #15
    • December 19, 2017, at 2:52 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  16. SkipSul Moderator

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    It would be like trying to pick apart Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea as some deep but flawed metaphor for modern man’s struggle with suburbanite passivity – entirely missing the point while attempting to score point with other critics.

    You mean it wasn’t?

    Golly, and all this time I supposed it had to be a deep but flawed metaphor for something, else why inflict it on an innocent readership?

    I happen to like that book, though there is much else of Earnest I could happily cast off.

    • #16
    • December 19, 2017, at 3:08 PM PST
    • 1 like
  17. Hoyacon Member

    Let me know when the next Stanley Kauffman, John Simon, or Terrence Rafferty comes along. I haven’t had any luck finding that person.

    • #17
    • December 19, 2017, at 4:29 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  18. Gary McVey Contributor

    The UK critic Alexander Walker, who died in 2003, was a fine writer (as well as being a rare political conservative in the highest of British cultural circles). His books are cheap on Amazon and well worth reading. I especially like “The Shattered Silents”, about the talkie revolution in Hollywood circa 1926-30.

    Andrew Sarris, of New York’s tiny but influential Village Voice, wasn’t widely known to the public, but he had a huge effect on the way film directors saw themselves, and eventually in the way their studio bosses began deferring to them (this pendulum has swung the other way). He was hated by scriptwriters, who misunderstood his admittedly confrontational style and perpetually resent directors. .

    • #18
    • December 19, 2017, at 5:13 PM PST
    • 3 likes