Posted on 05/23/13 05:05 AM | Last edited on 05/23/13 05:05 AM
***In this joint venture at Beyond the Review, myself, Spengler (with additional material by ‘Supplemental Income’) will offer one perspective alongside my friend Cinema-Maniac aka Caesar Mendez who will offer another perspective on the topic of what is the purpose of film criticism. Please click on the link below and navigate to the blog section to see an alternate perspective on this huge and wide ranging topic. Have fun and hopefully this will generate a really good and lively debate.***
It was Ray Harryhausen that did it, God rest his innovative, influential soul. My earliest memories of the cinema were the intensely creepy Medusa scene in ‘Clash of the Titans’ and the skeleton army of the Hydra’s teeth in the classic ‘Jason and the Argonauts’. What Mr Harryhausen had led me to discover was my own window into the fantastic. A window one could step through from the land of the mundane into an almost infinite number of worlds and possibilities. But it wasn’t until my first trip to the cinema with my father, aged 7, to see ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ that my love affair with cinema was cemented. Following the film, I left the cinema feeling like I’d been on a rollercoaster ride, except with added extras like human sacrifice, monkey brain eating and child slavery. My heart was pounding, my legs trembling and my mind filled with images and thoughts that screamed, “I want to see that again!”
From that day forward, I considered myself a film fan. I voraciously saw as many films as I could (fantasy adventures being my favourite at the time), some multiple times (much to my parents’ chagrin), and each time I would confidently announce that it was the best film I had ever seen. However, like most film fans, there comes a time, and more specifically, a film, when one suddenly realises that not all films made are the best films ever. It is akin to suddenly finding out that your parents are fallible human beings (like when they admit to not knowing something, or you catch them crying into a bottle of gin) and not the indestructible towers of strength you assumed them to be. Usually, it takes a film of such monumental ineptitude, a film so bad, that not even the most wide eyed, innocent film fan can forgive its failings. For me, it was ‘Karate Kid 3’, the viewing of which seemed to coincide with a maturity of my critical faculties that made me start to question whether all that had gone before had been a lie.
Now, I loved the original ‘Karate Kid’, having watched it multiple times in a bid to try and perfect the crane kick on my unsuspecting brother. It was a classic underdog story, with truly hissable villains, a cool mentor in Mr Myagi, a rousing 80s soundtrack and a fist-in-the-air denouement that also included the possibility of someone as attractive as Elizabeth Shue going for a likeable nerd. It was wish-fulfilment cinema at its best.
Unfortunately for ‘Karate Kid 3’, since seeing and loving ‘Karate Kid’ all those years previously, I’d stepped further along my cinematic journey, becoming more sophisticated in my tastes as cinema itself evolved. I experienced the hyper-kinetic action of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, the heartfelt, more sophisticated, teen dramas incorporated into the likes of ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ and, yes, ‘Back to the Future’. ‘Karate Kid 3’ couldn’t hope to compete, coming across as some kind of drooling, mentally retarded, throwback. My trust in cinema, that it would always entertain and nourish me, that it would always be worth my while, had been broken. I became wary of films. I could never again openly start watching a film without thinking in the back of my mind, “Is this film going to suck?” It was at that moment that I evolved from being a film fan to film critic.
Don’t get me wrong: much like every film maker does not deliberately set out to make a bad film, neither do I go into watching a film expecting it to be bad. I expect each film I watch to be worth my time and money. I will them to be good. The best films are those that defy ones expectations and actually confound and improve upon them, gifting you an experience you want to repeat again and again (Spielberg in his heyday was particularly adept at this). The worst ones are those that fail to live up to those expectations and end up being forgettable, inept or downright embarrassing for all concerned (‘Prometheus’ – I’m looking at you). Although there is the old adage that a pessimist is never disappointed, I believe my expectations are realistic – I go into a Jean-Claude Van Damme film (yes, I am a fan) expecting to be entertained, but don’t expect anything award-worthy. And yet I still love cinema too much to not go into a screening as that same wide eyed child I was back in the day watching Harrison Ford cracking the whip and trying not to get eaten by crocodiles.
But it would be years later, during my University days, that I would finally put pen to paper and start writing my own film reviews. I took up Film Studies at University to at least bolster my own cinematic experiences and opinions with some sound theory to make it seem as if I half knew what I was talking about.
Almost immediately, I questioned why on earth I was doing this in the first place. Why do film critics become film critics and do what they do? What use are they, in the grand scheme of things? Do they make a difference? Are they right? Is there a right or wrong? Is it just a way of putting their point across? Is it to try and direct others to great films and reduce the risk of the public wasting their precious time and money? Do they have a responsibility as a critic to do that? Are they bastions of quality? Or are they all just frustrated film makers who deep down would rather be on the other side of the fence participating in the vain hope that one day they may get the opportunity to smell Angelina Jolie’s hair or touch Steven Spielberg’s beard, as opposed to looking on ‘enviously’? How many more questions can I possibly fit into this paragraph?
In all honesty, and I’m not proud of this but blame it on immaturity on my part, I think initially I started writing film reviews as a way to get my point of view across – a kind of warped sense of self-aggrandisement fuelled in part by ego. I wanted people to read my reviews and be all like, “Wow, he’s right. He really knows what he’s talking about. Let us all worship at the altar of this paragon of cinematic knowledge.” It was also an open challenge to will others to disagree with me so I could engage in a ‘healthy’ debate, which in reality was more to do with shooting down someone else’s opinion and making them see the error of their ways, rather than understand that everyone’s point of view is valid (as long as it’s backed up with constructive reasoning).
Everyone’s a critic, so the saying goes. In other words, everyone has an opinion, and that opinion is as valid as the next person’s. So what makes a film critic’s opinion any more valid? And nowadays, with the advent of the internet, everyone has a forum and an opportunity to make their opinions heard, so does this make the role of professional film criticism redundant?
Criticism, in my view, is a constant struggle between the subjective and the objective. We all have subjective preferences. Some may prefer sci-fi and therefore be slightly more lenient towards films of that particular genre, whilst others wouldn’t touch a subtitled foreign film with a barge pole (“What, you mean I’ve got to read at the same time as getting bored off my bollocks? Up yours!”).
But unlike other media, such as music or food which rely much more on personal taste to form an opinion (and therefore its professional criticism is, in my view, much less meaningful), there is an argument that there are some films that are so well made that they transcend their genre trappings and become classics in their own right. You may not be into sci-fi films but most people would conclude that ‘The Terminator’ is a brilliantly made film. It’s why a website like Rotten Tomatoes is so useful as it presents a general consensus based on majority opinion that can inform and direct a film fan towards the ‘Fresher’ films and avoid the ‘Rotten’ ones. Of course, like politics, you can’t please all the people all the time. There will always be naysayers who disagree with the general consensus, but it would be a dull world if we all agreed on everything and those naysayer’s opinions are perfectly valid assuming they are backed up with constructive reasoning. Although I contest that anyone who didn’t like ‘Toy Story 3’ has no soul (FACT!).
To be a professional critic, one is usually a journalist of some sort first and foremost. It was something I was toying around with during my formative years, but eventually felt that the competitiveness, unsociable hours, and ruthlessness inherent in journalism just wasn’t for me. However, I would guess that one either decides to be a journalist first and falls or drifts into critiquing (be it food, music or films, perhaps based on a particular interest of theirs but not necessarily a passion). Or at best a wannabe critic decides to take a journalistic career path to achieve this ambition. Now I'm not sure exactly how it works. I am using semi-facts as I understand them to make deductive leaps with (hopefully) a sound helping of logic; but is it fair to say that essentially the majority of all critics have been tarred with the journalism brush?
Journalism requires the vehicle of a paper, journal or similar to exist, and is therefore a means of selling a product. As the great Nucky Thompson from ‘Boardwalk Empire’ remarked: "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story". If paper sales can be vastly increased by embellishing a piece of objective reporting with subjective descriptors designed to tell the readership how outraged, heart-warmed or titillated they should be, then the editors and owners will allow that to happen to please the shareholders. And lord knows who's regulating the output for the majority of the time, but my money's on a balloon with an idiot's face drawn on it.
My point is this, a film maker and most professional film critics are not dissimilar in that they both answer to people holding the money and wanting the money. They've both earned their stripes in dirty industries, regardless of whether they got into it for the right reasons. But with particular regard to the critic and the extent to which they have been perverted by the truth-bending, plaudit seeking, biased industry with which they've had no choice but to join forces en-route to attain the job they always thought they wanted; surely the critic they ultimately become has the potential to be worlds apart from that which they intended to be?
The above is a roundabout way of suggesting that websites such as Rotten Tomatoes removes this element of bias, and perhaps the interconnectivity of 'real people' instigated by the internet is the solution and the ultimate evolution of the film critic; much in the same way as we make the news nowadays (the Youtube generations’ obsession with filming events on camera-phones, interacting as part of the Vox Populi ), or via websites such as Tripadvisor look to real peoples' accounts for holiday destination suggestions. Although this is more a talking point as I'm sure this poses as many problems as it solves, is the best critic destined to become a professional critic if only a journalist can be a critic?
Being a professional film critic on the surface seems like the best job in the world. They’re getting paid to watch films all day. How ace is that? But then, why do they often seem so cynical, so jaded, weary even? The reality is that, unlike us proles who have more choice over which movies we see, professional film critics have to watch every film that gets released, whether good or bad (or perhaps, more depressingly, indifferent). And in an industry where 90% of its output is, at best, average and forgettable, and at worst, horrendously inept, embarrassing and insulting, it must make even the most ardent movie fan question the creative intelligence of humanity, let alone their chosen vocation. To a movie critic who sees thousands of films a year, it takes something truly exceptional to stand head and shoulders above the usual predictable fare that a seasoned film critic would have seen a thousand times before. It’s the reason why they are more dismissive of blockbuster movies and gravitate towards the smaller, more independent/art house offerings because that’s usually where the innovation and unpredictability lies.
Additionally, unlike most people who can choose which films to review, professional film critics have to write a review for every film they see. This could be considered a bit of a struggle, when a large proportion of films made are simply not worthy of further analysis, turning the process into a laborious task akin to homework. I consider myself to be in a privileged position in that I don’t have to write a review for a film if I don’t feel the film is worth it. Unlike professional film critics, I’m not a slave to tight deadlines, conflicting editorial agendas, or a particular demographic. I now primarily write reviews for fun, to see if I can, to help evolve my writing style, to generate healthy debate, and to help clarify in my mind how I feel about the film I’ve just spent my precious time and money on. But there needs to be some kind of hook, some context or discussion point that helps support the points I want to make regarding my opinion on the film. I am not interested in writing what I like to call ‘tick-the-box criticism’: Have I commented on the plot? Check! The direction? Check! The acting? Check! Script? Check!...and so on so boring. Yes, all these elements are important and probably need to be addressed, but there needs to be some kind of context to make things more interesting and fuel lively debate. Otherwise you may as well turn your review into a bullet-point list with a rating at the end. It may get straight to the point (and for some readers perhaps that’s all they require) but isn’t particularly insightful nor interesting, either to read or to write.
In some respects, being a film critic must be a thankless task. Most of the public seem to ignore them judging by some of the top 10 most lucrative films ever made, and many just skip to the rating at the end of a film review to see if it got 5/5 rather than understand why. It’s why if I could get away with it I would not rate any film I reviewed, but force the reader to actually read the context and reasoning behind my opinion. They could then make their own informed judgement on whether to see the film, or to agree or disagree with my cinematic ramblings.
In tandem with this, those who work in the movie industry, an industry fuelled as much by titanic egos as well as titanic amounts of cash, seem to take even the most constructive criticism personally to the point that some critics are even refused access to preview screenings (to wit, the continuing feud between Michael Bay and Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers). Some films don’t have preview screenings at all for fear that negative word of mouth would damage box office takings, not understanding that by banning preview screenings, movie producers are sounding those alarm bells marked “lack of confidence” and “stinker alert” out to the critics already sharpening their knives (probably with their long, serpentine, tongues). This form of damage limitation employed by the movie industry can actually have an opposite effect, ensuring the movie studio’s latest product gets off to a negative start from which it is unlikely to recover.
In some ways though, you can see a film maker’s point. It is a courageous thing to put themselves in such a vulnerable position, opening themselves up to a potentially career damaging critical pasting releasing what they consider to be as good a movie as they could possibly hope to make. They have spent the last few years of their lives working almost 24/7 creating what they consider to be a great work of art (or at least cracking piece of entertainment), having to deal with huge egos, meddling producers, script re-writes, tight deadlines, the management and orchestration of thousands of cast and crew and budget restrictions (to name but a few), only for some self-righteous no-name cynic hiding behind his laptop to come along and tear it to pieces and, even more insultingly, attempting to tell them how they could have done it better accompanied by a patronisingly weary, know-it-all sigh. It would be akin to criticising the parents of a child born with big ears who also turned out to be crap at Maths and ending with the stinger line…”if only you’d come to me he would have turned out so much better”.
The film maker could rightly point out that if the film critic thinks they can do better, then why don’t they? It is so much easier to destroy than to create, and perhaps film critics are envious, frustrated film makers that have neither the talent nor the capability to make films themselves, so would rather experience some kind of connection to their beloved film world by proxy, and if that means being the opposing critic, basking in the glow of the bold and the beautiful, whilst at the same time attempting to bring them down a peg or two with scathing criticism, then so be it. In any case, it would take a film critic with gi-massive balls to attempt to make their own film, for all the knives that would be pointing in their general direction from their peers. In the natural order of things it is human nature for one dissatisfied with being on the lower rung of the ladder to bring themselves on equal footing with those above them in one of two ways, climbing themselves up or pulling others down. Speaking metaphorically a critic only has one of the aforementioned options, so it takes a truly secure, professional and – even more challengingly – patient person to critique objectively on a consistent basis without lashing out to boost their own ego or vent frustration.
I’ll admit that I tried to write a film script once or twice, with dreams of becoming the next Tarantino. I quickly realised that I was far too lazy and untalented to fulfil this ambition. But just because I cannot make a film, doesn’t mean I don’t know what a decent film is. Similarly, I may not be able to cook, but I know a decent pizza when I taste one. However, I didn’t turn to film criticism out of petty jealousy or revenge. I believe the role of film criticism is to keep film makers on their toes and to take them to task if they don’t meet our expectations. We live in economically unstable times. People don’t have as much disposable income, and are careful about how they spend the little spare cash they actually have. Films are a convenient and brilliant way of entertaining the masses and getting them to forget the troubles of normal life for a few hours. But as ticket prices continue to rise (especially if you want to see the film in IMAX and/or 3D), the film maker has a responsibility to ensure their movie is of the highest quality to be worth the ticket price. This is compounded by the fact that most Hollywood movies cost an obscene amount of money to make and market. We’re talking gargantuan amounts of cash that could wipe out third world debt, or irrigate half of Africa, or contribute greatly to the cure for cancer. And yet Hollywood regularly spends hundreds of millions of dollars on something that becomes two hours’ worth of throwaway entertainment. If they are to continue to do this, the resultant movies should be of the highest quality, otherwise it’s almost morally insulting and a waste of both the film makers and the audience’s time, effort and money.
But film critics have a responsibility too. The best film criticism balances the subjective with the objective, exemplifying their love for film whilst constructively criticising what doesn’t work. Some critics, such as Pauline Kael or Roger Ebert, were (and still are) incredibly well respected both by the public and by film makers, as they made a reputation for themselves by being knowledgeable and fair, arguing their points with eloquence, even if you didn’t always agree with them. They were what all film critics aspired to be. Although their viewpoint was no more valid than anyone else’s, through their experience and knowledge, their opinions were trusted and respected – even feared - and could become quite influential.
It is said that some film critics can make or break a film but it is debateable whether film criticism can truly affect box office takings. The continuing success of the ‘Scary Movie’ franchise makes me weep for humanity, despite the majority of film critics vomiting out of their own eyeballs in disgust every time they are forced to watch the Wayans Brothers’ latest effort. Poor initial word of mouth didn’t stop ‘Titanic’ from becoming one of the most successful films of all time, and critic-proof films like the ‘Twilight’ series continue to make shed loads of cash from an established, hormonally insane, fan-base eager to see if Edward and Bella will, like, y’know, do it again, despite all the critical scorn. On the other hand, films like ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ only became successful via word of mouth months after general release, despite initially positive critical reactions. But sometimes, critically reviled films do become massive flops, such as ‘Ishtar’ or the recent ‘Movie 43’. Whether this was purely down to the opinions of a few critics, or the fact that the films were so badly made that even Johnny Drunksten, the most celebrated inebriated tramp in history, would rather pick a fight with a pack of rabid foxes in a landfill site than sit through those cinematic abortions, is up for debate.
However, some film critics give film criticism a bad name. You know the ones: the hack critics or cybertwats hiding behind a fake moniker on the internet, hurling ill-informed abuse, constructing personal attacks, or promoting the use of clichéd hyperbole written in the hope of generating a sound-bite for the movie poster. Those who think James Cameron is “shit” but fail to back it up with a coherent argument; who sneer at Tom Cruise for being a bit weird; who announce a comedy as “deliciously hilarious” or a horror film as “utterly terrifying”.
Now, I will argue to the hilt that James Cameron is a technically brilliant director, regardless of whether his films succeed as works of quality drama. Tom Cruise may be weird (and we’ve only got the poisonous tabloids to go on for that “informed” opinion) but he’s still one of the most consistently successful and engaging actors Hollywood has to offer. I’ve never seen a deliciously hilarious film, but have seen some that have made me laugh so hard I almost coughed up my own pelvis. Similarly, I’ve never been truly terrified by a film (creeped-out maybe, scared occasionally), but to be terrified by something is to experience an event so mind-alteringly awful that it would leave a permanent mental scar. Unless you are hyper-sensitive who has difficulty discerning fantasy from reality it would be difficult for any film, regardless of how well made, to terrify anyone. Unfortunately, quotes like “intermittently amusing” or “made me jump so hard a little bit of poo shot out” are simply not snappy, appropriate or insanely enthusiastic enough to appear on a movie poster any time soon.
At the end of the day, the film industry is a business and a marketing and merchandising machine caught in a vicious cycle. On the one hand, is it not a case of giving the public what they want, as Jack Killian blurts as he pleads for forgiveness from Ben Richards in ‘The Running Man’? The only reason a film studio ploughs money into a movie is the same any corporate multinational ploughs multibillions into infrastructure and development: to guarantee a return. Is there not an argument to be made that if the public accepts and pays for drivel then they get what they deserve? After all, they are voting with their wallets, which is about as close to democracy as we’re going to get in the world of ginormous faceless studio machines with multiple shareholders. Despite initial honourable intentions, how often does a film change almost beyond recognition throughout the production process? Loss of directorial control, multiple rewrites, blandifying and distorting the original vision, all for fear that something too original, challenging or artistically credible (which must form part of most film critics’ wish-list of perfect film ingredients) will somehow intimidate Joe Public into settling for the reassuring predictability of the formulaic and safe, which was created solely with the lowest common denominator in mind. Most people, after all, hate change and will more often than not gravitate towards the familiar and movie studios take full advantage of this. I may be straying slightly off topic, but my point is, perhaps if the critic’s place is to bring the supplier to task, then could it be said that it’s only fair said critic holds the end user accountable for their part in exacerbating the problem?
On the other hand, perhaps this blurs the line of critiquing as one can’t always just blame one individual and maybe we shouldn’t be too harsh on the cinema going public. Marketing is one of the most powerful and manipulative tools in the film studio’s arsenal and is much more vocal and flashy than some curmudgeon in a tweed jacket wagging his finger berating you for not seeing ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’. You can’t blame the public for not supporting the more innovative and challenging offerings if they don’t have the opportunity to view them due to limited distribution, whilst at the same time being spoon fed (some would say force fed) the latest multi-billion dollar blockbuster franchise. I’m not decrying mainstream cinema (I loved The Avengers as much as the next drooling goggle-eyed film fan), but the lack of variety is leading to a homogenisation of our beloved medium. It encourages a passivity in the audience who would rather sit through two hours of slow motion explosions and boobs than view something where you need to engage with it, work it out, challenge pre-conceptions, because, cuh… y’know, that’s kind of an effort. Most people can only just about get through their working day (me included) being bombarded from all sides with loads of stuff you have to think about. When we get home, the last thing we want is for our entertainment to slap our brains about, like Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, bellowing “GET THAT BRAIN OUTTA YOUR ASS AND SET IT TO ‘ENGAGE’, DAMMIT!” Do movie studios encourage passivity by spoon-feeding the public what they want and deserve (thereby guaranteeing a return) or do the movie going public want their entertainment to be as broad and familiar as possible because that’s what they enjoy and that’s what they’re used to?
It’s almost a chicken/egg type argument, one that you could argue either way until the universe implodes. It is unlikely that things will radically change, although movie studios are willing to test the water every now and then with more cerebral blockbusters (such as Christopher Nolan’s offerings). But I doubt we will be seeing films like ‘Stoker’ or ‘Armour’ playing in multiple screens in multiplexes across the land any time soon despite the opinions of a few seasoned film critics. In part, perhaps a film critic’s role is to champion the films that get lost in the cacophony and din that accompanies the big studio films. To make the public aware of them so they understand that there is more out there, there is a wider choice, and to encourage the audience to take the plunge, take the risk of seeing something different. If some choose to do just that, then perhaps the critic has succeeded in his role, regardless of if the audience actually ended up enjoying the film. At least they got them to try something new, and it may encourage others to do the same, like some kind of cinematic chain reaction which may show the film industry that there is a market out there for the more left-field types of films, and that this may encourage studios to take further risks and provide more opportunity for cinema to showcase the originality, the innovation, and the flair we all know it is capable of. It’s what the evolution of film was built on. We could do with a renaissance every now and then.
Ultimately, like most film fans, we want to try to recapture that lightning-in-a-bottle moment when we first saw something truly special on the big screen. That exquisite childhood moment of wonder fuelled by nostalgia that only great cinema can achieve. I want to re-experience that feeling that I had the first time I stepped out of the Odeon after seeing Harrison Ford free the slaves and take down the Thuggee cult. And as a father, I want my son to experience that same sense of wonder and magic, to forge his own path and step through his own windows into other worlds, watch the films that I grew up with, and discuss and understand his opinions on them as well as his own favourites. As fully paid up members of ‘the audience’, it’s what we deserve, what we’re entitled to, and it’s the responsibility of the film maker to deliver that to us, and the responsibility of the film critic to ensure that film makers continue to do just that by providing a reassuring guiding light, leading the way through the dangerous yet wonderful world of cinema.