The Sad State Of Film Criticism


criticThe internet has been a blessing and a curse to the world of film criticism. The bad side is that everyone’s a critic. The good side is, we’re no longer limited to the opinions of those able to get their words in print. Trust me, just because you’re writing film reviews for a major newspaper doesn’t mean you know a damn thing about film.

The perfect example: I had a friend who ended up being hired to write additional film critiques for a major U.S. city paper. Though a very sweet man, he knew nothing of film. Not its history, not its art, not its technique. He didn’t even understand the concept of genre. His taste in film was limited to the bizarre and offbeat. Anything else was trash. Some of the greatest films to be released in the years he was a staff film writer were met with vast amounts of ignorance and negative “stay away” comments. Understand, there wasn’t a malicious bone in this man’s body. However, what he understood of film could be balanced on the head of a pin. We who knew him and considered him our friend (and still do) cringed weekly at reading his reviews. He was hired by the paper because he was good at writing critiques of literature, something he actually did know something about as he was, himself, a novelist. And a damn good one. But a film critic? Not on his best day.

So how many truly wonderful films were greeted with less than stellar attendance due to this man’s negative reviews and complete misunderstanding of the medium and the intentions of the artists working in it? Quite a few, I’d venture to guess.

On my journey as a film lover and film maker, I’ve run across some truly surprising and distressing comments. Some made by “professional” critics, others by bloggers and various online movie sites of varying degrees of popularity.

Let’s start with Peter Rainer, film critic for the Christian Science Monitor. His review of the new movie MOON begins with this comment:

There are those who think “2001” is the greatest movie ever made, and then there are those of us who think it’s the greatest boring movie ever made.

To think that a major film critic in this day and age can’t even see the value of a film like Kubrick’s 2001. Sure, it’s all a matter of taste. Or is it?  I’ll be honest, I could never trust a critic who would write something like this. I couldn’t trust the man’s basic understanding of filmmaking and storytelling. For 2001 not to be your cup of tea is one thing, but to devalue it and not seem to appreciate its merits and place in history or to recognize its great artistry… Aw, hell, I can’t respect anyone who writes about film for a living who thinks 2001 is boring. Sorry, Peter, but I just don’t trust that you know of what you write.

And speaking of 2001, here’s critic Kyle Smith of New York Post fame suggesting WATCHMEN is similar to the films of Stanley Kubrick in depth and artistry:

Director Zack Snyder’s cerebral, scintillating follow-up to “300″ seems, to even a weary filmgoer’s eye, as fresh and magnificent in sound and vision as “2001″ must have seemed in 1968, yet in its eagerness to argue with itself, it resembles “A Clockwork Orange. Like those Stanley Kubrick films – it is also in part a parody of “Dr. Strangelove” – it transforms each moment into a tableau with great, uncompromising concentration. The effect is an almost airless gloom, but the film is also exhilarating in breadth and depth.

I suppose I should simply be happy Mr. Smith even knows the films of Stanley Kubrick and can list some of them off in a positive light.

Or how about this paragraph recently culled from online pages of  Rogue Cinema:

If you want to call me lazy, so be it, but I personally prefer films that actually spell everything out at some point during the story rather than leaving me to wonder about it.  I like many people, don’t watch films to think.  I watch films to get away from all the thinking I have to do when I’m not watching films.  When a film leaves me wondering at the end, I feel unsatisfied, like the story wasn’t completely told.  It’s kinda like reading a whole mystery novel and then finding out that the last ten pages are missing.  It’s not the viewer’s job to finish the story in their head.  It’s the film’s job to tell the story in a complete way, or at least, if it’s not going to give a complete explanation, give enough of one so that it’s easy for the viewer to piece it together.  Now I know there are some people out there who like to get deep and analyze everything in a plot in order to come to their own conclusions, but I would hazard to say that those types are in the minority.

Really? REALLY? You don’t like movies that require thought? This “reviewer” actually states that he prefers to have everything spelled out for him. Maybe I’m in the minority when I say that I find this kind of thinking to be quite astounding in all the worst ways. I guess this is how films like CRASH win Academy Awards and tons of accolades. And CRASH is one of the better films to explain everything to the audience as if they weren’t really all that smart. Hey, at least it’s trying to be a smart film with something to say. Unlike 90% of what hits the big screens showing studio-fare. I guess it’s a scary proposition to make a film that requires true thought and participation on the part of the audience in an age where critics think 2001 is boring and films are meant to be nothing more than an escape from using one’s brain.

I gotta tell you, though, that’s not how I was raised. Sure, we had silly, mindless films when I was younger, too (I’m 45 now, not quite ancient yet), but we were inundated with films that relished ambiguity, promoted conversation, assumed the audience contained intelligent beings who actually liked using their brains and had the ability to do so.

Even famed critic Roger Ebert makes assumptions about how film should be made and what film should be. Here’s a comment he made about Woody Allen’s CASSANDRA’S DREAM:

The identical premise is used in Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” which is like a master class in how Allen goes wrong.

A master class? Okay… I suppose Mr. Ebert never noticed that Mr. Allen IS A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT KND OF STORYTELLER AND FILMMAKER THAN MR. LUMET? Both have made great films and both have made films that some would say were not among their best, but neither should be compared to the other with the notion that one is right, the other wrong. There are no rules, no guidelines to filmmaking. I know people like to suggest that there are, but there aren’t. You start out with a blank piece of paper and move forward from there. Film is still, essentially, in its infancy. There should be no restrictions placed on the artist’s imagination or the ability of the audience to decide which filmmaker and films move them/effect them. There is no “master class”. And Mr. Allen didn’t “go wrong.” He simply made a Woody Allen film.

Or how about critic Sean Smith’s embarrassing Newsweek article about M. Night Shyamalan? In it Smith quotes, and appears to support, comments made by the producers he interviewed in which they seem to denounce artistic freedom as if it were the devil:

The success of “The Sixth Sense” gave [Shayamalan] total creative autonomy, and he has isolated himself in Pennsylvania, where all his movies are made. “When someone is given total artistic freedom,” says one blockbuster producer, “the result is usually bad.”

Later in the same article, Mr. Smith continues:

The solution, most suggest, is for [Shayamalan] to break out of his self-imposed cocoon. “The smaller you make your world, the less of an artist you can really be,” says an indie exec. “Look at Stanley Kubrick. If you see ‘Eyes Wide Shut,’ it’s clear he hadn’t left the house in 20 years.”

Well, with this school of thought engaging the minds of the masses, it may take a while for Mr. Smith and the world at large to recognize the cinematic masterpiece that is EYES WIDE SHUT. Yeah, I know, lots of people hated that film. But truthfully, I have little respect for those who dismiss the film as garbage. Again, personal taste is one thing, but I have little faith in many people’s ability to recognize daring, groundbreaking and/or important cinema when it’s staring them in the face.

“The smaller you make your world, the less of an artist you can really be…”

I love that this indie-exec has decided what constitutes an artist and art. I love that he or she has also decided that Shyamalan’s choice to live in Philadelphia is making Shyamalan’s world “smaller.” As if Los Angeles were the center of the universe and a solid reflection of the “real” world. This sad way of thinking is only made more distressing by the critic who used these quotes to support his narrow argument.

Take film critic Desson Thomson’s comments from his review of Francis Ford Coppola’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH in the Washington Post:

Coppola proves that even the best of our film artists can lose sight of what this medium is all about: entertaining, enlightening and including its audience.

Again, I am (almost) struck dumb by the assumption on the part of so many critics as to what film is and is not supposed to be. Really, Mr. Thomson, is that what the medium is all about? Thanks for enlightening me. And I’m sure for enlightening Mr. Coppola, who obviously needs to sit down and take a film class from you! And did it ever occur to you that maybe this film did achieve all of these things for some other members of the audience? Perhaps the less narrow-minded?

And this is where so many great films get lost or destroyed because of a false belief in what is possible and acceptable within the medium. This is why most Kubrick films are often bashed upon release by critics, only to be held aloft years later as revolutionary, groundbreaking films. Create something unique, expand your horizons, and there’s a whole world of film critics ready to tell you that you did it wrong.

David Lean’s DR. ZHIVAGO was met with venom upon its initial release. But that was nothing compared to the negative critical reviews of Lean’s next film, RYAN’S DAUGHTER. Critics were so harsh on this incredible movie from an artist at the top of his game, that Mr. Lean couldn’t bring himself to make another film for almost 14 years! Good work, kids. Your lack of vision and open-mindedness lost us some potentially great inclusions by Mr. Lean to the world of cinema. Thank god we got the amazing A PASSAGE TO INDIA before Mr. Lean left us too early.

Luckily, we know there are still people out there who do like to use their brains and appreciate and seek out films that ask them to do so. And we know there are critics out there who also appreciate such cinematic adventures. But they are becoming few and far between. But perhaps we will see a shift. If all is cyclical, then we may soon see a new age of cinematic literacy again. Another golden age. Or, we will just continue to slip deeper down the chasm of mindless entertainment, and films that require thought will be considered trash by the masses or, better yet, declared illegal.

I guess then I will have to become a member of some underground movement. Or, perhaps, I already am.

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One Response to “The Sad State Of Film Criticism”

  1. I once read a quote that described “critics” quite well;
    “After God carved an artist, he saved the shavings and made a critic”.

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